False Claims and Fraud Keep on Surfacing in the Charter School Sector

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are fans of the marketplace. Privatizing education is their thing.  That is why it is so useful to consult some experts—in this case Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists who, in their newest book American Amnesia, warn about problems with marketplace thinking:

“That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries. The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes…. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t (education, infrastructure, courts, basic scientific research); reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account such as shared knowledge; (and) regulate the market to protect consumers and investors….”  (American Amnesia, pp. 4-5)

Trump and DeVos extol the free hand of the market despite what we learn week after week about negative spillover costs and self-dealing when charter operators are tempted by pots of government money and inadequate oversight. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss introduces a new report from Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, with this bit of background: “President Trump’s first federal budget proposal seeks a $168 million increase for charter schools, which is a 50 percent funding increase from the current level set by the previous Obama administration… A 2016 audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department—which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters—had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.”

Burris’s report, which Strauss then reprints in full, examines a chain of charter schools well-known for its high test scores. But, as we learn, there is something fishy going on: “One of the best illustrations of the ‘non-public’ nature of charters is the much heralded BASIS charter schools that began in Arizona, a state with extremely lax charter laws. A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made—all hidden from public view.”  BASIS schools were started up by two economists in Tucson, expanded to Scottsdale, and later to Texas and Washington, D.C. Boasting a curriculum based on Advanced Placement classes and tests, they have been highly acclaimed for their rigor.

Hacker and Pierson use the economist’s term—negative externalities— for negative spillover costs or negative side-effects which are costs to society that may not be noticed or may be forgotten, whether the charter is launched by the visionary educator or by the crafty profit-maker seeking to educate children privately at public expense. The test scores of the students at a particular charter school are the yardstick society most commonly uses to judge the school, but what about the side-effects on society that may be much broader than the experiences of one group of children inside the school?  As Trump and DeVos seek to privatize more schools, what are some cautions that ought to be considered due to the negative externalities associated with the charter sector as it stands today?

One negative externality at BASIS is that the schools do not serve all children, as public schools are required to do.  BASIS schools have managed to imbalance their student populations to ensure that their students are very high test-scorers: “The proportional over-enrollment of Asian-American students and under-enrollment of Latino students at BASIS charter schools is startling. But differences in the students served do not end with race and ethnicity.  In 2015-16, (in Arizona) only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners.  And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none…. (I)t chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program… Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools—along with the lack of a free-lunch program—discourages disadvantaged students from applying.”

Another  negative externality  is that the school shapes its student body by failing to admit enrollees after middle school: “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school. Students must take six Advanced Placement exams and pass at least one with a score of 3 or above in order to graduate. However, they are required to take more AP classes than that, beginning in middle school. There are comprehensive tests that must be passed or students are retained (in grade)… Even after getting into BASIS, however, there is less than a 50 percent chance the students will stay to graduate. During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands. Like the ‘no-excuses’ charter schools found in cities, the attrition rates at BASIS middle and high schools are extraordinarily high. Of a cohort of 85 students who began eighth grade in BASIS Flagstaff during the 2011-12 school year, only 41 percent (35) remained to enter twelfth grade in 2015-16. In the flagship school, BASIS Tucson North, a seventh-grade class of 130 became a class of 54 by senior year. The same pattern exists in every BASIS charter high school in the state.”

Burris also explains a third negative externality—the profits being made (at public expense via the tax dollars BASIS schools collect) by Olga and Michael Block, who started BASIS and then turned management over to the for-profit, limited liability company that they now own and that operates BASIS. Because the company is private, their salaries cannot be discerned, but there is some indication of profits being made. As Burris reports: “According to a 2015 study by the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, BASIS schools spent an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while the average public district spent just $628 per pupil.”

Beyond correcting for mere side-effects of running separate systems side-by-side for educating children—the public system and then systems of charters and vouchers—there is the danger of fraud and self-dealing when privatized schools operate without adequate oversight and regulation. This week’s example is, finally after years’ of investigation, the arrest of Benford Chavis, who operated a charter chain—the American Indian Model Schools—in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chavis “faces six felony counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Chavis allegedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools.  The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned… Chavis faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of mail fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering.” Chavis has been under investigation since 2013,  is no longer associated with the schools, and now lives in Lumberton, North Carolina. He is said to have been a controversial presence in the schools he operated: “Students were often publicly humiliated and forced to attend Saturday school and detention. Chavis drew both national scorn and praise for his tactics.”

Michelle Rhee coined the attack on public school teachers and administrators—that they prioritize adult interests and fail to put students first. Benford Chavis is an example of a more common phenomenon: charter operators who put profits first. He is said to have engaged in overtly criminal behavior. But in too many cases, self-interested operators stay just inside the law or prevent adequate oversight by investing in contributions to the legislators who would have to enact regulations to prevent both negative externalities and self-dealing.

Unlike Trump and DeVos, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson believe government itself is best suited to educate our society’s children: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic and civic outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.” (American Amnesia, p. 65)

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.”

What Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Means for Children at School and their Teachers

Contrary to the widespread popular belief that learning is absorbing a body information and that computers can accomplish the task of pouring in material as well as human teachers, teachers know that knowledge is constructed, primarily through human relationship and the connection between the student and teacher and student and student.

Here is Alfie Kohn explaining learning theory: “Superb teachers strive constantly to imagine how things look from the child’s point of view… (K)nowledge is constructed rather than absorbed: we form beliefs, build theories, make order. We act on the environment rather than just responding to it—and we do it naturally and continually. It’s part of who we are. Learning isn’t a matter of acquiring new information and storing it on top of the information we already have. It’s a matter of coming across something unexpected, something that can’t easily be explained by those theories we’ve already developed. To resolve that conflict, we have to change what we previously believed.  We have to reorganize our way of understanding to accommodate the new reality we’ve just encountered…  Some would call… (the) teacher a ‘facilitator ‘ of learning, but she doesn’t facilitate ‘in the sense of making smooth or easy’; rather, she stimulates learning ‘by making problems more complex, involving, and arousing.’  She artfully complicates the situation, challenging the children to think harder and better.” (The Schools Our Children Deserve, pp. 131-135)

For learning to happen, as Kohn describes it, children need to be intellectually and emotionally present at school in order to learn.  I have been reflecting on what I know about how schools help children learn while I’ve been reading the news reports about President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown on people who live in the United States without documentation.

Anya Kamenetz describes the new immigration policies in a short piece for National Public Radio: “Under the new directives issued in February by the Trump administration, anyone with deportation orders already issued, and anyone convicted of even a minor crime like a traffic offense, can be targeted for immediate removal.  This is a change from the Obama administration’s policy, when suspected gang members and felons received the highest priority from law enforcement.”  The problem for public schools is that many of the people who risk detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deportation are parents of children in public schools.

Public schools are required to educate all children living in the United States and not to require families to declare their immigration status.  The Associated Press explains: “Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler vs. Doe, K-12 public institutions are not allowed to ask for the documentation status of any child.”  Plyler vs. Doe guarantees all children, whether or not they or their parents have legal immigration status, the right to a free, public education.  It is difficult to know exactly how many families and children are affected because schools may not collect the data, but the Pew Research Center has made estimates, which were recently reported by Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The Pew Research Center estimates 3.9 million schoolchildren had an unauthorized immigrant parent in 2014—or 7.3 percent of all schoolchildren. About 725,000 of those children were unauthorized immigrants themselves.”

While the Department of Homeland Security has declared that schools are off limits to ICE agents, and that neither children nor their parents may be detained inside the school, anxiety has become acute among children and their families. Even children who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens may have parents without legal immigration papers. These children risk being suddenly separated from their parents. Schools are scrambling to provide guidance to frightened parents and emotional support for children who may be too upset to learn. Balingit and Brown quote Virginia’s state school superintendent of public instruction: “‘Our goal is to get children in school and have then engage in learning,’ said Steven R. Staples… ‘A frightened child doesn’t learn much.’  He also said the state doesn’t want children ‘to be missing days of school because of concerns about immigration status.'”

Cities and school districts seem to be responding in different ways to the need to try to reassure parents and children. Boston has responded warmly and proactively. Even though children’s rights are protected by the Plyler vs. Doe decision, Boston has reached out farther to be supportive.  On March 8, the city council passed a resolution granting the Boston Public Schools sanctuary status: “The resolution forbids federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from entering BPS property without explicit permission from Superintendent Tommy Chang and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. It also prevents BPS from requiring proof of legal immigration prior to enrollment, and recommends BPS refuse all voluntary sharing of information with ICE to the fullest extent possible under law.” The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh released a public statement: “We are committed to making sure students and families of all cultural backgrounds succeed, and feel safe and welcome in their schools and neighborhoods.” Boston Public Schools just launched a new website, bpswedreamtogether.org, that provides information about immigration issues in fifteen languages. The Boston Globe describes almost half of Boston’s 57,000 public school students as speaking a primary language at home other than English.

In January New York, the schools chancellor Carman Farina sent a letter to the families of the district’s more than one million students to reassure them that the schools cannot keep records of a family’s immigration status and that ICE agents may not roam the schools. Politico New York Education reported yesterday that on Tuesday, NYC updated its protocols to further limit access of ICE to the city’s 1,800 public schools.  In her piece for NPR, Anya Kamenetz describes a meeting convened by Christian Rodriguez, a parent coordinator in a PreK-8 school in the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a school that is more than 80 percent Hispanic.  Rodriguez describes “children crying in the classroom, crying in my office… When I ask them, ‘Why are you crying?,’ they have expressed to me that they don’t want their moms to be apprehended and taken away from them.”  To the meeting Rodriguez convened to reassure parents, she brought attorneys and community workers who, “advised attendees to be prepared: Don’t drive with burned-out taillights.  Don’t exceed the speed limit.  If you have an attorney, carry his or her business card at all times.  If ICE… comes to your home or stops you on the street, they are allowed to call themselves ‘police.’ But they can’t come inside your home or car without a warrant unless you invite them in. You are allowed to ask for a warrant and to make them slip the warrant under the door.”

The Huffington Post reports on a school in Austin, Texas where teachers—told they were forbidden to take a political stance—felt they couldn’t discuss the issue of immigration in their classrooms, but they could invite children write about and draw their feelings. When the reporter visited the school, an immigration sweep had just led to dozens of arrests nearby. The reporter interviews teachers anonymously because they believe they are forbidden to speak. The teachers describe their students’ dilemmas: “ICE operations in front of a local H-E-B supermarket had left some students too nervous to go shopping. Rather than venture outside and exposing themselves or their parents to ICE, they’re making do with what they have to eat in the house… Some parents worry that ICE agents will follow them if they take their kids to class. ‘What we’re seeing is a lot of parents who used to pick up their children from school and now they’re sending them on the bus,’ a teacher told HuffPost. ‘The parents are afraid to come to the school.'”

In Colorado Springs, the atmosphere described by the Associated Press reporter is more tense.  A spokesperson for the Harrison School District 2, describes the schools as places that “legally cannot deny access to public education, whether a student or parent is residing here legally or not… Public schools also cannot give legal advice or stand in the way of law enforcement, and have to remain politically unbiased.”  The school district sent home a letter that lists services to help families with immigration problems.  But the reporter also profiles a white parent who is closely watching to be sure the school district doesn’t go too far to support families who may be undocumented: “Harrison parent Thompson said he doesn’t think it’s the job of public school administrators to ‘comfort illegal immigrants.’ ‘People are raising an eyebrow about this.'” Thompson says he is concerned that perhaps undocumented parents are even being allowed to serve as volunteers at the school.

The majority of reports in the press, however, have been compassionate—emphasizing what the immigration crackdown means for children—and for the teachers who know that it is almost impossible for children to thrive at school and to engage with their teachers and their fellow students in the active process of learning if they are constantly frightened.  Here is Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration studies in New York, commenting on the psychological impact of Trump’s policy on millions of children: “It’s difficult to think of a crueler fate for a child than to see their parent deported.  It’s like their world turns upside down on them.  Studies show they mourn, have trouble sleeping, their eating patterns change. Some cannot concentrate in school, they’re fearful and some withdraw, while other act out in anger. Beyond losing a parent, they’re often dealing with the sorrow and distress of another adult, typically a second parent.”

School Funding: A Moral, Not a Fiscal Problem

Taxes are merely a tool by which governments can fund the services needed in a good society.  Today instead, as the Freedom Caucus dominates the House of Representatives and Donald Trump sets sets the agenda, taxes and government are seen as the enemy—something to eliminate.  Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform and who has convinced a mass of state legislators to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, is famous for his declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In the eyes of many of today’s politicians, tax policy has become not a tool of government but a goal in itself along with the goal of reducing the programs and services the government provides.

Some of the services tax cutters want to eliminate are provided by public schools.  Even before President Donald Trump announced his budget outline last week, federal funding for schools had declined because many in Congress have prioritized tax cutting. In October 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the two largest funding streams for K-12 public schools have been growing smaller. Funding for Title I, the program for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty dropped 8.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2010 and 2016 and funding to support federally mandated programs for special education dropped 6.4 percent (again adjusted for inflation).

If tax reduction were merely a federal malaise, it would not be so serious for schools, for federal funds pay for merely 10 percent of school funding, with the bulk of the money roughly split between states and local school districts. But because schools make up one of the the biggest budget lines in every state, tax slashing by the state legislative endorsers of Norquist’s pledge is definitely affecting public schools. That is why we are seeing more and more reports like this one about school districts in rural and small towns instituting four-day school weeks.  When states cut the budget and federal programs are also reduced, local school districts can either raise millage or cut programs.

School funding problems continue on display during this state budget season. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) released a white paper documenting that again this year Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget fails to fulfill the state’s commitment under the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision to fund schools adequately under the standards of New York’s constitution. AQE condemns Cuomo’s recent budget proposal: “The 2017-18 Executive Budget repeals and does not replace the Foundation Aid formula, and would return New York State to the pre-CFE era when political machinations and arbitrary formulas guided the distribution of school aid—without regard for student need.”  In a new lawsuit, parents in three New York school districts have also just demanded that an appeals court release funds that had already been allocated to their school districts but that have been frozen by another court: “On December 28, 2016, Judge Kimberly O’Connor in Albany found that the budget director exceeded his legal authority in withholding the grants and ordered the funds be immediately released… for distribution to support vital programs at the schools.”  But, “Governor Cuomo decided to appeal Judge O’Connor’s ruling last month. Under New York law, the appeal triggers an automatic stay of the order to release the funds.”  The school districts list the services they cannot afford to provide without the funds: social work and counseling, family outreach, academic interventions, professional development, and extended learning time.”

And in Illinois—where weeks ago Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to send $215 million that had already been promised by the state to help the Chicago Public Schools avert bankruptcy—Rauner has finally agreed to release the funds, but only if legislators will redo the state’s pension system.  Rauner is holding Chicago’s children and teachers hostage.  A reporter for Chicago’s DNA Info describes  Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s response to Rauner’s pension reform ransom demand: “The legislation would require public sector employees to give up ‘pension benefits in return for a one-time fix for CPS and no guarantee the state will offer the same assistance next year or any other year.” While there is politics involved in all this wrangling, experts document that Illinois imposes a structurally flawed funding system on Chicago and other poor school districts. The Education Law Center has identified Illinois school funding as among the nation’s most inequitable and has identified Chicago as chronically among “the most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation.”

Kansas is the state where relief suddenly seems possible. Ironically Donald Trump himself may intervene (sort of) in the school funding crisis. It has been reported that Trump may be appointing Governor Sam Brownback to a post with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where Brownback would coordinate the work of agencies involved in food and agriculture. Yesterday the NY Times editorialized: “Kansas can only hope that reports are true that the Trump administration will let… (Kansas’s) governor, Sam Brownback, escape the disaster he created in Topeka….”  The editorial continues: “Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived. The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30.”  The NY Times describes Kansas families as “experiencing the deepening budget crisis firsthand in shortened school hours and resources as the state suffered two credit downgrades. Public protest led to a number of Brownback loyalists voted out last year, with legislative newcomers igniting a budget revolt against the governor.”

We can only hope for Brownback’s departure through the confirmation of the Trump appointment to Rome. But there is some question about what would happen then. It is to be hoped that if he becomes governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also a fiscal conservative, will not veto—as Brownback last month vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to increase taxes by $1 billion over two years—the necessary revenue to support the state’s schools.

In Final Test, a book written long before our country faced today’s army of tax slashers—President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Congressional Budget Office Director Mick Mulvaney and the members of the House Freedom Caucus—Peter Schrag, the retired editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, ruminated about the decades-long California school funding crisis following the passage of Proposition 13 and the role of the courts in trying to rectify legislative failures to fund schools. In chapters on school finance court battles in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and New York, Schrag ponders a question that is more timely today than it was when his book was published in 2003: “Court decisions—particularly those that seem to require states to provide ever-richer resources to under-performing children—will almost certainly run into increasing political resistance, on both financial and equity grounds. To what extent are middle-income and affluent voters, the people who come to the polls, willing to send their local and state tax dollars to support extra resources for other people’s children, especially if they’re poor, black, or Latino?” (p.238)

Of course, that is what the social contract is all about. School finance is not so much a fiscal as a moral issue.

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Congress Has Just Done Away with ESSA Accountability Rules: This Is Not a Tragedy

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a new reauthorization of the 1965 federal education law. NCLB imposed test-based accountability on all of America’s public schools. Because NCLB and its punitive, test-and-punish mechanism became so controversial, it took nearly 15 years for Congress to agree on what was supposed to be its routine five-year reauthorization. Finally late in 2015, Congress came up with a replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it really left much of NCLB intact—including annual high-stakes standardized testing and a sanctions-based—instead of a school improvement, investment-based—strategy for improving public education.

In new 2017 academic evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reports, “Perhaps the most positive aspect of NCLB is that it generated huge amounts of data on student achievement in math and reading… A second positive component of NCLB, especially in the eyes of civil rights groups, is that schools are held accountable not only for the aggregate test scores of their students but also for the average test scores of subgroups of students whom they might otherwise ignore… A third arguably positive element of NCLB was its requirement that all teachers be ‘highly qualified.'”  In reality, however, there were serious problems with all these three things Ladd calls the law’s accomplishments. First another national test without high-stakes and punishments—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—already gathers plenty of data about our schools; second, NCLB never succeeded, as intended, in improving the achievement of the students in the subgroups it was supposed to help; and third, the law’s requirements for teachers, which later under the Obama administration, came to include strategies to fire teachers who couldn’t raise scores fast enough, have left the teaching profession demoralized.

Ladd also summarizes what she believes were the law’s serious flaws: “An initial problem with the test-based accountability of NCLB is that it is based on too narrow a view of schooling… NCLB… has narrowed the curriculum by shifting instruction time toward tested subjects and away from others… Further, NCLB has led to a narrowing of what happens within the math and reading instructional programs themselves… NCLB also encouraged teachers to narrow the groups of students they attend to… A second flaw is that NCLB was highly unrealistic and misguided in its expectations… A third major flaw is that NCLB placed significant pressure on individual schools to raise student achievement without providing the support needed to assure that all students had an opportunity to learn to the higher standards.”

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB didn’t really change most of these problems. It was still a test-and-punish law even though it turned responsibility over to the states to design the sanctions.  States were required to create their own school accountability plans and then get them approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Obama Department of Education under Secretary John King spent last year writing and implementing rules for how the states are supposed to proceed with their required ESSA plans, and currently, a little over a year after the law’s passage, the states are in the process of developing the plans which they are supposed to submit to the U.S. Department of Education either in April or next September.

Except that Congress just threw out the rules. The House acted in February, and the Senate just voted last week, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to eliminate the Obama administration’s ESSA accountability rules.  It is expected that President Trump will sign the legislation.

And actually not a great many people are upset.  That is because NCLB and ESSA have been so misguided and so unpopular.

Here is how Dana Goldstein, in the NY Times, describes some of the rules Congress just eliminated: “The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming.  The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.  Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was the one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.”  I believe the state report cards are a terrible idea, as they are almost guaranteed to produce low rankings for the schools in the poorest communities.  And there are a couple of problems with what’s called “the 95 percent rule.” The rule was very likely designed to prevent schools from sending home on test day the students likely to post low scores—English learners or students lagging academically, for example. But the same rule is also said to be aimed at preventing parents from opting their children out of testing as a protest. ESSA says it permits opting out, but the 95 percent rule seems contrary to what the ESSA law itself says.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, further explains changes in the 95 Percent rule : “Under the NCLB law, schools that didn’t meet that (95 percent) threshold automatically failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress,’ or AYP.  Under ESSA, there’s no such thing as AYP.  So states get to decide how to factor test participation into a school’s overall rating… The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn’t meet the 95 percent threshold.  The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school’s overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement… Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 percent of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don’t meet that target.”

If this still sounds to you like too much worrying about test-and-punish and ranking and rating schools, you are not alone.  Here is Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who blogs under the name Curmudgucation: “Lamar Alexander pointed forcefully at the rules hidden under the desk blotter and said, ‘Get that junk out of here.’ This week featured an assortment of testimonials both in favor of and opposed to the regulations. Conservative voices strongly favored the end of those regulations, finding them too restrictive and not allowing for states to opt out of the whole business. Well, some conservative voices—other conservative voices said, ‘Let’s keep at least some of them.’  Other voices said, ‘Hey, the history of States Rights when it comes to education is not exactly a history fraught with great success.’ And a smattering of voices said, ‘Good God—when Congress changes the rules every six months, it makes it really hard to run actual school systems.’  As I said at the top, there are no heroes to root for in this movie. The Obama regulations were far over and above the actual law and simply attempted to extend the same failed, unsupportable policies of the past fifteen years; they needed to go away. The regulations we get in their place will most likely provide the freedom for wholesale abuse, fraud, and social injustice in education….”

Diane Ravitch used her blog post on this matter to sound like the academic historian that is her identity at New York University: “No Child Left Behind introduced an unprecedented level of federal control of education, a function traditionally left to the states. The federal contribution of about 10% of overall education funding enabled the government via NCLB to set conditions, specifically to require that every child in grades 3-8 must be tested in reading and math every year. Based on test scores, teachers and principals have been fired, and schools have been closed for not reaching unrealistic targets. NCLB was an intrusive, misguided, evidence-free law that was uninformed by knowledge of children, communities and pedagogy. Arne Duncan twisted the screws on schools with his absurd Race to the Top. Education is not a race, and there is no top.  But once again the standardized tests became the measure and the purpose of education. After 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, there is a great deal of wreckage, demoralized teachers, and widespread teacher shortages. And if the point of all that testing was to reach the top of international tests and/or close the achievement gaps among groups it didn’t happen.”

We shall have to wait to see what Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education does about re-creating any rules and also what her staff does about enforcement. Bigger issues remain, however, than the ESSA rules. President Trump has said he will expand military spending with deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.  Programs threatened by these plans may be Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Protecting these programs must be a priority for those of us who worry about serving America’s most vulnerable students. And then there is  Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s other priority: privatizing education. These, not the ESSA regulations, are the key concerns.

Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society.”

You will notice that I did not mention the issue of school funding in the title of this post. Neither did I mention the name of the state that is the subject of the post. While I cannot tell exactly who is reading this blog, WordPress statistics tell me which posts are viewed, and I know that school funding is a topic people don’t like to read about—especially if it is in somebody else’s state.

School funding is not a taboo subject, however, if the fight is happening in your state. If we are parents, we know that what’s at stake is a class size of 32 children for third grade, or the presence of a school nurse, or an elementary school library that is staffed and unlocked. We know that the number of college counselors at the high school and the presence of the marching band or the orchestra might be at stake. We also know what pay-to-play means in a school-specific context where fees to play football or run track are threatened if the school funding is reduced. This is all pretty much invisible to other people, however. Because schools are buildings most of us rarely enter, we cannot see how money translates directly into services for children.

I hope that introduction is enough to make you feel obligated to finish reading this post, because I believe it is about some of the most important concerns for our society.  Do we feel an obligation to help the children in our nuclear family succeed or do we have an obligation to all children and the role of their education for our broader society? Do we somehow really believe that education is a competitive, zero sum game and that if other children win, our own children will lose? Are we willing to spend some of what we have earned to support the institutions of our community and our state?  Is cutting taxes more important than anything else?  Do we really believe deep in our hearts: “I earned it so I should get to keep it!”?

This post is—yet again—about Kansas. Kansas matters because what Kansas does about its tax cuts and its state budget and its school funding is really about the issues in many states. And what’s the matter with Kansas is also the problem in our Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act and the impact of Congressional freezes like the Sequester on the federal budget.

You’ll remember that Governor Sam Brownback just vetoed a state budget that would have increased taxes to raise $1 billion over the next two years to help remedy years of budget shortfalls that have resulted from his income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.  Brownback has dreamed that his experiment in income tax slashing would grow the state’s economy, but economic growth has not followed.

You may remember that a school funding inequity decision from the Kansas Supreme Court last year sent some additional money to Kansas’ poorest school districts. You may also remember that a school funding adequacy case, Gannon v. State of Kansas, has been making its way through the courts.

You may have forgotten that the anti-taxers in Kansas have been so desperate to save money they first tried (unsuccessfully) to pass a constitutional amendment to make school funding solely a legislative matter over which the courts had no jurisdiction. When that failed, and because court justices face retention elections every six years in Kansas, money was spent on campaigns to defeat four of the justices who have supported increased funding for public education. But all the justices targeted by the anti-taxers were reelected last November.  And a sizeable number of moderates who are not so committed to tax slashing were also elected to the state’s legislature in November.

All this led up to what happened on March 2, when the Supreme Court in Kansas announced a decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas. Here is John Hanna of the Associated Press: “Kansas’ highest court on Thursday ordered the state to increase its spending on public schools, which could further complicate the state’s dire budget problems and increase pressure to undo large tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The unanimous state Supreme Court ruling gave the Republican-controlled Legislature until the end of June to to enact a new school funding law.”  Hanna explains: “Many moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature favor rolling back the large income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013, which the conservative governor pushed as a way to stimulate the economy.  The state has struggled to balance its budget ever since, and even some Republican voters have come to view the tax cuts as a failure.”

The Gannon lawsuit was brought by four school districts, Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City, but last week’s Supreme Court’s decision demands increased school funding across the state.  The Wichita Eagle outlines the implications of the decision: “It gave lawmakers until June 30 to craft a new school finance formula that meets constitutional funding requirements. If they don’t, the state will have no constitutional mechanism for funding schools, which could lead to school closures. The court ruled unanimously that Gov. Sam Brownback’s ‘block grant’ funding system for schools is unconstitutional, siding with school districts that complained it underfunded their operations.”

School funding is an important piece of the state budget because in Kansas, according to Hanna, “The state spends more than half of its tax dollars on public schools.” Some allege, of course, that the fact that public schools make up large percentages of all state budgets is a symptom of our society’s overindulgence in elegant public schools at the public expense. President Donald Trump made such an allegation in his inaugural address when he declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” The reality, of course, is that schools cannot substitute cheaper robots and computers and create the climate of caring and trust our children need.  Public schools employ  professional teachers and counselors because that is what our society must expect for our children.  This is an expensive proposition when it comes to serving 50 million children across the United States.

In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle quotes Alan Rupe, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who commented that last week’s decision should not surprise anybody: “The Kansas Supreme Court has finally confirmed what anyone who has recently stepped inside a Kansas public school already knew: Kansas public education is significantly underfunded.”

And Wichita’s state senator, Lynn Rogers, who also serves on the Wichita Board of Education, declared: This is 10 years coming, and the state has lost every case so far… We’ve lost a whole generation of kids with inadequate funding, and hopefully this will communicate to the state how important it is not to lose a single kid, and that we need to do better than what we’ve done.”