Roosevelt University Study: Rapid Charter Growth Has Cannibalized Chicago Public Schools

A new poll by the Associated Press exposes widespread support for school choice even though most people don’t know much about what it is:

“(M)ost Americans know little about charter schools or private school voucher programs.  Still, more Americans feel positively than negatively about expanding these programs, according to a new poll released Friday… All told, 58 percent of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66 percent report the same about private school voucher programs… Even though they are unfamiliar to many, Americans have largely positive reactions to charter schools and vouchers.”

The finding that most people have some sort of positive affinity with the idea of school choice doesn’t really surprise me. After all, our new U.S. Secretary of Education advertises the importance of “parents’ right to choose” every time she opens her mouth.  I believe Betsy DeVos’s support for what she calls “the right” of parents to choose a school is ideological.  She has been affiliated for years with libertarian think tanks that privilege individualism over the public good. I think she also believes in the importance of Christian religious schools or the right of parents to insulate their children by homeschooling them. And I don’t think DeVos has an adequately developed sense of opportunity cost—the reality in this case that school budgets are fixed and if you cut more pieces in the budget pie, all the servings get smaller and smaller.

By talking relentlessly about “parents’ right to choose a school,” DeVos is on-message all the time, driving home the idea that school choice is a right, and that right is currently being denied to poor parents. Hence DeVos talks about the need for more charter schools or publicly funded school vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts—public money to pay for parents’ private choice.

Let’s stop for a moment to remember that parental choice in a privatized education marketplace is not what is protected by the education clauses in the 50 state constitutions, which instead include language about the state’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools to serve the children of the state and the well-being of the public. The state constitutions allocate tax dollars for what has long been understood as a public purpose.

A new study from Roosevelt University in Chicago explains precisely how school choice—in this case Chicago’s rapid expansion of charter schools—can destroy the public good. The authors summarize the history of school accountability in conjunction with the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago: “During the Mayor Richard M. Daley Administration of the 1990s, Chicago Public Schools was shaped by educational accountability practices… Once identified as ‘underperforming’ a school would be subject to a litany of school actions including probation, reconstitution… or closure… By 2001, Chicago augmented its accountability practices with a school choice philosophy… In order to give parents school choice, the public schools system was directed to introduce a greater menu of school choices….”

And the school district closed so-called “failing” schools: “As became apparent, nearly 90% of the school closures for low academic performance impacted predominantly low-income and working class African-American communities… (in) the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods.  These schools… predominantly served a vulnerable student population who ‘were more likely to receive a free or reduced price lunch, special education services, be too old for their grade, and families change residences in prior year.’  Furthermore, children from closed schools did not go on to attend higher-performing schools. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research 2009 study of Ren10 (Renaissance 2010 was a school closure and charter expansion plan.) schools found that 82% of students from 18 closed elementary schools in their study moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school including schools already on academic probation.”

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mass closure of public schools in 2011: “In addition to poor academic performance, schools with low enrollment would also be closed in order ‘right size’ the district… Using the Chicago Board of Education ‘under-utilization’ metric, Mayor Emanuel shuttered 49 so-called underutilized schools, almost 10% of CPS’s entire school stock. Mayor Emanuel justified the massive closures as a strategy to contend with CPS’ billion-dollar deficit….”

By then, unbeknownst to many, Chicago was participating in Portfolio School Reform—the idea that a school district be managed like a stock portfolio by shedding failed investments and adding new investments—through what is called a District-Charter Collaboration Compact supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Through this relationship, CPS agreed to open another 60 charter schools in the next five years, even as CPS enrollments were shrinking and existing charter schools could not fill 11,000 vacant seats in their schools. Many of the 40 new charters opened since the Gates Compact agreement have been located within 1.5 miles of the 49 public schools closed due to low enrollments.”

You might call this turmoil, but the promoters of Portfolio School Reform call it “creative disruption,” a business school concept that is supposed to improve things. Except it didn’t work that way in Chicago.  The school district’s budget has continued to shrink (due partly to problems with the state budget and more problems with Illinois school funding and other problems with an underfunded pension system), and all this disruption has resulted in massive cuts to programs and services in the public schools themselves. Here is the conclusion of the new Roosevelt University report: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system.  While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

Here is Jeff Bryant, commenting last week for the Education Opportunity Network, on what school choice means for the public.  Commenting on pleas from people like Betsy DeVos to let all parents have a choice, Bryant writes: “All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community. Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms.  But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.”

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher who died last month, very precisely summarizes, in more theoretical terms, what has happened in Chicago: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

What Might Seem to Benefit the Educational Consumer Turns Out to Be a Disaster for Society

This week the Senate will consider President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education.  Tomorrow the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will very likely vote to recommend DeVos’s confirmation for a vote on the Senate Floor. Her nomination has become extremely contentious. Please call your U.S. Senators again today to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Because Betsy DeVos has devoted her life and her financial fortune to replacing our society’s system of public education with publicly funded tuition vouchers that children can carry to private schools and with unregulated charter schools that are publicly funded by privately operated, much attention has been paid this month to weighing public vs. privatized education.  Valerie Strauss has published another excellent piece by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, that enumerates What Taxpayers Should Know About the Cost of School Choice.  “School choice” is, of course, another name for school privatization—always framed by its supporters through the much prized values of freedom and choice without naming their social consequences.

Burris examines the financial implications of school privatization. She explains: “American taxpayers cannot afford to run the multiple systems of K-12 education that the ‘choicers’ desire, nor would it be in the best interest of children to do so. We have been experimenting with taxpayer-funded choice for two decades, and the evidence is clear. We have wasted billions in tax dollars, with no comprehensive evidence that charters, online schools and vouchers have resulted in increased academic performance of American students.  It is time we have an honest discussion about the true cost of school choice.”

Here is Burris’s argument.  I urge you to read her entire article to grasp the quantity of evidence she amasses to demonstrate each of her propositions:

  1. “Billions of federal tax dollars have poured into charter school promotion, without regard for success and with insufficient oversight.”  Burris explains that by 2015 the federal Charter Schools Program had spent $3.7 billion in startup grants for charter schools to states along with another $333 million in 2016, but many of these schools were unsustainable and have since closed.
  2. “Some charter schools spend more tax dollars on administration and less on teaching.”  Burris describes two national charter school chains, for example, Imagine, Inc. and the Leona Group, whose Arizona affiliates were shown by researchers to have spent $28 million more last year on management fees and real estate rental fees than they spent in support for students in the classroom.
  3. “Charter schools drain tax dollars from your community schools.” Burris shows that in some states like Pennsylvania, each student carries his or her per-pupil funding to the charter school right out of the district’s budget. But school districts are unable to adjust staffing and costs to the loss of a few students here and there across many buildings. She adds: “Whether charters receive funding from the district, or directly from the state, the costs of running an additional school system are passed on to taxpayers.”
  4. “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases.” Burris points out that the public cannot afford to undertake paying all or even part of private school tuition across the country through some kind of national voucher program. Although Indiana’s voucher program started small, serving only poor children, it has been rapidly expanded and now costs the state $131.5 million annually. Burris adds that because no state requires private schools to accept all students, the financial burden on  public schools spikes as expensive-to-educate students become concentrated in public district schools.
  5. “Charter schools and voucher schools have minimal transparency and limited accountability. That lack of transparency results in scandal and theft.”  Burris explains: “(I)n many states charters are virtually unregulated.” Her examples are from Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Burris concludes: “I suspect that Betsy DeVos and her followers would say that all of the above is the price we must pay to keep charters free of regulations. But if regulations are the problem, and deregulation the solution, why don’t the ‘choicers’ push to deregulate public schools?  Shouldn’t their creativity be unleashed as well?  The reason they do not is obvious. For ‘choicers.’ the marketplace is the first love. Contemporary, extreme conservatism sees government as having only two functions—policing and defense. True believers do not want communities assuming the responsibility of educating children; they believe that education is the responsibility of the family.”

It is helpful always to consider privatization more theoretically with help from the political philosopher Benjamin Barber, who explains how marketplaces undermine the distribution of public goods: “The paradox of public and private that sets capitalism against civilization works to defeat common aspirations by ’empowering’ private wants. We lose the capacity to shape our lives together because we are persuaded by the prevailing ethos that freedom means expressing our desires in isolation. In the area of education, for example… the defects of public schooling are thought to be remediable by the virtues of private parental choice… What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common… As citizens, we would never consciously suggest such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, pp. 131-132)

Protecting Public Education Will Be a Challenge under the Trump Administration

Today we mark the inauguration of a new U.S. President and a new administration. Public education is perhaps the quintessential American institution, designed to educate all children—helping them develop personally and forming an educated public. All indications are that President Donald Trump’s administration will set our society back by undermining public education.

A group of 175 deans of colleges of education and chairs of college departments of education has released a declaration of principles to remind us all what we must try to preserve as the new administration takes over federal policy and seeks to privatize education.

First, “U.S. public education policy should: Uphold the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy... Students are not merely commodities or consumers, and when we treat education as a competitive marketplace fueled by privatization we set up a system that ensures that some win while many others lose…”

Second, “Protect the human and civil rights of all children and youth, especially those from historically marginalized communities. The federal government has historically played a leading role in advancing educational access and equity, as with the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws, targeted funding to address poverty and resource inequities, and appropriate supports for English-language learners and students with disabilities…”

Third, “Develop and implement policies, laws, and reform initiatives by building on a democratic vision for public education and on sound educational research… The U.S. educational system is plagued with oversimplified policies and reform initiatives that were developed and imposed without support of a compelling body of rigorous research or even with a track record of failure.  We urge you to build on the ample evidence from the high-quality research that exists….”

Finally these academic professionals ask our society to support the work they do: “Support and partner with colleges and schools of education to advance these goals.”  They are speaking for the need to sustain an education profession informed by academic research—teachers who know what the fields of psychology and sociology can tell them about their students and their communities—teachers who understand pedagogy and technique and motivation—teachers who have studied education philosophy and considered the ways in which education is more than mere job training.

These principles directly confront the priorities of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U. S. Secretary of Education. At her recent hearing, DeVos showed neither understanding of education policy nor respect for the Department of Education’s responsibility to  protect the civil rights of the children who are descendants of slavery and Jim Crow, immigrant children and English learners, disabled children, and others we’ve marginalized throughout our history.  While many of us might prefer that she forget about test-and-punish accountability and the punitive tone of federal policy since 2002, the civil rights protections we have managed to secure for children ought to be non-negotiable.

The most concise summary of the pitfalls of the Trump-DeVos pledge to privatize our schools is from political philosopher Benjamin Barber who warns that ultimately such policies will serve the privileged and further disadvantage the nation’s poorest children and their parents who lack power.  While “parents’ right to choose” is the education motto of the new administration, Barber warns, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”(Consumed, p. 139) “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy and a race to the bottom for everyone else. Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise. The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual ‘public’ sector… and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private ‘commons.’ The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (Consumed, p. 157)

Barber concludes: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all… With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak…” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

A retreat under the leadership of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos will slow what has been a halting journey toward justice for American children. In March of 2000, the late Senator Paul Wellstone reminded the students at Teachers College, Columbia University, “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

What the Washington Post’s Editorial Promoting School Privatization Neglects to Consider

In an editorial earlier this week, Fred Hiatt the editorial page director of the Washington Post, endorses marketplace school choice along with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Trump and DeVos are both strong supporters of private school vouchers and the rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools. Hiatt writes from the point of view of individual parents and endorses the ethos of the American Dream, the individualistic notion that school choice should not be merely the privilege of the rich who can afford to move to exclusive suburban school districts or to enroll their children in private schools.

Advocates for school choice like Hiatt propose to reward poorer parents who demonstrate gumption by searching for a school, filling out what may be a complex application, and then, in many cases providing their own transportation to a distant school or letting their children ride the subway. Embodying America’s ethos of individual success, school choice is designed to reward strivers. But such a plan also concentrates, in what quickly become schools of last resort, the children in families who are doubled up or moving from shelter to shelter and isolates these children in even poorer public schools. Are these children less worthy than the children of the parents who have the time and stability to enter the school choice marketplace?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson identifies the primary flaw in school choice: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  Marketplaces are races—competitions to see who can get a place. Races and competitions reward winners and leave the losers behind.  These days as states evaluate (and even close schools) according to the test scores their students produce, the schools themselves have an incentive to steer away (sometimes reject and sometimes quietly counsel out) students who struggle academically and children with behavior problems. It has been demonstrated again and again that in many places the charter schools that are a central part of the school choice movement, serve fewer students with serious disabilities—blindness and autism, for example—and fewer English language learners.

In cities where school choice has been in place for a while, such expensive-to-educate children have become concentrated in the traditional public schools, even as more and more money has flowed out of these districts to follow children through vouchers and to charter schools.  In Chicago and Detroit, where charters have been rapidly expanded, there is evidence that the parasite charters are killing the host school district. As schools compete for students and low scoring schools are closed, some neighborhoods in both cities have found themselves without, for example, a comprehensive high school ready to serve all the adolescents who live in the area.  For this very reason, in the November election when data were made public to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact on the Boston Public Schools of Massachusetts Question 2—the ballot issue to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools—the voters definitively blocked the expansion of school choice.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explains what happens, even when the consequences are unintended: “(P)rivate choices do inevitably have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often socially irrational and unintended: at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.” (Consumed, p 128)

In his recent editorial, Fred Hiatt correctly identifies a serious problem with today’s de facto school choice, the byproduct of America’s explosive inequality. Parents with money—who choose the expensive private schools they can afford and wealthy exurban school districts—have driven the acceleration of income-based housing segregation across America’s metropolitan areas, with the mass of poor children concentrated in cities and inner-suburban schools while their wealthy peers grow up in exclusive enclaves. Here is Barber’s observation (describing the consequences of urban flight by the wealthy as well as their retreat to private schools): “What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy…. Certainly that is not what we opt for when we express our personal wants with respect to our own kids. Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

There are a number of reasons, however, why expansion of marketplace school choice is not the solution to today’s economic and educational inequality. Charter schools were designed to be free from bureaucratic regulation and free to innovate.  Public schools, regulated by law and overseen by democratically elected boards, can be required to protect the rights of the public and the civil rights of the students. We are all familiar with the disastrous lack of regulation of charter schools in many places. In Ohio, for example, thanks to generous political contributions, the legislature has refused even to regulate attendance to ensure that the state is paying tax dollars for the students who are present at online charter schools for at least five hours per day. The state education department is set to claw back $60 million in over-payments (due to inflated attendance reporting) from  one online charter school last year alone, but the legislature has refused to crack down. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson bemoan our fading understanding of the role of government oversight to correct the excesses of the marketplace: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to the school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p 1)

Barber also confronts the failure of the marketplace to provide oversight on behalf of the public: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp 143-144)

Hacker and Pierson are explicit in defining education as a public function: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen.” (American Amnesia, p.65).

Finally, universal public education—not a fragmented education marketplace—is important because our public schools define our society’s highest ideals. Here is John Dewey, from The School and Society in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Public education represents our commitment to community, not merely to rugged individualism.

Reading About Education in the Press: Consider the Source and Demand Documentation

At the end of last week a friend forwarded a column that had appeared in his local paper.  It is short, pithy, and readable.  Unfortunately, although it begins with some facts that are perfectly accurate about the public schools, its author quickly twists her argument, neglects the truth and reflects the bias of her employer.  The article is written by Vicki Alger, a research fellow at The Independent Institute.  It was circulated by the Tribune News Service, affiliated with the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, and Philadelphia Inquirer.  It is just the sort of little column that an editor might pick up to fill a space left on the opinion pages.

Alger begins by noting that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty flat for decades now. She is correct that today’s school reforms have failed to raise achievement. However, she quickly jumps to the assumption that, because test scores have not risen, increased spending on education—up, she says, by 140 percent between 1971 and 2012— has failed. There is a very important omission here: she neglects to mention that in 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that brought vastly increased spending on education for students with special needs.  Here is what Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained in his 1995 book, Where’s the Money Gone?: “A detailed examination of expenditures in nine typical U.S. school districts shows that the share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%. Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Alger then sets up several straw men: “We were promised that illiteracy would be eliminated by 1984.  We were promised that high school graduation rates would reach 90 percent by the year 2000 and that American students would be global leaders in math and science.  And we were promised that by 2014 all students would be proficient in reading and math. None of this has happened.”

So… concludes, Alger, because we have not arrived at utopia, we must get rid of the U.S. Department of Education and put parents in charge through school choice. “Research shows that when parents have more choices in education, both students and schools benefit, and do so at a fraction of the cost of top-heavy federal programs. The resulting competition for students and their associated funding puts powerful pressure on schools to improve.”

Some pretty convincing evidence shows that putting parents in charge through school choice isn’t working so well and that competition that privileges charter entrepreneurs is undermining public school districts.  In Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, there is evidence that rapid expansion of school choice through charter schools is contributing to the bankrupting of the public school districts and resulting in the closure of too many traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Even the more respectable academic proponents of school choice are getting worried.  In December of 2014, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), came to the Cleveland City Club to announce the release of a scathing report from CREDO on Ohio’s school choice marketplace.  Raymond shocked listeners to her City Club address by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Then, early in 2015 Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—penned a scathing analysis of school choice in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  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….’”

So what is The Independent Institute, whose point of view Alger parrots?  Its 2015 Annual Report brags: “Independent remains at the forefront of truly innovative alternative solutions—far beyond vouchers, charters, or other ‘semi-public’ schools… Allowing parents, teachers and others to take ownership of current public schools under Employee Stock Ownership… Private voucher programs… Education Savings Accounts that enable parents to direct education spending for their children… Low-cost for-profit and non-profit private schools.”

Pauline Lipman, professor of policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago would define the Independent Institute’s theory of education as neoliberal: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services. People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself.'” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, p. 11)

Alger’s neoliberal argument rests on protecting individualism, parent power, freedom, liberty, choice and competition.  It would seem, however, that in its education system a good society would protect the rights of children who lack the power to compete—children living in homeless shelters, children with special needs, English language learners, children whose parents don’t know how to play the game of competition.  The idea of public education is inclusive if imperfect. While public schools can never make all children proficient, eliminate illiteracy, or ensure that every child graduates from high school, the idea of public education historically has assumed that society is required to provide schooling for all.

Benjamin Barber explains it best:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Startling Report Costs Out How Charters Undermine One Large Public School District

Earlier this week it was announced that the Los Angeles school board would be receiving an embargoed report on the cost to the school district of charter schools.  The lead up in the press made the point that this was a teachers union-sponsored report and prepared readers for what would be its likely bias.  The article in the Los Angeles Times was headlined, “Union-Commissioned Report Says Charter Schools Are Bleeding Money from Traditional Ones,” and Howard Blume the reporter to whom the report had been leaked made sure readers noticed that, “The report… is certain to be viewed with skepticism by charter supporters….”

The report was released after its presentation to the Los Angeles Board of Education.  It is a long report, and I haven’t been able to read the whole thing, but I have read the accompanying policy brief, and I can tell you that if you read it, you will be underwhelmed by the presence of bias.  If the bias of charter school supporters is that charter schools should be unregulated to encourage innovation, the bias of the teachers union sponsors of this report is that traditional public schools shouldn’t be totally undermined and destroyed by experimentation with charters.  What surprises in this report—which was prepared by a consultant, MGT of America in collaboration with In the Public Interest—is its lack of hype and fanfare.  It is a plain old, thorough, costing-out study.  And as explained in the policy brief, the conclusions, while very basic, are deeply troubling.

Growth of charter schools in Los Angeles has been a huge experiment in the nation’s second largest school district: “Two hundred and twenty-one independent charter schools currently operate within LAUSD’s (Los Angeles Unified School District’s) boundaries. These schools currently enroll about 101,000 students.  Meanwhile, more than 540,000 students attend schools run by LAUSD, representing 84 percent of all students.  MGT of America’s recently released report, Fiscal Impact of Charter Schools on LAUSD, shows that the fiscal impact of charter schools on LAUSD is unsustainable if left unchecked, and will contribute to the eventual bankruptcy of LAUSD.  The unmitigated growth of charter schools will diminish the educational opportunities for the overwhelming majority of students through factors outside of their control.” The policy brief demonstrates that “charter expansion has cost the district more than $508 million in funding.”  That is half a billion dollars.

The first and biggest impact on the school district is that each student who leaves the district for a charter school takes $4,957 of the per-pupil funding allocated to the district by the state of California.  When children leave from a variety of schools, the district cannot simply downsize the costs of facilities and other fixed expenses. Of course schools can be closed, but the exodus to charters does not happen in an orderly manner that can be easily accommodated.  (This report does not explore the impact of school closures on neighborhoods and communities.)

Second, while to its credit (and unlike some other states), California has created rules and regulations to oversee charters, and while the state assigns such oversight to the host school district, nobody appears to have calculated the cost to the district of this new function. “The Charter Schools Act of 1992 established an unfunded mandate at the state level for each chartering authority to conduct ongoing oversight for all charter schools it has authorized.  To cover these costs, the act allows chartering authorities to assess a fee equal to one percent of a charter’s revenue… While all independent charters in LAUSD are paying these fees, they do not come close to covering the full costs of charter oversight cost incurred by LAUSD.  At first glance, many of the costs associated with charter oversight may seem relatively small.  However, taken together they are indicative of an unsustainable system that allows independent charter school oversight costs to steadily encroach onto the district’s general funds.” MGT estimates that LAUSD is spending $15.4 million each year on oversight costs above the one percent oversight fees.  The Charter Schools Division (CSD) has primary responsibility for overseeing charter schools.  “While LAUSD expects to collect $8.8 million in oversight fees, the total expenses for CSD alone are expected to top $11.7 million in 2015-2016,” leaving $3 million to be covered by the school district’s general fund.  The school district’s Office of Inspector General and Special Education Division are also assigned some responsibility for overseeing charter schools, and both agencies have recently requested budget increases for this very purpose.

Third there is the matter of co-location: “Under Proposition 39, LAUSD is entitled to assess either a 3 percent fee on co-located charter schools that have been granted rent-free space within district schools; or they can charge a one percent fee and collect a minimal amount for the charter’s share of facility expenses.  MGT has found that LAUSD has opted to collect a one percent fee from the 56 co-located charter schools, which is the lower of the two amounts.  Assessing the higher fee allowed by state law would have generated an additional $2 million in revenue for LAUSD in the 2015-16 school year.”

Fourth, costs for federally mandated special education programs burden the school district and threaten its fiscal sustainability.  Two factors beyond the school district’s control set up an impossible funding challenge.

  1. “(T)he federal government has never fully funded the mandated educational requirements of IDEA, and in California the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is applied in such a way as to require school districts to use general funds to ensure every student with special needs receives a comprehensive education.”
  2. “The State of California does not allocate funding based on the actual need or cost of instruction for SPED (Special Education) students.  For example, a student with severe mobility issues would require significant staff support throughout the school day, while a student with a mild speech impediment may require less frequent support.  Although the first student’s support services would cost significantly more than the second’s, current funding formulas do not distinguish between the different services each of these students will receive.”

The financial stress on LAUSD of mandated special education programs has grown as the number of students qualifying for special education has increased from 11.5 percent in 2004 to 13.5 percent in 2014-15.  In contrast, charter schools in Los Angeles average only 8.1 percent of students qualifying for special education, and the charters serve far fewer students with severe disabilities, students who are classified as “high-need.”  For example, 93 percent of children in LAUSD diagnosed with autism attend district schools, while only 7 percent are enrolled in charter schools.

And fifth, when children leave the school district to transfer (to another district, for example) the state of California reduces the average daily attendance reimbursement in what is called a “soft-landing,” by maintaining funding to the district school that has lost the student for one year after the student leaves.  The purpose is to give the school district time to adjust its costs. Transfers to charter schools, however, are handled differently: “(W)en students leave a district for an independent charter school, the state immediately reduces the district’s funding rather than allowing the district a year to adjust costs to match enrollment figures.”

The new report exposes a reality that is seldom named: charter schools were set up (in California back in 1992) as a great experiment by legislators who didn’t pay careful attention to their future impact on public school districts. Or, perhaps, the legislators listened to theorists who promoted charters and hoped market choice would entirely replace the public schools through just the kind of problems this report exposes. In his coverage of MGT’s new cost-study, Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume interviews one ideologue who virtually admits that the replacement of traditional public schools by charters has been his hope all along.  Eric Hanushek, the free-marketeer from the Hoover Institution, comments on the impact of the growth of charter schools on the viability of LAUSD: “Like all businesses, the district has to compete for its customers… The growth of charters is putting pressure on the district.  The district can’t do what it did in the past and come out ahead… They can try to compete for the students or sell off the buildings. But the point is: Charters look attractive to parents, which means that the district is not attractive.”

For a long time our society has tried to correct practices in the public schools that simply allowed parents to do what’s attractive according to their own biases and to promote their own children’s interests at the expense of the greater good—racial segregation—school funding (based on local property taxes) that favors wealthy suburbs—hiding away students with special needs in state institutions.  The new report from MGT and the Los Angeles teachers union challenges ideologues who would have our society revert to public policy that favors what merely looks attractive to parents.

Once again, it is important to confront Eric Hanushek’s free-market orthodoxy with the warning from political philosopher Benjamin Barber:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)