HR 610 Vouchers Unlikely; DC Voucher Renewal Advances Without Protecting Vulnerable Students

There is a lot of fear about House Resolution 610, Iowa Rep. Steve King’s proposal for national school vouchers that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. But don’t be too fearful; this particular bill is unlikely to go anywhere.

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s primary reporters on federal education legislation, explains what this bill is: “The Choices in Education Act of 2017… would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main K-12 law, of which the Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version. It would create vouchers funded by Washington for parents to use at private schools if they chose to do so, or to use for home schooling their child. Under King’s legislation, the federal government would fund those vouchers through creating block grants for states… In addition, King’s bill would overturn nutritional standards published in 2012 for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.”

The purpose of Ujifusa’s recent column is to calm widespread worries about the bill, concerns tied to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ declared commitment to launching a federal voucher program of some kind. Ujifusa reminds readers that DeVos cannot institute a voucher program without Congressional approval; he adds that rural members of Congress, “have expressed concern about a federal voucher program, in part because they don’t feel private school choice will help many of the children back home.” Ujifusa explains that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. King, does not sit on the House committee that oversees education, and the bill is legislatively complicated because another committee on agriculture would have to oversee the provisions of the bill to change the school lunch program. Ujifusa adds: “In fact, in 2015, the Senate rejected (Sen. Lamar) Alexander’s proposed amendment to ESSA that would have instituted a voucher program. And the Senate now has more Democratic lawmakers than it did then. It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote to create nationwide, federal vouchers.”

Congress will likely need a different vehicle from HR. 610 if it acts on Trump’s and DeVos’s promise of a federal voucher program. But Congress is moving forward with another voucher bill, one that has historically been opposed by Democrats, but a bill that has passed before and is likely to pass again in a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers. This is the renewal of the Washington, D.C. voucher program.  Keep in mind that Washington, D.C. does not have voting representation in Congress. That means this bill is the ultimate piece of legislation for other people’s children. Whatever happens with D.C. vouchers, there won’t be political consequences for any elected member of Congress.

Here is Jenna Portnoy explaining the D.C. voucher bill for the Washington Post: “The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, gives federal dollars to low-income D.C. students who want to transfer from struggling public schools to a private school. The program, created by Congress in 2004, also provides additional federal dollars to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.”

In a letter to leaders of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that is currently holding hearings on the SOAR Act, the National Coalition for Public Education, a coalition of 62 national organizations that has consistently opposed school vouchers, points out that the D.C. Voucher Program, in existence now for over a decade, has not been shown to improve education for the majority of the students who have participated: “All four of the congressionally mandated USED (U.S. Department of Education) studies that have analyzed the D.C. voucher program have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement. The USED studies further found that the voucher program had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety… GAO (Government Accountability Office) reports from both 2007 and 2013 document that the D.C. voucher program has repeatedly failed to meet basic and even statutorily required accountability standards. The 2013 report concluded that the administrator of the program has continually failed to ensure the program operated with basic accountability measures and quality controls and even failed to maintain adequate records on its own financial accounting… A special investigation conducted by the Washington Post found that many of the private schools in the program are not quality schools.”

Valerie Strauss published a column earlier this week about one of the SOAR Act’s greatest flaws: it does not protect the civil rights of participating students. “Democratic members offered amendments that would prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against students on the basis of ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity’ and requiring each voucher school to provide every student with special needs ‘with all of the applicable protections available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.’ They were voted down along party lines, with all Republicans voting against.” “Students with disabilities who attend a private school with a voucher awarded through the program lose some of the civil rights protections they are granted under IDEA. For example, IDEA requires that traditional public schools have an individualized education program that spells out needed support and accommodations for students with disabilities, but private schools aren’t required to offer one. That’s common with state-funded voucher and tax-credit programs, including tax-credit programs in Florida championed by DeVos.”

Marc Egan, who leads government relations for the National Education Association, is quoted by the Washington Post analyzing D.C. private schools that accept tuition vouchers: “They may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.”

While Washington, D.C. does not have a voting member of Congress, the nation’s capital is represented by non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose testimony on the SOAR Act is quoted by the Washington Post.  Norton is not at all impressed with the D.C. Voucher Program she has been observing since 2004, and she opposes its renewal: “The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: It has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests…. The program is therefore patently unnecessary.”

Betsy DeVos: Religion, Money, and School Choice

When we think about public schools and religion, there are some clear boundaries, and it is important to recognize them and understand how various churches and Christian denominations understand them, because there are distinctions. These issues are relevant today because some people who are part of Donald Trump’s administration want to bend the boundaries.

Protecting freedom of religion, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first clause (the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s endorsing any one religion as the religion of our society, and the second clause (the Free Exercise Clause) guarantees citizens of the United States the right to practice whatever religion they choose or not to practice a religion. Our Constitution protects religious diversity, which has historically been understood to mean that public schools, defined by their acceptance of public tax dollars, may not force children to practice any particular religion.

It is also essential to understand these issues with some nuance.  Betsy DeVos was brought up in what is known as one of the Reformed denominations, and she is known to want to bend the boundaries on protection of religious freedom, but this does not mean that all members of Reformed Protestant denominations share her views about bending the First Amendment rules in publicly funded schools.  The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, for example, are well known Reformed communions that strenuously defend the separation of church and state in public schools.

Neither should it be assumed that all charitable partnerships of churches with public schools cross the boundary and abuse the principle of religious liberty.  It is perfectly appropriate for churches to donate backpacks filled with school supplies, tutor children in public schools, help set up and staff after-school programs, and set up and help staff computer labs near schools that lack such facilities as long as the work is charitable and lacks the goal and practice of evangelism.  Many such programs across the country assist children and teachers, and their sponsors adhere to principles declared by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant communities of faith.

In a very important article in Rolling Stone, Betsy DeVos’ Holy War, Janet Reitman, the reporter, has provided a very important profile of Betsy DeVos and her circle of Christian extremists. But in some subtle ways, Reitman makes assumptions about Reformed church denominations and assumptions about church partnerships with public schools that call into question the commitment of those involved with public school support programs. All members of Reformed churches are not extremists, just as not all volunteers and sponsors of school-congregational partnerships are involved in proselytizing.

But, as Reitman accurately portrays her, Betsy DeVos is an extremist and her support for the expansion of vouchers and tuition tax credits crosses the boundary drawn by the U.S. Constitution to protect religious freedom.  Reitman’s Rolling Stone article is important because it explains the activities and philanthropic contributions of Dick and Betsy DeVos to promote their particular religious agenda.  They seek to make our society conform to their own religious beliefs.

Reitman describes, for example, the support of Michigan’s DeVos family and Betsy DeVos’s parents and their family, the Princes, of a secretive organization, the Council for National Policy, a “little-known group of several hundred of the country’s most powerful religious and social conservatives.”  The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind apocalyptic series of books. Reitman lists other members whose names have leaked out: “Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt; financier Foster Friess; religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins; right wing operatives like Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation;  the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms.  More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.  Rich DeVos, who described the group as a nexus of ‘the doers and the donors,’ served two stints as CNP’s president.”

What is the significance of this alliance of ideological conservatives and extremist Christian religious leaders? “What became clear as the 2000s progressed was just how much these two agendas had fused. Under the direction of Charles and David Koch, and with increasing influence from the likes of the DeVos family, the Republican big tent shifted, from the Grand Old Party to what one longtime strategist who’s spent years mapping these networks refers to as the ‘Grand New Alliance’ of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism… This new perspective, sometimes called the ‘biblical worldview,’ was being sold at special ‘pastor policy briefings’ across the country… At one I attended in Orlando, in 2012, David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and a leading Christian nationalist, patiently explained to a room of Florida pastors, why a radically reduced federal government was part of God’s plan. Jesus, for example, was opposed to the capital-gains tax, Barton said, citing passages in the books of Romans and Matthew.”

School privatization through vouchers (or tuition tax credits which are a variation on vouchers) is definitely central to this plan.  Why?  Here is how Patrick O’Donnell begins his story on Ohio vouchers in this past Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “Almost all of the money from Ohio’s main tuition voucher programs—97 percent of it—flows to private religious schools, a Plain Dealer examination of records from the 2015-16 school year shows. Christian schools, as expected, receive the bulk—more than $140 million in state tax dollars a year.  Catholic and Christian schools in Cleveland are the biggest winners, thanks to a Cleveland-only voucher program that was the first in the state when started in 1996. The top three private schools to benefit—Cleveland Central Catholic, St. Joseph Academy and Metro Catholic—are schools in Cleveland, as are seven of the top 10 in the state.”

On December 20, 1999, Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, found the Cleveland Voucher Program unconstitutional because it violated the Constitutional protection of religious liberty.  Page after page of Judge Oliver’s decision quotes participating schools’ mission statements.  One school explained, “An integral part of the school program is instruction in religious truths and values. These values permeate the whole atmosphere of the school.”  Judge Oliver’s decision declared: “The court concludes that the Voucher Program violates the Establishment Clause… because it results in prohibited governmental indoctrination and because it defines its recipients by reference to religion.”

In 2002, however, in a split 5-4 decision, the Rehnquist Supreme Court declared the program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because the state of Ohio grants the vouchers to the parents, not directly to religious schools, and the parents then choose where to educate their children.  The state of Ohio, said the Supreme Court, is offering school choice to parents, not spending money directly on religious education.

Reitman describes many of the organizations funded by Dick and Betsy DeVos that have re-framed vouchers as “school choice”  without any connection to the boundary between church and state—thereby changing many people’s understanding of the Constitution—and that helped drive the political shift that changed the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The DeVos and Prince families have donated millions of dollars to the Council for National Policy, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, All Children Matter, the Great Lakes Education Project, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  Another recipient of DeVos money has been the Institute for Justice, whose attorneys have brought and litigated pro-voucher lawsuits across the states.

Reitman’s Rolling Stone article explores what she calls the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology that she believes Betsy DeVos epitomizes: “No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products.  Amway—short for ‘American Way’—now has annual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s ‘Founders’ Fundamentals’: faith, freedom, hope and reward,” a “merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Privatization Means Loss of Public Investment to Profits and Sacrifice of Students’ Rights

Here is how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson begin their newest book, American Amnesia, that explores the subject of America’s capitulation to the belief that government is the problem, not the solution to our society’s concerns: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because American’s 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… Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Exactly how our turning away from government has affected public schools is the subject of a fascinating analysis by Alex Molnar, Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold.  Molnar—a Research Professor and Publications Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—painstakingly traces the history of the development of public education as “an egalitarian institution that was redistributive in its effects… Public education in the United States has from its earliest days been structured to embody and strengthen representative democracy by inculcating democratic values….”  But, “The major education reforms of the past 35 years—education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies, to subject them to the ‘laws’ of the ‘market’; and to put them at the service of the economic elite.  The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.” It is also a world where “the progressive edifice that Roosevelt… constructed (in the New Deal) would have to be set aside, taxes on wealth and profits reduced, wages suppressed, and a greater share of government costs shifted to the working class.”

Molnar marks the beginning of our times with the economics of Ronald Reagan, which “replaced the citizen’s democratic right to a ‘voice’ in shaping their public schools with a consumer’s choice to ‘exit’ schools. Under the banner of ‘school choice,’ public education would thus be removed from democratic control and reformulated as a commodity to be ‘chosen.'” Our society has been wooed away from supporting public schools. “Under pressure from and with the aid of charitable foundations, wealthy philanthropists, and ideologues, government policy makers have steadily shifted control of the schools from locally elected school boards to appointed governing bodies. A for-profit school sector has emerged that depends entirely on taxpayer and philanthropic funds. Accountability has been shifted from government regulatory oversight mechanisms to ‘market discipline.’… Getting this myth ‘believed’ meant new opportunities to turn tax dollars into profits—profits from, for example, paying a few teachers more and many teachers less; profits from designing standardized tests; profits from renting school facilities; profits from managing schools; profits from data management systems and test scoring systems; and profits from selling software platforms and computing devices. Best of all, these profitmaking opportunities came with little or no government oversight to thwart self-dealing and ferret out fraud and abuse.  Oversight and regulation had by this time been successfully characterized as innovation and achievement killers.”

In his analysis Molnar highlights two prominent abuses that have emerged with the wave of school privatization—the removal of what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government”—regulation and oversight which are said by the privatizers to kill innovation, and the distortions that result when government funding flows to private profits. Conveniently, two exposes in the press this week—mere examples of the cascade of stories we are reading about abuses in charter schools and other privatized education ventures—exemplify the very problems Molnar highlights.

The first, These For-Profit Schools are ‘Like a Prison’, comes from Pro Publica and was jointly published at Slate.  It is an expose of staff abusing students in private, for-profit alternative schools run by Camelot Education. Camelot “contracts with traditional school  districts to run about 40 schools across the country—schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically.  In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago.  The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.” Pro Publica‘s story covers problems in York and Reading’s Camelot schools in some depth. “Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school-district officials to… (transfer their students to) Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet.” “Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school, instead counting only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools.” “Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly people of color.”  Pro Publica‘s report describes Camelot schools as resembling “the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed above all else, to maintain obedience and control.”

Because Camelot schools are privately operated, even courts investigating complaints of physical abuse of students have struggled to acquire evidence or get staff to testify after their schools threatened staff with job loss. Some parents describe being pressured to sign away their children’s due process rights at the schools.  The Pro Publica reporters describe a lawsuit brought against a Pensacola, Florida Camelot alternative school: “Pensacola’s school district stayed out of the Tillery cases. It let Camelot investigate and address them, said Vickie Mathis, the director of alternative education for the district. ‘They are Camelot employees,’ she said. ‘We expected Camelot to do the investigation and come to a finding and take action if there was a finding of wrongdoing.'”  The reporters do cite two school districts—Reading, Pennsylvania, and New Orleans—where, to protect students’ rights, public “school officials cut ties with Camelot as abuse allegations emerged.”

Then there is Ohio, where enormous profits from the online academies are being used to block the very regulations that would protect the state’s investment in its public schools. The legislature needs to increase oversight to prevent massive over-payments by the state for students the e-schools claim are enrolled, but who do not participate actively in online education.  Over-payments for phantom students in Ohio’s electronic schools have been regularly reported in the state’s newspapers, but this week the story made headlines in Education Week: Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute: “The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year, but state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total… Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school’s learning software….  Historically, the Ohio education department determined student attendance, and thus enrollment, based on paperwork submitted by e-school representatives, who certified that students were enrolled and had been offered the 920 hours of learning required by state law.”

Now when regulators from the Ohio Department of Education are cracking down to insist that the state pay only for students who are actively participating and that e-schools do more than merely offer the curriculum, the e-schools are pushing back. ECOT has taken the state to court to block the enforcement of stricter regulations, and William Lager, who reaps the profits from both of his privately owned companies that manage ECOT, has hired the state’s most prominent lobbyists as well as keeping up the contributions to legislators’ political campaigns. The Ohio House and Senate, not surprisingly, continue to refuse to pass strict and explicit regulations. (This blog has covered the ECOT phantom student scandal here.)

Together these articles explore and expose what has been happening through school privatization and school reformers’ efforts to undermine the coercive power of government.  Only government—the law and its democratic enforcement—can protect students’ civil rights and our public investment in education.

What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure? David Berliner Explains

David Berliner has been teaching about education policy and writing books on education and school psychology for decades. The best known for readers outside colleges of education are The Manufactured Crisis and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. Yesterday in a pithy column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Berliner explains why none of our current strategies for school reform will work. Not corporate school reform. Not test and punish accountability. Not blaming school teachers. Not charter school and voucher strategies that allow some promising students to escape public schools—the plans favored by Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Berliner’s analysis is definitive. He demonstrates that our society has been on the wrong path for decades.

The test scores by which our society now judges schools don’t really measure the quality of schools: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.”  Berliner continues: “Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean score of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.”

Berliner adds that, while critics of public education complain about overall U.S. scores on international tests, our wealthiest students do as well as the highest scoring students in the world: “We learn that in the United States, wealthy children attending public schools that serve the wealthy are competitive with any nation in the world. Since that is the case, why would anyone think our public schools are failing? When compared with other nations, some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well. But having ‘some’ failures is quite a different claim than one indicting our entire public school system.”

So, what is the real problem according to David Berliner? “(P)roblems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation. Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, ‘local control!’ The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.”

Berliner is not so naive as to believe it will be quick and easy to ameliorate housing segregation by income, race and ethnicity. He suggests changes within the schools that might help, at the same time acknowledging he is describing very expensive investments: “High-quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility (due to evictions and homelessness); after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.  Of course, this will all cost money.”

In his analysis Berliner does not go so far as to examine what is wrong with the so called “cures” being prescribed today based on the test scores he believes are a faulty measure of school quality. A couple of these practices are particularly poisonous.

The first is the practice by states of issuing statewide report cards that assign “A-F” letter grades to schools and school districts based primarily on standardized test scores. Today over 15 states assign letter grades for schools and school districts.  Jeb Bush’s  Foundation for Excellence in Education (where Betsy DeVos served on the board) promotes this practice and even has a model bill to establish such a program, The Accountability and Transparency Act, that can be introduced in any state legislature. In states that grade their schools with letter grades, not surprisingly school districts that serve exclusive communities of wealthy children tend to post “A” grades while schools in poor communities earn “F” grades. But the practice is not neutral in its consequences.  When states assign letter grades to schools and school districts, the states themselves are negatively branding schools and districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. States are essentially redlining school districts in cities and inner-ring suburbs while incentivizing parents to choose the homogeneous, wealthy, so-called “excellent” (A-rated) school districts in outer-ring suburbs. The letter grades drive housing segregation by both family income and race.

The second pernicious practice was embodied in the turnaround plans prescribed in the No Child Left Behind law and later in the School Improvement Grant program of the Obama administration. These programs targeted the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools for radical turnarounds—replacing staff, charterizing the school, or, worse, closing the school. We’ll have to wait to see if this practice continues under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Trump administration. The 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike in Chicago called attention to the damage wrought when schools in the poorest neighborhoods are closed. Not only do students from the neighborhoods where schools are closed have to travel to more distant schools—often on public transportation and sometimes through dangerous areas, but also the poorest neighborhoods are too frequently left without an elementary school or a high school, essential institutions for anchoring a neighborhood or a community.

The punitive “school reform” practices of the past two decades (based on judging schools by their students’ aggregate test scores)  never affect wealthy areas where students post higher scores. They have been a failed “school reform” experiment on schools and communities where children are poor.  They are yet another burden dropped on our poorest citizens and their children. In his commentary this week, David Berliner presents conclusive evidence that we are blaming public schools for test scores that are instead strongly influenced by family and neighborhood economics.  Please read Berliner’s article.

So… What’s Wrong with School Choice (Privatization) at Public Expense?

In his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, President Donald Trump extolled school choice, another name for offering students, at public expense, the opportunity to attend a privately operated school.  He asked Congress to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”  Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, amplifies Trump’s preference for school choice with an adjective. She says families need a “robust” set of choices.

So what is wrong with school choice—school privatization—at public expense?  Here is some of what’s wrong.

FRAMING — First there is the deceptive framing by ideologues—inspired by economist Milton Friedman, and the foundation now called EdChoice, that he left behind as a legacy. Carl Davis of The American Prospect pays close attention to the language: “Politicians have long had a knack for framing policy proposals, however controversial, in terms that make them more palatable to voters… (S)chool voucher programs that funnel public money to religious schools are cast as ‘school choice,’ because underwriting parochial schools with taxpayer dollars is controversial. The ‘choice’ frame has heightened public awareness of school voucher programs, and helped their advocates make significant inroads in convincing states to allow the use of public dollars for private schools.”

DIVERSION OF TAX DOLLARS — Then there is the problem of diversion of tax dollars away from the schools that serve the mass of our children. Chalkbeat Indiana summarizes data about the large school voucher program launched six years ago by Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded later when Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor: “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017… To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year… Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019 on vouchers due to higher anticipated participation.” Here is the most stunning fact: over half of the students in Indiana’s program—54.6 percent—have never attended a public school.  The state has simply begun paying for students to attend private schools.

WINDFALL FOR WEALTHY INVESTORS — Federal law permits large investors to claim state tuition tax credits as charitable donations and receive a federal income tax deduction.  Davis in The American Prospect explains: “Because taxpayers are also permitted to claim a federal charitable tax deduction on their donations to ‘neovoucher’ (state tuition tax credit) programs—even if they were already fully reimbursed for those gifts by their state governments—the result for some taxpayers is a tax cut as large as $1.35 for each dollar donated.  Like many tax loopholes, this one is not geared toward ordinary taxpayers.  A quirk in federal law limits the benefit primarily to high-income taxpayers  So, in effect, a handful of states have created elaborate tax schemes that allow wealthy taxpayers to generate risk-free private returns of up to 35 percent.”

POOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT IN SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS — There are also serious questions about the quality of the private schools that are being funded by vouchers and tuition tax credits.  Kevin Carey, writing in the NY Times, recently described three new studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio: “But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.  The results are startling….  Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning.” (This blog covered Carey’s report here.)

SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS MAY NOT PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS — In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Miner, who has covered the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee for many years, summarizes the ways that such schools may violate students’ rights: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency.  They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech.  They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services.  They can suspend or expel student without legal due process.  They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records.  They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

POOR MANAGEMENT — Questions persist about shoddy operations in voucher schools and schools operating with publicly funded tuition tax credits. In another analysis of the Milwaukee program, Erin Richards in The American Prospect notes that the state has finally instituted minimal regulations and standards, because the problems have been egregious over the Milwaukee voucher program’s 26 year existence: “(P)ressures for reform have led to more regulation of the voucher program, which has belatedly begun weeding out some of its worst actors. The private school teachers and leaders are now required to at least have bachelor’s degrees. The schools have to obtain accreditation, though lawmakers had to later tighten that language to get rid of irresponsible accreditation agencies. If the state has reason to believe a voucher school is financially unstable, it can require leaders to secure special bonds that assure the state they could pay back public funds if they go belly up.”

SHOULD PUBLIC DOLLARS VIOLATE PROTECTION OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION? — Finally. religious schools receiving public vouchers and tax credit scholarships may be violating constitutional protection of the separation of church and state..  Although in a divided 2002 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris found vouchers to be constitutional, as long as the money is given to the parents to make a school choice and not donated directly by the state to the school, a number of states have nineteenth century Blaine Amendments in their constitutions, banning the expenditure of state dollars for religious education. Tuition tax credits have been the method by which several of these states have evaded their constitutions’ prohibition of state support for religious education. The taxpayer diverts tax dollars to a non-governmental organization, which then awards the tuition scholarship to  families, who then choose a school.

Many of us, however, question whether government ought to be paying for religious education in schools our tax dollars are supporting. A case in point is the education received by Denisha Merriweather, the woman brought by President Donald Trump last week to sit with his wife in the gallery during his Congressional address.  Merriweather was held up as a glowing example of a student who succeeded in school, graduated from a university, and is now in graduate school, all due to the tuition tax credit she received as a young child from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program being held up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a model for the federal program she hopes will be launched during her tenure.  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss describes the school attended by Merriweather: “With her tax credit scholarship, Merriweather attended the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning.  It was established in 2001 with a vision, according to the website, that ‘was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.,’ which ‘included a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values.’  It uses the A Beka curriculum, used widely by private Christian schools and some home-schoolers, according to this listing of private schools published by the Jacksonville Times -Union. A Beka teaches the Bible as literal history.”