Biden and Democrats Turn Away from Two Decades of Test-Based Public School Accountability and Privatization

Joe Biden’s education plan and the Democratic Platform on education this year should be recognized as a significant development. Biden’s plan embodies something new for Democrats—a turn away from two decades when Democrats bought into neoliberal experimentation in education. Biden supports expanding opportunity for children through better federal funding of public schools and at the same time curtailing abuses in charter schools.

This blog will take a short end of summer break.  Look for a new post Wednesday, September 9.

Donald Trump’s stance on education has not changed. For four years, the President has been endorsing marketplace school choice—code language for the expansion of school privatization at public expense. As a candidate for reelection, Trump merely says he will go on trying to expand marketplace school choice if he wins a second term. He and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos endorse the continuation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Trump and DeVos are also pushing a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit program they got got someone to introduce into both the House and Senate as “The School Choice Now Act.” This is the same  Education Freedom Scholarship Program DeVos has inserted year after year into  the President’s proposed federal budget. Every year Congress has made sure that it didn’t make it into the final appropriations bill as passed. While the President says he will push school choice—more charters and an expansion of tuition tax credit school vouchers to pay for private school tuition—he never mentions the public schools except for demanding that they reopen as the vehicle for getting parents back to work.

But for Democrats, the direction of education policy seems finally to have shifted.  Shifted in a very positive direction.

Some History: Two Decades of Education “Reform”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted by Congress with bipartisan support in 2001 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  In NCLB, Democrats and Republicans collaborated on an omnibus law designed to hold teachers and schools accountable for ever-rising standardized test scores. The law was designed to “incentivize” teachers and school administrators to work harder and smarter and push kids harder.  All schools were expected to make “adequate yearly progress” until all students posted proficient scores by 2014. Schools that couldn’t raise scores quickly were to be punished, and the punishments included the idea that so called “failing” public schools could be “improved” by turning them over to private operators of charter schools. It was assumed that private management would, through business principles, more efficiently and more cheaply drive improvements in school performance.

Then in 2008, when Biden was serving as Vice President, President Barack Obama chose Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary. Duncan, a Chicago basketball buddy of the President, had managed Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, an early neoliberal “portfolio school reform” plan in which a school district commits to managing public and charter schools alike as though they are a business portfolio—shedding the bad investments (as measured by aggregate standardized test scores) and expanding the number of high-scoring schools.  The plan spawned the growth of Chicago’s privatized charter sector and culminated several years after Duncan left in the closure, in 2013, of 50 traditional public schools, most of them in the poorest Black and Brown neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides. Whole neighborhoods were left without neighborhood public schools to anchor them.  Children traveled across the city for a school choice program which did not turn out to have transformed school achievement. In 2009, when he became U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan set out to impose neoliberal education theory nationally in programs like Race to the Top and a large Office of Innovation and Improvement charged with spawning the startup of local charter schools and the expansion of charter school management companies.  We now know that NCLB and Duncan’s policies didn’t make all children proficient.  When, as the 2014 deadline loomed and the list of so-called failing schools grew too long, Duncan created waivers to let states off the hook, but he still tried to use test scores to evaluate and punish teachers.

Joe Biden and Other Democrats Now Look to a New Direction

As a candidate for President, Joe Biden has turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration.  Education Week‘s Evie Blad recently described the change in educational philosophy: “Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from (Obama), that self-described supporter of education reform.  Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top Grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.  By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration.  Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.”

Jill Biden was a public high school English teacher before Biden became Vice President. During the Bidens’ eight years in Washington, she taught in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. During the Democratic Convention, Jill Biden addressed the nation from her former high school classroom in Wilmington, Delaware.  Many people believe Biden’s turn toward strengthening traditional public schools instead of following the neoliberal Obama-Duncan agenda is due to his wife’s commitment, and, of course, Jill has very likely played a role.  But last December, when seven of the Democratic candidates for President addressed the MSNBC-televised forum in Pittsburgh, almost all of them had turned away from the test-and-punish and pro-privatization policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Biden was not alone in refocusing the conversation around the desperate needs of the nation’s public schools.

Democrats have been paying attention.  A wave of statewide teachers strikes beginning in West Virginia and moving through Kentucky and Oklahoma in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated the school funding collapse lingering in too many states a decade after the Great Recession. And when the strikes moved to cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, we all learned about huge class sizes and outrageous caseloads for school counselors. Like the rest of us, Joe Biden and other Democrats learned about schools without nurses and schools with shuttered libraries. Democrats paid attention when they heard that school districts in Oklahoma and some California cities pay so little they cannot hold onto teachers from year to year—school districts where salaries are so low that teachers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the district in which they teach. Research studies began to show (see here and here) that the growth of school privatization is draining the budgets of local school districts where charters have expanded and vouchers are sending money to pay private school tuition, often for children who have always attended private and religious schools and never attended the public school losing money to the vouchers.  Reports (here, here, and here) have surfaced about widespread fraud in charter schools, the high rate of instability as charters shut down sometimes mid-school year, and punitive discipline programs that violate students’ rights in unregulated private and charter schools.

Today Democrats have a better understanding of what it means for children and families that private voucher schools are not regulated by law and that state legislators designing charter school enabling legislation cared more about experimenting and innovating than protecting students’ rights. Like the rest of us, Democrats can think of real life examples when we read this warning from the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Maybe Democrats have also paid attention to a book by Chris Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, and his wife, Sarah, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  In 2014, the Lubienskis published a book reporting on their research showing a public school advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experience in the home… (A)fter further investigation and more targeted analysis, the results held up.  And they held up (or were more ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming.  That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices….” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, p. xvii)

Biden’s 2020 Public Education Plan

Today Joe Biden and other Democrats are responding to the growing evidence that the past two decades of test-based school accountability and experiments with neoliberal school privatization have not accomplished what was originally promised. Today millions of the nation’s poorest children continue to be left behind. Biden has released an education plan which sets out to improve the public schools which serve 90 percent of America’s children and prioritizes equity in the public schools.  Biden’s plan promises that if Biden is elected, he will ensure the federal government: “Invests in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.'” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

2020 Democratic Platform on Public Education

And Biden is not merely some kind of maverick among Democrats. There has been a significant turn across the Democratic Party, which has left test-based accountability and school privatization behind. The Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles as its educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been
neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Roughly six in 10 jobs require at least some education beyond high school, and yet the ever-rising cost of college tuition and fees leaves higher education out of reach—or saddles students with a lifetime of debt… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee every child can receive a great education. To this end, we support K-12 instruction in civics and climate literacy. We will support evidence-based programs and pedagogical approaches, including assessments that consider the well-being of the whole student and recognize the range of ways students can demonstrate learning. We will reimagine our education system guided by the stakeholders and qualified, first-class, well-trained, passionate educators who know these issues best: young people, educators, parents, and community leaders. Democrats fundamentally believe our education system should prepare all our students—indeed, all of us—for college, careers, lifelong learning, and to be informed, engaged citizens of our communities, our country, and our planet.”

New “Charters and Consequences” Report from Network for Public Education Is Essential Reading

The Network for Public Education’s just-released investigative report, Charters and Consequences, paints a picture of corruption and the needless destruction of one of our society’s long-prized civic institutions. You’ll read about “charter schools gone wild” in California, where barely staffed storefront resource centers—sponsored by school districts 50 or 100 miles away—accrue state tax dollars to their sponsors’ operating budgets even as the sponsors do very little for the charter schools they supposedly oversee.  And you will read about Pennsylvania, where by state law, the charter gets every dollar—state and local—that would have been spent on the child in her public school, on the assumption that the local school district can reduce its expenses child-by-child, ignoring stranded costs for buildings and transportation and a school district’s inability instantly to resize its teaching staff.

The new report was researched and written by Carol Burris, the retired, award-winning NYC high school principal who now serves as Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE).  Burris not only explored research and news reports but traveled to interview the superintendents, teachers and parents affected by rapid charter school expansion.

Burris’ stories of visits to various locations ground the report’s conclusions—what Burris learned as she looked at the operation of online charters, for-profit charters, and the impact of charter school expansion on host public school districts. Here are some of her conclusions:

“When cash is flush, and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

“Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual school system with the private taking funding from the public simply cannot survive.”

And what about the way charter school operators persist in dubbing their schools “public” charter schools?  “Most charter school advocates are quick to point out that they are not part of the school privatization agenda. They place the adjective ‘public’ in front of ‘charter school’ to distinguish themselves from voucher schools. This branding effort has been somewhat successful—especially with politicians and the press. But simply saying charters are public schools does not make it true… Democratically elected school boards govern most public schools.  Nearly all charter boards are appointed and not accountable to parents or the community. Charters control the number of students they have, and they do not have to take students mid-year. The transparency laws, especially in spending, that public schools must follow can be ignored by charter schools… And in some cases, when the school shuts down, the school building and property is not returned to the public who paid for them, but is retained by the charter owners themselves.  And, by the way, charters can walk away and shut their doors whenever it suits them.”  “Many are governed by larger corporations known as CMOs.  Some are for-profit; others are not-for-profit, yet still present financial ‘opportunities’ to vendors and those who run the school.”

Burris identifies the very different consequences for the students enrolled: “The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from age 5 to 21—no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, but also if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened… The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor, and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs. Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition…. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, (in public schools) they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers… It has long been suspected that high attrition in the ‘no excuses’ charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions.  The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen—only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.”

The Network for Public Education concludes its report with recommendations adopted by its board of directors: “For all the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support… We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level. Until that time, we support all legislation and regulation that will make charters better learning environments for students and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund them.” NPE calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until laws are changed to protect students and protect tax dollars.

Please read the Network for Public Education’s Charters and Consequences report, circulate it, and discuss it—along with the short policy briefs NPE has included in its toolkit on school privatization.