We Need a Massive National Campaign to Protest School Privatization

Fighting the privatization of public education feels like an overwhelming challenge. Partly, because all kinds of vouchers (plain old vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts) are set up and funded by state legislatures, and charter schools are also set up and controlled (and too frequently poorly regulated) by state law,  the battle is fragmented from place to place.  Except for the money allocated every year out of the federal Charter Schools Program, begun in 1994 during the Clinton administration, school privatization is not driven by federal policy that affects all of us across the United States.  What happens in California and Arizona doesn’t have any effect on the public schools of Ohio where I live.  So why should I care about what happens in another state?

Then there is the question of why the problem of school privatization matters so much. While much of the research and advocacy materials about the impact of school privatization inspects the quality of the privatized school alternatives, I  believe that what ought to concern us most is the amount of money being driven out of the public schools that serve the mass of our children. The evidence shows that school funding in many states has fallen very significantly since the Great Recession in 2008 and that school privatization has contributed to that problem.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black,traces, for example, how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during and after the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase. In 2013-14, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter.  Some went deeper in the red.  Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state… All told, charter schools received $7,189 per pupil in state funding.  Public school districts received less than half that amount.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

Once voucher and charter programs are well established, their proponents across the state legislatures ensure that they grow and expand.  Earlier this month, Steve Dyer showed how Ohio’s charter school program has continued to grow since Derek Black researched his book: “According to the latest Charter School funding report form the Ohio Department of Education, we are set to spend $999.7 million” on charter schools this year. And it isn’t because more students are attending charter schools: “It’s because Ohio politicians have continued bumping up the per pupil amounts flowing to charters. So now kids in Ohio charters, on average, get nearly $8,500  per pupil in state aid—about double what that same kid would receive in a local public school. As I’ve recounted for more than a decade, because of the way we fund charters (through the local school district deduction), that means that local property taxes have to subsidize charter school kids. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in Rocket Science to understand that, if you’re removing $8,500 in state aid from a district for a kid the district was only getting about half of that from the state to educate, the difference has to come from somewhere. This year, that subsidy is slated to be $148 million.  And in some districts, it’s really high. Like in Columbus where $62 million in local revenue has to subsidize the state funding deduction for charters.”

Three major reports published in the past two months confirm that when states set up private school tuition voucher programs and charter school programs, these privatized alternatives compete with public schools for dollars from state budgets.

  • In a February report for In the Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer documents that, “California is overpaying for online charter schools that are failing students.”  Online charters are a rapidly growing education sector in California: “In 2018-19, nearly 175,000 California students were enrolled in nonclassroom-based charter schools, representing 27 percent of all charter school students in the state… In 2014, just 18 percent of newly approved charter schools were nonclassroom-based; by 2019 that figure had reached 43 percent.  But this sector has also been plagued with repeated scandals and poor educational performance.”  Despite the passage of new regulation to prevent abuses: “Following a new stet of scandals that saw one of the largest charter school chains charged with defrauding the state of nearly $50 million, legislators imposed a two-year moratorium on authorizing new nonclassroom-based charter schools…. The moratorium expires at the end of 2021.”  Here is the primary problem identified in Lafer’s report: “It is common sense that the cost of operating an online charter school must be less than that of running a brick-and-mortar school. Yet California’s online charter schools, with very few exceptions, receive the same dollars per pupil as a physically existing school with classrooms, buses, a cafeteria, and maintenance and security staff. To the extent that funding for online charter schools exceeds the actual cost of operation, the government is wasting many millions of tax dollars that are desperately needed in school districts across the state.”
  • This week, the League of Women Voters of Florida released a shocking report on StepUpforStudents.org, a 20-year-old nonprofit, which has taken over administering all of that state’s voucher programs: “Step Up began with a mission to award vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. It has grown to include vouchers… for students with special needs, students who have been bullied, students who are homeschooled, and students with reading difficulties… Step up for Students was created by venture capitalist John Kirtley in 2002, one year after Governor Jeb Bush’s administration established the first Florida Tax Credit voucher program…. By 2020, Step Up had total net assets of over a half billion dollars… Step Up is one of two Scholarship Funding Organizations authorized to administer five school choice scholarship programs in Florida. Step Up administers 99% of the contributions, while AAA Scholarship Foundation handles the remaining 1%.

Here is how the tax credit program administered by Step UP works: “Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into the General Revenue to operate state government, including public schools.  These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as ‘donations.'”  Step Up not only administers the state’s voucher programs, but it also oversees the programs it administers: “The Florida Department of Education’s Office of School Choice cannot supervise a program of this magnitude. The task of supervising over 1,800 private schools and tracking individual vouchers given to parents is huge and varied. Where students enroll must be verified. Some schools report vouchers for students who are not enrolled. Some vouchers are awarded to students who do not meet the family income requirement for their voucher. In addition, some vouchers allow parents to purchase supplies and services for students. These individual purchases must be tracked. This is where Step Up has stepped in. The Department of Education has outsourced oversight functions to the same private agency that also awards the scholarships.”  The rest of the report lists questionable practices in Step Up’s program compliance monitoring, and explains further how so-called charitable donations in Florida are in this case merely a means of avoiding paying taxes.

  • Finally there is Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, the mammoth report from the Network for Public Education.  While only Arizona law permits the operation of for-profit charter schools, all the other states with charter school enabling legislation require the schools to be nonprofits. “However, those who wish to profit from charter schools have developed creative workarounds to evade state and federal laws. The for-profit management organization, commonly referred to as an EMO, finds individuals to create a nonprofit board. That board, which is appointed, not elected, enters into a contract with the for-profit to run the school. Some EMOs manage only one or two schools.  Others manage over ninety… Many operate using a ‘sweeps contract’ in which virtually all revenue, public and private, raised by the charter, is passed to the for-profit management corporation to run the school.  In other cases, the EMO contracts various services out to other for-profit provides, sometimes owned by the owners of the EMO… Whatever money is left over after the bills are paid can accumulate as profit.”

“In total we identified 1,237 charter schools that have contracts with for-profit organizations which control critical or complete operations of the schools, including management, personnel, and/or curriculum… While our research suggests that over 15 percent of all charter schools are operated for profit, the percentage of schools, however, belies the impact.  Based on our match of school names to federal 2018-2019 school year data, over 600,000 students are educated in charters run for profit…. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia presently have charter schools operated by for-profit corporations… Most of the schools are located in four states—Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Arizona… Together, the seven largest national chains (Academica, National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, K12Inc., Charter Schools USA, Pansophic Learning/ACCEL, and Pearson/Connections Academy manage 555 schools.  At least one of the big chains operates in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia.”

In a 2016 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker showed how the expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools.”

Baker continues: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Bruce Baker and Derek Black summarize long trends and the recent reports bring the discussion into the immediate present.  The enormous and obvious question is: what can be done to stop the theft of public tax dollars from the public schools that serve the mass of our children and adolescents in the United States?  According to the most recent, September 2019 School Choice in the United States Report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, 47.3 million students were enrolled in public schools, and 3 million students were enrolled in charter schools.  The same report concludes: “In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students (10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools.” Obviously not all of those private school students are paying for their private education with public tax vouchers of various kinds or with tuition tax credits, but clearly the number of students using vouchers pales compared to public school enrollment. Another National Assessment of Education Statistics report updates public school enrollment in 2020: “Total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 47.2 million students to 50.7 million students between fall 2000 and fall 2017.”

Clearly the information is voluminous about the expense of school privatization and about widespread corruption.  I wonder why we who support our nation’s strong and historically significant system of public education are too shy to mount a massive campaign to oppose school privatization. It is understandable that we are reluctant to pit ourselves against our friends and neighbors who use privatized alternatives. But the cost has grown too high. We don’t need to personalize the attack.  Can we not stand against the consumerist marketplace and stand up for the social contract—for the public good—for the public schools that protect our children’s rights by law and ensure that schooling is available in every community across this nation? These programs operate state-by-state, but this is a national problem.

Ohio Senate Killed New School Funding Plan: Now We Hear That Money Doesn’t Matter

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber explained on Tuesday that, “The Auditor of State’s Office recently completed a performance audit for the Ohio Department of Education.” Faber says that the purpose is to make recommendations about “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness in the areas reviewed…”

One of the subjects of the new report from the Ohio Auditor’s office is the correlation of school districts’ expenditure per pupil with their school performance as measured by standardized tests.  Here, from the Performance Audit Summary, is what the Auditor discovered: “Conclusion: Expenditure per pupil has a loose association with Achievement in Ohio, particularly at the high performing districts.  As total district spending increases, there is no single expenditure category driving this increase.”  Later in the body of the report, the Auditor states: “The analyses in this section indicate that it is not necessary for districts to spend more to get better results. The data show that lower spending districts can achieve at the same level as higher spending districts, a point which parents and taxpayers should take into consideration in their personal decision-making surrounding financial and performance issues in their district. ODE and LEAs should consider if there is a point of diminishing returns in spending, where additional district revenue and expenditures will not necessarily increase student success.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Emily Bamforth digs deeper, explaining to readers that one purpose of the Audit was to discover which practices in high spending school districts are most essential for raising test scores: “The research found there is a low correlation between per-pupil spending and success on the Performance Index, and often higher spending was correlated with a lower index score. The auditor’s report maps the analysis, which shows clusters of high spending compared to low index scores around urban areas, like Cleveland and Cincinnati. The conclusion was used to reinforce recommendations to the Department of Education to review the highest performing districts’ practices to see what could be applied to other schools, and for community members to question spending relative to student success.”

I give Bamforth credit for questioning the Auditor’s conclusions and highlighting some of what is missing in the auditor’s report: “(T)he state auditor’s office claims that spending-per-pupil in districts is not closely correlated with student success. However, this conclusion does not factor in socioeconomic data that might affect student performance. Socioeconomic standing affects outcomes in many areas of life, including education and health, according to the American Psychological Association.  Socioeconomic status includes household income, among other factors.”

Bamforth cites the American Psychological Association, but the body of research examining the correlation of school districts’ aggregate standardized test scores with family and neighborhood economics is long, deep, and overwhelming. Academic research in two areas—(1) the correlation of lower school achievement with socioeconomic opportunity gaps, and (2) the impact of per-pupil spending on student achievement—confirms Bamforth’s skepticism about the new report from Ohio Auditor Keith Faber.

The Research on the Difference Between School Achievement Gaps and Opportunity Gaps

In their 2014 book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, educational researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass explain: “For schools to be a powerful solution to the problems of poverty, it would help if an America absent of poverty already existed. We know that the socioeconomic status of students explains most of the variation in educational outcomes. Although there is evidence that some schools with many low-income students are academically successful, there is much more evidence that most schools do not overcome the barriers that stem from low income and low wealth. Health care, housing, stability, and a host of other out-of-school influences greatly affect a child’s academic achievement. Much of the achievement gap in test scores and much of the gap in graduation rates between racial and socioeconomic groups are due to opportunity gaps such as access to medical care, stable housing, and freedom from discrimination.” (Fifty Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 230-231. The authors cite the research report documenting this conclusion.)

Why Money Matters and Why One Should Not Assume that Successful Programs in “High Achieving” School Districts Are Simply Transferable Best Practices

Ohio’s A-rated school districts on the state’s Performance Index are mostly located in wealthy exurbs. Ignoring the correlation between family and neighborhood economics, the Ohio Auditor’s report seems to suggest that if the state can only identify best practices in high-achieving school districts, these programs can simply be moved to low-achieving districts as a strategy for raising overall achievement as measured by test scores..

In Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, the nation’s best known expert on school finance, Bruce Baker explains, for example, that in a school where student poverty is concentrated, students will always benefit from the most basic—and sometimes very costly—investments. We don’t need the Ohio auditor to tell us what a rich exurban district is doing; instead the state simply needs to budget the needed dollars: “Reducing class size is often characterized as a particularly expensive use of additional school dollars… What we do know… is that ample research indicates that children in smaller classes achieved better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 98-99)

Baker reports that education costs more in schools serving poorer students or students with special needs: “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes. The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time. Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. it’s reality. It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.”(Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Ohio legislators, with expert guidance from educational leaders and school finance economists,  just spent over two years developing a new school funding plan. Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, criticized the plan 18 months ago when an early draft was released, because while the first draft addressed the reality that Ohio’s school funding has become increasingly inadequate through a decade of tax cuts, the new plan’s first draft did not invest enough in equity.

In a September 4, 2019 report, Fleeter explained: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”  In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically reduced funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

It is ironic that, right now, Ohio Auditor Keith Faber has been asked by the Ohio Department of Education to investigate “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness” of the distribution of school funding. After all, less than a month ago, the Ohio Legislature killed the proposed new school funding plan once it had been adjusted to meet Fleeter’s demand that the state would more equitably serve the needs of the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the new plan by an overwhelming margin, but the Ohio Senate killed the plan by refusing to vote on it before the session ended.  Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman claims that the Ohio Senate let the plan die because he estimates the plan would have cost $4 billion rather than the $2 billion the plan’s sponsors projected. And now the auditor has conveniently “discovered” that perhaps a school district’s level of expenditure doesn’t really affect student achievement after all.

I suspect that leaders of the Ohio Senate are beginning to lay out their case that we can simply get by by spending less money more efficiently. That’s nonsense. It is just the latest proof that the conservative Republican majority in the Ohio Senate lacks the will to invest in the school districts which serve Ohio’s poorest children.

Will the Biden Administration Provide Leadership to Address Long School Funding Crisis?

Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.),  but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory.  How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.

The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.

The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.

In  2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.  Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.

Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery.  I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)

How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  p. 34)

Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 35-36)

Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)

Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade.  Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues…  The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)

The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative.  His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.

Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

Prospects for COVID-19 Stimulus Package Fade: Will We Have to Wait for A New President and New Congress to Negotiate Relief for States and Their Public Schools?

Negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House negotiator Steve Mnuchin and Senate Republicans for a second coronavirus relief bill have collapsed until at least after the election—maybe until a new Congress convenes in 2021 and, perhaps, a new President takes over.  Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has declared that the U.S. Senate will not even be back in session until November 9.

Of immediate urgency is essential assistance for individuals and small businesses now that most of the programs funded by last March’s CARES Act have run out—the one-time $1,200 stimulus checks, the small business paycheck protection program, pandemic emergency unemployment benefits, an eviction moratorium, and support for health coverage. But there is another critically important need—one that is slightly farther removed from families’ immediate crisis.

Through months of negotiations, the two sides could never reach any agreement on one of Nancy Pelosi’s top priorities and something essential for the nation’s over 13,000 local public school districts: significant relief for state and local governments. State funding averages 40 percent of all public school funding, with local funds comprising around 40 percent.  President Donald Trump and some Republican  Senators opposed what Trump called “a bailout for poorly managed ‘blue’ states.”  While Trump and so-called “deficit hawk” Republican Senators have politicized the issue, here is how—last April—Rutgers University education funding expert, Bruce Baker, and Albert Shanker Institute policy expert, Matthew Di Carlo defined the urgent need for relief for state and local governments: “The most terrible and lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic will of course be measured in loss of life. But a parallel tragedy will also be unfolding in the coming months and years, this one affecting those at the beginning of their lives: an unprecedented school funding crisis that threatens to disadvantage a generation of children. It currently is difficult to make any precise predictions about the magnitude of the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, except to say that it has already started and it is likely to be severe. The revenue that funds public K-12 schools—almost 90 percent of which comes from state and local sources—will see large decreases… Making things worse, school districts in many states have yet to recover from the last recession, the so-called Great Recession, which officially began in late 2007 and devastated state and local education budgets.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s Heather Gillers and Gunjan Banerji analyzed how a COVID-19 recession continuing for at least the next two years will affect the states: “U.S. states are facing their biggest cash crisis since the Great Depression.  Nationwide, the U.S. state budget shortfall from 2020-2022 could amount to about $434 billion, according to data from Moody’s Analytics…. That’s greater than the 2019 K-12 education budget for every state combined, or more than twice the amount spent that year on state roads and other transportation infrastructure…. Even after rainy day funds are used, Moody’s Analytics projects 46 states coming up short, with Nevada, Louisiana and Florida having the greatest gaps as a percentage of their 2019 budgets… States are dependent on taxes for revenue—sales and income taxes make up more than 60% of the revenue states collect for general operating funds…. Both types of taxes have been crushed by historic job losses and the steepest decline in consumer spending in six decades… The U.S. economy has steadily recovered since the spring, and more than 11 million jobs of the 22 million lost earlier in the year have come back.  Still, the unemployment rate recently hovered at 7.9%, and there has been an uptick in permanent layoffs.”

One effect will be a reduction in teachers’ salaries, which are already significantly lower in many states than average salaries and benefits for similarly educated professionals.  In mid-September, the Economic Policy Institute showed the long term effects of the kind of government stinginess we see in too many states and which we have watched this summer in the U.S. Senate’s refusal to consider continued federal relief. Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel released their annual report on the long-term teacher pay penalty which is making it hard in too many states to attract enough college students into teacher preparation programs and making it difficult for states to hire enough quality teachers.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,  Derek Black worries about the long consequences of a COVID-19 recession for public school budgets: “If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last (the 2008 recession), the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that spent the two years prior to 2020 protesting shamefully low salaries may simply break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket. No one will take their place. The number of college students pursuing teaching degrees was already shockingly low. Class sizes will continue on their decade long expansion. And the pre-kindergarten opportunities, mental health counselors, and other supports that disadvantaged students so desperately need—but which states wouldn’t fund during good times—might as well be on permanent hold.” Schoolhouse Burning, p. 258)

Last week, Education Week‘s Daarel Burnette II examined the current situation in the context of what happened during the Great Recession a decade ago: “The last recession was financially ruinous for poor and majority Black and Latino school districts, almost wiping out the progress states had made in the last half century in closing funding gaps between property-rich and property-poor school districts.  Many of these school districts, even before the pandemic, had yet to financially recover from recession-era budget cuts. The pandemic has again blown a crater in sales and income tax revenues on which property-poor districts are heavily reliant. Without a substantial federal bailout, low-income districts are expected to lose millions of dollars in the coming years, which will undoubtedly have academic repercussions.”

Describing last week’s collapse of negotiations for a second COVID-19 package between House Speaker Pelosi, White House negotiator, Mnuchin, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate The Wall Street Journal noted: “Administration officials acknowledge that Senate Republicans remain a major roadblock to passing a deal with a high price tag.” Throughout the negotiation process, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reported many Senators were refusing to support assistance for state and local governments. These Senators are the far-right, so-called “deficit hawks,” who are now alarmed about increasing the size of the federal deficit despite that they passed enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in 2011.

Last week, Nobel Prize winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman confronted the deficit hawks’ argument. Krugman assumes that the responsibility for passing COVID-19 relief will be delayed until we have a new Congress in January and a new administration headed by Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump. Krugman directs his advice to the new President: “Given the current and likely future state of the U.S. economy, it’s time to (a) spend a lot of money on the future and (b) not worry about where the money is coming from. For now, and for at least the next few years, large-scale deficit spending isn’t just OK, it’s the only responsible thing to do… (I)t will be crucial to provide another round of large-scale fiscal relief, especially aid to the unemployed and to cash-strapped state and local governments. The main purpose of this relief will be humanitarian—helping families pay the rent and keep food on the table, helping cities and towns avoid devastating cuts in essential services. But it will also help avoid a downward economic spiral, by heading off a potential collapse in consumer and local government spending. The need for big spending will not, however, end with the pandemic. We also need to invest in our future. After years of public underspending, America desperately needs to upgrade its infrastructure… And we should also do much more to help children grow up to be healthy, productive adults; America spends shamefully little on aid to families compared with other wealthy countries.”

While state and local governments are, for the most part, prohibited by law from borrowing, the federal government can borrow. Krugman continues: “When a government can borrow at low interest rates, and in particular when the interest rate on debt is well below the economy’s long-run growth rate, debt just isn’t a major problem. It doesn’t pose any threat to the government’s solvency; it doesn’t in any meaningful way compete with private investment.” “Under these conditions it would actually be irresponsible for the federal government not to engage in large-scale borrowing to invest in the future.”

Ohio Governor Cuts $300 Million from FY 2020 Education Funding. Crisis Across State Budgets Demands Immediate and Long Term Federal Help

At the end of April, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Matthew Di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute published a new report, The Coronavirus Pandemic and K-12 Education Funding.  They begin: “The most terrible and lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic will of course be measured in loss of life. But a parallel tragedy will also be unfolding in the coming months and years, this one affecting those at the beginning of their lives, an unprecedented school funding crisis that threatens to disadvantage a generation of children. It currently is difficult to make any precise predictions about the magnitude of the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, except to say that it has already started and is likely to be severe. The revenue that funds public K-12 schools—almost 90 percent of which comes from state and local sources—will see large decreases. There will be cuts. Making things worse, school districts in many states have yet to recover from the last recession….”

On Tuesday, the magnitude of immediate cuts to K-12 education in Ohio became clearer. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Randy Ludlow explains: “The ordered closure of nonessential businesses during the pandemic and the accompanying loss of nearly 1.1 million jobs has devastated Ohio’s economy while also increasing demand for social services such as Medicaid.”

Ludlow describes the impact of business shutdowns and job losses on the tax revenues needed for the state to provide necessary services: “State tax revenue through April was $776.9 million below the fiscal year estimates on which the state budget was built.”  Consequently, “Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced immediate cuts in state spending totaling $775 million on Tuesday as the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic devastates state tax collections… Among the cuts, basic state aid for K-12 schools will be reduced by $300 million. That’s a 6% cut out of the total annual foundation funding for public, charter and private schools… The first year of the biennial $69.8 billion state budget must be balanced by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.”  The state has $2.7 billion in a rainy day fund. Ludlow reports that DeWine plans to use the rainy day fund to shore up the budget during the second year of the biennium.

Why are K-12 public schools being hit with such sizeable budget cuts right at the end of the fiscal year and threatened with further cuts in the second year of the biennial budget, which begins July 1?  Ludlow breaks down the relative size of specific state budget lines: “Slightly more than three-fourths of the general revenue fund is spent on only four areas: primary and secondary schools (35%), Medicaid (24%), higher education (11%), and prisons (7%), what the governor called ‘big-ticket items.'”

Cleveland.com’s Andrew Tobias adds that these budget cuts could not have been predicted: “As recently as the end of February, the state was running ahead of its estimated revenues by $200 million. But as of the end of April, state revenues now are below estimates by $776.9 million…”

In a recent commentary, one of the authors of the new report, The Coronavirus Pandemic and K-12 Education Funding, Matthew Di Carlo explores the implications of what we are watching not just in Ohio but across all the states. There is, in the short-term, an urgent need for far more substantial federal assistance to education than the CARES Act last month provided: “To be clear, federal funding will be absolutely crucial in smoothing the large decreases in revenue that will occur.  Without this federal help, there will likely be cuts to school budgets (and those of other public services) so severe that recovery in many states may be a matter of decades rather than years.  Moreover, districts serving larger shares of disadvantaged students will bear a disproportionate amount of harm. Accordingly, we recommend that federal funds be drawn out in two ‘phases’ over a 5-7 year period, and that states be required to distribute them in a manner that targets assistance to those districts that need it the most.”

Shanker continues: “But this won’t be enough. Federal assistance can go a long way toward smoothing out the gaps in the short term, but the longer term responsibility will rest with states.  Almost 90 percent of public K-12 education funding comes from state and local sources (mostly income, sales, and property taxes).  By investing larger shares of their economies in education (i.e. raising revenue), as well as by taking other steps, such as building up budget reserves, funding schools more progressively, and balancing their revenue ‘portfolios,’ states will be in a position to recover quickly as well as to deal with the next crisis when it comes.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Director of State Fiscal Research, Michael Leachman presses the need for federal relief for states as the severity of the current economic crisis continues to become clearer: “State budget shortfalls from COVID-19’s economic fallout could total $650 billion over three years, we estimate based on new economic projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and updated projections from Goldman Sachs. The new figures—significantly higher than estimates we recently issued based on economic projections of a month ago—increase the urgency that policymakers enact additional federal fiscal relief and continue it as long as economic conditions warrant… States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without substantial federal help, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers….”

With Voucher Impasse, Ohio Legislature Abrogates It’s Constitutional Responsibility for Our Public Schools

Ohio’s House and Senate are stuck. They even seem to have stopped arguing about their two different plans to end a public school crisis caused by the surreptitious expansion last summer (in the conference committee on the state budget) of the EdChoice school voucher program. On February 1st, students were due to have begun registering for a whole new round of vouchers for next year, with eligibility expanded to a whole new group of students, but in late January the Senate created one plan to reshape the program and the House designed another plan. The Legislature gave itself two months—until April 1— to work out the differences. But here we are in mid-March without any progress toward a compromise.  And neither plan would really do what is necessary to support the school districts the state legislature has trapped in this crisis.

When Ohio state senators describe the problem, they seem to forget about the 1,660,354 students enrolled in the state’s public schools. The senators’ comments betray their sympathy with parents who would like an EdChoice voucher to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.  “Why should these parents have to wait until the first of April to begin applying?” ask the state senators. “Why should they be left without being able to make plans?”  Ohio’s state senators justify their support of vouchers with a “money should follow the child” theory consistent with Betsy DeVos’s contention that we need to worry about each child and each family and cease focusing on the system.

Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert, explains the central flaw in this sort of thinking: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choice are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations. The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the… preferred goods and services… of that community within the constraints of the law.  Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now.  Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, p. 30)

Maybe it is easier for the members of Ohio’s legislature not to worry so much about the current crisis across the state’s school districts because In Ohio, the EdChoice voucher program at the center of the massive voucher mess is not funded directly by the state. Conveniently the Legislature created a school district deduction, and school districts, which have already watched money flow out of their schools this year are faced with catastrophic local budget losses if the program expands on April 1.  If the Legislature does nothing, the EdChoice vouchers will multiply in a way that will deplete the local budgets of two-thirds of Ohio’s 610 school districts. Inequity will also become a more serious problem, because the districts hurt the worst are the ones that serve many of the state’s poorest children.

Bruce Baker is a national school finance expert.  Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus school funding expert who leads the Ohio Education Policy Institute, is extremely concerned about the implications of vouchers in our state.  In January, Fleeter reviewed changes in the EdChoice voucher program and wrote the clearest explanation I’ve read of a very confusing set of issues.  Fleeter writes On the Money, a regular (but paywalled) report for the Columbus Hannah News Service. Recently the Delphos School District reposted Fleeter’s January report on the potential implications of the EdChoice voucher expansion where we can all read it. While Fleeter’s report is now two months old, not a thing has changed as the Ohio Legislature argues, dithers, and delays, despite ten long formal hearings where legislators heard testimony from 400 concerned citizens.

The EdChoice program has grown rapidly—from 3,100 students in 2006 to nearly 30,000 this school year.  Fleeter explains that the EdChoice voucher program counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in their assigned local neighborhood school. Then, the full voucher amount ($4,650 for each student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for each high school student) is deducted from the state aid that the district is slated to receive and turned into a voucher to pay private school tuition: “The deduction funding method has engendered frequent complaints… because the state aid received by the district as a result of including a voucher student is typically less than the amount that is deducted.”  Fleeter adds that during this school year, the deduction method of funding EdChoice vouchers has become particularly threatening for school districts under the biennial budget passed last summer because the budget froze state aid for schools at last year’s amount:  “As a result, any increase in the number of voucher students in FY20 or FY21 as compared to FY 19 means that the district will simply lose the entire additional voucher deduction amount. Thus, school districts that experience an increase in voucher use by resident students in FY 20 are not really guaranteed FY19 funding levels as HB166 (the budget bill) intended.”

Fleeter identifies two additional problems that have driven the catastrophic voucher crisis across Ohio’s school districts this winter.

EdChoice vouchers were supposedly created to give students an escape if they attend a so-called “failing” school.  The first problem with the EdChoice vouchers is that the Legislature has changed the criteria for designating an underperforming school. To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of a school deemed “underperforming” by the state. That number has rapidly grown from 255 schools last school year, to 517 this school year. Next year, if the Legislature does nothing by April 1, 2020, over 1,200 buildings will be EdChoice Designated Schools.

Fleeter explains that all this is based on having just one “failing” state report card grade during a three year period in any of a number of state report card rating categories.  The state report card ratings are based on convoluted algorithms and their validity questionable.  Here are the ratings that determine EdChoice designation—a D or F grade Overall—an F in Value-Added—a Performance Index in the bottom 10 percent of buildings—a four-year graduation rate of D or F—a K-3 Literacy Grade of D or F—or the building is under an Academic Distress Commission.  “(A) building is now EdChoice eligible if it meets any one of the above listed criteria… (T)he inclusion of the K-3 Literacy criteria is… problematic because this measure is widely considered to be seriously flawed.”   And the state has complicated the qualification criteria further by leaving out data from school years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, because a new standardized test had been introduced.  This year schools are being judged on grades the state awarded in the 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years.  Fleeter argues: “The use of data that is 6 years out-of-date is by itself inappropriate…. (It) also means that any improvement shown by districts as they adjusted to the new assessments is also not considered.”

Second, the budget passed last summer radically expanded the number of students eligible to qualify for a voucher. Fleeter explains that before this school year, “(T)he EdChoice voucher program has required that in order to qualify for a voucher the student must have attended an EdChoice eligible public school in the preceding year… (T)he only exception… has been for Kindergarten students for whom Kindergarten is (obviously) their first year in school… However, beginning (this school year), high school students who have never attended a public school are now eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private high school.” In one school year, the number of applications by high school students for an EdChoice Voucher has grown by 75 percent. “Not only has the elimination of the requirement that high school students had to have been in a qualifying public school in the prior year resulted in an increase in EdChoice vouchers, it is providing these vouchers to families who already have their children in private schools… This is not expansion of educational choice to those without the means to exercise it themselves; it is merely a handout to families who have already shown they can do it themselves.” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter summarizes: “Due to ill-considered changes to the criteria for designating schools as ‘underperforming,’ an unprecedented change in the eligibility criteria for private high school students that undermines the only defensible argument of the EdChoice program itself, and an apparent failure to understand the impact of freezing the school funding formula in the current biennium, Ohio policymakers have created a situation where two thirds of the state’s districts and schools… stand to be EdChoice eligible… (next school year) and the districts themselves—rather than the state—will be left paying for these modifications.”

Fleeter grew up in the same school district where I currently live and where my children were educated—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools— an inner-ring suburban school district in Cleveland.  In the report, Fleeter cites the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools as an example of the EdChoice Voucher crisis this year: “The total number of voucher applications in Cleveland Heights increased from 890 in FY 19 (last school year) to 1414 in FY 20 (this school year). Sixty-five percent of these applications were high school students.  However, virtually all of these students (both K-8 and high school) attend… religiously affiliated schools…. Very few—if any—of these students have ever attended one of the public schools in this school district….”

Next Tuesday, in the March 17, Ohio primary election, the citizens of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will vote on a local school levy.  In January at a public meeting, members of the school board explained the necessity of putting a local property tax levy on the ballot at this time: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy is on the ballot to pay for vouchers for a few and to try to protect services for the many—the 5,136 students enrolled in our community’s public schools. The levy committee’s literature explains that if the levy fails, the “Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools will be forced to make drastic cuts to offset lost state funding, which could include: closing school buildings, increasing student/teacher ratio, decreasing 1-on-1 instruction, canceling proven programs, and limiting sports, arts, music and transportation. These cuts will hurt every student in every classroom.”

Well-Intentioned Ohio School Finance Plan Must Be Revised to Eliminate Savage Inequalities

After a decade of tax cuts brought by Governor John Kasich and a supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature,  Ohio—still dominated in the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion by Republicans—is considering a new school funding formula intended to address what have been glaring problems for the state’s public schools. The new plan is bipartisan. We all owe enormous thanks to Representatives Robert Cupp and John Patterson for their leadership.

Currently, only 107 (18 percent) of the state’s 610 school districts are receiving their calculated formula level of school funding from the state—an amount that supposedly represents what the state should contribute based on each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue. All the rest—503 school districts—are operating on guaranteed or capped funding.  We have reached a point—years and years after the last funding formula adjustment, where nobody can really explain how the state is dividing up its contribution through the formula.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan is designed to consider each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue—with factors reflecting the district’s property tax base and the aggregate income of the residents.  And, we’ve been told, the new formula will distribute school funding based on the cost of what it takes to educate children—what experts identify as the cost of teachers, support staff, school operations, and school administration.

It is not yet possible to see how all this has been figured out, because the calculations and the numbers that were plugged into the calculations haven’t yet been released.  The new funding plan does get more school districts back inside a formula designed to address the number of children who live in the district, however, and supposedly to address the needs of those children. Of the state’s 610 school districts, only 100 will remain on a guarantee; 510 school districts will be back on the formula.

Conceptually all this seems positive. Except that when the computer runs of the funding for all of the state’s 610 school districts were released, something outrageous showed up.  Among those 100 Guarantee districts, which will receive the same state funding as they are receiving this year, are the state’s very poorest urban school districts, including Youngstown, Lorain, East Cleveland (said to be the nation’s fourth-poorest community), Dayton, Toledo, Lima, and Cleveland.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel highlights the evidence that Ohio’s proposed plan fails to address a key element in any state state school funding formula—equity: “The 52 districts with student poverty rates of at least 60% would get an average funding increase of $280 per pupil over two years…. Meanwhile, the 61 districts with poverty rates of less than 15 percent would get an average $392 per pupil… (T)he formula sends 15% of new funding to the wealthiest suburban districts, compared to 5% to major urban districts and 9% to the poorest rural districts.”

In a follow-up report, Siegel describes Jennifer Hogue of the Ohio School Boards Association explaining the new plan’s implications for the schools in Ohio’s racially segregated communities: “Hogue noted that of the 71 districts getting no new money next year, 19 are among the poorest in the state, and nearly 70 percent of the students in these districts are minorities.” Hogue adds: “We have very real concerns about how this proposal will impact students in poverty particularly those attending urban districts across the state.”

Currently, Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are identified by the state as in “Academic Distress,” a category that has put them under state takeover. Dayton is expected to join them next year. Cleveland is also under another form of state takeover based on its test scores.  At the same time as Ohio has been allowing its school funding formula to fade into dysfunction, the state has aggressively pursued punitive, high-stakes, test-based accountability.  Ohio grades its school districts (A–F) on a state report card and publishes the results. The branding has exacerbated suburban out-migration in the state’s metropolitan areas—encouraging more affluent families to choose A-rated exurbs and adding to economic segregation. Ohio awards EdChoice vouchers for private and religious school tuition to students in its F-rated schools, and it enables charter schools to open in those same school districts. And, finally, Ohio takes over the governance of the so-called “failing” school districts. In Youngstown and Lorain, both under state takeover for three years, the state appointed governance has not made a difference in test scores.

As one considers what the new formula’s numbers mean by visualizing what’s been happening in the state, one should consider that the state report cards and all the punishments have negatively branded urban districts and inner ring suburbs and encouraged families with means to move to growing exurbs around the state’s several big cities. The new formula awards funding based on a per-pupil count of students in any district, and it is the outer suburbs of Ohio’s cities which are growing.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel explains how all this is reflected in the proposed new school funding formula: “The top 10% of districts in enrollment growth over the past three years are getting about $300 more new money per pupil than the bottom 10%.”

The situation is very difficult in school districts like East Cleveland and Youngstown and sections of Cleveland and Dayton.  Here, parts of entire neighborhoods were devastated by the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. But the families who were forced to move out or double up did not methodically abandon entire sections of the city to make it easy for school districts to close schools and save costs. The children who remain in those neighborhoods have enormous needs, and these school districts must cope with the additional challenges of concentrated economic segregation and deepening poverty. The proposed school funding planners clearly have not grasped the economic devastation across Ohio’s cities.

The best description I can find of today’s challenge for Ohio is part of a book published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: Organizing Schools for Improvement.  In this book Anthony Bryk, a sociologist, confirms what many people continue to deny: deep and concentrated neighborhood poverty makes it hard for children to thrive at school.  Bryk and his colleagues studied schools in the city of Chicago and identified a group of schools they identify as “truly disadvantaged”: “In Chicago, extreme poverty combines with racial isolation.”  In the 46 truly disadvantaged schools they identify: 100 percent of the students are African American; 96 percent of the children are low income; male unemployment is 64 percent, and median family income is $9,480.  “Specifically, one-fourth of children in foster care in Chicago were concentrated within 27 elementary schools, which represent only 5 percent of the system.” Bryk and his colleagues conclude: “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 164-173)

While no school funding plan is perfect and while the success of any plan depends on the continued commitment of a legislature to fund it adequately over time, one strategy that has been successful has been targeting of funding to the school districts with the most overwhelming needs.  In New Jersey, for example, the remedy in the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke targeted additional funding to thirty-one of the state’s poorest school districts.  These “Abbott” districts received extra funding, guaranteed pre-Kindergarten for all students, and social services.

In Ohio, on the other hand, politics seems to dictate that any added services be spread—at least to some degree—to all school districts.  For example, a month ago—wanting to support schools with what research shows are needed services by many families, Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine proposed a biennial budget that—on top of the new, proposed school funding formula—includes money to help schools provide wraparound social and medical services.  In his personal blog, former legislator Steve Dyer, explains:  “(I)n the 2019-2020 school year, DeWine provides $250 million more for poverty based aid in the form of wraparound services.  Then in the 2020-2021 budget, he adds another $50 million.  So at the end of the day, districts will have an additional $300 million two years from now to spend n these wraparound services.”

In Ohio, however, unlike New Jersey, politics ensures that everybody gets a little of the funding pie, even if that makes the pieces smaller for the school districts that more desperately need the funding.  As as Rich Exner explains for the Plain Dealer, Governor DeWine’s proposed program for wraparound social and medical services would include some funding for all 610 school districts: “(E)ach Ohio school district would receive a minimum of $25,000 the first year and $30,000 in year two… (M)oney would be distributed on a sliding scale, based on the percentage of children in poverty in each district.”  One wonders whether wealthy outer suburbs like Dublin, Hudson, and Solon really need to have dentists and physicians visit their schools regularly to provide services for the children.

It is difficult to know what will happen politically to Ohio’s recently proposed Cupp-Patterson school funding formula. The biggest problem, as the Dispatch‘s Siegel points out, may be the overall price tag: “Lawmakers would need an extra $1.1 billion over two years to fund the plan, which would be phased in over four years.”

Another challenge will be political biases that blame the state’s poorest Black and Brown communities for the economic problems which have derived from the collapse of manufacturing and the foreclosure crisis among other serious structural problems that have afflicted the state. In the Dispatch, Siegel quotes Jim Betts commenting on the fact that the new funding proposal awards nothing to the state’s school districts that have been taken over by the state for their so-called “academic distress.”  Betts, who led Ohio’s rich districts’ school funding advocacy coalition, the Alliance for Adequate School Funding, during the period of the DeRolph litigation, falls back on the old argument from Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek: that money really doesn’t matter in school funding.  Betts’ comment also reflects a racist bias that is widespread across Ohio and across the nation: “Just because a district is poor does not necessarily mean that it needs more money, because that (raises) the question: How much is enough? Is another $2,000 (per pupil) going to help East Cleveland? Probably not.”

In a 2013 blog post, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confronted Betts’ idea that money doesn’t matter: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers). How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

It has been a long time since I heard someone consider school funding from the point of view of Jonathan Kozol, whose words—in Trump’s America—seem even farther from our political realities today than they did in 1991 when, as he stared at the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Kozol wrote the concluding words in Savage Inequalities: “Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean.  Surely there is enough for everyone within this country.  It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.  Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly. (Savage Inequalities, p. 233)

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/.

Ohio Charter Schools Ruin District Finances: Steal State and Local Taxes, Leave Behind Stranded Costs

When we evaluate charter schools, I wonder why we rarely consider their fiscal impact on the public schools among which they are nested? I have never heard anybody in Ohio consider the overall impact of charter school expansion on access to education for the entire population of students across a particular community or across the state. Today in Ohio, people are talking about the value of charter schools because charter operators and sponsors—claiming the schools are broke—are asking for an extra $2,000 per pupil.

Usually arguments about the quality of public investment in charters are about whether charters do a good job as measured by test scores.  Proponents of charter schools typically want the public to evaluate charter schools and traditional public schools by comparing their test scores—despite considerable research over the years demonstrating that the results are, at best, relatively comparable.  Steve Dyer uses the test score yardstick in a recent blog post: “Not only have Ohio charter schools not gotten appreciably better on the report card since… 2015, but since the 2012-2013 school year, charter schools overall have received more Fs than all other grades combined on state report cards.” Dyer doesn’t think these schools are performing well enough to deserve additional tax support.

Then there are the arguments about about whether charters mismanage the tax dollars they receive.  In a recent article about Ohio charter schools, three prominent professors of education policy and law examine self-dealing by charter management companies which lease buildings owned by the very same companies back to the Ohio charter schools they are hired to manage—at exorbitant, above-market rents.  The authors of this critique report that, “just a few weeks ago, the National Alliance for Charter Schools was back in Ohio asking the state to increase funding for charter school facilities.”

Here is an example—this time from Sunday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer—of how reporting on charter school accountability and funding often goes.   As he describes the request for more money from the legislature, reporter Patrick O’Donnell considers the academic record of Ohio charter schools and whether state regulation has improved enough.  O’Donnell begins: “Charter schools in Ohio have long wanted more money from the state, but a history of well-publicized scandals, mismanagement and poor report card grades have made it hard to justify giving them any more tax dollars.  Have they cleaned up their act enough now?”

Charter schools in Ohio actually want a lot more money per-pupil in the next state budget. O’Donnell reports: “Some charter officials are pressing the state for another $2,000 per student a year for most charter schools in the upcoming state budget. Leading the charge are the Breakthrough Schools, the Cleveland based chain that has the strongest results out of all charters in Ohio. Joining them are the growing Accel Schools chain, which has grown to 40 schools in the state over the last three years.”  Accel Schools is the charter network run by former K-12 Inc., CEO Ron Packard, who expanded his Accel network by buying up Cleveland’s I Can charters along with many of the schools formerly operated by David Brennan, who died last autumn.

How should Ohio’s policy makers evaluate whether spending tax dollars on charter schools is a good investment?  And particularly in these times when charter schools are asking for a huge bump of $2,000 extra per-pupil? Measured by test scores, and evaluated by their record of conflicts of interest, fraud. and outlandish financial mismanagement, Ohio should not increase public funding for its charter school sector.  But I believe there is a more important—and usually ignored—reason for denying more funding to the privatized charter school sector in our state. Policy makers must begin examining charter schools’ enormous, persistent drain on local school district budgets.

In Ohio, California, and many other states, charter schools get their funding through a “school district deduction.” Here is how the Ohio Department of Education describes the process of funding (When you read the following language, remember that charter schools in Ohio are formally called “community schools” instead of charter schools.): “Payments to community schools take the form of deductions from the state foundation funding of the school districts in which the community school students are entitled to attend school. Community schools students are counted as part of the enrollment base of the resident school district to generate funding.” The amount taken from the school district budget by every Ohio student who leaves for a charter school is $6,020.  This is known as a “district deduction” system of funding.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains a huge problem with the “district deduction” system of funding school privatization: “The deduction system means that the… student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the (deduction) is paid for… from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction… greater than the state aid that was received for that student….”  School districts across Ohio must raise local dollars by voting to pass  property tax levies.  In any school district whose state formula aid is less than $6,020, a student leaving for a charter school carries away that student’s state per-pupil amount plus money (to make up $6,020) from the locally voted levy—often very hard to pass— from the public school district.

Imagine the impact on Ohio’s local school district budgets if the state were to increase the charter school allocation to meet charter operators’ request for another $2,000—from $6,020 to $8,020—for each student who were to choose a charter school.  Would the state also add $2,000 to its public school foundation per-pupil allocation? What about the districts that already add local dollars to raise a much lower state formula per-pupil allocation up to the required the $6,020 district deduction? It is likely that an increase in charter school funding by the Legislature would increase the flow of local levy dollars down the charter school drain.

Even beyond the persistent economic drain posed by Ohio’s “district deduction system,” charter schools pose further challenges for the public school districts in which they are located.  This happens merely because of the way school choice works. A public school district must maintain expensive services that cannot be shed when students leave for charter schools.  In a report published in May 2018, the political economist Gordon Lafer examines the stranded costs that cannot be managed by public school districts when students leave for charter schools:  “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker explains that inequity is also baked into a system embodying privatized school choice. The hybrid—combining traditional public and charter schools—now involves competition and entrepreneurship: “The incentive for school operators is to pursue whatever means necessary to be the preferred school of choice (for the preferred students)—not to spend only what is needed to provide equal opportunity to achieve common outcomes… Much of the expansion of charter schooling occurred during the recession.  States added schools while reducing overall funding, making inequitable choices on top of already unequal and inadequate systems.  Expanded charter schooling was a centerpiece of the Duncan/Obama education reform platform that coincided with the recession and new normal era. Cursory descriptive analyses, as well as more complex longitudinal models, suggests that states which most expanded their charter sectors are also the states which most reduced their overall effort toward financing public education. This is a disturbing finding in part because charter schools also rely on public funding.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 157-158)

In a 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Baker describes a kind of policy blindness that has been the foundation of marketplace school choice:  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

McMaster University professor Henry Giroux warns that school privatization threatens an essential public good: “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… Moreover, they symbolize the centrality of education as a right and public good…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Baker’s New Book on School Finance Develops a Scathing Critique of Charter School Expansion

Rutgers University school finance professor, Bruce Baker’s new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, covers the basics—how school finance formulas are supposed to work to ensure that funding for schools is adequate, equitable, and stable.

Baker also carefully refutes some persistent myths—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Baker does an excellent job of demonstrating that far more will be needed for our society appropriately to support school districts segregated not only by race, but also by poverty. The final sections of the book are a little technical. They explain the construction of a more equitable system that would drive enough funding to come closer to what is really needed in school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Baker’s book is especially important for updating a discussion of basic school finance theory to account for today’s realities.  He shows, for example, how the Great Recession undermined adequate and equitable funding of public schools despite that states had formulas in place that were supposed to have protected children and their teachers: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less… Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes, ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably, the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue.” (p. 4)

And for the first time in a school finance book, Baker explores the impact of two decades of charter school expansion on the funding of public schools. Although the conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate reformers has said that competition from independent charter school operators would introduce innovation and thereby stimulate academic improvement in public schools, not enough people have seriously considered the fiscal implications of slicing a fixed school funding pie into more pieces.  Baker examines these fiscal implications of charter school expansion from many perspectives.

Charters are, first, one of those “false promises of cost-free solutions”: “The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations/businesses… Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation (and that there may be technological solutions to human capital costs); that data driven human capital policies can increase efficiency/productivity by improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce. One core element of such reform posits that US schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools…. (T)here is little reason to believe that these magic elixirs will significantly change the productivity/efficiency equation or address issues of equity, adequacy, and equal opportunity.” (pp. 6-7)

Baker also speaks to the philosophical justification frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker addresses Betsy DeVos’s contention that, “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.”  Here is Baker’s answer: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim also falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Are charter schools more efficient at improving school achievement measured by test scores and are they fiscally efficient?  “(A) close look at high-profile charters in New York City indicates that their success reflects their access to additional resources and a fairly traditional approach to leveraging them… For each of these major operators… the share of low-income (those who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch ), English language learners, and children with disabilities is lower than for district schools, in some cases quite substantially.  On average, these schools are serving far less needy and thus less costly student populations than are the district schools.”  Baker provides details of major New York City charter networks’ expenditure patterns; what he finds is that the best-funded allocate their instructional expenses in a similar way to traditional public schools: “Collectively, these figures tell a story of high-profile, well-funded CMOs in New York City leveraging their additional resources in three logical and rather traditional ways by hiring more staff per pupil… by paying their teachers more at any given level of experience and degree; and… by paying them more to work longer school hours, days, and years.  In other words, they pay more people for more time.” He concludes: “Researchers, policy makers, pundits, pontificators, and even self-proclaimed thought leaders have yet to conjure some new ‘secret sauce’ or technological innovation that will greatly improve equity, adequacy, and efficiency.  Human resources matter, and equitable and adequate financial resources are necessary for hiring and retaining the teachers and other school staff necessary to achieve equal educational opportunity for all children.”  (pp. 68-79)

Charter schools were originally promised as an incubator for innovation. Are they really innovative?  “While modern charter schooling was conceived by some as a way to spur innovation—try new things, evaluate them, and inform the larger system—studies of the structures and practices of charter schooling find the sector as a whole not to be particularly ‘innovative.’  Analyses by charter advocates at the American Enterprise Institute have found that the dominant form of specialized charter school is the ‘no-excuses model,’ which combines traditional curriculum and direct instruction with strict disciplinary policies and school uniforms, and in some cases extended school days and years.” (p. 68)

Expansion of charter schools undermines equity in a school district: “Expanding the mix of providers and provider types in a common space is more likely to result in increased variations in quality and spending than in convergence toward equity. Private providers have widely varied access to outside resources and thus highly unequal opportunities for ‘revenue enhancement.’ The incentive for school operators is to pursue whatever means necessary to be the preferred school of choice (for the preferred students)—not to spend only what is needed to provide equal opportunity to achieve common outcomes… Much of the expansion of charter schooling occurred during the recession. States added schools while reducing overall funding, making inequitable choices on top of already unequal and inadequate systems… Cursory descriptive analyses, as well as more complex longitudinal models, suggest that states which most expanded their charter sectors are also the states which most reduced their overall effort toward financing public education. This is a disturbing finding in part because charter schools also rely on public financing. So reducing public financing affects negatively both district and charter schools. Also increasing the number of schools, holding enrollment constant, or shifting students from one sector to another creates additional costs….” (pp 157-158) (emphasis in the original)

How has the expansion of school choice undermined traditional public schooling? Here is the myth: “Everyone receives adequate schooling equitably by way of access to great choices,” writes Baker. “But it doesn’t work that way. The ‘best’ choices are often those that can garner additional resources. And the ‘best’ choices will always have limited availability due to numerous constraints on scaling up, including access to supplemental resources. Yet the myth that it might work has arguably fueled even greater systemwide resource deprivation in states that have most expanded choice.  The creation of dual systems of education serving common geographic spaces is further eroding equity and, to an extent, efficiency. Specifically, charter school expansion and citywide choice models, lacking advanced planning and sufficient regulation, complicate equitable resource distribution across schools and children, including access to space and transportation.  Managing equity in a competitive system using alternative models of governance and operations for both day-to-day activities of schooling and for access to and maintenance of capital assets (land, buildings, equipment) is complex, to say the least. Policy makers have managed those complexities poorly and have allowed the dual systems to exacerbate rather than ameliorate inequality.” (p. 136)

Bruce Baker’s critique of the expansion of publicly funded but privately managed charter schools deserves attention from policy makers. Advocates need to study and internalize the details of the argument Baker develops against marketplace school choice in Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.