What About the Crazy Talk of “Moving Students into High Quality Seats”?

These days, as part of the rhetoric of technocratic school reform, you often hear people talk about the goal of moving more students into high quality seats.  It’s a puzzling way of talking, as though education is purely a function of any student’s placement–part of the idea that moving kids around from school to school via school choice will make up for a state’s failure to invest enough money to ensure that every school has excellent teachers, a full curriculum, and a range of co-curricular opportunities. Such talk is a symptom of a lack of public generosity. School districts intent on moving  kids to “high quality seats” invest lots of money in exclusive magnets and boutique charters instead of the even more expensive project of investing enough in the traditional neighborhood elementary and middle schools and the comprehensive high schools that serve the mass of any school district’s students. By selecting some children for elite schools, the school district will be able to boast about high scores at “successful” schools and graduation rates at the elite high schools.

In Chicago, due to affirmative action policies at the elite high schools, a significant number of students from families with low income have now been admitted. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research just conducted a study to test how poorer students at selective-admissions high schools are faring.  Here are the assumptions researchers set out to examine:  “High-quality public schools may be a lever for closing the gap by providing equitable educational opportunities for students who have fewer economic resources at home. We know that low-income students can succeed in school, but many who are high-performing in elementary school fail to make it to college, suggesting that high-achieving, low-income students may lack good high school options or that there are barriers to entry into high-performing high schools for students who have fewer resources. If selective public schools improve student outcomes for low-income students by a greater amount than they improve outcomes for high-income students, then selective public schools may help close achievement gaps by family income.”

The study’s findings do not confirm the assumptions. “Overall, we find little effect on test scores or educational attainment, but students admitted to selective schools have lower grade point averages (GPAs)… Looking at estimates by neighborhood SES, we find no evidence that admission to elite public schools in Chicago helps close the achievement gap between students from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.  Selective high school admission has no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood SES….  When it comes to grades, the negative effect of selective high school admission on GPAs is larger for students from low-SES neighborhoods than for students from high-SES neighborhoods… (W)e find that students from low-SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighbohoods who just miss the admission cutoff.”

The researchers explain why Chicago’s unique affirmative admissions policies make it important to study the effects of selective high schools on low-income students in Chicago: “Selective enrollment high schools command a lot of attention—they generally serve the most academically successful students, the seats are highly coveted as there are many more applicants than available slots, and they are often hailed as the best schools in the system.  These schools also receive criticism for serving student bodies that are much less racially diverse than the district in which they are situated.  The affirmative action admission policy in Chicago, reserving seats for students from low-SES neighborhoods, makes selective schools the most racially diverse public high schools in the city. This feature also allows us to look at separate effects for students from different SES backgrounds.”

Here is what the new study says about students’ test scores: “We find that when it comes to test scores, attending a SEHS (Selective  Enrollment High School) has no statistically significant impact. Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools.  This finding is consistent with previous studies of selective schools in the U.S. This paper extends the scope of prior work by allowing the effect of selective school admission to differ by students’ neighborhood SES status. Nevertheless, even for students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, we find no positive impact on test scores.”

What about college admissions?  “High school GPA is another important academic outcome that affects both college admissions and college scholarship eligibility.  We find negative effects of being admitted to a SEHS on GPA, and this effect is primarily driven by the large, negative impact on GPA for students from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The negative impacts on GPA in combination with unaffected test scores do not translate into a decreased likelihood that SEHS students enroll in college…. Our results suggest that admission to a SEHS reduces the probability that a student from a low-SES neighborhood attends a selective college, while potentially increasing the probability that a student from a high-SES neighborhood attends a selective college. This finding is particularly troubling.”

Competition, as usual, favors the privileged; the researchers conclude that poorer students are not losing ground academically even though their grades are lower than their wealthier peers: “We do not believe that it is the case that students from low-SES neighborhoods cannot do well in elite public school programs.  In fact, there is no evidence of learning declines, as test scores for less affluent students are unaffected.”

As elite magnet schools do not seem to be expanding equal opportunity for their students’ college admissions, the researchers wonder whether the Chicago School District should eliminate its elite magnet high schools?  The advantages of maintaining such schools, according to these researchers, derive to the reputation of the district itself, not to the competitive edge of students being admitted to elite high schools through affirmative admissions programs. First, at a time when school segregation is increasing everywhere, their affirmative admissions policies have turned the elite high schools into Chicago’s most diverse high schools, economically and racially.  And the elite high schools increase the school district’s tax base and what the researchers call the “overall social capital” of families in the school district by serving as an incentive for families who “would otherwise leave the district for private schools or suburban districts.”

However, the researchers do find one advantage for poorer students who have been admitted to the elite high schools: the students believe their school experience is more positive. Selective high schools “have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the high school experience. When it comes to relationships with students and teachers, SEHS students are more positive than their counterparts in non-SEHSs.  Students in SEHSs also report a greater sense of safety—they are less likely to worry about crime, violence, and bullying…. Perhaps it is factors like these that make SEHSs highly desirable to students and families—more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

All this leads one to contemplate the moral implications in a school district like Chicago where school funding has been in crisis for decades and where Standard & Poor’s just dropped the school district’s credit rating again this month. Investing generously in all of a city’s high schools is far more expensive than creating elite institutions where a city’s brightest students are educated. What would it take to make it possible for every high school in Chicago to ensure small classes so that every student is known and the student’s learning needs accommodated? What would it take to hire enough counselors and social workers and college and career guidance staff to support every student?  What would it take to support a band and orchestra in every high school along with classes in drawing, sculpture and art appreciation and with a full range of sports and other co-curriculars? For years now charters and elite magnet schools have been designed as escapes for academic stars and students whose motivated parents know how to work the system. What would be required to provide a climate of safety and support in all of Chicago’s high schools?

Last month the national NAACP passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools—that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional public system, and that the charter schools “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”  The NAACP’s demands speak to the role of selective magnet high schools as well as their privatized but publicly funded charter cousins.

A system of public schools has been understood historically as our society’s moral responsibility for all of our students. Public schools have also traditionally been understood as the path by which society can benefit from the academic gifts, the skills, and the talents of every student.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s prophetic words come to mind once again: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

All the mechanical talk about attracting students to “high quality seats” through school choice only makes it easier to forget about our broader obligation to the personal and academic needs of the mass of children and adolescents who fill our public schools.

ALEC Relentlessly Cashes in on Kids and their Public Schools

The Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia school districts are out of money due to political fights in their statehouses. Privatization through charters and vouchers continues to grow.  States adhere to the supply-side theory that prescribes radical tax cutting as the only way to attract jobs and grow the economy.  States rank and rate school districts and create policies that explain low achievement in the very poorest districts by castigating the schools and blaming the teachers.  I hope those of us who know better will stay informed, get organized, and continue to lift our voices, because the forces on the other side have constructed and funded an institutional framework to ensure that their policies get enacted by the legislatures across the states.  And as more and more states have school vouchers, for example, that give tax dollars to families to fund private and parochial schools, vouchers become normalized in the public’s mind and the idea that something is wrong with public education becomes normalized as well.  It is unsettling that none of this is being probed in the ongoing political campaigns for President.

This coherent, calculated effort to undermine government and promote privatization—being rolled out through “model” laws that can be adopted by any state legislature—is underwritten by corporations along with some of our nation’s wealthiest political investors, and it pairs state legislators with corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design.  It is called ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here is how New York’s Common Cause described ALEC in a report last year: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country….”  Some people have described ALEC as a dating service that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.

Is your state legislature considering passing Right to Work legislation to destroy the right of workers to unionize?  One of ALEC’s model bills is the “Right to Work Act.”  Here are titles of just some of ALEC’s other model bills: “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” (tuition tax credits are a kind of school voucher); “Public Charter School Operations and Autonomy Model Legislation”; “The Virtual Pubic Schools Act”; “The Charter Schools Act”; “The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” (another voucher plan);  “Public Charter School Funding and Facilities Model Legislation”; “Education Savings Account Act”; “The Next Generation Charter Schools Act”; “Alternative Certification Act”; and the “Parent Trigger Act.”

The Center for Media and Democracy and its PR Watch and its ALEC Exposed project have set out to demonstrate how ALEC operates across the states.  Here is how PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer describes ALEC’s activity during 2015: “Despite widespread public opposition to the corporate-driven education privatization agenda, at least 172 measures reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bills were introduced in 42 states in 2015… ALEC’s education task force has pushed legislation for decades to privatize public schools, weaken teacher’s unions and lower teaching standards.  ALEC’s agenda would transform public education from a public and accountable institution that serves the public into one that serves private, for-profit interests.  ALEC model bills divert taxpayer money from public to private schools through a variety of ‘voucher’ and ‘tuition tax credit’ programs.  They promote unaccountable charter schools and shift power away from democratically elected local school boards.”

ALEC’s model bills use a number of strategies to push an idea like vouchers forward.  Many of them seem targeted to very small groups of students, and they are usually not called “vouchers.” ALEC’s bills don’t always get passed, but legislative members of ALEC are relentless about keeping the legislative conversation focused on ALEC’s priorities. Here is how Fischer describes various voucher bills introduced across state legislatures in 2015: “ALEC has cooked up a variety of means of gaining ground on school privatization…. A handful of ALEC bills claim to offer ‘scholarships’ for sympathetic populations—like students with disabilities or foster kids—but are actually targeted voucher programs….  One ALEC bill, the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, carves out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income.  Nine states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island—considered similar legislation in 2015…. Another ALEC bill, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, would create a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and was introduced in Missouri.  ‘Opportunity Scholarships,’ introduced in four states—Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico—earmark vouchers for students in schools deemed ‘failing.'”

Once smaller bills are passed, there are relentless efforts to expand them.  The original Milwaukee voucher program, passed in the 1990s, was promoted to support access to private and parochial schools for Milwaukee’s poorest children.  Now under Governor Scott Walker, vouchers have been expanded statewide and the income requirement allows families with income above the statewide median to qualify.

Here is how Fischer describes the Center for Media and Democracy’s methodology in preparing its recent report: “CMD reviewed thousands of bills introduced in state legislatures in 2015 to assess whether they contained language consistent with ALEC bills.  In determining that there were at least 172 ALEC models within state bills—that is, bills containing key provisions consistent with ALEC’s legislative agenda—CMD examined both stand-alone and omnibus measures.”  At the end of his report, Fischer lists the bills state-by-state and identifies those that passed.

According to Fischer’s report on ALEC’s 2015 activity, it isn’t only corporations that fund ALEC by paying corporate dues for their lobbyists: “One of ALEC’s biggest funders is Koch Industries…. The Kochs have had a seat at the table—where the private sector votes as equals with legislators—on ALEC’s education task force via their ‘grassroots’ group Americans for Prosperity and their Freedom Partners group…. The Kochs also have a voice on ALEC’s Education Task Force through multiple state-based think tanks of the State Policy Network, ALEC’s sister organization, which is funded by many of the same corporations and foundations and donor entities.”  The State Policy Network includes such far-right state think tanks as the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Mackinac Center in Michigan, and the John Locke Institute in North Carolina.  Fischer describes additional ALEC allies including Dick and Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and its affiliate the Alliance for School Choice and the relentless Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee that “has spent more than $31 million promoting ‘school choice’ nationwide between 2001 and 2012.”

One huge irony is that the Internal Revenue Service considers ALEC a tax-exempt, educational nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization.  In 2012, Common Cause filed an IRS complaint to challenge ALEC’s status.  As the NY Times reported in Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, ALEC defended itself by arguing, “that it provides a forum for lawmakers to network and to hear from constituencies that share an interest in promoting free-market, limited-government policies.  Lobbying laws differ by state, and ALEC maintains that if any of its members’ interactions with one another happen to qualify as lobbying in a particular state, that does not mean ALEC, as an organization, lobbies.”  The NY Times report continues: “ALEC, which is registered as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, traces its roots to 1973, when the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich and several other Republicans sought to create a state-level clearinghouse for conservative ideas.  Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.”

New Report Decries Theft of Democracy in State School Takeovers

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is pushing back against the rush by state legislatures to take over the poorest schools in America’s big cities—in many cases to seize entire school districts—and run them without the oversight of an elected local school board.  Examples of such state takeovers abound these days from New Orleans to Little Rock to Philadelphia to Detroit to Newark, and recently, after the Alliance’s report went to press, Youngstown, Ohio. The new report from the Alliance declares, “(T)here is a different attack on minority  enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act.  Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.”  State takeovers cluster in low-income, black and brown communities, the report explains, while across the United States 95 percent of school districts continue to be run by locally elected school boards.

In Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through State Takeovers, the Alliance proclaims: “This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority.  Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.” State departments of education, ill-equipped to run schools and school districts, are increasingly bringing in enormous charter management companies to operate the schools now under state takeover.  While school choice is said by its proponents to empower families, parents in these now privately-run, state-held school districts find themselves disenfranchised and without leverage to shape their children’s schooling.

The new report traces the history of under-investment in these districts dominated by racial segregation and rapidly intensifying poverty: “Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act (both passed in 1965), public schools have never fully served low-income students of color. Our antiquated school funding system that relies on local property taxes to support public schools embeds inequities based on race and class. When the rise of manufacturing in northern cities attracted large numbers of African American families looking for jobs, they were met with housing discrimination and redlining that led to segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. When manufacturing left these same cities, they were thrown into decline. The loss of jobs, and later, resistance to integration led to massive white flight, further concentrating poverty in urban centers and communities of color. Over the past twenty years, systemic inequality and economic and social apartheid have intensified the challenges facing public schools serving majorities of African American and Latino students. Instead of addressing these challenges with investments in schools, neighborhoods and good jobs, the last two decades have seen the rise of an education philosophy that argues that poverty doesn’t matter. School failure is blamed on families, students, teachers, district administrations and local control itself.”

Rising achievement has not followed for the children in the state “recovery” or “achievement” districts: “These districts and schools have not seen a renaissance in academic achievement, an end to corruption or mismanagement, or financial stability. But they have seen other impacts:

Fragmentation of political power. State control removes the power to govern schools from a locally elected school board with the authority to set programs and funding for public schools. Charterized systems are worse—each school or network of schools has its own (private, non-profit) governance structure, policies and procedures…

Loss of community-based institutions. By closing public schools, removing them from local control or turning them into privately-governed charter schools, the connections between public schools and neighborhoods have been dismantled. In many cities, children no longer have guaranteed access to a school in their neighborhood…

“Increased segregation. State-run districts, by definition comprised of “failing” schools, isolate and stigmatize students and parents. Charter schools have been shown to exacerbate already-high levels of segregation in public schools…

“Financial instability. The creation of parallel school systems in many U.S. cities is undermining the financial health and stability of public schools, and resulting in devastating cut-backs in services, staffing and academic and extra-curricular offerings.”

National organizations that lead the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools are the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Gamaliel Network, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Service Employees International Union.

This blog has recently covered the theft of democracy due to state state takeovers of schools and school districts here and here.

Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

No Oversight: U.S. Dept. of Ed. Has Invested $3.3 Billion in Charters Without Regulation

Back in 2010, I personally heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declare, “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.” But despite his acknowledgment of many charter schools of poor quality, Arne Duncan and his U.S. Department of Education have done nothing to address what he called “part of the problem.”  Although to qualify to apply for Race to the Top grants, states had to agree to eliminate statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, the department did not require states to provide adequate oversight of the new schools.  The Department of Education under Arne Duncan has incentivized and funded a vast increase in the quantity of charter schools, but it has done nothing to improve the quality.

In a blockbuster report released on Friday, Jonas Persson of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documents an enormous scandal: “CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools. Although some charters have a veneer of being alternative ‘public schools,’ many of them are run by for-profit companies or outsource key operations to for-profit firms, and are exempt from any local democratic control.  These billions have been funneled to charters through a patchwork of state laws often designed to prevent government agencies from exercising control over how that money is spent by charters or to exempt charters from rules that apply to traditional public schools, including enforceable sunshine rules on spending tax money… Federal charter school funding has expanded 6-fold since its inception in 1995, and—despite statements by ED (the U.S. Department of Education) and others of regret regarding enormous amounts squandered by incompetent or greedy charter school operators—very little has been done by the government to require strong financial controls to protect the educational opportunities of kids attending charters and to protect our tax dollars from rip-offs and waste.” (emphasis in the original)

The Center for Media and Democracy is blunt in its criticism of U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, who is reported to have testified about charter schools just last month to a Congressional appropriations committee: “The waste of taxpayer money—none of us can feel good about.”  “Yet,” writes Persson, “he (Duncan) is calling for a 48% increase in the U.S. Department of Education’s quarter-billion-dollar-a-year ($253.2 million) program designed to create, expand, and replicate charter schools—an initiative repeatedly criticized by the Office of the Inspector General for suspected waste and inadequate financial controls.”

Persson reports that $3,352,841,281 can be traced in federal expenditures to expand and develop charter schools, but at the same time a solid research base is lacking for these schools that are publicly funded and privately operated: “This sweeping expansion, under the banner of bipartisanship, is surprising given the fact that academic studies—independent of charter school advocates and its industry—have consistently found mixed results in terms of charter schools and learning outcomes.  And even the most glowing reports funded by school privatization interests have had to admit that the worst charter schools perform much worse than any traditional public school… Despite these findings and numerous examples of abject failure of particular charter schools, many policymakers have bought into the PR that charters are a panacea for ‘reforming’ traditional public schools.”

Persson blames pro-charter philanthropies and advocates who have invested heavily to promote the expansion of charters without accountability: “Many of the gaps through which millions have passed unaccountably have been intentional, resulting from ideological opposition to state oversight over charters that operate like private, not public, schools.”  Oversight of charters has been left to state governments, but state laws often defer to charter school authorizers, who lack the capacity or the will to oversee the schools they sponsor.  Persson quotes Congressional testimony from Kathleen S. Tighe of the U.S. Office of Inspector General: “OIG has conducted a significant amount of investigative work involving charter schools.  These investigations have found that authorizers often fail to provide adequate oversight to ensure that charter schools properly use and account for Federal funds.”

The new report concludes: “For decades a small group of millionaires and billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, have backed a legislative agenda to privatize public education in America.  Lobbying groups funded by them, like the corporate bill mill ALEC (the “American Legislative Exchange Council”), have been pushing states to create and expand charter schools outside of the authority of the state public school agencies and local school boards, confining the state to limited oversight of whether authorizers have adequate policies, not over how charters spend tax dollars.”  “The fact that authorizers enjoy almost complete autonomy—not only from state regulations but also from public control through elected school boards—is a feature of the anti-regulatory environment in which charters have grown, rather than a bug.”

The Bottom Line: no one actually tracks the list of charter schools that received federal tax dollars to open, expand and/or replicate charter schools, how much they received, or how they spent the people’s monies.  Each link in the chain can point to someone else who may have parts of that data but who likely has no obligation to publish that information for the public to understand, although what can be gleaned varies by state.  That is, there is no systematic public accounting for how the federal budget allocated to charters is actually being spent, and not even a reliable per-pupil/per capita figure.” (emphasis in the original)

Please read this short, pithy report.

School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Stunning Article Tracks Spread of Corporate Education Reform in Newark and NJ Suburb

Update: This post has been corrected.  The original confused Andy Smarick and Jonathan Schnur, both corporate school reformers, both creative disruptors, and both with connections to school reform in New Jersey.

If you want to develop a better understanding of so-called “corporate” school reform, Stan Karp’s article in the spring Rethinking Schools magazine is mandatory reading. Karp examines the catastrophic transformation of the schools in Newark, New Jersey and a subsequent attempt by corporate reformers to take over the schools in his hometown, suburban Montclair.  In A Tale of Two Districts, Karp traces the history of Newark’s destabililization under Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, but neither was there a way Montclair could insulate itself.  He suggests: “If public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.”

Karp summarizes the history of corporate reform in New Jersey in crisp, packed paragraphs, beginning with the appointment of Christopher Cerf as Governor Chris Christie’s education commissioner. “Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm.  A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration.  He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club.  In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about ‘corporate ed reform’ as conspiratorial nonsense.  In private, however, he described school reform politics as ‘a knife fight in a dark room’ and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call ‘disruptive innovation’ that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner.  One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS (Newark Public Schools).  He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach for America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals….”

How has all this affected racial and economic segregation in New Jersey’s already highly segregated Essex County? Karp explores the implications of what has been the explosive growth of charter schools in Newark: “On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations.  Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters.  Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are ‘no excuses’ schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates.  Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent…  As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE, now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: ‘The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education systems of charter schools.'”

This blog has extensively tracked early protests in Newark against Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan, the election last year of Ras Baraka, a public school educator, as Newark’s new mayor, and continuing massive protests that have continued all year by Newark’s residents—especially the parents and students—who do not want to lose their neighborhood schools.  Karp fills in the details and implications of this history and summarizes: “If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is…. especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.”

But, continues Karp, “If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.” Montlair, Karp’s hometown, is a somewhat unusual suburb, which has struggled and succeeded to some degree at least to serve all students well in a racially integrated public school system at a time when there is little policy support for diversity.  Montclair is an upper middle income community that sends 90 percent of its public high school graduates to college. And it is also the home, according to Karp, of many who are active in the corporate reform movement including Chris Cerf himself and Jonathan Alter, a journalist, supporter of KIPP schools, and promoter of the film Waiting for Superman. “The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and KIPP.”

And New  Jersey was once also home to Jonathan Schnur, who worked in the New Jersey Department of Education and was later the architect of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program.  Schnur had mentored Penny MacCormack in a superintendents’ training program, and, when Montclair needed a new superintendent, he endorsed her candidacy.  She was subsequently hired as Montclair’s new school superintendent, with an agenda, she said, to increase the use of students’ standardized test scores for evaluating teachers: “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.” The fact that Montclair has long had a school board appointed by the mayor made MacCormack’s hiring easier.  “In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections.  Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.”

But Montclair also had powerful residents committed to defending the public schools.  Journalist (and professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism) LynNell Hancock wrote: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize.  It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed.  It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to ‘fixing’ schools by employing business strategies….”  The teachers union rose up and forced the board to listen to teachers testifying at board meetings.  In Montclair, unlike Newark, the protests paid off: “As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class.  Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a ‘new educational services organization’ in New York City.”

Montclair’s residents have been powerful enough to pressure even an appointed school board and to insert expert voices in the press to push back the attack on their schools.  Newark’s citizens have been less successful.  Karp’s article is essential for filling in the gaps about how savvy and powerful corporate reformers are spreading disruption, privatization, and anti-teacher policies.  Near the end of his article, Karp describes budding efforts of suburbanites and Newark residents to work together to fight Christie’s corporate plans. I wish I had as much hope as Karp expresses that parents and activists across city and suburban school jurisdictions will be able and willing to frame the issues to define common cause.

Stunning Report Rejects School Closures, Charters, and Paternalism of School Reformers

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage, a stunning report released this week by Journey for Justice (J4J), cuts through the ideological babble on school “reform” and lets us listen as “voices from America’s affected communities of color”—parents, students, and community leaders—tell us how school closures and privatization are affecting them, their neighborhoods, and their children.

J4J is a broad alliance of 36 grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 American cities that include Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Camden, Paterson, New York City, and Washington, D.C., many of them places listed by school “reform” promoters as part of the Portfolio School Reform Network, where public schools are now being managed— often by appointed school boards and mayoral or state oversight—through school closure and privatization.

Listen to J4J’s commentary: “To justify this radical transformation… the proponents of these policies have taken to talking about them as matters of racial and social justice… As the residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical description.  First, it is appalling that anyone would dare to equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality to which many of our elders and ancestors made heroic sacrifices.  Second, we simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good… The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: these policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive…  Third, while the proponents of these policies may like to think they are implementing them for us or even with us, the reality is that they have been done to us.”

The report, whose release was accompanied by the filing of three civil rights complaints (protesting discrimination in Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago) with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, makes the case that school “reform” based on school closure and privatization has been racially discriminatory because, “there are strong tendencies to treat our communities differently than other communities would be treated.”  Reformers have been less concerned about school closures in communities of color; more willing “to destabilize the democratic institutions”; more concerned about cutting costs; more willing to subject poor children of color to unproven experiments; less concerned about ensuring the presence of experienced, well-qualified teachers and small classes; more willing to impose test-driven curricula; less concerned about kids pushed out of school; and more willing to privatize education.

“When the so-called ‘reformers’ use our ‘failing schools’ as justification for closing them, or privatizing them, they claim that the primary failings exist within those schools.  They act as if there were no underlying cause for the often-unsound educational practices, or frequently uneven teaching capacity that exist within our schools  They confuse these symptoms of the problem with the problem itself, which is that our public schools have been persistently under-resourced, under-supported, and undermined for decades, including by many of the same people that now purport to ‘fix’ them.”

J4J details the problems when public schools are closed as well as the disappointments parents discover when the charters that have promised so much let them down by finding ways not to accept students with special education needs or English language learners, or students who are likely to post low scores—or when too many charters control school climate with overly militaristic discipline or through shockingly high rates of suspensions, push-outs, and expulsions.

The report is chilling in its description of how school closures and privatization are destroying America’s big cities and turning urban public school systems into institutions of last resort.  “These policies have placed many of our communities in a vicious downward spiral. The under-funding of public schools, combined with extensive public criticism of those schools, drives families away from public education.  Often, they head to the new charter schools that benefit from favorable media coverage and preferential treatment from policymakers.  That only makes conditions worse in the public schools and the surrounding community, as they typically lose more resources while having to serve more high-need students, and eventually quality educators get driven away.  Those schools are, at that point, frequently identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ leading to their closure.  However, the closures only reinforce the same dynamics: more attacks on public schools, more cuts in funding, more families being driven away, more deterioration in the remaining public schools and the surrounding community, more educators leaving, more schools identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ and thus more closures.  Over and over this downward spiral has played out in our communities, producing one round of school closure after another.”

What can be done?  The report’s authors ask for six very significant steps including asking the U.S. Department of Education to replace its four required punitive school turnaround models (that feature firing teachers, closing schools and privatizing schools) with a “Sustainable School Success” model that would support and improve struggling schools. They ask the U.S. Senate to hold a hearing on the impact of school closure and privatization.   And they ask President Barack Obama to change course radically by calling for a national moratorium on school closure and charter school expansion.

I am delighted that an enormous coalition of community organizations in cities across the United States is questioning the direction of the school reforms being pushed today by the Obama administration and suggesting sensible steps that would help us begin to change course.  These groups express regret that, “perhaps the most significant development in this realignment of forces (that accelerated the implementation corporate school ‘reform’ across America’s cities) was the election of President Obama and the ‘reformers’ successfully convincing him to not only embrace this viewpoint, but to greatly accelerate its implementation.”

Report Decries Unregulated Charters: Arne Duncan Should Crack Down

Earlier this week Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse was released jointly by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education.  In an age when charter schools are regulated in state law, we are likely to read stories in our local papers about fraud or academic malpractice at a charter school nearby.  This is the first report I’ve read that details widespread abuse of the public interest by charter schools in 15 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

The report’s authors explain, “Charter enrollment has doubled three times since 2000; it doubled from 2000 to 2004, and again from 2004 to 2008, and again from 2008 to 2014.” The report highlights a memorandum from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General that warned the Department itself, “of our concern about vulnerabilities in the oversight of charter schools.”  The Department’s Office of Inspector General “specifically highlights the problem of ‘fraud perpetrated by charter school officials, and internal control weaknesses in the Department’s oversight processes.'”

This week’s report identifies six categories of fraud and mismanagement the authors documented through news reports and criminal complaints: charter operators using public funds illegally for personal gain; charter operators using school revenue illegally to support other businesses owned by the charter operators; schools putting children in actual or potential danger (by failing to screen staff or providing dangerous building conditions); charter schools billing states for services they claim to be providing but are not in fact providing; charters inflating enrollment and billing states for children who are not attending the school; and charter operators mismanaging public funds.  (This blog recently reported two examples of charter school operators or board members profiting when charter school dollars were spent at their privately held, for-profit companies that provide services for the charter schools they operate in Milwaukee and in Ohio.)

The report concludes with two pages of excellent recommendations for fiscal and academic safeguards that states should implement:  establish a charter regulatory agency; ensure transparency in the operation of the schools and their boards; and require charter school boards to be elected, be independent of the schools they oversee, and be legally liable for fraud and malfeasance at the schools they oversee.

The recommendations are excellent, but I fear it will be difficult to get them passed by many state legislatures.  In Cleveland, Ohio, where I live, Mayor Frank Jackson recently made the establishment of a Cleveland Transformation Alliance the centerpiece of a school “reform” plan.  Jackson envisioned that the Transformation Alliance would review charter school applications in Cleveland and provide a layer of oversight now absent in Ohio, where sponsors of charter schools seeking to open in Cleveland may be far away in Cincinnati or Mansfield or Toledo.  Mayor Jackson’s plan had to be passed legislatively in the state capitol, but twice the enforcement teeth Cleveland’s mayor had included in the proposed legislation were removed by legislators beholden to political contributors who prefer that charters not be regulated.  Legislators have persistently blocked the regulatory capacity of this supposed oversight commission.

I am glad to see this new report quoting the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.  The U.S. Department of Education should immediately  eliminate what its own Office of Inspector General calls, “internal control weaknesses in the Department’s oversight processes.” Charter school expansion across the nation was spurred in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education’s own requirement that states remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition of becoming eligible to apply for funds in Secretary Arne Duncan’s competitive Race to the Top grant program.  At the very least, Duncan—who made removal of state caps on charter schools a requirement for federal education grant applications—should now make careful regulation of charter schools a new requirement for states to be able to apply for any of the U.S. Department of Education’s grant competitions like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and Innovation Grants.

Duncan is a savvy politician who is surely well aware that the money of special interests in state politics is likely to interfere with effective state-by-state oversight and regulation of charter schools. At a meeting I attended with Secretary Duncan in June 2010, he said, “Good charter schools are part of the solution; bad charter schools are part of the problem.” It is Duncan’s primary responsibility to regulate the fraud and abuse that have grown with the rapid expansion of charter schools, an expansion encouraged by his policies.

 

Walmart Has Ruined our Towns: Will We Let the Walton Foundation Destroy our Schools?

Motoko Rich’s recent blockbuster article in the NY Times explores the vast reach of the Walton Foundation to promote and support the privatization of public education.  What has happened in Washington, D.C., writes Rich, is a microcosm of Walton’s investments in the promotion of an education revolution across the country: “In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated… The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.”

Rich describes grants of over $1.2 million from the Walton Foundation to DC Prep, a Washington, D.C. network of four charter schools.  Walton also supports Teach for America, the alternative, five-week, Peace Corps-like certification program that has become a primary supplier of teachers for charter schools not only in the nation’s capital but across the country.  Not only does the Walton Foundation support particular privatized charter networks and programs to certify teachers outside the colleges of education, but it also funds the think tanks that have created and promoted the theoretical basis for today’s wave of school privatization including the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  It even “bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.”

Recently, according to Rich, Walton hired a staff person from the American Legislative Exchange Council as an education program officer. Rich lists Walton’s largest education grant recipients: the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, the Alliance for School Choice, GreatSchools Inc., StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy…. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing and most divisive, trends in public education—including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

While Rich acknowledges serious criticism of the Walton Foundation by supporters of public education including Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, the stories she tells of high test scores at DC Prep and a father whose son attends Washington, D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and the Arts are from the point of view of particular families and parents who seek school choice for the purpose of meeting their own children’s needs.  The father admits, “Charter schools are a bit of a disservice to the public schools…. But in the meantime, between everyone fighting about it, I did not want my kids to be caught in the limbo.”

One can surely understand the lure of school choice from the viewpoint of individual parents who want to do right by their children, but one wishes Rich had done more to remind us what kind of  disservice to public education the D.C. charter school father may have been thinking about.  She quotes Marc Sternberg, who recently left Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education department in New York City to become director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation: “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” but Rich does not consider whether it is in fact possible to provide good choices for every child and family.  Rich comments, “While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system,” but she does not explore closely what those effects may be.  She extolls the high test scores of DC Prep, but she does not examine, for example,  its attrition rate (an indicator in many places that charters have been known to shed students who will bring down score averages).  Neither does she report on the number of special education students, English learners, and extremely poor children enrolled (or not enrolled) at DC Prep in comparison to statistics for the District’s traditional public schools.

What does the Walmartization of American public education mean for the public education system that developed over two of centuries and that aspired to serve all of our society’s children?  Here we move from from the market world of Walmart to the more abstract principles of education philosophy, political philosophy, and public morality.  How quaint these ideas have come to seem in our corporatized and marketized world.  Our society has traditionally affirmed the principle that public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public—is the best way to try to ensure that all children are served.  We have thought of the public schools as the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need for a system that secures the rights of all children.  These goals have been aspirational, and we have made slow but sure progress in expanding the rights of children in marginalized groups to kind of public education that middle class children in the dominant culture have taken for granted.

Even in our corporatized world, there are proponents of a public system of education.  In a stirring address in 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone describes society’s public moral obligation to serve all children.  He critiques the lack of equity in our public schools even as he speaks for public schools as the site where we must work collectively to serve all children: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  The Rev. Jesse Jackson expresses the same profound ideal in this pithy observation: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Wellstone and Jackson remind us of society’s obligation to our collective children, but the idea is not merely that we aspire to equity for the sake of doing the good thing.  Both also believe that society itself benefits when all are prepared to participate actively in our democracy and all are prepared to share their gifts socially, politically, and economically.  Just over a hundred years ago, John Dewey, America’s best known philosopher of education, described this public benefit from universal public education:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

For help thinking about the pervasive consumerism and commercialization of just about everything in our society today, I find myself drawn to Consumed, a fascinating book by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Consider the following passage in the context of Motoko Rich’s article on the Walton Foundation’s school privatization enterprise:  “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.”(p. 145)

Barber would worry about turning the privatization of education over to Sam Walton, his descendents and the program officers of the Walton Foundation.  He would caution that these folks are less likely than a deliberative public body to look out for the interests of the children who are being lured into the charter schools in the District of Columbia and America’s other big cities these days: “The idea that liberty entails only private choice runs afoul of our actual experiences as consumers and citizens.  We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.”(p. 139)