One Party State Governments Slash Taxes, Undermine the Common Good

Twenty-two states now have all-Republican state government—with the governor and both houses of the legislature dominated by Republicans.  In many of these states including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia, one can observe devotion by politicians to supply side economics, tax cuts and smaller government.  With fifty million children across the states enrolled in public schools and with states the primary source of funding for public education (Localities provide another big chunk, and the federal government less than 10 percent.), many school districts across the country are feeling fiscal pain.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains simply, “Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding (especially formula funding), generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.  When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times… As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, worsening the even steeper fall in state funding.”

No place epitomizes this situation more than North Carolina, once known as the South’s most progressive state. In Altered State: How 5 years of Conservative Rule Have Redefined North Carolina, NC Policy Watch chronicles the collapse the state’s fiscal capacity as legislators sought “to unravel the social safety net in pursuit of their aim to shrink the government they disdain and slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy.” “(T)he ideological shift left few areas of state policy untouched.  People who were already struggling have been hurt the most—low-wage workers, single mothers, people of color and immigrants… Nowhere have the cuts hit harder than in public schools, where rankings in teacher pay and per pupil funding have spiraled toward the bottom of the 50 states.”   At the same time, the state of North Carolina has encouraged “new for-profit companies that run charter schools, private and religious academies that now receive taxpayer funding, and sketchy online institutions that are raking in state dollars.”

“The tax code has been radically transformed since 2010 in a way that makes adequate funding of core public services more difficult.”  “Public education, a sector that accounts for about half of the state’s spending plan (higher education included) was not spared.  Between fiscal 2008, the peak year of spending for K-12 education, and fiscal 2011, total state funding for public schools was cut by about $1.04 billion when adjusted for inflation…. Since then, the economy has recovered significantly, but state spending on education has not.”  And the number of students enrolled has grown by 76,000 since 2008.  While state funding has grown modestly in recent years, it remains “more than $100 million below what the state budget office recommended as necessary to maintain the status quo and more than $500 million less (adjusted for inflation) than what was spent on public education in 2008.”

What has been lost?  Class sizes are bigger; teachers’ aides and nurses are missing in many schools; and in 2010, the state budget for new textbooks dropped from $121 million to $3 million.  That cut was supposed to be temporary, but it hasn’t been restored with more than modest increases.  In Franklin County Schools in the rural, eastern part of the state, a 20 year veteran, eighth grade English teacher complains there aren’t enough courses offered in her middle school to fill each student’s daily schedule.  Sometimes students take gym or computer classes more than once a day to fill their schedules.  In another Franklin County middle school, the principal has been forced to lay off foreign language teachers; the only option for studying a foreign language is through the state’s virtual online school.

While the teachers’ pay scale in North Carolina was raised to the national average during the 1990s, “Between 2008 and 2014, teachers saw their salaries frozen, save for a small increase offset by a rise in health insurance premiums.  By 2014, the state had fallen in national rankings on teacher pay to 47th.”  Starting and average salaries are now lower than in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia.  “While lawmakers raised beginning teachers’ salaries in 2014 and 2015, veteran teachers were for the most part left behind, with minuscule pay bumps over the last several years….”  The legislature also ended due process rights, making all teachers hired after 2013 at-will employees.

A new program offering students vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, however, was funded at $11 million last year, with expectations that it will expand to $24 million in 2016. In 2011, the state lifted the cap on new charter schools with the charter sector largely unregulated.  Most notoriously, entrepreneur Baker Mitchell, Jr. continues to profit from running four charter schools that use tax dollars to lease land from the for-profit real estate venture he also owns. A 2014 investigation by ProPublica showed that Mitchell manages all operations at his charter schools via Roger Bacon Academy, a private, for-profit company owned by himself. Mitchell’s profits grow because the state is not holding charter operators accountable.

NC Policy Watch sums up the tragedy: “Once recognized across the country for its commitment to public education, North Carolina now is making headlines for how much of it is being dismantled.”

Reports Add Up to Show Charter Fraud, Charter Failure, and Incapacity to Realize What Was Promised

In a new blog post Gene V. Glass, who, earlier this year with David Berliner published the excellent 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently posted, Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?  Glass declares: “The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: ‘Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions.  There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas.  Let free choice reign!’ It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run.  How have things actually worked out?  What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation’s children?”  Glass describes the conclusion in his and Berliner’s new book: “that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement.”  You’ll have to check out his blog post to read the story of his confrontation with two young charter teachers who recently tried to prove to him that their school was more innovative than the surrounding public school district only to learn that the International Baccalaureate program their charter had just launched was introduced ten years ago and continues to be offered in the public schools.  Berliner’s critique of charters comes among a recent rash of news reports about the woes of the charter sector.

This blog just covered Robin Lake’s despairing critique of the charter school catastrophe in Detroit.  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…’”  Lake is the executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has made the promotion of “portfolio school reform” (in which the portfolio contains a mix of public and charter schools from which parents can choose) its primary mission.  Her recent piece  suggests that she, a central promoter of charter schools, has no idea how to rein in school choice gone wild in Detroit.

Like Michigan, Texas is struggling to regulate the quality of its charter schools. The NY Times reports that one charter school district, the Honors Academy Charter chain, is currently operating seven schools even though Honors Academy Charters were formally closed under a 2013 law due to poor performance.  “Well into the new school year, all seven Honors Academy schools, which enroll a total of almost 700 students in Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are still open,” despite that the district has lost its contract and its accreditation.  Although, “The state ordered the charter operator to turn over student records and its remaining state funds, and to find alternatives for its students,” “Honors Academy officials… decided to open their doors anyway.  They have argued that the provision forcing closure is unconstitutional.” Costs are being covered by $3.5 million left over from last year, most of it revenue from the state.   According to state officials, because the schools are now unaccredited, students attending Honors Academy schools will be unable to transfer coursework.  Parents interviewed by the reporter in the parking lot were unaware that the school had lost its charter to operate.

What is happening in North Carolina may not be illegal, but it ought to be. In his column Taking Note, PBS education correspondent John Merrow recently skewered Baker Mitchell, the North Carolina “businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public charter schools… Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run ‘for profit,’ about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools.”  This blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools here.

Mark Weber, writing for New Jersey Spotlight, echoes Gene Glass’s critique that charter schools have never as a sector fulfilled what was promised.  Weber co-authored a recent report from Rutgers University that used readily available data from the state to demonstrate that charter schools segregate students. (This blog covered the Rutgers report here.)  In his short review for New Jersey Spotlight, Weber concludes: “On average, charters educate proportionately fewer students in economic disadvantage… than do the district schools in their communities.  Charters also educate fewer students with special education needs; further the students with those needs that charters do educate tend to have less costly disabilities.  In addition, the sector enrolls very few students who are English language learners.”  “‘Choice’ in schooling will likely lead to what we found in our report: the concentration of economically disadvantaged, special education, and Limited English Proficient students within district schools…  I see three core challenges in New Jersey’s urban schools: segregation, inadequate school funding, and child poverty.  None of these challenges will be solved by the expansion of charter schools.”