Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Owes ALEC for Promoting Her Anti-Public Education Agenda

Today in Denver, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will deliver the lunchtime keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Last year, right after the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, then-Governor of Indiana and then-nominee for Vice President, went home to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address at last year’s annual meeting of ALEC. What this means is that key people serving in the Trump administration are political extremists. We know that, of course, but it isn’t bad to stop and really take in the meaning of who’s in charge.

Esteemed education policy writers David Berliner and Gene Glass trace the history of ALEC: “In 1971 one Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a lawyer and member of 11 corporate boards, sent to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce what has come to be known as the Powell Manifesto. (Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court within a year of his having transmitted his manifesto.) In brief, Powell urged conservatives to adopt an aggressive stance toward the federal government, to seek to influence legislation in the interest of corporations, and to enlist like-minded scholars in an attack on liberal social critics… (T)he Powell Manifesto influenced the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute… and other powerful organizations… The Powell Manifesto spawned the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Formed in 1973, just 2 years after the Powell declaration, ALEC has been without question the most powerful influence on education policy in the United States during the past 3 decades.” (50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 7-8)

It is primarily state policy and funding under the fifty state constitutions, not federal policy, that shapes public schools. ALEC is the far-right’s tool for influencing state government.  For forty years, ALEC has been the operation turning the agenda of corporations and far-right think tanks into the bills that are introduced in state legislatures across the country. It is a membership organization for state legislators and for the corporate and ideological lobbyists who sit down together to craft model legislation—the very same bills, perhaps tweaked just a bit to localize them— that are then introduced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Florida,  Kansas, and Arizona.

A lot of state legislatures have recently been discussing laws for Education Savings Accounts, for example, a new form of vouchers. Although you might have imagined that Betsy DeVos and her incessant rhetoric about tuition tax credits and education savings accounts is the reason for this wave of bills introduced seemingly everywhere, it is ALEC that should get the credit. Betsy DeVos owes ALEC big time. ALEC is the assembly line that turns her kind of ideas into prototype bills and then sends them along the conveyor belt of its state legislative members for consideration across the fifty state legislatures.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer describing ALEC’s power: “Above all, the corporate agenda is coordinated through the American Legislative Exchange Council… ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation. According to the group’s promotional materials, it convenes bill-drafting committees—often at posh resorts—in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.’ Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.” Lafer lists over a hundred corporations whose lobbyists also represent their interests on ALEC committees writing the bills. (The One Percent Solution, pp 12-14)

A huge irony is that the IRS persists in considering ALEC a tax-exempt nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization, Common Cause has filed a formal complaint: “Common Cause filed an IRS whistleblower complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in April 2012, charging the organization with tax fraud as it operates as a corporate lobbying group while registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity.” Despite that Common Cause has updated its complaint to keep it active—in 2013, 2015, and 2016—the IRS has not reconsidered.

Not only corporations but also national organizations and think tanks promoting a corporate, anti-tax, and school privatization agenda are ALEC members and have served on its Education Task Force, including the Alliance for School Choice, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Walton Family Foundation. Others have been sponsors of programming or exhibitors at ALEC annual meetings, including the American Enterprise Institute, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the Center for Education Reform, the Family Research Council, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Ed Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice),  and the pro-voucher Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Member think tanks of the far right State Policy Network are also members of ALEC’s bill-writing task forces. Their staffs collaborate with ALEC’s corporate and legislative members to draft model bills. Examples of  State Policy Network member organizations are Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, the Illinois Policy Institute, Michigan’s Mackinac Center, North Carolina’s John Locke Institute, New York’s Manhattan Institute, and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

So what do we know about the agenda for education policy—endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—that is being created and spread to the state legislatures along ALEC’s conveyor belt of prototype bills? Here is Gordon Lafer; “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the (corporate) agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education…. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence…. (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer continues—identifying ALEC’s role in all this: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets, and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers… lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards. Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 130)

I wish we had a U.S. Secretary of Education who would challenge ALEC’s agenda in the luncheon keynote today in Denver.

Momentum Against Charter Schools Grows as NEA Joins NAACP in Demanding a Moratorium

Last week that nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA), passed an important new policy statement on charter schools. In the test-driven climate created by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, annual standardized tests came to be seen as the yardstick by which all schools should be judged—and that included the privatized alternatives including charters and the private and parochial schools that accept publicly funded tuition vouchers. It has become clearer over the years that charters and vouchers have created serious problems for children, for public school districts, and for the communities where the charters are situated and privatization is occurring, except that until quite recently we’ve continued to look only at the test scores and conclude that schools that produce high scores are worth funding and low scoring schools ought to be punished. We have just looked right past the other problems.

Now people are having to pay attention to the injustices caused by school privatization, what economists call the negative externalities—what the rest of us are likely to call collateral damage. NEA names some of these problems in the introduction to the new policy statement: “The explosive growth of charters has been driven, in part, by deliberate and well-funded efforts to ensure that charters are exempt from the basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools.”  These efforts, according to NEA, “mirror efforts to privatize other public institutions for profit.”

And, efforts to privatize have particularly targeted the most vulnerable communities: “Charters have grown the most in school districts that were already struggling to meet students’ needs due to longstanding systemic and ingrained patterns of institutional neglect, racial and ethnic segregation, inequitable school funding, and disparities in staff, programs and services. The result has been the creation of separate, largely unaccountable, privately managed charter school systems in those districts that undermine support and funding of local public schools. Such separate and unequal education systems are disproportionately located in, and harm, students and communities of color by depriving both of the high quality public education system that should be their right… The growth of separate and unequal systems of charter schools that are not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools threatens our students and our public education system.”

NEA proposes a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools unless two criteria are met. First there ought to be no more private authorizers, the kind of organizations that have too frequently been bought off by the big charter management companies or powerful local interests looking for profits from public tax dollars. (This last editorial comment is this blog’s commentary, not the NEA’s.) NEA says charter schools should be district-sponsored: “Public charter schools should be authorized by a public school district only if the charter is both necessary to meet the needs of students in the district and will meet those needs in a manner that improves the local public school system… in compliance with: i) open meetings and public records law; ii) prohibitions against for-profit operation or profiteering as enforced by conflict of interest, financial disclosure and auditing requirements; and iii) the same civil rights, including federal and state laws and protections for students with disabilities, employment, health, labor, safety, staff qualification and certification requirements as other public schools… Those basic safeguards and standards protect public education as a public good that is not to be commodified for profit.”

Second, NEA directly addresses the collateral damage that is now recognized to have devastated Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and other urban school districts: “(C)harter schools may be authorized or expanded only after a district has assessed the impact of the proposed charter school on local public school resources, programs and services, including the district’s operating and capital expenses, appropriate facility availability, the likelihood that the charter will prompt cutbacks or closures in local public schools, and consideration of whether other improvements in either educational program or school management (ranging from reduced class sizes to community or magnet schools) would better serve the district’s needs. The district must also consider the impact of the charter on the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic composition of schools and neighborhoods and on equitable access to quality services for all district students, including students with special needs and English language learners.”

What the members of the National Education Association are demanding here is a stop to the promotion of an expensive experiment that lets a few students with striving parents escape and leaves the rest behind in schools from which school privatization has sucked desperately needed resources. No more lifeboat strategy for a few. NEA wants to make its motto real: “Great Public Schools for Every Child.” That is, after all, what our society’s public education system was invented to strive for.

With its new policy statement, NEA joins our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, which, last October, passed a resolution  demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability of standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations my be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Julian Vasquez Heilig, the California civil rights advocate and professor of education, reminds us that other civil rights organizations—the Journey for Justice Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives—joined the NAACP in calling for a moratorium on new charters until such conditions are instituted. Vasquez Heilig also shares the history of NEA’s new resolution: “Last summer the leadership of the National Education Association faced an uprising of sorts from grassroots educators demanding that more critical questions be asked about transparency and accountability for charter schools. In response, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia convened a twenty-one member task force on Charter Schools last September, charging members to ‘fundamentally rethink what NEA policy should be on charter schools.’ This past week, the task force delivered their policy statement to a representative assembly at the NEA, and it was overwhelmingly voted into policy by educators from across the United States.”

Vasquez Heilig adds his own sense of the history of charter schools: “Market-based education reformers would also have us believe that education reform has been a ‘mainstream’ movement over the past twenty years… But goals for charters are far from mainstream; they have been strongly influenced by neoliberal ideals for privatization and private control of education in the United States. Over the past year civil rights organizations, grassroots educators, and citizen supporters of public schools organized to push back against this direction of charter schools, and to demand a reassessment.”

The problems addressed in all these resolutions are clearly documented in studies by Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert; Gordon Lafer, the economist who studied the impact of charters in Los Angeles, and researchers at Roosevelt University who studied Chicago.  Bruce Baker summarizes the overall problem we’ve ignored by judging charter schools merely by comparing test scores of children in those schools with the scores of their public school counterparts: “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.” Baker criticizes the way charters operate in too many cities: “One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”

In a fine column last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant wonders why it has taken so long to articulate the injustice of school privatization and to incorporate these issues into our political conversation. Bryant queries the motives of Democrats who continue to try to have it both ways—opposing Betsy DeVos’s pleas for privatization through vouchers while at the same time neglecting to oppose poorly regulated charter schools: “Faced with disastrous Donald Trump, labor and civil rights advocates are rallying in common cause behind health care for all, a living wage for every worker, a tax system where the wealthy pay their fair share, tuition-free college, and an end to senseless, never-ending wars. Here’s another rallying point labor and civil rights agree on: A moratorium on charter schools. This week, the nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association, broke from its cautious regard of charter schools to pass a new policy statement that declares charter schools are a ‘failed experiment’ that has led to a ‘separate and unequal’ sector of schools that are not subject to the same ‘safeguards and standards’ of public schools… The NEA’s action echoes a resolution passed earlier this year by the national NAACP calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charters and for stronger oversight of these schools… Democrats who continue to support charter school expansions under current circumstances risk muddying the waters at a time when there should be clear differences with what Trump-DeVos want. A moratorium on charter schools draws a a bright line between a political regime intent on serving the privileged and a Democratic party that seeks to uphold labor and civil rights. Democrats should step across that line.”

State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post report about four-day school weeks in Oklahoma provides the textbook example of the political phenomenon described by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Here is Emma Brown: “A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week… Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules, nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall….”

Gordon Lafer explains that in the November 2010 election, “Eleven state governments switched from Democratic or divided control to unified Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Since these lawmakers took office in early 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at lowering labor standards and slashing public services.” (p. 2) “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign…  (T)his was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country. Finally, the 2011 legislative sessions opened in the midst of record budget deficits (from the Great Recession), creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.” (p 44)

Oklahoma was one of the eleven states that turned all-Red in 2011; the others were Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Wyoming.  Today, after the 2016 election, the number of all-Red states has reached 25.  And, while it might seem to the residents of any one of these states that a climate of tax slashing, union bashing, and cutting public services reflects some kind of new trend among their voters, a more intentional national strategy is instead pushing the agenda into their state from the outside. Lafer explains: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized with state legislation written by lobbyists representing national and multinational corporations… In fact, lawmakers… (have been) enacting the agenda of national corporate interests that had spent years preparing for just such a moment.” (p. 49)

Lafer continues: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also broadly unpopular… In this sense, education policy… provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (p. 130)

Who are the corporate lobbies crafting and pushing the anti-tax, union-bashing, anti-public education agenda? “Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (p. 130)  “Furthermore, the corporate agenda is carried out through an integrated network that operates on multiple channels at once: funding ALEC to write bills, craft legislative talking points, and provide a meeting place for legislators and lobbyists to build relationships; supporting local think tanks in the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network to produce white papers, legislative testimony, opinion columns, and media experts; contributing to candidate campaigns and party committees; making independent expenditures on behalf of lawmakers or issues; and deploying field organizers to key legislative districts.” (p. 39)

A primary strategy is tax cutting: “‘The best way to stimulate the economy,’ insisted a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Cato Institute, is ‘to shrink government… lower marginal tax rates, and streamline regulations.’  The corporate right’s exhortations for an unprecedented policy of cutting taxes and services in the midst of recession was not an evidence-based policy and indeed did not yield the economic growth its proponents forecast… There was no reason to believe that tax cuts were the key to economic recovery.  However continuing tax cuts achieved something else; they dramatically—and perhaps permanently—shrank the size of government.” (p. 65)

How has all this affected public education?  “(B)udget cuts were particularly widespread—and particularly devastating—in the country’s school systems. In 2010-11, 70 percent of all U.S. school districts made cuts to essential services. Despite widespread evidence of the academic and economic value of preschool education, twelve states cut pre-K funding that year, including Arizona, which eliminated it completely. Ohio repealed full-day kindergarten and cut its preschool program to the point that it served 75 percent fewer four-year-olds than it had a decade earlier. Pennsylvania also cut back from full-day to half-day kindergarten in many districts—including Philadelphia, which also eliminated 40 percent of its teaching staff…. More than half the nation’s school districts changed their thermostat settings…. Research shows that the availability of trained librarians makes a significant improvement in student reading and writing skills, yet by 2014, one-third of public schools in the country lacked a full-time certified librarian.” (p. 69)

Lafer explores the reasons far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” (p. 129) But he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant: “Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.” (p. 129)

Which brings us back to Emma Brown’s recent piece in the Washington Post about Oklahoma, where parents and teachers are getting used to a reduced school week only four days long: “Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit. Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004-2008. Republicans—who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and the governorship since 2011—have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production… Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget (last) Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets… Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008…. Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013—$44,128—put the state at 49th in the nation…. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines…. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training… is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.”

This week Valerie Strauss published  a reflection by an Oklahoma school teacher, a companion piece to Emma Brown’s report.  Shawn Sheehan is the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. At the end of this school year, he is leaving his position at Norman High School to take a job in Texas. His wife is also leaving her position in a Norman, Oklahoma school to accept a Texas teaching position. Sheehan explains: “(A)t the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job—this job we love very much—by heading out of state… We could stay, but it would cost our family—specifically our sweet baby girl… We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”

Betsy DeVos Defends School Choice, Waffles on Protecting Children’s Civil Rights

Let’s begin with some irony as we consider Betsy DeVos’s comments last week on the speaking circuit. DeVos made what was billed as a major policy address to the convention of the ultra-conservative American Federation for Children, which she founded and whose board she chaired until she became our Education Secretary.  She was, according to Jeff Bryant’s excellent column on the subject, introduced by Denisha Merriweather, among DeVos’s favorite exemplars of school choice. Bryant reminds us: “In Merriweather’s case, exercising school choice meant using Florida’s education tax credit program to attend a fundamentalist Christian academy that presents the Bible as literal history and science, (and) teaches young earth creationism….”

So what did Betsy DeVos say after Merriweather introduced her?  Knowing that Merriweather used her voucher at a private school endorsing young earth creationism, DeVos accused the millions of Americans who support traditional public schools of being “flat-earthers” who need to be dragged by the expansion of school choice “out of the Stone Age and into the future.”

In DeVos’s address to the American Federation for Children, it had been predicted that she would spell out her particular voucher plan which would very likely be modeled on a tuition tax credit program in Florida. But no plan was announced. From DeVos’s omission of any details we can infer that we are probably not going to get a major voucher plan this year because DeVos’s department isn’t ready and because the health care debate has fallen apart and because widespread dysfunction has slowed things down. That is all to the good.

President Trump’s federal budget proposal was also released last week, and DeVos went before a House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education to defend the proposed budget for the Department of Education, which cuts $10.6 billion (13 percent) out of current programming and expands school choice by $1.4 billion. DeVos tried to claim that her department is not stealing money from public school programming to expand school choice, but Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post responds: “If there are cuts to public schools, and there is new money going to school choice, that can’t mean anything else.”

Strauss also reports that, although DeVos admitted that she thinks high poverty schools need more money than low poverty schools and therefore supports the purpose of Title I, DeVos seemed confused.  She appeared to say that high-poverty schools already get more money than low-poverty schools, something that is demonstrably false. After all, Title I was created for the purpose of compensating for grossly unequal school funding between poor and wealthy communities. In almost every case, state school funding fails to make up for the enormous inequity created by the disparate property taxing capacities of local communities.  Title I has always been inadequately funded, and it has never been able to make up the difference.

Much of DeVos’s conversation with the House committee considering the proposed education budget was about the federal Education Department’s responsibility to protect the civil rights of students in schools that receive federal dollars. As she did in her confirmation hearing last January, DeVos again waffled.

Valerie Strauss examines DeVos’s conversation with members of the House committee in some detail.  Strauss shares an interchange between Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and DeVos in which DeVos says the federal government should step back and give more latitude to the states as they design school voucher programs that would receive federal funding: “Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass) said that one private school in Indiana that is a voucher school says it may deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is ‘homosexual or bisexual activity.’  She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not discriminate in that way if it were to accept federal funding through a new school choice program. Clark further asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school were not accepting African American students and the state ‘said it was okay.'”

Strauss reports that, while DeVos said that Title IX protections are broadly applicable, she hedged, “when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students…”

Clark interrupted: “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, ‘that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars?’  Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”

DeVos replied: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs.”

Later, DeVos is quoted elaborating on her belief that the federal government should step back and empower state governments even when federal dollars are involved: “I go back to the bottom line—is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down , one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus.  And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”

Strauss reports that when asked about the U.S. Department of Education’s role in protecting students’ rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos again backed off: “DeVos responded that it should be up to the states to decide how to run their own programs, and then she referred to a tax credit program in Florida, where tens of thousands of students with disabilities attend private school with public money. Florida is one of those states that requires voucher recipients to give up their IDEA rights. ‘Each state deals with this issue in their own manner,’ she said.”

Finally DeVos would not commit to holding private and parochial schools receiving federal dollars through vouchers or the federal Charter Schools Program accountable to the same standards as traditional public schools. When she was asked whether she would support accountability standards for any new federally funded school choice program, DeVos responded: “States should decide ‘what kind of flexibility they are going to allow.'”

At the end of her column, Strauss publishes DeVos’s formal testimony to the House Committee. Here is how DeVos concluded her prepared remarks to the committee: “In total, the President’s budget fulfills his promise to devolve power from the Federal government and place it in the hands of parents and families. It refocuses the Department on supporting States in their efforts to provide a high quality education to all of our students.”

By promoting a state-by-state policy agenda, DeVos is following the playbook examined in detail by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017). Lafer tracks the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills.” (p. 13) Betsy DeVos is quite familiar with the agenda of ALEC and its partners such as Michigan’s Mackinac Center. Her husband, Dick DeVos is described as instrumentally  involved in twisting the arms of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and members of the Michigan legislature in 2011 to pass ALEC’s high-priority right-to-work legislation. (p. 82)

Here is Gordon Lafer describing the corporate education agenda being driven across the states by ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and the regional think tanks that are part of the State Policy Network. While Betsy DeVos is careful to frame her agenda in the softer language of parental choice, Lafer would suggest we consider the corporate agenda as the foundation underneath her proposals: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers that may be used for private school tuition, lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards… Despite prolific claims to the contrary, corporate-led education reform does not represent an agenda to improve American education or expand the life chances of poor urban youth… (T)he corporate agenda would lead to a divided country, where the children of the wealthy will be taught a broad curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers, while the rest of the nation will be consigned to a narrow curriculum delivered in large classes by inexperienced staff—or by digital applications with no teachers at all.” (p. 130)

What David Leonhardt Neglects to Consider in Tuesday’s Column Endorsing Charter Schools

In a column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt, the NY Times columnist, asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a long and devoted advocate of the expansion of school vouchers, to consider Mark Dynarski’s new study—sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education itself— of the voucher program in Washington, D.C. along with the Thomas Fordham Institute’s most recent study of vouchers in Ohio.  This and other research has shown that students carrying vouchers to private schools don’t do as well in math as their public school counterparts, and don’t do significantly better in general.  Based on these studies, Leonhardt, argues that vouchers are not a good alternative to public schools, and he suggests Betsy DeVos should pay attention to the evidence.

But although Leonhardt believes vouchers don’t work, he is a big fan of school choice and charter schools. Leonhardt buys into the idea that competition through privatization is a good idea and that society’s best chance for helping students in struggling schools is to help them escape from traditional public schools to charter schools chosen by their parents.  There are, however, a number of problems with Leonhardt’s argument for charter schools. And there are many reasons to believe that investing in the public schools—especially those in our poorest neighborhoods where meager and uneven school funding has left the schools unable to meet the enormous needs their students present—would likely better serve the students and their communities.

Leonhardt’s first mistake is his belief that charter schools take all comers.  He writes: “Crucially, many charters are open to all comers, which means their success doesn’t stem from skimming off the best.”  The Network for Public Education (NPE) disagrees: “Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and they do not have to ‘backfill’ seats; that is to accept students to fill open spots when students leave.” NPE continues: “Charter schools can appear to outperform public schools when they don’t enroll the same types of students. Because charters tend to serve far fewer students with disabilities and fewer who don’t speak English as their first language, they can appear to be higher preforming.  Many charters do not ‘backfill’ when students leave or take older students.  Charter schools keep only the students they want. Through various methods, charter schools shed their most problematic students who must then return to local public schools that accept all students. ‘Higher-performing’ charter schools are an illusion. Even the best performing charter schools can trace some or all of their advantages to differences in the students they reach. They do not have to take… (all) students like publics do—regardless of space, grade or time of the year.”

A second problem is that in defense of charter schools Leonhardt cites academic research conducted in the District of Columbia, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, NYC, Florida and Texas. All of the studies he cites, except for the one in Florida which measured high school graduation and subsequent college matriculation, are based solely on comparison of students’ standardized test scores in charter and public schools. And even in Florida, Leonhardt selects a study that evaluates charter schools based on their capacity to raise achievement among the students in the charter schools. But studies that generalize about charter school test scores are flawed by their very premise, as charter schools are designed to be as different as can be—with a mass of different strategies and policies.  Broad brush studies of charters overall miss the distinctions in school quality. And certainly the online charter schools where students study at home on their computers have been shown to be ineffective across the states.

A third problem is that  Leonhard fails to consider that charters serve only a tiny percentage of our nation’s K-12 students. Charter schools are only 6.6 percent of the nation’s publicly funded schools; traditional public schools continue to make up 93.4 percent of all publicly funded schools across the United States. Leonhardt neglects to consider the studies that examine the consequences of charter school expansion on the public school districts in which the charters are situated. Economists use the term “negative externalities” to describe the unwanted side-effects of a particular public policy. Recent large studies of charters in cities, where most charter growth has occurred, have begun documenting very serious negative externalities affecting the traditional public schools that continue to the majority of American students.

In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Bruce Baker, a school finance expert at Rutgers University, concluded that a primary problem with charter schools is that their rapid growth in urban school districts is destabilizing the big city school districts in which they are expanding.  He shows, “that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Then, in mid-April, In the Public Interest published a study by Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon describing problems caused for public school districts in California by the rapid growth of the charter school sector: “Unfortunately, the central conclusion of this analysis is that funding for charter facilities is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard… Far too much of these public funds are spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no additional need for classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”  Lafer continues: “The most fundamental question to ask about any type of school construction is: how many schools are needed for the number of students we have?”  In California, he writes, “(N)early 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support….”

In Chicago and Detroit the growth of a competitive charter school marketplace has resulted in the closure of neighborhood public schools.  Charter operators open schools according to where they believe there is a market for their services and where they can find a space in an office building or a closed public or parochial school. Intense competition driven by aggressive marketing may draw students from neighboring public schools.  Eventually school districts close the emptying buildings, but again Bruce Baker warns about a dangerous negative externality: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests). Increasingly, districts… have sold land and building to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail  Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker describes the dry subject of “taxpayer assets,” but charters forcing out traditional public schools have also had human and personal consequences. In September of 2015 in Chicago, parents and community advocates saved neighborhood Dyett High School only after mounting a 34 day hunger strike in a South Side neighborhood where charter school competition had shuttered the only public high school. Finally the Chicago Public Schools agreed to reopen Dyett and once again ensure that the community is anchored by a public high school zoned to accept all students residing in the neighborhood.

Even the bond agencies have been warning school districts that their bond ratings may suffer if charter schools are rapidly expanded when school districts’ fixed costs cannot be reduced to accommodate the loss of students.  When Question 2 to lift the cap on the startup of new charters was considered in Massachusetts in last November’s election,  Moody’s, the bond rating agency, sent a letter to the school districts in Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River warning that their school district credit ratings could be lowered if charter schools were to be rapidly expanded, thereby undermining the public school districts’ fiscal viability.

Bruce Baker concludes: “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.”

Ironically a huge warning about an out-of-control school marketplace comes from Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a supporter of education markets and charter schools. After visiting Detroit in the summer of 2014, Lake reflected: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Venture Capital in Education—Education Technology and On-Line Charters Viewed as Investments

Late last week The Nation posted on-line a series of articles that will appear in the October 13, print edition of the magazine—a special issue on education.  These are in-depth pieces on issues such as the crisis in Philadelphia’s public schools, the role of teachers unions, lack of regulation in charter schools, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, and two articles this blog will explore today on the push by so-called “education reformers” to promote the use of technology and on-line education—including Lee Fang’s blockbuster investigation, Venture Capitalists are Poised to “Disrupt” Everything About the Education Market.  Many of the pieces were originally behind a paywall, but The Nation has now made them accessible to all readers.  As the week continues, this blog will explore some of the other articles in The Nation‘s special issue on education.

“As the articles in this issue illustrate,” write the magazine’s editors as they introduce the special issue, “the strategies pursued by education reformers frequently dovetail with those of austerity hawks.  The latter burnish their conservative credentials by cutting budgets and defunding schools.  The reformers sweep in to capitalize on the situation, introducing charter chains like Rocketship and K12, which produce no real benefits for children.  The chains do, however, generate cash for investors, as a new trove of public money is directed to private coffers.”

Pointing out that in the last quarter century, the marketplace has “carefully crafted business strategies (that) have transformed markets to create huge profits in unlikely sectors”—most notably healthcare—Fang writes, “Next year, the market size of K-12 education is projected to be $788.7 billion.  And currently, much of that money is spent in the public sector. ‘It’s really the last honeypot for Wall Street,’ says Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, a think tank that tracks the privatization of roads, prisons, schools and other parts of the economy.”  Fang quotes a venture capital investor who believes that “despite the opposition of ‘unions, public school bureaucracies, and parents,’ the ‘education market is ripe for disruption.'”

Noting that key staffers came to the U.S.  Department of Education straight from the  “education investment community,” Fang traces the role of the Obama Administration as promoter of the invasion by the private sector into public education.  One enormous market opportunity is emerging, for example, to provide services connected with the Common Core standards, whose expansion across the states will involve the tests themselves developed by two consortia and marketed by publishing companies, aligned textbooks and computer programs, the necessary computers or tablets by which students are to be tested on-line, and the grading and analysis of the tests. (This blog recently covered the ongoing Los Angeles iPad fiasco.)

Fang reminds readers that Ted Mitchell, recently confirmed as Under Secretary of Education, came to the Department of Education from a position as chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund.  Jim Shelton, Deputy Secretary, came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and before that NewSchools Venture Fund.  Shelton is also “a longtime education investor and the former co-founder of LearnNew, a charter chain that was sold to Edison Learning, a for-profit charter management company.”  Shelton is quoted by Fang as explaining “that the Common Core standards will allow education companies to produce products that ‘can scale across many markets,’ overcoming the ‘fragmented procurement market’ that has plagued investors seeking to enter the K-12 sector.  Moreover, Shelton and his team manage an education innovation budget, awarding grants to charter schools and research centers to advance the next breakthrough in education technology.”  Shelton has predicted that education innovation will spark the next “equivalent of Google or Microsoft to lead the global learning technology market.”  Says Shelton, “I want it to be a U.S. company.”

Fang also traces a changing culture across the states including Democrats and Republicans alike in big city mayors’ offices and state legislatures, a culture that is comfortable “to divert taxpayer funding to charter schools, which are often run as for-profit companies and are more willing to embrace tech-centric classroom solutions….” Fang’s case study is K12, an on-line-virtual charter school,  “a for-profit charter behemoth that enrolls 123,259 students” and that is a darling of Wall Street, despite its notorious reputation.  K12, through its on-line affiliates across the states, enrolls children to study at home on their computers.  Despite that achievement is low and dropout rates are high, state legislators are driving money to such schools at virtually the same rate as to public schools where there is a significantly greater need for staff, transportation, and buildings in addition to other services.

Fang reports that only 27.7 percent of K-12’s on-line schools met the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress standard, compared to a 52 percent average at brick and mortar public schools.  In Colorado, Fang reports that one study showed half of the online students at K12 left within a year. Tennessee actually closed K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, and recently K12’s largest on-line affiliate, Agora Cyber Charter in Pennsylvania is considering severing ties to K12 due to K12’s manipulation of data to hide the school’s dropout rate.  On Wall Street, however, K12 is promoted as a “solid investment opportunity.”  Baird Equity Research has actively pushed K12 stock because of its potential for growth, based on “K12’s success in working with state policymakers and school districts to enable the expansion of virtual schools into new states or districts.”  Investors are encouraged to learn about the amount K12 spends on advertising and lobbying. “The company has years of experience in successfully lobbying to get legislation passed to allow virtual school to operate,” says Baird in a note to its investors.

While Fang traces the waste of public funds and failure to educate children in for-profit, on-line schools, in  What Happens When Your Teacher Is a Video Game? Gordon Lafer explores the operation of Rocketship Education, a company that has been expanding from California to Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.  “Corporate lobbyists are increasingly promoting a type of charter school that places an emphasis on technology instead of human teaching… Rocketship’s model is based on four principles.  First, the company cuts costs by eliminating teachers.  Starting in kindergarten, students spend about one-quarter of their class time in teacherless computer labs, using video-game-based math and reading applications.  The company has voiced hopes of increasing digital instruction to as much as 50 percent of student learning time.  Second, Rocketship relies on a corps of young, inexperienced, low-cost teachers… Third the school has narrowed its curriculum to a near exclusive focus on math and reading.  Finally, Rocketship maintains a relentless focus on teaching to the test.”  Rocketship investors include Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and venture capitalist John Doerr.  Hastings has become well-known as a national spokesman for the elimination of locally elected boards of education, and Lafer explains the reason: “As Hastings explains, ‘School districts [are hard] to sell to because [they] are really reacting to voter forces more than to market forces.'” “By contrast, public-school curricula are set by officials who are accountable to a locally elected board prohibited from any financial relationship with vendors.”

Lafer emphasizes that experimentation with technology-driven schooling is currently an inner-city phenomenon:  “Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a new type of segregation is spreading across the urban landscape.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and their legislative allies are promoting an ambitious, two-pronged agenda for poor cities: replace public schools with privately run charter schools and replace teachers with technology… The destruction of public schooling starts in poor cities because this is where parents are politically powerless to resist a degraded education model. But after the industry has taken over city school systems, it will move into the suburbs.  Profitable charter ventures will look to grow indefinitely, until there are no more public schools to conquer.”  “As Rocketship co-founder John Danner explains, critics shouldn’t worry about charter schools skimming the best students, because eventually ‘we’re going to educate all of the students, so there’s nothing left to skim.'”