State Takeovers: Radical Seizure of School Districts vs. Organic, Community Grounded School Improvement

This blog will take a one-week, mid-summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, August 5.

We are in the midst of a wave of state school takeovers.

On Tuesday evening In Providence, Rhode Island, the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education granted the authority for Rhode Island’s recently appointed State Education Commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, to take over the Providence Schools. A new and scathing report by a team from John Hopkins University had criticized the current operation of the school district—already under mayoral governance.  For the Providence Journal, Linda Borg reports: “Under a 1997 statute, Infante-Green now has the power to revamp the teachers’ contract, revise how the school district is governed, even make decisions over hiring and firing… Infante-Green also confirmed that she will hire a superintendent to takeover the schools by early November. In fact, she is already speaking with several individuals, although no one has been named.”  Diane Ravitch provides some background about Angelica Infante-Green: “Infante-Green has never run a school district. She has never been a school principal. She entered education through Teach for America, then ran bilingual programs in Bloomberg’s (NYC) Department of Education. She belongs to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change.”

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer continues to threaten to close Benton Harbor’s high school or take over the school district.  In a commentary for Bridge Magazine, Tom Watkins, the state’s school superintendent from 2001-2005 warns that shutting down the high school or taking over the district won’t solve the core problem: “The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional educational funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address the problem going back decades… If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally, structurally unsound….”  In a recent podcast (link includes a transcript), the education writer Jennifer Berkshire and Massachusetts education historian Jack Schneider add that Michigan’s system of cross-district open enrollment conspires with structural racism to undermine poor school students by driving out students, each one carrying school funding away from places like Benton Harbor. The system is set up to progressively threaten the fiscal viability of majority poor and majority African American school districts.  This blog has covered the current situation in Benton Harbor.

And  in Ohio, where state takeovers of Lorain and Youngstown have proven catastrophic, the Republican dominated state Senate has refused to repeal a 2015 state takeover law, even despite bipartisan passage of a repeal in the Ohio House by a huge 83/12 margin. Legislators finally agreed to compromise with a one year moratorium on state takeovers in the new state budget while the Legislature deliberates. Three districts—Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland—are currently under state Academic Distress Commissions, while ten additional districts face takeover within the next two years—Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.  This blog has covered Ohio’s current and threatened state takeovers.

Whether you think state takeovers of public school districts are a good or a bad thing depends on how you think about school reform. Chiefs for Change, the organization of “corporate reformer” state superintendents and now also local school superintendents even posts on its website guidance on how to do a state takeover. Chiefs for Change was spun off several years ago from ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s corporate reformer think tank. Its state takeover guidance, The Hidden Equation in School Improvement: Lessons Learned About Governance-Based Strategies, lists three types of “governance-based” school improvement efforts: turnaround zones—in which a state creates a turnaround district which subsumes a number of so-called failing schools, sometimes from several different distinct school districts; receiverships—commonly called state takeovers, when a state takes over the operation of a particular school district; and charter school expansion.  Chiefs for Change prescribes three conditions its think tank advisers believe are necessary to ensure the success of any governance-based reform:

  • A strong “new leader to make decisions that unflinchingly put the needs of students first.”
  • Autonomy, including “control over staffing, budget, schedules, teacher collaboration opportunities, and school culture in ways that are often politically difficult in traditional school systems.”
  • A third-party consultant “external to the school system has helped guide nearly every real transformation we’ve seen.”
  • Flexibility because, “Successful changes aren’t one-size fits all models.”
  • Accountability. “It must be clear who is responsible for achieving results and what happens in the event improvement goals are not met.”

Chiefs for Change’s model is the one being adopted in Ohio and, I suspect, in Providence, Rhode Island.  School improvement in this model is measured by standardized test scores—how much and how quickly they rise.

Many who reject the “corporate school reform model” understand that public schools are intended to be democratically governed local institutions operated within their communities.  And many of these advocates recognize that schools being seized in state takeovers are nested in Black and Brown communities where poverty is concentrated.  These advocates recognize that challenges for educators and students in these districts are associated with generations of under-funding of schools along with poverty and racism. The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Dr. John Jackson characterizes the underlying issues beneath state takeovers of public schools:

“First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools.  Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services.  Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn… It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers.  An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters.  The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools… Take away democratic rights and the ability to vote to influence schools—the most meaningful public institution in any community—and you take away citizens’ greatest opportunity to become civically engaged, to work together to improve schools, to build healthy living and learning communities…”

Three organizations supporting organic reform within traditional public school districts, along with reforms in funding and wraparound social and health services inherent in the Community School model, have released major reports about strategies for addressing the challenges facing our society’s poorest school districts.  After profiling disastrous state takeovers takeovers in New Jersey, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools lists specific reforms likely to be more supportive of students and democratic community engagement:

  • “Curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant and challenging;
  • “An emphasis on high quality teaching;
  • “Wrap-around supports such as health care, eye care and social and emotional services available before, during and after school and provided year-round to the full community;
  • “Positive discipline practices such as restorative justice; and
  • “Transformational parent and community engagement in planning and decision-making.”

The Southern Education Foundation prescribes the same kind of interventions as an alternative to radical imposition of governance changes like mayoral control and state takeover.  And the Center for Popular Democracy recommends the same formula for school improvement. This report’s authors also warn about a record of significant failures in the corporate reform model: “Children have seen negligible improvement…state takeover districts have been a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement… staff face high turnover and instability… (and) students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures.”

Going deeper than the recommendations in the previous three reports, just this month, the National Education Policy Center published Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultous Times, from academic researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, Northwestern University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. This new report rejects top down, “corporate” reform and makes a strong case for school reform which engages parents and community in the collaborative transformation of their schools:

“In a national moment of political tumult and violence directed at immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups, our education systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities in ensuring equitable learning for our youth.  Not only do families and communities bring historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through these challenges, they can also bring critical expertise in how to advance educational justice and community well-being… System, school, community and foundation leaders committed to racial equity and family co-design work should: support initiatives that tap into and develop the collective leadership of families and communities of color in improving schools… rather than programs that seek to change parent behaviors to better support schools’ agendas; prioritize school change efforts that engage families and communities with educators and seek to build solidarities across racial and professional divides…; partner with community-based organizations and public agencies to enact educational change; invest in building and supporting the capacity of local leaders (not policy elites) to facilitate meetings and conversations across racial, cultural and other differences; (and) recognize that histories and systemic inequalities shape how families and communities experience and participate in formal spaces, and that patterns of inequity tend to re-assert themselves despite good intentions.”

Organic school improvement is likely to be accomplished over several years. State takeovers—in the corporate, Chiefs for Change model—routinely define penalties if quick turnaround, defined as raising standardized test scores—isn’t accomplished by a one-year or two-year deadline. State takeovers are cheap, technocratic, top-down schemes prescribed by politicians who know very little about building trust among parents, teachers and school administrators. Too often, their “unflinching” leaders create community chaos—what has been happening for the past year in Lorain, Ohio under the takeover czar David Hardy.

There is one other big problem with the corporate, state-takeover model. It is almost always imposed as a way to “fix” schools without the kind of school finance reform necessary for generating adequate investment when our society’s poorest children are concentrated in a school district or neighborhood.  In his (2018)  book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert addresses the always unmet financial needs of the poorest school districts:

“Because student backgrounds vary, because students are so unevenly sorted across schools, and because backgrounds and sorting lead to disparate outcomes, we must do everything we can to leverage resources to mitigate these disparities.  For without equitable and adequate resources, there’s little chance of achieving educational opportunity.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 52)”  “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes.  The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time.  Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. It’s reality.  It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.  These differences exist both across school settings and over time as student population demographics shift.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Baker writes in the dry language of a school finance economist. The relevance of his point to this post, is that state legislatures will do almost anything (appointing state takeover czars) instead of raising taxes and restructuring state school finance systems to invest adequately in our society’s poorest school districts.

To accomplish educational equity, however, state governments need to be spending far more on the school districts serving our society’s poorest children.  As Baker explains, when state funding and local property taxes are massed together, “The models included here suggest that, in some states, the highest-poverty quintile of districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 213)

Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools Tells New Congress: Fully Fund Title I and IDEA

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker carefully refutes some long-running and persistent myths about the funding of public education—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make any difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Assessing the overall impact of public investment in education, Baker concludes: “Rigorous, well-designed, and policy relevant empirical research finds that: Money matters for schools and in determining school quality and student outcomes. More specifically, substantive sustained, and targeted state school finance reforms can significantly boost short-term and long-run student outcomes and reduce gaps among low-income students and their more advantaged peers. Money matters in common sense ways. Increased funding provides for additional staff, including reduced class sizes, longer school days and years, and more competitive compensation. Cuts do cause harm. The equity of student outcomes is eroded by reducing the equity of real resources across children of varied economic backgrounds. (Educational Inequality and School Finance p. 101, emphasis in the original)

Early in the fall, in hopes that the 2018 midterm election might bring a more hopeful climate for adequately funding public education, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) published a major report, Confronting the Education Debt to define its members’ priorities for addressing decades of failure adequately to fund schools serving concentrations of poor children and children of color.  At the federal level full funding is an important goal for two long-underfunded programs:

  • AROS’s report traces the history of Title I: “The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a core component of then-President Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Title I of the ESEA targets federal dollars to schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty.  The authorization embedded in Title I—then and still today—allows Congress to provide an additional 40 percent above each state’s per pupil spending base, for each Title I-eligible child, to allow their schools to provide supplemental supports such as extra reading assistants and parent engagement specialists.  Having set that 40 percent authorization in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.”  (emphasis in the original)
  • AROS also addresses the second primary federal funding stream for public schools: “In 1975, a decade after passing the ESEA, Congress sought to address the educational needs of students with disabilities.  The individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to identify students with disabilities and to provide them the supports and services necessary to achieve academically.  In the law, Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of that additional cost, with local and state funds covering the remaining amount.  Once again, having established the formula, Congress failed to invest in it.  Federal funding of IDEA has never approached the promised 40 percent mark.”

In Confronting the Education Debt, AROS tallies the difference in the 12 year period between 2005 and 2017—the length of time it takes for a student to move through 12 grades of primary and secondary education—between what Congress established as the 40 percent funding levels for Title I and IDEA and what Congress appropriated: a gap of $347 billion for Title I and $233 billion for IDEA.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our schools is clearly adopting an aggressive strategy to press the new Congress to address its priorities. Writing last week in The Hill, AROS co-directors Keron Blair and Jay Travis challenge Congress to address its long failure fully to fund Title I and the IDEA: “As the dust settles from last month’s midterm elections, parents, students, community members and educators of America are… preparing for the long fight ahead for the public schools that our students deserve.  We are working to remedy decades of fiscal austerity in our public schools.  Between 2005 and 2017, public schools in the US. were underfunded by $580 billion in federal dollars alone—money that was specifically targeted to support some of our most vulnerable students.  Recouping all those funds won’t be easy.  However, with new voices in Congress joining forces with longtime education champions like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)—the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—and Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-Conn.)—the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the education budget—a lot can get done for America’s students and their public schools.  When it comes to public education, voters don’t want disinvestment and less regulation. They want more investment, smaller class-sizes, greater accountability for privately-operated charter schools, and school climates that are respectful and safe for students and staff.  Those demands were at the forefront when educators took to the streets… last spring.”

In addition to fully funding Title I and the IDEA, Blair and Travis name three other AROS priorities: invest in school infrastructure and technology, establish 25,000 Sustainable Community Schools by 2025 to support families coping with poverty, and end the teacher shortage by increasing wages for educators.

Clearly AROS’s priorities have already gained some traction among Democrats in Congress.  On December 4, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced a Keep Our Promise Act to “put Congress on a fiscally responsible path to fully fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on a mandatory basis.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of 10 national organizations which support urgently needed investment in the schools of our nation’s poorest communities: Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey 4 Justice Alliance, New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.

Stunning New Report: How Can Our Society Repay A Long Education Debt to Our Poorest Communities?

How can our society overcome nearly a quarter century of catastrophic public education policy designed by neocons, supply side economists, billionaire privatizers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council?  A new report, released yesterday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, outlines three steps by which we can recommit ourselves to a public school system prepared to serve and nurture all of America’s children.

  1. Congress must fund fully two federal programs designed to help school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty and children with special needs: Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
  2. Together the federal government, states and local school districts must, by 2025, launch 25,000 sustainable, wraparound Community Schools to ensure that children and families in our poorest communities have access to supports that will enable the children to achieve at school; and
  3. The U.S. Department of Education must recommit itself to its primary purpose: ensuring equity across America’s over 90,000 public schools.

The report challenges federal and state governments together to address today’s reality: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per-pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources. By failing to provide adequate funding, we deny these children the chance to fulfill their potential.”

School finance is a three part bargain, with each school district taxing itself (currently roughly 45 percent of school funding); states providing revenue (currently about 47 percent) and creating a state distribution formula to overcome disparities in local capacity; and the federal government providing a relatively smaller amount (currently roughly 8 percent) to support students with particular needs and to oversee civil rights. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools outlines five policy mistakes which have compounded a fiscal crisis over time for public schools in poor communities and areas without sufficient capacity to raise funding locally:

  1. Congress has failed to fund Title I and the IDEA at the levels promised when these programs were enacted.
  2. Local funding in the poorest communities is inadequate even when the citizens make a significant tax effort; and the states have failed to distribute their funds to eradicate inequity across local school districts.
  3. Current tax policies at the federal level and in many states have become regressive in the extreme, with tax policy benefiting corporations and the very wealthy, and services for the rest of us—public schools, for example—suffering.
  4. States have increased spending for incarceration and reduced education budgets at the same time school districts have increasingly replaced counselors and social workers with what are called School Resource Officers (guards).
  5. Privatization—investments in privately operated charter schools and private school tuition vouchers—at federal, state, and local levels has deliberately devastated traditional public schools when funds are extracted to pay for charters and vouchers out of fixed or declining public school budgets.

When Congress established Title I in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the intent was to provide significant extra dollars to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—an overwhelming challenge for any school district: “Not only did lawmakers recognize the need for additional resources—they attempted to quantify it.  Embedded in the law is the authorization… to provide school districts an additional 40 percent for each Title I-eligible child so that their schools could offer supplemental supports such as reading specialists and smaller class sizes. Having established that 40 percent target in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.” In graphic form, the report demonstrates that Title I funding declined between 2005 between 2017: from 18 percent of the original 40 percent Congressional commitment in 2005 to only 12 percent today.

The report concludes: “The impact of those under-funded appropriations is wrenchingly clear. If Title I was fully funded by Congress, the nation’s high-poverty schools could provide: health and mental health services for every student…; and a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and a full-time additional counselor for every Title I school; OR a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom across the country.”

The story is similar with what was promised in 1975, when Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  But there is one difference: In the IDEA, Congress mandated specific services schools must provide for disabled students. “The financial assumption underlying IDEA is that on average, the cost of educating a child with disabilities is twice the cost of educating a non-disabled student. IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.”  Again, the report graphically presents the underfunding of the 40 percent promise. In 2005, Congress funded 18 percent of he cost of IDEA’s mandated services, and the percentage has declined since then to 15 percent today.  When funding support is lacking from the federal government for mandatory IDEA services, school districts must cover the rest of the cost with general fund dollars—meaning larger classes for the general student population, fewer counselors, no librarian, no school nurse.

Please read the report (executive summary) for a more detailed picture of where our society has gone terribly wrong and what we need to do to make it right.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools represents parents, youths, teachers, and community and labor organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.

Public Schools Alliance Releases One Year Report Card for DeVos: She Gets an F

Did you remember that today is Betsy DeVos’s first anniversary as U.S. Secretary of Education? One year ago, on February 7, 2017, the U.S. Senate confirmed DeVos’s nomination by the barest margin. Mike Pence, the Vice President, had to be brought in to cast the deciding vote.

Today, in honor of DeVos’s first anniversary as Education Secretary, a coalition of education, civil rights, labor, religious, and community organizing groups—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools grades DeVos on the quality of her work to implement the K-12, public schools mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here is how the Alliance defines its rubric for evaluating DeVos’s performance: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

Overall, the Alliance comments: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.” “In her first year at the Department, DeVos has proven to be disinterested in, or actually hostile to her agency’s mission. Instead of taking steps to strengthen public schools, and to ensure equity and access, she has proposed slashing budgets. Instead of fighting to protect students, she has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights’ ability to conduct thorough investigations of claims of discrimination and has eliminated scores of civil rights regulations. Instead of promoting what works, she has declared her allegiance to one thing only: privatization.”  In the Alliance’s statement, the details explain how DeVos has undermined the Department’s capacity to carry out its mission in each of the four areas.

Identifying the one most urgent concern for our nation’s children and for the public schools that serve them, the Alliance comments specifically on DeVos’s failure to ensure that the Department addresses wide disparities in the opportunity to learn for poor children and especially children of color.  Title I, the Department’s oldest and largest program, was designed in 1965 to address the needs of vulnerable children and their schools; DeVos has ignored the need to strengthen Title I.  The Alliance addresses Title I not as a single issue, but speaks to the principles that were the foundation for the original 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

“Public schools are the vehicle through which we guarantee all children a free education from kindergarten through 12th grade. In our collective interest, we promise that poor children and rich children, students with disabilities, students of color, immigrant and non-immigrant will have access to an equitable, quality public education, paid for by taxpayers and controlled by local communities.  Yet across the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience.  But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of the following national organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, American Federation of Teachers, Center for Poplar Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, NYU Metro Center, People’s Action, Service Employees International Union, and Schott Foundation for Public Education.

On this first anniversary of DeVos’s confirmation, please read the Alliance’s very thoughtful assessment of DeVos’s work and the condition today of the U.S. Department of Education.

Thousands of Charter Schools Close: Rip Off Taxpayers, Steal Students’ Future

Last week I received a press release about a new report: Center for Media and Democracy Publishes Full List of 2,500 Closed Charter Schools.  What to do with this information?  What does it really mean?  Isn’t the threat of possible school closure really the point of school choice driven by the theory of the marketplace?  Good schools will open and stay open but the bad ones will go out of business when parents vote with their feet.  Isn’t this the very mechanism by which the marketplace is supposed to hold schools accountable?

I opened the link to the Center for Media and Democracy’s website to learn the significance of the new report, which announced: “Among other things, this data reveal that millions and millions of federal tax dollars went to ‘ghost’ schools that never even opened to students… (N)early 2,500 charter schools have shuttered between 2001 and 2013, affecting 288,000 American children enrolled in primary and secondary schools…. For example, in the 2011-2012 school year, charter school students ran two and a half times the risk of having their education disrupted by a school closing and suffering academic setbacks as a result of closure.  Dislocated students are less likely to graduate.  In 2014, Matthew F. Larsen with the Department of Economics at Tulane University looked at high school closures in Milwaukee, almost all of which were charter schools, and he concluded that closures decreased ‘high school graduation rates by nearly 10%.  He found that the effects persist ‘even if the students attend a better quality school after closure.'”… Then there are the charter schools that never opened despite tax money from a federal program to help more entities apply to create even more charters.  Drilling down into the data of just one state in just one school year, 25 charter schools (or, really, just prospective charter schools) awarded grants in 2011-12 never opened in Michigan.  The non-profit groups behind these were granted a total of $3.7 million in federal tax money in implementation and planning grants, and they also received at least $1.7 million in state tax dollars.  These charter schools exist only on paper, in this case on grant notification forms and in databases of state expenditures.”

Back in May, the Center for Media and Democracy released another in-depth report that demonstrates the failure of the marketplace as a regulatory mechanism for schools.  In fact CMD’s report in May raises serious concerns about lack of regulation in the charter sector: “CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools.  Although some charters have a veneer of being alternative ‘public schools,’ many of them are run by for-profit companies or outsource key operations to for-profit firms, and are exempt from any local democratic control.  These billions have been funneled to charters through a patchwork of state laws often designed to prevent government agencies from exercising control over how that money is spent by charters or to exempt charters from rules that apply to traditional public schools…. This lack of oversight is a recipe for disaster for far too many American school children, and for taxpayers, when large chunks of the money end up either missing in action or in corporate charter school coffers.”

Just last week, as the Center for Media and Democracy was releasing its list of 2,500 closed charters, Doug Livingston, the education reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, published the story of the disfunction and ultimate closure of the Next Frontier Academy, “an urban agriculture-based charter school” located in West Akron. Livingston’s report explains why this particular school closure wasn’t just an example of the marketplace regulating charters through accountability.

Livingston explains, “As the first day of school drew near this year, Unique Foxworth wondered whether her new school would believe that she had ever attended her old one.  She knew she did.  As a 14-year-old, she awoke at 5 a.m. each morning to catch a bus outside her East Akron home by 6:15 a.m.  At the central transfer station downtown, she would board another shuttle bound for Copley Road in West Akron.  She finished the 90-minute trip with a short walk to the Next Frontier Academy…. ‘It would always be the same three people that were there on time,’ said Foxworth, now 15.  ‘One was a teacher.  The other two were students.  I was one of them.'”

Reporting on Ohio charter schools, Livingston continues: “Now, like 200 other charters, the school has closed, adding to the $1 billion in taxpayer funding given to failed charter schools.  More charter schools closed last year than at any point in the industry’s 17-year history in Ohio.  For Foxworth, the closure meant finding a new school with only a few days notice.  Her mother said teachers—not administrators—told her of the school’s financial woes and likely closure.  As Foxworth searched for a new education, Akron Public Schools sifted through records for more than 60 students who attended the school.  None contained complete attendance counts or test scores, or adequate proof that students ever went there.”

Livingston’s report is thorough, with shocking details categorized by the story’s subtitles:

  • Broken promise: “The vocational charter school promised to teach agriculture to city students.  The state provided Next Frontier nearly $2,000 in additional funding per pupil to make it work.”
  • Chaotic closing: “The records weren’t easily obtained.  The school’s sponsor, Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster, said it sent staff to take them when the charter school refused to hand them over.  But the records were little more than cover letters….”
  • A violent place: “A teenage girl told police months later that an older male student ‘sexually assaulted her and held her against the wall’ inside the school.  Police recorded numerous thefts and fights at the school, which employed about five teachers and two administrators… Often parents, not the school, notified the police.”
  • Mismanaged money: “The Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed a worker’s compensation lawsuit in June.  Teachers were told to wait days before cashing paychecks as investors deposited money to keep the school’s bank account positive.  Summit County officials say $14,398.83 in taxes is owed on the property.”
  • Follow the money: “There’s a complicated paper trail that connects (Cleveland entrepreneur Michael) Hoffman’s company and the private landlord to the publicly funded school…. It starts with $125 in March 2012 when Hoffman paid the state to create the charter school.  A month later, he did the same to launch his company, Blue Lake Educational Management—a ‘limited liability company’ that shields Hoffman or school founder John Hairston from personal liability.”
  • Any assets?  “If there were desks or computers or anything of value, the sponsor would be responsible for selling the assets, paying bills and returning the balance to taxpayers.  The management company says the money is gone and no assets remain.”
  • Academic shortcomings:  “Ohio Department of Education records indicate staff lacked credentials or taught outside their areas of expertise…. Principal Tarik West, for example, held no administrative license, only a certificate as a substitute gym teacher.”

In June, this blog covered an effort by the national organizations that make up the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, the submission of a formal letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demanding that the federal government begin regulating charter schools.  The alliance cited formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.  The State Education Agencies that lack capacity to manage the programs are the 50 state departments of education.  In its letter, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools demanded that the federal government establish a moratorium on the awarding of federal funds to charter schools until federal oversight is improved.

The Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton reported earlier this week, however, that on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced grants of $157 million to expand charter schools.  Layton adds, “Asked how taxpayers can be assured that federal dollars will be spent properly, (Arne) Duncan said it was largely up to states and the public agencies that approve charter schools… The department sent a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to states emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars.  Duncan also said that his agency plans for the first time to publicly report some data, including the names of some schools that have received federal grants and their performance statistics.”

Journey 4 Justice Alliance Demands that ESEA Stop Test-and-Punish and Improve Urban Schools

On Monday, in the week when the Senate is taking up the reauthorization of the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Journey for Justice Alliance sent a powerful letter to leaders in the Senate to demand that Congress shift the federal approach to public education: “The Journey for Alliance, an alliance of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, joins with the 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations signed on below, to call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high states, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

The letter continues: “We respectfully disagree that the proliferation of high stakes assessments and top-down interventions are needed in order to improve our schools.  We live in the communities where these schools exist… High stakes standardized tests have been proven to harm Black and Brown children, adults, schools and communities. Curriculum is narrowed.  The results purport to show that our children are failures.  They also claim to show that our schools are failures, leading to closures or wholesale dismissal of staff.  Children in low income communities lose important relationships with caring adults when this happens.  Other good schools are destabilized as they receive hundreds of children from closed schools.  Large proportions of Black teachers lose their jobs in this process, because it is Black teachers who are often drawn to commit their skills and energies to Black children.  Standardized testing, whether intentionally or not, has negatively impacted the Black middle class, because they are the teachers, lunchroom workers, teacher aides, counselors, security staff and custodians who are fired when schools closed.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance’s letter was penned by Jitu Brown, the leader of Journey for Justice  and a Chicago community organizer.  A number of national organizations that signed on to the letter are also members of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, including American Federation of Teachers,  Alliance for Educational Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, and the Journey for Justice Alliance.

The new letter from Journey for Justice endorses four concrete recommendations for the ESEA reauthorization that were presented in a letter sent to Congress in March by the Alliance for Educational Justice: provide $1 billion in new federal investment in Community Schools that wrap medical and family social service agencies into the school building and around the families served by the school; invest $500 million in restorative justice coordinators to reduce overly punitive school discipline; “provide $20 billion this year for the schools that serve the most low income students, and more in future years until we finally reach the 40% increase in funding for poor schools that the Act originally envisioned”; and establish “a moratorium on the federal Charter Schools Program, which has pumped over $3 billion into new charter schools, many of which have already closed or have failed the students drawn to them by the illusive promise of quality.”

The new Journey for Justice letter represents widespread support for expanding opportunity by strengthening the public schools in the communities the No Child Left Behind Act—the ESEA’s most recent reauthorization—purported to serve by closing achievement gaps.  The gaps have not closed, and now the communities most deeply affected are demanding an end to test-and-punish and a new day when their children are provided an opportunity.

Community organizations that signed the letter represent cities across the United States including Chicago, Lansing, Birmingham, Dallas, Youngstown, New York City, Syracuse, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Camden, Sacramento, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Newark, Houston, Milwaukee, Saginaw, Detroit, Pittsbugh, South Bend, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles, Prince George’s County, Erie, East St. Louis, Buffalo, and Oakland.