Ideology Drives School Privatization without Much Attention to the Real Consequences

Whether school privatization involves expansion of various kinds of vouchers or the proliferation of largely unregulated charter schools, the policy tends to be driven by its proponents’ ideology, not careful policy analysis. That is, promoters believe in an idea—They usually call it the expansion of parents’ choice rather than naming the privatization that is happening.—and they push that idea without describing, or worse without even examining, the side effects on individuals and institutions. Economists call these other implications externalities, and they may be positive or negative. In the area of education, because the expansion of the privatized education marketplace has implications, budgetary and otherwise, for the public school system that is expected to continue to serve the mass of children in any locality, the externalities are too often negative.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives recently defeated a bill for statewide education savings accounts, a far-right proposal from the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Education savings account vouchers are explained here in the Network for Public Education’s new toolkit, School Privatization Explained.) The Texas bill to establish education savings account vouchers had passed the state senate and been declared by the state’s lieutenant governor as “the civil rights issue of our time.” But then the Texas House began considering the negative externalities for schools in Texas’s hundreds of small towns and rural areas.

Reporters for the Austin American-Statesman describe what happened: “An effort to redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition—a favorite cause of conservative education activists in Texas and nationally—seemed to have momentum at the beginning of this year’s legislative session… But after sailing through the Texas Senate, the effort has run aground in the House, thanks to pushback from rural Republicans and Democrats… The senate passed its large school choice bill this month—calling for the creation of so-called education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships…. Then, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget on April 6, legislators overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.  All but one House Democrat, who was absent, voted for the amendment as well as Republicans, 40 of them representing districts with at least one rural school district.”

The distribution of state school funding was the primary negative externality discussed. The state’s school funding pie is too small said members of the Texas House of Representatives, and increasing the number of slices to include tax credits and education savings accounts would reduce the size of the piece for public schools. It was also pointed out that privatized schools are not held accountable for serving their students well.  And in rural areas, there are few private schools to which students could carry their tax-credit and education-savings-account vouchers: “A major argument against school choice from rural lawmakers is that there isn’t a market for private schools in rural areas.  Private schools are located within the boundaries of just six of the 459 school districts that the Texas Education Agency considers rural….”

Spending Blind, a study just released by Oakland’s In the Public Interest, traces a two-decades-long experiment in California with the rapid growth of charter schools: “Unfortunately, the central conclusion of this analysis is that funding for charter facilities is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard… Far too much of these public funds are spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”  The report explores the negative externalities of rapid expansion of charter schools.

The report’s author, Gordon Lafer, an economist from the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, explains that in California, public school districts cannot spend tax dollars to build new schools unless they can prove there are enough students to justify a new school. But charter schools have been started up in all sorts of places that did not need new schools: “The most fundamental question to ask about any type of school construction is: how many schools are needed for the number of students we have?”  By contrast, proponents of school choice imagine a marketplace with an over-supply of schools so that parents have options from which to choose. Here is what Lafer finds in California: “As a result, nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support, including $111 million in rent, lease, or mortgage payments picked up by taxpayers, $135 million in general obligation bonds, and $425 million in private investments subsidized with tax credits or tax exemptions.”

Lafer continues: “(T)he rationale for charter schools is not that they supply needed seats but that they provide a model of education that is new, different, and better than otherwise available. However, this presumption is not written in to any of the charter facility financing laws. As a result, hundreds of low quality charter schools are supported by taxpayers.”  Lafer finds that 75 percent of California’s charters have performed worse than their public school counterparts: “Again, the public has paid dearly for these disappointments…”

One negative externality has been an intensifying public school funding crisis as charters operators have located their schools in places where there are already plenty of public schools: “Such indiscriminate funding comes at a time when schools across the state face urgent needs that are going unmet due to budgetary shortfalls.  Parents, teachers, superintendents, and school board members alike point to model programs in danger of closure… overcrowded classrooms that make personal attention impossible; and insufficient funding for school counselors, social workers, special education, and English language learners.”

Finally, Lafer describes the most serious negative externality. The charters are a parasite devouring their host: “(T)he overbuilding of charter schools not only wastes tax dollars, but it also imposes significant costs—above and beyond the direct costs of charter facility financing—on traditional public schools and school districts, as well as on competing charter schools in the area.  Studies estimate that between 33%-55% of school budgets are dedicated to fixed costs such as buildings, student transportation, and central administration that cannot be reduced when enrollment declines due to a surplus of charter schools. Furthermore, many charter schools receive full funding for special education but enroll students with disproportionately mild needs, leaving the school district to serve the neediest children but without the resources to do so.  As such schools proliferate, they create a growing crisis for traditional public schools and students. Yet there is no place in charter facility funding policy for these impacts to be taken into account or mitigated.”

In Massachusetts last November, voters actually turned down expansion of charters after they were informed about the negative externalities. Moody’s, the bond rating agency, sent a warning letter to Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River that their school district credit ratings could be lowered if charter schools were to be rapidly expanded, thereby undermining the school districts’ fiscal viability. And Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh explained what he believed would be the fiscal realities for the public schools of Boston: “Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts—not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them. This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question… (O)ur charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning. If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high needs students are concentrated in district schools—and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements—the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.”

Next time you see a photo of Betsy DeVos visiting a school—on a regal visit, for example, with Melania Trump and the Queen of Jordan—imagine what would happen if a reporter were to ask her the policy question that she—the person who leads our national education department—ought to have been carefully considering.  What if the reporter were to ask: “Have you thought about the negative externalities of the program you are proposing—the impact, for example, on the public schools that serve most of our children?”

High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

Tuition Tax Credits—One Type of School Vouchers—Press Coverage and NPE’s Excellent Toolkit

Washington Post reporter Emma Brown describes Florida’s tuition tax credit program, what Brown and many others believe is the model Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration will try to use for a national program to privatize public education.

Brown describes the essential elements of this program: “Florida’s program, created in 2001 with the full-throated support of then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), was one of the first to harness corporate tax credits to help low-income families pay school tuition.  Sixteen other states have enacted variations on the idea. Using tax credits to fund the scholarships, instead of direct payments from public treasuries, enabled lawmakers to work around state bans on use of public funds to support religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tax-credit programs are constitutional. Taking the idea to the federal level is one of the clearest ways Trump could make good on his promise to supercharge private-school choice across the country. If embedded in a larger tax bill that the GOP-held Congress passes via the budget reconciliation process, it would be protected from a Senate filibuster and therefore would require only 51 votes instead of the 60 usually required to pass legislation… In Florida’s tax-credit program, businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar credit when they donate to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. A corporation that owes $50,000 in Florida taxes, for example, could donate $50,000 and pay nothing to the state. The nonprofit then dispenses money to students for tuition at participating private schools…. Private schools do not need to be accredited to participate.” (According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida has capped the amount of tax dollars that can be diverted:  “A corporation can apply for a credit worth up to 75 percent of its total income tax liability. As a whole, the state awards a maximum of $140 million (FY 2011) in scholarship tax credits.”)

Brown adds: “But there is scant evidence that these students fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And there is a perennial debate about whether the state should support private schools that are mostly religious, do not require teachers to hold credentials and are not required to meet minimal performance standards.”

The Network for Public Education’s  fine new toolkit, School Privatization Explained, contains two informative and very readable fact sheets about tuition tax credits. I urge you to read and find a way to use and distribute the information in NPE’s new toolkit. These basic resources help sort out the complex issues about various kinds of school vouchers and their constitutionality.

The fact sheet, Do Education Tax Credit Scholarships Provide Opportunity?, busts some of the myths being promoted by advocates of school privatization: “Education tax credit programs don’t enable families to choose better schools… The amounts of money paid out to families from these programs rarely cover the full cost of private school tuition. Poor families can’t make up the difference, especially to high quality private schools, so substandard privates are being subsidized… Both private and religion-based schools that can receive tax credit money often discriminate on the basis of religion, gender preference, disciplinary history or ability level.  Education tax credit programs don’t provide escape routes from ‘failing’ public schools. Students who use the programs often transfer out of better performing schools, and those students don’t perform any better academically than how they performed before their transfer.”

In this fact sheet, NPE explores examples of the tax credit programs in a number of states—Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida—and then declares: “Many parents receiving tax credit scholarships can already afford private school and should pay their own way. Private schools on average do not perform better academically than public schools… Redirecting taxpayer money from public education to private schools does little to increase education opportunities, especially for low income families.”

The second of NPE’s fact sheets about tuition tax credits addresses this question: Are Tax Credit Scholarships a Voucher by a Different Name?  According to NPE the best way to think about tax credit vouchers is as a money-laundering scheme to get around the state Blaine Amendments (see here) that prohibit the direct expenditure of tax dollars for sectarian education: “Education tax credit scholarship programs are a money laundering scheme. Whereas vouchers distribute public education funds directly to parents, education tax credit programs use a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO)—that is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to the private school industry… The money from the STO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition….”

Tax credit programs are sometimes promoted as a money-saving enterprise.  NPE responds: “Education tax credit scholarship programs don’t save money. They drain financial resources from public schools while providing tax benefits to wealthy businesses and individuals… Education tax credit scholarship programs are a give-away to the rich. High-income taxpayers are the main beneficiaries of the programs. They not only get their donations back as a tax credit; they also can take a federal charitable tax deduction on top of that.” Again, the fact sheet presents examples from a number of states, this time Georgia, Arizona, and Alabama.

Here in a recent USA Today commentary is Joshua Starr, former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and now CEO of PDK International, a professional society for educators: “Betsy DeVos, our new Secretary of Education, claims that she wants the federal government to become more responsive to the will of the American People… Fair enough. So when it comes to pubic education, what do the American people want?  Since 1969, PDK International has conducted an annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools… Since 1993, we have asked Americans 20 times whether they support allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense, and every time a majority has said ‘No.’ … (O)ur data have shown consistently over many years that a majority of Americans favor spending more money on the public schools, especially on their local schools (which people tend to rate much more highly than the public schools in general.).  A majority of people even say that they would be willing to pay higher taxes as long as the money goes directly to education.”

Here is Starr’s judgement on Betsy DeVos: “Secretary DeVos may have her reasons for wanting to… ramp up funding for her preferred forms of school choice. But let’s be honest: Those reasons are grounded in ideology, not in practical experience (she has none) or evidence (she cannot cite any).

Blaine Amendments Protect Religious Liberty, Prohibit Establishing Religion via School Vouchers

So-called Blaine Amendments in many of the state constitutions prohibit the diversion of taxpayer dollars to religious schools.  Over the weekend, The Hill published a commentary on the state Blaine Amendments by Robert G. Natelson , a retired professor of constitutional law and a fellow at the the far-right Heartland Institute. Natelson argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the Blaine Amendments in several state constitutions because they were created in an era of anti-Catholic bias and at a time when public schools reflected their Protestant beginnings.

Several times in the 1870s and 1880s, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, James G. Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit the expenditure of public dollars at religious schools.  While the amendment to the U.S. Constitution was never adopted, a number of the states passed so-called Blaine Amendments to their constitutions. In many those states today, the Blaine Amendment has been interpreted to mean that the state constitution prohibits the use of school vouchers in sectarian schools.

Diane Ravitch, the historian of education, responds to Natelson at the Huffington Post. She agrees with Natelson about the origin of the Blaine Amendments:, “Natelson is right that the public schools of the 19th century were deeply imbued with Protestant teachings and practices… The arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, mostly Catholic, concurred with the beginnings of public school systems in urban areas…. The Blaine Amendment appealed to anti-Catholic sentiment among the dominant Protestant majority….”

Ravitch explains, however, that public schools are no longer dominated by any religion, nor do they incorporate religious practices.  Courts, according to Ravitch, ought to consider the reality that today, public schools have shed religious practices, particularly since the 1962, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, that banned school prayer.  Today public schools are expected to protect the right of each child to worship according to the child’s or family’s religious beliefs and to protect the U.S. Constitutional ban on religious education.

There is widespread acceptance today in public schools and across U.S. religious bodies that the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion applies in schools operated in the public sphere by government. Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion, and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.

Ravitch explains today’s reality that by law, students are protected from religious bias in their public schools:  “The motives of James G. Blaine or Catherine Beecher Stowe or Horace Mann or Henry Bernard or any of the other 19ht century founders of public schools are irrelevant today. They matter less than the reality and practices of public schools today that the Blaine Amendments permit and protect. Because of the states’ Blaine Amendments, public schools across the nation welcome children who are of every religion or no religion, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or any other belief.  To rule against the Blaine Amendments would open the door to subsidizing religious schools with public dollars.”  Many promoters of school vouchers, including Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, want to eliminate the state-by-state Blaine Amendments as a way to ensure that school vouchers are permissible in every state.

Ravitch writes, “If the High Court reviews the state Blaine Amendments, I hope the Justices will recognize that the founders knowingly decided to avoid state entanglement with religious establishment… Our public schools are no longer the Protestant public schools that Bishop Hughes fought against. They are an integral part of our democratic society. They are a public good, like the services of police and firefighters, like public beaches, libraries, and parks.  Separation of church and state is a valuable principle that protects the church schools from government intervention and mandates. Religious liberty is best protected by keeping it separate from government dollars and government control.”

Today America’s major religious denominations have themselves strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.

In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13)

  1. “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
  2. “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
  3. “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
  4. “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The religious organizations that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Just last month The Christian Century editorialized supporting our nation’s public schools that serve children from many religions and opposing school vouchers. The Christian Century describes itself as a magazine that has, “For decades… informed and shaped progressive, mainline Christianity.” Its mission statement declares, “Committed to thinking critically and living faithfully, the magazine explores what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith in our time… (T)he Century is both loyal to the church and open to the world.”

In its recent editorial, The Christian Century affirms the role of public education and castigates vouchers, but the editorial focuses on the right of every child in our society to a quality public education.  The magazine does not assume any presence of religion in public schools but instead emphasizes the danger when meager public education dollars are used to privatize schools, whether or not they are religious: “(N)owhere is there demonstrative evidence that the mechanisms of market choice and privatization have improved education overall. Their downside, however, is quite clear: wherever charters and vouchers operate, they siphon money from the public school systems which are charged with educating every student, regardless of physical or mental ability, income, or parent involvement. The schools that have demonstrated real reform in recent years are ones that have focused over the long haul on the unglamorous tasks of setting high goals, finding and supporting excellent principals, continually supporting and training teachers, and staying connected to parents and community. Supporting public schools in that hard work is the best focus for government dollars.”

The Christian Century endorses justice for all children, whatever their families’ religious beliefs, in democratically owned and operated public schools designed to protect the rights and serve the needs of our nation’s 50 million students.

Update: Yesterday afternoon in the “Answer Sheet” column at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss re-printed Diane Ravitch’s Huffington Post column and added an introduction about the timeliness of this issue. Strauss reports that the U.S. Supreme Court is soon scheduled to begin hearing a case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, which involves the constitutionality of Missouri’s Blaine Amendment.  Arguments are set to begin on April 19, and Strauss explains that, “the decision could determine the fate of Blaine Amendments across the country.”  Strauss adds another piece of important legal history, citing a quite recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed the Establishment Clause itself in relation to public education: “In the landmark 1947 Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing case, the Supreme court wrote that the Establishment Clause does create a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and that means that, at the very least, no ‘tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.'”

It is very much worth reading Ravitch’s column here or reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column with Strauss’s introduction.

Arizona Expands Privatization of Education Yet Again

Arizona is no stranger to the privatization of education.  It has had charter schools, online charter schools, tuition tax credits and the newest iteration of privatization—Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).  Tuition tax credits and education savings accounts are particular types of school tuition vouchers, by which children are granted tax funded coupons to pay all or more commonly part of private school tuition.  An education savings account program expansion was signed into law late last week by Arizona’s governor.  Now every single child in the state will be eligible, though at this time there are enrollment caps—to be expanded gradually over time— on how many students the state will underwrite each year.  ESAs are basically an experiment in totally portable school funding.

Here is Dana Goldstein describing Arizona’s ESA expansion in the NY Times: “The bill, which the State Legislature passed on Thursday, makes all 1.1 million public school students in Arizona eligible for money from a program that until now was available only to some students, including those with disabilities and those in underperforming schools. Under the law, parents who withdraw their children from public school can use their child’s share of state education funding to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling costs, tutoring and online education, as well as for therapies for the disabled…  Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have similar programs, but they all restrict eligibility to disabled children. That makes the Arizona expansion the broadest to date. Unlike traditional vouchers, in which states pay private schools directly, E.S.A.s allow parents to distribute public dollars for educational expenses.”

For parents an education savings account is like a credit card which parents can use to buy particular services for a child. This puts parents fully in charge of where and how children are educated. Here is how the Network for Public Education explains education savings accounts in a fact sheet that is part of an excellent new new toolkit, School Privatization Explained: “ESAs provide a huge loophole for unaccountable use of public money. Parents who withdraw their children from public schools get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The account comes with a debit card families can use to pay for unaccountable education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, lessons and private therapists and tutors… Most of these (ESA) programs release their funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.”

Goldstein explains the size of Arizona’s monetary awards to parents: “This year, about 3,500 Arizona students, the majority of whom have special needs, are participating in the program.  The average size of an account is $5,700 per year for children without disabilities and $19,000 for children with them.”

Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s education reporter, describes how Arizona’s new ESA enrollment is expected to grow: “Now, all 1.1 million students across the state will be eligible for the money, though not all will be able to enroll. Under a deal negotiated to ensure the legislature’s approval, 5,500 additional students will be able to enroll each year, up to a cap of 30,000 in 2022….” “Critics said it would weaken Arizona’s public schools by siphoning away students and needed funds and would be more likely to subsidize affluent families’ private-school tuition than to help poor children access new opportunities.”  One worry is that, as has happened in other states, once voucher programs get underway, legislatures have raised the caps more quickly than originally intended, a reality that has depleted state education budgets.

There are all sorts of potential problems with ESAs (and other kinds of vouchers), however. Marketing and glossy advertising is always part of a school choice marketplace, and there are what are technically called asymmetries of information. Parents who are given an education credit card may not be prepared to choose reputable schools, to inquire about the credentials of the teachers, or to evaluate the school’s curriculum. Finally, Erin Richards, writing about the Milwaukee voucher program, describes the same kind of self-dealing and fraud in voucher schools that we have seen in disreputable charter schools.

One cannot, however, ever consider the impact of a voucher program from the sole perspective of the children and families who receive the voucher. There are what economists call externalities, the side effects—unanticipated or intentional—of a policy like school privatization. Here is one of the primary realities: when a legislature adds a separate voucher or tax credit or ESA or charter school program, the state has never, to my knowledge, added an extra tax to pay for it. The cost of running the extra system always comes out of the state budget for public schools. And in the case of Arizona, that is a huge problem. At the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black, explains the fiscal realities of Arizona’s expanded ESA program in the context of Arizona school funding: “The funding mechanism and its expected cost to the state is murky… What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s per pupil funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. To make matters worse, it distributes those meager funds unequally. The Education Law Center’s 2017 School Funding Fairness Report grades Arizona’s funding distribution as an ‘F.’…  Arizona spends the least on students who need the most.  That same report also shows that Arizona is doing almost nothing to fix its low funding levels or unequal distribution. Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools… These cold hard facts show that the state is not really interested in supporting adequate and equal education for its students. Thus, it is no surprise the state would double down and make matters worse. If gross inequity and inadequacy in public schools does not bother the state as a general principle, why would robbing those schools of more money be a problem?”

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos champion various voucher programs including the one passed in Arizona last week. While federal cheer-leading may have encouraged legislators in Arizona to expand this program, to date there has not been any federal plan passed or even proposed in Congress to expand the various kinds of school vouchers. Neither has Congress created any federal program to incentivize states to pass or expand voucher schemes.

Trump Administration—Supporting Oversight of For-Profit Colleges?

It is too early in the four-year term of President Donald Trump to be sure of anything or to take a deep breath of relief.  But last month there was one encouraging sign from the Trump Justice Department.  Contrary to what can only be described as excited anticipation by the operators of for-profit colleges of the rollback by Trump’s people of Obama’s regulations, attorneys at the Department of Justice filed a legal brief supporting one of the Obama administration’s most effective rules to reign in the for-profits—a rule that is unpopular across the for-profit sector.

The Trump administration’s legal brief defends what’s known as the gainful employment rule, which has penalized some of the very worst for-profit colleges and trade schools that depend on federal Pell Grants and federally backed loans for the bulk of their revenue but that fail to provide adequate training to enable their graduates to land jobs or pay off their debts. The gainful employment rule is intended to protect student-borrowers from debts they will never be able to pay off and to to prevent a massive loss of tax dollars when borrowers with untenable debts eventually default.

Here is Suzanne Mettler in Degrees of Inequality, her book (published in 2014) on the problems of for-profit colleges.  Mettler describes the gainful employment rule as perhaps the most highly contested of the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down: “In what turned out to be their most controversial proposal, the so-called gainful employment rule, they set out to limit federal student aid to schools that failed to establish a record of positive outcomes for their students, as indicated by measures of their subsequent earnings relative to their student loan debt and by their loan repayment rates… Defenders of for-profit universities champion them as belonging to the private sector, but in recent years as in the past, they receive nearly all of their revenues from the U.S. federal government.”  Mettler documents the percentage of federal funding at fifteen of the largest for-profits: “Notably, these institutions, with only one exception earned between 60.8 and 85.9 percent of their total revenues in 2010 from Title IV of the Higher Education Act, meaning predominantly student loans and Pell grants… Most received an additional 2 to 5 percent from military educational programs, including the post-9/11 GI Bill.  The sum of these federal government funds added up, as a portion of all revenues collected, to a minimum of 65.8 percent for ITT and a maximum of 93.7 percent for Bridgepoint.  In short, the for-profit schools are almost entirely subsidized by government.” (pp. 165-169)  Two of the institutions Mettler describes, Corinthian Colleges and ITT, have been shut down since her book was published.

Last month, the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein described the explosive growth of the for-profits that has made this such an important issue: “Some two million Americans are enrolled in for-profit colleges, up from 400,000 in 2000. Those students, most of them working adults getting short-term certificates, are disproportionately nonwhite and female. They graduate with more debt than students who have attended public and nonprofit institutions, and are more likely to default on their loans. It is taxpayers who are financing the expensive and often academically inferior education that for-profit colleges provide. Ninety-four percent of for-profit students pay tuition with federal student loans.”

Everybody predicted that the Trump administration would relax oversight and allow the invisible hand of the market (subsidized substantially, of course, by the federal government’s grants and loans) to work in the for-profit college sector.

But early this week Shahien Nasiripour of Bloomberg reported a surprise: “In late March, the Trump administration offered a forceful defense of the so-called gainful employment rule, the 2015 regulation that threatens to shut off the spigot of normally free-flowing federal funds that sustain career programs if the typical graduate’s annual loan payments exceed 20 percent of her discretionary income or 8 percent of total earnings.”

The Justice Department filed a legal brief, according to Nasiripour, “on behalf of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,” to respond to a lawsuit by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, who allege that the gainful employment rule should not apply to graduates of beauty schools because beauticians earn cash tips that they tend to under-report.

Nasiripour quotes from the Trump Justice Department’s brief: “The regulations are intended to protect students and taxpayers by providing warnings about programs with relatively high loan debt compared to the earnings their students could hope to achieve after graduating from those programs.”  The brief says the gainful employment rule protects students, “because it would prevent them from taking on debt that they will not be able to repay, and they could more reasonably evaluate whether they would prefer to enroll in programs that have been more successful in enabling their students to find employment that would allow them to repay their loans.”

It is too early in the four-year Trump administration to know whether federal regulators will continue to enforce the oversight rules put in place by the Obama administration to regulate the for-profit colleges.  In Degrees of Inequality, Mettler explains that of all the rules for for-profit colleges, “the gainful employment rule proved most divisive.” (p. 173)  Mettler describes the extensive and lavish lobbying and months of receiving public comments and re-writing that eventually weakened the rule as it had been originally proposed.

We will need to watch whether the Trump administration maintains its support for federal oversight of the for-profit college sector over time or whether the power of money, marketplace ideology, and intense lobbying will once again prevail. Here is Mettler summarizing the situation: “Their names have changed over time—from proprietary or trade schools to career colleges, and then to for-profit universities—but these schools have, consistently, emerged and grown in pursuit of student aid funds from the federal government… A recent study by economists Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Claudia Goldin confirmed that for-profit institutions that were eligible for Title IV funds charged significantly more in tuition—on average 75 percent more—than those that offered similar programs but were not eligible… Not only has the number of dollars invested in campaigns and lobbying escalated sharply, but also—in the case of the for-profits—industry leaders have learned how to use money strategically to construct winning coalitions.”  (pp 186-187)

And the coalition blocking regulation of for-profit colleges has never been entirely partisan.  It has included powerful members of Congress from both political parties.

The Will of the People Doesn’t Seem to Be with Trump and DeVos on School Privatization

On Tuesday, Tony Evers was elected by Wisconsin voters to his third term as state superintendent of schools, and he wasn’t merely re-elected.  It was a tsunami.  Evers carried 70 percent of the vote and his opponent, Lowell Holtz, only 30 percent.

Why is Tony Evers’ re-election as Wisconsin state superintendent of schools so remarkable?  Well… Wisconsin is one of 25 super-majority Republican, trifecta states: Governor Scott Walker is an outspoken, far-right Republican, and both houses of the legislature boast huge Republican majorities. Wisconsin is the home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee, then Racine, and, in 2013, expanded statewide.  It is the state where, back in 2011, Governor Scott Walker and his legislature severely limited collective bargaining for public employees including teachers. It is a state whose legislature is now also considering an ALEC-designed plan for Education Savings Accounts—yet another kind of school vouchers. It is the state where Governor Walker tried to re-write the mission statement of its flagship university to emphasize job training and delete this clause: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”  And it is the home of Reince Priebus.

So what happened in Tuesday’s  election for state schools superintendent? Here is Scott Bauer of the Associated Press explaining the election of Evers over his opponent, Lowell Holtz: “The win keeps Evers in place as the only Democratic-backed statewide official in a meaningful office. Even though the race is officially nonpartisan, Evers had strong support from Democrats along with state and national teachers’ unions who favored his positions in support of increased funding for public schools and opposition to private school vouchers… Evers and Holtz disagreed on almost every major issue that’s come up in the campaign. Evers opposes expanding the private school choice program and supports Common Core academic standards, increasing funding for public schools and addressing teacher shortages across the state… Both candidates supported Walker’s budget sending $650 million more to schools. But they disagreed on Walker’s requirement that the bulk of that money be tied to schools that require employees to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs. Evers opposes the provision, while Holtz backs it.”

Unlike our national education secretary, Betsy DeVos, both Wisconsin candidates brought some experience working in public schools, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “A Plymouth native, Evers, 65, worked as a teacher and principal before joining the Department of Public Instruction. Holtz, 59, worked as a parochial school teacher, police officer and principal, and has served as superintendent in the Whitnall and Beloit school districts.”


While the public school guy, Tony Evers was winning in Wisconsin with 70 percent of the vote, Betsy DeVos went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and advocated school vouchers for families who are perfectly content with the schools provided by the U.S. Department of Defense for families on military bases. Valerie Strauss covered DeVos’s visit to Fort Bragg and provides the background on these schools: “More than 73,000 students attend 168 Defense Department schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity, an agency that runs pre-K through 12th grade education programs for stationed military families. At Fort Bragg, N.C., there are eight schools that run from pre-K to eighth grade, with students attending high school off the military installation.”

It turns out the folks at Fort Bragg were not so impressed with Betsy DeVos’s proposal for school vouchers. A PTA president in one of the local pre-K-8 schools said: “I feel like public, private and charter schools need to be playing by the same rules….  and making sure the public system is up to snuff for our military children.”  She added that parents would like a public high school added right on the base instead of any kind of voucher program. A spokesperson for the Military Impacted Schools Association said: “Rather than distributing scarce resources in the form of a new voucher program, the Federal Government should be making good on its obligation to all federally impacted school districts.”

And on Tuesday, the same day as Wisconsin’s election, Donald Trump expressed some impressions about education at a town hall event in Washington, D.C.  He tried, not very convincingly, for a “shock doctrine” tone—implying that because things are so terrible, we need to privatize.  Valerie Strauss shares his comments: “Why are the numbers so horrific in terms of education and what happens when somebody goes through school and then they can’t read?”  Then he added that public education in American cities is “rough.”   By contrast, “(S)ome of the charter schools in New York have been amazing. They’ve done incredibly well.  People can’t get in, you can’t get in.”

On the one hand, we have Donald Trump’s wandering thinking about education and Betsy DeVos’s relentless and tiresome dogma, and, on the other hand, there is the political will of Wisconsin’s voters, 70 percent of whom voted for the public schools advocate. Here is a statement from a North Carolina lawyer and politician that perfectly describes the disconnect between what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday and the education-speak of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “DeVos’s clueless testimony at her confirmation hearing was an embarrassment to billionaire dilettantes everywhere, but ‘alternatives’ to public schools remain wildly popular with what Bernie Standers calls ‘the billionaire class.’ Most Americans are more skeptical. Americans don’t regard public schools as creeping socialism or public school teachers as union thugs, and don’t support looting public schools to pay for charters or private schools.”