School Segregation Driven by Parental Privilege and School Choice

Patrick Wall’s extraordinary examination of an attempt to integrate—racially and economically—two New York City elementary schools, a story in the current issue of The Atlantic, is difficult reading. The difficulty is not that the issues are so complicated but instead that it is hard to face the ugly biases declared openly by parents who invested in New York City real estate only to find they are being zoned out of the exclusive, white, and wealthy neighborhood elementary school they thought they were getting.  It is kind of like reading about Little Rock or Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s.

This is actually a timely article in Donald Trump’s America, where President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are actively promoting school choice. Wall demonstrates all the ways that “privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.”

Wall presents a lot of background about how public schools have become increasingly “highly segregated by both race and income. In 2013-14, the most recent year data are available, more than one in six students attended schools where the vast majority of their classmates were both poor and black or Hispanic—over twice as many as in 2000, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  Wall quotes a study—by Sean Reardon, of Stanford University, Christopher Jencks of Harvard, and Ann Owens at UCLA—demonstrating that “segregation between poor and non-poor students in public schools grew more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2012.  Rising residential segregation by income has fueled that growth, as most children attend their local public schools.  But families can also opt out of their neighborhood school.  Many districts allow parents to apply to transfer programs, magnet and charter schools, or gifted-and-talented programs as alternatives to their nearest public school. Those options are open to any parent, but the most advantaged families are often best equipped to chart a course to their preferred school.”

And in schools where poverty is concentrated, students “are more likely to be held back in ninth grade, kicked out of school, and taught by an inexperienced teacher, and are less likely to be offered critical classes like calculus and physics….” Wall summarizes research from Stanford’s Sean Reardon: “The link between students’ race, their exposure to poverty, and the quality of the schools they attend is what makes segregation harmful to students….”  Wall continues: ” In the largest study of its kind, Reardon analyzed the test-score gap between white students and black and Hispanic students in every school district in the country. He estimated that roughly one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap is due to racial segregation because of the higher poverty rates in schools attended by many black and Hispanic students. ‘School poverty,’ he said, ‘turns out to be a good proxy for the kind of educational opportunities a school can provide.'”

Wall profiles the battle among parents as New York City set out to redistrict an area where one elementary school served the students in a housing project while another served students living in exclusive apartments along the Hudson River. The school defined by its wealth has, over the years, been able to magnify its advantages: “The school, which has won a National Blue Ribbon Award, has such pull among affluent parents that many shop for homes within its boundaries… Once they’re in, parents invest heavily in the school… The parent-teacher association amassed $777,000 last year… The group has funded class trips, theater-workshops, recess monitors, a science teacher, and student laptops… But… (the school’s) abundant resources have led to a shortage of seats.  Even with the building filled above capacity, nearly 100 would-be kindergarteners in the school’s zone had to be placed on a waitlist in 2015.”

What about the poorer school? Our society’s focus on accountability ratings has driven the ruination of the school’s reputation.  Test scores have been low: “Not only were most (students) poor, but nearly one-third had disabilities and almost one-fifth lived in homeless shelters or temporary housing.” And, “In August, after… (a new principal’s) first year… had just ended and her reforms just started, the state branded the school ‘persistently dangerous.’  The label was based on school-reported incidents of student misbehavior, which can range from shoving and bullying to criminal activities.  Some of the incidents dated back to before (the new principal)… arrived.  Teachers said the label was misleading, and pointed to problems with the reporting system (which the state later revamped).  But warranted or not, the designation battered the school’s already weak reputation.”

The battle Wall describes between New York City parents must have been incredibly painful for the parents whose children have hsitorically enrolled in the poorer school, parents who are not really the subject of this article but must have been paying attention as other parents tried to avoid transferring children to the school that serves their own children.  Wall alludes to their pain, quoting one mother: “They say it’s about rezoning… but what they’re worried about is having to integrate with public-housing minority kids.”

Wall summarizes what the wealthier parents are looking for: “The parents wanted a school that was already thriving academically and slush with funding—not one they considered a fixer-upper. The segregation of low-income students of color… had left the school with fewer resources and lower test scores than its neighbors; now privileged parents cited those byproducts of segregation as reasons to avoid the school—thus, maintaining its segregation.”  A state lawmaker representing the New York City neighborhood where the schools are located is quoted about today’s ethos among parents: “Everything’s too competitive. By kindergarten you have to have your kid in ballet and fencing and cooking… It’s too risky now, at least in the eyes of most parents, to sacrifice some years of your child’s education for a greater social good.”

Wall’s story is not entirely pessimistic. A few families being rezoned away from the wealthy school are willing to give the new school a chance, and we know that social change is usually driven by a few leaders.  One parent, impressed with the school’s principal, declared, “Test scores aren’t contagious.”

Wall profiles one of the parents looking to enroll his child in the poorer school: “Among these newcomers, Andrew Chu presented a best-case scenario.  A product manager at a financial-tech firm whose son started pre-K… last fall, he’d joined the school’s leadership team and offered to help start a ‘maker’ program where students could build robots and tinker with 3-D printers.”  With the support of the principal, “Chu began reaching out to MIT professors and a company that sells maker kits… (H)e planned to keep his son… (in the new school) for kindergarten. To him, the entire school was a sort of maker project: A chance to re-imagine what a high-quality education could look like in the 21st century, where student diversity and hands-on learning matter at least as much as test scores and fundraising. ‘I hope I’m not exaggerating,’ he told parents at an open house, ‘but it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really be part of this process.”

Wall examines the court orders and sometimes idealism that drove school integration in the past. He believes that wealthier parents—those with the power to choose—have always been responsible for racial segregation and concentrations of school poverty.  Money has always driven school choice. There is another subtext in Wall’s piece, however, this time about recent public policy. Two decades’ of accountability-driven ranking and rating of schools measured by the yardstick of standardized tests in addition to the kind of branding  he describes—the poor school publicly rated as “persistently-dangerous”—encourage parents to focus on the ratings.  Every time Wall describes wealthy parents visiting the poorer school and talking with the principal and the teachers, the parents are forced to struggle with evidence that classrooms do not confirm the biases they have formed from the ratings assigned. It is especially hard to challenge the ratings, however, because today’s red lining of the poor schools is not, as in the past, merely relegated to real estate marketing, Today rankings and ratings are being assigned ironically by the school school district itself and driven by state and federal policy. Accountability-driven public policy has condemned schools segregated by poverty in a way that discourages desegregation.

Wall concludes: “Today the idea that parents would consider some notion of the common good when deciding on schools can sound quaint; it certainly runs counter to Betsy DeVos’ vision of unrestricted parental choice.”

I Wonder if It Is Possible to Teach a Billionaire Heiress about Opportunity Cost

I learned about opportunity cost as a child, although I had no idea that was the lesson I was being taught. In the spring of 1957, my parents needed to replace our 1947 Dodge.  My sister and I begged my parents to buy a car with four doors, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to get in the back seat, and my father agreed, finally.  But he said that my sister and I would have to pay for what he believed was an extravagant splurge by giving up our allowance for the rest of the year. I don’t imagine we paid for those car doors with seven months’ worth of our dime allowance, but we did learn that in our family where we didn’t have a lot of money, if you really wanted to buy something expensive, you’d probably have to give up something else.

Years later in college when, as an English major, I took Economics 101 as an elective, I was astonished to discover that economists had actually created a name for that rule my father insisted we practice in our family. Very early in the semester, my professor Robert Haveman, taught us the concept of opportunity cost.  He must have believed this is a very basic concept, because in his little economics textbook, The Market System, Professor Haveman describes it on the third page: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose…. The decision is much easier if family income increases, but choice is still necessary. The cost of the new item may be considered the loss of the opportunity to spend that income for other purposes. This is the opportunity cost principle applied to individual consumer behavior.” Haveman continues: “The same principle applies to societies because of the scarcity of means relative to ends.”

Betsy DeVos inherited a fortune from her father’s car-parts company, and I presume that in Betsy DeVos’s family economic choices were easier than in my family—without obvious lessons on opportunity cost.  Maybe there could be not merely one car with four doors, but instead several cars filling a garage with four doors. It has certainly become clear that, as our nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos doesn’t grasp Haveman’s definition of opportunity cost as the concept applies to societies—in this case to school finance.

It happened again last week when DeVos visited the public schools in Van Wert, Ohio. The day after her visit, she had an OpEd column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which she complimented Van Wert’s schools. But after a few paragraphs she quickly forgot about the schools she had visited and began pushing her one idea: parents in Van Wert need more choices.  Here is what her column said: “Van Wert is a good school district. It is meeting the needs of many students. Yet the parents or guardians of nearly 20 percent of students who live within Van Wert’s district lines choose to send their children to a nearby district or to a different option in Van Wert instead.  In doing so, these parents are seeking the education that’s best for their child…. Every parent should have that option.  School choice is pro-parent and pro-student.”  Ohio offers public school districts the option to participate in cross-district open enrollment, through which students can take their state aid to a neighboring school district.  Apparently Van Wert participates in open-enrollment, and some parents in Van Wert transport their children to a neighboring town, though there has been a huge argument in the Ohio press since DeVos’s column was published about whether 20 percent isn’t a highly exaggerated figure for Van Wert’s participation in that program.

Betsy DeVos’s column indicates, however, that she missed the “opportunity cost” lesson Van Wert’s parents and educators tried to teach her. Van Wert, a small town near the Indiana border, is different from the urban, inner-ring, Cleveland suburban school district where my children went through public schools, but we have one thing in common: Ohio’s problematic method of funding schools.  For all of the thirty years I’ve known this system, our legislature has been dominated by people who have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to vote to raise taxes; many of our legislators also take pride in being members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In Ohio, our legislature has set it up so that we do not have unvoted tax increases. All tax increases including school levies must by voted on at the polls. And… in the DeRolph school funding decision, the courts faulted Ohio’s school funding for being “overly reliant on local property tax.”  And… embedded in our state constitution is a local property tax freeze. Our tax freeze means that any school levy cannot ever generate more real dollars for a school district than on the day it passes.  If property appreciates in value, the state rolls back the voted millage to keep the levy amount flat.

This all means that when inflation naturally occurs, and the state fails to increase its contribution, parents in every school district must create and fund a political committee to go out and campaign for the needed tax increase. The levies sometimes fail, and the parents have to try again, and sometimes again and again.  But inflation keeps occurring and when levies fail, school nurses and librarians begin to cover several buildings, and students on high school football teams have to pay to play. When a levy finally passes, it is very often to get back what was lost—to bring back the librarian to every school library, to make football free, to reduce class size in Kindergarten back below 22 students. In this financial climate—the very definition of opportunity cost—it is difficult for a school district afford something new and glitzy, something like the championship robotics team Van Wert’s voters have managed to fund and that we all learned about last week when Betsy DeVos visited Van Wert.  I learned to understand this public example of opportunity cost back between 1988 and 1991 when I organized a grassroots, door-to-door campaign for three school levies—with 700 volunteers each time ringing doorbells to convince neighbors to vote “yes.”  Then in 1993, I co-chaired a successful levy campaign after two failed attempts. Across Ohio, school levy fights, to be successful, have to be constructed to pull the community together on behalf of the public—the community and all of its children.

Erica Green, the NY Times reporter who traveled to Van Wert to cover the Betsy DeVos school visit, listened carefully. While I know she does not have an in-depth understanding of the school funding complexities behind the comments she reports in her article, she captures some of the urgency of the parents and educators who described the dedication of the Van Wert community to its public schools. Green notes the community’s pride in having passed its levies. She describes what Linda Haycock, newly elected from western Ohio to the state school board said to Betsy DeVos: “Spending federal money or any other taxpayer funds on vouchers for private school tuition is looked on harshly… ‘really theft’…  ‘It’s saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it’s really going somewhere else.'”  And Green continues: “Van Wert educators said they believed their biggest threat was school choice. An expanded voucher program would be ‘potentially catastrophic’ for the district’s finances, said Mike Ruen, the district’s treasurer.”

Teachers and school administrators alike carefully explained what would be the implications for Van Wert of the federal budget cuts proposed by DeVos’s Department of Education. Green describes the early childhood literacy specialist telling Betsy DeVos about how any reallocation of Title I funding to support expansion of school choice would undermine a program that helps very poor children with early literacy. Green quotes the school superintendent telling DeVos, “We struggle every day to make ends meet.” Green reports that an elementary school principal told DeVos, “Our funding is the blood, sweat and tears of our community, and we are held accountable for that.”

The parents, teachers, superintendent, and school treasurer in Van Wert were explaining to Betsy DeVos the essence of Professor Haveman’s lesson on the public implications of opportunity cost: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose.” In Ohio, we already have some school choice and we don’t want it expanded.  Our long experiment with vouchers has meant that tax dollars are taken to support private school education. Charter schools—unregulated and out of control in our state—have created another drain on scarce public school resources. And, as we saw in Van Wert, there is also the option for school districts to participate in cross-district open enrollment. When Betsy DeVos preaches about giving all parents a choice to have the education services they desire, I wonder whether she actually understands that sending money away from the public schools to privatized alternatives removes essential services from the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

In a recent column in the Appleton Post-Crescent in Wisconsin—another ALEC-dominated state, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislative majority also adhere to the anti-tax pledge Grover Norquist has encouraged them to sign—Jane Parish Yang, a member of the Fox City Advocates for Public Education, defines the meaning of the public—“how a nation comes into being by shared events and shared values, and how, in our case, a community comes into being with a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ and strength from all young people being educated in order to become productive citizens. The founding citizens of Wisconsin knew that shared, democratic values from a public education open to each and every student would be the basis for the community flourishing because of that shared experience. But what would those same founders make of present-day Wisconsin, in which a segment of the citizenry rejects public schools… and wishes to segregate itself within its own traditions but at public expense? That is what proponents of so-called school choice are asking the public to agree to: we choose, you pay.”

Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

Student Loan Debacle: What Will Be Response from DeVos Department of Education?

The Obama administration had planned to revamp completely the system by which the U.S. Department of Education administers and collects $1.3 trillion in college loans. The service has been terrible and confusing, say consumer advocates, and some of the contractors have been overcharging borrowers with big fees.

Last week the NY Times editorialized: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is inexplicably backing away from rules that are meant to prevent federal student loan borrowers from being fleeced by companies the government pays to collect the loans and to guide people through the repayment process. On Tuesday, she withdrew a sound Obama administration policy that required the Education Department to take into account the past conduct of loan servicing companies before awarding them lucrative contracts—and to include consumer protections in those contracts as well.”  What this all means is that the federal government, as the enormous provider of loans to help students pay for college, contracts out the servicing of those loans to for-profit companies, which can charge fees for their services. The Obama administration had planned to restructure this process, but the Trump administration has now abandoned the Obama administration’s plan.

The NY Times has been investigating, and here is one of its reports on DeVos’s recent action: “With the stroke of a pen… Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s new education secretary, thrust the future of the government’s system for managing federal student loans into confusion. It was a high-stakes move: Her department administers $1.3 trillion in loans on behalf of nearly 43 million student borrowers.  At issue is which companies will handle the bulk of those loans in the future, and how they will do it. Under the Obama administration, the Education Department was on the verge of selecting a single vendor to build a new system for servicing its student loans, in what was expected to be one of the largest federal contracts outside of the military.”

The NY Times reporters, Stacy Cowley and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, provide the background for what is the complicated and poorly understood operation of federal college loans.  Nine different companies have been billing and collecting payments on student loans, but borrowers have complained about poor service: “The Obama administration sought to replace this labyrinthine system with a single entry point—a sea change in how student loan servicing would work. Instead of dealing directly with private vendors, all federal borrowers would gain access to their accounts through an Education Department portal, with standardized forms and processes.”

The Obama administration’s plan was to choose a single contractor, and the Department had been accepting bids. Three finalist companies had emerged from the bidding competition, Navient, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and a joint proposal from Nelnet and Great Lakes.  A primary condition for the selection of the provider was supposed to be the company’s past performance.

This is an enormously complicated story, and it is unclear to me whether we are headed in a worse or better direction. We must watch closely to see whether the DeVos education department improves oversight. It wasn’t entirely clear, however, that the Obama administration’s plan would have eliminated serious abuses by loan collectors. One of its finalists seems questionable.

It is likely that DeVos and her staff are caving in to pressure from the loan companies’ lobbyists.  Bloomberg reporter Shahien Nasiripour reports: “DeVos formally withdrew the Obama memos. The previous administration’s approach, DeVos said, was inconsistent and full of shortcomings.  She didn’t detail how the moves fell short…. DeVos’s move comes a week after one of the student loan industry’s main lobbies asked for Congress’s  help in delaying or substantially changing the Education Department’s loan servicing plans. In a pair of April 4 letters to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees, the National Council of Higher Education Resources said there were too many unanswered questions….”

But there is also a big problem with one of the companies the Obama administration had chosen as a finalist for the contract as sole loan collector.  Navient has a long history as the collector of sub-prime, disreputable loans made by the company which spun it off in 2014. An earlier investigation by the same two NY Times reporters—Cowley and Silver-Greenberg— surfaced serious problems: “In recent months the student loan giant Navient, which was spun off from Sallie Mae in 2014 and retained nearly all of the company’s loan portfolio, has come under fire for aggressive and sloppy loan collection practices, which led to a set of government lawsuits filed in January. But those accusations have overshadowed broader claims, detailed in two state lawsuits filed by the attorneys general in Illinois and Washington, that Sallie Mae engaged in predatory lending, extending billions of dollars in private loans to students… (loans) that should never have been made in the first place.”

Investopedia explains the history of Sallie Mae—once involved with government student loans, but today a private for-profit: “Sallie Mae is a private lender, so its direct loans are not federal loans. Basically federal student loans consist of money provided by the U.S. government, while private student loans come from entities such as banks and other financial institutions. There are also instances in which private entities work as loan servicers for certain federal loans on behalf of the government… Up until October 13, 2014, Sallie Mae, while generally known as a private lender, worked as a loan servicer for two federal student loans: the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program. On that date, Sallie Mae split into two separate companies, and the portion of the company that was in charge of federal loan servicing became its own company, known as Navient.  From that point forward, Sallie Mae has only originated private student loans.” In 2014, when Sallie Mae spun off Navient—which is also a publicly traded, for-profit—Navient became the largest servicer of federal student loans and one of the nine loan collectors with a contract from the U.S. Department of Education.

Cowley and Silver-Greenberg raise serious concerns about subprime student loans originated by Sallie Mae, loans originated while Sallie Mae was fully aware that students would likely eventually default because the education programs for which students borrowed were not really preparing them for jobs: “New details unsealed last month in the state lawsuits against Navient shed light on how Sallie Mae used private subprime loans—some of which it expected to default at rates as high as 92 percent—as a tool to build its business relationship with colleges and universities across the country.  From the outset, the lender knew that many borrowers would be unable to repay, government lawyers say, but it still made the loans, ensnaring students in debt traps that have dogged them for more than a decade. While these risky loans were a bad deal for students, they were a boon for Sallie Mae. The private loans were—as Sallie Mae itself put it—-a ‘baited hook’ that the lender used to reel in more federally guaranteed loans, according to an internal strategy memo cited in the Illinois lawsuit.”  Remember that before 2014, Sallie Mae itself was a primary servicer of student loans.

Illinois and Washington are now suing Navient—still collecting as Fannie Mae’s spinoff—in an effort to get shady, subprime Sallie Mae loans forgiven: “The attorneys general in Illinois and Washington—backed by a coalition of those in 27 other states, who participated in a three-year investigation of student lending abuses—want those private loans forgiven.  In a pair of cases that could affect hundreds of thousands of borrowers, they have sued Navient. The lawsuits cover private subprime loans made from 2000 to 2009.”  The reporters add: “Navient, which is based in Wilmington, Del., has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting the lawsuits. It does not originate any loans itself, but when it split off from Sallie Mae, it kept most of Sallie Mae’s existing loans. It collects payments from some 12 million people—about one in four student loan borrowers.”

In a 2008 after a regulatory crackdown, according to the NY Times reporters,  Sallie Mae discontinued originating subprime student loans, but, Navient, the company it spun off in 2014, is still continuing to collect  money owed from decades old borrowing by students.  The reporters compare the student loan debacle to the subprime mortgage crisis: “These cases have parallels to the mortgage crisis that helped drive the American economy into recession, both in scope—borrowers in the United states owe $1.4 trillion on student loans—and in the details of the misdeeds claimed.  Working together, the lenders and (mostly for-profit) colleges were preying on a vital part of the American dream….”

Clearly the Obama administration’s effort to redesign loan collection and at the same time increase oversight was a very good thing. We should give the Obama U.S. Department of Education credit for pressuring Sallie Mae to spin off its division that processed government loans from Sallie Mae’s own private, for-profit origination of too-often predatory student loans. At the same time we should suspect that DeVos and her department are stepping back for all the wrong reasons from further regulating the private contractors who collect on student loans. It does seem, however, that Navient, one of the three finalists selected by the Obama education department, would have been the wrong choice to be the federal government’s sole federal student loan collector.

High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

Public Schools Transformed by Stable Leadership, Challenging Curriculum and Caring Relationships

Recently I listened online to a lecture sponsored by the American Educational Research Association in which Dr. Charles Payne, a sociologist and professor of urban education at the University of Chicago explains what public schools can do to help their students thrive academically even despite what we know are the constraints posed when their families and their neighborhoods are extremely poor.  Poverty, Payne says, poses enormous challenges to children’s thriving at school, but if the curriculum is extremely challenging and the children are known by the adults at the school and feel supported by these relationships, many children can thrive academically.

Payne documents his address from the academic research literature, but what might be seen as a case study for his theory of school improvement appeared in Sunday’s NY Times: an article by David Kirp, the University of California at Berkeley public policy professor who has been visiting public schools in the Union Public School District, located in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Beneath the improvements in Union Public School District—how the District has made its curriculum more rigorous and created a web of relationships that support students—Kirp highlights an additional factor that usually gets less attention. The superintendent who transformed and strengthened this school district retired in 2013 after 19 years and the new superintendent isn’t looking to move on.

In contrast to the theory of disruption that has pervaded corporate school reform and that is also at the heart of Betsy DeVos’s belief in privatization is stable, deliberate, and incremental school improvement. Kirp explains: “Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix.  The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students.  This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better. Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district.  And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere… with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

Christa McAuliffe Elementary boasts a STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering and math—for all students.  Kirp describes a 7-year-old who, like his classmates, has developed an algorithm for a video game. The teacher has prescribed the conditions the algorithm must produce: “(A) cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, ‘Aw.'”  Emily Limm, the director of the STEM program, tells Kirp the district offers STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted: “It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes. Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

Over a decade ago, in 2004, the district also undertook to make its schools full-service, wraparound Community Schools: “These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities—art, music, science, sports, tutoring—that middle-class families routinely provide.  They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

Kirp emphasizes the stability for students: “Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps.  For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity… But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.”

You can read Kirp’s article to learn about the improvements in test scores, attendance, and the high school graduation rate.  The important point, in addition to the strong curriculum and the web of personal connections that make all students feel known at school, is that the school district’s accomplishments have not come from some kind of quick turnaround.  Kirp quotes Cathy Burden who led the district for 19 years prior to her retirement in 2013: “None of this happened overnight. We were very intentional—we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic—it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Are Charter CEOs Being Purely Altruistic in Their Demand for More Federal Support for Public Schools?

What’s happening here?  The leaders of 20 of the nation’s charter school networks, including Achievement First, Aspire, Breakthrough, Green Dot, KIPP, Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep published a letter in USA Today demanding that the Trump administration must change its budget priorities to be more supportive of traditional public schools.  Trump’s proposed budget expands by 50 percent the funding for the federal Charter Schools Program to stimulate the startup of new charter schools.  So why are these charter school providers complaining and why are they demanding more money for traditional public schools?

Here is some of what they said in their letter: “(W)e see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts… But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools… We realize that expressing concerns about a budget that benefits our schools might seem counterintuitive.  But we want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy.”

What’s behind this attack of altruism?  What has caused the CEOs of some of the biggest and best known charter school networks to become advocates for federal funding for the very public schools we’ve been taught by Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos to believe charters need to improve by competing with them in an education marketplace?

Well, for one thing, even though they rarely admit it, charter schools depend on their host public school systems to survive. Their mission is to provide escapes for some children from what they call “failing” public schools, but they count on their host school district to provide the special education services and English language instruction for the children they don’t serve. Charter schools don’t have to serve all children; they can “counsel out” the students who are not comfortable in their school culture—students whose behavior they struggle to manage—students who are too often truant—students whose low test scores are undermining their school’s ratings. The public school district provides the escape valve for the children the charters won’t or can’t serve. And in lots of places public schools provide really basic services like school bus transportation to charter schools.

Another reality that has suddenly become a concern for the charter ssector is that, after several years of rapid expansion of the number of charter schools, that growth is slowing.  Robin Lake, a supporter of the expansion of charter schools at the Center on Reinventing Public Education explains: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school year, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent. This year is not an anomaly. So what is going on?”

Why is growth in the number of charter schools slowing?  In a follow-up article, Lake explores the reasons: “There are several plausible explanations for this slowdown. The politics of the charter school movement have taken an increasingly hostile turn of late… Some states, like Massachusetts, took a cautious but high-quality approach to charter school growth. Other states bent to political winds early on and refused to allow anyone other than a school district to approve charter schools. Still others starved charters of funding or access to facilities… It ‘s also true that bureaucratic hurdles have increased even without hostile political pressure. Charter authorizers, the agencies responsible for charter school approval, oversight, and closing, have been getting increasingly choosier. The goal has been to increase the quality of schools—and rightly so—but the result is a much costlier and sometimes prohibitive process for applicants who lack serious financial backing and connections. In many states, applicants are expected to invest a year or more in planning, have a facility secured, and demonstrate strong community support… CMOs (charter management organizations) have relied on Teach for America as their primary labor source, but that well is running dry… CMOs are increasingly asked to turn around low-performing neighborhood schools and address high expulsion and low special education numbers, all while trying to perform well on tougher new Common Core-aligned tests… In short, well-intentioned efforts to address quality and improve equity may be significantly slowing charter school growth, just as fear of increased growth by opponents intensifies. The combination may soon bring charter growth to a halt unless something changes.”

It is heartening to see that a charter advocate like Robin Lake realizes that growing push-back from advocates for strong public schools is having an impact.  Charter schools were launched by those who said the schools ought to be free from regulation, but over the years, concern has grown in communities watching unscrupulous charter operators enriching themselves while their schools flounder.  States have watched rip-offs on an unprecedented scale as owners of for-profit charter management companies and the e-school charters invest in political contributions to legislators who then fail to provide for urgently needed oversight to prevent fraud and corruption. Public school districts have found themselves trying to catch up students returning to their schools far behind peers who remained in traditional schools. Under pressure, states have been increasing regulation.

And there has been growing push-back against what happens in particular school districts—against the school closures that result when a mass of charters in a neighborhood empty out a neighborhood school while parents try out school choice. The district responds by closing the neighborhood school, but when the charter schools flounder, there is no public alternative to which children can return. Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who has watched this process and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (an organization of grassroots community organizations in 24 U.S. cities) delineates in more detail how charter schools undermine neighborhood public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Brown writes: “(T)hese privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Last October, leaders of the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, ratified a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Charter schools have now been around for over two decades and academic research has finally begun to catch up with the need to understand the impact of charter school privatization, particularly the effect of these new schools on the public school districts where charter schools have been rapidly opened. Some researchers have noted that rapidly expanding charters may be functioning as parasites killing their host.  In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the test scores posted by their own students but instead by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to undermine the provision of education by their host public school systems: “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.”

With a mass of evidence published in local newspapers about growing academic and fiscal problems in particular charter schools, with reporting by the national press of academic and fiscal abuses by some of the big charter management organizations and the huge online academies, with resistance from community organizers and the NAACP in the very urban communities where charter schools have rapidly expanded, and with growing pushback from the research community, it is not surprising that charter supporters and the CEOs of the chains of charter schools might be worried.

Their letter this week that endorses more federal funding for traditional public schools probably describes an awareness among charter school leaders that, even though they like to believe their schools are independent, their futures are inextricably connected to their host school districts. It also may reflect their own need to present themselves in a positive light at a time when the public is becoming aware that public schools in many places have been hurt by the rapid growth of charter schools.

Those of us who worry about the threat of privatization to the institution of public education need to keep up the pressure.