Roosevelt University Study: Rapid Charter Growth Has Cannibalized Chicago Public Schools

A new poll by the Associated Press exposes widespread support for school choice even though most people don’t know much about what it is:

“(M)ost Americans know little about charter schools or private school voucher programs.  Still, more Americans feel positively than negatively about expanding these programs, according to a new poll released Friday… All told, 58 percent of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66 percent report the same about private school voucher programs… Even though they are unfamiliar to many, Americans have largely positive reactions to charter schools and vouchers.”

The finding that most people have some sort of positive affinity with the idea of school choice doesn’t really surprise me. After all, our new U.S. Secretary of Education advertises the importance of “parents’ right to choose” every time she opens her mouth.  I believe Betsy DeVos’s support for what she calls “the right” of parents to choose a school is ideological.  She has been affiliated for years with libertarian think tanks that privilege individualism over the public good. I think she also believes in the importance of Christian religious schools or the right of parents to insulate their children by homeschooling them. And I don’t think DeVos has an adequately developed sense of opportunity cost—the reality in this case that school budgets are fixed and if you cut more pieces in the budget pie, all the servings get smaller and smaller.

By talking relentlessly about “parents’ right to choose a school,” DeVos is on-message all the time, driving home the idea that school choice is a right, and that right is currently being denied to poor parents. Hence DeVos talks about the need for more charter schools or publicly funded school vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts—public money to pay for parents’ private choice.

Let’s stop for a moment to remember that parental choice in a privatized education marketplace is not what is protected by the education clauses in the 50 state constitutions, which instead include language about the state’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools to serve the children of the state and the well-being of the public. The state constitutions allocate tax dollars for what has long been understood as a public purpose.

A new study from Roosevelt University in Chicago explains precisely how school choice—in this case Chicago’s rapid expansion of charter schools—can destroy the public good. The authors summarize the history of school accountability in conjunction with the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago: “During the Mayor Richard M. Daley Administration of the 1990s, Chicago Public Schools was shaped by educational accountability practices… Once identified as ‘underperforming’ a school would be subject to a litany of school actions including probation, reconstitution… or closure… By 2001, Chicago augmented its accountability practices with a school choice philosophy… In order to give parents school choice, the public schools system was directed to introduce a greater menu of school choices….”

And the school district closed so-called “failing” schools: “As became apparent, nearly 90% of the school closures for low academic performance impacted predominantly low-income and working class African-American communities… (in) the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods.  These schools… predominantly served a vulnerable student population who ‘were more likely to receive a free or reduced price lunch, special education services, be too old for their grade, and families change residences in prior year.’  Furthermore, children from closed schools did not go on to attend higher-performing schools. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research 2009 study of Ren10 (Renaissance 2010 was a school closure and charter expansion plan.) schools found that 82% of students from 18 closed elementary schools in their study moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school including schools already on academic probation.”

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mass closure of public schools in 2011: “In addition to poor academic performance, schools with low enrollment would also be closed in order ‘right size’ the district… Using the Chicago Board of Education ‘under-utilization’ metric, Mayor Emanuel shuttered 49 so-called underutilized schools, almost 10% of CPS’s entire school stock. Mayor Emanuel justified the massive closures as a strategy to contend with CPS’ billion-dollar deficit….”

By then, unbeknownst to many, Chicago was participating in Portfolio School Reform—the idea that a school district be managed like a stock portfolio by shedding failed investments and adding new investments—through what is called a District-Charter Collaboration Compact supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Through this relationship, CPS agreed to open another 60 charter schools in the next five years, even as CPS enrollments were shrinking and existing charter schools could not fill 11,000 vacant seats in their schools. Many of the 40 new charters opened since the Gates Compact agreement have been located within 1.5 miles of the 49 public schools closed due to low enrollments.”

You might call this turmoil, but the promoters of Portfolio School Reform call it “creative disruption,” a business school concept that is supposed to improve things. Except it didn’t work that way in Chicago.  The school district’s budget has continued to shrink (due partly to problems with the state budget and more problems with Illinois school funding and other problems with an underfunded pension system), and all this disruption has resulted in massive cuts to programs and services in the public schools themselves. Here is the conclusion of the new Roosevelt University report: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system.  While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

Here is Jeff Bryant, commenting last week for the Education Opportunity Network, on what school choice means for the public.  Commenting on pleas from people like Betsy DeVos to let all parents have a choice, Bryant writes: “All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community. Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms.  But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.”

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher who died last month, very precisely summarizes, in more theoretical terms, what has happened in Chicago: “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)

Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”

Economy Grows But State Funding for Public Schools Continues to Shrink

Here is what Wikipedia says about Grover Norquist:  “Grover Glenn Norquist…  is an American political advocate who is founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes all tax increases…. A Republican, he is the primary promoter of the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a pledge signed by lawmakers who agree to oppose increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, as well as net reductions or eliminations of deductions and credits without a matching reduced tax rate. Prior to the November 2012 election, the pledge was signed by 95% of all Republican members of Congress and all but one of the candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination… Norquist’s national strategy has included recruiting state and local politicians to support ATR’s stance on taxes.”

How has Norquist described the goal of his campaign against taxes? “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

You might imagine that Norquist is a kind of nut case, but lots of people have signed his pledge. In Ohio, my super-majority Republican state, for years and years our legislative leaders have been signing Norquist’s pledge and cutting taxes. Last week, the Plain Dealer described the plight of municipalities in Ohio caused by a rash of state tax cuts that have diminished funds the state has in the past allocated for essential servicesAlthough the economy has begun to spring back from the 2008 recession, Cleveland’s Mayor Frank Jackson is reported to have explained that Cleveland, “just cannot compete with a series of policies at the state level that, he says, rob local governments….  The Local Government Fund was created in 1935, as a promise to Ohioans that their support of the state’s first sales tax would mean that 40 percent of collections would come back to local governments and schools… In 2011, however, Gov. John Kasich, faced with an $8 billion shortfall, proposed a state budget that cut 25 percent of local government funding the following year and 50 percent in 2013…. By 2015, Cleveland’s annual share  of the Local Government Fund had been whittled to $26.5 million—a net loss of $29.5 million (annually) from pre-recession levels.” In 2005, former Governor Bob Taft and the legislature eliminated a tangible personal property tax on income and equipment that had helped fund municipal governments and school districts. They replaced it with a Commercial Activities Tax, which was then slashed by Governor Kasich and the legislature in 2011.  “Also built into Kasich’s 2011 budget bill was the controversial abolition of the estate tax.”  And finally at the end of 2014, Governor Kasich and the legislature passed a law to standardize and streamline Ohio’s income tax, a plan that will take effect in 2016 and further reduce state funding for municipalities and school districts (separate taxing jurisdictions in the state of Ohio).

It is axiomatic in public finance: if the federal government cuts taxes and the state government cuts taxes, the only way to maintain essential services is to go is back to citizens to increase local taxes—which is exactly what is happening here in my community. Across Ohio, according to the dogma of Grover Norquist which our legislature has embedded in state law, we cannot have “unvoted tax increases,” and so, in November my inner-ring suburban city government asked voters to increase the income tax.  In 2016 the school district will be asking voters to increase the millage. Because of all the tax cuts from the state, these new local taxes will (we hope) maintain current services.  In my community we are working hard to stay in place—just to keep from laying off garbage collectors and police and fire at the municipal level and to keep from increasing class size to alarming levels by laying off the teachers in our schools.  In these times when computers and the internet are making it possible to cut costs across some sectors, we are told we must economize in government too, but to collect garbage and put out fires and teach our children, we need to pay real people.  Roughly eighty percent of school budgets are spent on personnel.  If we cut taxes, we lose the people we depend on. (Increasing local taxes is inherently disequalizing, as some communities cannot afford to raise local taxes, but that is a topic for another day.)

In this context, it is significant that in December the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated a report it has been releasing  for several years, a report comparing overall funding for public education to what states were spending on public schools before the Great Recession in 2008: Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting.  Here is how the authors summarize their findings: “Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession, our survey of state budget documents over the last three months finds.  Worse, some states are still cutting eight years after the recession took hold.  Our country’s future depends crucially on the quality of its schools, yet rather then raising K-12 funding to support proven reforms such as hiring and retaining excellent teachers, reducing class sizes, and expanding access to high quality early education, many states have headed in the opposite direction.  These cuts weaken schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation….”

The report simply and clearly explains the trends in public funding for schools nationally and across the states.  The federal government provides about 9 percent of funding for public schools; states average 46 percent; and local taxes cover about 45 percent.  But the federal government and the states have been reducing their portions.  Congress reduced Title I compensation for schools serving children living in poverty by 11 percent between 2010 and 2015 and cut funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 9 percent.  It is at the state level—the primary funder of public schools—where the most devastating spending reductions have occurred.  “At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year…. In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent… While data on total school funding in the current school year (2016) is not yet available, at least 25 states are still providing less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state funding for schools—per student than in 2008.  In seven states, the cuts exceed 10 percent.  Most states raised ‘general’ funding per student slightly this year, but 12 states imposed new cuts, even as the national economy continues to improve.”

Which states reduced per-pupil funding for public schools by more than 10 percent?  Arizona, – 23.3%; Alabama, -21.4%; Idaho, -16.9%; Georgia, -16.5%; Mississippi, -15.4%; Oklahoma, -15.3%; South Dakota, -14.2%; Wisconsin, -14.2%; North Carolina, -13.9%; Kentucky, -12.1%; Virginia, -11.2%; Texas, -11%; New Mexico, -10.7%; South Carolina, -10.4%; and Kansas, -10.3%.

Local school districts have been unable to compensate: “In at least 18 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period.  In at least 27 states, local funding rose, but those increases rarely made up for cuts in state support.  Total local funding nationally—for the states where comparable data exist—declined between 2008 and 2014, adding to the damage from state funding cuts.” “Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding (especially formula funding) generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.  When the Great Recession hit, however, property values fall sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes —schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times.  Raising rates was particularly difficult in the midst of a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.”

In mid-December, Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, summarized the implications of CBPP’s new report in a fine piece, The Important Education Issue Leaders Are Still Ignoring: “One of the more telling combinations of news stories from the past week found education policy insiders in Washington, DC rejoicing over the passage of a new law rewriting federal education policy while at the same time a new report revealed how political leadership is continuing to fail America’s public schools… (D)espite all the celebration surrounding the Every Student Succeeds Act, the issue that remains mostly unaddressed in education policy is the massive under-funding that most states continue to inflict on public schools… Importantly, as the CBPP commentary states, ‘money matters for educational outcomes,’ especially for low-income children, whose best interest, many have said, is the main intention of federal education policy.”

As you contemplate the new year, I encourage you to read both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ accessible report and Jeff Bryant’s fine piece about its significance.

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.”  Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves.  Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting.  After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain.  The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”

Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states.  The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains.  These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District.  But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”

Recovery School District.  Achievement School District. They are the very same thing.  Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes.  Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race.   The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts.  And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed.  Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.

As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.”  Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.  Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times.  In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.”  Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.

Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder.  Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit.   Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement.  In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.

Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”

Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June.  The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature.  The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult.  It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust.  But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide.  And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”

If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish.  But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very poorest children.

Financial Corruption and Academic Failure in Charter Sector Beg for Oversight

Earlier this week, tracking an extraordinary investigative series on charter schools by the Detroit Free Press (still ongoing today) , this blog commented: “Although the federal government has been creating huge incentives for states to expand rapidly the number of charter schools—by making the removal of statutory caps on the authorization of new charters a condition for a state even to submit an application for a Race to the Top grant and by making available additional federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has left the oversight and regulation of charters up to the fifty state legislatures.”  The Free Press series is titled, “How Michigan Spends $1 Billion but Fails to Hold Schools Accountable.”

Yesterday Jeff Bryant, in his weekly column at the Education Opportunity Network, raised the same concern: Will Anyone Stop Charter School Corruption?  Bryant examines the Free Press‘s expose on Michigan’s charter schools and also looks at theft of tax money by unscrupulous charter operators in three additional states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. He notes that, “The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed controversial legislation to expand federal funds for more charter schools without placing any substantial new regulations on those schools.” “And in Washington, DC, that House legislation that would expand federal funding to these sorts of schools has been joined by a Senate version that is now steaming toward bipartisan consideration.”

In Ohio, Bryant examines Akron Beacon-Journal coverage of David Brennan’s for-profit White Hat Management Company, whose charter schools have “enjoyed such carte blanche operation that Ohio lawmakers approved additional funding for about 77 of those schools and exempted them from ‘full accountability until at least 2017.'”

In Pennsylvania, Bryant describes a quirk in state law that pays charter schools for providing special education for students who qualify but does not require the charter schools actually to provide the special education services for which the state reimburses them.  Charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to Bryant, “collected $350,562,878 last year for special education funding and spent $156,003,034 for special education.”  Describing Philadelphia, a school district mired in a dismal financial crisis that involves local money being siphoned by charter schools, Bryant quotes the Philadelphia School Notebook: “Philadelphia charter schools received more than $175 million last year to educate special education students, but spent only about $77 million for that purpose….”

In Florida, Bryant  reports on unscrupulous operators collecting funds for charters that are opened and then quickly closed. “Examples… include a man who received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first collapsed.  The schools closed in seven weeks.” Bryant quotes an Orlando Sun Sentinel report:  “With such wild growth, district officials say, many new charters no longer fill a niche or offer innovation. Yet Florida lawmakers repeatedly have declined to tighten charter school regulations.”

In Michigan, Bryant directs readers to the ongoing investigation by the Detroit Free Press, in which Thursday morning’s installment examines not the financial fraud but instead the academic performance of Michigan’s charters, an education sector that, in Michigan, now has an academic record spanning two decades.  “And, reflecting Michigan’s loose oversight of charter schools, a majority of the lowest-performing charters have been around for 10 years or more—despite research that shows the success of a charter school can be determined in the first three years of existence.”  The Free Press calls attention to two for-profit chains that not only run individual schools but have also been hired in Michigan to manage whole school districts. In 2012, the Highland Park School District was turned over to the national Leona Group, “often criticized for poor-performing schools.  The company runs 14 charters in Michigan and 43 in four other states.  Leona’s Michigan schools have an average percentile ranking of 19 (on the state’s school rating formula).”  “That same year, the emergency manager for the Muskegon Heights School District turned its schools over to Mosaica Education, a for-profit company with an average ranking of 16.”  The Muskegon Heights-Mosaica contract was dissolved mutually by the state and the corporation in April 2014, however, when Mosaica was not only unable to manage the district without a deficit: as a for-profit company, it was also unable to turn a profit.

Advocates for charter schools have railed against traditional public schools because, they allege, school district bureaucracy stifles innovation.  Others would value the kind of regulation built into traditional public school districts: public oversight of the tax dollars invested and the protection of the educational rights and the safety of the children enrolled.  I agree with Jeff Bryant who concludes his column this week with a plea for increased regulation of what has become a colossal charter school rip-off across many states: “Certainly, faced with such a growing calamity, it’s not being ‘negative’ or ‘oppositional’ or a ‘status-quo defender’ to stand in the pathway and yell ‘Stop!'”

Jeff Bryant and Amy Stuart Wells Show How Test-and-Punish Contributes to School Segregation

In an important and insightful piece yesterday for the Education Opportunity Network, How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity, Jeff Bryant examines a new report (released late last week by the U.S. Department of Education) about racial disparities in public schools.

Bryant writes:  “America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.  As the report in the New York Times put it, the new data revealed that, ‘racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school….’  But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about the discipline.  As both the Times report mentioned… and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.”

Bryant would like to see the Department of Education focus not so much on the presence of educational inequality as on its causes.  He is also looking for some leadership to show us how these problems can be addressed:  “Shocking data for sure… But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation.  Not so much.  In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame.  As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, ‘this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places’ but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors.”

For more challenging and useful analysis, Bryant points us to a new report published by the National Education Policy Center, Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy, a report authored by Teachers College professor Amy Stuart Wells who is an expert on the history of efforts to desegregate public schools.  Wells blames the current “corporate school reform” movement itself for exacerbating injustice for children of color who live in urban areas of concentrated poverty—the very children who are claimed by school “deformers” to be the beneficiaries of these policies.  According to Bryant, Wells identifies decades-old civil rights policies such as school desegregation and affirmative action as correlated with higher achievement by children of color, but condemns today’s brand of so-called school “reform” for intensifying disparities by race in school achievement.

Bryant points to Wells’ conclusion: a system of  “reform” that rewards schools and districts consistently able to post high test scores will by its very nature stigmatize schools and school districts where the children are living in poverty.  After all, five decades of research demonstrate that test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other variable.  Test-score-based systems like ours in America today create a competition among school districts—stigmatizing racially and economically diverse districts and creating incentives for parents with means to seek out the homogeneous, wealthier, high-scoring school districts in the outer suburbs.  Today’s  brand of “school reform” promotes segregation by race and economics.

Here is how Wells herself describes the problem in Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy:

“When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores, the correlation between race and schools deemed to be ‘bad’ based only on these narrow measures is high, exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist…. First, neighborhood and school district boundaries are divided by race.  Second, the policy drift away from desegregation and toward market-based school choice policies has led to more racially segregated schools.  And finally, the narrow, test-driven accountability system has fostered negative perceptions of racially diverse schools in comparison with privileged and homogeneous schools.”

I urge you to read and think about Bryant’s accessible article.  If you are able to spend more time, delve into Well’s longer report.  Also check out this blog’s post last Monday, Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity.  The post explores problems with the same data report Bryant criticizes from the U.S. Department of Education, some of the causal factors Duncan’s report ignores, and what some experts have proposed as ways to address these disparities.

Why Are We Easily Distracted in School Reform Debate? Follow the Money

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools or privatizing them.

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network this morning, points out that we are easily distracted from this goal, if in fact it is really our goal in the first place: “This is what the debate about education policy—and charter schools in particular—so often comes to: So much sturm and drang about a favored trinket from the ‘education reform’ tool box while matters of way more importance get neglected or even abused.  What could be more important than charter schools?”

This month New York City has become the microcosm of the national conflict between the rights and needs of children in traditional public schools and the rights of privatizers trying to open and fund charter schools.  New York’s new mayor, Bill deBlasio has become a leader assiduously trying to create the public will to address the rights of children whose needs for public services are overwhelming.

Mayor deBlasio has proposed universal pre-kindergarten for New York City, and he has proposed after-school programs for children in the middle grades—programs to enrich the children’s lives, improve their educational skills, and fill the hours between 3 PM and the time their parents arrive home from work—the unsupervised hours when many pre-adolescents can get in trouble.  Last week he drew a line, barring politically connected Eva Moskowitz from co-locating (rent-free) a charter elementary school into a building that houses programs for students with serious disabilities.  The new mayor barred the formation of that particular charter school and two others, while he permitted many to go forward.

In Bryant’s article you’ll find a link to a short video made by parents at one of the traditional schools where Mayor deBlasio barred the co-location of a charter.  The parents speak powerfully about the school’s positive programs for the smiling children who stand nearby.  These parents merely ask that their children’s lives not be further complicated by the co-location of another school into the building apparently already occupied by their children’s school and two others.

Bryant raises a number of urgently important concerns about public education in New York City and elsewhere—facilities in need of repair and upgrade—and most important, unequally distributed and inadequate state financing of public schools, a major concern at this time in New York, as the state has never lived up to its obligation under a lawsuit a decade ago when the state’s funding system was found wanting by its state supreme court.

Bryant is correct that the media’s “education reform enthusiasts play up the hysterics of charter schools as an ideological cause.”  And this week, as he points out, the proponents of charters have pulled out all the stops in the press—not only Morning Joe, but also Peggy Noonan, and Richard Whitmire (Michelle Rhee’s biographer).  Rupert Murdoch, who strongly supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies (that favored charter schools) and now employs Bloomberg’s schools chancellor Joel Klein in a new “education” division of the News Corporation, has also been vocal this week in opposing Mayor deBlasio.

The biggest cause of last week’s flare up in New York was New York  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for the rights of Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools and his failure to support Mayor deBlasio and the needs of traditional public schools.  Cuomo told thousands of charter school children and parents Moskowitz had bused to Albany for a rally: “You are not alone.  We will save charter schools.”

Many have wondered why Governor Cuomo is so anxious to speak up for charters, when the majority of the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students (and parents across the state of New York)—like those in the video Bryant features—depend on the city’s traditional public schools.   For the answer to this question it is essential to follow the money.  Cuomo has depended on the pro-charter PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  DFER was founded by hedge fund managers who have been among the strongest supporters of New York City’s charter schools.  According to a January 2014 report from Chalkbeat New York, DFER has contributed $35,000 so far to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  John Petrey,  a co-founder of DFER has donated $35,000 and Whitney Tilson another co-founder of DFER, $12,000.  Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC, Great Public Schools, has donated $65,000.  Members of the board of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools who have also contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign include Sam Cole ($30,000), Bryan Binder ($15,000), Jill Braufman ($57,500), Dan and Margaret Loeb ($29,367), Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($75,000), Dan Nir ($35,000), Charles Staunch ($15,000), Jarrett Posner ($2,500), and Andrea and Dana Stone ($75,000).  I urge you to check out this report.

Beyond New York City, we should all ask ourselves why we are so willing to give the well-connected like Eva Moskowitz the benefit of the doubt at the same time we easily forget about the students across our big cities where poverty is intensely concentrated and where schools are under-funded.  Why are we so taken with so-called “school reform” when it involves closing the public schools and opening privatized alternatives?  Are we, too, being gulled by money and celebrity?