Grassroots Education Activists Emerge in Wisconsin and Indiana to Counter Power of the One Percent

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer outlines the ways in which the far-right has made attacks on public education the centerpiece of its state-by-state tax cutting, union bashing, school privatizing agenda.  Teachers walking out this spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado epitomize a backlash against the state-level, Red-wave assault against public education. Lacking visible walkouts and protests this spring, Indiana and Wisconsin have also epitomized the Red-wave policies that have undermined public schools in so many states. This year, even in these states without huge walkouts, organized support for traditional public schools has emerged to push back against the powerful, moneyed interests driving privatization. In Indiana a backlash is budding in November’s Indianapolis school board race, while in Wisconsin, a years-long push back by organized parents across the state has made public school funding the centerpiece of growing opposition to Scott Walker as he runs for re-election.

Lafer explains: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) 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—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

INDIANA

Indiana has epitomized the impact of explosive school privatization. Summarizing the period between the Great Recession in 2008 and 2016 in its new report, A Decade of Neglect, the American Federation of Teachers describes the impact of the diversion of tax dollars to two privatized systems—a charter sector and statewide vouchers: “In 2002, the state had 11 charter schools and no voucher programs. Currently 80 charter schools enroll some 40,000 students and receive more than $300 million in taxpayer dollars per year, while nearly 35,000 students receive $150 million in vouchers… (C)hanges to the state’s tax code have meant that these three school systems—traditional public schools, charter schools and voucher schools—are competing for less and less tax revenue.”

The Network for Public Education’s Darcie Cimarusti traces the growing damage of school privatization in Indianapolis, which has enthusiastically adopted a plan called Portfolio School Reform. Cimarusti describes what is planned for the upcoming school year in Indianapolis: “When schools reopen in Indianapolis, Indiana in July, the doors of three legacy high schools will remain shuttered… Like many school closures, the recent shuttering of what was once three great high schools would disproportionately impact low-income children of color. Superintendent Lewis Ferebree cited budget concerns and declining enrollment throughout the district as justification. But as the traditional public high schools the community fought to keep open were closed, the district opened a charter high school co-founded by Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and education reform stalwart… Before Daniel’s new high school had even completed its first year, the Indianapolis Charter School Board approved the charter’s request to open an additional location.”

Cimarusti credits the gobbling up of Indiana’s storied public high schools by charters to schools competing against each other in a school district managed under the theory of Portfolio School Reform—a theory of school management being promoted across America’s big cities by the Gates-funded Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea is that a local school board manages a mass of public and charter schools like a stock portfolio by shedding the poor investments and adding promising experiments in an ongoing way.  Portfolio School Reform was imported into Indiana, Cimarusti explains, by a local think-tank, The Mind Trust, which assembled money from large out-of-state as well as local pro-privatization funders: “The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis, Indiana based 501(c)(3)) nonprofit organization, brought the portfolio model to IPS. Over $80 million in local and national foundation money has poured into The Mind Trust’s coffers since 2016, with the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the John and Laura Arnold Foundation joining the local foundations already supporting Indianapolis’ portfolio model.”  The Mind Trust, whose influence has been growing for over a decade, also boasts support from local philanthropies—the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.  “The Mind Trust enticed national reform entities to Indianapolis, including Teach for America, the New Teacher Project and Stand for Children.” Stand for Children, an Oregon based Astroturf organization, backed a successful slate to take over the Indianapolis school board in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and in 2014 Stand for Children successfully pushed through the state legislature an ALEC model law “to create Innovation Network Schools—schools that are overseen by the school district but managed by private operators. These include privately operated charter schools that gain instant access to existing public buildings and resources.”

This November, a slate of public school supporters is standing for election for the Indianapolis school board to fill three positions currently held by members supported by Stand for Children.  If the pro-public school candidates are elected, they will join Elizabeth Gore, the one member of the board who has courageously stood up against the Portfolio School Reform agenda, to form a majority. There is finally a chance, writes Cimirusti, that Indianapolis voters could take back their schools in November and derail the Mind Trust’s Portfolio School Reform juggernaut.

WISCONSIN

Journalist Jennifer Berkshire describes a public education-driven political upheaval in Wisconsin as Scott Walker fights for re-election in November: “To understand the nature of the movement that is emerging in Wisconsin, it helps to define what it isn’t.  There are no more huge demonstrations of the sort that engulfed the state Capitol building in Madison in 2011, in response to Walker’s infamous ‘budget repair bill.’  After weeks of intense protests, the measure to mostly strip the state’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights passed as Act 10 of the legislature’s 2011-2012 session. ‘We tried the big protests and they didn’t work,’ says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.  ‘What you’re seeing now is that the battle has really gone local and grassroots.’… Today, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is at the forefront of a statewide effort to support Wisconsin’s public schools and the 860,000 students who attend them. DuBois Bourenane and a small army of parents, teachers, school officials and ordinary citizens are shining a relentless spotlight on the $2 billion in cuts made to the schools here by Walker and the GOP-led legislature, and demanding a fix to Wisconsin’s deeply inequitable school funding system.”

In A Decade of Neglect, the AFT summarizes what has happened in Wisconsin since 2008: “Faced with a $3 billion budget shortfall in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the newly elected Republican legislature cut the education budget by $1.85 billion. That same year, Walker signed the first in a series of tax cuts that have ultimately cost the state $4.7 billion. And, at the same time lawmakers made steep cuts in state support for schools, they also enacted limits on the amount of money school districts can raise at the local level.  Wisconsin public schools spent less per student in 2016 than they did in 2008; per-pupil spending was 6.4 percent less than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.  And, between 2008 and 2016, the state dropped from 16th to 24th for per-pupil spending… Tax cuts enacted by Wisconsin lawmakers have disproportionately benefited the richest Wisconsin residents. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the top 1 percent of taxpayers received a combined tax cut that was nearly 11 times as big as the combined tax cut received by taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent—even though 20 times as many taxpayers were in the group with the lowest income.”

School privatization in Wisconsin has also robbed the public school budget. Milwaukee’s voucher program—begun in 1990—is the nation’s oldest. The program has continually been enlarged, as Berkshire explains: “In 2013, Wisconsin lawmakers vastly expanded the state’s private school voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools. The measure was backed by an aggressive, and extravagantly funded, lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children, the school choice organization started by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.”

In a recent post, blogger Thomas Ultican elaborates on the big-money philanthropic drive that introduced and expanded vouchers in Wisconsin: “The national money flowing into Milwaukee to privatize public education comes from the usual sources including the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and… the very conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.  In 2016, the Bradley Foundation gave generously to ALEC, Freedomworks Foundation, the Federalist Society and Betsy DeVos’s Mackinac Center.  Locally they gave $375,000 to the Badger Institute, $500,000 to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) and  $100,000 each to Schools That Can Milwaukee and Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE). These appear to be yearly gifts.”

Across Wisconsin, however, a widespread backlash has emerged.  Berkshire describes the bipartisan strategy of parents and community members organizing in Wisconsin to defeat the power of the giant, money-driven anti-tax, anti-union and pro-privatization movement: “(T)he post-Act 10 brand of education activism is decidedly, even insistently, nonpartisan… (E)ducation activists here are making the case that public schools, and more importantly the children they serve, should be free from partisan rancor.”

Berkshire quotes Jim Bowman, who leads Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education: “‘We thought that being connected with the Democratic Party would undermine us,’ says Bowman, who also serves as a member of the Appleton Board of Education. The group appeals to… parents and other local residents of both parties who care about their schools and are unhappy about the steady depletion of resources. These ‘mad moms’ are then encouraged to pressure their local officials, through letters of testimony at public events, or by simply showing up at legislative meetings to send a signal that members of the public are paying attention to education policy.  And the more legislators hear from constituents that they care about public education, the better able they are to counter the influence of big donors and the corporate lobby. ‘Our goal is to make public education one of the top issues that legislators are hearing about so that they can’t just ignore their constituents,’ says Bowman”

For decades, as Gordon Lafer documents in The One Percent Solution, corporate school reform has been driven by a massive investment by the One Percent.  Thank goodness for the teachers who walked out this spring to promote the importance of public investment in the public institutions that have historically defined the strength of education in America.  And thank goodness for local activists in the very difficult, ideologically driven Red-wave states like Indiana and Wisconsin—parents and community members who are pushing back.  While public schools are certainly not perfect, they are the optimal way—operated under the law by democratically elected school boards—to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all 50 million children enrolled in public schools across the United States.

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Supreme Court Decision in “Janus v. AFSCME” Will Undermine Teachers Unions and the Common Good

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court released its long anticipated decision in Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). The decision undermines workers’ rights by threatening the fiscal viability public sector unions, including teachers unions.

The same issue—union agency (fair share) fees—was heard in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court split 4-4, and the issue at the heart of the case was left unresolved.  After President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, and after the new case of Janus v. AFSCME was appealed to the high court, yesterday’s decision ending fair share fees had been expected.

Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision was written by Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch.

Yesterday’s decision finds union agency fees to be a violation of First Amendment free speech, and stops the practice of forcing public sector employees, who choose not to join a union but whose job is protected as part of a union contract, to pay a fee to cover the collective bargaining part of the union’s work. Non-members (still covered by their unit’s collective bargaining agreement) have not been paying any fee to cover the political activity of their unions, but they have, until now, been required to pay agency fees to cover bargaining.

A report released last February by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explains how fair share, agency fees work: “Just like in any democratic institution, when a majority of employees in a bargaining unit choose to be represented by a union, the union then becomes the exclusive bargaining representative of all workers in the unit. The union has a responsibility to represent all workers in the unit, union members and employees who decide not to join the union alike, and the employer has a duty to bargain with the union over employees’ wages and working conditions.  Unions may bargain to include union security agreements, which allow them to collect fair share fees (also known as ‘agency’ fees) from employees who do not join the union but are part of the bargaining unit… Nonmembers’ fair share fees cover the union’s expenses related to collective bargaining and contract administration, but not expenses for political… advocacy…  A union is required to represent a nonmember worker who is mistreated by the employer as the nonmember pursues a costly grievance process, even if it costs the union tens of thousands of dollars. Fair share fees enable the union to charge nonmember workers for the right to access that service if they need it… Workers who choose not to pay union dues also receive the higher wages and benefits that the union negotiates on behalf of its members… Taking away unions’ ability to collect fair share fees—while they are nonetheless required to provide services and representation to nonmembers—would threaten the very essence of unions by weakening their financial stability.”

Weakening public sector unions is part of the far-right corporate political agenda. Political economist Gordon Lafer describes the impact of the the Red-wave 2010 election that turned more than half the states all-Republican: “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… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain… The number of public sector jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.” (The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, pp. 44-45)

The Economic Policy Institute report examines the organizations behind the current wave of attacks on unions along with the funders who have underwritten the legal onslaught: “The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Center for Individual Rights, and Liberty Justice Center (an affiliate of the Illinois Policy Institute which has close ties with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who has been involved with the Janus case since the beginning) are separate nonprofit organizations, but they share many of the same donors.”  The donors are a who’s who of the extreme right: Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, Sarah Sciafe Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, and Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking.  EPI continues: “How do these groups benefit by limiting workers rights?  Anti-worker policies shift a greater share of economic gains to corporate players and away from ordinary workers… As union membership has fallen over the last few decades, the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased… The erosion of collective bargaining is a core part of our nation’s problems of wage stagnation and rising inequality.  Workers who are not in a union have much less power to negotiate…”

Writing for The American Prospect, Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz describe what has happened in Wisconsin following an attack on public sector unions led by Governor Scott Walker: “In dollars-and-cents terms, efforts to shrink state and local workforces and reduce public-sector workers’ compensation in order to reduce taxes disproportionately benefit the wealthiest households.  Wisconsin provides an important example of this impact.  Lawmakers there passed $2 billion worth of tax cuts from 2011 to 2014, paid for by the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts of public employees.  Far from benefiting the average taxpayer, fully half of the tax cuts went to the richest 20 percent of the state’s population.  An examination of Wisconsin’s education system reveals negative outcomes following the passage of a law that virtually eliminated collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers.  Far from improving public services after the law passed, teacher turnover accelerated and teacher experience shrank; nearly a quarter of the state’s teachers for the 2015-2016 school year had less than five years of experience, up from one in five… in the 2010-2011 school year.  These data demonstrate that attacks on state and local government workers are likely to result in reductions in the quality of public services on which most state residents depend.  For families who depend on public education, maintaining a stable, experienced education workforce is critical.  And it is the stability and experience of state and local government workers—and the quality of services they provide—that is at stake in the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus.”

While the Janus plaintiff is a member of AFSCME, not a teacher’s union, McNicholas and Shierholz believe the effect of yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will have perhaps the greatest impact on teachers unions. Public schools are likely to be the institutions most affected simply because of the sheer number of public employees who are educators. Educators comprise 51 percent of all state and local government workers, with elementary and secondary school workers making up 39.9 of all public state and local employees.

McNicholas and Shierholz caution about the overall impact of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision: “This is what is at the core of Janus—whether a group of wealthy donors and corporations will be allowed to rewrite our nation’s rules to serve their own interests at the expense of the public good.  The financial backers of this litigation likely do not rely on public services to educate their children, care for aging parents, or provide support for disabled family members.  Increasingly, the wealthiest interests in this country are able to bypass the state for fundamental services. They exist apart from local communities and divorced from a shared interest in many public services. This results in cases such as Janus in which wealthy, corporate interests look for ways to reduce public spending on services that they don’t need to rely on. These wealthy corporate interests are not just attacking state and local government unions’ ability to protect good, middle-class jobs in public employment—they are also attacking the crucial services on which most Americans depend.”

Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) 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—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.
  • “High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Important New Study Shows How Charter School Expansion Ruins School District Budgets

Across West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado, school teachers have been striking all spring to call attention to their miserably low salaries and consequent teacher shortages in their states. Teachers have also been showing us the deplorable conditions in their schools—elimination of librarians and nurses—swelling class sizes and outrageous caseloads for school counselors.

The teachers’ mass walkouts have alerted us to the impact of the great recession on states’ revenues and especially to the all-Red states that have continued to cut taxes even as their state education budgets collapsed.

But there are other contributing factors to the crisis to which teachers have been calling our attention. This morning, In the Public Interest (ITPI) released Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, an important and very readable report on another primary contributor to school districts’ financial woes: the massive growth of charter schools in the past two decades.  The report’s author, political economist Gordon Lafer is familiar with attacks on public education and the promotion of privatization across many of the all-Red states.  He authored the notable 2017 book: The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

Here is the pithy summary blurb by which ITPI introduces its new report, which explores charter school growth in three California school districts as examples of a much wider problem for school districts across the country: “In a first-of-its-kind analysis, this report reveals that neighborhood public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools. In 2016-17, charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million, the San Diego Unified School District $65.9 million, and Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District $19.3 million. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while all the costs do not.”

What stand out in this report is the perfectly lucid explanation about exactly how charter school funding depletes the budgets of local school districts and what it means for the students left in the traditional public schools when some students carry their per-pupil funding away to a charter school: “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. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

The report continues: “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.” As other studies have shown, the greatest fiscal burden for local school districts is for special education, because traditional public schools continue to serve the children with the most serious disabilities, the children who require expensive services most charters elect not to provide.

What about the problems in school districts where the school population is already shrinking?  In recent years charters have somehow been prescribed in places like Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland as a way to attract families to the district. But ITPI’s report explains why such thinking is flawed: “It is true that shrinking student populations cause a fiscal crisis for school districts. However, charter schools exacerbate this problem in unique ways. First, charter schools make it extremely difficult for districts to consolidate schools in the face of falling enrollment… When the creation of new schools is no longer tied to student population growth but rather is open to any number of entrepreneurs aimed at competing for market share, the inevitable result is an increased number of schools for the same population of students. In Albany, New York, over the course of a decade the district went from serving 10,380 students in 17 schools to serving just slightly more students—10,568—but in 24 schools…. And the New York Times reported that in the city of Detroit, ‘the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles…’  The problem is particularly destructive in communities whose total school population is already shrinking…. In such districts school systems already struggling to meet student needs with diminishing resources are faced with additional dramatic cuts in funding.”

In California, ITPI estimates, “the net impact of each student who transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school to be approximately $5,000 in San Diego, $5,700 in Oakland, and $6,600 in the East Side (Santa Clara) district.”

In addition to reporting on this study’s investigation of three California school districts, ITPI reviews studies of charter growth across the country: “Because school funding formulas differ from state to state, and because the studies were conducted at different points over the past decade, the results vary significantly. Yet in every case, studies found that charter growth has caused school districts to suffer much more in lost revenue than they are able to make up in reduced expenses—resulting in large net shortfalls for district students.  In the smaller cities of Buffalo, New York and Durham, North Carolina, the net impact of charter schools was estimated at a loss of $25 million per year to each school district.  In Nashville, Tennessee, the loss is approaching $50 million per year.  And in Los Angeles—the nation’s second-largest school district—the net loss is estimated at over $500 million per year… While the magnitude of charter schools’ impact obviously varies by size of district, we can control for district size by converting the findings into impacts per charter students.  In that case, all of the studies described above found the net loss to school districts for each student who moves from a district to charter school to be somewhere between $3,100 and $6,700.”

Lafer, the report’s author, painstakingly explains his methodology for determining the financial losses to the school districts in Oakland, San Diego, and Santa Clara County, and the effects of California state law to deny local school districts the capacity to control their budgets even as more and more charters are approved. But for the purposes of this blog, what is most significant is the warning about the very idea of creating charters to introduce marketplace school choice even while causing fiscal distress for already underfunded school districts: “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.”

Please read this fine report from In the Public Interest: Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts.

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.”