New Report Exposes Rip-Off of Tax Dollars by For-Profit Charter Management Companies

On Wednesday, the Network for Public Education released Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, a ground-breaking new report on what has become an old, old problem.

Charter schools have now been around since the early 1990s, and here in Ohio, at least, soon after David Brennan, Ohio’s school choice guy, helped Governor George Voinovich get the Cleveland Voucher Program going, Brennan switched his own business over to launching charter schools. He immediately realized that running for-profit charter schools would be far more lucrative. In 1998, Brennan launched White Hat Management, his for-profit charter management company.  He and his company helped launch charter schools and even choose board members to oversee them—to ensure that his company profited at public expense.  His network included the Hope Academy elementary schools and Life Skills Academy high schools, all of which White Hat managed under sweeps contracts, by which the schools turned over to White Hat more than 95 percent of their state funding, without any transparent reporting about spending for staff and equipment or the profits Brennan was raking off the top.

David Brennan died in 2018, but his for-profit empire did not die. The Network for Public Education’s new report shows how another entrepreneur acquired Brennan’s charter empire and expanded it. The new report also examines the operation of for-profit education management organizations across many states and explains why they are a serious threat: “We are in a time when our public schools are struggling to provide all children with the services they deserve during a national pandemic… Now more than ever, it is imperative that every tax dollar be directed to delivering those services. It is time to end chartering for profit and to ensure that children, not corporations, profit from our tax dollars.”

The new report locates where the for-profit charter school management companies are operating: “Based on our match of school names to federal 2018-2019 school year data, over 600,000 students are educated in charters run for profit that we identified, approximately eighteen percent of all students enrolled in charter schools. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia presently have charter schools operated by for-profit corporations… Most of the schools are located in four states—Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Arizona…. Together the seven largest national chains (Academica, National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, K12Inc., Charter Schools USA, Pansophic Learning/ACCEL, and Pearson/Connections Academy) manage 555 schools.  At least one of the big chains operates in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia.”

The Network for Public Education explains that virtually all of the charter schools operating for profit are technically nonprofits whose boards hire for-profit management companies to run the schools. Frequently the management companies, as in the case of David Brennan’s old White Hat company, work with nonprofits to set up the charter schools, or help set up the nonprofits and then help suggest people connected to the management company to be members of the schools’ boards of directors: “The term ‘for-profit charter school,’ while commonly used, does not accurately describe the vast majority of charters designed to create private profit. Only the state of Arizona allows for-profit entities to be licensed as a charter school. In addition, the for-profit charters cannot receive any federal funds. However, those who wish to profit from charter schools have developed creative workarounds to evade state and federal laws. The for-profit management organization, commonly referred to as an EMO, finds individuals to create a non-profit board. That board, which is appointed, not elected, enters into a contract with the for-profit to run the school.”

The report documents all sorts of unsavory business practices being underwritten with our tax dollars: “The first responsibility of any for-profit company is to maximize profit for its owners, and in the case of a public corporation, its shareholders. The typical way to enhance profits is to cut costs… This is often achieved by reducing personnel costs…. either paying teachers less or paying fewer by increasing class size… Savings can also accrue from hiring uncertified teachers or discouraging students who need the most services from enrolling.”  Then there are the big real estate deals when education management companies have subsidiaries that acquire school facilities and charge the schools managed by the EMO outrageous leasing costs. And it goes on and on.

The Network for Public Education’s new report covers the nefarious operations of several of the enormous for-profit education management organizations, but I would like to follow up with the report’s coverage one of those companies now operating in Ohio.  When Ohio’s charter czar David Brennan became ill and eventually died, the story of his charter school empire lived on.

The story actually links to another charter school empire, beginning in 2000, with the launch of K12Inc.,  the huge for-profit, online charter school founded by Ron Packard, “with a $10 million investment from Michael Milken and $30 million from other Wall Street investors.  Previously, Packard had worked for Milken… K12 became a publicly-traded company in 2007.” There was considerable controversy about K12’s practices. Packard left the company, and, “In 2016, after an extensive investigation of the for-profit’s dealings in California, (that state’s) then-Attorney General Kamala Harris announced a $168.5 million settlement with K12 due to its misleading advertising to prospective students and the reporting of inflated attendance numbers.”

In 2014, K12 formed a new company, Pansophic Learning, led by Ron Packard and financed by an investment company located in Dubai. “Pansophic Learning’s name and address were used to register a new Ohio for-profit, ACCEL Schools, LLC. Seven months later, Pansophic took over the contracts of 12 charter schools managed by the controversial White Hat Management. In July 2015, another large for-profit education management organization operating schools in Ohio, Mosaica, ran into financial trouble and sold its assets to Pansophic Learning… Packard continued to build a ‘critical operating mass’ for his new venture. He took over the contracts for 12 I Can charter schools, and also the Ohio Distance Learning Academy (OhDELA), the last of the White Hat Schools. The OhDELA contract is a sweeps contract that funnels 97 percent of the school’s revenue to ACCEL. We looked at several other contracts for ACCEL charters in Ohio and found that schools pay ACCEL either a 12.5 percent or an 18 percent management fee.” And by providing other management services for the ACCEL schools, Packard’s EMO profits from additional fees-per-service.

Why should Packard’s quiet expansion of the ACCEL for-profit charter school venture in Ohio be of concern to Ohio’s citizens and legislators?  Because charter schools are publicly funded and eat up funds the state should be spending on the more than 1.8 million students enrolled in Ohio’s public schools.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black traces how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during and after the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase.  In 2013-14, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter.  Some went deeper in the red.  Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state… All told, charter schools received $7,189 per pupil in state funding.  Public school districts received less than half that amount.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

The Network for Public Education ends its new report with a constructive list of recommendations for reigning in the for-profit charter school management sector.  An important recommendation is that President Joe Biden’s Department of Education should investigate the extent to which federal Charter Schools Program dollars are being surreptitiously funneled into the for-profit EMOs despite that federal rules prohibit the investment of federal program dollars into charter schools that are, in fact, not independent of for-profit management companies.

Disciplining Ourselves to Stay On Message and Make a Difference for Our Children and Their Public Schools

Over 50 million children and adolescents attend public schools in the United States. Our public schools are spread across every city, town, suburb and rural area. And because they are established and regulated by laws, they embody a promise to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children. The protections embodied in our laws have expanded over more than two centuries as our society’s understanding of children’s rights and needs has grown.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black reminds readers about the history and significance of our public system of education along with the protection of voting rights as the two central guarantees of our democracy: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together by public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 225) “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)

Here in Ohio, we’ve been discussing Derek Black’s new book—about 80 of us gathered on ZOOM. Despite the awkwardness of being together for an entirely online event, one advantage of ZOOM is that we were able to invite Derek Black himself to help launch our first evening’s conversation. He presented an introduction to the book’s history of the founding of public schools and all the subsequent threats to public education—as Reconstruction faded into the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as resistance to Brown v. Board of Education met with opposition strong enough to close public schools for four years between 1959 and 1963 and deny public schooling for the African American children in Prince Edward County, Virginia—and as today public schools face an overwhelming financial drain from charter schools and private school tuition vouchers in an era characterized by tax cutting across many states. Last Wednesday evening, Black concluded his formal remarks by reminding us—all supporters of public education—of the need for disciplined messaging as we try to fight the forces working to undermine our neighborhood public schools.

In the book itself Black explains: “Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you… they want to improve educational opportunity.  If you aren’t sure about that, you will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess… (T)oday’s policy debates skew our frame of reference, trick us into looking at the wrong measures of education’s value and purpose, and distract us from the fundamental questions about the role of public education in our democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 49-50)

Derek Black himself discusses some of these same policy questions in his book, but he urges all of us who cover the debates in education policy to remember to pay close attention to framing the issues.  We need to articulate not only the threats but also the meaning and importance of the institution we are defending. And he would have us remember that today’s threats to taxpayer supported public education are historically connected to the period after the collapse of Reconstruction, when lawmakers in states recently readmitted to the union figured out how to segregate Black children and push them into inferior public schools by making education funding rely more and more on local property taxes. Historically we also should remember that the widespread racial and economic segregation of public schools today is the legacy of the more recent past—the post Civil Rights Movement, when wealth and privilege and racism expressed themselves in court decisions that banned desegregation across jurisdictional boundaries and encouraged families with means to insulate their children in exclusive exurbs.

One particular framing concern I find myself and others struggling to overcome is that, as we try to identify the people and organizations pushing bad policy, we forget to to follow through with a clear definition of precisely how that particular person or organization is undermining the public schools Derek Black holds up as our most important democratic institution.  While it is good to know, for example, that Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children or Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd or Democrats for Education Reform or the Heritage Foundation or EdChoice or the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is actively working to undermine public policy with dollars contributed by wealthy Americans, and while it is important to know the names of specific donors, these facts are not enough.  Advocates must also explicitly demonstrate first, what dangerous policy steps that organization or individual is taking to bring about an outcome; second, how that specific policy will directly undermine the public schools in our particular state or local school district; and third, the logic and steps we must employ to counter that policy.

In Chicago, for example, many people accepted Arne Duncan’s (and later Rahm Emanuel’s) neoliberal Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion project as a nice experiment that might bring more choices to Chicago’s families with few choices. But advocates like Jitu Brown—an organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (and now leader of the Journey4Justice Alliance)—realized that what Renaissance 2010 was really accomplishing was the closure of neighborhood public schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. In 2016, Jitu Brown and other advocates protested the closure of Dyett High School with a 34 day hunger strike. Their advocacy and their action eventually reopened Dyett High School as a public neighborhood high school. After 50 Chicago neighborhood public schools were shut down due to charter school competition in June of 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist Eve Ewing chronicled the massive and widespread community grieving that followed. Renaissance 2010 is a Portfolio School Reform policy to expand charters, and it’s always good to point that out, and even to point out that the theory came from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education.  And it is fine to note that it was Arne’s policy later endorsed by Rahm. But what challenged Chicago to look hard at the danger of public-school-destruction was community advocacy about the meaning of the the school closures themselves. Advocates demonstrated that when Chicago tried Renaissance 2010, it destroyed public education across some of that city’s proud but poor Black neighborhoods.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black pushes advocates to do a better job of framing: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then committed to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, 238-243)

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber had a way of capturing the principles we must learn to name explicitly  as we advocate for the public schools.  Barber wrote:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber almost perfectly formulates the problem that threatens our public schools in 2021: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

For Decades America Has Blamed and Punished Public Schools Serving Poor Children: Biden’s Plan Addresses the Underlying Poverty

For over fifty years sociologists of education have documented the correlation between the ravages of child poverty and challenges for children at school. Hunger, homelessness and the family anxiety that accompanies the struggle to survive make it hard for many students to thrive at school. This is why the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill signed into law last week, as “a huge new school reform.” And Strauss isn’t writing merely about the $130 billion included in the bill for public schools:

“President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic—but it is another thing, as well: a major federal school reform unlike those we’ve seen in the past few decades. While the new law is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and helping businesses and schools reopen after a year of turmoil, it includes measures that together have the potential to slash poverty among the 12 million students who live in low-income households.”

Strauss reminds us how, over the past quarter century, public education policy has gone wrong—blaming the schools themselves and failing effectively to address children’s needs: “Policymakers have been focused for decades on improving public schools with a culture based on standardized testing, the expansion of charter schools and other ‘school choice’ measures, and, in some places, the demonization of teachers. Child poverty, they said, was an excuse for poor performance by adults. But the testing/choice/big data approach has not closed the achievement gap, and on some measures, it has barely moved… Many schools nationwide have attempted to address the out-of-school lives of students including ‘community schools’ that forge partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide wraparound services for children. But federal policy has been focused on other things since 2002’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of standardized-testing accountability systems for schools and districts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) documents  the impact of Biden’s new relief package on America’s children. The American Rescue plan will enable nearly 66 million children and adolescents under the age of eighteen to benefit from the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, including 27 million who had been left out until last week. “The Act will lift 4.1 million additional children above the poverty line—cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent—and lift 1.1 million children above half the poverty line (referred to as ‘deep poverty’),  Among the children that the Child Tax Credit expansion will lift above the poverty line, some 1.2 million are Black and 1.7 million are Latino.”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson describes the significance of the expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan… is a watershed moment. That such legislation has become law—that our federal government acted decisively with a bill targeted to aid low-and middle-income families—evokes equal parts inspiration and relief in its radical departure from previous trickle-down approaches that have increased inequality and racial injustice… Now, more than 93% of children in America will receive full or partial benefits under the Child Tax Credit… Because of past policy actions which disproportionately harmed Black, brown and Native children and families, this policy specifically adds unique benefits to those communities.”

The new rescue plan also targets money directly to help public schools. The CBPP reports: “The American Rescue Plan also includes $130 billion in new, mostly very flexible funds for school districts, which they will be able to spend through the 2023-2024 school year to address the pandemic and its effects on student learning. This is the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education, but entirely appropriate in light of school funding needs. Historically, K-12 schooling has been funded overwhelmingly by states and localities; they currently provide 92 percent of funding, with the federal government providing the rest. COVID-19, however, forced states to cut funding and created enormous financial and educational challenges that states and localities will be hard pressed to meet over the next several years without federal assistance. K-12 funding comprises about 26 percent of state budgets, and states will find it very hard to shield that funding while meeting their balanced-budget requirements. Even before COVID-19, schools endured years of inadequate and inequitable funding. Some 15 to 20 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools when the pandemic hit than before the Great Recession a decade ago… When COVID-19 hit, schools were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers while educating 1.5 million more children.”

So what will new relief dollars set aside for public schools cover? According to the CBPP: “Schools need to close the ‘digital divide,’ so all students and teachers have access to devices and connectivity. They need to safely operate in-person schools, which will require … more custodial staff, and more buses and drivers to maintain social distancing. A quarter of schools have no full- or part-time nurse, and most schools lack counseling support to help students navigate the mental-health challenges of returning to school. Many schools will need to add staff/ and/or portable classrooms to reduce class size to meet social distancing guidelines… With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students…. Along with the $130 billion, the Act includes ‘maintenance of equity’ provisions that require states to avert funding cuts to schools and school districts with high numbers of poor children.”

The bill’s specifics are important, but all kinds of journalists and social scientists continue to point to its overall meaning as the harbinger of a major shift in federal economic policy, despite that it is a temporary relief bill whose primary infusions of funding will eventually run out.

The NY Times Jamelle Bouie writes: “The list of new policies goes on. There is money in the American Rescue Plan to expand food stamps, bolster state welfare programs, and increase federal support for child and dependent care. Put all this together and the bill is expected to reduce overall poverty by more than a third and child poverty by more than half. It is, with no exaggeration, the single most important piece of anti-poverty legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, itself the signature program of a man who sought to emulate FDR.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell: “Sure President Biden may be the oldest president in U.S. history.  But in signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, he just delivered the biggest legislative victory for the young in generations. For decades, the general trend in federal fiscal policy, with some limited exceptions, has been to transfer wealth away from the young toward the old. The federal government spends about six times as much per capita on older Americans (primarily in the form of Social Security and Medicare) as it does on children…. It’s no surprise, then, that children have long had the highest poverty rates of any age group in the United States. They also have the dubious honor of notching one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world, largely because other rich countries invest considerably more in children than we do.”

Writing for the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman explains: “(T)he American Rescue Plan Act… reinstates significant aid for children. Moreover, unlike most of the act’s provisions, this change… is intended to outlast the current crisis; Democrats hope and expect that substantial payments to families with children will become a permanent part of the American scene.” This is thanks to a promise by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to bring forward legislation this year to make permanent the expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Krugman continues: “(T)his isn’t a return to welfare as we knew it; nobody will be able to live on child support. But it will sharply reduce child poverty. And it also… represents a philosophical break with the past few decades, and in particular with the obsessive fear that poor people might take advantage of government aid by choosing not to work… (T)hese traditional (Republican) attacks, which used to terrify Democrats, no longer seem to be resonating. Clearly, something has changed in American politics.”

The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner cheers: “Maybe once or twice in a century, you can feel the ground shifting. This is surely one of those moments. After yesterday, Donald Trump looms a lot smaller, and so does mainstream political conservatism. I’ve never seen the Wall Street Journal editorial page so despondent…  Activist government has been demonized for more than a generation. A great many working-class people, who saw government under both parties getting into bed with elites rather than providing practical help… may give government and the Democrats a second look.”

Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

There is absolutely no reason why the U.S. Department of Education should refuse to grant states waivers this spring from the federal requirement for standardized testing. Two weeks ago, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum released guidance telling states they must test students as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act despite the pandemic. After that, the Senate finally voted to confirm President Biden’s appointment of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education.

We all hope that Dr. Cardona will reconsider. And it is becoming clear that the subject is not closed.  Experts, parents, educators, and members of the public continue to press the new Secretary of Education to do the right thing in this year when some students have been in school, many are on hybrid schedules, and many others continue to learn remotely.

Why should Secretary Cardona cancel testing this spring? When Rosenblum announced that he was charging ahead to require testing, he ignored more than a month of informed advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year. (See here, here, here, and here.) No one in the Department has provided a convincing justification for requiring that the high-stakes tests be administered this school year.

Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead to be used for so-called accountability: so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

A letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021—after he had been appointed but before his nomination had been confirmed—describes in plain language exactly what should happen when children can return normally to their classrooms: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic value when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

New pushback against mandated testing has emerged this week.

On Tuesday, several Congressional Democrats sent a letter pressing Secretary Cardona to cancel the tests.  Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), vice chair of the House education committee and a former middle school principal… The letter to Cardona… was also signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-NY), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) as well as Sens Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)… Bowman, who said he’s had ‘preliminary conversations’ with fellow lawmakers about a legislative path to stopping standardized testing, also took aim at how the Biden administration’s decision was carried out last month. The new testing guidance was unveiled by the Education Department on Feb. 22, before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was signed by Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of the Education Trust-New York.”  Rep. Bowman explains, “Mr. Rosenblum, with all due respect, has never been a teacher or school administrator in his life, and it’s important that our parents and educators know that these decisions are being made by people who do not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Also on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association did something extremely unusual. AFT and NEA released a shared agenda outlining the best thinking of their members and their collaborative research departments and  pledged to work with states and school districts on the steps that must be taken not only to get students back in school but also to support children’s academic progress and their psychological and social well-being after a difficult year.

Part I of this joint document from the two unions that together represent millions of American teachers begins with a plea on behalf of children for relief this spring from the federal standardized testing mandate: “In February 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic in relation to the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Prior to that, both the NEA and AFT stressed the need for flexibility in both the administration of assessments and their use in accountability, and both advised that standardized testing should be suspended for the 2020-202 school year. Standardized test scores have never been a valid, reliable or complete measure of an individual’s instruction, nor do they accurately measure what students know and are able to do. And they are especially problematic now. The assessment flexibilities offered by the department, while helpful, do not go far enough to allow states to support the gathering of information and the distribution of resources in a way that will support teaching, learning and healthy school environments.”  The statement continues with thoughtfully and professionally developed suggestions for “the way forward,” including all sorts of examples of diagnostic assessments that have been developed by educators in collaboration with respected academic research partners and local community partners.

It is not too late for the rest of us to add our voices to those of academicians, members of Congress, the two major teachers unions, and other advocates. Pressure on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to reassess the need for federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing in the 2020-2021 school year remains timely and important.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, offers the following guidance for advocates:

  • “Push the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to reverse plans to deny comprehensive testing waivers;
  • “Pressure states to request maximum possible student assessment flexibility for the current year by pushing the envelope of the waivers USDOE already has said will be granted;
  • “Simultaneously, push states and districts to suspend their own testing mandates for the 2020-2021 school year and lift all high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools;
  • “Pursue these policies in the context of promoting well-rounded, authentic assessment systems developed in partnership with educators; and
  • “If Spring 2021 testing policies are not overhauled consistent with these goals, aggressively promote broad, diverse standardized exam opt-out campaigns.”

Strategic Advocacy Over Decades Brought Us an Expanded Child Tax Credit: Can the Same Kind of Strategic Organizing Produce School Funding Reform?

On Saturday, after the U.S. Senate joined the U.S. House of Representatives to pass President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, I started thinking about how a huge coalition and strong advocates can sustain support for an important reform even through times that feel bleak and hopeless. Now, as a result of persistent and strategic advocacy, suddenly an election of new leaders has on some level adjusted our society’s collective notion of the role of government.

Welfare reform imposed policies that punished parents who were not working by reducing their access to public assistance. In doing so, President Bill Clinton and the Congress that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families entirely neglected the needs of America’s poorest children. But as of this weekend, by expanding the Child Tax Credit, Congress accepted the idea that as a society we bear collective responsibility for the well-being of our children. And while the expanded Child Tax Credit is part of this year’s time-limited pandemic relief, my Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet have promised to try to make the changes permanent.

Back in 2004, I read Jason DeParle’s powerful book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, about how the 1996 welfare reform harmed children. Since then I have filled my clipping file with DeParle’s articles about our collective responsibility for poor children, most recently last summer, when DeParle pushed for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the NY Times and the New York Review of Books.  At the same time, I realized that powerful research and advocacy organizations—including First Focus on Children, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Urban Institute, and the Brookings Institution—were working to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable. But for years and years the matter of overturning welfare reform has felt hopeless.

In the NY Times this week, DeParle reminds us that an election can bring a turnaround not only in one piece of public policy but also much bigger shift: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.”

DeParle continues: “While the proposal took center stage in response to the pandemic, supporters have spent decades developing the case for a children’s income guarantee. Their arguments gained traction as science established the long-term consequences of deprivation in children’s early years, and as rising inequality undercut the idea that everyone had a fair shot at a better life… Mr. Biden’s embrace of the subsidies is a leftward shift for a Democratic Party that made deep cuts in cash aid in the 1990s under the theme of ‘ending welfare.’… ‘ The moment has found us,’ said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has proposed a child allowance in 10 consecutive Congresses and describes it as a children’s version of Social Security.”

Two weeks ago, the Education Law Center—the nation’s top school finance litigation firm pursuing cases for school funding adequacy and equity under the 50 state constitutions—published From Courthouse to Statehouse—and Back Again, a major report endorsing precisely the kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that helped bring about this week’s Congressional shift to expand the Child Tax Credit. The Education Law Center, whose business is pursuing litigation-based school funding reform, warns—based on successful court victories in Massachusetts, Kansas, Washington, and New Jersey—that along with litigation, states need grassroots organizing, research-based communications, and disciplined messaging:

“Securing new resources for schools requires a majority of elected lawmakers to support finance reform and more critically, to fund it. These legislative debates trigger complicated political calculations about taxation, public and social services, the role of government, and, inevitably race, income, and wealth… The profiles in this report demonstrate that labor and grassroots organizations can play a significant part in galvanizing public opinion and breaking down resistance or deadlock inside the statehouse.”

“(E)ach state’s constitution obligates it to maintain and support a system of free public schools to educate all resident children. This means the amount and distribution of school funding—both state and local revenues—is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. Consequently, improving the way public schools are funded and boosting the investment of tax dollars in those schools can only be accomplished through the year-to-year political process of making laws, and passing budgets in state capitols.”

How to shape public opinion? First the Education Law Center advocates the wide dissemination of research: “(S)uccessful campaigns require research at all stages and for multiple audiences… It is imperative that research go beyond academic circles and be tailored and marketed to broader groups and the public at large.” But research must be part of a strategically framed campaign: “(S)takeholder coalitions helped maintain a unified message throughout both the legal proceedings and legislative deliberations. These coalitions also helped contain potential schisms among stakeholder groups, keeping them internal rather than spilling out and muddying the public debate.”

The Education Law Center urges coalitions pursuing school funding lawsuits to raise enough funds to hire a communications director to manage a well framed and extremely disciplined message. And campaigns “are much more impactful when done in close partnership with grassroots parent, community, and civil rights organizations. These partnerships ensure that the interest of the most important beneficiaries of the campaigns—the students themselves—remain front and center.”

The same kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that paved the way for last weekend’s Congressional expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit is going to be necessary, says the Education Law Center, for school funding reform even when the central strategy is through litigation: “(T)he level and distribution of school funding is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. In the end, improving the education of our nation’s children, especially the most vulnerable, depends on building strong, multi-dimensional political campaigns that can place and sustain the demand for well-funded and well-resourced schools squarely at the foot of state elected representatives and governors. Lawyers, when working in deep connection to those campaigns, can use the courts to amplify and advance that demand.”

What Biden’s COVID-19 Rescue Plan Will Mean for American Poorest Children and for Our Public Education System

On February 27, the U.S House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill, and on Saturday, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the House bill. Nancy Pelosi says the House will promptly enact the Senate’s version, and the bill will move later this week to the President for his signature. News reports have focused on big economic elements of the relief package—unemployment relief and one-time stimulus checks, but one of the most important things about this bill has been under-reported: what the President and Congress plan to do for America’s children and their public schools.

The American Rescue Plan Supports Public Schools and the State Governments that Fund Public Schools

There has been enormous and utterly confusing guidance coming from the CDC, the White House, and mayors of big cities, all of whom want to get all children back to school in-person. But it is rarely mentioned that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, public schools had been struggling for years with inadequate funding. Yes, schools could reopen safely if ventilation were adequate, but lots of old schools have windows that don’t open. Yes, schools could reopen safely if classes were small enough that classrooms could house all the students in desks six feet apart, but in too many classes these days, one teacher works with more than 30—sometimes even 40—students. Running school buses with social distancing would require additional buses. Because most of us don’t spend our time inside schools where we can observe the realities children and their teachers live with every day, we like to imagine that reopening schools ought to be an easy process.  But the complexities can be overwhelming and the problems expensive to address—which is why many students are still learning remotely or attending school on complicated hybrid schedules.

The new stimulus package will help school districts address the complexities. The Washington Post‘s Rachel Siegel reports that Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed by the House and now by the Senate, “sets aside almost $130 billion for K-12 education. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing.” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities adds that there is considerable flexibility, allowing school districts to use the funding over the next two-and-a-half school years: “With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students—over the course of the next couple of years….”

On top of emergency relief money to support reopening, the bill the Senate passed on Saturday includes $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments. Last year’s Republican-majority Senate deleted aid for state and local governments from the March CARES Act and from the smaller relief plan that passed in late December. The Post‘s Rachel Siegel describes the effect of this year’s COVID-19 recession on state budgets: “Facing deep budget shortfalls, state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year—a loss of more than 1 in 20 government jobs…. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority—at least 26 states—were hit with declines. Revenue fell by 10 percent or more in five states… The toll was felt in both Republican-led states such as Texas, which saw a 10 percent shortfall, and Democratic-led ones, such as Oregon, which weathered a 13 percent drop…  Across all states, cuts to education spending make up almost all of the job losses. On the local level, public education accounted for just over half of job losses.”

COVID-19’s financial pressure on state public education budgets only compounds what has been a long running drop in public school funding. In two important books published last fall, the authors describe the fiscal condition of school districts over the decade since the 2008 Great Recession but before COVID-19 struck.  Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire in The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black also examines the fiscal condition of U.S. public education even before COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine… (I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Federal dollars in the American Rescue Plan will cover emergency assistance for school reopening and ensure that states can restore cuts made in the past year to their per-pupil school funding. The goal is for school districts to be able to rehire enough teachers and support professionals to ensure that all children have the support they need when they return to school.

The American Rescue Plan Will Significantly Ameliorate Child Poverty for the Remainder of This Year

Beginning with the 1996 law that substituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, federal policy has aimed to incentivize parents to work instead of providing direct assistance for the children in America’s poorest families. President Biden’s priority, embodied in the new stimulus package, is to stabilize the lives of America’s poorest children and to make it possible for them to thrive and engage fully at school. Keep in mind that a family of four is officially living in poverty with an income of $26,500 or less; a family of four living in extreme poverty has an income of $13,250 or less. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently emphasized: “A large body of research links hardships such as inability to afford adequate food or housing to worse child outcomes. The effects of such hardships, which range from nutrient deficiency to disrupted schooling when families move frequently from home to home, can have lifelong consequences… Providing more food, housing, income, and other relief is linked with a range of long-term positive outcomes for children.” COVID-19 has increased the number of families living in poverty and exacerbated the stress these families are already experiencing.

The relief package the Senate passed on Saturday increases the Child Tax Credit and makes it fully refundable. The Child Tax Credit is not a new federal program; it is a per-child tax credit parents receive for each of their children. The American Rescue Plan increases the annual Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child under current law to $3,600 per child for children 5-years-old and under and $3,000 per child for children 6-17 years-of-age. It works by reducing a parent’s federal income taxes leaving more earned income to be spent on children’s needs. But as the tax credit is currently designed, if a parent’s income is too low, that parent is not paying enough federal income tax to benefit from the full amount of the credit as higher earning parents do. President Biden’s plan would make the child tax cut fully available to all parents—“fully refundable” in the jargon of Congress. Biden’s plan will affect millions of America’s most vulnerable children—making their lives more secure and helping them thrive at school. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that the American Rescue Plan “would lift another 4.1 million children above the poverty line, cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent.”

The expansion of the Child Tax Credit is so urgently important that Jason DeParle highlighted it late yesterday for the NY Times: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups.  More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.” For years, DeParle has covered the impact on children and families of the 1996 welfare reform.  His analysis is definitely worth reading.

Additionally, the American Rescue Plan includes relief to shore up the provision of child care, which has been threatened during this COVID-19 year. The executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Olivia Golden explains: “The legislation contains $39 billion for the child care sector: $15 billion to expand the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $24 billion for a fund to stabilize the economically devastated child care sector. The investment builds on previous coronavirus relief bills to finally deliver $50 billion in child care relief, which CLASP has demonstrated is so vitally needed to keep child care providers afloat, support the child care workforce—disproportionately women of color—and allow child care to reopen safely. Child care is crucial infrastructure for the economy, and its restoration is critical for women’s return to the labor market. The legislation supports parents and children by including funds to make quality child care affordable for people with low incomes as they return to work.”

Golden summarizes why the American Rescue Plan is so important as our nation seeks a way out of the current health and economic crisis wrought by COVID-19: “The American Rescue Plan is the urgent response the nation needs. It’s the large-scale response required at this moment to many of our nation’s most pressing needs created by the coronavirus, recession, and racial inequity… It will alleviate today’s crisis of suffering in communities with low incomes and meaningfully reduce child poverty.”

Diane Ravitch Offers Pithy Prescription to Help Secretary of Education Cardona Remedy Education Policy

By 2010, there were a lot of people who had grown very concerned about the No Child Left Behind Act and the use of annual high-stakes testing to identify so-called “failing” schools. It was a federal education scheme that imposed punishments on public schools serving America’s poorest students instead of providing help. The movement to condemn No Child Left Behind didn’t crystalize, however, until Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former school reformer, published a book about why she had been wrong.

Here is how she confessed her sins on the first page of the first chapter of that book:  “In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted… At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own. I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms… Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated? The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 1-2)

Ravitch was not the first person to notice that something had gone terribly wrong, but she provided the first coherent analysis of the mass of factors and  ideas that had shaped a new and unfortunate direction for federal policy in public education.

Now Ravitch has done us all another favor.  In a short, concise analysis published by The Progressive, Ravitch adds another decade to her 2010 analysis. She shows readers precisely what President Joe Biden’s administration needs to do to turn away from privatization schemes and from public school reform based on punishing the school districts that serve our nation’s neediest children.  She urges the Biden Administration to focus intensely helping the nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

She begins:  “President Joe Biden will have his work cut out in repairing the damage done to U.S. education caused by Donald Trump and his one-time Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. But Biden and his Secretary of Education…, Miguel Cardona, must also reverse at least twenty years of federal education policy, starting over with measures that allow teachers to teach and children to learn without fear of federal sanctions.”

Ravitch’s short summary of the history that has brought us to where we are today deftly takes us back to 1983 with the publication of The Nation at Risk.  She reminds us about George H.W. Bush’s summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who later when he was President, paved the way for No Child Left Behind by launching the Education Goals 2000.  Ravitch writes: “Goals cost nothing, and they give the illusion of activity. In his ‘Goals 2000’ program, Clinton encouraged every state to write standards and give more tests… George W. Bush topped his predecessors during the 2000 campaign when he claimed that his education plan had produced a ‘miracle’ in  Texas. Test every child every year, he said, and honor schools where scores go up and embarrass schools where they don’t… By the end of 2001, Congress had passed his (No Child Left Behind) law, expanded to more than 1,000 pages, and Bush signed it on January 8, 2002.”

The rest is more familiar recent history.  When, “By 2014, few U.S. schools were on track to reach the law’s demand for 100 percent proficiency… Arne Duncan offered waivers to states from the law’s requirement.”  But he added to the troubles with his Race to the Top, which bribed the states to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funds, “but only if they met certain conditions… increase the number of charter schools… evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students… adopt common national standards… and take swift punitive action against schools that did not raise their scores.”

Ravitch concludes: “The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools… Cardona should begin by offering blanket waivers for the 2021 testing cycle.”

I am certain Ravitch submitted her new article for publication before last week, when a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education released guidance insisting that the federally mandated high stakes testing will continue this year despite COVID-19.  And I am sure she submitted it before Monday evening, when the U.S. Senate finally confirmed Miguel Cardona to his position as the new U.S. Secretary of Education.

We can hope that perhaps Biden and Cardona will somehow correct the Department’s mistaken new guidance that mandates the continuation of high stakes testing this year during COVID-19.  We can hope Secretary Cardona will listen to Ravitch and the huge chorus of parents, deans of colleges of education, teachers unions, the national Superintendents Roundtable and scholarly researchers who study the construction and use of standardized tests.

What is extremely hopeful is that our new President, Joe Biden, has seemed in the past at least to agree with Diane Ravitch’s analysis of what has gone wrong with federal education policy. Biden’s education plan during the campaign emphasized tripling funding for the federal Title I program to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty and fulfilling, within the next decade, Congress’s promise, when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of the mandated programming. (Currently Congress is covering less than 15 percent of the cost.) Biden also advocated greater accountability for charter schools and eliminating federal funding flowing to the for-profit education management organizations that run huge chains of charters. And he declared his support for diminishing the role of high-stakes standardized testing.

If you read one education article this week, I urge you to read and re-read Diane Ravitch’s short, pithy piece in The Progressive.  Maybe even make yourself a copy and put it on your bulletin board or in your wallet and read it again once a month. I certainly urge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to do the same thing.

Ravitch concludes “Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition… Why not try a radically different approach? Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of the students are greatest? Give the schools that enroll students with disabilities the resources that Congress promised but never delivered.  Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play. Now that would be a revolution!”

Beware: Here Is How to Wreck Your State’s Public Schools

Many state legislatures are currently considering new private school tuition vouchers or planning to expand long running voucher programs, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings account vouchers. Ohio provides a stark warning about the potential damage of rapidly growing school privatization at public expense.

In a column in Sunday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, Peter Robertson examines how the growth of publicly funded private school tuition vouchers is increasingly sucking up the state funding Ohio supposedly provides for its public schools:

“According to the Ohio Department of Education’s first February Foundation Funding Report (Robertson’s article contains a link to the Excel spreadsheet from the Ohio Department of Education.), districts will spend $162 million this school year on these private school vouchers… An analysis last year by News5 Cleveland found that nearly two-thirds of voucher recipients had not previously been students in the public district schools—they were private school students who had not received state funding for their tuitions, and now do.”

Robertson was previously an administrator in the Cleveland Public Schools and later a school board member in Shaker Heights. “He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of online learning in educational change.”

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are funded by a legislative scheme called “the school district deduction.” The state counts voucher students (enrolled in a private school) as though they are enrolled in the public school district where the students reside. The district receives the state’s basic state aid amount for each of these students. Then the state extracts the voucher—$4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high school student—right out of the school district’s budget. The problem is that in many school districts, the voucher amount extracted is larger than the amount of that school district’s state basic aid per-pupil—leaving the school district with a net funding loss for every student who carries a voucher away to a private school.

Robertson uses the school district where I live as his example of how this actually works: “So far this year, 24% of student enrollments reported by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH) district are for EdChoice private school vouchers, up from 20% the previous year and 13% the year before that. Thirty-nine percent of the district’s state funding or $8.9 million is projected to pay private school tuition.”

Changes to the EdChoice Voucher program last November—with State Senate President Matt Huffman’s expansion of the program introduced and passed without even one public hearing—protected school districts in wealthy communities from such school district deductions by making only students living in the attendance zones of Title I schools eligible to qualify for the vouchers. These are schools identified for the federal Title I program because they serve concentrations of children living in poverty.

Robertson explains: “The school and district attendance zones where students will be eligible for vouchers next school year are disproportionately populated by low-income households. Voucher eligibility is a function of a school’s poverty rate and the ‘Performance Index’ from the school’s state report card—and that index is constructed entirely of test scores…  So next year and in the years ahead, the legislature will use EdChoice vouchers to divert hundreds of millions more in state funding away from public schools that serve poor students to help pay the private school tuitions of students already attending private schools. These students do have to live in households at or below 250% of the poverty line, but are still likely to be better off economically than the students remaining in the schools from which this money will be drained.”

Robertson concludes by reminding the Plain Dealer‘s readers that in four decisions back between 1997 and 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court found public school funding in our state unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable, but the Court never required the Legislature to devise a remedy.  In the legislative session that ended on December 31, 2020, the Ohio House passed a new Fair School Funding Plan (by a margin of 87-9) to remedy our state’s public school funding. The bill also included the termination of school district deduction funding for charter schools and private school tuition vouchers. The Ohio Senate Finance Committee never took a vote on the plan, which caused the bill to die at the end of the session.

The Fair School Funding Plan has now been reintroduced as HB 1 in the new legislative session. We’ll see if Senate President Matt Huffman and Senate Finance Committee Chair Matt Dolan will be any more willing to support adequate and equitable public school funding, and whether they will be willing to let the legislature take full responsibility for budgeting for an ever expanding EdChoice Voucher program.

Of course, if Ohio’s anti-tax legislature decides to let the state assume responsibility for the huge and growing voucher program, the cost will inevitably subtract from what is available statewide for the public schools. But at least state budget funding would alleviate the horribly inequitable burden this program is currently imposing on districts with Title I schools. And perhaps, if legislators had to budget transparently for the full cost of the program instead of shifting the burden to local school districts, they would have an incentive to curtail the outrageously expensive growth rate of vouchers in Ohio.

Is President Biden a Supporter of Standardized Testing After All?

A week ago a newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum announced that this spring, the Department will require the annual standardized testing mandated first by No Child Left Behind, and now by its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Last year, when COVID-19 shut down schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated tests.

Rosenblum’s announcement followed more than a month of advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year.  Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they  have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

Organized efforts to press the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the tests this spring have included letters from national and state education organizations and academic experts.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss published a letter to Miguel Cardona from hundreds of deans of the nation’s colleges of education which Strauss summarizes: “It said that, ‘problems abound with high-stakes standardized testing of students, particularly regarding validity, reliability, fairness, bias, and cost’ and the coronavirus pandemic has made those problems worse.”  Additionally, in February 74 national, state and local organizations along with 10,732 Americans sent a letter to Dr. Cardona asking the Department of Education to grant waivers from testing this year. The signers include the Network for Public Education, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the National Superintendents Roundtable, The Schott Foundation for Public Education, and In the Public Interest.

What Ian Rosenbaum’s guidance means is, at best, unclear. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa, Evie Blad, and Sarah Schwartz explain: “The Biden administration’s decision not to entertain states’ requests to cancel standardized exams for this school year due to the pandemic marks its first major K-12 decision—and it’s leading to no shortage of controversy. Although the department has now provided clarity on that highly anticipated decision, its approach to the issue—a continued mandate for testing, tempered by some flexibility—will still push states to make difficult choices… On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education informed states that it’s not inviting them to seek ‘blanket waivers or assessments’ for the 2020-2021 school year…. However, the department will consider requests to essentially put accountability systems on hold. That would mean not identifying certain schools for improvement or differentiating schools by ratings for the 2020-21 school year… States could also get waivers from the requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the tests… As for the tests themselves, the Biden administration said states would have the option of giving shorter versions of the regular tests… administering tests remotely, and expanding their testing windows so that students could take the exams this summer or even during the 2021-22 school year. How states make decisions about those issues, amid the daunting array of practical challenges and political pressures, could put tremendous strain on education and political leaders.”

In a fascinating report on Friday, Valerie Strauss raised some important questions about the Department’s release of Rosenblum’s decision before Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s nominee for Education Secretary is confirmed by a full Senate vote. Earlier in February, the U.S. Senate Education Committee voted to forward Cardona’s nomination for a vote on the Senate floor.  It is rumored that Cardona may finally be confirmed today.

Was Miguel Cardona involved in the decision Ian Rosenblum announced last Monday?  If not, who did have input? Strauss reports:  “An Education Department spokesperson said Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, did not participate in the decision.”

Did Ian Rosenblum, a new appointee at the Department of Education, make the decision on his own?  Surely not. But his decision certainly does conform to the policy of his former employer. Before joining the Biden Education Department, Rosenblum was the executive director of The Education Trust, New York. The Education Trust has for decades been a strong supporter of test-based school accountability.  And the day after Rosenblum’s announcement, The Education Trust released a letter of support endorsed by four dozen organizations, many of them prominent advocates for test-and-punish school accountability. The list includes several of the Sackler-funded state 50CAN organizations including affiliates in New Jersey, New Mexico and Hawaii; the Thomas Fordham Institute; Education Reform Now, which is the “think tank” associated with the Democrats for Education Reform PAC; Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change and Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd); The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Valerie Strauss reminds readers of Biden’s remarks last December, when questioned at a large forum where teachers and many education organizations queried then candidate Biden about whether he would rethink the two-decades-long regime of high stakes testing: “He said that evaluating teachers by student test scores… was ‘a big mistake’ and that ‘teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.'”

Strauss continues: “Critics of high-stakes testing took heart in his response and hoped he would diminish the importance of the standardized tests the federal law requires states to give annually to hold schools accountable for student progress.”

Last week, after Rosenblum released the Department’s decision to require testing this year, Strauss reports that many public school educators saw Biden as reneging on his promise: “Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations. They said it was not feasible to quickly shorten the exams or to administer them remotely.” Strauss quotes Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the NY City Schools who, perhaps feeling emboldened to speak his mind after announcing that, in March, he will leave his position as chancellor, said: “As an educator I would say to parents, there is an opt-out. And if there is ever at time to consider whether that opt-out makes sense for you, this is the time.”

It is expected that Miguel Cardona will be fully confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this week, and I presume that Cindy Martin, currently superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District and nominated to be Deputy Secretary of Education, will soon be confirmed.

I am counting on President Biden’s administration to fulfill its promises: (1) to support public schools with significant additional financial support for Title I and funding for programs under the IDEA and (2) to fulfill his promise last December to back off from high stakes testing used to blame and punish the public schools and the teachers in the nation’s school districts that serve concentrations of poor children.

Ian Rosenblum released a Departmental decision requiring high stakes standardized testing as usual, but he added several qualifications and exceptions.  Before I conclude that Biden is reneging on his promises to educators, I will be watching carefully to see what happens when Biden’s appointed leadership of the Department of Education is in place.

Joe Biden promised a new direction in education policy—grounded in support instead of punishment for school districts which have long been abandoned and underfunded by their state legislatures. These were some of his most important promises, and if he breaks them, I will be terribly disappointed.

Another School District Ends Contract with City Police for Security Guards: Will Improve Counseling and School Climate

Last June, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Washington Post reported that school districts across the United States suddenly felt obligated to take seriously the warnings from civil rights organizations about problems when school districts hire armed police as so-called “Student Resource Officers”:

“For years, civil rights activists have worked to remove police officers from the nation’s public schools, arguing that they pose a greater risk to students of color than the intruders they’re supposed to guard against. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a shift that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago is underway: Several major school systems have canceled their contracts with police, and others are mounting pressure to do the same.” School districts named by the Post last June included: Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and West Contra Costa Unified School District in California.

Now, the New York Times reports that last week another large school district, the Los Angeles Unified School District, approved a plan to eliminate a third of the armed police guards in the city’s public schools: “After a months-long push by students in the nation’s second-largest public school system, leaders in Los Angeles approved a plan on Tuesday to cut the district’s security force by a third, joining a growing number of cities that have reduced the presence of police officers in school hallways… The vote on Tuesday… would also ban the use of pepper spray on students and divert $25 million to programs supporting students of color. It was the result of months of meetings on how best to reconfigure public safety in the district, which serves about 650,000 students… The plan… eliminates 70 sworn officers, who have arrest powers; 62 nonsworn officers; and one support staff member, leaving 211 officers on the district’s force. Officers at secondary schools in Los Angeles will be replaced with ‘climate coaches’ from the community who will mentor students, help resolve conflicts and address implicit bias.”

Employment of armed police guards in public schools accelerated after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. The stated purpose was making schools safer, but bringing police into school has at the same time accelerated another alarming problem known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Young people in school are likely to make mistakes and likely to struggle to resolve conflicts, but when fights result in arrests by police (now called “School Resource Officers”) the students end up in the juvenile justice system—in court and in juvenile detention centers—instead of in the principal’s or a counselor’s office. And because of the structural institutional biases that pervade our society, a huge percentage of the students propelled into court and detention are poor, Black, and Brown.

Advocates for justice at school, and advocates for school policies designed to support students through normal adolescent development have spent two decades pleading for handling school discipline in school instead of in court, and for increasing counseling and mental health staff to support the fair resolution of student conflicts and discipline. The trend of school districts contracting with their police departments to handle student discipline has grown simultaneously with the widespread reduction in school counselors, social workers, and mental health support professionals as public school budgets have declined.

In the introduction to a major report, We Came to Learn from the civil rights agency, Advancement Project, the agency’s former executive director explains: “There is a culture clash that exists between law enforcement and the learning environment: police enforce criminal laws, while schools are supposed to nurture students… This report… documents the school policing model and discusses how school police became institutionalized in America’s public education system through funding and policy at both the federal and local level.”

Collaborating to promote fairer school discipline and school policy that supports normal child and adolescent development, Advancement Project, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education published Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, a guide for institutionalizing restorative practices as an alternative not only to the employment of armed police as School Resource Officers but also to the overuse of suspension and expulsion of students out of school: “Restorative practices are processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.  Restorative practices are increasingly being applied in individual schools and school districts to address youth behavior, rule violations, and to improve school climate and culture… Restorative practices allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing the individuals affected by the behavior. Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future.”

An enormous coalition of national, statewide and local organizations, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains its mission: “challenging the systemic problem of pushout in our nation’s schools and working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”  In a short two page brief, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains Why Counselors, Not Cops:

“The presence of police in schools has escalated dramatically in the last several decades, and the figures on arrests and referrals to law enforcement show disproportionate targeting of black and Latino students. This is just one aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline, where some students are denied an opportunity to succeed, and instead are pushed out of school and into the juvenile or criminal justice system… (I)t is clear that students and their families are criminalized, and that school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement go up when police have a regular presence in schools… For immigrant and undocumented students, bringing police into the school building can lead to deportation for themselves or their families… Counselors, wrap-around services and strong relationships with caring adults give struggling students support, and keep students who may need interventions from falling through the cracks.”