More School Closures Planned in Chicago

Last week the Chicago Public Schools announced a massive plan for school mergers and closures.  Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common… The proposals will be the subject of public hearings in January ahead of a Chicago Board of Education vote.”

Why this announcement now?  WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp reports, “Chicago Public Schools has lost 32,000 students over the last five years, nearly the same enrollment drop as in the 10-year period leading up to the closures of 50 elementary schools in 2013.  Those missing students could fill 53 average-sized Chicago schools.  This massive enrollment decline comes as a self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018… The school system must announce by Dec. 1 any proposed closures for its more than 600 schools.”

Karp, who covered the Chicago Public Schools for Catalyst before the magazine’s closure, explains that expansion of charter schools has exacerbated enrollment decline in the traditional public schools: “But the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines.  High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today.  Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

In a special report for the Chicago Tribune, Juan Perez, Jr.  describes what has happened at Tilden High School on Chicago’s South Side:  “Over the last decade, the district has expanded the number of high school options families can choose from, with the growth of independently run schools such as charters and of selective enrollment programs… At the same time, enrollment has plummeted. From 2006-2015, overall CPS enrollment declined by more than 21,000 students. Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, the district has lost close to 21,000 additional students.  District officials blame much of the enrollment loss on falling birthrates, slower immigration patterns and the well-documented flight of residents from the city’s South and West sides. The numbers have left Tilden and many other schools facing a slow death.”

Parents and activists in Chicago blame the school district for under-investing in the high schools the new plan slates for consolidation or closure. One of the ways the district has accelerated the demise of some schools is through a policy Karp describes as zero-enrollment. After the district stops assigning students to a school, eventually so few students are left that the school is no longer viable. But public officials respond by blaming what our society has come come to call the “failing” school itself. Perez Jr. identifies another issue: the way Chicago allocates funding.  In Chicago, the money follows the student, which means that schools with dwindling enrollment can afford fewer teachers and fewer programs that might attract students.  It is a downward spiral.

In a report published just a year ago, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, challenges school districts like Chicago, where, despite the trend of smaller families and despite ongoing enrollment decline from out-migration, officials promote privatization and competition via rapid expansion of charter schools: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Here is a similar analysis in a report published in March, 2017, from Roosevelt University in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

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Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?

An important piece by Rebecca Mead in this week’s New Yorker takes us into Eva Moskowitz’s very controversial Success Academy charter schools in New York City. Mead explains the point of her piece: “For all the controversy, one question has, surprisingly, been overlooked: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Success Academy education?”

Mead’s subtitle names a contradiction at the center of Moskowitz’s educational theory: “Inside Eva Moskowitz’s Quest to Combine Rigid Discipline with a Progressive Curriculum.” Even as Moskowitz defends the rigid and punitive discipline for which her schools are famous (In Mead’s piece, Moskowitz is quoted as defending the suspension of young children out of school as an important way of impressing a lesson on children and their parents.), Moskowitz claims John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as a guide to what happens in her schools. Moskowitz describes her curriculum as an example of progressivism—“circle time on the classroom rug; interdisciplinary projects that encompass math, science, social studies, and literacy.”  The question that underlies Mead’s analysis is whether it is possible to run a progressive school with no-excuses discipline.

While on one level Mead entertains Moskowitz’s rhetoric about progressivism, Mead seems puzzled by the circle time on the classroom rug: “In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square there was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion.  The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as ‘tracking.’  Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact is not acceptable.”

Like students at progressive schools (and all kinds of public schools, actually), students in Success Academies go on field trips.  And Mead visits a room where Kindergardeners are taken to play with blocks: “The school has dedicated a special classroom to the activity, and shelves were filled with an enviable supply of blocks. The walls of the room were decorated with pictures of architectural structures that the students might seek to emulate, from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal. There was also a list of rules: always walk; carry two small blocks or hug one large block; speak in a whisper.” Unlike free-play at progressive early childhood centers—with dolls, and blocks, and easels and paint, and clay or PlayDoh—block time at the school Mead visits is a specific activity provided by the school in a “block” room to which the entire class of children is led for an assigned period.

For older students there are what Moskowitz likes to consider seminar-type discussions in which children explore ideas. Here is Mead considering one of the class discussions: “The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction reminded the class of the necessary ‘thinking job’ required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the ‘lesson learned.’…  Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: ‘I disagree with X’, ‘I agree with X,’ and ‘I want to add on.’… But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of the narrative. When the students were called to ‘turn and talk,’ they swivelled, inside their grids (on the rug), to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached rather than independently expanding them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought… Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of big ideas that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model.”

These descriptions of what happened in the Success Academy schools Mead visited sent me to First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, a book published just last year by Steve Nelson, the recently retired head of the Calhoun School, a well-known progressive private school in New York City. What follows are just three of the many characteristics of progressive education that Nelson explores in this book:

  • On the difference between discovery and being taught: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.”'(p. 11)
  • On progressive education growing from and enhancing the curiosity of students rather than being driven by adults: “In a conventional school, students are seen as vessels into which authoritative adults pour ‘content.’  In a progressive school, students are seen as unique individuals, partners in learning, with their own important ideas, values and experiences.  While there are many shades of grey, conventional schools tend to value and insist on compliance and conformity, while progressive schools encourage skepticism and originality.” (p. 12)
  • On intrinsic motivation—not rewards and punishments—as essential to progressive education: “Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is driven by systems of rewards and punishments… Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within, such as self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all human beings across all cultures and societies… (I)ntrinsic motivation declines as extrinsic structures dramatically increase.” (pp. 160-163)

Contrary to what Nelson identifies as the kind of child-centered, intrinsically motivated, experiential learning that defines progressive education, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies are rigid, relentlessly adult-driven, test-prep factories. Mead explains that to compensate for high turnover among teachers, “Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries…”

According to their purpose, Success Academy charter schools are are successful: “(T)hey get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the state of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four percent in English Language Art: citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight percent.”  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Success Academies do not replace students who drop out after fourth grade; Moskowitz has shamelessly admitted that students who do not fit the Success culture and expectations are encouraged to leave. Public schools, of course, must accept all children. In 2014, Success Academies opened its first high school, which last spring presented diplomas to seventeen students, whose “pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.”

Mead reports that the high school has struggled with students’ learning styles formed in Success Academy elementary schools: “There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”  But, “Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

New “Charters and Consequences” Report from Network for Public Education Is Essential Reading

The Network for Public Education’s just-released investigative report, Charters and Consequences, paints a picture of corruption and the needless destruction of one of our society’s long-prized civic institutions. You’ll read about “charter schools gone wild” in California, where barely staffed storefront resource centers—sponsored by school districts 50 or 100 miles away—accrue state tax dollars to their sponsors’ operating budgets even as the sponsors do very little for the charter schools they supposedly oversee.  And you will read about Pennsylvania, where by state law, the charter gets every dollar—state and local—that would have been spent on the child in her public school, on the assumption that the local school district can reduce its expenses child-by-child, ignoring stranded costs for buildings and transportation and a school district’s inability instantly to resize its teaching staff.

The new report was researched and written by Carol Burris, the retired, award-winning NYC high school principal who now serves as Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE).  Burris not only explored research and news reports but traveled to interview the superintendents, teachers and parents affected by rapid charter school expansion.

Burris’ stories of visits to various locations ground the report’s conclusions—what Burris learned as she looked at the operation of online charters, for-profit charters, and the impact of charter school expansion on host public school districts. Here are some of her conclusions:

“When cash is flush, and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

“Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual school system with the private taking funding from the public simply cannot survive.”

And what about the way charter school operators persist in dubbing their schools “public” charter schools?  “Most charter school advocates are quick to point out that they are not part of the school privatization agenda. They place the adjective ‘public’ in front of ‘charter school’ to distinguish themselves from voucher schools. This branding effort has been somewhat successful—especially with politicians and the press. But simply saying charters are public schools does not make it true… Democratically elected school boards govern most public schools.  Nearly all charter boards are appointed and not accountable to parents or the community. Charters control the number of students they have, and they do not have to take students mid-year. The transparency laws, especially in spending, that public schools must follow can be ignored by charter schools… And in some cases, when the school shuts down, the school building and property is not returned to the public who paid for them, but is retained by the charter owners themselves.  And, by the way, charters can walk away and shut their doors whenever it suits them.”  “Many are governed by larger corporations known as CMOs.  Some are for-profit; others are not-for-profit, yet still present financial ‘opportunities’ to vendors and those who run the school.”

Burris identifies the very different consequences for the students enrolled: “The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from age 5 to 21—no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, but also if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened… The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor, and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs. Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition…. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, (in public schools) they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers… It has long been suspected that high attrition in the ‘no excuses’ charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions.  The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen—only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.”

The Network for Public Education concludes its report with recommendations adopted by its board of directors: “For all the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support… We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level. Until that time, we support all legislation and regulation that will make charters better learning environments for students and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund them.” NPE calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until laws are changed to protect students and protect tax dollars.

Please read the Network for Public Education’s Charters and Consequences report, circulate it, and discuss it—along with the short policy briefs NPE has included in its toolkit on school privatization.

Eva Moskowitz Likely to Continue Plaguing the Recently Re-Elected NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

On the morning after the recent election, POLITICO New York Education reminded us that newly re-elected New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio had delayed important education decisions until after the election.  POLITICO‘s Eliza Shapiro and Keshia Clukey point readers to an upcoming and likely contentious fight about expanding the co-location of charter schools into public schools, a battle NYC’s charter school diva, Eva Moskowitz is ready to launch.

You can read about Eva Moskowitz in a clever and entertaining review in The Nation of Eva’s new memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz.  Megan Erickson, a NYC public school teacher and the book’s reviewer quotes Eva describing her own belief in controversy on behalf of her Success Academy Charter Schools: “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me… To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”

Erickson continues, “‘Excellence’ is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests.  Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities… But facts don’t get in the way of the sense of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story.”

In her review of Eva Moskowitz’s new book, Erickson summarizes what she believes are the fatal flaws in Moskowitz’s project—an alignment with wealthy hedge fund managers John Petry, Joel Greenblatt, and Dan Loeb, along with Don Fisher of The Gap and J. Crew, and the Walton and Broad Foundations to provide an escape from public schools for poor children in NYC who are able along with their parents to meet Success Academies’ demands:

“What does it mean for parents and their children to be ‘consumers’ of education, selecting from an array of options subsidized by billionaire benefactors? Some Success families would find out the hard way. Unlike in district schools, students at Success Academy are required to keep logs of their hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor parents, Moskowitz insists, ‘can support their kids in school, if it is demanded of them.’ And if the demands don’t work, shame will.  She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s mother, who ‘seemed… more responsible,’ to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a  second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families who, regardless of their intentions,  simply can’t meet the requirements.”

Erickson describes parents working several jobs, for example, and wonders:  “When… parents are forced to disenroll their children because they can’t meet the school’s demands for reading time at home, is it really a choice?  And when students with special needs leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were suspended for minor infractions… is that a choice?… District schools, run by the New York City Department of Education do not have the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor should they, since the United States has consistently affirmed by law that it is the responsibility of public schools to educate all students in the least restrictive environment possible… But even charter schools with a lottery system ‘choose’ students indirectly by limiting the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental involvement. This is an important part of Success Academy’s seeming success….”

Erickson highlights instances when students’ rights have been violated at Success Academies: “At the state level, children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as yet another Success Academy student with special needs received this past spring—are a violation of that right.  They’re also discriminatory…. (T)he hard truth of ‘school choice’ is that it leaves families with a multitude of options but few rights.”

POLITICO predicts that the issue of co-location of charter schools into public school buildings that continue to house public schools will re-emerge now that Mayor deBlasio has been re-elected.  You may remember that, as the NY Times reported in the spring of 2014, under pressure from Moskowitz and her allies, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s state legislature guaranteed that New York’s public school districts will provide free space in public schools or rent paid in private facilities for charter schools:  “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

In his new book about NYC’s Mayor Bill deBlasio, Reclaiming Gotham, Juan Gonzalez, 29-year New York Daily News reporter and the co-host of Democracy Now, describes the problems NYC public schools have endured in past years around co-location: “Moskowitz was at the center of many of those wars, inevitably demanding more space as her schools grew, with the Success Academy section of any building then routinely remodeled with new furniture, paint, bathrooms, and computers, while the traditional public school remained dingy and run-down, the students and teachers feeling like second-class citizens in their own building.” (p. 239)

Gonzalez summarizes his experience over the years reporting on Moskowitz and her schools: “In a series of Daily News columns from 2009 to 2016, I documented the combative style of Success Academy toward traditional public schools, as well as the network’s far higher rate of suspending children with behavior problems, and its pushing out of special needs children. But Success Academy has repeatedly defended its ‘zero tolerance’ approach for students who misbehave, with Moskowitz claiming her schools use ‘an appropriate disciplinary and restorative approach….’  Moskowitz continued to receive tens of millions of dollars from the nation’s financial elite while spending exorbitant amounts of money on a massive campaign to market and solicit applications to her schools to, in her own words, increase market share, all while paying herself a hefty salary that in 2015 exceeded $600,000 annually.” (pp. 239-240)

Ohio’s Legislative Democrats Challenge ECOT’s Claims in Amicus Brief Filed with Ohio Supreme Court

At the end of last week, explains Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch, all nine Democrats serving in the Ohio Senate along with 30 of the 33 House Democrats signed an amicus brief urging the Ohio Supreme Court to find for the state and against the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the state’s biggest charter school. ECOT has been challenging the state all year to let it collect state per-pupil funding without documenting that students are actually attending school.

The Ohio Department of Education has been trying to claw back $60 million over-paid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and another $19 million for 2016-17.  ECOT has continued to claim that state law does not require the school to document that students are actually logged in for 920 hours each year—working with the curriculum the school provides—but merely that the school provides the curriculum to the students it claims are enrolled.

ECOT has challenged in court the state’s demand that the school document attendance records if it intends to collect payments from the state. ECOT’s appeal is currently being considered by the Ohio Supreme Court. Plunderbund summarizes the history of the case: “ECOT filed the lawsuit more than a year ago claiming it is not required to document how many hours its students (are) engaged in learning…  After losing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, ECOT has appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.”

The amicus brief filed last week by legislative Democrats follows the filing of another amicus brief in late October. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Bill Batchelder, the now-retired Speaker of the Ohio House, and four other former Republican legislators filed their own amicus brief with the Ohio Supreme Court. They claimed that the Ohio Department of Education “is violating legislative intent by requiring ECOT to verify its enrollment with log-in duration.” If you are having trouble parsing that outrageous nonsense (which seems to mean that the legislators intended for ECOT to amass tax dollars for students the school cannot prove are enrolled full time), it may help if you remember that only months after retiring from a career in the legislature including serving as Ohio’s House Speaker, Bill Batchelder opened a lobbying firm, The Batchelder Company, which represented ECOT’s founder William Lager until July, 2017.

In the introduction to their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats expose ECOT’s bizarre argument: “The issue… before the Court is whether the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3314 allows the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) the ability to use durational evidence of student participation to determine funding for internet- or computer-based community schools (e-schools).  Revised Code section 3314.08 and its subsections plainly incorporate durational requirements as part of the review of student participation meant to determine the amount of funding an e-school is entitled to receive from the state.  It is incontrovertible that ODE has the right… to use a durational element in a review of e-school funding claims.  It is incontrovertible as well that the legislative history of chapter 3314… shows that the legislature routinely amended the code to make enforcement and oversight of e-schools more thorough…  Finally, the Court cannot find in favor of the Appellant.  To do so leaves an absurd hole in Ohio’s constitutional guarantee to teach its children in free, publicly funded schools.  A decision that finds for the Appellant creates a void in which to take and squander taxpayer dollars without allowing any government oversight for the stewardship of those dollars…  The Ohio Constitution demands the state educate its children.  It cannot be Ohio’s founders and successive caretakers’ hope that those children would never be brought to a classroom (electronic or otherwise) yet the school and its administrators would reap lavish financial rewards.”

Toward the end of their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats declare: “The entire system of public school regulation is geared toward ensuring children receive an education.  The record in this case reflects that ECOT and other e-school amici failed in this obligation and are callous toward that failure.  The state should not have to withhold funding to guarantee those who purport to be educators take basic steps to teach children in their charge, but this case shows they must.  The state does not seek this level of regulation for its own sake or to target e-schools, but to avoid the tragic reality we are confronting in which thousands of students have not received education for which their alleged school was paid.”

The attorney of record on the legislative Democrats’ amicus brief is Joe Schiavoni, the former Senate minority leader and an announced candidate for governor. Schiavoni, who represents the Youngstown area, has twice introduced bills to regulate attendance reporting by ECOT and Ohio’s online charter schools. Describing his proposed legislation, which has never been brought to a vote, Schiavoni commented:  “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.”

This blog has tracked the long ECOT scandal.

As Privatizers Hone the Rhetoric for School Choice, Public School Supporters Need a Better Message

With Betsy DeVos promoting her one idea—that parents ought to have a right to choose a school—and all the money and politics swirling around the issue today, maybe you’ve forgotten how distorted the conversation about public education has really become. Who and what is really behind the push for school choice? And what are we being asked to forget about the role of public education in America?

First there is all the money being ideologically invested in creating the message that privatized education is better. Here, for example, is Kimberly Hefling’s report for POLITICO on the Koch brothers’ huge anti-public school campaign in the Hispanic community: “One of the newest campaigns is the Libre Inititive, a grassroots drive targeting Hispanic families in 11 states so far, under the umbrella of the Charles and David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity…. While the Koch network has long been involved in school choice battles, the push by Libre represents a new front in the fight by targeting Hispanic families—and a recognition that with Congress gridlocked, it’s on the ground at the state level where the network can disrupt the educational status quo. The Koch message on schools is shared by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime ally… Like DeVos, Koch organizers insist the push isn’t about dissolving public education, but about making more options available to Hispanic and other families. And like DeVos and her husband, Charles Koch has been a longtime supporter of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated for state laws that encourage private school choice expansion.”

Beyond all the money behind privatization, there has been a bipartisan papering over the real purpose of the dogged ideologues. But early in October, the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli exposed the real libertarian foundational principles  underneath school privatization. Ironically he admits that the social justice framing which promoted charter schools as a way to close achievement gaps was just rhetoric—merely a way to co-opt Democrats into supporting privatization: “While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made… (T)he charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall… Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities… But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans… So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump?… A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats… But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days… Most are non-union… It’s hugely important.”

Support for public education has been catastrophically hurt not only by the kind of money being invested by the Americans for Prosperity and by the libertarian rhetoric Petrilli endorses but also by the narrowing of the conversation about public schools to the sole focus on test scores.  Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade (see here) documents our society’s catastrophic adoption of high stakes test-and-punish—a regime that has been in place for nearly two decades—as the sole yardstick to measure the quality of public schools.

Jack Schneider, professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, urges supporters of public schools to insist on a different way of judging schools and a new language for assessment: “The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school.  As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores—about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain.  Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.  Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do.  Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking.  School quality is multidimensional… Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.  One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality.”

There is considerable irony in the fact that, while today the very wealthy far-right dominates the political rhetoric promoting the privatization of schooling, 50 million children across the United States attend traditional public schools. As privatization encroaches, the damage is much deeper than most of us realize.  Jennifer Berkshire just posted a podcast and transcript of her interview with Sally Nuamah, a Chicago political scientist who has been studying the impact on that city’s neighborhoods when the school district closed 50 public schools in 2013, after the rapid growth of charter schools in Chicago had lured many families away from neighborhood schools.  Public schools are core community institutions, and for decades it has been known that school closures have broad and traumatic consequences for neighborhoods.  Nuamah documents similar consequences in Chicago since the mass public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “(Y)ou see these communities are further losing population.  There’s less will, or less faith, in the traditional public school system across this poplulation, because they are afraid they’re going to be betrayed again, they’re going to have to move schools again, and that’s a very volatile situation.”

Nuamah continues: “Then there is the economic piece, and the fact that the number of African American teachers in Chicago has declined by 40%… It was very clear, just from talking to people, that they feared the larger consequences of what the closure of the school means, what it symbolizes, and the direct resources it takes from a community. People would constantly refer to the fact that if this community’s institutions close down, it would affect their ability to have healthcare, it would affect their ability to have employment. It would affect their ability to live in a neighborhood that is safe, because right now, the closed-down structure is acting as an eyesore.”

Nuamah describes the deeper impact on the self esteem among the adults in the neighborhood of the closed school: “I would hear people specifically say that people would think that they failed….  because the institutions that their kids attended were being closed down and they couldn’t protect it.  So (school closings) have to do not just with social and economic issues but also in terms of what people are modeling, what they’re teaching to their younger people.  What they’re able to protect for the next generation to come. They were… (losing) assets that were passed down to them from prior generations, especially because schools have always been at the center of civil rights and the fight for equality… It has more to do with the larger historical, social, and community-based roles that schools have played. In African American communities in particular, public schools had (a) long history of being the first public institutions in which African Americans got access… But not just that: schools historically have been a main social mechanism for the black middle class.  A lot of people end up in the black middle class… through jobs in the education sector.”

Billionaire Betsy DeVos and her friends in the far-right, libertarian sector are actively promoting the privatization of America’s public schools. The Republican and Democratic technocratic politicians have brought us twenty years’ of test-and-punish to discredit public education. It is up to us—parents and teachers who are the core stakeholders in the public schools and citizens who care about public education—to create a more nuanced narrative about the role of our nation’s 90 thousand public schools as an essential public institution.

Constitutional Protection of Equity and Adequacy: A New Frame for Testing Charters and Vouchers

Last week, at the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, posted a short summary of his new paper to be published soon in the Cornell Law Review. The paper presents new and, I hope, promising thinking about legally challenging charter schools and private school tuition voucher programs under the fifty state constitutions.

Black is an academic, not a litigator, and he is realistic. He devotes the last section of his paper to some of the challenges that will likely arise if his ideas become the basis for actual litigation. Nonetheless, given the failure of previous attempts to challenge school privatization, Black argues for significant reframing: “The question now is whether the constitutional debate over school choice can be reframed from one premised on an all-or-nothing approach to a more nuanced one that relates to how choice programs actually affect the public education system. Without this reframing, advocates need not waste their time in court…. If any limit exists on choice programs, it is how they relate to and affect educational opportunity in the public school system. Prior claims have attacked choice as problematic in and of itself, whereas this (new) approach asks the same question that all prior equity and adequacy litigation has: is the state delivering adequate and equitable opportunities?”

Black argues that in the past advocates, “launched attacks premised on the notion that choice programs were inherently antithetical to the public education system.”  Past challenges were filed at the statewide level in an attempt to invalidate whole charter school laws or voucher programs.  Instead Black suggests: “The facts that matter most are not statewide, but local.  Choice programs appear small at the state level and have little to no effect on most school districts… A narrowed focus reveals that the effects of statewide policy are concentrated in particular urban districts. From the perspective of the local urban district, the effects range from existential threats to serious impediments to equal and adequate education.”

Black’s first example is Newark, New Jersey, where, “the state’s arcane system of funding charter schools produces a funding deficit in the school district with each student who transfers to a charter. To be clear, the Newark school district does not just lose its state funding for those students to the charter school; rather the state requires the district to send charters an amount in excess of what the district received from the state. This funding mechanism, then, clearly decreases funds available for students remaining in public schools. As social science, legislative studies, and states’ own statutes all confirm, the shrinking education pot and flawed charter funding mechanisms are depressing per pupil funding in several districts at a rate that can seriously depress educational opportunities and academic achievement. In short, by developing district level data, this Article demonstrates public school advocates’ worst fears: choice is draining funds from public schools.”

Noting that all fifty state constitutions define the right to education and states’ duty to deliver it, Black explains how court precedent has established that state constitutional education clauses protect public school students’ right to equal access to educational opportunities and resources. Besides guaranteeing equitable access to services, courts have also affirmed adequacy claims that “focus on identifying a baseline of quality educational opportunities that a state must provide. Various state constitutions indicate that the state must deliver ‘efficient,’ ‘thorough,’ or ‘sound basic’ education.”

Black believes limits to choice programs must be conceptualized around the state constitutional promise of equitable access for all students to adequate public education: “If any limit exists on choice programs, it is how they relate to and effect educational opportunity in the public education system… (T)his approach asks the same question that all prior equity and adequacy litigation has: is the state delivering adequate and equitable educational opportunities?  If not, what policies are causing these deprivations?…  (C)laims must become far more factually granular.  Plaintiffs cannot assume that choice programs inherently harm public education. They must show it.  This requires more than simply pointing to the competition between traditional public schools and choice programs.”

“Plaintiffs must demonstrate that choice programs are actually causing or connected to inadequate or inequitable educational opportunities in particular schools. Statewide data alone will not do this, as choice programs remain relatively small that that level.” “At the micro level, however, the effects of choice can be staggering.  Statewide education choice policies do not affect all districts  equally.  Their effects are heavily concentrated on a select group of districts. These districts can have choice programs that enroll a  third of a district’s students —and those percentages continue to grow. As the following sections demonstrate, that growth is causing opportunity deficits in public schools, threatening the very financial viability of some districts, and stratifying educational opportunity across and within educational sectors.”  Black’s example here is Ohio, where the Cleveland and Columbus school districts “are bleeding money to charter schools and the state is doing little to address the problem. The state, for instance, recently announced a $464 million statewide increase for public education.  That increase, however, was swallowed by the $760 million in transfers the state would require districts to make to charters.  The deficit, of course, was most pronounced in places where charters are concentrated.  Cleveland saw a $5 million increase in state funding, but would have to transfer $141 million to local charters. Columbus saw a $40 million increase from the state, but would transfer $116 million to charters.”

Inequity is exacerbated, writes Black, because charter schools and vouchers are bleeding money from the very districts serving the poorest students who need expensive extra support: “The changes in education funding and student market share between the various sectors are also producing further stratification in educational opportunity—financially, qualitatively, and demographically.  First, because charter schools and voucher enrollment are not proportionally spread across states, they have primarily become the price students living in poor neighborhoods with poor public schools are asked to pay. These students, however, already have the highest needs and typically the most underfunded schools in the state. Thus, the concentrated negative effects of charters are often visited on a state’s most needy students.”

A short report cannot do justice to a paper of over fifty pages.  I urge you to read Black’s paper and consider its implications for the school districts in your state. Derek Black is an academic, and it is, of course, a long step from developing a new strategy for litigation to  turning the theory into a legal challenge to a state’s voucher program or charter school laws. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that serious experts are exploring how to protect the public schools in particular communities from the very disparate impact of state vouchers and charter policies. Because of the way state laws operate, while the financial viability of many school districts is untouched, other school districts are losing millions of state and local dollars each year. The losses are growing rapidly in urban public school districts that desperately need to be able to provide basic services and educational enrichment for our nation’s poorest children.