Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools? Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.
To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:
TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy
Yup. Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools. And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based? Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.
The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools. Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….” Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”
Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition. “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010. In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.” They are:
Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice. Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”
Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.” Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”
Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…” Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”
Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”
Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….” Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools of technology-enabled instructional models….”
As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on. Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea? Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools? Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?
And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system? Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?
My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters. Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.
The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights. The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served. Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty. IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities. Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English. That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right. Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?
This is not a new issue. In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served. According to SPLC: “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education… Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”
The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning. We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets. And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.
What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters. It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding. I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million. I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states. These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.