In “NY Times” Piece, Eve Ewing Ignores Economic Catastrophe for Public Schools of Charter School Expansion

I am a great fan of Eve Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard.  I have read the book twice, visited in Chicago some of the sites she describes, given the book to friends as a gift and blogged about it.  In that book, Ewing documents the community grief across Chicago’s South Side, where the now three decades old Renaissance 2010 “portfolio school plan” pits neighborhood public schools and charter schools in competition and closes the so-called “failing” neighborhood public schools when too many families opt for a charter school.

In a column published in Monday’s NY Times, Eve Ewing wants to make peace with charter schools.  She writes that we should allow families to choose and ensure that neighborhood schools and charter schools can all be well resourced and thriving. Ewing grasps for a third way—some sort of amicable compromise in a very polarized situation.

Ewing is a University of Chicago sociologist, and, in her column she examines many of the factors by which neighborhood public schools and charter schools have been compared and rated. She points out that academic quality is a mixed bag with neighborhood and charter schools sometimes besting each other in terms of student achievement. Then she wonders, “What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring… resources for all students?

The problem in Ewing’s column this week is that she never identifies or addresses the matter of public funding for education. I assume she wants to equalize school funding across both sectors. But when charter schools compete for students with public schools, there are now two separate education sectors to split what has proven to be a fixed pot of money.  In every single place I know about where charter schools have been allowed to open up, this is a zero sum game.  A sufficient and growing body of research demonstrates that there is no way to split the funding both ways without cutting the funding that most states and local school districts have been budgeting for their public schools.

Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, explains that one must consider more than the comparative test scores and students’ experiences in neighborhood schools and charters, and instead examine the impact of adding new charter schools into what he calls the entire educational ecosystem of the school district: “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.” “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”  In his report, Baker calls charter schools “parasites.”

One issue is that charter schools tend to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students with extremely severe disabilities, leaving behind in the neighborhood public schools the children whose needs are most expensive to serve.  Research by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers University demonstrates, for example, that: “New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (D)ata…  show that many charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”

In Pennsylvania, the state funds special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment.  Peter Greene reports that in Chester Upland, where a charter school is sucking up a mass of special education funding, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”

The biggest financial loss caused by the introduction of a charter sector into a school district is that it is not possible for the school district to recover the stranded costs when children exit to  charter schools.  In a groundbreaking 2018 report, the Oregon political economist, Gordon Lafer demonstrates that California’s Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year to charter schools.  Here’s how: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”  In the same report, Lafer adds that in 2016-17, the San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million to charter schools.

In a subsequent report, Lafer explains: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students.”

The financial loss for any state’s public schools is not limited to  local school district budgets. There is substantial evidence that state legislatures do not create a separate budget line item funded with additional dollars to pay for school privatization; funding is instead sucked out of what used to be budgeted for the state’s public school districts. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black traces how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during the decade following the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

In her brilliant 2018 book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, what Eve Ewing examines is really the social impact in one South Side Chicago community of marketplace school choice in the form of the competition for students between neighborhood public schools and a growing charter school sector. The Renaissance 2010 charter school marketplace expansion was ultimately the economic driver of Chicago’s closure of 50 neighborhood public schools at the end of 2013. The growth of a Chicago charter school sector was a primary cause of the “ghost” neighborhood schoolhouses left abandoned across Chicago’s South Side.

Rahm’s and Arne’s Legacies Continue to Damage Chicago Public Schools, Especially in Black Neighborhoods

Corporate school reform was launched in Chicago back in 2004 in the form of a glittery new promise named Renaissance 2010.  By 2010, the school district said, it would close so-called “failing” public schools and replace them with one hundred new schools. Many of the new schools would be charter schools. There was a corporate flavor to every detail beginning with the formal announcement of the new scheme—at the Commercial Club of Chicago.

In Chicago, however, corporate school reform did not end in 2010. It continues to this day.

In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her profound (2018) history of Chicago school reform, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing contrasts the widespread community grief that has followed school closures—as parents, children, and teachers understood and loved their schools as community and even family institutions, while schools CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett and her staff brought a technocratic corporate mentality.  Ewing quotes the Chicago Public Schools portfolio planner, Brittany Meadows, justifying (at a formal 2013 hearing) the reason for closing Mayo Elementary School: “(T)he enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is between 552 and 828 students. As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408. The number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 100)

Ewing dissects the technocratic logic of the school reform imposed on Chicago by Arne Duncan, who ran the district before he became U.S. Secretary of Education and later Rahm Emanuel and a succession of mayoral-appointed school district CEOs: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.’ Meadows presents this data using an ‘if… then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved. In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable. Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency range, this is what happens next… The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts. These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures… which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable.” (Emphasis is in the original.) (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 101)

Corporate school reform in Chicago, while claiming to be neutral and based on data, has always operated with racist implications. Ewing provides the numbers: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”(Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Besides Chicago’s school closures, which culminated in 2013, when 50 neighborhood schools were shut down, corporate school reform in Chicago has featured something called “student based budgeting.”  A new report from Roosevelt University sociologist, Stephanie Farmer now documents that Student Based Budgeting Concentrates Low Budget Schools in Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods.

Farmer explains: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’ putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low-budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods…  Since the 1990s, the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) has adopted various reforms to make Chicago Public Schools work more like a business than a public good.  CBOE’s school choice reform of the early 2000s created a marketplace of schools by closing neighborhood public schools to make way for new types of schools, many of which were privatized charter schools.”

Farmer contrasts the way Chicago Public Schools allocated funding across its schools in the past with what happened after Student Based Budgeting was introduced in 2014: “CPS central office provided each school an automatic allocation of teachers, school professionals, and staff positions. The cost of these professionals was covered by the central office, and not individual school budgets. This guaranteed that every school would have a baseline of education professionals needed to operate the school.  Under the new Student Based Budgeting model, CBOE ended the automatic allocation. Instead, schools would receive a stipend based on per student headcounts. Central office would continue to cover the cost of the principal, one clerk and one counselor, but automatic funding for eight school positions was eliminated. Principals had to use individual school stipends to pay for teacher salaries, educational professionals, and staff positions.”

Farmer explains: “Critics of Student Based Budgeting are concerned that it treats every kid the same, regardless of income level… Critics are also concerned that Student Based Budgeting forces low enrolled schools to cut their programs, enriching classes, teachers and support staff… to compensate for the loss of monetary support.  The diminished learning environment pushes parents to seek out other school options.”

In other words, School Based Budgeting causes a downward spiral.

External, non-school related factors also affect Chicago’s school choice marketplace, and Student Based Budgeting exacerbates these other very complex dynamics. Farmer explains: “Our research shows that Student Based Budgeting ignores the unevenness of neighborhood distress, which contributes to declining enrollments. Declining school enrollments are not just a result of student-consumers choosing the best school-product… Many lower-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods are experiencing distress caused by: a low wage labor market and poverty; cuts to the public sector (i.e. public housing and school closures); displacement caused by gentrification and growing housing unaffordability; and crime coupled with racially motivated policing.  These factors form the context in which approximately 250,000 Black people have moved out of Chicago between 2000 and 2016, according to the U.S.Census.”

Farmer concludes: “Instead of giving schools the ‘freedom to flourish,’ Student Based Budgeting sets up schools for the ‘freedom to fail.’…Classrooms are overcrowded, where there are over 40 students in elementary classrooms, because there is not enough money in the budget to reduce class size by hiring additional teachers. Small schools are also forced to pare down their curriculum to the bare bones and cut enriching programs like in the arts, foreign languages, and training in professional trades. Many low budget schools are concentrated in the neighborhoods that also have the highest level of student mobility rates, where students move from one school to another due to factors like evictions or homelessness. Schools with starved budgets are unable to provide institutional supports for these students.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is currently negotiating a contract, and the teachers voted last week to authorize a strike in mid-October if the negotiations break down. But the issue is not salaries. Chicago education reporter for WBEZ (NPR) Sarah Karp reports that CTU President Jesse Sharkey “and other union leaders have emphasized that the compensation package will still leave office clerks and teacher aides… who are CTU members—making such low wages their children will qualify for free and reduced lunch… Sharkey repeated Thursday night that the contract fight is about more than pay. Two of the big unresolved issues have to do with staffing and class size limits. The union had started out by insisting that the board of education agree to lower staff-to-student ratios for nurses, social workers and special education case managers. They also wanted a promise in the contract that more librarians would be hired.”

It is impossible to know from outside the district how many of the issues in the contract negotiations can be traced back to Student Based Budgeting and the rest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate school reform legacy.  What is clear is that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who is, by law, responsible for Chicago’s public schools, has a huge challenge to undo years of corporate school reform policies that have undermined the operation of the nation’s third largest public school district. It is a legacy fraught with racial overtones.

Considering School Closures as Philadelphia’s Empty Germantown High School Faces Sheriff’s Sale

In her profound and provocative book about the community impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 so-called “underutilized” public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, Eve Ewing considers the effect of school closures on the neighborhoods they once anchored.  Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, is about Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and a set of school closures in Chicago in which 88 percent of the affected students were African American, and 71 percent of the closed schools had majority-African American teachers. (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Ewing writes: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention. As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they also are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone, they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Public school closures were one of three “school turnarounds” prescribed for so-called “failing schools” in the No Child Left Behind Act; they were also as part of Arne Duncan’s priorities in Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. (The other two turnaround strategies were firing the principal and half the staff or privatizing school by charterizing it or turning it over to a private Educational Management Organization.)  At the end of the school year in 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools. Other big city school districts also imposed school closure as a “turnaround” strategy. Philadelphia closed 23 schools that same year.

Chicago and Philadelphia were also both rapidly expanding marketplace school competition by imposing a management theory called portfolio school reform. It is a strategy that models business school thinking.  The district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are  investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to launch new schools and close low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled. It is imagined that the competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been launched. School districts in Chicago and Philadelphia launched a growing number of charter schools at the same time the overall student population in the school district was declining. As families experimented with school choice, both districts shut down neighborhood schools described as becoming “underutilized.”  School closure was a top down policy, and when it was imposed, the justification was presented with reams of technical data. In Philadelphia, the school closures were imposed by a state-appointed School Reform Commission. By popular demand, the Philadelphia school district has now been returned to democratic governance under a locally elected school board, a development which may reflect partly on the community’s response to the massive school closures.

I thought about the wave of 2013 school closures this morning as I read an article from Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer about Philadelphia’s storied Germantown High School—now covered by the newspaper as a mere eyesore, an abandoned hulk of a building. The Inquirer’s Hannah Chinn reports: “When the Philadelphia School District closed Germantown High School in 2013 just shy of its 100th anniversary and announced plans to sell it, some residents felt blindsided and confused.  Others were hopeful. How could their community continue without a central education facility? Who would take on the responsibility of the building?… Could the building be redeveloped to offer affordable housing…?  Vocational training? A resource center? Six years later, all those questions remain unanswered… In September 2013, the Maryland-based Concordia Group began negotiations to purchase Germantown High.”  The sale was opposed in court, but, “In 2017, after an appeal from the School District, the court approved the sale of … five schools.  But the Concordia Group no longer seemed so sure… The two Germantown schools are not listed on Concordia’s site—or seemingly anywhere else, except with the sheriff… This spring (2019), unpaid balances have caught up to the property. On May 15, the high school is scheduled for tax sale. According to the Sheriff’s Office, if a property owner fails to pay utility bills, schools taxes, or city taxes, the property may be auctioned at a tax delinquency sale so the city can collect what it’s owed. The opening bid on Germantown High next month is listed as $1,500.”

In a 2016 report on the wave of school closings across America’s cities, Rachel M. Cohen describes the 2013 Philadelphia school closures that included Germantown High School: “In 2012, citing a $1.4 billion deficit, Philadelphia’s state-run school commission voted to close 23 schools—nearly 10 percent of the city’s stock… Amid the fiscal pressure for state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, charter-school growth, and federal incentives to shut down low-performing schools, the district assured the public that closures would help put the city back on track toward financial stability… While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures.”

You might wonder whether any academic research has been conducted on the effects of Philadelphia’s school closures and on the use of school closure as a strategy for supporting higher academic achievement among the affected students.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew P. Steinberg and John M. MacDonald just published such a study of the impact of the 2013 public school closures in Philadelphia. The study (published in the Economics of Education Review, Volume 69, April 2019) is paywalled, but the conclusions are reported in the abstract: “We estimate the impact of public school closings in Philadelphia on student achievement and behavioral outcomes. While school closures had no effect on the average achievement of displaced students, achievement increased among displaced students attending higher-performing schools following closure. The achievement of students (already) attending receiving-schools, however, was negatively affected by the receipt of displaced students. School absences increased significantly for displaced students following closure. We also find that the achievement of displaced and receiving-school students declined as the fraction of displaced students attending a receiving-school increased, and displaced students missed more days of school and received more suspension days the farther they traveled to their new school following closure.”  It is clear that the educational experiment has not been an astounding success for the students involved.

The new study on Philadelphia pretty much replicates the findings in a research brief summarized in January by the National Education Policy Center: “In School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance, Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland, and Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop of the University of California, Berkeley, conclude that closures are ‘a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either student achievement or non-cognitive well-being.’ Sunderman, Coghlan and Mintrop found that closures don’t necessarily result in students transferring to higher performing schools. In addition, the transfer itself can set students back as they adapt to new environments. School closures also often fail to deliver promised cost savings, the brief’s author’s note. That’s because closures come with hidden costs such as mothballing buildings, transporting students to schools that are farther from their homes, and renovating receiving schools to accommodate additional enrollment.”

After Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Chicago Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

We have lived through two decades of top-down school reform—including prescriptions for turning around our society’s lowest performing schools—the schools situated in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests that we reframe our thinking about school closure as a turnaround strategy. “When Barbara Byrd-Bennett (then Chicago’s school CEO) made her statement to the board (who were considering the proposed school closures), she encouraged them—and anyone else who might be listening, including journalists and average citizens—to see Chicago’s empty school buildings as a ‘utilization crisis,’ a matter of dire urgency demanding immediate attention… Within this frame, the frame of the utilization crisis, school closure indeed appears to be the only option for anyone who cares about children… But if we consider not only the painting but the frame, we might come to other conclusions because we have seen that, when considering a school’s value, there is more to the assessment than meets they eye. There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it. There is the need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people… There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality than those who have the power to steer its future. And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure….” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p.159)