School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

Introducing a column by the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris on the explosion this year of legislation across the 50 state legislatures to expand school privatization, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss begins: “While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the ‘Year of School Choice’ by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos. Anyone who twas thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again. In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.”

In the piece that follows, Carol Burris examines the contention by Paul Petersen, the Harvard government professor who Burris reminds us is “a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms,” and Jeanne Allen who runs the Center for Education Reform, and who, “has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools,” that the legislatures considering school choice are doing so because parents are angry that public schools shut down during the pandemic.

Burris demonstrates that Petersen and Allen are wrong.  The states most active in promoting privatization are instead places where legislatures have tipped toward Republican majorities and in some cases Republican supermajorities.  And they are states where well-funded ideological lobbies for school privatization are working hard.

Burris describes today’s legislative climate for expansion of vouchers and charter schools: “Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.” She adds that despite what Petersen and Allen say, “red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed.”  So… this is definitely not a swelling of parents’ displeasure with public schools in the midst of a pandemic.

Burris covers several states according to a Burbio.com index which tracks the number of students who have been attending fully-open public schools. She explains that in Arkansas, whose legislature just passed a huge tuition tax credit voucher program, Burbio says that 96.8 percent of students were in school full time.  In Wyoming, where school districts have had the capacity to authorize charter schools but where, this spring the legislature created a new process (not yet signed by the governor) to expand charter school authorization to the state level, Burbio says 100 percent of students have been in full-time in-person schooling.  In West Virginia, where the legislature just expanded the number of charter schools, established state authorization of charter schools, permitted new virtual charter schools, and passed the biggest and most expensive Education Savings Account neovoucher program in the country, Burbio says 78 percent of students have been in full-time, in-person schooling.

If the pressure for expansion of vouchers and charter schools did not come from parents, who did it come from?  Burris lists the movers and shakers in four states:

  • In Arkansas, a group called the Reform Alliance (which operates another state voucher program paid for with state money) paid Trace Strategies $180,000 to lobby for the new voucher program. And the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,644,280 to the Reform Alliance.
  • In Wyoming, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools “bragged about how it lobbied for” passage of the new statewide authority to open charter schools.
  • In West Virginia, lobbyists included ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s organization); Stride (the new name of K12Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice Inc. (formerly the Friedman Foundation for EdChoice); Americans for Prosperity; and ACCEL (a for-profit charter chain run by Ron Packard, who formerly ran K12 Inc).
  • In Kentucky, lobbyists were Stride (formerly K12 Inc); the National Heritage Academies (a for-profit charter school chain); American for Prosperity; ExcelinEd; and Edchoice Kentucky (which Burris describes as a local branch of EdChoice Inc).

Burris concludes: “The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills…. (T)he long-term goal is to undo public education—not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”

It is a good time to review the ideology underneath the drive for school privatization and to contrast the values articulated by the privatizers with the values that have historically been the foundation of our system of public education since John Adams declared in 1785, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Here are four statements of principle that define the parameters of this debate:

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, an important book published last autumn, education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire characterize the belief system of the promoters of marketplace school choice:  “An unquestioned faith in markets is at the very heart of the push to unmake public education. Just as consumers choose from a vast array of products in the marketplace… parents should be able to choose where and how their children are educated… Give consumers the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children and the woes of our public schools will finally be fixed…. ‘Bad’ schools will be forced to close as consumers flee them, while ‘good’ schools will proliferate to meet burgeoning consumer demand… Unlike the public education bureaucracy, the market is seen as a paragon of efficiency.  Rather than being directed by some central power, individuals in the market need only seek their own benefit… In this view, markets are a form of natural democracy—one in which individuals express their preferences and those preferences shape outcomes.  Consumers vote with dollars, and the aggregation of those individual votes produces a collective decision.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 15-17)

What’s wrong with this idea? The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber warns that while individuals may serve the needs of their own children, society loses, and the children of the least powerful parents lose the most: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber clarifies how the ideology of school privatization compromises the basic values that have historically been our society’s bedrock: “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)

In Schoolhouse Burning, another important book published last autumn, Derek Black more precisely defines what public education was imagined to accomplish: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Groups like Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ExcelinEd, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not be determining the fate of public education in America.  The 50 state constitutions give citizens the responsibility, through the democratic process, of ensuring that their legislators provide public schools which are adequate, equitable, and accessible for all.

Will the Biden Administration Provide Leadership to Address Long School Funding Crisis?

Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.),  but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory.  How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.

The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.

The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.

In  2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.  Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.

Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery.  I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)

How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  p. 34)

Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 35-36)

Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)

Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade.  Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues…  The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)

The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative.  His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.

Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

A Public School Evaluation System That Fails to Account for What We Value

What really matters in public schools?  There are some very different definitions of the purpose of schooling. Proponents of business-driven, standardized test-based school accountability, the system mandated for two decades by the federal government, say we must use data to measure the quality of the student products turned out at high school graduation.  Educators—and I believe parents and children—agree that what matters is students’ experience of learning while they are in school.

In these months when our children are at home because the pandemic has closed their schools, parents, children, and teachers have all been talking and writing about what they are missing—what is most important for them in the daily experience of of formal schooling.  But lots of education policy wonks seem worried about whether schools can quickly get back on schedule with the standardized testing regimen we’ve come to expect since annual testing was mandated in 2002 by No Child Left Behind.

In an important new reflection in The Kappan, Educational Accountability Is Out of Step—Now More than Ever, two professors of education, Derek Gottlieb of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and Jack Schneider of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell reflect on what today’s school closures are teaching us about the value of schooling. Gottlieb and Schneider worry: “State governments… may have waived standardized testing this year, but once their public schools reopen, they’ll go right back to measuring them by the same few metrics they’ve used for more than a generation: test scores in reading and math, high school graduation rates, and, in some cases, student attendance… We… need to change the ways in which accountability determinations are made.  At present, accountability scores are calculated via algorithm (metrics in, ratings out)—a mechanical process that leaves no room for human judgment and deliberation about each school’s strengths and weaknesses, or the particular challenges it faces.”

What are some of the important things schools do? This spring parents can name a lot of very basic functions of school.  For children, going to school sets up a comfortable routine for each day and for a five-day week plus a weekend.  For parents, schools care for their children during six hours when parents can comfortably participate in the workforce without paying for child care, and parents can be reasonably sure their children will be well cared for and intellectually stimulated.  Schools are the primary institution that socializes children. They are places where children find friends, learn how to respect others and get along.  And they are places where children have fun learning.  Gottlieb and Schneider add: “Americans have… come to recognize the many vital social services schools offer, including mental health care, occupational and physical therapy, and the delivery of regular meals for low-income students…”

Gottlieb and Schneider also name important school experiences that teachers learn to provide as they pursue the academic courses to prepare themselves for certification: “Educating young people involves far more than getting them into their seats and raising their scores.  We expect our schools to motivate students, care for them, and keep them safe.  Schools introduce young people to the wider world, help them discover their talents and their interests, and alter their life trajectories.  Of course, teaching academic skills that can be measured via standardized test is important, but that can’t be all that matters.” “As so many Americans have come to appreciate, schools pursue a broad range of aims: not just to teach academic content but also to cultivate social skills and critical thinking, prepare young people for work and citizenship, foster creativity, and promote emotional and physical health… ”

At the end of an inspiring 2016 book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator, Steve Nelson publishes what he calls an Educational Bill of Rights, defining the school experience all children and families ought to be able to expect their teachers to provide: “Recognize the broad consensus that early childhood education should be primarily dedicated to free, imaginative play. Provide arts programming, recognizing that the arts are critical to all learning and to understanding the human experience. Provide ample physical movement, both in physical education classes and in other ways… Exhibit, in structure and practice, awareness that children develop at different rates and in different  ways… Acknowledge the large body of evidence that long hours of homework are unnecessary and detract from children’s (and families’) quality of life. Exhibit genuine affection and respect for all children. Honor a wide range of personalities and temperments. Encourage curiosity, risk-taking and creativity. Cultivate and sustain intrinsic motivation rather than relying on elaborate extrinsic systems of rewards and punishment. Understand that brain research supports active learning, engaging all the senses. Understand that children are intelligent in multiple ways… Listen to each child’s voice, give them real experience in democratic processes, and allow them to express their individuality. Know each child well, appreciate the unique mix of qualities each child brings, and never demean, discourage or humiliate any child.” (First Do No Harm, pp. 244-245)

Finally, UCLA education professor and writer, Mike Rose, spent several years visiting and observing classrooms across the United States as the basis of his wonderful book, Possible Lives. In an article for The American Scholar, Rose describes the qualities that defined the excellent classrooms he visited: “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Not all classrooms, of course, exhibit these standards of excellence every day, but the descriptions by Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider, Steve Nelson, and Mike Rose are a way to share what the experience of schooling ought to encompass for every child as well as being a standard toward which every teacher should aspire. Students are missing many of these experiences this spring while their schools are closed. Certainly virtual schooling on iPads, Chromebooks, or computers may help children stay in touch with their teachers and their peers and, to some degree, continue with educational activities designed by their teachers or their school district. But what’s happening over the internet, for those students who are lucky enough to have broadband access, cannot compensate for the in-person educational experiences the children are missing. Most children will eagerly anticipate getting back to school.

None of these reflections by educational experts on the experiences schools regularly provide for children has anything to do with the standards-based, test-driven school accountability our federal government continues mandate. When public schools reopen, it’s time to reject the kind of school accountability that counts children as though they are products turned out at graduation.

Michigan State Policy—Not School Governance—Dooms State’s Poor, Segregated School Districts

Through the month of June, Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer threatened to close Benton Harbor’s high school due to falling enrollment, low test scores and the school district’s indebtedness. Benton Harbor is among Michigan’s extremely poor, majority-African American school districts on which, under former governor Rick Snyder, the state imposed emergency fiscal managers. Benton Harbor is a little different—managed by the state under a court order that ran out last week on June 30.  Governor Whitmer had threatened to close the district’s high school on June 30, but then, at the last minute, it seemed there was a deal to keep Benton Harbor’s high school from being shut down.

Then, on July 2, it was reported that the local school board said it had never agreed to the deal. And what a deal it was. The Detroit News quotes Patricia Rush, a physician and member of Benton Harbor’s local school board, who commented on why the members of the school board felt they couldn’t accept Whitmer’s deal: “Rush said the board wouldn’t agree to even a tentative deal unless the state agreed to increase funding by a minimum of $1.3 million a year so the school system could fill all its teaching positions at salaries comparable to neighboring districts… The proposal said that if the district failed to meet certain goals after a year, the board would agree to suspend operations at the high school… Residents also were angry by what they saw as the short time frame of the proposal. The pact sets benchmarks that would show whether progress is made academically and financially after a year…. But several residents said one year wasn’t enough time to show progress in a school system that has struggled for a long time… The first step of the proposed accord called for the district to meet this month with national experts who have experience turning around troubled school systems.”

In her personal blog on Wednesday of last week, Diane Ravitch published a description by Thomas Pedroni of Wayne State University of four organizations the state has approved to serve as possible consultants: the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which has managed specific schools for the Chicago Public Schools; the New Teacher Project founded by Michelle Rhee and Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp; Turnaround for Children, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, KIPP, and America’s Promise; and Education Resource Strategies, funded by the Gates and Walton Foundations, the New Teacher Project and the New Schools Venture Fund.  Pedroni comments specifically on AUSL’s record in Chicago: “AUSL… has consistently failed to reach its promised benchmarks in the schools it’s taken over in Chicago and, remarkably, has underperformed non-AUSL Chicago schools despite receiving large resource infusions from the Gates Foundation.” Pedroni adds that, according to a recent study: “the largest impact of AUSL takeover may be on the racial composition and experience level of the teaching workforce—fired teachers were disproportionately more experienced and of color.”

Pedroni does not believe any of these organizations is likely to help the district: “How Governor Whitmer’s staff came up with this short list of corporate education reform organizations for Benton Harbor Schools is unclear; but one thing is clear—the Governor is passing over the insights and recommendations she might garner from the Benton Harbor community; from educational researchers and teacher educators; from officials and researchers at the Michigan Department of Education; from rank and file teachers and their unions. Instead she is laser-focused on whoever it is from the corporate education reform world who is whispering in her ear.”

Knowing how much damage has been done to Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts under former Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency fiscal managers, I have found myself puzzled that Michigan’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer has chosen to pick this fight with the long-troubled Benton Harbor School District.  But I am far more deeply troubled now that I have read Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider’s extraordinary expose of Michigan’s school funding history as it has worked in sync with a quarter-century-old, inter-district open enrollment program called “Schools of Choice” to undermine communities like Benton Harbor.  In her Washington Post column last Wednesday, Valerie Strauss published a link to a recent “Have You Heard?” podcast with Berkshire and Schneider, an expert on educational history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  Strauss includes a transcript of the program in her column.

Berkshire, Schneider, and their guests explain that Michigan public policy has been a primary cause of fiscal problems in school districts like Benton Harbor. Michigan encourages families to leave their home school districts to choose a school in another school district through inter-district open enrollment, but at the same time, the school funding system sends all the student’s state and local school funding along with the student when he or she leaves. Berkshire and Schneider and their guests explain that Benton Harbor is only the latest of a number of Michigan districts which have lost enough money to undermine their solvency. You will have to listen to the podcast or read the transcript to learn how all this has affected Detroit, Clintondale, Ypsilanti, Saginaw, and Saginaw’s neighbor, tiny Buena Vista: “Just a few miles down the road is a town called Buena Vista. It’s a lot like Saginaw, majority African American, majority low income. But there’s one big difference: Buena Vista no longer has public schools. A few years ago, the state took over the district and dissolved it.”

Berkshire and Schneider interview David Arnsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, who explains how inter-district public school choice bankrupts the state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and the students who are not active choosers… (W)hen the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student.  The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs. And so that means for the students left behind, that means that the districts losing students to Schools of Choice and… charter schools have to either cut back their services for those students left behind or draw down their fund balances. Usually they do both.”

Berkshire adds: “And the state imposed that new framework on top of a system where students were deeply segregated by race and income.”

Arnsen responds: “In every case they (the districts that lose students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children, and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue to both inter-district choice (public school open enrollment) and charter schools.”

Early in the podcast Schneider explains how inter-district open enrollment works: “(T)his is students and families in one district enrolling in schools in another district.  Now, this may sound totally innocuous on its surface… But there are also some things to be really concerned about here, you know.  I think first and foremost is the fact that some families are going to have better access to resources like transportation as well as information and are going to be the first to opt out of their existing districts, which is going to leave their previous districts poorer and probably more segregated, as a result, potentially trapping the most vulnerable students in those districts.”

Kathy Stewart, an intermediate school district superintendent in Saginaw County explains: “The state promotes and markets it as Schools of Choice for all families, all children, all parents.  One of the dynamics of Schools of Choice, though, is that districts do not offer transportation into their district.  So it is those families that have the transportation that wished to access another school district that had the means to get their children there every year, every day.”

But the problem is deeper. Berkshire explains that our society’s use of test scores as the sole yardstick for measuring the quality of a school district further complicates inter-district school choice: “Michigan’s education marketplace relies on test scores as its currency… So in order to sell its success, Saginaw also has to overcome perceptions about the city and its schools.”

Ramont Roberts, Saginaw Superintendent, explains the problem further: “Generally speaking, parents make choices about schools based on class.  And so when you add those elements to it, parents are left trying to choose not their local school district, but what they perceived to be a better education, which is not always the case.  And so when you ignore factors that impact achievement in certain school districts and you don’t want to account for those, and then you highlight achievement as being a measure of how a school district is doing and you use that to base choice policies on or highlight choice policies to parents, then it’s a recipe for disaster.”

One of the guests, Naisha Clark Young calls the Schools of Choice cross-district open enrollment program “a dead-end cycle.”  Jack Schneider calls it “a race to the bottom” for vulnerable school districts which fall farther and farther behind.

And so we return to Benton Harbor and a quick review of the conditions causing Governor Whitmer to propose the closure of its high school. In mid-June, the Detroit NewsJennifer Chambers reviewed the problems: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor. In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high school.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Chambers explains that many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

Public school inter-district open enrollment, exemplified by Michigan’s Schools of Choice program is supposed to give families more options.  But instead it launches a competition among school districts.  As Berkshire, Schneider and their guests explain, competitions always have losers as well as winners.  In Michigan, the poorest and most segregated school districts—places like the now-closed Buena Vista school district and Benton Harbor, which is currently under siege—are the losers. Justice cannot be achieved through competition.

Wayne State University’s Thomas Pedroni summarizes the structural racism at the heart of Michigan’s public education policy: “School districts in Michigan continue to be funded through the mechanisms established in 1994’s Proposal A, which monetized children.  Schools of choice and charter school legislation introduced a system in which surrounding districts and charter schools were given a strong financial incentive to draw students away from the mostly African American, low-income and under-resourced districts…  Whitmer… should recognize what predominantly African American communities across the state already know: That while one can always find examples of poor local management (in both rich and poor districts), it is state educational policies that will continue to grind down and destabilize even the best-managed low-income, predominantly African American districts across our state.”

Charter Schools at a Turning Point: How to Rein In an Out of Control Education Sector

If you read one article about education this week, you should read Jack Schneider’s column from last week’s Washington Post.  If you have already read it, I encourage you to read it again.  Schneider is an education historian at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  In last week’s column, Schneider shows how charter schools have failed to fulfill the promises of their promoters.

Schneider’s analysis is fair and balanced as he notes that charters have a mixed record.  While some are excellent schools that serve children well, “On the whole… charters have failed to live up to their promises.”

Schneider adds that the public is growing more aware of the problems charter school growth has caused for the public school districts where the charters have been located: “The charter school movement is in trouble.  In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’  Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the… runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion.  In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives—the Community and Citywide Education Councils—issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists. After a six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers forced the city’s Board of Education to seek a state moratorium on new L.A. charters, an outcome that reverberated across California and then repeated itself in Oakland.”

“But,” writes Schneider, “much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather then results.”  What were the promises? “The first big promise of the charter movement was, in the words of Barack Obama, that these schools would be ‘incubators of innovation’… The second promise, as George W. Bush put it, was that charters would give ‘families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better.’ In a competitive marketplace, families would no longer be trapped inside the ‘public school monopoly.’… The third promise was that charters would foster competition among schools in a manner that would lead to systemwide improvement.”

But, Schneider shows that charter schools weren’t really innovative: “Consider, for instance, the lack of innovation in the charter sector.  According to a recent report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, for instance, charter schools tend toward a particular set of practices: longer schooldays, comprehensive behavioral policies (governing how students dress, when they can speak and where they can move, enforced by a range of punishments) and a focus on academic achievement.”

And, “Charters have also failed to live up to the hype of freeing families from ‘bad schools.’ In large part, that is because the introduction of charters simply creates an opportunity for choice; it does not ensure the quality of schools.”

Neither has competition driven widespread school improvement in K-12 education across the United States: “Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students.”

For all these reasons, Schneider concludes, “the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel.”

One of the places where support for charters has been unraveling is California, where former Governor Jerry Brown—himself the founder of charter schools in Oakland, vetoed legislation to increase oversight of the charter sector. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, has shown himself more willing to consider expanding regulation of what continues to prove itself an education sector out of control.

Just this week, for example, the San Diego Union Tribune has been reporting in-depth on the indictment of eleven people who operated an online charter school scam in San Diego. This was neither a small nor an inconsequential scandal: “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students… San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said that leaders of the charter schools enrolled thousands of students into their schools, often without their knowledge, and collected millions of dollars in state funds.  Many students were already enrolled in private schools or in youth athletic groups, and the charter school leaders bought their information to claim them as their students….”  The operators of the charter schools claimed to be providing services for the schools through private corporations they owned, “But the two men never provided any services to the charter schools….”

California allows school districts to sponsor charter schools, and it has been reported in the past that tiny elementary school districts have sponsored online or storefront charter schools in strip malls in locations outside their own school districts in order to reap sponsorship and oversight fees from the state to pad their own school district budgets. The Dehesa Elementary School District in San Diego County is one such district. The charter school operators who were indicted, “looked for low-enrollment school districts like Dehesa to authorize their charter schools… because small school districts would likely want to benefit from charter school oversight fees that charters pay to their authorizing districts.” “One of the people indicted last week is Dehesa School District Superintendent Nancy Hauer, “who was indicted for allegedly over-charging charter schools by more than $2 million in oversight fees—which is more than the district’s own payroll budget.”

Researchers in California have also begun calculating the loss from public school district budgets to charter schools.  A year ago, In the Public Interest, a public policy organization in California, published a study by political economist Gordon Lafer which explored the fiscal implications of the unregulated expansion of charter schools for three California school districts—the Oakland Unified School District, the San Diego Unified School District, and the Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District.  When students leave a California public school district, writes Lafer, “all the funding for that student leaves with them while all the costs do not.”

Lafer examines the stranded costs that cannot be managed by public school districts when students leave for 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.”

In his report last year, Lafer calculated that, “Measured as a per-pupil cost, we estimate 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 district.

Just two weeks ago, In the Public Interest used the methodology Lafer developed last year to measure the impact of unrestricted charter school growth on the net finances of another school district—the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban district in the East Bay near Oakland.  Here are the findings of the new report: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) 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. As a result, the district has $978 less in funding for each traditional public student it serves.”

During last winter and into this spring, striking school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland drove home the consequences of California charter schools’ sucking millions of tax dollars out of public school districts. We listened as teachers described their despicable working conditions, the layoffs of desperately needed school nurses, librarians, counselors and social workers, and insultingly low pay that drives many teachers out of the profession. As a result, California’s legislature has been considering four bills to rein in out-of-control charter school growth across the state—a bill to return charter school authorization and oversight to the school districts where they are located; another to cap unregulated growth of charter schools; a third to prevent charter schools from locating outside the district that authorizes them; and a fourth to impose a five-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools.

As I write this blog post, Diane Ravitch reports that the legislature is no longer considering two of those reforms—capping the growth of charter schools and establishing a moratorium on the authorization of new charters.  However, still under consideration are two important reforms—a bill that “gives local school districts the sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the districts’ budget in the approval process,” and a bill to close “a loophole in state law that has let some districts boost their budgets by approving charter schools outside their boundaries.”

In 2009, to qualify for Arne Duncan’s $4.5 billion grant program, the Race to the Top, states had to change their own laws by removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  We are watching as, one-at-a-time, state legislatures grapple with the consequences of a privatized sector gone wild.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring 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 highest 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. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

Educating Ourselves About Betsy DeVos—Three Essential Articles

Tim Alberta’s profile of Betsy DeVos at POLITICO Magazine humanizes the Secretary of Education. I encourage you to read it, but only if you also read two other recent articles—Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s piece on public education’s real purpose (that Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand)—and Jack Schneider’s analysis of what Betsy DeVos fails to grasp about why the marketplace cannot improve education.

Alberta traveled with DeVos on her beginning-of-school tour in September and has interviewed her on several occasions. He describes two principles on which DeVos has, “fought and funded a generation’s worth of education wars… that parents should be free to send their children wherever they choose, and that tax dollars should follow those students to their new schools.”  He explains that DeVos believes bureaucracy in the Department of Education “smothers creativity, blocks innovation, and slows change to a glacial pace.”

He tells us that DeVos blames her poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing on those who coached her: “I think I was undercoached… In hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.” Her thinking on this matter makes it all the more puzzling that in her seventh floor office at the U.S. Department of Education, “The towering bookcases lining the rear walls are nearly empty, save for a few scattered trinkets.”  Maybe we all ought to send Betsy DeVos our favorite book on public education—something to help her get up to speed—maybe Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities—or Mike Rose’s Possible Lives—or Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement—or Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children—or Jack Jennings’ book on Title I, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools—or Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade. There is plenty of material to help her out.

We learn, not surprisingly, that her old school-privatizing friend, Jeb Bush, had the idea for her nomination as Education Secretary: “It was Bush who, in the days after Trump’s stunning victory, asked DeVos whether she had considered serving as education secretary—and who then contacted Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to recommend her for the job. ‘He was really the only person I knew in the transition. He was the best person because he was running it,’ Bush tells me, chuckling. The two ex-governors were on the same page: Bush had worked closely alongside DeVos to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Pence forged a similar alliance with her in Indiana. ‘He made it clear that he was already thinking about Betsy, too,’ Bush says.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, just reviewed Betsy DeVos’s recent speech at Paul Peterson’s think tank—the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This pro-privatization think tank featured DeVos, who adheres to a libertarian, pro-school choice agenda, as a recent keynoter. Eskelsen-Garcia distinguishes the principles DeVos described in her Harvard speech from the values endorsed by the nation’s largest organization of school teachers.

To DeVos’s endorsement of schools that seek to appeal to select groups of students who might choose them for a special program or service, Eskelsen-Garcia answers: “She doesn’t understand the concept of ‘public’ schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door….”

To the Education Secretary’s comments that schools shouldn’t be overly controlled by government, Eskelsen-Garcia defends the role of government: “protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve. We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools…. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher… (schools) undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.”

Eskelsen Garcia castigates DeVos for complaining that supporters of public schooling want to protect a ‘system’ of schools instead of prioritizing children one-by-one as individuals: “Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some ‘systems’ are pretty darned important.  The ‘circulatory system,’ for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The ‘skeletal system’ supports and protects us. The Secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.”

Like Eskelsen-Garcia, who decries DeVos’s comparison of school choice to the growing lunchtime choices as more and more food trucks have been parking in front of the U.S. Department of Education, Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores and an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross, is fascinated with the food-truck metaphor.  He quotes DeVos’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants… But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options.”  Here is Schneider’s analysis: “In other words, a monopoly became a competitive marketplace and, as hungry staffers flocked to nearby food trucks, the overall food improved for everyone… The moral of the story: everyone wins in a system where people can choose.”

Schneider offers a complex analysis of the reasons parents choosing schools may not be able to make discerning decisions. Parental choice, for the reasons Schneider describes, cannot be counted on to improve schools: “DeVos maintains a relatively unsophisticated view of how markets actually function. The flaws in her vision aren’t just a matter of politics; they are a matter of fact. Start with the fact that school quality cannot be evaluated through a single experience—the way a food truck can be. Products that can be evaluated this way are referred to by economists as ‘experience goods.’ How much do I like this grilled cheese? Give me one minute and I’ll tell you. Education, on the other hand, is largely invisible and reveals its efficacy over time making it a ‘credence good’–more like a surgical procedure than a sandwich. It can often take several months just to get a sense of a new school. In fact, some of us who are decades out of school are still sorting through our thoughts about how much we learned, how positive the social experience was, and whether we benefited in the ways we might have wished.”

Schneider continues—explaining the complexity of education: “(E)ducation is a socially-supported process for cultivating human improvement—an ambitious and multifaceted enterprise that takes place over many years.  This grand scope presents a measurement challenge….”  There’s also a problem with attribution. A child may love reading because his parents read to him. Or her preschool teacher read to her. Or maybe there was a wonderful story hour at the public library. Or perhaps the child’s love for reading can be attributed to one particular teacher or a school as a whole. Nobody can accurately attribute each child’s learning to any particular influence.

Schneider describes another “principal-agent” problem: “Parents are the agents for their children, who are the principals who attend the school: “Such a problem occurs when one person (the agent) has the power to decide on behalf of another person (the principal) who will bear the impact of that decision. In a choice-based model, parents are the agents, acting on behalf of the child.  Yet is is important to recall that parents do not spend their days inside schools….”  Hence parents are vulnerable to all the marketing that is integral to school choice—over the airwaves, in brochures that arrive in the mail, on the back of city buses.

And, Schneider reminds us: “education is a positional good. While some of the fruits of education are absolute—students either know how to read or do not—its usefulness in promoting social status is completely relative. As a result, parents can be drawn into anxious competition against each other for comparative advantage, and in the process may overlook the issue of school quality entirely. To make matters worse, this competitive approach ensures that however many winners the system produces, there will be far more losers, even if quality is the same across all schools.”

If you read all three pieces—Tim Alberta’s at POLITICO, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia’s, and Jack Schneider’s, you will discover that Schneider’s concluding paragraph sums it all up: “Betsy DeVos may be portrayed by critics as an ill-informed billionaire naif. True, her knowledge of the public education system is incomplete, and she has revealed her ignorance on more than one occasion. But it must be remembered that DeVos is a hardnosed adherent to free market ideology. When she compares schools to food trucks, she isn’t committing a gaffe—she is communicating her dogma to non-believers. Thus, as DeVos continues to make her appeal, we have a duty to take her seriously and to think critically about what she’s selling. A choice is coming, and the future of public education hangs in the balance.”

Bringing the Education Conversation Back to What Society Has Forgotten: Poverty and Inequity

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein castigated conservative reformers who construct a narrative of government failure as the justification for privatization. Over the years, education writers have documented that the narrative of the overwhelming failure of American public schools is fake news—a distorted story to justify the expansion of charters and vouchers and to trash teachers and their unions.

Twenty years ago, in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle documented that school “reformers” were constructing a specious narrative of public school failure: “(O)n the whole, the American school system is in far better shape than the critics would have us believe; where American schools fail, those failures are largely caused by problems that are imposed on those schools, problems that the critics have been only too happy to ignore. American education can be restructured, improved, and strengthened—but to build realistic programs for achieving these goals, we must explode the myths of the Manufactured Crisis and confront the real problems of American education.” (The Manufactured Crisis, p. 12)

Then in 2012, tracing a trend of modest but consistent improvement over the decades in scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Diane Ravitch reached the same conclusion: “In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about education policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media seemed to agree: Public education is broken… Furthermore, according to this logic… blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals… Since teachers are the problem, their job protections must be eliminated and teachers must be fired. Teachers’ unions must be opposed at every turn… (W)hat is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling…  The reformers say they care about poverty, but they do not address it other than to insist upon private management of the schools in urban districts; the reformers ignore racial segregation altogether, apparently accepting it as inevitable… What began as a movement to ‘save minority children from failing schools’ and narrow the achievement gap by privatizing their schools has not accomplished that goal….” (Reign of Error, pp. 2-6)

Now Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, refutes the myth of school failure again—in a new book (due out in mid-August), Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality—and currently in a series of articles being published by The Atlantic. Schneider deconstructs the fake news of widespread school failure and identifies what needs to be improved. His analysis is urgently needed at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is dominating the airwaves with a mindless, libertarian reiteration of the importance of parents’ freedom to choose. Schneider accepts the conclusions of sociologists like Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, who has demonstrated that the rich are retreating into wealthy enclaves where the schools are pockets of privilege. States reward these high scoring schools with “A” grades and punish schools in mixed income and poor communities with labels of failure—a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages further economic segregation and ignores society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable children.

Here is Schneider in a reflection published in late June, America’s Not-So-Broken Education System: “American education has some obvious shortcomings.  Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.”

Schneider concludes: “Perhaps the most serious consequence of the ‘broken system’ narrative is that it draws attention away from the real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging ‘brokenness’—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power…  (I)t is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system.”

In a second article published earlier this week, Schneider examines the policy consequences when ideologues convince politicians that public schools are a failure: “If the nation’s schools are generally doing well, it doesn’t make much sense to disrupt them.  But if they are in a state of decline, disruption takes on an entirely new meaning. Seizing on the presumed failures of the education system, reform advocates have pushed hard for contentious policies—expansion of charter schools, for instance, or the use of value-added measures of teacher effectiveness—that might have less traction in a more positive policy climate.”

And what about the misuse of data? “For the past 15 years, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Americans have had access to standardized achievement scores for all public schools. But test scores tend to indicate more about students’ backgrounds than about the schools they attend. As research indicates, out-of-school factors like family and neighborhood account for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast—the largest in-school influence—account for only about 10 percent. And test scores convey little else about the many things parents and other stakeholders care about… They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally. They indicate nothing about what teaching looks like, how varied the curriculum is, or the extent to which parents and community members are involved.  It’s impossible to know the quality of a school without knowing these things.”

I hope you will read both of Schneider’s articles. I look forward to reading his new book. Schneider brings the focus back to our collective responsibility to keep improving the public schools themselves—the public institutions we trust to serve all children, meet their many needs, and protect their rights.

Two Myths Are Part of Shaky Foundation of School “Reform”

Here are two of the myths that underpin the school “reform” movement.  First, there’s the myth that the real problem with American schools is that teachers hold low expectations.  You’ll remember that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And the second myth: schools and especially high schools fail because they are modeled after factories. For seven years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted that public schools are trapped in the dated industrial model and stuck in the 20th, not the 21st century. These ideas are rarely questioned. What do they mean?  Here are recent articles that examine some of their implications.

Myth 1: Children are falling behind because their teachers hold low expectations.

Gary Rubinstein is a math teacher at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, and a former teacher with Teach for America (TFA), the two-year alternative teacher preparation and recruitment program. Rubinstein publishes a thoughtful blog that critiques TFA and more generally the school “reform” movement.  In a recent post about TFA, Rubinstein digresses into a fascinating reflection on teaching itself and the role of teachers’ expectations:  “How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education. It would be so easy to improve. Teachers would just raise their expectations: Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult—more ‘rigorous’ if you will.  While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.”

Rubinstein describes the teacher’s job from the point of view of the practitioner.  And he describes his own experience as a high school math teacher who has considered how to help his students meet expectations: “As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill. Is that not some form of low expectations?  If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read The Grapes of Wrath in one night.  That’s setting some pretty high expectations.  But will this work?  Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task.  So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge.”

Myth 2: American Schools Are Like Factories That Process Students Along an Assembly Line

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently published an examination by education historian Jack Schneider of the idea that American Schools Are Modeled After Factories and Treat Students Like Widgets. Schneider charges: “The claim has been repeated so often—by entrepreneurs, by policy wonks, by the secretary of education—that it has achieved a kind of truth status.  And increasingly, it is a rallying call for reform.  Our schools need reinvention, reformers assert.  If we want to promote real learning, we need to tear down the factory and rebuild around technologies of the Information Age.  It’s the stuff of great TED talks.  It just happens to be wrong.”

Schneider identifies some factory-like characteristics of American public schools.  There is “bulk-processing.”  Our schools serve approximately 50 million students who are clustered by age into groups.  And there are assembly-line kinds of problems: “The typical school curriculum, for example, precludes students from pursuing genuine interests at an individualized speed.  Perhaps most obviously, schools, like factories, are generally geared toward producing a fairly uniform product, rather than a series of custom-built objects d’art.”

But, Schneider continues: “The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all.  They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling.  Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t.  Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking.  Finally young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.  These are big problems that can’t be wished away or solved by new technologies.  They can, however, be ameliorated by great teaching.  And that’s what we should be focused on if we’re going to talk about improving learning outcomes.”

After he challenges the myth of the school as factory, Jack Schneider asks us to contemplate a very different metaphor: “(S)chools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care.  And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty.”