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

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

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

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

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

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stand out in this report is the perfectly lucid explanation about exactly how charter school funding depletes the budgets of local school districts and what it means for the students left in the traditional public schools when some students carry their per-pupil funding away to a charter school: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

The report continues: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” As other studies have shown, the greatest fiscal burden for local school districts is for special education, because traditional public schools continue to serve the children with the most serious disabilities, the children who require expensive services most charters elect not to provide.

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

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

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

Lafer, the report’s author, painstakingly explains his methodology for determining the financial losses to the school districts in Oakland, San Diego, and Santa Clara County, and the effects of California state law to deny local school districts the capacity to control their budgets even as more and more charters are approved. But for the purposes of this blog, what is most significant is the warning about the very idea of creating charters to introduce marketplace school choice even while causing fiscal distress for already underfunded school districts: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problems addressed in all these resolutions are clearly documented in studies by Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert; Gordon Lafer, the economist who studied the impact of charters in Los Angeles, and researchers at Roosevelt University who studied Chicago.  Bruce Baker summarizes the overall problem we’ve ignored by judging charter schools merely by comparing test scores of children in those schools with the scores of their public school counterparts: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.” Baker criticizes the way charters operate in too many cities: “One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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