Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power….  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into… an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

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Drilling Down into the “Grading the States” Report on School Privatization

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I have been posting  reflections about what I learned at this important meeting.

One of the most fascinating workshops at the conference explored the complexity of researching the groundbreaking, June 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, and the importance of the report, the first comprehensive effort to track and compare the growth of privatization and the characteristics of state vouchers and charters. The report, a collaboration of the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, defines its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers.  This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state—rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

The primary assumption of a report about the privatization of education but whose title incorporates these words, “a report card on our nation’s commitment to public schools,” is that the growth of several privatized education sectors at public expense—charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts—reflects diminishing commitment to the inclusive mission of public education.  Sure enough, the report confirms that assumption, most clearly in the diversion of tax funds away from public schools: “Vouchers and charters do not decrease education costs, but instead divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate the remaining students.”

Last weekend’s workshop featured three speakers: the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), Dr. Carol Burris, who was one of the report’s researchers; Tanya Clay House, the report’s primary author and researcher—also an attorney and consultant who has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Public Policy Director at People for the American Way; and Derek Black, an attorney and professor of school finance law at the University of South Carolina.

At last weekend’s workshop, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris recounted the story of their plan nearly a year ago for a two or three months’ research project that grew and grew until more than half a year had passed.  Both are sophisticated researchers, and Clay House has connections within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. They discovered, however, as they explored the enabling legislation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, that even in instances when requirements for transparency and record-keeping were clear in the laws states had passed, a number of states had not complied with their own rules requiring documentation. They also discovered that much of the state-by-state legislation enabling charters and vouchers does not require transparent, longitudinal record-keeping.

After looking at data kept by the National Conference of State Legislators and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, Clay House and Burris found some of the most comprehensive records kept by organizations whose mission is the expansion and promotion of school privatization, for example: the Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter Law Database; the (libertarian) Institute for Justice; the EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for School Choice) School Choice Constitutionality Database; EdChoice’s School Choice in America Dashboard; and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) School Choice in America: Interactive Map.  Take a look at the Appendix of the Grading the States report. When the report was released in June, I looked at its conclusions, but until I was directed there by Burris and Clay House, I had had not explored the implications of the extensive Appendix that describes the sources for the data.

As a participant in last weekend’s workshop, I was fascinated, as Burris and Clay House described the difficulties they faced as they tried to collect the most basic data about what is now nearly 20 years of expanding school privatization. The two women told of one data set they had assumed the report would cover only to be forced to omit that issue from the report because the the records had not been kept by enough states to make it possible to draw any comprehensive or meaningful conclusion.  What became clear to me as I listened is that the promoters of school privatization trusted their own ideological belief that the marketplace would provide its own accountability. They assumed that as parents voted with their feet, parents themselves would identify high quality schools and seek them out; then schools of poor quality would not be marketable. Of course we know from research in Chicago and New Orleans  and elsewhere that parents choose schools for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with school quality—a site near home or work, the presence of a childcare or after-school program, the reputation of the football team, the advertising on the side of the bus, the incentive of the gift of a computer upon enrollment.  Several years ago, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO),  shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “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.”

The third presenter in the NPE workshop was Derek Black, a civil rights attorney and school finance professor who explored what he believes is the overall significance of the Grading the States report. I was unable to capture verbatim Derek Black’s comments at the workshop, but in a blog post when the Grading the States report was published in June, Black made the same points in eloquent detail: “The report is, in many respects, the one I have been waiting for.  It fills in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction.  In my forthcoming article, Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, I also attempt to reframe the analysis of charter schools and vouchers, arguing that there are a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education… My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states. This new report drills down into the facts in a way I have never seen before.  It systematically examines charter and voucher laws in each state with a standardized methodology aimed at identifying the extent to which each state’s laws represent a de-commitment to public education.”

Black continues: “Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have laws that promote the expansion of charters. The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad… Because there hasn’t been any systemic response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation.  This new report brings balance.”

When the Grading the States report was released in June, this blog summarized its conclusions. Needless to say, I came home from last weekend’s conference in Indianapolis and explored the report in more depth.  Here is what jumps out at me as an Ohio citizen this fall, after I’ve been watching the fallout across Ohio all year since the state’s final closure of the giant online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after it ripped off Ohio taxpayers and students for 17 years. The report examines charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to permit charter schools. Of those 38, including my state, earned F grades. The report explains they are “states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.” “Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools… Thirty-eight of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers… Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”  The details on the various voucher programs are equally alarming.

Thank you to the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris for digging up and reporting the alarming realities of school privatization. We must hope Derek Black and other legal scholars and litigators will be able to frame winning legal strategies to bring it all under control.

Betsy DeVos Will Try to Use Federal Grants to Privatize Education

Like foundations, the U.S. Department of Education runs a competitive grant program.  At $700 million, it is small compared to the Department’s formula programs like Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—but significant nonetheless. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released her priorities that will determine which proposals are funded.

DeVos’s priorities are all over the map, though her top priority is predictable—empowering families with greater school choice.  Here are the others: promoting innovation and efficiency, fostering flexible paths to obtaining knowledge and skills, fostering knowledge and developing students’ skills, meeting the unique needs of students including student with disabilities, promoting STEM education, promoting literacy, promoting effective instruction, promoting economic opportunity, improving school climate, and ensuring that children in military families have access to school choice.

Rarely do I agree with Michael Petrilli, president of the far-right, pro-privatization Thomas B. Fordham Institute, but this time Petrilli accurately pegs the meaninglessness of the list: “This is like a Christmas tree, with all kinds of shiny objects.  Almost every idea in American education, good or bad, is represented here. What also matters is whether they actually use any of these priorities in grant programs. They are giving themselves maximum flexibility by including such a big menu….”

Education Week‘s Alyson Klein believes DeVos’s top priority—expanding school choice for parents—is really the only priority that matters.  After all, Betsy DeVos has declared this priority every time she has made a speech since she was confirmed by Congress as U.S. Secretary of Education last January.  Klein explains the significance of the $700 million grant line in the Department of Education’s budget: “These competitive-grant(s)… are one of the few levers DeVos has for expanding choice—her number one policy priority—without help from Congress.”

During the Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expanded the use of federal grants in education when billions of federal stimulus dollars were awarded through competitive grants. Copying the procedure of philanthropy, Duncan, who staffed some of the key positions in his department with people right out of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched competitive programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement, and Innovation grants. Winning states agreed to adopt pet policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education such as adopting standards like the Common Core and incorporating students’ test scores in the evaluations of teachers. Use of competitive granting by the Department of Education has been much reduced, however—back down to $700 million. The federal stimulus was a one-time event, and Duncan’s competitive programs proved unsuccessful for improving schools.

Fortunately, the big-ticket items in the Department of Education are formula programs controlled by Congressional appropriations and not subject to the whims of the Secretary of Education. Title I, the centerpiece of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, awards over $15 billion annually to school districts serving a high number or concentration of children living in poverty. Funding to support programs mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—$12 billion—is also awarded annually by formula determined by the number of students with disabilities (and types of their disabilities) in each school district.  Formula funding is stable and can be counted on by school districts to pay for ongoing programming; competitive grants, by contrast, are a one-time infusion of revenue and not suitable for covering schools’ operating expenses. Federal grants, like foundation grants, can support developing a piece of curriculum, purchasing technology, or contracting with consultants to train teachers.  One-time grants, by their very nature—whether from a philanthropy or the federal government—cannot pay for hiring more teachers or counselors.

We can pretty much predict what sort of projects are likely to be funded under the Department of Education’s $700 million grant fund this year.  The first priority listed—“empowering families to choose a high-quality education that meets their child’s unique needs”—is Betsy DeVos’s top priority. If we hadn’t learned that lesson through DeVos’s own strategy of repeating her one idea, we are reminded by this bit of history from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile last week of Vice President Mike Pence. Betsy DeVos, like an army of allies of the Koch Brothers, was proposed for her position by Mike Pence, when he led President Trump’s transition team hiring: “Trump began to appoint an extraordinary number of officials with ties to the Kochs and to Pence…  Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, who had been a major member of the Koch’s donor network and a supporter of Pence, was  named Secretary of Education… A recent analysis by the Checks & Balances Project found that sixteen high-ranking officials in the Trump White House had ties to the Kochs.”

Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school ear, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent.  This year is not an anomaly.  So what is going on?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host school systems: “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.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.

What Might Seem to Benefit the Educational Consumer Turns Out to Be a Disaster for Society

This week the Senate will consider President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education.  Tomorrow the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will very likely vote to recommend DeVos’s confirmation for a vote on the Senate Floor. Her nomination has become extremely contentious. Please call your U.S. Senators again today to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Because Betsy DeVos has devoted her life and her financial fortune to replacing our society’s system of public education with publicly funded tuition vouchers that children can carry to private schools and with unregulated charter schools that are publicly funded by privately operated, much attention has been paid this month to weighing public vs. privatized education.  Valerie Strauss has published another excellent piece by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, that enumerates What Taxpayers Should Know About the Cost of School Choice.  “School choice” is, of course, another name for school privatization—always framed by its supporters through the much prized values of freedom and choice without naming their social consequences.

Burris examines the financial implications of school privatization. She explains: “American taxpayers cannot afford to run the multiple systems of K-12 education that the ‘choicers’ desire, nor would it be in the best interest of children to do so. We have been experimenting with taxpayer-funded choice for two decades, and the evidence is clear. We have wasted billions in tax dollars, with no comprehensive evidence that charters, online schools and vouchers have resulted in increased academic performance of American students.  It is time we have an honest discussion about the true cost of school choice.”

Here is Burris’s argument.  I urge you to read her entire article to grasp the quantity of evidence she amasses to demonstrate each of her propositions:

  1. “Billions of federal tax dollars have poured into charter school promotion, without regard for success and with insufficient oversight.”  Burris explains that by 2015 the federal Charter Schools Program had spent $3.7 billion in startup grants for charter schools to states along with another $333 million in 2016, but many of these schools were unsustainable and have since closed.
  2. “Some charter schools spend more tax dollars on administration and less on teaching.”  Burris describes two national charter school chains, for example, Imagine, Inc. and the Leona Group, whose Arizona affiliates were shown by researchers to have spent $28 million more last year on management fees and real estate rental fees than they spent in support for students in the classroom.
  3. “Charter schools drain tax dollars from your community schools.” Burris shows that in some states like Pennsylvania, each student carries his or her per-pupil funding to the charter school right out of the district’s budget. But school districts are unable to adjust staffing and costs to the loss of a few students here and there across many buildings. She adds: “Whether charters receive funding from the district, or directly from the state, the costs of running an additional school system are passed on to taxpayers.”
  4. “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases.” Burris points out that the public cannot afford to undertake paying all or even part of private school tuition across the country through some kind of national voucher program. Although Indiana’s voucher program started small, serving only poor children, it has been rapidly expanded and now costs the state $131.5 million annually. Burris adds that because no state requires private schools to accept all students, the financial burden on  public schools spikes as expensive-to-educate students become concentrated in public district schools.
  5. “Charter schools and voucher schools have minimal transparency and limited accountability. That lack of transparency results in scandal and theft.”  Burris explains: “(I)n many states charters are virtually unregulated.” Her examples are from Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Burris concludes: “I suspect that Betsy DeVos and her followers would say that all of the above is the price we must pay to keep charters free of regulations. But if regulations are the problem, and deregulation the solution, why don’t the ‘choicers’ push to deregulate public schools?  Shouldn’t their creativity be unleashed as well?  The reason they do not is obvious. For ‘choicers.’ the marketplace is the first love. Contemporary, extreme conservatism sees government as having only two functions—policing and defense. True believers do not want communities assuming the responsibility of educating children; they believe that education is the responsibility of the family.”

It is helpful always to consider privatization more theoretically with help from the political philosopher Benjamin Barber, who explains how marketplaces undermine the distribution of public goods: “The paradox of public and private that sets capitalism against civilization works to defeat common aspirations by ’empowering’ private wants. We lose the capacity to shape our lives together because we are persuaded by the prevailing ethos that freedom means expressing our desires in isolation. In the area of education, for example… the defects of public schooling are thought to be remediable by the virtues of private parental choice… What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common… As citizens, we would never consciously suggest such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, pp. 131-132)

Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 1

Here begins a two-part post—today and tomorrow—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos.

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

Kate Zernike’s investigative piece for the NY Times, How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools, is a must read. Zernike has interviewed the people in Michigan who were involved in the intense legislative fight last spring and summer about the inclusion of a “Detroit Education Commission” to provide some regulation of what has become an out-of-control charter school sector in that city: “Few disagreed that schools in Detroit were a mess: a chaotic mix of charters and traditional public schools, the worst-performing in the nation. So city leaders across the political spectrum agreed on a fix, with legislation to provide oversight and set standards on how to open schools and close bad ones. But the bill died without even getting a final vote. And the person most influential in killing it is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee to oversee the nation’s public schools Betsy DeVos…”

Zernike continues: “The bill’s proposals are common in many states and accepted by many supporters of school choice, like a provision to stop failing charter operators from creating new schools. But Ms. DeVos argued that this kind of oversight would create too much bureaucracy and limit choice. A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation. Charter schools should be allowed to operate as they wish; parents would judge with their feet. Detroit Public Schools, she argued, should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools…  In the debate over Detroit schools, Republican lawmakers say Ms. DeVos withheld her financial support until they agreed to kill the bill. And they were rewarded well when they did: Ms. DeVos’s family began a flood of donations to Republicans that totaled $1.45 million in seven weeks.”

Zernike has investigated further to discover the role of Dick and Betsy DeVos in the creation over twenty years ago of what has become a chaotic charter school sector: “Ms. DeVos and her husband had lobbied hard for the state law that established charter schools in 1994. It allowed an unusually large number of organizations to start charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. But it created little oversight. Even charter school supporters now criticize Detroit as one of the most unregulated markets in the country.  About 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, far higher than anywhere else… With more than a dozen organizations issuing charters, it is hard for parents to get the information they need to inform their choices. And, in a city of 140 square miles, the highest-performing schools usually remain out of reach to the poorest students, because most schools do not offer transportation, and the city bus service is unreliable.”

The NY Times also published an opinion piece, Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools, by Katherine Stewart, author of a book about the radical, far-right ideas of Christian Dominionism, what pastor and Christian broadcaster D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church described to his followers: “to ‘exercise godly dominion’ over ‘every aspect and institution of human society,’ including the government.” The work of the Coral Ridge ministry along with “the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal juggernaut of the religious right; the Colorado-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family; and the Mackinac Center for Pubic Policy” are all supported financially by the DeVos Family Foundation and the foundation of Betsy DeVos’s parents, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation.

Stewart explains: “At the rightmost edge of the Christian conservative movement, there are those who dream of turning the United States into a Christian republic subject to ‘biblical laws’…  Betsy DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right. In 1983, her father, Edgar Prince, who made his money in the auto parts business, contributed to the creation of the Family Research Council…. Her father-in-law, Richard DeVos Sr., the co-founder of Amway, a company built on ‘multilevel marketing’ or what critics call pyramid selling, has been funding groups and causes on the economic and religious right since the 1970s. Ms. DeVos is a chip off the old block. At a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists, she singled out education reform as a way to ‘advance God’s kingdom.'”

So how have all of Betsy DeVos’s ideas worked out for Michigan?  In another must-read article by education reporters Caitlin Emma, Benjamin Wermund and Kimberly Hefling, POLITICO assesses the results in DeVos’s Michigan Schools Experiment Gets Poor Grades: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth-and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data. Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit charters. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s…. The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”

Emma, Wermund and Hefling provide more details: “Three Michigan school districts enroll some of the highest percentages of charter-school students nationwide—Detroit, Flint, and DeVos’ home town of Grand Rapid….  All told, the DeVoses have contributed at least $7 million to lawmakers and the state Republican Party in recent years, and their influence can be seen in just about every major piece of education-related legislation in Michigan since the 1990s. That includes the 1993 law that permitted charters in the state and a 2011 vote to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Michigan permits practices barred by some other states, such as for-profit charter operators, virtual charter schools, and multiple charter-authorizing bodies…  A federal audit this year noted that Michigan’s charter-school law doesn’t include rules regarding conflicts of interest, among other issues.”

As reported by POLITICO, Betsy and Dick DeVos did support some increased oversight of charters in Detroit, even though their lobbying and money killed the idea of the charter oversight agency to be called the Detroit Education Commission. Betsy DeVos agreed to rules that would automatically close “charters that rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three consecutive years.”  But the reporters note that, “In Detroit alone, about 70 percent of charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter of the state’s schools, according to an Ed Trust-Midwest report using data from the 2013-2014 school year.  The foundation has called the quality of the city’s charter-school sector a ‘civil rights issue.'”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

Two NJ Cities Test Today’s School Reform: Disruption and Privatization Fail

I hope you read David Kirp’s fine commentary on school reform in yesterday’s NY Times.  As the author of one of two excellent recent books on school policy in New Jersey—the 2013, Improbable Scholars—Kirp, a Berkeley professor of public policy, is particularly well suited to evaluate school reform in New Jersey.  In yesterday’s commentary he compares the botched school reform effort in Newark, the subject of Dale Russakoff’s 2015, The Prize, with what has been accomplished in nearby Union City, the subject of his own book. Kirp believes the strategies employed in these two school districts have national implications, and he explains: How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To.

Both Newark and Union City serve students living in concentrated poverty. In 2009 in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie hatched a plan to expand charter schools, weaken the teachers union, and, in Booker’s words, “flip a whole city and create a national model.”  They convinced Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to underwrite the project with a grant of $100 million.

Kirp contrasts the hubris of Newark’s project to what happened in Union City: “No one expected a national model out of Union City.  Without the resources given to Newark, the school district there, led by a middle-level bureaucrat named Fred Carrigg, was confronted with two huge challenges:  How could English learners, three-quarters of the students, become fluent in English?  And how could youngsters, many of whom came from homes where books were rarities, be turned into adept readers?”

What happened?  “In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.”

“What explains this difference?  The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, MD, and Long Beach, CA, that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label ‘continuous improvement,’ and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.”  The solution in Union City was already inside the schools; administrators empowered fine teachers and developed a much stronger curriculum by trusting them and helping them collaborate.

Here is how Kirp describes changes begun 17 years ago in Union City when the district was given a year to stave off a threatened takeover by the state: “In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged.  Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method.  So the district junked its old approach.  Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English.”  The district also hired more teachers who spoke Spanish or had special training in working with English learners. And a new strategy emphasized reading and writing in every subject, not just in language arts classes. When the Abbott school funding remedy made New Jersey school districts eligible for state funded preschool, Union City developed a model program for all three- and four-year-olds.

Here is how Superintendent Carrigg describes school reform—Union City style :  “The real story of Union City is that it didn’t fall back.  It stabilized and has continued to improve.”  Kirp adds: “Recent changes include the introduction of Mandarin Chinese from preschool on, a STEM-focused elementary school and a nursery for young parents in high school.  Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders.  Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.”

Improbable Scholars, Kirp’s inspiring book about Union City’s schools, is very much worth reading.  For me it is most memorable for celebrating a grow-your-own strategy of teacher preparation.  Kirp, a professor at one of the nation’s elite universities, does not buy into the kind of academic snobbery epitomized by Teach for America, whose mission is to fill the nation’s classrooms with bright Ivy Leaguers who can brag about their SAT scores.  He celebrates the collaborative work of the teachers in Union City, teachers who came up through the city’s neighborhoods and who understand the challenges faced by their students: “It’s unlikely that these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away… Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended.  Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some of them are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers.  The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues.”  (Improbable Scholars,  p. 61)