Walmart Heirs Invest Heavily to Promote Charter Schools

Twas the night before Christmas, and if you were reading the newspaper, you may have noticed some coverage of school privatization.  In case you missed it, please read Sally Ho’s article for the Associated Press on the Walton family’s financial investment in promoting charter schools in African American communities.

Ho describes how the Waltons have been investing to swing a contentious debate about the implications of growing school privatization: “Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large black populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.  Black enrollment in charters has doubled over the course of a decade, to more than 760,000 students as of 2015-16… but the rise also has been marked by concerns about racial segregation, inconsistent student outcomes, and the hollowing-out of neighborhood public schools.  While some black leaders see charters as a safer, better alternative in their communities, a deep rift of opinion was exposed by a 2016 call for a moratorium on charters by the NAACP, a longtime skeptic that expressed concerns about school privatization, transparency and accountability issues. The Black Lives Matter movement is also among those that have demanded charter school growth be curbed.”

Ho reports that pro-charter Walton money has flowed to organizations like the United Negro College Fund for scholarships for students who want to pursue education “reform,” to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor events, and to 100 Black Men of America and the National Urban League for support of charter schools.  Walton money also paid for a luncheon at a conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, a luncheon featuring a panel of Walton pro-charter grantees.

Walton money has underwritten local efforts as well, including transporting three busloads of charter school supporters from Memphis to protest at a Cincinnati meeting of the NAACP, where the agenda focused on the NAACP’s 2016 resolution to press for a moratorium on new charter schools.

At the local level this year the Waltons are also bankrolling political candidates. The Chicago Sun-Times followed up the day after Christmas with an in-depth report on Walton money being invested in the 2019 election for Chicago’s mayor and aldermen. Reporter Lynn Sweet explains: “The children and grandchildren of Helen and Sam Walton, founders of the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart, are donors to the nonprofit Illinois Network of Charter Schools and its two allied political action committees…. the INCS Action PAC and the INCS Action Independent Committee, which is an independent expenditure PAC.  An independent expenditure PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. However, the money cannot be given directly to a candidate. An independent expenditure PAC runs its own campaign to support or oppose a contender.”

At a time when charter school support in Chicago seems to have plateaued, Sweet reports that the Waltons are investing to try to stop the slippage: “Because the stakes in the February Chicago election are so high, the INCS political arm, mainly through independent expenditures, is raising political cash to bolster pro-charter school candidates.” “The publicly funded, privately operated charter school movement in Chicago may be at a crossroads, fighting to not lose political ground and retain enrollments in a period of slowing growth. A charter school champion, the anti-public union Gov. Bruce Rauner lost his re-election bid; another supporter, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down, and the race to replace him is wide open, with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union backing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The CTU organized at the 15 schools in the Acero-managed charter network in Chicago and earlier in December successfully led the first strike ever in the U.S. against a charter school operator.”

In Chicago, charter school promoters have been facing increasing pushback from advocates who seek to stabilize and improve the Chicago Public Schools. Roosevelt University economists have documented how the expansion of charter schools has financially undermined the city’s public school district. Advocates, including those who mounted a 34 day hunger strike in 2015 to reopen Dyett High School, have established that the expansion of charters was a major factor five years ago in the closure of 50 traditional public schools. The Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago released a study on widespread community mourning following the 2013 public school closures, and Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, just published a ground-breaking and very moving book about the loss of public school institutions on Chicago’s South Side.

Jitu Brown, an organizer at Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and now the Executive Director of the national Journey4Justice Alliance, comments on charters and school privatization in a forward to a major Journey4Justice report,  Failing Brown v. Board, published in May 2018:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

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No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)