School Choice Plus Student Based Budgeting: Destroys Public Schools in Poor Neighborhoods

Those who favor school privatization and school choice through the expansion of charter schools and school voucher programs frame their advocacy by privileging individual choosers.  They assume that the mass of individual families’ choices in an educational marketplace will improve services for and protect the rights of a city’s children.  These assumptions are wrong.

In a major 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Bruce Baker, the education finance expert at Rutgers University, rejected the contention that the expansion of school choice will improve educational opportunities overall. Baker argued that what matters is the balance of educational opportunity across the school district: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Washington, D.C. is the latest example of a place where it is becoming clear that school choice for some children is damaging the overall operation of public education. This is the conclusion of new research conducted by Johns Hopkins University for the Office of the D.C. Auditor.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein explains: “When D.C. families choose a school that is not their assigned neighborhood campus, they tend to select schools that educate fewer students from low-income families, according to an 86-page study released… from the Office of the D.C. Auditor.  The result: Traditional neighborhood public schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, struggle with declining enrollment over the long term and have higher concentrations of students living in poverty. Smaller schools are more expensive to operate, leaving campuses with less money to hire staff.”

Stein examines high school enrollment to illustrate the problem: “For example, only 9.8 percent of students who live in the boundaries of Anacostia High—a neighborhood school in Southeast Washington—have elected to attend the school.  It has an at-risk population of 81 percent, and 35 percent of students require special education, according to city data.  By comparison, Thurgood Marshall Academy—a charter high school near Anacostia High—has an at-risk population of 54 percent.  Twenty percent of its students have special education needs.”

A primary problem is that the District of Columbia combines school choice with student based budgeting: “Campus budgets are based on enrollment, and the auditor sought to determine whether the city is accurately predicting enrollment for individual schools.”

The Johns Hopkins researchers define the problems very clearly: “Among students who did not attend their in-boundary schools, all student subgroups selected out-of-boundary or charter schools that served lower average percentages of at-risk students than their neighborhood schools.” “In most cases enrollments declined over time for schools serving very large percentages of at-risk students. Declining enrollments mean fewer resources each year for schools serving the largest percentages of at-risk students.” Finally: “Schools serving greater proportions of at-risk and black students experienced higher year-to-year student mobility than schools serving lower proportions of at-risk and black students…. Schools with highly mobile student populations may need more resources to support students, both academically and in terms of social-emotional development.”

The new study in Washington, D.C. is not the first by researchers who have demonstrated that the combination of widespread school choice and student based budgeting undermines equity in a school district. Last September, Stephanie Farmer, a sociologist at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, explained that in Chicago the same combination of school choice and student based budgeting means that Student Based Budgeting Concentrates Low Budget Schools in Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’ putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low-budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods…  Since the 1990s, the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) has adopted various reforms to make Chicago Public Schools work more like a business than a public good.  CBOE’s school choice reform of the early 2000s created a marketplace of schools by closing neighborhood public schools to make way for new types of schools, many of which were privatized charter schools.”

Farmer continues: “Under its next business-mimicking reform, the Chicago Board of Education changed the way individual schools would be funded from an automatic allocation to a Student Based Budgeting… model in 2014. (Under the ) previous model of school funding… CPS central office provided each school an automatic allocation of teachers, school professionals, and staff positions.  The cost of these professionals was covered by the central office, and not individual school budgets.  This guaranteed that every school would have a baseline of education professionals needed to operate the school.  Under the new Student Based Budgeting model, the CBOE ended the automatic allocation. Instead schools would receive a stipend based on per student headcounts… Our research shows that Student Based Budgeting ignores the unevenness of neighborhood distress, which contributes to declining enrollments.  Declining school enrollments are not just a result of student-consumers choosing the best school-product.  Instead, neighborhood factors external to what happens inside schools can also lead to low enrollments that go on to impact school budgets.”

It is troubling, but not surprising, that the same combination of school choice and student based budgeting is operating in Washington, D.C. just as it has operated in Chicago to undermine the schools that anchor the poorest neighborhoods.

Fine “Washington Post” Piece Traces Collapse of Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Legacy

In January of 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, establishing a high stakes testing regime with all children tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Test-and-punish school accountability meant annual testing and also a set of punishments for so-called failing schools and their staffs. The punishments eventually put in place were closing schools, firing teachers and principals, and privatizing or charterizing schools. States were eventually required to use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of their formal evaluation process for teachers. The assumption behind all this was that incentives and punishments would make educators work harder and that standardized test scores would rise and achievement gaps would close. But test scores didn’t rise and achievement gaps didn’t close.

No school district epitomized this sort of data-driven, standardized test-based school reform like Washington, D.C.  In 2007, Michelle Rhee was brought in as appointed schools chancellor by Adrian Fenty, a new mayor who was given authorization for mayoral control of the school district. Fenty and his appointed chancellor created the grand illusion of success through mayoral governance and data-driven school reform. Washington, D.C. was said to be the symbol of school district turnaround.  Now we know most of it was a mere illusion.

Last weekend, three reporters for the Washington Post collaborated to trace the history of the supposed Washington, D.C. school miracle and summarize the tragic results: “In the decade after the city dissolved its elected local school board and turned management of the schools over to the mayor, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, created a system that demanded ever-higher accomplishments—higher test scores, higher graduation rates. They used money as an incentive: Principals and teachers were rewarded financially if they hit certain numbers. And with only weak oversight from the D.C. Council and other city education agencies—which report to the same mayor who is politically liable for the schools—there was no strong check on any impulse to gloss over shortcomings and pump up numbers. City lawmakers repeatedly boasted that the District’s schools had become the fastest-improving in the nation. Philanthropic dollars poured in… And one of the most dysfunctional school systems in America became known as a model for education reform efforts nationwide.”

Here is what the Post‘s reporters conclude: “If there is any simple truth about urban school reform, it may be this: It’s really hard. There are no miracles. The District’s scores have risen faster on national math and reading tests than anywhere else, but the improvements were driven in part by an influx of affluent families who enrolled children in the schools, helping boost scores. City officials invested billions of dollars to construct gleaming buildings, but that did not help close what remains the largest achievement gap between black and white students in a major U.S. city.”

The latest scandal, a subject this blog has previously covered, is a massive graduation rate crisis, where students in the city’s poorest high schools have been pushed toward graduation despite a pattern of chronic absence and teachers allowing students to make up work through short extra-credit assignments and superficial credit recovery programs. Now that officials have begun investigating and enforcing attendance and course completion requirements, it has become clear that the District’s graduation rate will plummet this year.

But there have been earlier warning signs.

Last weekend’s Washington Post report describes a history of practices aimed at improving the district’s appearance, if not the reality for its students:

  • “The District claimed a dramatic decline in suspensions, but a Washington Post investigation last summer showed that many city high schools were suspending students off the books, kicking students out without documentation—and in some cases even marking them present.”
  • Then there was the recent firing of the District’s newest Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, when he jumped a lottery waiting list to get his own daughter into the District’s highest scoring high school. Wilson had himself created some of the rules to tighten up on what had been a practice of letting powerful parents use their influence to secure special admissions for their own children.
  • A 2015 report by the National Research Council found that, “Eight years after Rhee’s arrival, and five years after her departure, poor and minority students were still far less likely to have an effective teacher in their classroom and perform at grade level.  Achievement gaps were as wide as ever.  About 60 percent of poor black students were below proficient in math and reading and had made only marginal gains since the changes were made.”
  • The reporters gloss over a significant cheating scandal under Michelle Rhee; it was difficult for reporters to conclusively document it because Rhee herself controlled the investigation.  The retired PBS reporter, John Merrow has amassed the evidence, however.

The Washington, D.C. public schools have been the nation’s poster child for the idea that schools themselves can change the trajectory of children’s lives, and that test scores are the mark of a school’s success or failure.  In his new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz demonstrates the problem with that assumption:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary… (T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (pp. 129-134)

Challenging another of Michelle Rhee’s assumptions—the one about driving school reform through punishment, firing, and merit bonuses— Daniel Koretz attributes the kind of deception that has happened in Washington, D.C. to a well-known principle in the social sciences:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)

Michelle Rhee set up a system in which educators were incentivized almost exclusively through carrots and sticks to meet ever rising demands. Rhee created a teacher evaluation process that either rewarded or fired teachers and principals according to the test score and graduation rate increases they produced.  Last weekend’s Washington Post evaluation of the past decade’s D.C. school reform depicts the details of the kind of pressure that Rhee and her successors have put on the District’s educators: “The District’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and can earn merit bonuses. In exchange, they also are more vulnerable to losing their jobs than teachers just about anywhere else.  Since 2007, hundreds have been fired.  Dozens of schools have been closed.  Other struggling schools have been ‘reconstituted,’ meaning everyone had to reapply for their jobs and many were not rehired.”  The reporters describe the annual “goal meeting” every principal was required attend. Each year principals, meeting with their own superiors, were forced to promise they and their teachers would meet goals set by higher-ups, goals that leaders at individual schools knew were not realistic. “The focus on data carried the promise of a scientific approach to improvement.  But it came with fierce pressure to produce gains that critics said failed to take into account the influences on a child’s life outside of school.”

In Washington, D.C., each school’s accomplishments in raising test scores and each high school’s progress in raising graduation rates have been tracked by data. Merit bonuses have been tied to records of raising scores and raising graduation rates, but principals and teachers have been fired if they couldn’t raise test scores and graduation rates.  People under pressure found ways to meet the targets.

Now, as the Washington Post reporters conclude: “The revelations—coupled with the resignation of the chancellor after his own personal scandal and separately, allegations of enrollment fraud at one of the city’s most sought-after selective high schools—have shattered the simple narrative of success. Now, there is a groundswell of skepticism among parents, taxpayers and elected officials who are questioning how much of the touted progress is real.  It is the most prominent surge of such skepticism since 2008, when Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a broom to sweep away the old culture of failure and low expectations.”  Many are now questioning the wisdom of mayoral control of schools, a system that lacks the checks and balances provided by an elected school board.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Resigns After Jumping Daughter over 639 Students in High School Lottery

Antwan Wilson, the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, resigned yesterday afternoon after a scandal caused when he jumped his daughter over 639 other students in a competitive lottery for the exclusive Wilson High School.  His family chose not to send her to her neighborhood’s zoned high school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, one of Washington, D.C.’s lowest performing schools. Chancellor Wilson himself had created the policy that governed enrollment lotteries for the city’s selective schools to clean up cheating by the city’s powerful who have previously received the spaces they demanded in selective schools.

In their article last night reporting on Chancellor Wilson’s resignation, The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein, Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil describe the enrollment lottery policy for which Chancellor Wilson set new regulations early in his tenure: “The citywide lottery system allows families who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools to win a seat at a different D.C. public school or charter school, if there is excess capacity in that school.  But demand is great for the best-performing schools, where hundreds of families might compete for a handful of seats.  The notoriously competitive lottery system has been a long standing source of tension, and was mired in scandal not even a ear ago when investigators discovered that a previous chancellor allowed well-connected parents and government officials to evade lottery rules.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s editorial last Friday after Wilson’s action to privilege his daughter over others in the lottery became known: “SERIOUSLY? THAT has to be every Washingtonian’s reaction to the revelation that D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson bypassed the city’s competitive lottery process to place his daughter in one of the city’s most desirable public high schools. Did he forget the scandal—less than a year ago!—that surrounded his predecessor’s use of discretionary transfers to circumvent the lottery for parents with influence? Did he not read the regulation he himself signed in response to that scandal prohibiting D.C. officials from requesting special treatment for their children?”

This week’s scandal merely compounds an ongoing high school graduation scandal and builds upon the record of a test cheating scandal under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a scandal whose full investigation Rhee prevented that has been confirmed by now-retired PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow.

After Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, Wilson is the third in a string of corporate-reformer chancellors promising to raise school achievement and high school graduation in Washington, D.C., where the public and charter schools are managed as a “portfolio” under mayoral control.  Wilson, taught for a year in Raleigh, NC before serving as assistant principal or principal in Wichita, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver,Colorado before earning a superintendent’s certificate from the unaccredited Broad Superintendents’ Academy.  He served as school superintendent in Oakland, California from July, 2014 until coming to Washington, D.C. on February 1, 2017.  As the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported on Saturday, “Wilson—who comes from the same education circle as Henderson and her predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee—believes in testing and graduation metrics and supports the controversial evaluation system enacted by Rhee,which ties teacher bonuses and job security to the educator’s annual assessments. When he took over the school system last year, Wilson pledged to boost the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent by 2022, an ambitious goal he still stands by. The graduation rate—its validity thrown into doubt after the city-commissioned investigation—stood at 73 percent in 2017.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed a graduation scandal at the District’s Ballou High School last November, a situation in which students were being permitted to make up for sometimes weeks-long unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken across the District to determine if what had happened at Ballou might be widespread.  The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of a report released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” Perry Stein adds: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city. At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed , or inappropriately completed credit recovery… One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4,000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.” As the scale of the scandal has unfolded, Chancellor Wilson fired the District’s Chief of Secondary Schools and the principal and two assistant principals at Ballou High School.

The latest crisis in the D.C. Public Schools leadership is certainly a matter of poor judgement by Chancellor Antwan Wilson. The alarming and much broader high school graduation crisis—ramping up the graduation rate by pushing students through graduation when then have not met the requirements or have missed weeks or months of the senior year of high school—is far more indicative of deep problems.  With their annual IMPACT evaluations and their jobs at stake, teachers have systematically been pressured to make it look as though the D.C. Public Schools are a school district miracle.  In the title of his new book, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz captures the reality of what’s been happening in D.C. and other places when miracles are proclaimed: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.