Charter Schools: The Vision of their Founders vs. Today’s Reality

Charter school operators and advocates persistently brand charter schools as “public charter schools” even though charter schools are, by definition, always privately managed. However, operation is paid for with tax dollars appropriated by 44 of the state legislatures along with some federal investment and the diversion of school district dollars.

The people who proposed the idea of charter schools 30 years ago imagined how these schools would work and what would be the widespread result for children. What if we compare what the founders of charter schools imagined with today’s reality?

The Thomas Fordham Institute is a sponsor of charter schools and one of the nation’s prominent cheerleaders for these institutions. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute and Bruno Manno, an emeritus member of Fordham’s board and an advisor to the Walton Foundation, recently celebrated the history of charter schools on their 30th anniversary.  Finn and Manno praise Ted Kolderie, who enthused about charter schools in a 1990 report for the Minnesota Center for Policy Studies. Describing Kolderie as “arguably the foremost theoretician of chartering,” Finn and Manno quote his report:

“(O)ur system of public education is a bad system. It is terribly inequitable. It does not meet the nation’s needs. It exploits teachers’ altruism. It hurts kids. Instead of blaming people…we need to fix the system [and] organize public education in America on a new basis. The proposal outlined in this report is designed to introduce the dynamics of choice, competition and innovation into America’s public school system. How can we use the powerful idea of choice to improve our schools while retaining the essential purposes of public education? This report proposes a simple yet radical answer: allowing enterprising people—including teachers and other educators—to… create new public schools, and ultimately a new system of public education, [by having] the states…simply withdraw the local districts’ exclusive franchise to own and operate public schools. [We need to undertake] divestiture, or allowing the districts to get out of running and operating public schools altogether.”

Now, 30 years later, Finn and Manno brag about what they believe are charter schools’ strengths:

  • “The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools.”
  • “Chartering has… pioneered new forms of governance for public education, including statewide Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools….”
  • “Other charter-inspired governance models include ‘portfolio’ districts’… where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations…”

They conclude: “Through a combination of choice, competition, and innovation, chartering has bettered the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students, thereby reducing inequality, widening opportunity, strengthening parents, and enhancing civil society.  These are remarkable accomplishments for a thirty-year period, worth protecting and cultivating… When dealing with so many complex institutions across so many different jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation were sure to be profound.  And when what’s being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as American public schooling, these trials are even greater.”

Finn and Manno share a number of reforms they would like to see in charter schools: more attention to authorizing and quality control, need for more funding, and insufficient autonomy.  While they allege that the best charters improve student achievement, they don’t explore the problems with the academic studies they cite.  Neither do they discuss how few “best” charters there are in a sector where charter schools differ from each other and run the gamut of quality. They admit that, “charter promoters have sometimes been naive, occasionally self-interested, and often set in their ways.”

Now that charter schools have been around for 30 years, however, there is significant research demonstrating a whole range of problems on the ground, problems which Kolderie never imagined and which Finn and Manno neglect to mention.

First is the role of money and the absence of sufficient regulation in a sector which has been invaded by for-profit management and where 44 state legislatures, who are subject to lavish lobbying by charter sponsors and advocates, have failed to provide adequate oversight. After all, Kolderie defined  the very purpose of charter schools as escaping the constraints of public bureaucracy.  Jacobin Magazine published a recent interview with, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, which recently published a report, Chartered for Profit Jacobin‘s reporter asked Burris how it is that so many charter schools—which state laws require to be sponsored by and operated as nonprofit organizations—have become the source of massive profits their operators.  Here is her reply:

“The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services.  But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

It is worth pointing out the irony that we would all be shocked if we discovered the principal of our public high school or our school district’s superintendent profiting from our tax dollars. While such activity is illegal in public schools, money in the charter school sector is handled very differently. Burris explains: “Individuals can become very wealthy if they run charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Eva Moskowitz, who’s in charge of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City… pulls down a salary of nearly $1 million a year.  By comparison, the New York City public schools chancellor makes about $250,000 a year.” Burris continues: “A lot of this is possible simply because there’s so little oversight.  I was a public school teacher and then a high school principal.  Purchases had to go out to bid, and everything was very transparent.  I couldn’t contract with my Uncle Louie’s furniture company to buy desks. But you can in the charter school world… The charter school lobby says that this model is necessary for innovation. But what is it about the ability to commit fraud and avoid transparency that helps you to be more innovative?  The innovation that we’re seeing too often, sadly, is criminal manipulation.”

Second is the problem that charter schools are parasites on the public school districts where they are located. In some states, as was the case until recently in Ohio, school districts have to pay an additional charter school tuition fee right out of their own budget when children leave for a charter school.  But even in states where public school districts merely lose the state’s per-pupil basic aid when each child leaves, the school district suffers financially.  In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts…  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment.” At the same time, charter schools are less likely to enroll students with expensive special needs, which concentrates children who need expensive extra investment in their education in district public schools.

Third, neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.  For example, New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools has established a reputation for a regimented, no-excuses school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.  In March, Success Academies was fined $2.4 million by a federal district court for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.”

And especially in the South, charter schools have too often violated students’ rights by increasing racial segregation. A 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University reported:  “(W)e find that the state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time. In addition, during the period, individual charter schools have become increasingly racially imbalanced, in the sense that some are serving primarily minority students and others are serving primarily white students.”

Thirty years after the first charter school in Minnesota, there is finally some support in Congress to begin reining in some of the most outrageous for-profit charter chains. The House Budget Resolution would disqualify charter schools managed for-profit from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.

Chester Finn and Bruno Manno have been promoting the same lies for decades. Advocates need to continue to push hard to force the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and legislators across the states to see what’s wrong with the glossy ideology that has blinded so many.

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, explains that one must consider more than the comparative test scores and students’ experiences in neighborhood schools and charters, and instead examine the impact of adding new charter schools into what he calls the entire educational ecosystem of the school district: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.” “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”  In his report, Baker calls charter schools “parasites.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Matter What Trump Says, School Choice Is Not the Civil Rights Issue of our Times

Twice in the past couple of weeks, President Donald Trump has been out promoting school choice as the civil rights issue of our times.

Trump went to Dallas,Texas, supposedly to discuss the recent tragic police killings of unarmed African Americans. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes what happened: “At Gateway Church in Dallas, Trump met with law enforcement officials, pastors and business owners and talked about his four-point plan to ‘build safety and opportunity and dignity’ for communities of color. He did not discuss why the police chief, sheriff and district attorney of Dallas—all of whom are African Americans, were not invited to the event focused on injustice and policing. Trump bashed public schools, calling them ‘bad government schools’ in which African Americans get ‘trapped’—although Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said at the same event that it was important for schools to reopen safely as soon as possible.”

Then last Tuesday, The Hill‘s Brett Samuels reported that in remarks at the White House Rose Garden, Trump once again mentioned school choice: “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country… Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade and probably beyond because all children have to have access to quality education.”

I certainly agree with the President that all children must have access to quality education, but I also appreciate what Samuels noticed: “The comments describing school choice as the preeminent civil rights issue of the day appeared out of place as the nation is gripped by protests over the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.”

Perhaps the President has recently turned to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to help him define primary themes for his reelection campaign.  If so, some reminders are in order.

At the most basic level, the cost of school privatization is prohibitive in the midst of this COVID-19 recession we are all experiencing.  While many states are in essence supporting three kinds of schooling—traditional public schools, charter schools, and tuition vouchers for private and religious schools—in data released last week, the National Education Association demonstrates that unless Congress appropriates a large infusion of federal HEROES Act spending to prop up state budgets over the next three years, there will likely to be a loss of 1.9 million teachers and other school staff—about one-fifth of the public education workforce across the United States (see here and here).

For Shawgi Tell, a professor at New York’s Nazareth College, it is obvious why Trump’s idea of expanding school privatization is financially unsustainable: “Now is not the time to divert even more public funds to private businesses like charter schools…  The nation’s public schools have been suffering budget cuts for years, and now with the “COVID Pandemic” they will experience deeper funding cuts.  Yet the federal government and state governments continue to funnel huge sums of public funds to segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools that operate without transparency and (that) close regularly… Society needs a public authority that provides the human right to education with a guarantee in practice, which means fully funding all public schools and making sure high quality public schools are available to all for free in every neighborhood. Funding ‘free market’ arrangements in education while letting the nation’s public schools go underfunded is especially absurd given the repeated failure of the free market to produce stability and success for all.”

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

Indigo Oliver reports for In These Times, that as a recession threatens public school budgets, one of the biggest private, for-profit, online charter school companies is positioning itself to profit: “On its most recent quarterly earnings call, Timothy Medina, chief financial executive for virtual charter school operator K12Inc., said, ‘We believe the effects of Covid-19 will be a lasting tailwind to online education.’ The company was founded in 2000 by former Wall Street investment banker and McKinsey & Co. consultant Ron Packard…. Since then, K12 has grown into one of the largest for-profit education companies in the world, with revenue topping $1 billion last year. Now, amid uncertainty about the future of in-person education, the company sees an opportunity to extend its reach even further.  K12 has been involved in targeted lobbying campaigns through the American Legislative Exchange Council for nearly two decades, and company executives suggested during the earnings call that they have been working with state legislators and school districts to expand the market for online learning this fall. They’ve also worked with the Heritage Foundation… to draft policy recommendations on Covid-19 Recovery efforts.  K12 operates more than 70 online schools, the majority of them tuition-free and publicly funded through partnerships with school districts.  K12 tuition-free online public schools account for nearly 30% of all virtual school enrollments in the country.”

Over the weekend, Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to lead the U.S. Department of Education as citizens have a right to expect—to provide guidance for getting the nation’s 98,000 public schools up and running in the fall: “The Education Department… is all but silent, issuing little in the way of guidance…. It’s not that DeVos isn’t hard at work—it’s just that she’s not devoting her efforts to what we would assume a federal education head should be prioritizing. For DeVos, the pandemic is no obstacle to pushing her long crusade for charter schools and ‘school choice’…. She’s attempted to reroute a portion of the $13.5 billion in the CARES Act dedicated for K-12 funding needs—money that’s supposed to be distributed based on poverty and need formulas—to independent and religious schools.”

Professor Tell concludes: “Treating education as a commodity or consumer good… is not the way forward… Social responsibilities must not be outsourced to private interests and subjected to the inhumanity of the ‘free market.’… Thousands of families have already been abandoned by… charter schools that have closed over the years for financial malfeasance and poor academic performance.”

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but they also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. Only in the public schools, which are governed democratically according to the law, can our society protect the rights of all children.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, warns about what we all lose when we try to privatize the public good: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “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.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

Charter Schools Undermine the Public Schools Which Serve the Very Children Cory Booker Worries About

On Monday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker published a column in the NY Times to announce his support for charter schools. I’ll give Booker credit for being honest. Until now, as an active candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Booker has tried to hedge this issue, even though support for charter schools—and at one time even vouchers—has been among his primary priorities in public life for two decades.

I’ll also give Booker credit for endorsing, in this week’s column, better support for traditional public schools: “As a party, we need to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes for children who are underserved and historically disadvantaged.  That must mean significantly increasing funding for public schools, raising teacher pay, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, investing in universal preschool, eliminating child poverty—and yes, supporting high-performing public charter schools if and when they are the right fit for a community, are equitable and inclusive, and play by the same rules as other public schools.”

Booker bases his argument on his own life story. His parents struggled with racism and segregation and fought to move into a school district where they could be sure their children would be well educated. He believes charter schools provide an escape from struggling public schools for children whose parents cannot move out of communities where they believe the schools fail to serve their children. For Booker, charter schools are an escape route for families who feel trapped by racism, as his parents did.

It is on one level an appealing argument, which was bluntly articulated when the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli argued that charter schools are a solution for poor strivers. Betsy DeVos adopts the same argument for school choice when she says that, because parents know what is best for each of their children, we should provide universal school choice.

However, the essential point to remember about school choice—whether it is a system of private school tuition vouchers or privately operated but publicly funded charter schools—is that school choice privileges the few at the expense of the many.

The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of education. Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school… enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Booker argues for well-regulated and high-performing charter schools. The problem he fails to acknowledge is that charter schools were established beginning in the mid-1990s by state legislatures smitten with the idea of innovation and experimentation. None of these legislatures, to my knowledge, provided adequate oversight of the academic quality of the schools, and none imposed protections to guarantee the stewardship of public tax dollars.  Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Charter schools have now been established by state law across 45 states where stories of outrageous fiscal and academic scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools. Because advocates for school privatization and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector—adequate oversight has proven impossible.

And while some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

In his NY Times column this week, Booker neglects to address perhaps the most worrisome of the problems with charter schools. Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer documents that during the 2016-17 school year, “charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million.” Because none of the states has created a separate funding stream for privatized charter schools or vouchers, the funding always comes out of state and local public school budgets.

In his NY Times column this week, Booker explains that, like many of the other Democratic candidates for President, he opposes for-profit charter schools. But opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit-but-managed-for-profit charter schools were in Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit management company raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Booker wants to have it both ways—to strengthen the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children and at the same time allow charter schools, which he believes can be regulated to serve the public interest. He fails to recognize that nobody yet has figured out how to regulate these schools which were created intentionally without what was said to be the straightjacket of bureaucratic regulation and which are now very often producing outrageous profits for their operators. The idea was to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, but what has emerged is a privatized education sector saturated with out-of-control corruption.

Booker insistently uses the term “public charter schools.”  But charter schools are a form of school privatization. They are an example of private contracting by which a public school district or state approved authorizer contracts with a private nonprofit or for-profit operator to run the school without an elected school board and without the guarantee of transparency. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains why Booker is wrong to imagine that privately operated charter schools can protect the children whose educational opportunity is curtailed by poverty and racism:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Booker is right that our society urgently needs to address child poverty itself as well as the overwhelming challenges for the underfunded traditional public schools which serve children in urban communities where racism persists and poverty is concentrated. However, a relatively small privatization scheme to create escapes for a few children cannot be the answer. Public schools are far from perfect.  They are, however, the only institution where our very complex society can balance the needs of each particular student and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of nearly 50 million children and adolescents. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all students. While our society has not realized justice for many children and adolescents in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all of our young people.

Why Democratic Candidates for President Need to Stop Waffling About Charter Schools

On Monday morning, Diane Ravitch sent around what I believe is an urgently important post from Michigan’s Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan, a retired, National Board Certified Michigan public school teacher and 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, previously blogged regularly at Education Week.  She now blogs personally at Teacher in a Strange Land.

In the post Ravitch highlights this week, Flanagan regrets that Democrats running for President continue to waffle about charter schools and too few people are holding them to account on this issue.  At a recent gathering with women discussing politics in her community, Flanagan tried to protest when someone supported Cory Booker’s candidacy: “I interrupted the happy talk: ‘His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools.  He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.’ I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces.  One voice spoke up: ‘So? Why is that so bad?'”

Flanagan explains her own strong opposition to charter schools: “I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a ‘right’ to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.” (emphasis in the original)

Why are so many people complacent when it comes to considering the complex issues around charter schools? Flanagan believes: “Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US Military.  Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there.  Pick a new school. It’s the American way.”

Flanagan challenges such consumerist complacency: “Let’s invest more in fully public education…. Let’s acknowledge the places where (public schools have) crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them.  Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals”

Reading Flanagan’s column caused me to consider what I would say if somebody asked me why it matters so much that the Democrats running for President refuse to take a courageous stand.

I’d begin by explaining that by waffling—trying to have it both ways about the issue of school privatization—the candidates are refusing to provide strong leadership.  A strong leader would demand that citizens consider all the reasons for protecting America’s most important civic institution.

Here are my seven reasons for believing Democrats running for President ought to express strong support for public schools and opposition to charter schools:

First:   The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of schools.  Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased… Traditional public school enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Second:   Public schools are our society’s most important civic institution. Public schools are not perfect, but they are the optimal way for our very complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. While our society has not fully realized justice for every child in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all children.

Third:   Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “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.”

Fourth:   While some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

Fifth:   Opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit (managed-for-profit) charter schools were in my state, Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Sixth:   Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Because charter schools were established by state law across the 45 states where charters operate, and because much of the state charter school enabling legislation featured innovation and experimentation and neglected oversight, the scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools.  Because neoliberal ideologues and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector, adequate oversight has proven impossible.

Seventh:   The federal Charter Schools Program should be shut down immediately. Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last spring’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the federal Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

Last June in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner defined the political philosophy known as neoliberalism and showed how this kind of thinking has driven privatization across many sectors previously operated, for the public good, by government: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

For three decades, neoliberalism has reigned in education policy. The introduction of the neoliberal ideal of competition—supposedly to drive school improvement—through vouchers for private school tuition and in the expansion of charter schools has become acceptable to members of both political parties.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains elegantly and precisely what is wrong with neoliberal thinking in general. I think his words apply directly to what has been happening as charter schools have been expanded to more and more states. The candidates running for President who prefer to waffle on the advisability of school privatization via charter schools ought to consider Barber’s analysis:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “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)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. 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.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

With Tony Evers’ New Budget, Wisconsin Begins Long Journey to Shed Scott Walker’s Legacy

In Gordon Lafer’s 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, in the first chapter entitled  “Wisconsin and Beyond: Dismantling the Government,” Lafer makes Wisconsin the emblem of what happened in the 2010 election, as corporate lobbies, the Tea Party, and the collapse of state revenue following the Great Recession converged to fuel a Red-state wave that took over state governments:

“Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds… 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.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

In his fine book, Lafer describes a wave of tax cuts that followed the 2010 election, plus anti-teachers’ union battles and efforts to expand school privatization through enabling charter schools or adding state voucher (and neo-voucher tuition tax credits or education savings accounts).  Lafer points to public schools as one of the institutions targeted by the corporate reformers from state to state:  “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. As a result, in recent years there has been more legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic activity. From 2011 to 2015, at least eight states passed laws limiting the union rights of schoolteachers; nine states increased the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; seventeen expanded online instruction; and twenty-nine passed laws encouraging the privatization of education through vouchers or charter schools. This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to (a) sudden educational crisis; American students’ reading and math scores have remained largely unchanged for forty years. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

For Gordon Lafer, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin epitomized the corporate takeover of state government. As we enter July of 2019, almost a decade later, Wisconsin has been swept by a significant pushback against the corporate agenda. Walker is now gone, and Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers just signed his first budget. Evers, who served Wisconsin as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 2011 until he was elected governor in November, 2018, promised to undo Scott Walker’s record on public education.

It is becoming clear in Wisconsin and many other states, however, that overcoming the corporate takeover of state government and the attack on public education will be neither quick nor easy. Wisconsin’s new Governor Evers is a Democrat, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are dominated by large Republican majorities.  At the end of June, the members of Wisconsin’s legislature presented Evers with a budget reflecting Governor Walker’s—not Governor Evers’—priorities.

Eventually, Evers signed the budget presented to him last week by the Wisconsin Legislature, but he said he had considered vetoing the whole thing.  Finally he used what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identifies as, “the strongest veto powers in the country. This stems from a 1930 state constitutional amendment granting Wisconsin governors partial veto authority that allows the governor to strike individual words and numbers from legislation that appropriates money. That lets governors surgically remove words here and there to get results that are at odds with what legislators wanted.”

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White explains: “Gov. Tony Evers used his veto pen Wednesday to boost K-12 education funding in Wisconsin by about $65 million in the next two-year state budget. The change was one of 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the $82 billion budget approved last week by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature… The boost to education funding means the state will increase K-12 education spending by about $570 million over the next two years.  The budget approved by the Legislature had already slated a roughly $500 million increase. Evers accomplished the spending bump by increasing per-pupil aid in Wisconsin by $64 per student in each of the next two years… However, the governor also eliminated an $18 million technology grant program within the K-12 budget.  In his veto message, the governor said the funds ‘could more effectively be spent on programs that close achievement gaps.’  His increase and cut combined result in a net increase of about $65 million to K-12 schools from his veto pen.  Even with that $65 million boost, the $570 million schools spending increase is still dramatically less than the $1.4 billion bump he proposed earlier this year.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Annysa Johnson quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, expressing disappointment in the budget Evers signed into law: “The increases are appreciated.  But they’re modest at best…  And they do nothing to move the needle on the radical revisioning of our education crisis that the (Legislature’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding called for a year ago.”  Bourenane represents an encouraging statewide push by parents, teachers, and community advocates for the rejection of Walker’s education policies.

In his 2017 book, Gordon Lafer reminds us just how deeply Scott Walker cut taxes and, subsequently education funding: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

Evers has persisted throughout the budget debate, however, in working to change the narrative—to define again and again what sort of state investments will provide essential support for the most vulnerable children and their schools. He did so again in his explanation of his use of Wisconsin’s veto powers to adjust the Legislature’s budgetary priorities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s, Johnson quotes Evers describing his reason for signing the budget, which even after his vetoes fails to fulfill his goals for the state’s public schools: “This is only a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget… There’s still more that we need to do. I will not stop fighting for our kids, meaningful investment in our schools and school finance reform.”

Johnson describes additional comments from Evers’ signing statement: “Despite its shortcomings, Evers touted the education budget as significant. In addition to the per-pupil aid, he said it: increases state special education funding by $95 million, the first increase since 2008-09; includes the first substantial increase in revenue limit authority in a decade, meaning districts can raise more money from state and local taxpayers; doubles state support for… mental health programs in schools; and provides nearly $330 million, the largest nominal dollar increase in state general aid since the 2005-07 biennium.”

Wisconsin’s army of public school supporters are justified in their disappointment that Evers was unable to undo Scott Walker’s damage this year. The most recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Wisconsin’s combined state and local funding for K-12 public schools remains 4 percent below what was being spent in 2008 before the Great Recession. But while Evers has persistently worked to frame a new narrative about the public’s responsibility to lift educational opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable children, Evers and his supporters will have to keep up the pressure for considerably longer than this year.

Politicians Are Discovering They Can No Longer Ignore Charter School Outrages

In Wednesday’s Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler traces fading support for charter schools among Democrats who are running for President:

“Democrats have long backed charter schools as a politically safe way to give kids at low-performing schools more options… The presidential contest is proof that’s no longer the case. If the candidates say anything about charter schools, it’s negative… Instead, the Democratic candidates are pitching billions of dollars in new federal spending for schools and higher pay for teachers, with few of the strings attached that marked the Obama-era approach to education. It adds up to a sea change in Democratic thinking, back to a more traditional Democratic approach emphasizing funding for education and support for teachers and local schools.”

Except that major political change is excruciatingly slow and difficult.  And, in education, the policy that most directly affects schools happens in state legislatures, where the American Legislative Exchange Council wields the power.

Just this week in West Virginia, for example, the state legislature passed an omnibus bill which combines added state investment in public schools with the launch of charter schools.

Nearby in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a scathing critique of the state legislature’s ongoing debate of bills that would supposedly regulate charter schools: “Last week, the Pennsylvania House passed a set of bills proffered to ‘fix’ Pennsylvania’s charter school law. Yet the bills fail to address necessary charter school funding reform, and two of the bills… specifically allow charters to expand without adequate oversight… Statewide, in 2016, state school districts paid $1.5 billion… in charter school tuition payments.  Charter schools receive this funding regardless of whether their students are making the grade. Worse yet, in 2012-13 they were paid over $200 million more for special education services than they spent on these services for our students.”

Jeff Bryant explores in more detail just how Pennsylvania charter school funding is destroying local school districts’ capacity to fund their public schools.  Bryant quotes the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials: “‘Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.’ With the current cost of charter growth at 10 percent annually, PASBO calculates at least $0.37 of every new dollar raised in property taxes in 2017-18 went directly to charters… Because the state does virtually nothing to help alleviate these costs, school districts are forced to turn to property taxes… To stave off the decimation, ‘school districts shifted resources from other areas of the budget, cut programs, and raised property taxes to cover the difference’ created by rising charter school costs.”

Meckler is correct, however, that the tide seems to be turning against charter schools. She quotes Democratic candidates for President who, once enthusiastic supporters of charter schools, have carefully been changing their message—Cory Booker especially, and also Joe Biden.  After the Network for Public Education released a scathing report on the appalling absence of oversight in the federal Charter Schools Program, Bernie Sanders increased the pressure on other candidates by “calling for a halt to all federal funding for charter schools.”

So… what is shifting public opinion away from support for charter schools and forcing Democratic candidates to recalculate their messaging?

  • Meckler names a year of teachers’ strikes and wildcat walkouts as an important factor: “The shift was reinforced last year by teacher strikes that focused public attention on educators’ low pay.”  But it is not only attention to the collapse of teachers’ salaries that we have have been watching. Teachers have drawn attention to the implications of  their low salaries—teachers leaving for states where salaries are better supported, teachers unable to find housing in the communities where they work. Teachers have also shown us their despicable working conditions and school districts forced to lay off nurses, counselors, librarians and social workers.
  • Academic research economists like Gordon Lafer and Bruce Baker have documented that charter school expansion leaves school districts with very significant fixed costs when children carry away their funding to a charter school—fixed costs that are large enough to devastate public school services and eliminate enrichments that are needed for the majority of children who remain in the public schools.
  • Teachers’ unions are deliberately working with candidates—encouraging them to talk with local school teachers who help them understand the damage test-and-punish school reform policies and the expansion of charter schools have inflicted on the public schools where teachers cope with the consequences day after day.  Meckler explains: “The American Federation of Teachers has been hosting candidate forums throughout the country, inviting contenders to spend a day with teachers and then answering questions town hall-style.”
  • Finally, the press along with advocates for investing in the public schools have relentlessly exposed the theft of public dollars by unscrupulous charter operators and for-profit charter management companies; the violation of students’ rights when charters push out vulnerable students or neglect to provide services for English language learners or children with special needs; the failure of state governments to regulate charter schools in the public interest; and the outrageous mismanagement of the federal Charter Schools Program, which has made grants totalling over a billion dollars since 1994 but without sufficient oversight.  The U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has condemned the management of this program in biennial reports for years, but nothing has been done to improve regulation of the schools which were seeded or expanded with large federal grants.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has done some of the most notable work to expose the abuse of the public interest in the federal Charter Schools Program. Three months ago, NPE released Asleep at the Wheel, a major report documenting that over a billion in federal Charter Schools Program dollars has been wasted since 1994, when the program was launched, on charter schools that never opened or subsequently shut down. NPE has been updating that report by digging deeper into the state-by-state problems with charter schools that were started up or expanded with the federal grants.

On Monday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss  published the newest findings from Carol Burris, the Network for Public Education’s executive director and one of the authors of the Asleep at the Wheel report: “The Network for Public Education… continued investigations, going state by state, documenting the failed and never opened charter schools that received grants. To date, we have analyzed the lists of grants given from 2009 to 2014 in 15 of the 40 recipient states.  Some of the states received multiple grants, others few.  We have found 1,203 charter schools in those 15 states alone that either never opened or have closed.  This represents 40 percent of the total grantees… It appears we underestimated the waste in the report—the percentage of failed schools is higher than the 30 percent that we reported, and given the limited number of states and years analyzed so far, it is likely that waste will exceed our estimate of $1 billion.”

In Michigan, Burris reports the Asleep at the Wheel report caused the Michigan Board of Education to slow down on dispersing the federal funds: “Just this spring, based on the history of failed grants, the Michigan Board of Education voted to stop the disbursement of funds from a new federal $47 million dollar grant while it investigates what happened to the funds given to charter schools that never opened or quickly failed.”  Burris adds: “Eighty percent of Michigan charter schools are run by for-profit companies.”

Deeper investigation by NPE has revealed that, “Maryland had 54 schools in the 2009-2014 federal data set that never opened.  Overall, the percentage of Maryland charters that received federal grants but never opened or failed is an astounding 55 percent.  Those schools, together, had received $7,901,164 in federal Charter Schools dollars. Forty-two percent of the Pennsylvania charter schools that received grants either never opened, closed or may not have ever been a charter school at all… Other states with grantee failure rates above 50 percent are Delaware (57 percent), Arkansas (52 percent) and Georgia (57 percent).”

The National Center for Education Statistics assigns a name and a 12 digit code to all public and charter schools and has updated its school-locator tool through the 2017-2018 school year.  Burris reports: “Most of the time, the charter schools that received grants but never opened had not been assigned an NCES number in the database. However, we found numerous cases in two states where the school not only did not have a NCES number, it did not even have a name. Tennessee, which has a 49 percent grantee failure rate, gave 38 (federally funded) grants of $10,000 each to schools that not only did not have a NCES number, they also did not have a listed name. Where did that $380,000 go? Apparently, the Department of Education has no idea. Nor do they (or taxpayers) know where 18 grants to Arkansas ‘no name and no NCES ID’ charter schools went. Two of those grants were for $50,000.”

Burris further explores outrageous scandals in several charter schools and charter school chains seeded originally with federal Charter Schools Program grants. In California, 11 people associated with the online  Academic, Arts and Action Charter Academies, known as A3 Education, were indicted a few weeks ago on criminal charges of grand theft, conspiracy, personal use of public money and financial conflict of interest. (This is the scandal involving Steve Van Zant, Jason Schrock, Eli Johnson, and Sean McManus). It is alleged that over $50 million was stolen. “And who gave the seed money to start this adventure? The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program did.” Burris further explores scandals in charters originally set up with federal Charters Schools Program dollars in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Burris concludes: “It appears that Sean McManus of the California online A3 charter scam has left the country.  But the multimillion-dollar heist of federal and California taxpayers’ funds for which he allegedly is responsible pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars in waste we are finding in our investigation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.”

Thanks to this kind of investigation—along with the outcry from public school teachers and the work of economists showing that charters steal essential dollars from public school districts—politicians are beginning to realize they can no longer ignore the problems with charter schools.

Backing Gov. Tony Evers’ Education Budget Priorities, Wisconsin Protesters Will Walk 60 Miles to Madison

Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens from all over Wisconsin will walk 60 miles to Madison beginning tomorrow. They’ll be demonstrating all weekend to protest the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature’s state education budget and to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ effort to overcome years of Scott Walker’s budget cuts to the state’s public schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Annysa Johnson reports: “Public school advocates from across the state will embark on a 60-mile march to Madison… hoping to persuade Republican lawmakers to boost funding for K-12 education…. The goal, organizers say, is for the lawmakers to reinstate key components of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget, particularly his nearly $600 million boost to cover special education costs, $58 million more for mental health services, and $40 million more for bilingual-bicultural programs.”

Gov. Evers, formerly Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, knows about the needs of public schools.  After the Legislature—still dominated by Walker’s kind of small government Republicans—rejected his budget proposal and countered with less investment in what Evers believes are necessary programs, the new Governor has repeated his demands for more money, particularly to help school districts serve disabled children in special education and support school districts serving concentration of children living in poverty.

In late May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck reported: “The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted… to put in the next state budget a $500 million increase in funding for schools that provides $97 million in new funding to help cover schools’ special education costs… But Evers made clear the Republican plan for special education funding wasn’t adequate. ‘We’ve had school districts across the state going to referendum for many, many years now, and passing referenda because the state hasn’t done their share… I don’t believe that what is proposed… deals with the issue of students with disabilities in more comprehensive way… I don’t think it’s enough.'”

Beck explains in more detail: “(Luther) Olsen, vice chairman of the budget committee, said the package would raise the percentage of special education costs the state covers from 25% to 26% for the current school year and to 30% in 2020.  Evers, the former state schools superintendent, proposed raising the reimbursement rate to 60%—which would cost $600 million.  Either would be the first increase in state funding for special education in more than a decade… A recent study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed school districts across the state spent more than $1 billion in district funds to cover special education costs that otherwise would have been spent district-wide.”

Another of Evers’ priorities, a significant increase for school districts which serve concentrations of children in poverty, was not part of the legislators’ budget as of June 17, when Molly Beck updated the details of the Legislature’s education budget negotiations: “Removed from Evers’ K-12 plan—built largely off proposals he made as state schools superintendent—was a plan to overhaul the state’s education funding formula to provide money to schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty.  Evers wanted to increase funding for schools by $1.4 billion, which included a $600 million increase in funding for school districts’ special education costs.  Republican lawmakers also removed (Evers’) proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s private voucher school systems.”

A Wisconsin Education Association Council update on June 7, 2019 explains the Republican Legislature’s determination to continue supporting school privatization with ample funding for the state’s large voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at religious schools: “Analysis of the education budget passed through the Joint Finance Committee… shows that students enrolled in private voucher schools would again receive higher per-pupil payments than public school students. Public schools would be capped at increasing per-pupil spending by approximately $200 in 2019-20 and $204 in 2020-21, while payments for voucher school tuition would increase by an estimated $229 in the first year of the budget, and $275 in the second year.”

In his important book, The One Percent Solution, about the 2010 Red-Wave election that flipped so many states to far-right, anti-government Republican leadership, political economist Gordon Lafer describes Scott Walker’s Wisconsin as emblematic of the anti-tax, anti-public services agenda. Lafer explains: “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the 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.  (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer describes exactly how this has all played out in Wisconsin: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

It is worth examining carefully what Wisconsin’s new Gov. Evers is prioritizing as a way to challenge the narrative about public spending. His budgetary priorities emphasize what are among every public school district’s most expensive and essential programming challenges—addressing the needs of very poor children and educating children with disabilities.  Traditionally it has also been the role of state governments (with the help of targeted federal Title I and IDEA funding) to equalize and compensate for the fiscal incapacity of property-poor local school districts to serve these populations. And when the state fails to do its part to fund mandated public school services, local school districts must raise their own taxes if their residents can afford it or cut other essential services. Tax cuts and the reduced services that inevitably follow are one of the reasons we have been watching school teachers across the country on strike this year to protest impossibly large class sizes and the layoffs of nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

It is refreshing to watch Gov. Evers be strategic as he redefines Wisconsin’s challenges. And it is wonderful that parents, teachers and public school supporters have organized to stand with their new governor to demand that Wisconsin stop starving its public schools. The budget debate in Wisconsin won’t end until the Legislature produces a budget Gov. Evers believes he can sign.

To keep up the pressure, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is organizing across the state for this weekend’s 60 Mile Walk to Madison. Executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains the urgency behind the group’s effort to support Gov. Tony Evers as he redefines the public’s obligation to invest in the state’s system of public education: “We’re not above begging… We have been on our knees, begging for our kids for the past 10 years, but we’re sick of begging for crumbs, and we’re here to demand more than that this time around.”