Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

What David Leonhardt Neglects to Consider in Tuesday’s Column Endorsing Charter Schools

In a column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt, the NY Times columnist, asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a long and devoted advocate of the expansion of school vouchers, to consider Mark Dynarski’s new study—sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education itself— of the voucher program in Washington, D.C. along with the Thomas Fordham Institute’s most recent study of vouchers in Ohio.  This and other research has shown that students carrying vouchers to private schools don’t do as well in math as their public school counterparts, and don’t do significantly better in general.  Based on these studies, Leonhardt, argues that vouchers are not a good alternative to public schools, and he suggests Betsy DeVos should pay attention to the evidence.

But although Leonhardt believes vouchers don’t work, he is a big fan of school choice and charter schools. Leonhardt buys into the idea that competition through privatization is a good idea and that society’s best chance for helping students in struggling schools is to help them escape from traditional public schools to charter schools chosen by their parents.  There are, however, a number of problems with Leonhardt’s argument for charter schools. And there are many reasons to believe that investing in the public schools—especially those in our poorest neighborhoods where meager and uneven school funding has left the schools unable to meet the enormous needs their students present—would likely better serve the students and their communities.

Leonhardt’s first mistake is his belief that charter schools take all comers.  He writes: “Crucially, many charters are open to all comers, which means their success doesn’t stem from skimming off the best.”  The Network for Public Education (NPE) disagrees: “Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and they do not have to ‘backfill’ seats; that is to accept students to fill open spots when students leave.” NPE continues: “Charter schools can appear to outperform public schools when they don’t enroll the same types of students. Because charters tend to serve far fewer students with disabilities and fewer who don’t speak English as their first language, they can appear to be higher preforming.  Many charters do not ‘backfill’ when students leave or take older students.  Charter schools keep only the students they want. Through various methods, charter schools shed their most problematic students who must then return to local public schools that accept all students. ‘Higher-performing’ charter schools are an illusion. Even the best performing charter schools can trace some or all of their advantages to differences in the students they reach. They do not have to take… (all) students like publics do—regardless of space, grade or time of the year.”

A second problem is that in defense of charter schools Leonhardt cites academic research conducted in the District of Columbia, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, NYC, Florida and Texas. All of the studies he cites, except for the one in Florida which measured high school graduation and subsequent college matriculation, are based solely on comparison of students’ standardized test scores in charter and public schools. And even in Florida, Leonhardt selects a study that evaluates charter schools based on their capacity to raise achievement among the students in the charter schools. But studies that generalize about charter school test scores are flawed by their very premise, as charter schools are designed to be as different as can be—with a mass of different strategies and policies.  Broad brush studies of charters overall miss the distinctions in school quality. And certainly the online charter schools where students study at home on their computers have been shown to be ineffective across the states.

A third problem is that  Leonhard fails to consider that charters serve only a tiny percentage of our nation’s K-12 students. Charter schools are only 6.6 percent of the nation’s publicly funded schools; traditional public schools continue to make up 93.4 percent of all publicly funded schools across the United States. Leonhardt neglects to consider the studies that examine the consequences of charter school expansion on the public school districts in which the charters are situated. Economists use the term “negative externalities” to describe the unwanted side-effects of a particular public policy. Recent large studies of charters in cities, where most charter growth has occurred, have begun documenting very serious negative externalities affecting the traditional public schools that continue to the majority of American students.

In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Bruce Baker, a school finance expert at Rutgers University, concluded that a primary problem with charter schools is that their rapid growth in urban school districts is destabilizing the big city school districts in which they are expanding.  He shows, “that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Then, in mid-April, In the Public Interest published a study by Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon describing problems caused for public school districts in California by the rapid growth of the charter school sector: “Unfortunately, the central conclusion of this analysis is that funding for charter facilities is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard… Far too much of these public funds are spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no additional need for classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”  Lafer continues: “The most fundamental question to ask about any type of school construction is: how many schools are needed for the number of students we have?”  In California, he writes, “(N)early 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support….”

In Chicago and Detroit the growth of a competitive charter school marketplace has resulted in the closure of neighborhood public schools.  Charter operators open schools according to where they believe there is a market for their services and where they can find a space in an office building or a closed public or parochial school. Intense competition driven by aggressive marketing may draw students from neighboring public schools.  Eventually school districts close the emptying buildings, but again Bruce Baker warns about a dangerous negative externality: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests). Increasingly, districts… have sold land and building to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail  Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker describes the dry subject of “taxpayer assets,” but charters forcing out traditional public schools have also had human and personal consequences. In September of 2015 in Chicago, parents and community advocates saved neighborhood Dyett High School only after mounting a 34 day hunger strike in a South Side neighborhood where charter school competition had shuttered the only public high school. Finally the Chicago Public Schools agreed to reopen Dyett and once again ensure that the community is anchored by a public high school zoned to accept all students residing in the neighborhood.

Even the bond agencies have been warning school districts that their bond ratings may suffer if charter schools are rapidly expanded when school districts’ fixed costs cannot be reduced to accommodate the loss of students.  When Question 2 to lift the cap on the startup of new charters was considered in Massachusetts in last November’s election,  Moody’s, the bond rating agency, sent a letter to the school districts in Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River warning that their school district credit ratings could be lowered if charter schools were to be rapidly expanded, thereby undermining the public school districts’ fiscal viability.

Bruce Baker concludes: “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.”

Ironically a huge warning about an out-of-control school marketplace comes from Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a supporter of education markets and charter schools. After visiting Detroit in the summer of 2014, Lake reflected: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

State Overseers Deny Children’s Basic Needs in Poor Black Communities and Schools

Last week Julie Bosman of the NY Times reported on the conclusions of a report by a commission appointed by Governor Rick Snyder himself about what went wrong to allow the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water.  Bosman quotes Snyder’s commission: “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” Bosman continues: “In making that declaration, the five-member panel put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease. It also validated complaints long argued by many Flint residents but largely dismissed by Mr. Snyder and others: that race and poverty contributed to the often scornful reactions to their complaints. ‘Flint residents, who are majority… African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,’ the report concluded.”

Like environmental injustice, the denial of educational opportunity in America these days tends to follow the lines of race and class. Children segregated by race and poverty are likely to attend schools that lack necessities along with the amenities that middle class children take for granted. And nowhere is educational inequality more evident than the cities of Governor Snyder’s Michigan. Bosman quotes Governor Snyder’s commission warning, “that emergency managers, who are usually appointed to deal with governments that are in dire financial crisis, as was the case in Flint, were not equipped to handle health and environmental issues, which demand a special expertise… The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and Detroit’s public schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance. (Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, went on to oversee the Detroit schools until this month.)”

While a deal struck in the Michigan legislature last week will save the Detroit Public Schools from the fiscal collapse due to occur in the first week of April, the legislative “solution” is once again designed to favor the barest fiscal stability. Here is reporter David Eggert’s description of the new plan for the Associated Press: “Michigan lawmakers voted Thursday to extend $48.7 million in emergency aid to keep Detroit’s ailing school district open for the rest of the academic year and avoid the prospect of payless paydays for staff… Thursday was the deadline for lawmakers to act before their spring break. The district’s state-appointed manager has said without the aid, it would be unable to pay employees for work they do after April 8, four days before legislators will return to Lansing.  The $48.7 million is a stopgap measure while the GOP governor presses legislators to enact a $720 million restructuring plan to split the district and pay off $515 million in operating debt over a decade. The 46,000-student district has been under state financial management for seven years and is burdened with declining enrollment and low morale that has led to teacher ‘sick-outs’ in recent months.” Nobody has even begun to speculate on how the school district’s long term deficit of $3.5 billion will be addressed.

The new plan is complicated, designed for bare bones fiscal stability, although it at least includes the possibility of regulating an out-of-control charter sector that is swallowing tax dollars. The Detroit Free Press explains: “The legislation would split DPS into a new district that would educate students and be funded by state appropriations, and an old district that would exist only to collect local property taxes to pay off existing debt. Stranding the debt in the old district allows DPS to avoid bankruptcy.” “The legislation, which has the backing of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the governor, would create the Detroit Education Commission, a body that would regulate the openings and closings of traditional public schools and charter schools across the city. The mayor would appoint the commission’s seven members: Three people would have ties to charter schools and three to public schools, with one person from each group a parent. The final member would be an expert in public school accountability systems.”  The new law would fund the operation of the Detroit schools with $72 million annually from the state’s tobacco settlement.  Additionally the school district would be permitted to borrow $300 million from the state including $200 million in start-up funding.  under state takeover

Here is how a new report from researcher Nate Breznau of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research describes the impact of Michigan’s state-appointed emergency managers: “The Flint water crisis is only one of many disastrous outcomes of Michigan emergency management. Others include sale of public parks, libraries, and firefighting equipment. More severe damage occurs through the EM’s power to sell public pensions, nullify collective bargaining contracts, fire public employees at will, and privatize or close schools. Democracy itself has been dispensed with since the EM is not elected and cannot be removed through public will. Despite being guaranteed by the Michigan and U.S. Constitutions, citizens living under an EM no longer rule themselves.  Who are these people egregiously stripped of democratic rights? It turns out that they are disproportionately black. A recent study published by me and my co-author from Southern Methodist University, L. Owen Kirkpatrick (both of us lived in Michigan during our research and writing of the study), shows that 10% of all Michiganders have been under emergency management at some point since 2007. Of these, 73% were black while only 21% were white despite Michigan itself being less than 15% black.”

An education crisis is widespread across our nation’s old rust belt cities. With the exodus of manufacturing that comprised the bulk of their property tax bases and with declining populations, cities like Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Youngstown have become increasingly dependent on state legislatures dominated by representatives from suburbs, small towns, and rural areas—legislatures committed to the tax-cutting dogma of governors like Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, and John Kasich. Although privatization through vouchers and rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools was promised as a way to save money, school choice has instead created inefficiency as private operators have sucked students and their per-pupil funding from traditional districts. And too often privatized alternatives have served only the most promising students and failed to serve the students whose needs are greatest.  Privatization plans that were sold to save money and expand opportunity have instead further destabilized already struggling school districts. Racially and economically segregated city school districts have become islands of educational desolation surrounded by wealthier suburban districts, small towns and rural areas whose residents are insulated enough from urban America to believe political hucksters who tell them everything will be alright if we just demand that teachers produce higher test scores.

Today’s school reform dogma, epitomized by Detroit—bankrupt under state management and with a huge unregulated charter sector— Milwaukee— under state takeover  and with an expensive private school voucher program—and Youngstown—to be taken over and charterized by the state of Ohio—is a complex narrative of denial that contradicts the ideals our society has long proclaimed. Here is how the late Senator Paul Wellstone, in an address at Teachers College, Columbia University in March of 2000, described what he believed is growing injustice in our nation’s public schools: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.  Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination….  It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Michigan ACLU Exposes Educational Catastrophe in Gov. Rick Snyder’s Takeover of Detroit’s Schools

Metro Detroit Times has just published an extraordinary expose of the software-based curriculum that was imposed in 2012 in 12 Detroit, Michigan schools.  These were the bulk of schools in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s new Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state agency created to take over Michigan’s schools with the lowest test scores.  “In all, about 10,000 students—largely poor, predominantly African American, often lagging years behind in terms of academics—would be the test subjects.”

According to the report’s author, Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Snyder’s state school takeover was intended to originate with a number of low-scoring schools in Detroit and then take over so-called failing schools across the state; however, the legislation to expand the Education Achievement Authority beyond Detroit never passed in the legislature.  Snyder is known to have modeled his idea on the Louisiana Recovery School District, that took over public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,

Guyette describes how the EAA was created in Michigan, “The system itself would be unique, with all strings leading back to the governor. The legal loophole through which the EAA slipped into being is a little-used state law that allows two units of government, acting in cooperation, to create a third public entity.  In this case, it was Detroit Public Schools (DPS)—under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager—and the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, the majority of whom are gubernatorial appointees, that entered into what’s called an inter-local agreement that created the EAA.  It is overseen by an 11-person board, with the governor appointing seven members and EMU and the DPS’s emergency manager each selecting two more.”

In 2012, EAA hired John Covington as chancellor.  Covington had recently left Kansas City Public Schools (just two weeks before that school district lost its accreditation).  Covington brought along a team from Kansas City, headed up by Mary Esselman, who became the EAA’s deputy chancellor and who led the launch of a massive, software-based curriculum called Buzz—developed by one Utah company, Agilix Labs, and supplemented with additional educational software from another Utah company, the School Improvement Network.

All this was supposed to “personalize” and “individualize” learning for the students in Detroit’s experiment.  “But in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”  Mary Esselman is reported to have described the adoption of the Buzz program: “We’re building this plane as we fly it.”

Students in the EAA schools increased test scores at what seemed to be an astounding rate, but it was later exposed that the high test scores were from “Scantron” tests that accompanied the Buzz program, and students were being allowed to take the tests over and over to improve their scores.  “In stark contrast to the internal test results are the state’s standardized achievement tests, known as MEAP.  The most recent MEAP results show that a high majority of EAA students are either stagnating in terms of reaching math and reading proficiency, or falling even further behind.”

According to teachers, some named and some remaining anonymous due to fear for their jobs, the Buzz program lacked curriculum for months in several required subjects. About Buzz, one teachers says, “To say it was incomplete when it arrived is giving it too much credit.  The software was in a state that any other firm would have never released it.”  In one e-mail  a School Improvement Network “coach” assigned to Detroit wrote to a staffer at Agilix: “I am having a hard time trying to trouble shoot what exactly is going on at Law with their courses.  Currently their Spanish, Music and Gym teachers have nothing but a yellow screen appearing in Buzz…”  Through 2013,  frantic support coaches from School Improvement Network continued e-mailing company staff that they were unable to help teachers and students use the Buzz curriculum due to technical glitches.

A teacher reports that when EAA took over, administrators dumped textbooks formerly used by Detroit Public Schools, which forced teachers to use the Buzz software, the only content provided by EAA.  Teachers interviewed for this investigation describe how students would progress through a cycle of lessons calibrated to be based on their on-line progress only to have the entire series disappear from their computers, requiring that they start over and repeat days’ of work.  Students interviewed for the investigation report that students breached the Buzz program’s firewall to enable themselves and their peers to surf the internet including pornography chat rooms.

What Guyette describes is the destruction of schools that were already struggling, even as Mary Esselman and promoters at Agilix and the School Improvement Network collaborated to promote the software to funders and to other school districts. While it is not suggested that Esselman was paid as a spokesperson for Agilix and the School Improvement Network, it is clear from e-mails secured by ACLU that she and Chancellor Covington traveled widely to promote their software-based schools.  In one e-mail Curt Allen from Agilix writes to Covington and Esselman: “Thank you very much for making the trip to participate in the Datapalooza today… Thank you for being pioneers.”

E-mails printed at the end of the article demonstrate that all through the fall of 2012, after the software had been launched and was being widely used, Mary Esselman and others in Detroit were begging Agilix and School Improvement Network to fix bugs in the system and send support staff to Detroit to help work out major problems.  At one point in November, Mary Esselman e-mails Aglix support staff: “Guys… We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming Friday and the students need at least one day in the unit prior to their visit.  If we don’t fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle.  This is important because… we have to generate funding.  Please help us figure out why they are not accessing the new unit.” Her worry is about impressing potential funders, not about the students who are struggling to work with the computer program that has replaced text books in their school.

By the summer of 2013, Mary Esselman herself has become frustrated with both Agilix and the Student Improvement Network as problems with the Buzz on-line curriculum persist despite months’ of requests for assistance from the software developers: “Needless to say I am extremely disappointed.  Most of the items have been on the list for almost 12 months–18 months for the reports and 36 months for the reports if you add the fact that they also did not get finished in Kansas City.  I understand that everyone wants the product to go beyond the EAA but the problems with the interface in many cases… have been on the fix list since last summer and before and the product is not viable at scale without them…”

In June of 2014, EAA Chancellor John Covington resigned after it became known that he had racked up credit card bills for travel and other expenses of $240,000.  The School Improvement Network re-randed the Buzz software with a new name, GAGE, and began advertising it to school districts across the country.  “Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, ‘Everything is under review.  It is a new day for the EAA.'”

60 Years after Brown v. Board: School “Reform” Ignores Injustices of Urban America

On May 17, we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, has prepared a short brief to summarize where we were in 1954, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go in the area of racial justice in our public schools.  It is a discouraging picture for a lot of reasons.

But first, a bit of the history Rothstein presents. “In fact, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected.  Of course, Brown did accomplish a great deal….   Although today, typical black students in Southern states attend schools where only 29 percent of their fellow students are white….  in 1954 the percentage was zero… Black student achievement, nationwide, and in every state, has improved at a spectacular rate since Brown… The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, for example, that black fourth-graders now have average math scores that are better than average white math scores only a generation ago. Yet because average white achievement has also improved, the gap between black and white achievement remains…”

But, as Rothstein explains, Brown was not merely “a principled objection to the idea of ‘separate but equal.'”  It was also an objection to “Southern states’ unrestrained contempt for the ‘equal part of the formula’.”  In Clarendon County, South Carolina, spending for white schools was four times the spending in black schools. The value of school facilities for whites was nine times higher than the schools provided for blacks;  white schools had lavatories while black schools had outhouses.  The student-teacher ratio was 28-1 for whites and 47-1 for blacks. Black students walked long distances to school and they and their teachers cleaned the buildings themselves, while white schools had custodians.  Significant disparities also separated the curriculum, which too often emphasized “manual skills” in home economics and agriculture at black schools.

To understand racial injustice at school sixty years after Brown, however, one must look more broadly at the history of economic and racial injustice in urban America, for much of racial injustice in education has now become an urban phenomenon.  Reading Rothstein’s article, or sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s extraordinary 2013 book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality,  or Thomas Sugrue’s classic 1996 history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, one is quickly overwhelmed by the realization that the history of public school inequality since the Brown decision is not merely the story of public schools.  These writers describe the complex and troubling social ecology of the twenty-first century American urban landscape, with Sugrue the historian examining the seeds of American industrial decline back into the 1940s.

Sharkey explains that, “inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.” (p. 14)

Sharkey and Sugrue describe public policies since World War II—policies derived from political tradeoffs at the local, state, and federal level along with industrial decline and relocation—that  have perpetuated and enhanced inequality and segregation.  The condition of urban public schools across America on this 6oth anniversary of Brown is only one part of a much larger and little discussed urban crisis.  Sharkey notes: “Prior to the civil rights era, racial inequality had been tacitly or explicitly supported by law.  In the post civil right period racial inequality has been maintained by a combination of informal actions of individuals, organized collective action,and political efforts and public policies designed to maintain and reinforce racial and class inequality in urban neighborhoods,”  that have included “massive subsidization of white outmigration from central cities, combined with a concerted effort to consolidate black urban populations with centralized public housing.” (pp. 58-59) This began with redlining by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s which “then extended to subsequent home mortgage programs… run through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA).”  To promote neighborhood stability, according to Sharkey, “The official FHA guidelines discouraged loans to racial minorities and prohibited loans that would lead to racially or economically integrated neighborhoods.” (p. 60)  Other policies included local zoning laws and minimum lot sizes in the suburbs.  Federally subsidized “urban renewal” beginning in 1950 cleared massive tracts of slum housing but merely displaced poor communities as the land was often left empty or used for other purposes but not redeveloped for housing. Highway building policies made suburbia possible, and as Rothstein details in his piece, enforcement of fair housing laws has been lax.

Through the lens of Detroit’s history, Sugrue traces the other primary contributor to today’s crisis: the last half-century’s de-industrialization of the American city. While employment in the auto industry had opened for African Americans during WWII, by 1967, “somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of young blacks (between ages eighteen and twenty-four) were out of work.  The combination of persistent discrimination in hiring, technological change, decentralized manufacturing, and urban economic decline had dramatic effects on the employment prospects of blacks in metropolitan Detroit.  What was even more striking was the steady increase of adults who were wholly unattached to the urban labor market.  Nearly one in five of all Detroit adults did not work at all or worked in the informal economy in 1950.  The number grew steadily in the 1960s… By 1980, nearly half of the adult male population had only tenuous connections to the city’s formal labor market.” (pp. 261-262)

In today’s ghettos, Sharkey describes the paired phenomena of high unemployment and over-policing: “These communities are … the product of the punitive response to widespread economic dislocation, in which increasingly harsh punishment has led to levels of imprisonment that are unmatched in the world and that are targeted toward the by-products of deindustrialization: young, less educated minority men.” (p. 79)

In the conclusion of his profound history of Detroit, Sugrue adds one more serious concern: about a sort of policy disdain that has come to describe America’s response to its urban crisis: “The most enduring legacy of the postwar racial struggles in Detroit has been the growing marginalization of the city in local, state, and national politics.  Elected officials in Lansing and Washington, beholden to a vocal, well-organized, and defensive white suburban constituency, have reduced funding for urban education, antipoverty, and development programs.  At the same time, Detroit—like its counterparts around the country—grapples with a declining tax base and increasingly expensive social, economic, and infrastructural problems.” (p. 268)

In the two decades since Sugrue published this book that portended the collapse of Detroit today into bankruptcy and its school district into state-controlled emergency management, we see government policies across the country at federal and state levels that fail to name, let alone address the real problems in urban America.  In public school policy, legislatures dominated by representatives of the suburbs pass laws to reduce state taxes and urban investment.  Federal policy thrusts Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark and a host of other public school districts into “portfolio school reform” that mandates public school closure or privatization of so-called “failing” schools.  Today we blame and scapegoat the teachers in urban schools when they are unable to deliver high test scores by children.  And when they are unable to deliver us from our urban crisis.

I wonder when we’ll admit that the current wave of school “reform”—like urban renewal in the 1950s—is only making things worse? Today’s policies are deepening injustice for the children hyper-segregated by race and poverty in a very unequal America sixty years after  Brown v. Board of Education.