High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

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Federal Charter Schools Program Wasted Nearly $36 Million on Ohio Schools That Never Opened or Soon Closed

Several weeks ago the Network for Public Education (NPE) released Asleep at the Wheel, a major report on the lack of accountability and subsequent waste and fraud in the federal Charter Schools Program. At the end of last week as part of a letter addressed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (and published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post), Carol Burris the executive director of NPE, and Diane Ravitch began releasing state-by-state lists of never-opened or eventually shut-down charter schools that received seed money between 2006 and 2014 from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). The numbers are shocking. In my state, Ohio, between 2006 and 2014, the amount of Charter Schools Program money spent on charter schools that never opened or eventually closed amounts to nearly $36 million.

Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last month’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the CSP has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

I suppose the idea is that if you scatter hundreds of seeds across a state, they’ll grow and enrich the educational environment.  But as I examine Ohio’s list of failed or never-opened, CSP-funded charter schools, I can see that the seeds were scattered so widely that they weren’t particularly noticeable even when they came up. Unless there was a splashy scandal or a school was widely advertised on the side of city buses, nobody would have had any idea of the existence or failure of most of the seeds that did come up. And anyway a lot of them never sprouted at all.  Because the Charter Schools Program has lacked oversight from the U.S. Department of Education and because Ohio’s charter schools are poorly regulated by a large number of nonprofit agencies that serve as sponsors, the Ohio press has—until NPE’s Asleep at the Wheel report—not to my knowledge reported that the U.S. Department of Education is funding a lot of failed or never-opened schools. Until now, the failure of this program has been virtually invisible.

In the the list of failed or never-opened Ohio charter schools released last Friday by the Network for Public Education, NPE reports: “Two hundred ninety-three Ohio charter schools were awarded grants through the U.S. Department of Education’s (U.S. DOE) Charter Schools Program (CSP) from money that the U.S. Department of Education gave to the states between 2006-2014.  At this time, at least 117 (40%) of those (Ohio) charter schools were closed or never opened at all.” NPE explains that 20 of the Ohio charter schools on the list never opened; ninety-seven of the Ohio charter schools receiving CSP grants opened but subsequently shut down.

I suspect that like me, hardly anybody in Ohio has heard of most of the 20 schools that received CSP funding but never opened. Here are their names: Academy for Urban Solutions; Buckeye Academy; Central Ohio Early College Academy; Cleveland Arts and Literature Academy; Cleveland Lighthouse Charter Community School West; Columbus Entrepreneurial Academy; Cuyahoga Valley Academy; Medina City Schools Technology School; New Albany School for Performing Arts Middle School 6-8; Phoenix Village Academy Secondary 2; Rising Star Elementary School; School of Tomorrow; Summit Academy Community Schools in Alliance, Marion, Massillon, Columbus, and Cincinnati; Technology and Arts Academy of Cleveland; Vision into Action Academy-South Columbus; and WinWin Academy.  It is difficult to tell from the names of most of these schools even where it was intended that they would be located.

Ninety-seven CSP-funded schools in Ohio have shut down, but from the list, it is not possible to discern whether they were shut down by their sponsors for conflicts of interest or fraud, or whether their sponsors determined they were failing their students academically, or whether they just went broke. Most of the CSP grants awarded to closed or never-opened schools were in the six figure range—$150,000 or more.  Two of the schools that failed or were never opened had been awarded CSP grants over $700,000; three had been granted between $600,000 and $700,000; two had received between $500,000 and $600,000; and 25 had been awarded between $400,000 and $500,000.

The federal Charter Schools Program is neoliberal by design.  It awards public funding to private operators—individuals and companies—to run schools in competition with the traditional public schools. One primary problem with the CSP along with other schemes to privatize the public schools is that oversight is lacking to protect the rights of the students and to protect the stewardship of tax dollars.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber explains that lack of oversight, absence of transparency, waste and fraud are predictable when public programs and services are privatized: “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…  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 new Ohio report released last Friday by the Network for Public Education documents that between 2006 and 2014, Ohio charter schools were awarded $35,926,693 from the federal Charter Schools Program, money that disappeared when the intended recipient schools never opened or eventually shut down. The entire scheme has lacked oversight at both federal and state levels and entirely lacked transparency.  Most of us in Ohio were aware neither of the operation of this federal program nor its propensity to fund experiments that failed to serve Ohio’s children.

In last Friday’s letter to Betsy DeVos, Burris and Ravitch also share reports on schools that never opened or were soon shut down in Michigan, Louisiana, California, and Florida. They explain: “In the coming weeks, we will continue the process of identifying all of the closed and ‘ghost’ schools in every state, posting the names of those schools and issuing state reports.”

Congress Should Defund the Charter Schools Program and Invest the Money in Title I and IDEA

The Network for Public Education published its scathing report on the federal Charter Schools Program three weeks ago, but as time passes, I continue to reflect on its conclusions. The report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride, is packed with details about failed or closed or never-opened charter schools.  The Network for Public Education depicts a program driven by neoliberal politicians hoping to spark innovation in a marketplace of unregulated startups underwritten by the federal government. The record of this 25 year federal program is dismal.

Here is what the Network for Public Education’s report shows us. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools that have been started across the country. Begun when Bill Clinton was President, this neoliberal—publicly funded, privatized—program has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  It has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded to schools that never opened or that were shut down: “We found that it is likely that as many as one third of all charter schools receiving CSP grants never opened, or opened and shut down.”  Many grants went to schools that illegally discriminated in some way to choose their students and served far fewer disabled students and English language learners than the local pubic schools.  Many of the CSP-funded charter schools were plagued by conflicts of interest profiteering, and mismanagement. The Department of Education has never investigated the scathing critiques of the program by the Department’s Office of Inspector Genera; neither has the Department of Education investigated the oversight practices of the state-by-state departments of education, called State Education Agencies by CSP, to which many of the grants were made. Oversight has declined under the Department’s leadership by Betsy DeVos.

One of the shocking findings in the Asleep at the Wheel report is that a series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. This use of the Charter Schools Program as a source for venture capital is especially shocking in the past decade under Presidents Obama and Trump, even as federal funding for essential public school programs has fallen. The Center on Budget and Policy priorities reports, for example, that public Title I formula funding dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

The authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report explain that the Department of Education itself justifies the high failure rate of schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants because the program’s purpose is to provide start-up money for entrepreneurs to experiment with innovative ideas for schools:  “CSP’s explanation for the high cost of failure was, ‘As with any start-up, school operators face a range of factors that may affect their school’s opening.  And as with any provider of start-up capital, the department learns from its investments.'”

Late in March, when the current Secretary of Education was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee about the findings in the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler quotes Betsy DeVos herself justifying the high rate of charter school failure with an argument that basically the Charter Schools Program provides venture capital to support entrepreneurship and innovation: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it, and that’s what should happen.”

The Department of Education took a big leap toward support for social entrepreneurship (and diminished attention to the Department’s traditional programming) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education between 2009 and  December of 2015.  To lead the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement, Duncan hired Jim Shelton.  Before joining the department, Shelton had, according to a Department of Education biography, earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened more and more charter schools.  He became a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.

To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer—the Gates Foundation—directly into government. Shelton oversaw not only the Charter Schools Program but also Race to the Top, which made large federal stimulus grants to states, which had each been given (by the Gates Foundation) a quarter of a million dollars apiece to hire grant writers to develop creative ways to invest federal stimulus money to support the turnaround of so-called failing schools. To qualify, the states had to agree to Duncan’s prescribed turnaround plans and also promise to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools. There is now widespread agreement that Race to the Top failed to fulfill its stated goal of improving school achievement. After leaving the department, Duncan and Shelton both continued their careers in grant-funded social entrepreneurship; at least their work has no longer been publicly funded. Shelton ran education programming for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Duncan has been working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos now leads the U.S. Department of Education, and her leadership has further reduced oversight, according to the Asleep at the Wheel report: “Under the current administration, while Congressional funding for the CSP rises, the quality of the applications and awardees has further declined.”

The Charter Schools Program is the only one of DeVos’s school privatization initiatives whose budget Congress has increased.  The Network for Public Education traces its funding history: “The program was appropriated at $219 million in 2004.  The budget went up to $256 million in 2010, $333 million in 2016, then to $342 million in 2017, $400 million in 2018 and is now at $440 million for FY 2019.”  In his proposed FY 2020 budget, President Trump has asked Congress to add another $60 million.

When Organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund or today’s mega-foundations experiment with educational innovation, the risk is underwritten by private capital or philanthropic grants from the Walton, Gates, or Broad Foundations, for example. And if the experiments fail, the money lost is private.  In the case of the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department of Education has been gambling with $4 billion of our tax dollars—money desperately needed by the public schools in our nation’s poorest communities—money that could have been invested, for example, in Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children or in implementation of programs to meet the mandates of the IDEA.  At their inception, Congress promised to fund a significant part of the cost of both Title I and IDEA, but Congressional appropriations have chronically fallen short.  Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has currently introduced the “Keep Our PACT Act,” which if passed would significantly increase the federal commitment to supporting federal these priorities. Van Hollen explains: “Title I, which gives assistance to America’s highest-need schools, is a critical tool to ensure that every child, no matter the zip code, has access to a quality education. However, it has been deeply underfunded, shortchanging our most vulnerable students living in poverty… (T)he Title I formula was underfunded by $347 billion from 2005-2017… Similarly, IDEA calls on the federal government to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Congress has never fully funded the law. Currently, IDEA state grants are funded at just 14.7 percent.”

The Asleep at the Wheel report’s authors conclude: “The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.  Hundreds of schools have been approved for grants despite serious concerns noted by reviewers… The… lack of rigor and investigation in the review process, and the seeming willingness of the CSP program to offer grants despite concerns expressed by reviewers raise questions about whether this program is truly committed to jump-starting schools that hold the greatest promise of success, or whether simply letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and accepting the chaos and waste of repeated failure is really the operational model.”

For 25 years, the U.S. Department of Education has enabled, and Congress has funded, a failed, neoliberal, market-based, and unregulated charter school experiment.  In an article he published last spring, the McMaster University education theorist, Henry Giroux said it best: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public….”

This blog has previously explored the Asleep at the Wheel report here and here.

DeVos’s Staff Blocked Researchers Trying to Investigate Federal Charter Schools Program

Writing this week for The Washingtonian, Rachel M. Cohen describes the responses of eighteen federal workers when she interviewed them about what it’s really like to work for the Trump administration.

Cohen quotes an anonymous staff person in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, someone who reflects on Departmental priorities these days and her own particular concern: “I definitely get the sense that the appointees don’t feel many functions of our agency are necessary anymore. Words like ‘regulatory overreach’ and ‘burdensome regulations’ come up a lot, and while it’s true sometimes oversight is burdensome, and ensuring efficacy and quality can feel like overreach, we give out a lot of money—and if we don’t maintain some standard for those funds, then we’re not doing our job.”

Apparently the politically appointed leadership at the U.S. Department of Education wasn’t happy when, on March 8, 2019, the Network for Public Education (NPE) tried to investigate federal oversight over one area of departmental funding by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of routine regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Jeff Bryant is one of the researchers and writers of NPE’s new report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.  In an article published this week at AlterNet, Bryant shares some simple research questions he submitted to the Department of Education and the outrageous response he received: “On March 15, I received a voicemail from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. ‘Apparently you have sent this request to multiple people,’ she said (emphasis original), ‘and that just creates havoc for everyone.’ When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. ‘That’s understandable,’ she replied, but for ‘future reference’ I was told to send inquiries to ‘a director’—though I’m not sure who that is.  And I was told again my questions had ‘created havoc’ in the office but that department staff members were ‘working on it’ and would ‘take a few days.’ As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.”  Perhaps Bryant sent his inquiry to the career staff listed on the Department’s website, but a politically appointed staff member exerted her power over the Department’s communications with the public.

Bryant supplies us with the innocuous enough request he sent on March 8, a set of routine questions that surely ought to have resulted in a clear answer from a functioning governmental department: “This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an ‘Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.’ My questions: (1) Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities? (2) If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above? (3) Regarding a ‘Dear Colleague‘ letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter Schools Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?”

It is interesting to go back and read that 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter.  In the letter, two assistant general secretaries and an advisor to the program remind State Education Agencies (SEAs) of their role in helping the U.S. Department of Education to monitor the quality and fiscal responsibility of charter schools that had received federal money under the Charter Schools Program: “We write today to remind SEAs of your role in helping to ensure that Federal funds accessed by public charter schools are used for intended, appropriate purposes.  We also remind SEAs that the Department serves as an important resource to help with this important task… Although many charter schools are managed effectively and demonstrate promising results, the Department’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) recent semiannual reports to Congress have identified examples of conflicts of interest between charter schools and their management organizations, and examples of charter schools with problematic fiscal and management practices… SEAs should take steps to monitor and help correct poor management practices in charter schools.” Here are links to 2012, 2016, and 2018 U.S. Department of Education OIG condemnations of the management of the federal Charter Schools Program.

A little more history is also helpful.  The 2015, “Dear Colleague” letter was released during a period when the U.S. Department of Education was involved in reviewing the award the Department of Education had recently made of $71 million to Ohio (the department’s largest Charter Schools Program SEA grant in 2015) after it had been pointed out by critics in Ohio that David Hansen, then the director of funding and oversight of charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, had lied when he wrote the grant application by omitting the low ratings of an entire sector of so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools in Ohio and implying that Ohio had already tightened its charter school regulations when in fact the Legislature was only in the process of considering proposed legislation for slightly improved charter oversight.  In November of that year, the U.S. Department of Education was shamed into delaying the $71 million award to Ohio, pending further review.  (In September of 2016, the Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but labeled Ohio “at risk” following a request from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown for increased oversight of the $71 million grant to Ohio.)

Oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program matters for the communities and public school districts where the grants are awarded and for the children and families who will be affected by charter school expansion. And the amount of money in the federal awards to state education agencies and large charter school chains is significant. In its Asleep at the Wheel report, NPE reports that the federal Charter Schools Program, “was established in 1994 and over its 25-year existence, has funded as many as 40 percent of charter schools across the country… We estimate that approximately $4 billion federal tax dollars have been spent or allocated to start, replicate and expand charter schools.” “Hundreds of millions… have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.”

In his recent article, Jeff Bryant reminds us that poor management of the federal Charter Schools Program did not begin with Betsy DeVos: “It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, (and) states were required to lift caps on the number of charter schools in order to receive precious federal (Race to the Top) dollars… And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.” “This is not a partisan issue… Of course, any comparison between DeVos and Duncan can find some very big differences, but a constant throughout both administrations has been to ignore, wall-off, or obfuscate when confronted with any inquiry aimed at the federal government’s efforts to create and expand charter schools.” “It’s actually been endemic in the education policy world for years, particularly in how the federal government continues to hide its agenda to further privatize the nation’s public school system by creating and expanding charter schools.”

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.

What Has Betsy DeVos Accomplished? Part I

The other day I had the opportunity to talk with a U.S. senator’s staffer who told me that opposition to the appointment of Betsy DeVos early in 2017 was unprecedented as measured by the number of calls—tens of thousands against DeVos’s confirmation and only three or four thousand in favor.  Those of us who made those calls and marched in the streets and made formal visits to the offices of our U.S. senators were terrified about what it would mean if one of the biggest opponents of our society’s system of public schools were confirmed to be the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Of course, DeVos was confirmed, but only after the Vice President, for the first time in history, was called in to break a tie on the Senate’s confirmation of a President’s appointee.

Now two years have passed.  So… how’s it going?

On Tuesday, DeVos went before the House Appropriations Committee to defend her department’s request in the President’s recently proposed fiscal year 2020 federal budget. This is Trump’s third annual budget proposal, and it declares DeVos’s values and priorities for the third consecutive year.

This week DeVos defended an education budget proposal that is $8.5 billion lower than last year’s allocation. She made no attempt to justify freezes to Title I and IDEA funding, and the elimination of several programs including the popular the 21st Century Learning Centers after-school program, along with Title II and Title IV grants to support professional development for teachers, smaller class sizes, and curricular enrichment—and even her department’s contribution to the Special Olympics.

DeVos’s comments at the recent hearing betray her lack of concern for the kind of improved classroom conditions striking teachers  have been demanding all year and her failure to care deeply about long running programs that help schools serve the needs of poor children and students with special needs. The Detroit Free Press‘s Todd Spangler quotes DeVos’s reasoning: “We are not doing our children any favors when we borrow from their future in order to invest in systems and policies that are not yielding better results.”

But until now, even an all-Republican Congress has refused to capitulate to DeVos’s K-12 agenda. While important programs like Title I and the IDEA have not received budgetary increases during DeVos’s tenure, at least Congress has maintained key programs—refusing DeVos’s cuts year after year.  The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler adds that DeVos appeared relatively unfazed when the Democrats—now in the House majority—opposed her budget request.  Acknowledging that Congress has repeatedly repudiated her priorities, she told the House Appropriations Committee: “This reduction is similar to last year’s request, and the year before that, as well. I acknowledge that you rejected those recommendations.”

What about DeVos’s relentless attempts to privatize public education?

Every year, Trump’s budget has included DeVos’s idea for federal school vouchers. This this year the proposal is framed as a neo-voucher tuition tax credit. For two years, Republican-dominated Congresses refused to fund DeVos’s voucher requests for a federal school voucher program, and this year, with a Democratic House of Representatives, enactment of DeVos’s tuition tax credit is even less likely. Meckler quotes Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) dismissing DeVos’s proposed tuition tax credit scheme as, “an ‘unregulated, unaccountable tax scheme” “to fund private school vouchers.”

At the hearing, DeVos was asked about a new report condemning the federal Charter Schools Program. In the report, the Network for Public Education slams the Charter Schools Program for poor oversight and the waste or $4 billion on schools that never opened or suddenly shut down. DeVos scoffed at Committee members’ concern with a standard market-based defense: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it and that’s what should happen.”

In reality the Charter Schools Program is the one exception to DeVos’s utter failure to impose her privatization agenda. Congress has funded the Charter Schools Program—adding $40 million last year to bring the program’s total funding to $440 million. This year the proposed 2020 budget adds another $60 million. We’ll have to wait to see what Congress does about adding money to this unregulated program in FY 2020.

Apart from maintaining support for the Charter Schools Program, Betsy DeVos has failed to confirm the fears of those who thought she might be able radically to adopt the privatization agenda of the organizations she has previously supported with her philanthropy, groups like the American Federation of Children, EdChoice, and the Mackinac Center.

DeVos has done her best to transform our society’s public schools according to her personal ideology. She outlined her priorities in a 2017 speech to 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…“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.”

Congress has chosen not to enact DeVos’s budgets that undermine our nation’s system of education by cutting key public school programs and priorities.  Neither has Congress adopted any of DeVos’s voucher schemes. While it is not a good thing for our public schools to be trapped in a mere holding pattern, Congress has at least protected the institution of public education for now.

Tomorrow in Part II of this report, we’ll examine the other part of DeVos’s record—on protecting students’ civil rights and the rights of students preyed on by for-profit colleges and trade schools.

Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.

DeVos Declares: In Public Schools, the Child Becomes a Constituent, the State Replaces the Family

Uh-oh!  Last week Betsy DeVos got in trouble again. Every time she speaks about her work at the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos gets herself in trouble.  We’ll see if it happens again today as she testifies in Congress before the House Education Committee.

A little review:  The last time DeVos embarrassed herself was in March, when she went on 60 Minutes, where she told Leslie Stahl how education should be improved:  “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there. I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices.” After Stahl followed up, asking DeVos about how to improve the public schools in the neighborhoods where families live, DeVos pronounced her standard, convoluted answer: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in… school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.”

Last Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the same day North Carolina’s public school teachers were protesting in Raleigh about their salaries and state per-pupil school funding which remains lower than before the Great Recession in 2008, DeVos went to New York City, where she spoke to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes as an organization “which supports charities that work with the children of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.”

Not surprisingly, last week in her NYC address, DeVos extolled religious education. In this speech, however, she went a little farther than usual to denigrate public schools and explain her own commitment to the rights of what she believes is society’s primary institution—the family: “Pope Leo the 13th wrote: ‘The contention that the civil government should—at its option—intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.’  Pope Leo was right!  Government can’t know the needs of individuals better than a parent, a pastor or a friend.  That’s why, when it comes to education, the family is—and always will be—the ‘first school.’  Parents hold the inalienable right to decide what learning environment best meets their children’s individual needs… There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home; the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family.”

As we have learned, DeVos is an educational libertarian who disdains the role of government. You’ll remember that back in 2015, in another speech, DeVos declared: “Government really sucks.”

DeVos typically presents her commitment to school choice in the language of parents’ rights.  What she always neglects to acknowledge, however, is that public schools are the institution through which our society can protect parents’ and children’s rights through civil law—by ensuring that public schools must serve poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient.  And in situations where government fails to protect the rights of children, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  There are legal mechanisms in place to ensure that families can secure the services to which their children have a right: elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts. Laws and pubic oversight are the way government protects parents’ rights.

You may remember that in the March, 60 Minutes interview , Leslie Stahl also asked DeVos whether as Secretary of Education, DeVos had ever visited struggling public schools for the purpose of investigating strategies to improve the way those schools serve children. DeVos confessed that she has never “intentionally” visited struggling public schools: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”  Stahl challenged, “Maybe you should.” And DeVos confessed: “Maybe I should. Yes.”

However, during her trip to New York City last week, DeVos chose not to visit any public schools.  In the nation’s largest public school district, DeVos could easily have arranged to visit any kind of public school—schools that serve our nation’s poorest children and other schools that serve the privileged—high and low scoring schools—racially and economically integrated or racially and economically segregated schools. She could have visited some of the nation’s model full-service, wraparound Community Schools, which feature child care and social services for families along with medical, dental and mental health clinics right at school. But instead DeVos looked for her favorite kind of schools, religious schools that are not affected by the laws and regulations she is charged, as Secretary of Education, with implementing.

Valerie Strauss describes the schools DeVos visited: “DeVos, a longtime supporter of religious education and public funding of religious schools, visited two orthodox Jewish schools, the elite Manhattan High School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah Boys School. The schools did not appear on her official schedule until reporters asked about her New York trip.”

What should be our reaction?  The Washington Post‘s Helaine Olen believes that, despite our exhaustion from months’ of tracking DeVos, we still need to summon outrage: “While in New York, DeVos did not visit a single public school… DeVos, however, did make time to tour a pair of private Orthodox Jewish day schools. She also made time to speak at a breakfast sponsored by two charities that promote Catholic parochial education. Let me repeat that. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the nation’s largest public school district, one responsible for educating 1.1 million students annually, and didn’t bother to check out even one public school. What could she be thinking? According to the Education Department’s own data, there are more than 50 million students attending U.S. public schools during the 2017-2018 school year. At last count, only 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren—about 5.7 million—attend private schools… If DeVos gets her way, the public-education system in the United States would be smaller, funded less, and all around worse than it is now.  DeVos doesn’t want to inform herself on the full range of problems facing American education. She thinks she already knows the answers—and those answers, just coincidentally, coincide with her own religious and conservative political views. That she is secretary of education is nothing short of an abomination.”