Huge Hole Remains in Philadelphia School Budget; Legislature Goes Home without Addressing Crisis

What happened yesterday in Philadelphia is not a sudden development; neither is it a surprise.  It is merely one more chapter in a tragedy that continues to unfold.  Earlier in the summer when the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a budget, leaders of both houses promised to add enabling legislation for Philadelphia to levy a local $2-per-pack cigarette tax to generate $81 million to close an enormous gap in the school district’s budget for the school year set to begin on September 8, 2014, just a month from now.  The legislature dithered; House and Senate passed separate bills to enable the local cigarette tax; and then—just last week—the legislature went home for its August break without reconciling the bills.  Law makers are not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until mid-September.

Yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett, no friend to Philadelphia’s schools, arrived in Philadelphia with a promise to advance the School District of Philadelphia $265 million.  This is not extra money; it is merely an early payment of funds the district would receive anyway from the state later in the school year.  Corbett proposed the cash advance as a way to permit school to open and to alleviate the need for the school district to borrow, thereby saving the district $4 – $5 million in borrowing costs.

Superintendent William Hite (who reports to the School Reform Commission that is appointed by the state, as Philadelphia schools are under state control) is understandably reluctant to open school with a gaping hole in the district’s budget until he knows the cigarette tax has received state approval. And even members of the state appointed School Reform Commission earlier this summer stood with Hite and against Corbett to advocate for the rights and safety of the children.  (Of course even if Philadelphia gets the right to levy the cigarette tax, there is no guarantee it will generate the hoped-for $80 million to support the public schools.)

Hite says that if the legislature hasn’t reached some agreement by August 15, he will have to lay off 1,300 more staff and raise class size to 41 students per teacher.  In the first chapter of the ongoing Philadelphia school budget catastrophe, in the spring of 2013, the school district closed 24 schools and laid off 4,000 teachers and other staff.  The cuts Hite says he is forced to contemplate by the current crisis would be on top of the 2013 cuts, and he is unsure he can sufficiently staff and safely open school at all on September 8 without the guarantee of a secure revenue stream in the form of the cigarette tax.

There is, of course, politics involved in all this.  At his press conference, Corbett added, as he always does, that the teachers union ought to make major concessions.   Yesterday Kevin McCorry, writing for Newsworks, Philadelphia, reported that Corbett says legislators will be more sympathetic to Philadelphia’s needs if the union makes concessions in work rules and health care, and accepts a “salary cut of 5-13 percent.”

This blog reported earlier in the summer on a commentary published by David Sciarra of the Education Law Center.  Sciarra does not believe the problem rests with the teachers union.  He describes “an extraordinary legal complaint” filed in March by the School District of Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The district is asking the Supreme Court effectively to nullify “portions of a collective bargaining agreement between the Philadelphia School District and the teachers union.” While the purpose of the legal complaint is to free up funds through the manipulation of the teachers’ contract, Sciarra blames the state: “The school district—and the entire state—is engaged in an ongoing and severe violation of the right of Philadelphia students to a ‘thorough and efficient’ education under the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

The School District of Philadelphia has been under state control since 2001, with a state-appointed School Reform Commission making decisions in place of an elected local school board. Philadelphia is today’s poster child for the destruction of a public school system—primarily by a state government unwilling to carry out one of its primary responsibilities. Pennsylvania lacks a working formula to distribute funds to local school districts according to need.  The state does not adequately equalize access to education by directing sufficient funding to school districts like Philadelphia that must address the needs of masses of children living in concentrated urban poverty.  Also the School Reform Commission is  intent on its “portfolio school reform” plan based on closing traditional public schools and opening charters, but in Pennsylvania, the costs for charters are subtracted from the budgets of local school districts without adequate state reimbursement.  Bill Hangley Jr., writing for the Philadelphia School Notebook, summarizes Philadelphia’s plight that has continued for well over a decade: “a state takeover and a host of experiments in private management and school choice, and system-wide inequities [that] persist to this day.”

Hangley interviews civil rights lawyer Michael Churchill, who has tracked problems in the School District of Philadelphia for four decades as an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.  Here is Churchill’s assessment: “At this point, there’s not any chance for improvement.  The superintendent said he needed [over] $400 million to continue improving things, and about $216 million just to get back to last year’s level.  We still have not even gotten the full $216 million.”  “The charter funding formula is absolutely crazy, one of the worst in the country.  But that’s small potatoes compared to our single biggest problem—the state puts in too small a share of funding.  Pennsylvania appropriates about 35 percent of the cost of public education. Pennsylvania needs to get up to about 50 percent of the cost of education.  And while they’re figuring that out, they need to calculate real costs—like the cost of educating kids in poverty.  When you do that, you’ll take care of the problems. We know the solutions. It’s not a mystery. What’s lacking is political will.”

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Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and NY Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this week about myths in economics.  He calls them “zombie ideas.”  Here is how Krugman defines a zombie idea: “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true.”   Back in 1958 in a famous book, The Affluent Society, another economist John Kenneth Galbraith called such ideas “the conventional wisdom” —“the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  Galbraith continued: “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group…. the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”

Zombie ideas.  The conventional wisdom.  Bipartisan consensus based on not much evidence and maybe even contrary to the evidence.  Sounds like today’s wave of so-called public education “reform.”

Gene V. Glass, one of the authors of a fine new book on the facts and the evidence about what’s needed to improve public schools, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently commented on the conventional wisdom–zombie ideas that dominate today’s theories of school “reform”:

“One narrative prominent these days — the Crisis Narrative — holds that our nation is at risk because our children are dumber than Finland, because our teachers are tools of greedy unions, because incompetent ‘ed-school’ trained administrators are incapable of delivering first-rate education.  And — this narrative goes on — what public education needs is total reform: higher standards, more tests, brighter teachers uncorrupted by the wishy washy ‘education school’ ideologies and above all, choice and competition.  This narrative serves a set of private interests that want to reform our schools.  About ten years ago, Rupert Murdoch — the billionaire owner of Fox News — called public education a ‘$600 billion sector in the U.S. that is waiting desperately to be transformed.’  He might have more honestly said, ‘Public education is a half trillion dollar plum waiting to be picked.’… The purveyors of the mythology have been created by corporations and ideological interests that stand to gain from the coming great reformation.  Enter the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Kaufmanns, Bill Gates, and their richly endowed ilk.”

The prevalence of the “zombie conventional wisdom” (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but refuse to die) about school choice and the superiority of privatizing education has been particularly evident this week in New York’s state budget agreement that will preserve such theories just as they were instituted in the city’s schools during the three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio had intended to prioritize the needs of the 94 percent of NYC’s children in traditional public schools rather than the needs of the 6 percent of children attending charter schools, but the state legislature and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo have clung to Bloomberg’s policies. (Cuomo and the Assembly lean Democratic and the Senate is Republican, but remember: the conventional wisdom is bipartisan.)  The legislature and the governor have agreed on a state budget law that will require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay the cost of leasing space for them in privately owned buildings.  The state budget agreement also prohibits the city from charging rent to charter schools when they are co-located in public school spaces.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is a big supporter of the conventional wisdom about charters. The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.” (This blog has tracked the huge investment in Cuomo’s political campaigns by supporters of privatization, charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.)

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students. (This blog covered the NY budget deal here.)

How dare Mayor de Blasio challenge the bipartisan conventional wisdom—the zombie idea—that charters are the answer to the biggest problems for the schools in New York City!  In recent weeks powerful forces have rallied behind celebrity Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected charter operator who runs Success Academy Charters , who is paid $475,000 in annual salary, and who closed 22 schools for the day and bused the children and their parents to a political rally in Albany.  Her friends, board members, and supporters funded a $3.5 million  television ad campaign portraying darling children who claimed they would have no place to go to school if Mayor de Blasio were permitted to deny space for the three schools in question.  These friends have also invested in perpetuating the conventional wisdom by donating over $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo.  Glitz—celebrity—a lot of money—all the “right” people, and voila: the conventional wisdom.

But what if we look at the facts and realities that the conventional wisdom doesn’t acknowledge?   Al Baker, writing for the NY Times on March 31, remembers a speech a couple of weeks ago on the floor of the New York state legislature in the midst of the political fight over charters, an address by Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s Assembly: “There are children that are learning in trailers today; nobody has taken up their cause, to get them a permanent seat and a permanent school.”  According to Baker, Silver was unsuccessful  in his effort to secure funds in the state budget deal to rid the city of temporary classrooms in aging trailers, many of them now located on playgrounds next to over-crowded traditional schools in Queens in neighborhoods where immigrants have settled.  According to Baker’s investigation, despite a promise by former Mayor Bloomberg that he would rid NYC of  portable classrooms by 2012, today such supposedly temporary trailers house 7,158 children every day. “Though the Bloomberg administration spent billions of dollars buying land and building new schools, it managed only a modest reduction in the number of school trailers: to 352 today from 371 when he took office.”

Baker points out the obvious: “And the state budget deal reached last week is quite likely to make the task even harder, since it compels the city to find room in public school buildings for new charter schools, or help pay for their space costs.”  One fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom about the rights of charter operators ignores is the scale of the issues in NYC’s schools, which serve 1.1 million children.  In NYC, while 66,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, 1,034,000 children attend NYC’s traditional public schools.   Despite that the the conventional wisdom among New York’s power brokers doesn’t accord traditional public schools nearly so much attention, Mayor de Blasio deserves support as he tries to address the needs of the schools that serve the majority—and the schools most likely to serve the vulnerable.

70 People Brave Frigid Weather to Raise Concerns about School Choice

Wednesday was so cold in greater Cleveland that schools were closed across the region, but by 7:00 PM, 70 people had arrived at our high school cafeteria whose doors had been opened for the second week of our community conversation about Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.  (You can read about our first session here.)

A retired, and much beloved, high school guidance counselor driving in from rural Newbury reported that as he made his way to our meeting, his car radio blared an ad from Ohio’s most notorious on-line academy, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT): “Schools across Ohio are closed due to the weather, but our school is always open.  At ECOT your child will never miss school because of cold weather.”

“Can you imagine,” asked a school administrator, “what people would say if we spent part of our school district’s budget for radio advertising?  People would say we were wasting the taxpayers’ money, but nobody ever says that about ECOT!”

After the meeting, as people bundled up to go home, I asked several of them how they felt about the conversation they had been having.  Had talking about the book caused them to think any differently about challenges for public education?  Had any particular concern developed for them as they were reading and discussing?  Here is some of what people told me:

  • “I know something about the use of data in education. It used to be that we consulted data positively to inform our teaching, but now we seem to collect data with a negative purpose.  All schools have assets that benefit the children, but because test scores focus our attention on the deficits, today we think of schools that don’t post great test scores as lacking assets.  That just isn’t true, but we haven’t learned how to measure and document what our schools really contribute to the lives of our children.”
  • “I was so naive about charter schools.  The moment I began to read about the investment of foundations and venture funds and the potential investment opportunities just in the real estate, I was shocked.  Why have we permitted all these powerful people to influence public education so much?  The unfairness of it!  I have realized we are in a battle today to save public education.”
  • “When you think of a charter school from the point of view of the individual child and family, it can seem to make sense.  But when you think about the system, that’s where it all falls apart.  It seems to me that traditional public schools are in danger of becoming schools of last resort for the poorest children or those with special needs.  This is dividing our society more and more.  Public schools as a unifying force will be gone.”
  • “The focus on competition in school choice plans really struck me.  I have always thought the whole purpose of public education in our society has been to serve every child.  That is what the statement, “leave no child behind,” was always supposed to mean.  Our goal today has changed because choice always creates losers as well as winners.  There is no way to make sure that all choices are good choices.”
  • “Competition works in a whole lot of different ways here.  They have a system where school districts compete for their ratings based on test scores—you know, Excellent all the way down to Academic Watch.  But in our discussion last week we learned that standardized test scores are influenced a lot by family income.  So the rich, outer suburbs are all rated Excellent while the cities are rated Academic Watch.  It’s a set-up.”
  • “I hadn’t put all this together.  I have had a sense that bad things are going on, but these meetings have helped me put the pieces together. The awareness seems so essential.”

By coincidence the chapters that had been assigned for our Cleveland Heights conversation this week—dubbed School Choice Week by its supporters—were all about the privatization of public education.  We read chapters about Michelle Rhee, charter schools, on-line academies, the Parent Trigger, vouchers, and the historic importance of democratic governance of education. Our convening 70 people on a frigid January night to learn more about these topics during School Choice Week definitely has to be considered an act of protest.

School Choice Undermines Urban School Districts

Proponents of school choice have dubbed this week School Choice Week.  In honor of  School Choice Week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under the first George Bush and today the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced a new bill to provide a kind of federal school voucher program.

According to the NY Times,  Alexander’s bill would re-purpose $24 billion federal education dollars, 41 percent of all federal education spending.  Alexander’s bill  would allow states to choose “whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a pubic school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.”

He claims the money would provide a voucher for 11 million low-income children with an average per-child grant of $2,100.  The NY Times explains, “Under Mr. Alexander’s bill, states would be allowed to opt in to the voucher program.  States could also continue to distribute federal funds to public schools rather than individual students.”  While there is little chance vouchers will be adopted by today’s U.S. Senate, the introduction of such a bill illustrates the dogged persistence of those who support this old, old idea.

Voucher programs have never been popular.  When proposed as ballot issues across the states, voucher plans have never been adopted by the voters.  Not ever.  The oldest voucher plans in Cleveland and in Milwaukee have neither significantly demonstrated higher academic achievement among their participants nor have they, as promised, improved the public systems in their respective cities through competition.  Voucher schools have not been well-regulated by their states. Voucher schools in Louisiana’s new program, for example, have been reported to teach religiously based creationism as though it were scientifically proven.

While vouchers are always proposed as so-called solutions for poor children said to be “trapped in failing public schools,” in many states a child is not required even to have attended a public school before receiving a voucher.  In states like Ohio, the vouchers have instead been a way for private and parochial school parents to receive scholarships to the schools their children were already attending.  A new report by StateImpact Indiana documents that during the initial two years of  Indiana’s relatively new voucher program, “income-eligible students had to have spent two semesters in public school” to be granted a voucher made up of funds taken from the state’s public school budget. But the rules keep being adjusted and the number of children who previously attended a public school continues to drop.  “Indiana will pay an estimated $81 million in private school tuition this year, up from $15.5 million in 2011-12.”

School choice programs are very often established by states in their poorest urban school districts. When asked her opinion about Senator Alexander’s proposed bill, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, identified the most serious repercussion for public school districts of school choice programs including vouchers:  “Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have done a tremendous amount of harm in destabilizing already austerity-filled and under-resourced schools all throughout America.”

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, describes the same problem: parents and children left behind without any choices at all as their schools are abandoned by children considered desirable by charter schools or by children who can secure a voucher.  “Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school—as it is rapidly being de-funded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents….”

Last fall, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current school choice policies are driving some urban school districts into a fatal decline.  Moody’s worries about school choice in the form of charter schools.  Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.’”  Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and  over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.

According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study:  “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines.  It begins with people leaving the city or districts.  Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts.  The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students.  As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts.  Rinse, repeat….”

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.

Privatization of Education Won’t Erase Savage Inequalities

For generations our society has committed itself to the provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—as the best institution for balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the need to crate a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

New articles published this week trace two specific ways we are veering from these ideals.

In the New York Times, Eduardo Porter reports that In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich.  Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, who manages international educational assessments for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.): “The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”  Porter provides stunning numbers that document educational investment disparities reminiscent of the Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol reported 22 years ago.  According to Porter, “In New York… in 2011 the value of property in the poorest 10 percent of school districts amounted to some $287,000 per student…. In the richest districts it amounted, on average, to $1.9 million.”  Porter reports that spending per-pupil across the states ranges from $19,000 in New York to $8,200 in Tennessee to $5,321 in Alpine, Utah.

Instead of setting out to equalize public investment from state to state or school district to school district, leaders of both political parties are pushing privatization and school choice as though they are a solution to the problems posed by child poverty, inequality, and vastly unequal school investment.  Writing for SALON.com, Jeff Bryant explicates The Charter-School Lie: Market-Based Education Gambles with Our Children.  According to Bryant, marketplace education reform is conceptualized around the idea of creative destruction—on-going churn. “The supposed benefit to all this is that parents get a ‘choice’ about where they send their children to school. But while parents are pushed to pick their schools in the increasingly turbulent bazaar of ‘choice,’ the game resembles much less a level playing field and much more a game of chance in which the house rules determine the odds.”  “Abruptly opening and closing schools—leaving school children, parents and communities in the lurch and taxpayers holding the bag—is not a matter of happenstance.  It’s by design.”

The school reform strategy Bryant describes has a name: “portfolio school reform”—school districts managed like a business portfolio of traditional public and charter or voucher alternatives all managed through ongoing ‘creative destruction’—new schools opening and others continually closing.  Significantly the school districts listed as “portfolio school districts” on the website of the Center for Reinventing Public Education are the same kind of districts Porter describes in his NY Times piece.  They are 35 big city school districts where poverty is concentrated, where inequality and segregation have been rigidified, and where state spending is not enough to bring investment per pupil to the level in the surrounding suburban school districts. They include Baltimore, Bridgeport, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Hartford, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis/Shelby County, New Haven, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Our society’s most urgent educational priority must be to invest in improving the public schools in the communities where family poverty is concentrated, very often the same places that lack property tax wealth.  School choice, as Bryant points out, is at best a gamble in an era of constant churn with schools being opened and closed in an ongoing cycle. Our historic vision of public schools as the heart of our neighborhoods—schools that are publicly owned and publicly accountable—is a far better bet for our poorest children and for our society.

Education-Labor Collaboration Marks Important Beginning

What makes the tide of public opinion turn against the conventional wisdom?  It can happen.  I remember the nation slowly turning against the war in Vietnam.  The struggle involved rancor and violence. One reason opinion shifted on Vietnam is that the military draft ensured that most families were personally touched by the war.  The media played an important role, and major political leaders took sides, which created a very public debate.

Turning the tide today against the test-based accountability movement in public education brings a different kind of challenge.  Less than a quarter of households have children in school with the rest less personally connected. The conversation is being driven by federal policy, and yet we know that education is low on list of issues that preoccupy the President.  Neither any member of Congress nor a governor of any of the states has made improving the public schools a signature issue.

Despite these challenges, there has been some shifting of opinion.  Although in 2002, the federal testing law No Child Left Behind passed with wide bipartisan support, today most people will at least quietly admit what data demonstrates: the law failed to improve student achievement overall or close achievement gaps.  Many of us who have worked hard to discredit the law can tell you about the succession of white papers, joint sign-on statements, studies, and resolutions prepared, presented, and passed that have pushed this change along.  Masses of articles and blog posts and books have helped, culminating perhaps in Diane Ravitch’s 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which the author told the story of her own transformed thinking.

Now, three years later and five years into the Obama Administration’s competitive Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants and the No Child Left Behind Waivers that demand punishments for so-called “failing” schools, many public school supporters continue to try to turn the tide.  The Obama policies remain grounded in the same business-accountability philosophy that drove No Child Left Behind, a strategy that emphasizes punishments for public schools that struggle, blames school teachers, and posits that privatization can more efficiently raise test scores.

Three weeks ago, Diane Ravitch published a new book, Reign of Error, a casebook for this effort.  And last weekend in Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign pulled together their allies from organized labor, the education community, and community organizations in a very significant event.  By bringing over 400 advocates and community organizers from across the states, the sponsors sought to begin weaving an effective protest against the proliferation of state legislation being spawned by the competitive grant programs of today’s U.S. Department of Education.

The Obama Administration’s programs—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind waivers that help the states escape from the  requirement that test scores rise perpetually each year or schools be labeled “failing”—require states to establish their own laws and regulations that close schools, encourage privatization, and base teacher evaluations on students’ test scores.  These are the conditions which states must enact into law before they can qualify for the Department of Education’s competitive grant programs.  The reforms happening across the big city school districts that qualify for federal competitive grants may be similar, but they appear in each case via state laws while the hand of the federal government remains hidden. Creating a strategic movement to protest policy that appears so scattered is the logistic challenge last weekend’s planners sought to undertake.

The American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and National Opportunity to Learn Campaign brought together just the sort of coalition that can work at the state and local level where the policies are playing out and at the same time address the federal competitions that are the source of the state-by-state policies.  The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, and the Philadelphia Student Union can collaborate to protest the school funding crisis and rash of school closures in Philadelphia, just as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Pilsen Alliance, and Chicago Teachers Union can work in Chicago to protest school closures, and as the United Federation of Teachers, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, New York Alliance for Quality Education, and Urban Youth Collaborative can join to protest co-location of public and charter schools in New York City.  Together these groups and dozens of other local, state, and national partners from across the United States who participated in last week’s conference can push back against the competitive grant strategy at the federal level.

If you are reading this, you probably know about Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaign, framed around the idea that teachers put teachers’ needs first and ignore the needs of their students.   I can report that while two of the prominent sponsors of last weekend’s conference were the teachers unions, I did not experience any workshops, presentations or conversations that suggested putting teachers first.  The event’s focus was how better to equip public schools to serve children.  I sat in one workshop after another where teachers and parent community organizers grieved together that public school closures and privatization hurt children, undermine neighborhoods, and destabilize schools where staff are making an earnest attempt to educate children.  And I heard seasoned organizers training less experienced groups, organizations talking about how to work together, and educators working hard to engage community groups from city to city and state to state to advocate for enough school funding to provide the staff, services, and programs that children need—need desperately in many public schools where counselors, libraries, nurses, the arts, and music have been slashed and class size has shot upward.

For the first time the teachers unions, other national organizations, and a coalition of state and local organizations have been able jointly to negotiate a statement, The Principles that Unite Us, that pushes directly against today’s crisis: “the corporate model of school reform that seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition—as opposed to collaboration—between schools and teachers.” Many of the organizations participating in last week’s event sent representatives to regional town halls and a national drafting meeting earlier this year, a grassroots process by which the statement was developed.  Close to a hundred national, state and local organizations— representing education, labor, and community—have endorsed the statement, thereby declaring their belief “in strengthening, not dismantling public education.”  “Our interest is in public schools that serve all children…. schools that are rooted in communities…. schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.” (I blogged about the statement itself last weekend here.)

The Principles that Unite Us is an inspiring document. I urge you to read it.  The sponsors invite additional organizations—national, state, and local—to endorse the statement. If your organization will sign on, please contact Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers: ezachary@aft.org

Trouble for Public Education in the Industrial Heartland

The end of June brought action across the states that will affect public education for millions of children. Here are reports from three states in the industrial heartland where children’s right to quality education remains seriously threatened: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

In Pennsylvania the state has slashed funding for the School District of Philadelphia, forcing massive school closures and the elimination of 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff; libraries, the arts, nurses, aides, assistant principals, counselors—all gone. Daniel Denvir continues to report the catastrophe in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia City Paper. Here is Corbett to Philly: Fix Your Own Schools. Last week Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and education historian and reformer Diane Ravitch wrote a letter asking Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, to intervene to avert catastrophe in Philadelphia. I urge you to read the letter in which teachers describe what cuts will mean for particular schools and the children they serve. Cuts to the School District of Philadelphia will have a disparate impact with poor students of color most seriously denied opportunity.

The Akron Beacon Journal reports Ohio Budget Rewards Low Performing Charter Schools. While this piece reports only on funding for Ohio’s charter schools and skips the subject of cuts to public schools that serve the majority of Ohio’s children, remember that funds for charters in Ohio remove funding from traditional public schools. Here the Beacon Journal describes the influence of David Brennan, owner of White Hat Management (a Charter Management Organization), Ohio’s most significant investor in political contributions to legislators.

One bright spot: Education Justice at the Education Law Center reports Michigan Court Rules Children Have the Right to Education. On June 27, a Michigan Circuit Court ruled that the state’s constitution guarantees the children of the Highland Park School District the right to an education and rejected a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the ACLU protesting the Highland Park emergency manager’s hiring of the Leona Group (a Charter Management Organization) to run the school district without the emergency manager’s having taken steps to provide for the basic literacy of the children. According to the Education Justice Newsletter:

” ACLU-MI filed the case in July 2012, on behalf of Highland Park’s students, many of whom are years behind in reading and writing. At the heart of the lawsuit is a Michigan law that requires districts to provide additional “special assistance” to students who are not performing at grade level on fourth- and seventh-grade tests. The assistance must be “reasonably expected … to bring reading skills to grade level within 12 months.”

Plaintiffs are seeking a court order for immediate remedy by the state, including research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, new educational materials and textbooks, a clean and safe learning environment, and implementation of a process for monitoring progress. ACLU’s Moss asserts that the state, district and for-profit charter company have no program to systematically deliver the mandated reading assistance.

ACLU’s lawsuit in Highland Park is urgently important as a brake on Michigan’s emergency manager legislation that abrogates democracy by permitting the state to seize power from local school boards and appoint emergency financial managers who can over-ride labor agreements, fire entire teaching staffs, and hire private firms to run local school districts without public oversight. The citizens of Michigan overturned the “emergency manager law” in a referendum last November, but Governor Snyder and the Michigan legislature responded by passing a new emergency manager law that is supposedly referendum-proof.