Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

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As Privatizers Hone the Rhetoric for School Choice, Public School Supporters Need a Better Message

With Betsy DeVos promoting her one idea—that parents ought to have a right to choose a school—and all the money and politics swirling around the issue today, maybe you’ve forgotten how distorted the conversation about public education has really become. Who and what is really behind the push for school choice? And what are we being asked to forget about the role of public education in America?

First there is all the money being ideologically invested in creating the message that privatized education is better. Here, for example, is Kimberly Hefling’s report for POLITICO on the Koch brothers’ huge anti-public school campaign in the Hispanic community: “One of the newest campaigns is the Libre Inititive, a grassroots drive targeting Hispanic families in 11 states so far, under the umbrella of the Charles and David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity…. While the Koch network has long been involved in school choice battles, the push by Libre represents a new front in the fight by targeting Hispanic families—and a recognition that with Congress gridlocked, it’s on the ground at the state level where the network can disrupt the educational status quo. The Koch message on schools is shared by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime ally… Like DeVos, Koch organizers insist the push isn’t about dissolving public education, but about making more options available to Hispanic and other families. And like DeVos and her husband, Charles Koch has been a longtime supporter of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated for state laws that encourage private school choice expansion.”

Beyond all the money behind privatization, there has been a bipartisan papering over the real purpose of the dogged ideologues. But early in October, the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli exposed the real libertarian foundational principles  underneath school privatization. Ironically he admits that the social justice framing which promoted charter schools as a way to close achievement gaps was just rhetoric—merely a way to co-opt Democrats into supporting privatization: “While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made… (T)he charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall… Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities… But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans… So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump?… A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats… But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days… Most are non-union… It’s hugely important.”

Support for public education has been catastrophically hurt not only by the kind of money being invested by the Americans for Prosperity and by the libertarian rhetoric Petrilli endorses but also by the narrowing of the conversation about public schools to the sole focus on test scores.  Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade (see here) documents our society’s catastrophic adoption of high stakes test-and-punish—a regime that has been in place for nearly two decades—as the sole yardstick to measure the quality of public schools.

Jack Schneider, professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, urges supporters of public schools to insist on a different way of judging schools and a new language for assessment: “The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school.  As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores—about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain.  Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.  Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do.  Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking.  School quality is multidimensional… Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.  One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality.”

There is considerable irony in the fact that, while today the very wealthy far-right dominates the political rhetoric promoting the privatization of schooling, 50 million children across the United States attend traditional public schools. As privatization encroaches, the damage is much deeper than most of us realize.  Jennifer Berkshire just posted a podcast and transcript of her interview with Sally Nuamah, a Chicago political scientist who has been studying the impact on that city’s neighborhoods when the school district closed 50 public schools in 2013, after the rapid growth of charter schools in Chicago had lured many families away from neighborhood schools.  Public schools are core community institutions, and for decades it has been known that school closures have broad and traumatic consequences for neighborhoods.  Nuamah documents similar consequences in Chicago since the mass public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “(Y)ou see these communities are further losing population.  There’s less will, or less faith, in the traditional public school system across this poplulation, because they are afraid they’re going to be betrayed again, they’re going to have to move schools again, and that’s a very volatile situation.”

Nuamah continues: “Then there is the economic piece, and the fact that the number of African American teachers in Chicago has declined by 40%… It was very clear, just from talking to people, that they feared the larger consequences of what the closure of the school means, what it symbolizes, and the direct resources it takes from a community. People would constantly refer to the fact that if this community’s institutions close down, it would affect their ability to have healthcare, it would affect their ability to have employment. It would affect their ability to live in a neighborhood that is safe, because right now, the closed-down structure is acting as an eyesore.”

Nuamah describes the deeper impact on the self esteem among the adults in the neighborhood of the closed school: “I would hear people specifically say that people would think that they failed….  because the institutions that their kids attended were being closed down and they couldn’t protect it.  So (school closings) have to do not just with social and economic issues but also in terms of what people are modeling, what they’re teaching to their younger people.  What they’re able to protect for the next generation to come. They were… (losing) assets that were passed down to them from prior generations, especially because schools have always been at the center of civil rights and the fight for equality… It has more to do with the larger historical, social, and community-based roles that schools have played. In African American communities in particular, public schools had (a) long history of being the first public institutions in which African Americans got access… But not just that: schools historically have been a main social mechanism for the black middle class.  A lot of people end up in the black middle class… through jobs in the education sector.”

Billionaire Betsy DeVos and her friends in the far-right, libertarian sector are actively promoting the privatization of America’s public schools. The Republican and Democratic technocratic politicians have brought us twenty years’ of test-and-punish to discredit public education. It is up to us—parents and teachers who are the core stakeholders in the public schools and citizens who care about public education—to create a more nuanced narrative about the role of our nation’s 90 thousand public schools as an essential public institution.

Educating Ourselves About Betsy DeVos—Three Essential Articles

Tim Alberta’s profile of Betsy DeVos at POLITICO Magazine humanizes the Secretary of Education. I encourage you to read it, but only if you also read two other recent articles—Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s piece on public education’s real purpose (that Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand)—and Jack Schneider’s analysis of what Betsy DeVos fails to grasp about why the marketplace cannot improve education.

Alberta traveled with DeVos on her beginning-of-school tour in September and has interviewed her on several occasions. He describes two principles on which DeVos has, “fought and funded a generation’s worth of education wars… that parents should be free to send their children wherever they choose, and that tax dollars should follow those students to their new schools.”  He explains that DeVos believes bureaucracy in the Department of Education “smothers creativity, blocks innovation, and slows change to a glacial pace.”

He tells us that DeVos blames her poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing on those who coached her: “I think I was undercoached… In hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.” Her thinking on this matter makes it all the more puzzling that in her seventh floor office at the U.S. Department of Education, “The towering bookcases lining the rear walls are nearly empty, save for a few scattered trinkets.”  Maybe we all ought to send Betsy DeVos our favorite book on public education—something to help her get up to speed—maybe Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities—or Mike Rose’s Possible Lives—or Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement—or Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children—or Jack Jennings’ book on Title I, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools—or Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade. There is plenty of material to help her out.

We learn, not surprisingly, that her old school-privatizing friend, Jeb Bush, had the idea for her nomination as Education Secretary: “It was Bush who, in the days after Trump’s stunning victory, asked DeVos whether she had considered serving as education secretary—and who then contacted Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to recommend her for the job. ‘He was really the only person I knew in the transition. He was the best person because he was running it,’ Bush tells me, chuckling. The two ex-governors were on the same page: Bush had worked closely alongside DeVos to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Pence forged a similar alliance with her in Indiana. ‘He made it clear that he was already thinking about Betsy, too,’ Bush says.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, just reviewed Betsy DeVos’s recent speech at Paul Peterson’s think tank—the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This pro-privatization think tank featured DeVos, who adheres to a libertarian, pro-school choice agenda, as a recent keynoter. Eskelsen-Garcia distinguishes the principles DeVos described in her Harvard speech from the values endorsed by the nation’s largest organization of school teachers.

To DeVos’s endorsement of schools that seek to appeal to select groups of students who might choose them for a special program or service, Eskelsen-Garcia answers: “She doesn’t understand the concept of ‘public’ schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door….”

To the Education Secretary’s comments that schools shouldn’t be overly controlled by government, Eskelsen-Garcia defends the role of government: “protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve. We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools…. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher… (schools) undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.”

Eskelsen Garcia castigates DeVos for complaining that supporters of public schooling want to protect a ‘system’ of schools instead of prioritizing children one-by-one as individuals: “Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some ‘systems’ are pretty darned important.  The ‘circulatory system,’ for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The ‘skeletal system’ supports and protects us. The Secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.”

Like Eskelsen-Garcia, who decries DeVos’s comparison of school choice to the growing lunchtime choices as more and more food trucks have been parking in front of the U.S. Department of Education, Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores and an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross, is fascinated with the food-truck metaphor.  He quotes DeVos’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants… But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options.”  Here is Schneider’s analysis: “In other words, a monopoly became a competitive marketplace and, as hungry staffers flocked to nearby food trucks, the overall food improved for everyone… The moral of the story: everyone wins in a system where people can choose.”

Schneider offers a complex analysis of the reasons parents choosing schools may not be able to make discerning decisions. Parental choice, for the reasons Schneider describes, cannot be counted on to improve schools: “DeVos maintains a relatively unsophisticated view of how markets actually function. The flaws in her vision aren’t just a matter of politics; they are a matter of fact. Start with the fact that school quality cannot be evaluated through a single experience—the way a food truck can be. Products that can be evaluated this way are referred to by economists as ‘experience goods.’ How much do I like this grilled cheese? Give me one minute and I’ll tell you. Education, on the other hand, is largely invisible and reveals its efficacy over time making it a ‘credence good’–more like a surgical procedure than a sandwich. It can often take several months just to get a sense of a new school. In fact, some of us who are decades out of school are still sorting through our thoughts about how much we learned, how positive the social experience was, and whether we benefited in the ways we might have wished.”

Schneider continues—explaining the complexity of education: “(E)ducation is a socially-supported process for cultivating human improvement—an ambitious and multifaceted enterprise that takes place over many years.  This grand scope presents a measurement challenge….”  There’s also a problem with attribution. A child may love reading because his parents read to him. Or her preschool teacher read to her. Or maybe there was a wonderful story hour at the public library. Or perhaps the child’s love for reading can be attributed to one particular teacher or a school as a whole. Nobody can accurately attribute each child’s learning to any particular influence.

Schneider describes another “principal-agent” problem: “Parents are the agents for their children, who are the principals who attend the school: “Such a problem occurs when one person (the agent) has the power to decide on behalf of another person (the principal) who will bear the impact of that decision. In a choice-based model, parents are the agents, acting on behalf of the child.  Yet is is important to recall that parents do not spend their days inside schools….”  Hence parents are vulnerable to all the marketing that is integral to school choice—over the airwaves, in brochures that arrive in the mail, on the back of city buses.

And, Schneider reminds us: “education is a positional good. While some of the fruits of education are absolute—students either know how to read or do not—its usefulness in promoting social status is completely relative. As a result, parents can be drawn into anxious competition against each other for comparative advantage, and in the process may overlook the issue of school quality entirely. To make matters worse, this competitive approach ensures that however many winners the system produces, there will be far more losers, even if quality is the same across all schools.”

If you read all three pieces—Tim Alberta’s at POLITICO, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia’s, and Jack Schneider’s, you will discover that Schneider’s concluding paragraph sums it all up: “Betsy DeVos may be portrayed by critics as an ill-informed billionaire naif. True, her knowledge of the public education system is incomplete, and she has revealed her ignorance on more than one occasion. But it must be remembered that DeVos is a hardnosed adherent to free market ideology. When she compares schools to food trucks, she isn’t committing a gaffe—she is communicating her dogma to non-believers. Thus, as DeVos continues to make her appeal, we have a duty to take her seriously and to think critically about what she’s selling. A choice is coming, and the future of public education hangs in the balance.”

Betsy DeVos Will Try to Use Federal Grants to Privatize Education

Like foundations, the U.S. Department of Education runs a competitive grant program.  At $700 million, it is small compared to the Department’s formula programs like Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—but significant nonetheless. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released her priorities that will determine which proposals are funded.

DeVos’s priorities are all over the map, though her top priority is predictable—empowering families with greater school choice.  Here are the others: promoting innovation and efficiency, fostering flexible paths to obtaining knowledge and skills, fostering knowledge and developing students’ skills, meeting the unique needs of students including student with disabilities, promoting STEM education, promoting literacy, promoting effective instruction, promoting economic opportunity, improving school climate, and ensuring that children in military families have access to school choice.

Rarely do I agree with Michael Petrilli, president of the far-right, pro-privatization Thomas B. Fordham Institute, but this time Petrilli accurately pegs the meaninglessness of the list: “This is like a Christmas tree, with all kinds of shiny objects.  Almost every idea in American education, good or bad, is represented here. What also matters is whether they actually use any of these priorities in grant programs. They are giving themselves maximum flexibility by including such a big menu….”

Education Week‘s Alyson Klein believes DeVos’s top priority—expanding school choice for parents—is really the only priority that matters.  After all, Betsy DeVos has declared this priority every time she has made a speech since she was confirmed by Congress as U.S. Secretary of Education last January.  Klein explains the significance of the $700 million grant line in the Department of Education’s budget: “These competitive-grant(s)… are one of the few levers DeVos has for expanding choice—her number one policy priority—without help from Congress.”

During the Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expanded the use of federal grants in education when billions of federal stimulus dollars were awarded through competitive grants. Copying the procedure of philanthropy, Duncan, who staffed some of the key positions in his department with people right out of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched competitive programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement, and Innovation grants. Winning states agreed to adopt pet policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education such as adopting standards like the Common Core and incorporating students’ test scores in the evaluations of teachers. Use of competitive granting by the Department of Education has been much reduced, however—back down to $700 million. The federal stimulus was a one-time event, and Duncan’s competitive programs proved unsuccessful for improving schools.

Fortunately, the big-ticket items in the Department of Education are formula programs controlled by Congressional appropriations and not subject to the whims of the Secretary of Education. Title I, the centerpiece of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, awards over $15 billion annually to school districts serving a high number or concentration of children living in poverty. Funding to support programs mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—$12 billion—is also awarded annually by formula determined by the number of students with disabilities (and types of their disabilities) in each school district.  Formula funding is stable and can be counted on by school districts to pay for ongoing programming; competitive grants, by contrast, are a one-time infusion of revenue and not suitable for covering schools’ operating expenses. Federal grants, like foundation grants, can support developing a piece of curriculum, purchasing technology, or contracting with consultants to train teachers.  One-time grants, by their very nature—whether from a philanthropy or the federal government—cannot pay for hiring more teachers or counselors.

We can pretty much predict what sort of projects are likely to be funded under the Department of Education’s $700 million grant fund this year.  The first priority listed—“empowering families to choose a high-quality education that meets their child’s unique needs”—is Betsy DeVos’s top priority. If we hadn’t learned that lesson through DeVos’s own strategy of repeating her one idea, we are reminded by this bit of history from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile last week of Vice President Mike Pence. Betsy DeVos, like an army of allies of the Koch Brothers, was proposed for her position by Mike Pence, when he led President Trump’s transition team hiring: “Trump began to appoint an extraordinary number of officials with ties to the Kochs and to Pence…  Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, who had been a major member of the Koch’s donor network and a supporter of Pence, was  named Secretary of Education… A recent analysis by the Checks & Balances Project found that sixteen high-ranking officials in the Trump White House had ties to the Kochs.”

Trump VA Tries to End Ethics Law Prohibiting Staff Conflicts of Interest with For-Profit Colleges

While this blog focuses on K-12 public education, the Trump administration has proposed ending a regulation of for-profit, higher education, a proposal that is so outrageous it cannot be ignored.  The Trump administration wants to nullify a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect veterans by ensuring that staff in the Department of Veterans Administration are not being paid or otherwise rewarded by the for-profit colleges that, to stay open, actively recruit students who will pay tuition with GI benefits, federal loans and Pell Grants.

NY Times reporter Patricia Cohen explains: “The proposal to suspend the ethics law was published in the Federal Register in mid-September and is scheduled to take effect on Oct. 16, but no public hearings have been scheduled and no public comments have yet been submitted.”

Here is what the change will mean, explains Aaron Glantz of Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: “The proposed regulation… would allow employees of the Department of Veterans affairs to receive ‘wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities’ and services from for-profit schools that receive GI Bill funds. VA employees would also be allowed to own stock in those colleges, the waiver says, as ‘the Secretary (of Veterans Affairs) has determined that no detriment will result to the United States, veterans or eligible persons from such activities.'”

The NY Times‘ Patricia Cohen quotes Carrie Wofford, director of Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit advocacy group: “There’s no good that can come from allowing colleges to have unseemly financial entanglements with V.A. employees. Congress enacted a zero tolerance for financial conflicts of interest for V.A. employees precisely because Congress uncovered massive fraud by for-profit colleges targeting veterans.”

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss just published a letter sent by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin to protest the Department’s waiving the conflict-of-interest regulation:  “If this proposed change were to go forward, Department employees and state accreditors would be able to be employed by or own stock in the very institutions the Department and State Approving Agencies are charged with regulating… Many for-profit colleges have been found by numerous law enforcement entities and investigative reporting to have preyed on veterans and service members for access to their educational benefits, and have invested heavily in obtaining special access to military bases and populations. Loopholes in federal law have created incentives for many entities in this sector to recruit and enroll veterans as a means of gaining access to other sources of state and federal aid.  Many for-profit colleges have also put substantial resources into lobbying Congress and numerous federal agencies to weaken regulations that would protect student veterans from fraud.  Weakening conflict of interest regulations related to for-profit institutions is not only inadvisable, but will put our men and women in uniform and those who have served our country at further risk of predatory and abusive business practices.”

The effort to waive the conflict of interest regulations in the Department of Veterans Affairs is part of a wider effort by the Trump Administration to roll back rules imposed during the Obama Administration to curtail abuses by the for-profit college sector. The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has also taken steps to weaken rules that protect students from predatory activities by for-profit colleges. Michael Stratford covers these issues for POLITICO.  Here is his summary at the end of August of steps taken by the DeVos Department of Education to undermine Obama-era regulations to protect students from taking loans to study in for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak academically that their graduates are unemployable and unable to pay off the loans they have accrued:

  • “Moved to gut two major Obama-era regulations reviled by the industry that would have cut off funding to low-performing programs and made it easier for defrauded students to wipe out their loans;
  • “Appointed a former for-profit college official, Julian Schmoke Jr., to lead the team charged with policing fraud in higher education—one of a slew of industry insiders installed in key positions. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry University, whose parent company agreed last year to pay $100 million to resolve allegations the company misled students about their job and salary prospects;
  • “Stopped approving new student-fraud claims brought against for-profit schools. The Education Department has a backlog of more than 65,000 applications from students seeking to have their loans forgiven on the grounds they were defrauded….”

Stratford adds some background to clarify what kind of for-profit programs the Obama Department of Education had been regulating and the current administration is trying to let off the hook: “For-profit colleges, which enrolled nearly 2.5 million students in the past academic year, encompass multistate behemoths such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry, as well as hundreds of small trade schools that struggle to make ends meet. Since a Great Recession boom, the industry has been dogged by allegations of predatory sales techniques and poor outcomes that left tens of thousands of students drowning in debt while the schools raked in billions from federal student loans and grants. President Barack Obama sought to curb those abuses with a regulatory crackdown that the industry blamed for pushing two of its giants, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, into bankruptcy, while others saw their stock prices nosedive and enrollment plummet.”

In her fine book, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler summarizes the problems for-profit colleges pose for our society: “Ironically, despite being regarded as part of the private sector, the for-profits are financed almost entirely by American taxpayers. They enroll about one in ten college students today, but utilize one in four dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the predominant source of federal student aid.  A 1998 law permitted the for-profits to gain up to 90 percent of their total revenue from this single source.  Other government funds do not count against this threshold, so the for-profits also receive 37 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits. In recent years, this combination of public funds has provided the for-profit schools with 86 percent of their total revenue, to the tune of roughly $32 billion annually.” (pp. 2-3)

The Obama Department of Education, to its credit, tried to crack down on abuses by for-profit colleges. The Trump administration is systematically undermining the public interest by rolling back regulations.

School Finance Expert Attacks Thinking of Betsy DeVos: the Social Contract vs. Individualism

Bruce Baker, the school funding expert at Rutgers University, publishes a regular personal blog that he calls School Finance 101.  Recently he has been posting reflections he calls “School Finance Prerequisites.” These pieces consider principles Baker views as foundational to an understanding of public school finance.  Baker is challenging the thinking of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, a long opponent of public education and a philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in advocacy organizations like the American Federation of Children and the libertarian think-tank, EdChoice, to promote school choice and her goal of making school funding portable—a publicly provided chit carried by each child to the school chosen by her parents.

In On Liberty vs. Equality, Baker examines a central flaw at the center of the promotion of school privatization: the belief that school choice will lead to educational equity:  “A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.'” However, “a lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another… Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate these divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.”

Baker continues: “(E)xpansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices.  Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others. Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists… (T)he choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system.”

In a companion post, On the Provision of Public Education, Baker considers public vs. private goods and the essential role of taxation to pay for public goods and services. Baker is describing what ought to be some basic lessons of civics: “Governments, established by the people for the people, collect and redistribute tax dollars to provide for the mix of public goods and services desired. Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual…. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Why is it so important to re-explain these basic principles of public funding for the public good?  “The necessity to revisit the basic connections between taxation and the provision of public goods comes about partly in response to a frequent argument of (advocates for) school choice… that public tax dollars belong (or at least should belong) to the child, not the institutions… Institutions—especially government institutions—are faceless bureaucracies, thus ‘bad’ whereas children are obviously ‘good.’  That is, even if those institutions are established to serve the children…  (I)ndividual parent preferences for the use of public dollars always supersede societal preferences.”  Baker argues that, “the tax dollars collected belong to… the democratically governed community… that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars… Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools.  The assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt (15 to 20 years) surely do not belong exclusively to parents of currently enrolled children.”

If you have been listening in recent months to speeches delivered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you may realize that in these recent blog posts, Bruce Baker is explicating what is wrong with the logic in DeVos’s reasoning.  For example, here is what she said in a keynote address at the annual meeting last July of the American Legislative Exchange Council:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…

“Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students.’ NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

“This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Bruce Baker is condemning Margaret Thatcher’s contention—and apparently Betsy DeVos’s belief—that there is no such thing as society—only individuals and families.

In his recent posts, Baker defends the thinking encapsulated by the American Federation of Teachers in its anti-DeVos tweet—that public schools are an essential manifestation of the social contract: “We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “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.”  The late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’… I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— 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.”