Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

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Backing Gov. Tony Evers’ Education Budget Priorities, Wisconsin Protesters Will Walk 60 Miles to Madison

Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens from all over Wisconsin will walk 60 miles to Madison beginning tomorrow. They’ll be demonstrating all weekend to protest the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature’s state education budget and to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ effort to overcome years of Scott Walker’s budget cuts to the state’s public schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Annysa Johnson reports: “Public school advocates from across the state will embark on a 60-mile march to Madison… hoping to persuade Republican lawmakers to boost funding for K-12 education…. The goal, organizers say, is for the lawmakers to reinstate key components of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget, particularly his nearly $600 million boost to cover special education costs, $58 million more for mental health services, and $40 million more for bilingual-bicultural programs.”

Gov. Evers, formerly Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, knows about the needs of public schools.  After the Legislature—still dominated by Walker’s kind of small government Republicans—rejected his budget proposal and countered with less investment in what Evers believes are necessary programs, the new Governor has repeated his demands for more money, particularly to help school districts serve disabled children in special education and support school districts serving concentration of children living in poverty.

In late May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck reported: “The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted… to put in the next state budget a $500 million increase in funding for schools that provides $97 million in new funding to help cover schools’ special education costs… But Evers made clear the Republican plan for special education funding wasn’t adequate. ‘We’ve had school districts across the state going to referendum for many, many years now, and passing referenda because the state hasn’t done their share… I don’t believe that what is proposed… deals with the issue of students with disabilities in more comprehensive way… I don’t think it’s enough.'”

Beck explains in more detail: “(Luther) Olsen, vice chairman of the budget committee, said the package would raise the percentage of special education costs the state covers from 25% to 26% for the current school year and to 30% in 2020.  Evers, the former state schools superintendent, proposed raising the reimbursement rate to 60%—which would cost $600 million.  Either would be the first increase in state funding for special education in more than a decade… A recent study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed school districts across the state spent more than $1 billion in district funds to cover special education costs that otherwise would have been spent district-wide.”

Another of Evers’ priorities, a significant increase for school districts which serve concentrations of children in poverty, was not part of the legislators’ budget as of June 17, when Molly Beck updated the details of the Legislature’s education budget negotiations: “Removed from Evers’ K-12 plan—built largely off proposals he made as state schools superintendent—was a plan to overhaul the state’s education funding formula to provide money to schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty.  Evers wanted to increase funding for schools by $1.4 billion, which included a $600 million increase in funding for school districts’ special education costs.  Republican lawmakers also removed (Evers’) proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s private voucher school systems.”

A Wisconsin Education Association Council update on June 7, 2019 explains the Republican Legislature’s determination to continue supporting school privatization with ample funding for the state’s large voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at religious schools: “Analysis of the education budget passed through the Joint Finance Committee… shows that students enrolled in private voucher schools would again receive higher per-pupil payments than public school students. Public schools would be capped at increasing per-pupil spending by approximately $200 in 2019-20 and $204 in 2020-21, while payments for voucher school tuition would increase by an estimated $229 in the first year of the budget, and $275 in the second year.”

In his important book, The One Percent Solution, about the 2010 Red-Wave election that flipped so many states to far-right, anti-government Republican leadership, political economist Gordon Lafer describes Scott Walker’s Wisconsin as emblematic of the anti-tax, anti-public services agenda. Lafer explains: “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda…. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system.  (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer describes exactly how this has all played out in Wisconsin: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

It is worth examining carefully what Wisconsin’s new Gov. Evers is prioritizing as a way to challenge the narrative about public spending. His budgetary priorities emphasize what are among every public school district’s most expensive and essential programming challenges—addressing the needs of very poor children and educating children with disabilities.  Traditionally it has also been the role of state governments (with the help of targeted federal Title I and IDEA funding) to equalize and compensate for the fiscal incapacity of property-poor local school districts to serve these populations. And when the state fails to do its part to fund mandated public school services, local school districts must raise their own taxes if their residents can afford it or cut other essential services. Tax cuts and the reduced services that inevitably follow are one of the reasons we have been watching school teachers across the country on strike this year to protest impossibly large class sizes and the layoffs of nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

It is refreshing to watch Gov. Evers be strategic as he redefines Wisconsin’s challenges. And it is wonderful that parents, teachers and public school supporters have organized to stand with their new governor to demand that Wisconsin stop starving its public schools. The budget debate in Wisconsin won’t end until the Legislature produces a budget Gov. Evers believes he can sign.

To keep up the pressure, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is organizing across the state for this weekend’s 60 Mile Walk to Madison. Executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains the urgency behind the group’s effort to support Gov. Tony Evers as he redefines the public’s obligation to invest in the state’s system of public education: “We’re not above begging… We have been on our knees, begging for our kids for the past 10 years, but we’re sick of begging for crumbs, and we’re here to demand more than that this time around.”

In Florida’s Tangled Mess of School Privatization, Students Rights Are Trampled, Tax Dollars Wasted

An old friend in Florida recently asked me why I haven’t been writing about the challenges posed by the explosion of marketplace school choice in Florida.  I’ll confess the reason: The problems have felt overwhelming to me—seemingly impossible for someone from outside the state to follow.

Here are just some of the headlines in the past three months: “Florida’s Charter-School Sector Is a Real Mess,” “Florida Really Is the Worst,” “Republicans Want to Turbocharge Privatization of Florida Public Schools,” Charter School Companies Feast at the Public Trough,” and “Why Florida Is Struggling to Fill More than 2,000 Teaching Positions.”

One must remind oneself of the purposes of public education as one considers what’s happening in Florida.

Public schools are established by law and democratically governed. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. While the public schools are certainly not perfect, these public institutions are the optimal way society can work to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

A year ago the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education published Making the Grade, a study of the extent of school privatization across the fifty states and the District of Columbia and the threat to public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice. Tanya Clay House, a civil rights attorney, authored the report in which she reviews the benefits of our society’s system of public education: “The ability for every child, regardless of race, income, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristic, to obtain a free quality public education is a foundational principle in American society. This principle is based on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn—to allow an equal chance for achievement and success… Although the public school system… has continual room for improvement, it is still the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools….  The attack on public education is also an attack on equal opportunity and civil rights.  Although privatization advocates claim that private schools advance the quality of education, this is a tenuous argument to make in the face of the reality that too often there is little to no public accountability, fiscal transparency or maintenance of civil rights protections for students in privatized programs… The proliferation of privatization programs in the states and the redirecting of public resources for the benefit of a small percentage of the student population belies this principle of equality of opportunity for all students.  Privatization in public schools weakens our democracy and often sacrifices the rights and opportunities of the majority for the presumed advantage of a small percentage of students.”

The Making the Grade report ranks the states. A state could earn a possible 100 points, but the state’s grade was lowered for the ways its oversight of school privatization fails to protect the civil rights of students and for the ways the state’s expenditure of public dollars for privately owned or operated schools fails to protect the rights of communities and taxpayers. Overall, Florida earned only 35.5 points out of 100 possible points and received the second lowest rating in the country.  Only Arizona, with 31.25 possible points, fell lower.

Earlier this spring the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss compared the states’ investment of public tax dollars into various kinds of vouchers. Strauss’s data comes from EdChoice, the Indiana organization formerly known as the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  Strauss explains: “So which state spends the most on programs that use public money for private education?  As it turns out, it isn’t Michigan, the home state of billionaire (Betsy) DeVos… The state that spends the most is one in which she maintains a vacation home.  It’s Florida, which became a school choice pioneer under Jeb Bush when he was governor from 1999 to 2007… In its latest ranking, published in January, EdChoice said Florida spent $969.6 million on educational savings accounts, vouchers and tax credit programs in 2016, the latest available data.  That was 3.69 percent of the state’s combined program and public K-12 expenditures.  EdChoice used state public expenditure data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data report.”

Last November, Florida’s voters elected Ron DeSantis as governor, and a month later, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss assessed what DeSantis’s election would mean for the state’s public schools: “‘Rest in peace, public education,’ said a headline in the St. Augustine Record. DeSantis, a fervent supporter of President Trump and recipient of campaign donations from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, appointed Richard Corcoran, the former speaker of the Florida House, as state education secretary… Corcoran is seen by advocates for public education as being hostile to traditional public schools, using his legislative perch to advance the interests of charter schools—one of which was started by his wife in Pasco County.  He once called teacher unions ‘evil.’  Corcoran is part of the school ‘reform’ wing that includes DeVos and her ally, Jeb Bush (R), who was Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007.  He was a national pioneer in promoting the ‘school choice’ movement that seeks to expand charter schools… and programs that use public money to pay for private and religious education….. Bush retains some influence on education policy in Florida through his education foundation and connections to Republican legislators… Corcoran used his position as House speaker to pass legislation strongly favoring charters.  Last year, he pushed through… a measure creating a ‘Schools of Hope’ system that encourages charter schools to open near struggling traditional public schools. The legislation also made it harder for school systems to use federal funding to help students.  He also successfully passed legislation that requires school districts to share capital funding that they raise from local taxes with charters.”

In a recent post, Pennsylvania education blogger and Forbes Magazine commentator, Peter Greene describes some of the ways Florida has promoted privatization at the expense of the state’s public schools: “The latest nail in the coffin is Senate Bill 7070, a bill that adds yet another school choice program to the Florida portfolio of choiceness… The bill offers up vouchers that can be used for private schools, including the religion-based ones… The vouchers will be one more drain on the public tax dollars intended to fund public education… But the most important team members for this play are the three new state supreme court justices that DeSantis installed.  In 2006, Jeb Bush tried a similar move (expanding vouchers including vouchers for religious schools), and the court recognized the obvious—that the law violated the state constitution… DeSantis is expecting friendlier judges to see things his way.”

Greene continues, criticizing Florida’s continuing reliance on one-time bonuses for teachers deemed successful, rather than a stable salary schedule: “Meanwhile, Florida has fallen to 46th place in rankings for teacher pay…. (T)he same bill that added vouchers also tweaked Florida’s boneheaded teacher bonus program…. (W)e’re back to the old student test score baloney… What’s key… it’s a bonus.  It doesn’t help you build a pension or buy a house, and you can’t count on it to feed your family in the future.”

Last month, Florida’s legislature also passed HB 7123,  a law which, after July 1, will require local school districts to share local tax levies, even those passed to support raises for school teachers’ salaries, with charter schools.

And Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Corcoran are now ramping up the “Schools of Hope” program pushed through the legislature when Corcoran was House Speaker back in 2017.  In a May 2019 update, the Tampa Bay TimesMarlene Sokol explains: “A school of hope must operate within five miles of district schools with poor records.” Corcoran’s 2017 law speeds up approval for national charter school chains to locate new charter schools in the neighborhoods of struggling public schools. The theory is that competition will improve the public schools despite that in places like Chicago where this practice has been tried, what happened instead was that the neighborhood public schools were shut down as intensive advertising by charter schools lured away families. Sokol adds: “Passage of the law, known as House Bill 7069, led to a legal challenge that is still ongoing. School boards that sued contend it is unconstitutional because it intrudes on the decision-making powers of local school districts and creates a public school system that is not uniform.”  Even while the court challenge proceeds, two charter organizations have prepared for rapid expansion. Plans are under way for KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) to open a school that could accommodate 1,500 students in Miami, and the Texas charter school chain, IDEA Schools, is ready to open a school for 1,500 students in Tampa.

An Orlando Sentinal commentary published last week is a reminder that civil rights violations are a central component of Florida’s burgeoning sector of privatized schools paid for with public dollars. Scott Maxwell explains: “At one of Florida’s approved voucher schools in Brevard County… being gay is actually the only expellable offense listed in the school’s ‘ethics’ policy… At Trinity Christian Academy in Volusia County, the school provides a list of sentences students are not allowed to utter. ‘I am gay’ is one of them. ‘I am homosexual/transgender’ is another. Saying either one aloud is ‘basis for dismissal.’… Trinity receives more than $1 million a year in public voucher money. And at Orlando’s Calvary City Christian Academy, the school’s ‘lifestyle policy’ explains to parents that homosexuality is a ‘sexual immorality’ punishable by expulsion. (Gov.) DeSantis visited Calvary earlier this year to tout this school—which has a policy against letting gay students walk its halls—as the future of Florida’s school-choice movement. To be clear: Many churches and faith-based schools aren’t obsessed with homosexuality and don’t embrace discrimination…  Also to be clear: Any church or individual is, of course, free to think LGBT citizens are sinners unfit to walk or learn alongside them. But government shouldn’t fund such discrimination. Yet Florida does.”

One State Sets Out to Rethink Public Oversight of Charter Schools

I am encouraged by the findings, released last Friday, of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Charter School Policy Task Force.

Newsome set up the group to consider recommendations to the Legislature for reining in an out of control charter school sector. He proposed the task force earlier this spring after massive teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland brought attention to the amount of money flowing out of public school budgets into the charter schools whose location and authorization has been pretty much beyond the control of the public school districts where charter school have been able to locate.

EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reminds us that the mere size of California’s charter sector—1,300 charter schools, more than any other state—makes oversight and regulation a poignant issue. One reason the issue of charter school oversight has drawn attention this year is that Governor Gavin Newsom has shown himself willing to consider the need for increased regulation. Former Governor Jerry Brown, himself a founder of charter schools in Oakland, was known to veto charter school oversight laws on the occasion they did reach his desk. Gov. Newsom assigned State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond—elected last November on a pro-public schools platform—to facilitate the Task Force.

The issue of the cost for public school districts of a rapidly expanding charter school sector in California was further elevated a year ago by a report published by In the Public Interest. The report’s author, Oregon economist Gordon Lafer documented very sizeable losses of public dollars to charter schools in three school districts during the 2016-2017 school year: Oakland Unified School District lost $57.3 million; San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million; and Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District lost $19.3 million.

The Task Force released its findings last Friday, June 7. Before one even considers the consensus recommendations and majority recommendations of the Charter School Policy Task Force, however, one must recognize that it is surprising the Task Force report contains any consensus recommendations at all. The Task Force was not made up of academic researchers; neither was it a collection of experts on good government and public finance. It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seems to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.

Several members of the Task Force represent public schools, educators’ professional organizations, and organized labor: the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association; the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate); the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99; the California School Employees Association; the Association of California School Administrators; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 57; the El Dorado County Office of Education, and the San Diego Unified School District.  Four members represent charter school chains or charter school advocacy organizations: the California Charter Schools Association; Green Dot Public Schools California; Aspire Public Schools; and Fortune School of Education.

The Task Force lists a number of consultants from whom its members received input. On the one side, they heard from: The Alameda County Office of Education; the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Department of Education Fiscal Services Division; the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team; the Legislative Analyst’s Office;  and the Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego Unified School districts—along with economist Gordon Lafer.

On the other side, the Task Force members considered the views of the California Charter Authorization Professionals; the California Charter Schools Association; the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division; the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, and Green Dot Charter Schools—along with Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and designer of the theory of Portfolio School Reform—which envisions running a school district like a business portfolio with investments in traditional public and charter schools alike.

Across the divided points of view of the group’s participants and advisers, the Task Force’s members were able to reach consensus on four needed reforms. Although these consensus recommendations don’t seem particularly earth shaking, they do highlight that in California, according to the way things operate right now, a local school district doesn’t have much control at all about who opens a charter school within the boundaries of the district, what kind of school opens, and how much money students carry away from the public schools on the day they exit.

Here are the consensus recommendations: (1) The length of time must be extended from 60 to 90 days for an authorizer to consider a charter schools petition for authorization.  (2) A new statewide entity must be created to develop standards for the authorization and oversight of charter schools.  And the new statewide entity must train authorizers to more carefully investigate the schools they are sponsoring and to increase oversight of schools once they are authorized.  (3) The state must continue to provide a student’s state funding to the public school district for one year after a student transfers to a charter school. (4) Public school boards must be given greater capacity to consider the impact on the public schools when the school board is asked to make a decision to approve or deny a petition for a new charter school.  Further,  the California Department of Education cannot any longer be the sole oversight body for the 39 charter schools currently authorized by the State Board of Education, because the schools are geographically so far apart that the three current staff people have been unable to provide adequate oversight.

Additionally, the California Charter School Task Force reports seven other “proposals discussed” by members of the Task Force and “supported by the majority.”  EdSource‘s John Fensterwald clarifies what this “majority” designation likely really means: “The report includes seven additional recommendations, supported by an unnamed majority of the task force—presumably without some or all of the four charter school-affiliated members—that urge more severe restrictions on charter school growth.”  Here are the seven proposals discussed and supported by the majority:

  1. “There has been growing concern that virtual charter schools are operated without appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students.”  “Enact a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”
  2. “Remove the California State Board of Education from hearing appeals of charter petition denials.”  Currently in California, charter schools turned down by the school board of the district where they are to be located or the County Board of Education can appeal to the State Board of Education to override their rejection at the local level.
  3. “Limit the authorization of new charter schools to local districts with an appeals process that takes place at the County Board of Education only when there was an error by the district governing board.” This provision would increase the local control of the elected board of education in the school district where charters seek to open.
  4. “Prohibit districts from authorizing charter schools located outside district boundaries.”  “Current law allows a charter school to open one site outside of the authorizing district only if the charter school has attempted to locate within the authorizer’s boundaries, but an appropriate site was unavailable.” The Task Force explains that the rule here has not been enforced and that, “such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
  5. “Allow authorizers to consider fiscal impact as part of the authorization process.”  Here the Task Force provides considerable explanation: “Presentations from Oakland,… Los Angeles,… and San Diego Unified School District(s) to the Charter Task Force demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries. In addition to the oft-cited loss of ADA funding, other costs may include, but are not limited to: inability to reduce expenses proportionally without direct harm to student programs and services (utilities, staff, daily maintenance, etc.); obligations to keep schools open and facilities available; increased liability and litigation; disproportionality of special education costs, competition for state, local, and other funds; thorough oversight; and marketing in a newly competitive environment.  Allowing authorizers to consider fiscal impacts of a charter petition enables them to evaluate the impact on the entirety of their local educational system.”
  6. “Establish clear guidelines for use by authorizers and by charter applicants for new charter petitions.”  The Task Force’s report explains: “Current law requires charter petitions to include a description of 16 elements. Beyond these elements, there are no standards that provide guidance on the level of detail an applicant should include. As such, applicants submit charter petitions of varying quality… Clear guidelines, such as rubrics or handbooks, for applicants to follow would standardize the quality of new charter schools.”
  7. “Update Education Code requirements to reflect current state accountability.”

Members of California’s state legislature have been considering a package of bills to increase regulation of the charter school sector. For Capital Public Radio, Ricardo Cano reports that, after the winter’s teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, “In the Democratic-controlled Legislature, proposals to regulate charter schools quickly followed. But many lawmakers made it clear in recent weeks that they wanted the report to factor into their decisions, though they are not bound to take up any of its recommendations. Though a bill to regulate so-called ‘far-flung’ charters has moved easily through the process, another to give districts more authority over charter authorizations and remove appeals at the state and county level, barely made it out of the Assembly, as some lawmakers expressed hesitance in moving forward without the recommendations from the Charter Task Force.  And two others, to cap the number of charters and enact a temporary moratorium on new ones, stalled before coming to a floor vote.”

The two bills still being considered are addressed in the proposals which a majority of the Task Force approved. Cano explains: “For instance, the majority supported prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, a key aim of the ‘far-flung’ charter’ bill, Assembly Bill 1507.” (majority proposal #4)  Cano adds: “A majority of the Task Force also seemed to support some aspects of Assembly Bill 1505, the sweeping proposal that would tighten appeals for denied charters, including prohibiting appeals to the State Board of Education. A majority also supported limiting the authorization of new charter schools to local school districts and limiting appeals to the county education boards.” (majority proposals #2 and #3)

We must further hope that the Task Force’s majority proposal #5—on the damaging fiscal impact of charter school growth on the budgets of the public school districts where charters are located—continues seriously to be considered by the Legislature, by Tony Thurmond, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The reality, considered and agreed on by the majority of the Task Force, that charter schools are operating as fiscal parasites on their host school districts is the very heart of the problem in California and across the states.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Ohio Senate Releases Detailed State School District Takeover Plan

Updated June 13, 2019

You will remember that on May 1, 2019, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers, which have been catastrophic failures in Lorain and Youngstown under HB 70—the law that set up the state seizure of so-called failing school districts. HB70 was fast tracked through the Legislature in 2015 without hearings. Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed CEOs for four years now; East Cleveland has been undergoing state takeover this year.

Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 six weeks ago to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular fashion, by a margin of 83/12.  The House was so intent on ridding the state of top-down state takeovers that its members also included the repeal of HB 70 in the House version of the state budget—HB 166.

Yesterday afternoon, the Ohio Senate released an amended, substitute HB166—the Senate’s proposal for the state budget.  Also released was a detailed 54 page School Transformation Proposal amendment to replace the House’s simple action to undo HB 70.  (The Senate’s School Transformation Proposal begins on p. 14 in the linked amendment.)

The three districts Ohio has already seized with HB 70—and 10 others slated to be taken over in the next two years—are all school districts that serve Ohio’s very poorest children. Last evening, as I plodded through the statutory language in the amendment being considered by the Ohio Senate, I found myself wondering if the people envisioning this laborious, top-down, state takeover plan—a plan that pretends not to be a state takeover—have spent time trying to transform a complex institution like a school in the kind of community where many children arrive in Kindergarten far behind their peers in more affluent communities.  And I wondered why the Senate’s plan relies on so many of the failed “turnaround” strategies of No Child Left Behind—the federal law that imposed imposed a rigid plan for raising test scores and that left an increasing number of American schools with “failing” ratings every year until the law was scrapped when it was itself deemed a failure. No Child Left Behind was a test-and-punish law; the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is also very much a test-and-punish law—at a time when extensive academic research demonstrates that standardized tests are a flawed yardstick for measuring the quality of a school.

We can only hope the Ohio House will determinedly oppose the Senate’s plan and stop it in the Senate-House Conference Committee.

Here is how the Senate’s proposed state takeover would work.

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three years or (under HB 70) been under an Academic Distress Commission, would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.” In other words, the consulting “school improvement organization” would diagnose why this school district has received three years of “F” ratings.
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here is where this plan copies No Child Left Behind—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”
  • There is also a long section on eligibility for EdChoice Vouchers, which I am not covering in this post.

This is the briefest summary of the 54 page, Ohio Senate School Transformation Proposal budget amendment released yesterday.  There will be more details and a deeper exploration of the plan in upcoming days, especially if Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner follows up as she has promised, with hearings at which the public will have the opportunity to provide testimony.

The Pennsylvania education writer, Peter Greene recently commented on such takeover plans as Ohio HB 70—Ohio’s current takeover of the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland in which the districts are operated by a czar chosen by a state-appointed Academic Distress Commission—and the kind of plan proposed in detail yesterday by the Ohio Senate in its proposed budget: “Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them… then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don’t know how to raise test scores, or they just don’t care.  Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty—none of that is on the table.  The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced… then everything will run so much better.”

What is clear from this very brief summary of the Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is that, although the Senate has proposed a state school district takeover plan with more local control over the members of the local School Improvement Commission, and while district and individual school improvement plans would have the input of community stakeholders, this is still a plan that puts all the power in a district School Improvement Director—a czar who can fire the principals and the teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools.  And the district’s School Improvement Director’s power grows in later years if the district fails to show progress.  In the fourth year of no progress, “A new board of education shall be appointed… However, the Director shall retain complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.”

There is even some scary language as we move along through the process of reconstitution: “If at any time there are no longer any schools operated by the district due to reconstitution or other closure of the district’s schools… the school improvement commission shall cease to exist and the school improvement director shall cease to exercise any powers with respect to the district.”  While nobody would probably miss the School Improvement Commission or the School Improvement Director, the community’s children and their parents would likely regret the loss of their public schools.

School Funding On My Mind

The failure of the school tax on the ballot last Tuesday in Los Angeles is the latest troubling story, but school funding has been an undercurrent in the news across the country in recent weeks.

Even in Massachusetts, where public education is relatively well funded, members of the New England Patriots published an op-ed in the Boston Globe to compare and contrast the funding in the schools where they visit. They have been paying attention to the school libraries: “We’ve read stories to elementary school students, sitting on carpeted floors in large libraries filled wall-to-wall with books and colorful seating areas. Yet we’ve also visited schools where we see a very different picture. Two weeks ago, we invited members of the Legislature to join us on a tour of Tracy Elementary School in Lynn. It was clear that Tracy’s principal, staff, and teachers are the school’s heart and soul, doing their best to give these children the best educational experience possible—but they also clearly lack the basic resources necessary to help their students succeed. Unlike at other schools we’ve visited, we didn’t see a dedicated library in Tracy Elementary. We didn’t meet a librarian. There is none… (W)e were shocked when we saw the reading rooms where English learners, along with students with learning disabilities, go to get time with a reading teacher or specialist. The rooms were 50 square feet and had no chairs, forcing up to 10 students at a time to squeeze on the floor to get the support they need… The state’s inequitable funding of education has left districts containing high concentrations of low-income students with smaller budgets than other, more affluent districts, even as these districts must meet a greater level of need from their students.”

Florida’s legislature has recently passed a troubling change to the state’s school finance.  Florida’s new law redirects a portion of locally passed school taxes to privately operated charter schools. In a nuanced and important analysis of the new law’s impact, Jeff Bryant quotes Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, who explains that voters in Palm Beach County recently approved by a 72 percent margin, “$200 million in funding for their schools… a measure that specified increases could be used for teacher raises in traditional public schools and not for funding charter schools.”  However: “A recent law passed by the majority Republican Florida state legislature and signed by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will force local school districts to share portions of their locally appropriated tax money with charter schools, even if those funds are raised for the express purpose of increasing teacher salaries in district operated public schools.”

In Ohio, a new bipartisan school funding plan, introduced with fanfare in March—with the intention it would be included in the Ohio House biennial budget proposal—has sunk into a morass of legislative negotiation and disappeared from the news entirely. The proposed plan was intended to address the following problem: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide. Ohio’s public schools have been victimized by a decade of tax cuts, further reducing the state’s education budget following the 2008 recession.

But this week’s most significant story is the failure of the Los Angeles parcel tax in a special election last Tuesday. District officials put the tax on the ballot after the teachers struck last January to expose the decrepit conditions in their schools, a widespread lack of support staff, huge and unworkable class size, and paltry salaries for teachers and other education professionals.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez captures the message voters seemed to send in Tuesday’s election: “On this, the last week of school before summer break in the Los Angeles Unified School District, voters have sent a loud and clear message to roughly 600,000 students:  Your schools may be crumbling, your libraries may be closed, your class sizes may be unmanageably large, about 90% of you live in poverty, and thousands of you are homeless, but who cares? The Measure EE parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot needed two-thirds approval and didn’t even get 50%. It would have cost the average homeowner about 75 cents a day.  As supporters pointed out, California is in the bottom tier of funding per pupil nationally, and New York City schools spend about $8,000 more per student than L.A. Unified spends. The response from Los Angeles was a shrug.  Actually, it looks like roughly 90% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.”

The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter, Howard Blume describes the usual anti-tax rhetoric produced by the opponents of the school levy whenever such a local tax appears on the ballot.  In Los Angeles the opposition was led by the Chamber of Commerce.  Blume quotes Richard Fisk, a leader from the anti-tax committee: “‘I think the school district is mismanaging how they spend their money and mismanaging how they create a quality education for all their kids,’ said Richard Fisk of Granada Hills, chairman of government affairs for United Chambers of Commerce, based in the San Fernando Valley. Before asking for more money, ‘the district needs to get its house in order both fiscally and academically,’ he said.”

It’s easy to assume that with its thriving economy California ought to be able adequately to fund its public schools. But local school spending remains limited by Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax freeze law; state funding has not made up the difference.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranks the states by their combined state and local funding per-pupil.  California is 18th from the bottom.

After Tuesday’s parcel tax failure in Los Angeles, columnist Steve Lopez interviewed Glenn Sacks, a James Monroe High School social studies teacher who identifies racism and inequality as issues underneath the election results: ” ‘I think as LAUSD has become so heavily minority, so heavily poor… the public feels it doesn’t have a stake in public education anymore, and they’re willing to let conditions deteriorate,’ said Sacks, whose class sizes are as high as 41 students. ‘People say don’t complain about class sizes, deport the illegals, you’re lousy teachers turning out a lousy product, and a lot of this is just nonsense. The kids I teach, I love them, and they learn, and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. But they start out so far behind the white middle-class kids they’re being compared to, inevitably they’re going to look like they’re not succeeding and we’re not succeeding…. I’m amazed that people can’t see through that.”

Lopez continues, commenting on Sacks’ explanation of last Tuesday’s election returns: “Sacks is framing the dark narrative here, the one that says a great deal about race and class in Los Angeles, and about practical and psychic distance between haves and have-nots. Most voters don’t send their kids to L.A. Unified Schools, don’t venture into neighborhoods where the challenge for educators is greatest, and never see firsthand the promise and possibility in the faces of those 600,000 children who could use a little more help. It’s easier to shrug, to vote no, to skip the election altogether and say, sorry, kids, have a nice summer.”

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.