Ohio State Board of Education Demands that ECOT Return $60 Million It Overcharged the State

Yesterday afternoon, members of the Ohio State Board of Education voted 16-1 to demand that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s large and notorious cyber charter school, pay back $60 million it overcharged the state last year for students who were not participating full-time in its educational program. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reminds readers that ECOT has claimed an enrollment of 15,300 full-time students, while log-in data for the 2015-16 school year confirms the enrollment of only 6,300 students participating as state law requires: 5 hours-per-day (or 20 hours-per-week) (or 920 hours-per- year).

Today’s 16-1 vote margin among members of the State School Board demonstrates that opposition to ECOT’s theft of tax dollars has become bipartisan. After all, Ohio is an all-Republican state with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion controlled by Republicans. The State Board of Education—part-appointed and part-elected—is also dominated by Republicans.

ECOT has taken the state to court to try to block the state’s claw-back of $60 million paid to the school last year for phantom students. O’Donnell fills in the legal background. Last September, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jenifer French upheld the Ohio Department of Education’s finding that many students have been logging in only about an hour per day. ECOT appealed Judge French’s decision, and it is expected that the Franklin County Court of Appeals will rule on ECOT’s appeal later this summer. To block yesterday’s vote by the State School Board to uphold the findings of a hearing officer at the Ohio Department of Education, however, ECOT had filed an emergency injunction in the Franklin County Court of Appeals. Last Wednesday, however, ECOT lost its bid to prevent yesterday’s vote.

Catherine Candisky of the Columbus Dispatch quotes Neil Clark, ECOT’s lobbyist, responding to yesterday’s overwhelming vote against ECOT by the State School Board’: “Any order (to repay the money) is irresponsible, premature, and vindictive until the court appeals are exhausted.” Unfortunately the matter will not be resolved quickly.  Clark declared that the school—founded by William Lager, a major Ohio Republican political donor, and operated by Lager-owned privately held management companies—will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Candisky describes ECOT’s plea for mercy after yesterday’s overwhelming vote to demand the $60 million repayment to the state: “The decision, ECOT officials say, is a death blow to the school; they claim it will have to close if forced to repay the money.”

The ECOT scandal has been long running. (See this blog’s coverage here.)  Karen Kasler commented late yesterday for the Statehouse News Bureau: “Simply put, ECOT is paid by the state for the number of full time students enrolled, as all traditional and charter schools are. And a 165-page report from an Ohio Department of Education hearing officer determined ECOT counted 9,000 more full time students than it actually had last year, inflating its full time enrollment by 60% to receive $108 million in state funding.”  Kasler also comments on Rep. Andrew Brenner, chair of the House Education Committee and a non-voting member of the State Board, who was present at yesterday’s meeting: “He’s also a supporter of ECOT. And though the battle between ECOT and the Department of Education has been going on for a year, Brenner said he thinks the board could have held off on its vote to allow time to look for more data to show what’s happening at the online school.”

The press has doggedly kept up the pressure on the legislature, the Department of Education, and the State Board of Education to stop the ECOT scandal.  Here is the most recent example, an editorial from yesterday morning’s Akron Beacon Journal warning members of the State Board of Education about what would be at stake in their vote yesterday afternoon: “The State Board of Education meets today, and the members have an opportunity to strike a blow for accountability and quality in the funding of public schools. A month ago, a state hearing officer ruled that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow failed to justify roughly 60 percent of its enrollment.  Now is the moment for the board to order that the online school pay back the money it claimed under false pretenses… The on-line school has been nothing if not brazen. It has argued for months, through its lobbyists and in court, that it does not have an obligation to ensure that students actually participate in learning… The State Board of Education has good reason to accept the findings and recommendation of the hearing officer. Collecting the money the state overpaid isn’t about shutting down ECOT. It’s about accountability and quality, ensuring that public dollars serve the intended purpose.”

Kansas Legislature Overrides Brownback Veto: Raises Taxes, Passes New School Funding Formula

Something stunning happened on Tuesday night in Topeka.  John Hanna of the Associated Press reports: “Kansas legislators Tuesday night repudiated the tax-cutting experiment that brought Gov. Sam Brownback national attention, with even fellow Republicans voting to override his veto of a plan reversing many of the income tax reductions he’s championed…. The state will increase its personal income tax rates and end an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. Legislators expect the changes to raise $1.2 billion in new revenue over two years to close projected budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019…. Under the new tax laws, Kansas will return to having a third income tax rate for its wealthiest filers, something cuts in 2012 eliminated. The top rate will be 5.7 percent, as opposed to 4.6 percent now.”

Even before passing the tax hikes—in the wee hours of Tuesday morning—the Kansas legislature also addressed the school funding crisis, passing a new and more equitable funding distribution formula, and increasing revenue dedicated for all-day Kindergarten.  Legislators hope that the new plan, which will increase public school spending by $293 million over two years will be acceptable to the state’s supreme court that, in March, again found the system unconstitutional and demanded that the legislature correct school funding by June 30 or shut down the public schools. There is some worry that even the new plan won’t be enough: “The justices did not say exactly how much funding must increase when they set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new school finance law.  But attorneys for four school districts that sued the state in 2010 have said the increase needs to be much larger, and Democrats have argued that the minimum is phasing in a $400 million increase over two years.”  We’ll have to watch for the  Supreme Court’s response.

There is also something else in the school funding plan that is objectionable to a number of legislators—an expansion of the state’s tuition tax credit voucher program.  John Hanna explains: “Democrats and many GOP moderates also object to a proposal in the school funding plan that would expand a program giving income tax credits to corporations that donate money to private-school scholarships for students in poorly performing public schools. GOP conservatives created the program in 2014, and this year’s proposal would allow individuals and partnerships to claim the tax credit as well.”

The Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund, analyzing the Kansas legislature’s repudiation of Brownback’s stubborn dedication to tax-slashing, reminds readers that voters in last November’s election—people who had been living through the economic collapse that has ensued since Brownback cut taxes in 2012 and 2013—defeated several ultra-conservative Republicans and replaced them with moderates.

Ehrenfreund also explores the broader, national implications of this week’s political shift on taxes in Kansas: “Tuesday’s vote was a rebuke not only for Brownback, but also for Republicans in Washington who have advocated similar cuts in taxes at the national level—including President Trump. Although Republicans in Kansas are giving up on the experiment, Trump and his allies are hoping to try again. The principles Trump endorsed during the campaign and in the early stages of his presidency are broadly similar to those enacted in Kansas.  As Brownback did, Trump has proposed bringing down marginal rates, getting rid of brackets and giving a new break to small businesses.”  Ehrenfreund reminds us that Brownback called his tax reform, “a ‘real-live experiment’ in conservative governance. Yet the economic boom Brownback promised has not materialized, leaving the state government perennially short on money and forced to reduce basic services.” “Last year, Kansas’s gross domestic product increased just 0.2 percent, federal data show, compared to 1.6 percent nationally.  That was an improvement for Kansas, though: At the end of 2015, the state was in what many economists would describe as a recession, with the economy contracting two quarters in a row.”

Brownback, however, remains unrepentant. In a late report John Hanna, covered Brownback’s news conference following the legislature’s override of his veto: “Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says the income tax increases legislators enacted over his veto will be bad for the long term health of the state’s economy.  The governor said during a news conference Wednesday that he believes the increases will slow job growth and discourage companies from moving to Kansas.”

Nick Johnson, the senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, disagrees with Brownback: “Governor Brownback promised the tax cuts would be a ‘shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,’ but reality has been far different.  Rather than spur a boom, the Brownback plan merely gave a tax-cut windfall to the rich and raised taxes on many lower income people while sending the state’s finances into a tailspin. Kansas’ finances are now in crisis. State reserves are drained, and Kansas faces a $900 million budget shortfall. Two bond rating agencies have downgraded Kansas due to its fiscal problems, and the state’s education system and other crucial services have suffered as the state struggled to afford to invest in people and communities.  Kansas’ five year experiment shows us what happens when we try to tax-cut our way to prosperity.”

I guess the members of the Kansas legislature noticed, and finally did something to begin correcting the problem.

Betsy DeVos: When an Opponent of Government Joins the Government

Are you tired of hearing Betsy DeVos repeat her one idea about education—that parents should have the right to choose their children’s school? Why does she not branch out a little bit at least and consider the issues that are supposed to be within the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, the agency of which she is now in charge? Why does she never seem really to appreciate the work of public school teachers in the schools she visits? (To read about Betsy DeVos’s Senate testimony on Tuesday about her department’s federal budget proposal, read Valerie Strauss’s report.)

Sitting on my desk are copies of two recent reflections on Betsy DeVos’s beliefs and how her ideas shape her leadership.

First Peter Greene, the Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger, critiques a statement from the American Federation for Children (AFC), the advocacy organization that Betsy DeVos founded and whose board she chaired until she became our U.S. Secretary of Education.  Greene is bothered by this statement from AFC, a declaration that sounds exactly like Betsy DeVos: “It is school choice—directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child—that is the most democratic of ideas.”

Green responds:  “Nope, nope, nope, nopity nope. There are arguments to be made for parent choice, but ‘it’s the essence of democracy’ is not one of them…  Democracy is not, ‘My fellow taxpayers have to pay for whatever I decide on my own that I want.’…  It is the taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayers have given it to support a system that will educate all students in the community through an institution managed by elected representatives of those taxpayers…. Democracy is about coming together as a group to discuss, debate, (hopefully) compromise, and elect folks who will decide how best to manage our resources.”

Second, Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect reflects on charter schools, economic inequality and a belief in free markets: “The billionaires, apparently, we shall always have with us—even when we decide how to run the state-funded schools where they rarely send their own kids… Indeed, we have to go back to the economic polarization of pre-New Deal America to find a time when the super-rich felt so compelled to better the lot of the poor, as they understood it. Andrew Carnegie, who grew mightily rich by building the American steel industry, famously established libraries in thousands of cities and towns. Though, unlike today’s charter backers, he wasn’t draining off funds that could go to public libraries in the process. What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment…. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services. Living in separate eras when the middle class was—and is—embattled and the gap between rich and poor was—and is—immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment…. As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that… is the cause of our national woes.  Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself.  How very comforting for them.”

Unrelated as their statements at first appear, both Greene and Meyerson are condemning the kind of libertarian education philosophy embraced by Betsy DeVos.  Libertarianism situates individuals as competitors in a market-driven world and rewards persistent and determined strivers.  Greene castigates the libertarian idea that parental choice is the essence of democracy, because he knows that the mass of private parental choices will not, as libertarians assume, come to define what’s good for all of us. Likewise Meyerson attacks libertarian assumptions as he contrasts the idea that marketplace school choice will be the path for individual betterment to the theory that public policy should compensate for the deficiencies and excesses of an alarmingly unequal market economy.

That libertarian Betsy DeVos seems out of place leading a government bureaucracy should not be surprising; after all she is not an educator and she has called government-operated schools “a dead end”  She married into Amway, the family business that most perfectly defines the libertarian idea of the entrepreneurship of the individual.  The very name of the company, “Amway”—where individuals contract to sell products door-to-door and recruit other individual sales associates—is short for “the American Way.”

Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson reject the market-driven, libertarian direction that now pervades DeVos’s Department of Education. In their 2016 book, American Amnesia, they make the case for government as an absolutely necessary balance for markets in a mixed economy: “The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly)” (American Amnesia, p. 7)

Hacker and Pierson explain: “That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries… 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: underinvestment in education, financial instability, insufficient infrastructure, unchecked monopolies. 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…. 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…. regulate the market to protect consumers and investors…. provide or require certain insurance protections…. and soften the business cycle and reduce the risk of financial crises.” (American Amnesia, p. 4-5)

So how does all this help explain our dilemma today as we live with a government-despising libertarian as the leader of our government’s Department of Education?

We’ll start briefly with Hacker and Pierson, who speak specifically to education: “(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… and the means… 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)

Then there is the matter of the role of government to protect civil rights. In hearings before Congress Betsy DeVos has persistently (and frustratingly) skirted questions about the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education for protecting students’ civil rights.  DeVos almost always responds to such questions with a defense of parents’ personal right to choose a school for their children. She doggedly explains that if things are not going well at school, parents should have the right to choose another school. Pauline Lipman, a Chicago education theorist, responded several years ago to what she calls the “neoliberal” (libertarian) thinking of the school privatizers promoting the rapid expansion of charter schools in Chicago. Lipman does not idealize the public schools. In fact she believes that privatization initiatives like Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 were a response to the poorly funded, under-staffed and overwhelmed neighborhood public schools.  But privatization has not, she believes, addressed the needs of Chicago’s children: “The Keynesian welfare state framed people as citizens with certain civil rights and the state as responsible for a minimal level of social well-being. Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’….” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The late Benjamin Barber reminds us, however, that as consumers of services, we lack the rights of democratic citizens who can, at least in theory, choose representatives with the power to protect our interests.  With privatization, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)  In Chicago and Detroit, a primary source of inequality has been that charter operators themselves, without public oversight, have been permitted to choose the neighborhoods in which they have sited their schools—without any consideration of the overabundance of schools in some neighborhoods and the shortage of schools in other neighborhoods.

Tony Judt, the late British historian, reminds us that one of the failures of libertarian privatization is that the public seems always to have to keep on subsidizing the services which have been privatized: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient.  Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.” (Ill Fares the Land, p 109)  If DeVos is able to lead Congress to expand the privatization of education, Congress, state legislatures and local property taxpayers will commence sending more public funds to pay tuition at religious schools whose students would likely never have attended public schools in the first place. And taxpayers will pay for the outrageous profits for the owners and operators of behemoth online virtual schools like K-12,Inc.

How can Betsy DeVos be confident that parents are well enough informed to make good school choices for their children? Here are Hacker and Pierson worrying about uneven access to information: “Even more widespread are issues related to consumer myopia, when consumers know too little or focus on the wrong things or don’t look far enough into the future to make wise choices… The emerging field of ‘behavioral economics’ incorporates insights from psychologists about the many ways in which actual human decision making falls short—way short—of the traditional economics assumption of perfect information, perfectly processed.” (American Amnesia, p. 81)  In huge charter school marketplaces like New Orleans and Detroit, a primary criticism has been poor information made available to parents about the array of schools.

Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine worry that privatization, in the form of rapid growth of charter schools, has worsened inequality in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities.  The best charters may be a lifeboat for a few children, but only for a very few: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas. This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of private education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities and schools for needed levels of targeted investment. Clearly the conditions necessary to reinvent learning and instruction… for a majority of poor students of color cannot be achieved within this intellectually arid and fiscally degraded reform box. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p 87)

None of this alleviates our dilemma posed by the appointment of a libertarian who despises government as the leader of our government’s education department. It is helpful, however, to keep in mind all of this thinking from the critics of libertarian education theory.  At least it explains why many of us are so frustrated and so angry.

Public education is among our society’s largest and most pervasive civic institutions. It is, therefore, also helpful to keep in mind a definition of institutional justice from an ethicist, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” Justice in education must be systemic; it cannot be achieved through competition in a privatized education marketplace that produces losers as well as winners.

After Acrimonious Standoff, One State Legislature Rejects DeVos-ALEC School Privatization Scheme

Unless you are a parent or a taxpayer in Nevada, you will probably conclude that this blog post doesn’t relate to you. But the defeat of Nevada’s ALEC-driven plan for Education Savings Account vouchers is directly relevant to you. Education Savings Accounts are among the most extreme of the school voucher schemes being promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose education priorities will, most likely, have to been enacted at the state level. On Sunday night, Nevada’s legislature defeated this plan after a two-year battle. This subject matters to you because your state could soon be considering such a program.

Here is a bit of background from the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown, writing in June of 2015: “In January (2015), Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”  “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” The only qualification was that the child must have attended a public school for 100 days.

Last September, after the Nevada Supreme Court found the funding for the Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional, the program was put on hold. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel in the case that found the funding for this program unconstitutional, provides a quick summary of what happened to this program after the ruling of Nevada’s state supreme court, as Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval tried to resurrect the ALEC-driven, Education Savings Account voucher program:

“Gov. Brian Sandoval is pressing lawmakers to revive the private school voucher program blocked last September by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program was unconstitutional because it would deplete funds earmarked by the Legislature to operate Nevada’s public schools. The governor’s bill, SB 506, carries forward most features of the prior law. Sandoval wants the per-pupil amount spent on public school students, roughly $5,700, to be deposited into education savings accounts to subsidize private and religious school tuition and pay for other private education expenses. The governor also wants vouchers for any household, even the wealthy… To get around the Supreme Court ruling, SB 506 changes the way vouchers are funded. The funding will not come directly out of public school budgets. Instead, Sandoval proposes a separate appropriation of $60 million over the biennium. At that level, approximately 2,500 vouchers can be awarded each year, not enough for everyone who signed up under the prior law. So the vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One more bit of background: what are Education Savings Account vouchers?  These programs give parents the amount of money the state would otherwise have spent to educate a child. The parents give up their right to a public education and can instead use the money for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, test prep, homeschooling curriculum, therapeutic services, transportation and other educational expenses. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has developed a model bill that can be introduced in any state legislature. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee currently have Education Savings Accounts.

One problem for Governor Sandoval and SB 506 is that last November, voters threw out Republican domination of Nevada’s legislature and elected Democratic majorities in both houses. The fight about Education Savings Accounts developed in recent weeks into a power struggle between Governor Sandoval and the legislature, a fight that threatened to derail the state budget. On Sunday, the legislature blocked Sandoval and refused to pass the SB 506 Education Savings Account program.

A deal was struck by which the Legislature made a one-time grant to a smaller voucher program but defeated the Governor’s bill for Education Savings Accounts. Arianna Prothero explains for Education Week: “An effort to fund Nevada’s ambitious program to give all public school students the option to take state money allocated to them and use it instead for private school tuition, or other approved education-related expenses, is dead for this session. It’s unclear what this means for the future of the program, as the Nevada legislature only meets once every two years.” The legislature concluded its current session on Monday with the passage of the state budget. Prothero adds: “However, the deal does contain an extra $20 million over the next two years for a separate private school choice program that has a cap on how much a family can earn in order to be eligible for the aid. That will be paid for by taxing marijuana sales and growers….”

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra celebrates the defeat of the enormous Education Savings Account program by Nevada’s legislature: “The voucher defeat in Nevada is a resounding repudiation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s privatization agenda. Parents and taxpayers want investment in their public schools, not vouchers paid for with taxpayer dollars.  Nevada also shows that when parents, civil rights groups and taxpayers come together, they can succeed in keeping public funding in public schools.”

Why Betsy DeVos Is Wrong about Privatization of Education: Growing Consensus about Charters

U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos relentlessly promotes school privatization—framed as parental choice—through such schemes as charter schools and virtual charter schools, and vouchers and neo-vouchers like tax credits and education savings accounts.  If you need clarification, Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, has published a primer to explain all these ways of redirecting public money to schools that are not publicly operated.

As DeVos relentlessly assaults our system of public education, a danger for our society is that, becoming exhausted, citizens will merely accommodate themselves to what begins to seem inevitable or capitulate and accept some sort of compromise. In the case of school choice, any compromise that directs tax dollars away from the public institution that serves the majority of our children is a poor policy.

Those who have watched charter school growth in their communities, academic researchers, and national organizations continue to explore the challenges posed by the expansion of charter schools.

Last week the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a comprehensive critique—a Statement on Charter Schools—which begins by reviewing the primary importance of public education: “A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual preference or learning ability. All may enroll—regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before…. (T)axpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and… funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community.”

Despite the claims of their proponents who dub them “public”charter schools, NPE explains: “By definition, a charter school is not a public school. Charter schools are formed when a private organization contracts with a government authorizer to open and run a school. Charters are managed by private boards, often with no connection to the community they serve. The boards of many leading charter chains are populated by billionaires who often live far away from the school they govern.”

“Charter schools do not serve all children… By means of school closures and failed takeover practices… disadvantaged communities lose their public schools to charter schools. Not only do such communities lose the school, but they also lose their voice in school governance.”

The Network for Public Education demands “an immediate moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, including no replication or expansion of existing charter schools” and “look(s) forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards, but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level.”  NPE adds that until charter schools are publicly governed, there is a need for legislation and regulation to ensure public accountability over the stewardship of tax dollars, transparent public governance, protection of students’ rights and each school’s attention to academic standards and qualifications of teachers.

NPE’s Statement on Charter Schools is short and comprehensive. Please read and consider it.  NPE backs up the statement with a toolkit of resources about the danger of school privatization.

At the end of May, from a very different social location, Jitu Brown published a critique of charter school expansion in America’s black and brown communities. Brown is a Chicago community organizer and the director of the national Journey for Justice Alliance. He was a leader in Chicago’s 2015 hunger strike that forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a neighborhood comprehensive high school in the South Side, Bronzeville neighborhood. Brown challenges Betsy DeVos:  “Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems not to hear the fierce protests of parents, teachers and school officials over school closings and charter expansion in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit and other American cities… In truth, school choice does not exist in most black and brown communities in the United States… What DeVos fails to understand is the intentional structural racism that has been accepted by Democrats and Republicans, where children from black and brown communities are intentionally underserved by the system all citizens pay taxes into.  In Chicago, a child who goes to a neighborhood school near DePaul University enjoys a teacher’s aide in every class, robotics, debate teams, fully stocked libraries and after-school programs; while on the south side of the same city, in some schools there is one teacher’s aide in the building, with no library, no world language and 42 kindergarten students in one class… DeVos has not yet learned that we, meaning black and brown families, don’t have the choice of great neighborhood schools within safe walking distance of our homes. In addition to the harm school closings inflict on students’ academic development and safety, only one out of five charter schools outperforms traditional public schools, despite the fact they can pick the children they want and discard the ones they don’t.”

Brown asks not for expanded school choice, but instead for quality neighborhood public schools in the poorest communities—“what many children from middle-class white and upper-income families enjoy: a robust, rigorous and relevant curriculum, support for high quality teaching (smaller classes, teacher aides, effective professonal development), wrap-around supports for every child (nurses, counselors, clubs, after-school programs), a student-centered school climate, transformative parent and community engagement and inclusive school leadership.”

And last week Mark Weber, the school finance researcher in New Jersey, summed up on his personal blog conclusions drawn from  growing charter school research in Newark: “As a proportion of total population, the Newark Public Schools enroll many more students with the costliest special education disabilities. We’ve been over this time and again: while some Newark charters have upped their enrollments of special education students, the students they do take tend to have the less-costly disabilities: Specific Learning Disabilities… and Speech/Language Disabilities. The charters take very few students who are emotionally disturbed, or hearing impaired, or have intellectual disabilities, or any of the other higher-cost disabilities… Just to be clear: I don’t think charters should be attempting to educate these students with special needs. By all indications, they don’t have the capacity to do the job correctly. NPS (Newark Public Schools) has a much lower ‘student load’ per support staff member than the charters. These support staff include counselors, occupational and physical therapists, nurses, psychologists, social workers, learning disability teacher consultants, reading specialists, sign language interpreters, speech correction specialists, and so on. It would be highly inefficient to staff every charter school and network in the city with all of these staff.”

All of this recent work amplifies a growing consensus among researchers and advocates. Rutgers University professor of school finance, Bruce Baker, has explained the collateral damage to the public school system and to entire communities when charters are expanded.  In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Baker showed how expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker continues: “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.”

Finally, last autumn, the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, raised serious concerns when its national convention passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment or expansion of 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;
  • (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.”

All of these individuals and organizations understand that, because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools serve all children. While no enormous network of schools can be perfect, the public schools remain the best system for serving the needs and protecting the rights of all our children.

State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post report about four-day school weeks in Oklahoma provides the textbook example of the political phenomenon described by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Here is Emma Brown: “A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week… Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules, nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall….”

Gordon Lafer explains that in the November 2010 election, “Eleven state governments switched from Democratic or divided control to unified Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Since these lawmakers took office in early 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at lowering labor standards and slashing public services.” (p. 2) “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign…  (T)his was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country. Finally, the 2011 legislative sessions opened in the midst of record budget deficits (from the Great Recession), creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.” (p 44)

Oklahoma was one of the eleven states that turned all-Red in 2011; the others were Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Wyoming.  Today, after the 2016 election, the number of all-Red states has reached 25.  And, while it might seem to the residents of any one of these states that a climate of tax slashing, union bashing, and cutting public services reflects some kind of new trend among their voters, a more intentional national strategy is instead pushing the agenda into their state from the outside. Lafer explains: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized with state legislation written by lobbyists representing national and multinational corporations… In fact, lawmakers… (have been) enacting the agenda of national corporate interests that had spent years preparing for just such a moment.” (p. 49)

Lafer continues: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also broadly unpopular… In this sense, education policy… provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (p. 130)

Who are the corporate lobbies crafting and pushing the anti-tax, union-bashing, anti-public education agenda? “Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (p. 130)  “Furthermore, the corporate agenda is carried out through an integrated network that operates on multiple channels at once: funding ALEC to write bills, craft legislative talking points, and provide a meeting place for legislators and lobbyists to build relationships; supporting local think tanks in the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network to produce white papers, legislative testimony, opinion columns, and media experts; contributing to candidate campaigns and party committees; making independent expenditures on behalf of lawmakers or issues; and deploying field organizers to key legislative districts.” (p. 39)

A primary strategy is tax cutting: “‘The best way to stimulate the economy,’ insisted a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Cato Institute, is ‘to shrink government… lower marginal tax rates, and streamline regulations.’  The corporate right’s exhortations for an unprecedented policy of cutting taxes and services in the midst of recession was not an evidence-based policy and indeed did not yield the economic growth its proponents forecast… There was no reason to believe that tax cuts were the key to economic recovery.  However continuing tax cuts achieved something else; they dramatically—and perhaps permanently—shrank the size of government.” (p. 65)

How has all this affected public education?  “(B)udget cuts were particularly widespread—and particularly devastating—in the country’s school systems. In 2010-11, 70 percent of all U.S. school districts made cuts to essential services. Despite widespread evidence of the academic and economic value of preschool education, twelve states cut pre-K funding that year, including Arizona, which eliminated it completely. Ohio repealed full-day kindergarten and cut its preschool program to the point that it served 75 percent fewer four-year-olds than it had a decade earlier. Pennsylvania also cut back from full-day to half-day kindergarten in many districts—including Philadelphia, which also eliminated 40 percent of its teaching staff…. More than half the nation’s school districts changed their thermostat settings…. Research shows that the availability of trained librarians makes a significant improvement in student reading and writing skills, yet by 2014, one-third of public schools in the country lacked a full-time certified librarian.” (p. 69)

Lafer explores the reasons far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” (p. 129) But he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant: “Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.” (p. 129)

Which brings us back to Emma Brown’s recent piece in the Washington Post about Oklahoma, where parents and teachers are getting used to a reduced school week only four days long: “Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit. Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004-2008. Republicans—who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and the governorship since 2011—have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production… Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget (last) Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets… Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008…. Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013—$44,128—put the state at 49th in the nation…. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines…. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training… is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.”

This week Valerie Strauss published  a reflection by an Oklahoma school teacher, a companion piece to Emma Brown’s report.  Shawn Sheehan is the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. At the end of this school year, he is leaving his position at Norman High School to take a job in Texas. His wife is also leaving her position in a Norman, Oklahoma school to accept a Texas teaching position. Sheehan explains: “(A)t the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job—this job we love very much—by heading out of state… We could stay, but it would cost our family—specifically our sweet baby girl… We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”

Trump’s Budget Proposal Neglects Children and Defines Human Decency Down

From the perspective of the welfare of America’s children, the assumptions underneath President Donald Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposal are deeply troubling. The budget reinforces the theory that everybody ought to be earning a living, but except for Ivanka Trump’s idea for six weeks of newborn parental leave, there really isn’t any recognition that child rearing is a kind of work. The budget reflects that as a society we have just come to expect that children are raised, but we neither pay much attention to how that’s supposed to happen nor respect those who do the rearing. According to that logic, we fail to honor not only the work of mothers and fathers but also the work of child care providers. The minimum wage is so low that these workers qualify for Medicaid and SNAP (today’s name for food stamps). The President’s new budget slashes federal funding for Medicaid and for SNAP and fully eliminates a well respected and federally funded after-school program designed to enrich children’s lives in the hours before their parents finish work.

And there are big questions about whether Ivanka’s parental leave program would work for low-income parents. Here is the Center for Law and Social Policy: “In the midst of this grim context for working families, the budget attempts to throw them a small bone with a plan to offer six weeks of paid parental leave to care for a new child. In reality, though, this proposed program would do very little for low-income families. If states set wage replacement comparable to the unemployment insurance rates, that would leave many low-income workers unable to make ends meet while on  leave and therefore unlikely to use the program.”

The NY Times editorial board is blunt in its condemnation of the priorities in Trump’s budget proposal: “Food stamps work. Each month they help feed 43 million poor and low-income Americans, most in families with children and working parents. Food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, keep millions of people from falling into poverty each year and prevent millions of poor people, many disabled or elderly, from falling deeper into poverty. They also improve the future prospects of poor children by fostering better health and graduation rates… President Trump’s budget plan would destroy the food stamp program, on the pretense that it discourages work. That’s nonsense, because most adult recipients either work or are unable to do so because of age or disability. A more plausible explanation is that cutting food stamps would help to offset the cost of huge tax cuts for the rich.”

The Child Welfare League of America lists programs that help children and their families but are being eliminated altogether in Trump’s budget: the Social Services Block Grant, the 21st Century Afterschool Learning Centers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Community Development Block Grant.

The budget further reduces Medicaid, much below the cuts already passed last month in the House effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Here is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “The budget would cut health assistance to low-and moderate-income people by $1.9 trillion over ten years: 1) $1.3 trillion from the House bill to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that the budget endorses—which would take health insurance from 23 million people, raise out-of-pocket health costs for millions more, and substantially weaken key protections for people with pre-existing conditions—and 2) $610 billion Medicaid cuts on top of that.”

First Focus adds that the budget also makes deep cuts to the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program: “As with Medicaid, the Trump budget proposal not only slashes funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), it fundamentally restructures the program.  Despite proposing a two-year extension for CHIP through 2019, it cuts allotments by a staggering $5.8 billion or 21 percent. CHIP is an enormously successful bipartisan program that covers 8.9 million kids and, since its inception in 1997, has reduced the number of uninsured children by an astounding 68 percent. But its funding is set to expire on September 30, so Congress must act to extend the program as soon as possible.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy puts some of this into context: “The budget slashes or eliminates a wide range of other crucial programs that help stabilize low-income families. For example, it eliminates assistance for low-income families and seniors to pay heating and cooling bills. It takes the Child Tax Credit (CTC) away from children living with immigrant, tax-paying parents who file their taxes using an Individualized Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)—a group of about 5 million children, the vast majority of whom are U.S. citizens.  And it would cut the TANF block grant by 10 percent for all states—and more for some—on top of a 30 percent reduction in the block grant as a result of inflation since its enactment 20 years ago, sharply reducing state resources to help low-income families avoid destitution.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy also summarizes budget cuts that will make college less affordable for lower income students: “For low-income students pursuing postsecondary education, the budget is a perfect storm of cuts—making it far harder for students to complete the education they need to move up on the job.  The budget proposal would slash funding for the Work-Study program by almost 50 percent, eliminating employment for more than 300,000 low-income students working their way through college, about 25 percent of whom have an income below $12,000. The budget would also remove $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant budget, threatening to destabilize the program, which already covers less than 30 percent of the average cost of college attendance. The maximum Pell Grant amount is proposed to be frozen at $5,920, which would end the past five years of automatic inflation adjustments. The budget also proposes to eliminate Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which helps cover college costs for more than 1.6 million students with the greatest need each year; abolish subsidized student loans, which prevent interest from accruing on college loans for low-and moderate-income students while they are in school; and end loan forgiveness for students who go into lower-paying public service careers”

While cuts to K-12 federal education programs seem small compared to some of these reductions to health and human services programs that serve families and children, remember that states and local school districts provide the bulk of education funding. Federal funds for education are, however, essential and have already been radically reduced in recent years due to budget austerity through sequestration. Here is Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explaining years’ of slashing federal funding for what is called Non-Defense Discretionary Spending (non-entitlement spending for domestic programs and foreign aid): “As expected, the budget slashes non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs by $54 billion below the already-austere sequestration level for 2018 and by a remarkable $1.6 trillion over the next decade—taking NDD spending in 2018 to its lowest level as a percent of the economy in six decades—and after ten years, to levels as a percent of the economy not seen since the Hoover Administration and possibly even earlier… Indeed, his proposed NDD funding levels strain credulity. In 2027, the Administration calls for cutting funding for NDD programs $218 billion below the 2017 level, adjusted for inflation—that is, cutting NDD 41 percent by 2027.”

Although this budget will certainly not be enacted by Congress as proposed, the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz accuses the Trump administration of “giving a license for… extremism in thinking about the social fabric in our country.” The NY Times editorial board echoes Stiglitz’s concern: “The proposed cuts have little chance of enactment, but they are still dangerous. Extreme proposals are a way to make less extreme proposals seem acceptable.”  This budget encourages Americans to embrace radical individualism, abandon commitment to the social contract, and define decency down.