Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

Ohio’s Failure to Oversee Charters and Youngstown Takeover Are Connected, Funded by Arne Duncan

Two important things relating to education happened in Columbus in June, right before the Ohio legislature went on summer break.  The legislature did fast-track a bill to take over the public schools in Youngstown.  The legislature didn’t follow through on a promise to regulate Ohio’s notorious charter schools and their sponsors. Now we learn that all this was how Governor John Kasich and  his appointed state superintendent, Richard Ross, intended things to work out.  And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will pay for it.

First, at the end of June, on the Wednesday before the legislature adjourned for the summer, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing on a bill to expand full-service, wraparound Community Schools in Ohio,  Senator Peggy Lehner introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and a takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the locally elected school board meaningless.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.  There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill.

Second, the legislature took a pass on approving a well-debated bill to improve state oversight of the charter school sector in Ohio.  The Senate had passed the bill, and the House had been asked to concur, but instead the bill was not brought to the floor.  Everybody speculated this was a move to ensure that the bill would eventually be sent to a conference committee where Ohio’s charter school czars who have invested millions in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans would have more power to soften the regulations intended to make Ohio’s charter schools more accountable, both academically and fiscally.  The Ohio legislature did return this last week of September and sent the bill, as predicted, to a conference committee for further work.  We wait to see whether Ohio will get any improvement in the regulation of its charter schools.

It now turns out this is all connected to a huge, $71 million grant awarded earlier this week to Ohio by the U.S. Department of  Education to expand charter schools, specifically in academically distressed school districts.  Youngstown qualifies; Lorain will be next.

Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s fine investigative reporter, has over recent months exposed a scandal by which David Hansen, appointed by State Superintendent Richard Ross as Ohio’s school choice director, had ignored in the state’s rating of charter schools and their sponsors the students’ overall failing test scores in several on-line schools run by influential Republicans.  Hansen was subsequently forced to resign.  O’Donnell explains:  “The ODE’s (Ohio Department of Education’s) rating of the academic performance of charters came into question earlier this year, following a June Plain Dealer report that it deliberately left out the F grades of online schools—some of whom were created by large Republican donors—from those evaluations.  The department’s former school choice chief David Hansen, husband of Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen, resigned in July over that decision, even as the U.S. Department of Education was reviewing the grant applications.  Federal evaluators found shortcomings in Ohio’s application, but they had mostly glowing reports of Ohio’s evaluation process for oversight agencies and still awarded Ohio the $71 million—the most money out of the seven states and the District of Columbia that are sharing a total of $249 million.”  Here is the press release from the U.S. Department of Education that describes two categories of federal grants—large, long-term grants to states and smaller grants to replicate or expand “high-quality” charters.

The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston, Ohio’s long and revered education reporter, adds that not only did the federal government provide a big grant to expand Ohio’s questionable charter sector, but the proposal the Department of Education funded this week is designed specifically to pay for the fast-tracked state takeover of the Youngstown schools, with the purpose of expanding privatized charter management and removing power from the elected school board: “Records show that David Hansen, a longtime advocate for charter schools, hired by State Supt. Richard Ross to run his school-choice office, was involved in the grant application that will facilitate the takeover of Youngstown city schools and other targeted urban districts.  The takeover of so-called ‘recovery school districts’ such as Youngstown was secretly negotiated by Ross, Kasich’s then chief of staff Beth Hansen, and Youngstown business officials and approved by the legislature in June in a stunning last minute maneuver.  David and Beth Hansen are husband and wife, and she left Kasich’s staff in July to run his presidential campaign.  Records released by the Ohio Department of Education Sept. 3 in response to newspaper investigations of Hansen’s role in the data manipulation also show that he assembled the supporting documents for the federal grant.”  Livingston explains that earlier this week when the five-year state grants were announced, Arne Duncan’s press secretary Elaine Quesinberry confirmed, “that the Ohio education officials filled out the grant application with the intent to direct money to charter school startups in academic distressed areas.  Only two, Youngstown and Lorain, currently fit that description.”

There is growing concern nationally about an out-of-control charter sector. Ohio’s problems with regulation of charter schools and especially the sponsors who supposedly provide oversight are well known. Bill Bush, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, describes the concerns of Dave Yost, the Republican state auditor: “Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said earlier this month that Ohio had a ‘broken system’ of charter sponsorship and that the state needed ‘real reform.'”

In the Washington Post‘s coverage of the new U.S. Department of Education’s grants to charter schools, Lyndsey Layton addresses growing questions about the lack of federal and state regulation of charter schools.  Layton quotes a Department of Education assistant secretary, Nadya Dabby, addressing allegations of poor state oversight of Ohio’s charter sector:  “Ohio has a pretty good mechanism in place to improve overall quality and oversight  We believe Ohio has put practices in place; although there’s always room for them to grow.”

According to Doug Livingston’s Beacon Journal report, officials at the U.S. Department of Education were informed during the summer that Ohio had failed to pass the bill that would have put in place what many in this state would call “minimal” regulations.  The Department of Education approved the five-year grant of $71 million for Ohio despite the warning.

The essential questions are these:  Are the federal officials—who chose Ohio as one of seven states for a five-year charter expansion grant and then gave Ohio more money than the other six states—incompetent and unable to read about Ohio’s failure to pass a bill to improve oversight?

Or is the U.S. Department of Education blindly determined to expand the charter school sector despite overwhelming evidence that students are poorly served and tax money wasted?