Why We Should All Care About the Illinois School Funding Mess—No Matter Where We Live

I confess to breathing a sigh of relief when some other state has a school funding crisis. At least it’s not Ohio (my state) this time!  I have to force myself to remember that political trends at the state level matter. Really, if you think about it, it isn’t important that Betsy DeVos is unlikely to get a federal voucher or tax credit program this year. After all, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has members in every state legislature ready to introduce any of a number of ALEC model bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts.

And then there is something even more basic: school funding. Most of school funding, about 45 percent on average, comes from state budgets, with another 45 percent coming from the taxes raised by local school districts. The federal government invests primarily in Title I to assist school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—about 10 percent of all K-12 school funding.  In many states whose governors are Republican and whose legislatures are dominated by conservative Republican majorities—Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina  and Florida, for example, public school funding has been jeopardized by widespread tax cutting and austerity budgeting.  In these states, state spending on public schools has remained lower than what the state was investing in 2007, before the Great Recession.

Illinois isn’t at the bottom in overall spending, but it is one of the states with the most inequitable school funding formulas in the nation.  It is a divided state whose legislature remains dominated by Democrats but whose current governor, Bruce Rauner adheres to far-right ideology including austerity budgeting.

Until the first week of July, due to an ideological impasse, the state had lacked a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago, and the funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. After Rauner vetoed the state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together to override his veto. But the budget stipulated that school districts would not be able to access their state funds until the Governor approved an “evidence-based” school funding formula, passed by both houses of the legislature, but not yet sent to Rauner for his signature.

Earlier this week, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Rauner has what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto” power—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner has called  “a bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools. (Here is an explanation of some of the complexities of Illinois law and the current school funding mess.”)

What will happen now? The Chicago Tribune explains: “Rauner’s veto sets the stage for weeks—and potentially months—of uncertainty, kicking the issue back to Democrats who control the General Assembly. The Senate now has 15 days to consider the veto, then the House gets another 15 days. If lawmakers don’t agree with the changes or overturn them, the legislation dies and the comptroller’s office will be unable to send schools their state aid payments until a compromise is reached. The first checks are scheduled to be sent (to school districts for the 2017-18 school year) by Aug. 10. If that deadline is missed, it’s unlikely many schools would be unable to open. However, some districts may have to cut back on programs, borrow or tap into reserves.”

Rauner’s amendatory veto is complicated, but here is the Chicago Tribune explaining what it means: “The Republican governor, long a critic of CPS’ leadership and the Chicago Teachers Union, rewrote the measure to strip out more than $200 million in grant money, penalize the district for declining enrollment, and make it appear wealthier in a complex new formula that determines how state school aid is distributed. And while Rauner left in $221 million in CPS pension help, he  did so with a big string attached. In unveiling his amendatory veto, Rauner tapped into a regional divide that has long seen Chicago pitted against the suburbs and Downstate.”

Politifact Illinois refutes Rauner’s analysis and emphasizes the urgent need for a new school funding formula—including money for Chicago Public Schools. Chicago has the largest number and greatest concentration of students in poverty of any school district in Illinois, and the state has not, historically, prioritized equity: “Believe it or not, there is one thing on which Illinois politicians of all stripes have agreed for years: The state’s system for funding public schools largely through local property taxes is woefully unfair.  While low-income districts scramble to provide classroom basics, more affluent districts can afford to create some of the finest educational facilities and programs in the nation… To address this inequity, Rauner last year formed the bipartisan Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. In February, it issued a report recommending an ‘evidence-based’ formula in which financial and academic need would become the main determinant of how state education dollars are distributed. The formula should be applied so that no school district loses funding… a goal only met with an increase in overall state school spending.”

Politifact Illinois concludes: “Rauner’s own Illinois Education Funding Reform Commission…. called for an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula but also recommended a ‘hold harmless’ provision that would ensure no district received less this year than last. By that dictate alone, CPS should not be in line this year for a cut in the size of its block grant… The bill’s Chicago pension component can’t be called a ‘bailout’ or even a perk because it only gives CPS what every other school district already has… Numbers are sure to fly fast and furious as Rauner and lawmakers duke this out in Springfield in the days ahead, but we find Rauner’s generalization that SB 1 is a ‘bailout’ for Chicago schools to be FALSE.”

Illinois and the Chicago Public Schools illustrate today’s rancorous and divisive state-level politics around education.

  • In Chicago, school privatization through rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined enrollment in the public school district, and the Governor believes state aid should drop accordingly, even though research demonstrates that school districts cannot recapture stranded costs.
  • Chicago’s pension crisis dates back to the mid-1990s, when the legislature itself restructured the Chicago Public School District. Fighting over the teacher pensions is part of an acrimonious conflict between the Chicago Teachers Union and Rauner.
  • In Illinois and across the nation, there is little honest political conversation about the desperate challenges posed by concentrated student poverty for underfunded public schools.

Finally Bruce Rauner’s political philosophy is extremist. In early July, after members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of the state budget, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation.

Rauner, like Sam Brownback in Kansas, has promoted government austerity. He is not constructively examining the best strategies by which the state of Illinois could invest in the poorest children and their public schools in Chicago or East St. Louis. I cannot think of one governor in any state who has deeply explored how state government might best be supportive of city school districts where thousands of children live in neighborhoods where poverty is highly concentrated.  Our society’s widening divide by economics overlaid on our divide by race has been examined by academic sociologists but not by politicians.

No Shame: ECOT Continues to Cheat Ohio Taxpayers Even While Awaiting Final Court Decision

Two prominent and long-experienced national organizations, the NAACP and the National Education Association, have passed resolutions demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until some kind of oversight can be put in place to protect students and the investment of tax dollars. Charter schools are being authorized under the laws of 43 states, with an outrageous lack of public oversight in some states.

Ohio and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow provide the very definition of the problem. ECOT, as the giant online school is known, awaits a final decision from the Ohio Supreme Court that would permit the state to claw back $60 million in overpayments from the taxpayers to the school for the 2015-16 school year alone. During that school year, ECOT claimed it was serving 15,322 full-time students, but the state has been able to verify only 6,800.

Thanks to Ohio’s major newspapers, the scandal continues to be exposed as each new chapter unfolds.

Here is how the Columbus Dispatch began its editorial on Sunday: “ECOT’s brazen plundering of the Ohio treasury continues to set a new bottom for shameless. The state’s largest online school, told to repay $60.4 million overbilled in a previous school year for students who were MIA, appears to be inflating current enrollment—overcharging the state to raise money to repay its debt. The fear is that Ohio taxpayers will never see a dime of what ECOT owes. The enterprise is employing the time-honored strategy of ‘extend and pretend’: Ignore state orders on how to properly count enrollment for reimbursement.  Appeal the Ohio Department of Education’s orders, upheld by a succession of Ohio courts, while continuing to claim that the state has no right to document that students actually are logging in and getting educated. Drag out the legal fight, a no brainer since the school is paying its legal bills with taxpayer dollars.  And before the Ohio Supreme Court rules, grab as much state cash as possible.”

In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer also editorialized on Sunday: “Ohio Auditor Dave Yost recently sent a letter to the Ohio Department of Education advising it to ‘impound a significant portion of any further funding’ to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow until the state can verify the online charter school’s student attendance numbers for the upcoming school year. There are good reasons for this: ECOT has not repaid Ohio the $60 million in reimbursements it owes for what the state determined was ECOT’s 59 percent overstatement of student attendance figures for the 2015-16 school year.  ECOT is arguing its student numbers were correct but, so far, the courts have sided with ODE.  ECOT’s appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court is pending… Yost is right. ECOT claimed 15,300 online students two years ago but could only provide evidence to verify 6,300, according to ODE.  Why take at face value its estimate of 14,000 students this coming academic year?”

On Sunday, the Dispatch also published an extraordinary investigation—by reporters Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel—of ECOT’s history.  They remind us that besides donating huge political contributions that have endeared ECOT to Ohio’s legislators, William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two privately held companies that provide the school’s curriculum and its operations, has featured those with political influence as the school’s annual commencement speakers including Ohio Auditor Dave Yost at three commencements, Governor John Kasich, and even Jeb Bush, a national leader promoting school privatization.

But Yost has now come to understand that Lager and ECOT are trying to cheat Ohio’s taxpayers.  On July 21, Patrick O’Donnell reported for the Plain Dealer: “The state needs to send less money to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow… state Auditor Dave Yost says, or it may never recover the $60 million the school already owes.”  In a letter to state education superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Yost asked the state to escrow part of the state’s funding for ECOT for the upcoming school year until ECOT’s enrollment figures can be verified. According to Yost’s request, the state has begun deducting $2.5 million each month from ongoing payments for 2017-18. “Instead of receiving a little over $8.1 million in state tax dollars toward opening the school again this fall, ECOT received just under $5.6 million earlier this month. But that 5.6 million may be too much, Yost said. ECOT is claiming 14,000 students again, Yost noted, so the per-student payments to the school are possibly too high…”  Yost explains: “It is virtually the same number of students ECOT claimed for the 2016-17 school year, and far in excess of the audited number your department found supported for the 2015-16 school year.”  “I am concerned that ECOT is overstating its FTE (attendance) for cash-flow purposes, and the state may not be able to claw back any funds that are improperly distributed to ECOT.”

Yesterday O’Donnell added that the Department of Education has decided to withhold 12 percent of ECOT’s funding for the upcoming school year until the state’s audit of active participation by ECOT’s students is complete: “These cuts would be added to the $2.5 million monthly deductions the state is already taking from the school’s funding to cover the school’s past attendance issues.”

From Candisky and Siegel’s investigation we also learn that ECOT was always envisioned primarily as a money-making scheme, not an experiment in education reform. The idea was not hatched by people with a background in pedagogy, school psychology or educational philosophy: “After making and losing his first fortune in the office supply business, William Lager hatched a plan for Ohio’s first online charter school on the back of napkins over countless cups of coffee at a West Side (Columbus) Waffle House. ‘He was flat busted broke, worse than we were. He would sit there all day long drawing on napkins,’  said Chandra Filichia, a former waitress at the Waffle House on Wilson Road who was tapped to help recruit Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s first class of students and worked 16 years for Lager… Lager, Filichia recalled, would photocopy $5 coffee cards—each good for 10 cups of coffee—to save money while working on his business plan with longtime friend and ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy.  The two of them attended state-run classes on how to start a charter school, where they met Coletta Musick.  The former principal brought an actual education background to the team.  Lager already had connections for obtaining computers and office equipment. David Brailsford, a Toledo ticket broker, provided the early financing… But once Lager inked… (the) deal, his financial woes didn’t last long.  ECOT—and his affiliated for-profit companies that provide instructional materials, services and marketing—have brought Lager a fortune.”

Here is what ECOT has amassed—all from tax dollars: “From 2001 to 2016, ECOT took in more than $1 billion from Ohio taxpayers, and of that total paid more than $170 million to Lager’s companies to run the day-to-day operations of the school and provide it with educational software.”

In the fifteen years from 2001-2016, Lager bought a $300,000 condo in downtown Columbus, a $433,500 vacation house on a lake, a $995,000 house in a Columbus suburb, and a $3.7 million house in Key West, Florida. He has also donated $2.1 million in political contributions to Ohio Republicans.

In 2015 the Ohio legislature strengthened the charter school law to prevent conflicts of interest and double dealing, but by that time, ECOT was well established.  In 2001, report Candisky and Siegel, “Lager and Hardy hand-picked the ECOT board that employed their company. In fact, the man who signed the school’s agreement with Lager’s Altair management, ECOT’s board chairman Donald Wihl, was a friend who owned the condo where Lager was staying.  Wihl’s daughter was employed as the ECOT board’s secretary.”  Once then-state auditor Jim Petro began investigating the school back in 2001, three board members resigned along with the director of educational services, and the director of academic affairs. In that same year, Lager’s partner Hardy also resigned.

Petro discovered that the state had, in 2001, paid ECOT $1.9 million during a two month period for students for whom the school could not document any hours of instruction: “An April 2002 audit said the school was overpaid $1.7 million in 2001 after ECOT ‘did not utilize an internal audit function to monitor the hours of educational opportunity. Petro also found the school had no procedures for withdrawing students and no policy on how enrollment would be counted, nor was information available on whether all students got appropriate computer equipment.”

Candisky and Siegel continue: “Petro, who later became a Lager ally and spoke at ECOT’s 2006 commencement, wrote to the Department of Education in March 2000 that… (charter) school boards are made up primarily of employees and board members from management companies and are not representative of the particular community.’… But the legislature wouldn’t take action to significantly limit conflicts of interest and provide stricter oversight of school operations and sponsors for 13 more years.  Meanwhile, two things grew: Ohio’s poor reputation among national education experts as the Wild West of charter schools, and political contributions from for-profit school operators, particularly Lager and David Brennan, founder of another charter school operation, White Hat Management.”

Once a charter school scam is well established—especially an operation where profits are involved and are being strategically invested in campaign contributions to the legislators who would have to do the regulating, it is virtually impossible to protect the taxpayers and the children. Ohio’s ECOT perfectly exemplifies why a national moratorium is needed on the authorization of new charter schools until oversight can be imposed.

Betsy DeVos: So How’s She Doing?

Six months in, several writers have set out to remind us who Betsy DeVos is and to consider where the U.S. Department of Education stands under her leadership.

Writing in the U.K. for The Guardian, David Smith recalls: “(I)t is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many… as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own civil rights office… DeVos—who once called traditional public school districts a ‘dead end’—is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives.  Now… she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.”

And, in a sparkling New York Magazine profile, Lisa Miller sums up the impact of Betsy DeVos and her family—longtime far-right activists and philanthropists behind right-wing causes. First there is the family’s role in Michigan education politics: “Detroit now has a greater percentage of kids in charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Eighty percent of those charters are for-profit. The number of charter schools is growing while the number of students in Detroit continues to shrink, so schools pursue kids like retailers on sale days, with radio ads and flyers and promises of high-end gifts. Still, only 10 percent of Detroit’s graduating seniors are reading at a college level, and the charter schools perform better than or as well as the district schools only about half the time.  When last summer a bipartisan group of concerned Detroiters tried to introduce some accountability and performance standards to the system, GLEP stepped in and killed the measure.” GLEP is the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-privatization lobbying group founded and funded by Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Miller neatly captures who Betsy DeVos is: “Trump has hired other oligarchs to run his federal agencies, and he has staffed the Executive branch with people who, like DeVos, might have been called ‘lobbyists’ in former lives. But DeVos is a hybrid of the two.  Fortified by great wealth and strong religion in the shelter of a monochromatic community, she has throughout her life single-mindedly used that wealth to advance her educational agenda… She was raised to believe she knew exactly what was right.  And for decades, this certainty has propelled her ever forward, always with her singular goal in mind. But what’s right in the bubble in which she has always lived doesn’t translate on YouTube, or in Cabinet meetings, or on the battlefield of public schools, where stakeholders have been waging vengeful politics for years. This is what those advocates who had admired the zeal she brought to their cause didn’t have the foresight to grasp. Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”  Miller writes that Betsy DeVos’s long-time friends and allies—Campbell Brown, Jeb Bush, Eva Moskowitz—“have gone quiet, evading the opportunity to offer further praise.”

Examining DeVos’s record earlier this month, this blog concluded that DeVos has accomplished far less than everyone feared, although there is cause for concern that DeVos is quietly neutralizing the department’s Office of Civil Rights and delaying rules to protect college students who have taken out loans to attend unscrupulous for-profit colleges. But as far as privatization of  K-12 school education goes? Not much progress. Reporters who cover these issues in-depth seem to agree with this assessment.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s top reporter following federal policy describes a federal department that has struggled since DeVos took over: “(M)any in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.”

Klein notes that a House budget bill neglects to fund the very dangerous idea of making Title I portable, a hot issue ultimately rejected by Congress when the federal education law was reauthorized in 2015: “Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’s most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.”

And, Klein reports, “DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said.  ‘Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers… I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington  I think it’s more difficult here.'”

What about tuition tax credits, the other form of vouchers DeVos has extolled?  Klein explains: “The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year… One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill. DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Michael Stratford at POLITICO describes the staffing delay: “EDUCATION DEPARTMENT HIRING HITS A WALL: The task of staffing the Education Department with fresh political faces appears to have hit a wall. Dozens of individuals have dropped out, frustrated by the drawn-out, rigorous hiring process. Those in the pipeline are wondering what’s taking so long. And fewer folks are throwing their hats in the ring, doubting whether the Trump administration’s pledge to dramatically expand private school choice options for working class families will ultimately go anywhere… A lack of senior political hires has failed to attract other talent, compounding the problem…. And the political hires now at the Education Department have way too much on their plate. President Donald Trump has only formally nominated two individuals for politically appointed, Senate-confirmable positions…”

Stratford draws this conclusion: “Amid the chaos, the Hill doesn’t seem interested in funding the president’s school choice budget proposals and it’s unclear if the White House will get behind a plan to expand private school choice through tax reform—a huge lift for Congress and the administration.  Folks who support private school choice are ‘increasingly pessimistic’… (a) source said. ‘There still seems to be people in the pipeline that could get through. But it seems like no one new is getting in line.'”

Does this mean that advocates for strengthening the public schools can let up?  Not at all.  As long as Betsy DeVos remains unpopular with the public and with members of Congress, it will be harder for her to undermine public education. It is our job to continue—relentlessly—to define the importance of the public schools, which are required by law to serve all children, meet their particular needs, and protect their rights. We must also take Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation seriously: vouchers and tuition tax credits have had more success in state legislatures than in Congress. ALEC model laws are being introduced in statehouses across the country and must be carefully tracked and opposed.

Momentum Grows Against VAM Evaluations of Teachers, but Eradication of VAM Will Take Time

Earlier this month, Christopher Tienken, a professor of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University published a short commentary on research he and colleagues have been conducting about whether standardized tests ought to be used for high stakes policy decisions.

He writes, “Every year, policymakers across the U.S. make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardized tests. These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, eligility to graduate high school and teacher tenure. In 40 states, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardized tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states. However, research shows that the outcomes of standardized tests don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to… The results show that it’s possible to predict the percentages of students who will score proficient or above on some standardized tests. We can do this just by looking at some of the important characteristics of the community, rather than factors related to the schools themselves, like student-teacher ratios or teacher quality. This raises the possibility that there are serious flaws built into education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.”  Tienken and his colleagues have been investigating issues associated with the aggregate poverty (or wealth) in the communities where schools are located.

Questions about the reliability and validity of standardized testing, reports Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, are finally contributing to growing doubts about the use of what is known as Value-Added Modeling (VAM) to evaluate teachers. VAM, writes Cohen, is “a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating each teacher’s effectiveness based on… (her) students’ standardized test scores.” VAM models are supposed to measure the “value added” by each particular teacher.

Concerns about VAM are not new. In the spring of 2014, the American Statistical Association warned: “(V)ariation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

A year later in June of 2015, the American Educational Research Association added, “Because of the adverse consequences of faulty evaluations for educators and the students they serve, use of VAM in any evaluation system must meet a very high technical bar… (T)he validity of inferences from VAM scores depends on the ability to isolate the contributions of teachers and leaders to student learning from the contributions of other factors not under their control. This is very difficult, not only because of data limitations but also because of the highly nonrandom sorting of students and teachers into schools and classes within schools. The resulting bias will not be distributed evenly among schools, given wide variation in critical factors like student mobility…. Therefore, due caution should be exercised in the interpretations of VAM scores, since we generally do not know how to properly adjust for the impact of these other factors.”

Nevertheless, the use of VAM to evaluate teachers has become widespread—driven by federal policy. Cohen traces the history, beginning with the influence of recommendations by the New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality, both programs that oppose teachers unions and have sought to spread alarm about the quality of American teachers. “In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread ‘institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.’… TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers ‘based on their effectiveness in promoting students’ achievement’—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests. The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.)” Basically Arne Duncan’s U.S.Department of Education drove states to adopt VAM for evaluating teachers as a condition for states to qualify for a waiver from NCLB’s ill-conceived punishments.

Cohen adds that, “By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.”  But although the federal government eliminated its requirement that states evaluate teachers with standardized test scores, many states have kept on using VAM to rate teachers.

Teachers and their unions have protested the unfairness and inaccuracy of VAM evaluation systems. Cohen summarizes lawsuits filed in a number of states by teachers and their unions, but these cases have been very hard for teachers to win.  For example, a federal judge in Florida in 2013 wrote an opinion that explained why courts have often found that while VAM may be unfair, it is not illegal: “In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach… Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights. But in 2014, a federal judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. ‘Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would fine this evaluation system fair to (teachers in non-tested subjects), let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system… This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.'” The decision was upheld on appeal.

Cohen reports, however, that teachers are encouraged by a judge’s recent decision in a Houston case: “The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM)…. United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have ‘no meaningful way to ensure’ that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are ‘subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.’  More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it ‘flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination in sufficient detail to enable (the teacher) to show any error that may exist.'”

Beyond the courts, reports Cohen, even prominent education “reformers” have begun to question the reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluations.  Jay Greene, the director of the far-right, Walton-funded think tank at the University of Arkansas, the Department of Education Reform, has begun raising questions. Cohen describes her interview with Greene: “In an interview with the Prospect, Greene… said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen…'”

Despite widespread evidence of its flaws, VAM modeling has unfairly damaged the reputation of the teaching profession and seriously undermined morale. We have begun to see a shift in attitudes, but it will take considerable and persistent advocacy to rid VAM entirely from state policy.

NAACP Publishes Extraordinary Report from its Task Force on Quality Education: Please Read It!

Yesterday the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, released an extraordinary report from a national Task Force on Quality Education, convened last October by the NAACP’s board of directors.  The Task Force was charged with investigating the operation of charter schools across the states in response to a resolution passed by the NAACP last October that demanded  a moratorium on new charter schools until four conditions are met: that charter schools be subject to the same transparency and accountability as public schools; that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of public school systems; that charters cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and that charters “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.”

Soon after appointing the Task Force, the new report explains, the NAACP’s board of directors realized the group must investigate not only the operation of charters but also the broader issue of “the protection of quality public education for all inner-city children.” The resulting Task Force on Quality Education was charged to hold hearings across the country and to report its findings this summer at the national NAACP convention, currently underway, in Baltimore. Hearing sites were seven U.S. cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York.

I encourage you to read and reflect on the entire, and very readable, thirty page report, because even the report’s excellent executive summary cannot convey the authenticity of the comments from testimony across so many very different communities. Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s vice president, is quoted from his own testimony at the Task Force’s Detroit hearing: “Here’s the moral walk: That the same quality and equity that a child would receive in Bloomfield Hills is guaranteed for every child in the city of Detroit… that we insist (on) a system, not hodgepodges of opportunity, but a comprehensive system for all children.”

A short primer on charter schools begins the report with a definition of charter schools: “Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are nearly always privately operated by an appointed board under a written contract (or ‘charter’) with a state, district, or other organization, depending on the state… Charter schools generally have flexibility from many laws and regulations that govern neighborhood public schools, as long as the charter school meets the terms of its charter.”

The report seeks  to be scrupulously fair—with a section on “perceived benefits of charter schools” and another on “perceived problems with charter schools.”  In the section on perceived benefits, charter operators, parents and supporters are quoted telling the Task Force that charters graduate many children who later matriculate to college. Many charter schools, according to their proponents, “take and keep all students as other public schools do.”  Some charters are said to do a very good job serving children living in poverty. The report explains: “As would be expected, charter school advocates and operators believe that their schools offer a strong education, and many argue that it is a better education than many neighborhood public schools.”  The report describes parents, students, and community members who “love their charter school because it provides ‘the best education.'”

But many who came to the Task Force’s hearings testified about problems in particular charter schools. Educators, parents and community members told of even bigger problems in states with poor oversight of charter schools and the states that fail to regulate charter school authorizers.

  • The Task Force heard about problems of access and retention—of exclusionary enrollment and push-out practices particularly for children with special needs. “In New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to bring a lawsuit against the Recovery School District because so many special education students were rejected from all the charter schools they applied to.”  “Witnesses explained that while a charter school may claim to be open to all students, between reserving seats prior to any lottery process, selective enrollment, the use of exclusionary discipline processes, and counseling out of students, it may actually be exclusive.” “Bob Wilson, a member of Journey for Justice from Chicago, Illinois, testified about a local study (which) f0und that Chicago charter school expulsion rates were more than 1,000% higher than those of Chicago Public Schools on a per-pupil basis.”
  • People testified to the Task Force about uneven school quality. “Dr. Earl Watkins, Chair of Mississippi State NAACP Education Committee, explained that under Mississippi Code 372847: No more than 25% of teachers in a charter school in Mississippi may be exempt from state teacher licensure requirements.  Administrators in charter schools in Mississippi do not have to be certified, and can hold only a bachelor’s degree to be a principal in that school… (Compare this to) traditional public schools where the threshold is 5% of staff can teach out of field or not be certified, and principals in public schools in Mississippi must be certified as administrators…”  While proponents of charters brag that charters can be closed for poor quality (unlike traditional public schools), if such schools are closed, “Black students are particularly susceptible to being impacted by school closures… Charter schools are far less stable schooling options for communities than traditional or magnet schools.”  Testifying from Broward County, Florida about the closure of 30 charter schools due to poor quality, a witness explained: “Broward County School District enrolls over 271,000 students and has over 300 schools. Closing 30 schools, 10% of the schools, represents a significant disruption to students’ education and district’s operations.”
  • Lack of accountability and transparency in the charter sector was reported to the Task Force as a serious issue from place to place. The report compares oversight in Tennessee in contrast to Michigan: “The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws.  For example, according to testimony on Tennessee State charter laws, ‘The schools are required to have audits, they’re required to report on academic achievement, financial management, and organizational facilities every year and report this information to districts and to the state.’ Compare this to Michigan, where according to the Detroit Free Press, ‘Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools. But state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.'”  Poor oversight and accountability are also exemplified by significant variations in charter school staff salaries including charter school operators paid, in one case, a quarter of a million dollars and in another instance half a million dollars per year.  Finally there is all the money spent to lobby for the perpetuation of poor regulation of charters—such as in Massachusetts in November 2016, when out-of-state Wall Street hedge fund managers, the Walton family and dark money PACs spent $25 million to lobby to raise the state’s cap on the authorization of new charters. The pro-charter lobbying frenzy failed to block regulation in this case, but the problem remains in many states.
  • The Task Force reports that it heard about school choice and charters reducing access for children to schools in their own neighborhoods, requiring long commutes in some cities on public transportation: “One of the side-effects of extensive chartering is that children do not have a right to attend school in their neighborhood.  In many communities, all of the neighborhood public schools have closed.  Children may be rejected for admission from nearby charter schools or be unable to attend because nearby charters are full—or there may be no nearby schools at all… In some communities, like Detroit and Memphis, enrollments in neighborhood public schools are decreasing due to smaller populations in these cities and to charter schools enrolling more students.”
  • Then there is the issue of for-profit charters: “Approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools are run by for-profit companies and approximately 15 states allow virtual schools, many of which are operated by for-profit organizations. In some cases the non-profit charter is run by a for-profit management company, to whom the nonprofit pays substantial fees.”

Summarizing concerns raised by witnesses who testified across seven community hearings—accountability issues, concerns about transparency, problems with disparate access for students and disparate standards, and concerns about authorizing and funding—the NAACP Task Force concludes: “Multiple parents and community members described the need for the state or district to govern all schools—traditional and charter—so that there’s one system of democratically-accountable, high-quality schools.  This system would help students and families make sense of the variety of education options and ensure that all schools support student learning.”

Describing the need to replace educational fragmentation with systemic oversight, the Task Force quotes Tonya Allen, President of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation: “Not only is that a disaggregated system, there are 14 different entities that make decisions today about whether you open or close schools, and not one of them are necessarily coordinated.  There’s no mandate on that.  So, what we’ve gone from is basically a school system to what many would say (is) ‘a system of schools,’ except we have no system.  Okay.  So there’s no planning, there’s no support… So basically if you’re a parent and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to choose a school, it’s basic hunger games for you… Families are desperately looking for places, and we have nothing in our community… And so we have a hyper—I mean a hyper-competitive environment where you can have all of these various entities working in one geographic domain… There’s nobody, literally nobody in charge of the children in (the) the city of Detroit.”

The NAACP’s Task Force concludes: (W)hile high quality, accountable, accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

The NAACP’s Task Force makes five excellent recommendations.  I agree with all of them, and I’ll list them here (quoted from the report):

  1. Provide more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.
  2. Invest productively in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity and achievement gaps.
  3. Develop and enforce robust charter school accountability measures: (a) create and enforce a rigorous charter school authorizing and renewal process; (b) create and enforce a common accountability system; (c) monitor and require charter schools to admit and retain all students; (d) create and monitor transparent disciplinary guidelines that meet ongoing learning needs and prevent push out; (e) require charter schools to hire certified teachers.
  4. Require fiscal transparency and equity regarding the sources of revenues and how those resources are allocated.
  5. Eliminate for-profit charter schools.

I believe the primary importance of this report is in the moving and compelling narrative it creates of a disastrously uncoordinated and poorly regulated experiment that has hurt poor children and their families—especially black and brown children in the big cities where the charter experiment has been focused. The NAACP’s Task Force has significantly shaped a coherent narrative when nobody else has succeeded—connecting the dots across the 43 states where charter schools operate under 43 state laws.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Leads Ideological Fight Against School Funding Fairness

In an ugly special legislative session in early July, Illinois finally enacted a budget when the Legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It is the first budget the state has had since Rauner was elected governor over two years ago. But the wrangling between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democratically dominated Illinois Legislature continues.  On Monday, Rauner called another special session of the Illinois Legislature—beginning today—to resolve an impasse on school funding that threatens to hold up money necessary to start the upcoming school year.

Although the majority-Democratic legislature overrode Rauner’s veto to pass the budget, school districts cannot access their state funds because the formula to determine the distribution of state funds for school districts remains blocked.  The legislature has passed a new “evidence-based” school funding formula intended to equalize school funding, but, through a legal technicality, has not yet sent the budget to Rauner.  Legislative leaders fear Rauner will use what Illinois calls his power of “amendatory veto.”

Parsing out what’s going on in Illinois is confusing.  Here is a summary of what’s been happening and what it means.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ILLINOIS SCHOOL FUNDING?   The Education Law Center’s National Report Card on School Funding identifies Illinois as fourth from the bottom of all the states in school funding fairness. The only states that do a worse job of using state funds to compensate for notoriously uneven local capacity to raise school taxes are Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota.  For WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station: Amanda Vinicky explains: “An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.”

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE-BASED SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   This is the substance of a new law, Senate Bill 1, passed by both houses of the Illinois Legislature but not yet signed into law by Governor Rauner.  John O’Connor and Sophia Tareen, writing for the Associated Press explain: “The legislation would revise the way the schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year.  That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.”

THE POLITICS   Illinois is a split state with both houses of the legislature dominated by Democrats but a very conservative Republican as governor. After members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of a state budget that was years overdue, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation and distribute model bills to be introduced in legislatures across the fifty states.

WHAT IS AN “AMENDATORY VETO”?   O’Connor and Tareen explain: “Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto.  It allows a governor to return legislation with ‘specific recommendations for change.’ But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s ‘fundamental purpose’ or making ‘substantial or expansive’ changes.” Governor Rauner has threatened to use his power of amendatory veto, which is why the bill has not yet been sent to Rauner.

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL WAS PASSED ON MAY 31. HOW COME IT HASN’T REACHED THE GOVERNOR’S DESK?   Vinicky at WTTW explains the mechanics of the delay: “Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a ‘motion to reconsider’ to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last.”

SO WHY IS GOV. RAUNER THREATENING TO VETO AND CHANGE PART OF THE SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   The problem is that the Legislature has allocated money to help the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which have been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Chicago Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, and it serves an enormous number of children who need services due to concentrated poverty, special education programs, and programs for English language instruction. And there is a two-decades’ old pension crisis. The state contributes to the pension system for all of the state’s other school districts, but Chicago’s pension system is on its own.  Earlier this week, Reuters summarized: “Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system. The governor called the CPS pension funding ‘a poison pill’ in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

Heather Cherone for Chicago’s DNA Info explains further: “Rauner again said he plans to issue an amendatory veto that would remove the $300 million the legislation would send to CPS to cover current and past-due pension payments, which amounts to a ‘bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system’ that the governor’s office said would take ‘away critical resources from school districts across the state.'”

Partly due to lack of equity in the state’s funding system, the Chicago school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Maureen Kelleher, writing for the Chicago Reporter, explains that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.” And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board castigates Rauner for pitting “Chicago against the rest of Illinois”—Chicago that educates 19 percent of the states public school students while, even under the new plan, receiving “only 16 percent of the state’s funding for education.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown describes the common ground achieved between school leaders and advocates in Chicago and in smaller communities downstate as the Legislature developed the plan: “They found common ground with Chicago Public Schools in developing a formula that benefits both by recognizing their shared challenges—notably high percentages of students from poor families who are more costly to educate.” Brown profiles small-town school superintendents  “who have been holding town forums to explain the benefits of Senate Bill 1 to their residents,”  including Rolf Sivertsen, the “superintendent of Canton Union School District 66, about 30 miles west of Peoria. His district has 2,600 students in grades pre-k through 12th. Sixty percent of these students come from low-income families.  The school district would receive $760,000 more if Senate Bill 1 becomes law.”

It appears that most people in in Illinois and the legislators who represent them want to move forward with an unbiased system of funding schools, including fairness for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools. Bruce Rauner’s ideological rigidity is blocking an equitable solution.

What Can Betsy DeVos Be Thinking?

What can she be thinking?  Can she be thinking at all?  That is what I wondered when I read what Betsy DeVos told the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last Thursday.

Here is what our U.S. Secretary of Education said: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” She continued: “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.'”

In her ALEC speech, DeVos continued, explaining her disagreement with the American Federation of Teachers: “I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.'”

Finally, DeVos summed up what she learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

I guess DeVos has now explained what she meant in 2015 when she declared, “Government really sucks.”  I guess she believes the common good will magically arrive when all this self-seeking is aggregated.

I have a lot of problems with this kind of magical thinking. First, the idea is that government ought to get out of the way, but at the same time, there is the assumption that government ought to pay for it all with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts on top of the traditional schools.  Who is going to want to pay taxes for all of this and why should we?  If individuals are on their own, maybe individuals and families ought to take care of it.

Except that poor families, and families in marginalized groups, and families whose children are severely handicapped, and families whose children need to learn English, and families who live in isolated rural areas and families who live in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities are going to struggle to find places where they can go to find the exact kind of education their children need.  They will struggle to discern the truth through the glitzy advertising, and there may not be good choices in every town and every neighborhood, without the government schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.  And many of these families may not be able to afford it, because they won’t have enough money to add to the voucher to pay for many of the privatized alternatives. And finally, some of the privatized schools (that are not required by government to serve all children) will turn away or push out their children, especially the children who require expensive special services and the children who are likely to post low test scores.

Betsy DeVos demonstrates an amazing cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t billionaires like herself. Although people like DeVos may be able to afford any of a wide range of choices, most parents in our country—about 90 percent of them—send their children to the schools the government has provided—schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.

The most serious problem, however, with Betsy DeVos’s libertarian, government-free fantasy is that she seems unaware that government is the institution that protects children’s rights by law and ensures, by law, that education is provided for all children in our country.  High school students in civics class and immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam learn about the three branches of our government—defined in each case in relation to the concept of a government by law. The legislative branch makes the laws; the executive branch administers the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws.

The law is what ensures that public schools serve all those groups of parents that we listed—poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. The law also protects the rights of individuals from injustice committed in or by any of these institutions.

When society is failing to fulfill its obligation according to the law, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  The law provides the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we can all demand better services for vulnerable families who have been left out.  Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954.  In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

Justice is never about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as together they form a society. Justice also involves the balance of power among the institutions that societies create. In the tweet Betsy DeVos quoted in her speech, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) described the need to protect our system of education. The AFT recognizes the need to protect institutional and structural justice, not merely the choices of individuals. Why?  History tells us that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget other people’s children.

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “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.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)

Last year, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a book that covers the lesson too many Americans have forgotten from their civics classes about the role of government.  Here is how they begin: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1).

Hacker and Pierson continue, quoting James Madison: “There never was a Government without force. What is the meaning of government?  An institution to make people do their duty.  A Government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of Government, or rather no Government at all.”  (American Amnesia, pp. 1-2)

And these political scientists conclude: “We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.’  At a time when we face serious challenges that can be addressed only through a stronger, more effective government—a strained middle class, a weakened system for generating life-improving innovation, a dangerously warming planet—we ignore what both our history and basic economic theory suggest: We need a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government rather than the jealous rivalry that so many misperceive—and in that misperception, help foster.  Above all, we need a government strong and capable enough to rise above narrow private interests and carry out long-term courses of action on behalf of broader concerns.” American Amnesia, p. 2, emphasis in the original)

It may not be possible to silence Betsy DeVos and her long rant against the government system she is supposed to be administering.  At the very least, however, those of us who prize America’s institution of public education must just as insistently reject her foolishness.