Private Equity Partnership with Ron Packard’s Accel Charter Schools Supercharges the Profit Motive

Charter school management in Ohio was, for a long time, a flamboyant affair.  For nearly two decades, until the state finally put him out of business, William Lager ran the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—charging the state, year-after-year, for students who were not really enrolled and making contributions to the legislators who then neglected to regulate online charter schools.

Even more notorious was David Brennan, who wore a ten gallon hat and dubbed his charter company White Hat Management. He had an empire of Life Skills and Hope Academy charter schools and an online virtual school, the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA).

In 2018, the same year that Bill Lager’s ECOT was shut down, Brennan sold off his charter school holdings and later died. Charter school management quieted down after that, but the quality didn’t improve, and the profits continued to flow to the man (and his partner investors) who bought off much of David Brennan’s empire—Ron Packard. Packard was the founder of the for-profit online giant, K-12, but he left K-12, when it was under a cloud for misleading investors and poorly educating its students. By 2014, Packard had founded Accel Schools, another for-profit chain of charter schools, which was owned and operated by something called Pansophic Learning.

In a stunning new Alternet report, Jeff Bryant traces how Packard and Pansophic Learning expanded rapidly—27 charter schools across Colorado, Illinois, Michigan,  Minnesota and Ohio.  Pansophic Learning bought up not only Brennan’s charter schools but also the financially struggling Mosaica network of charters and a small local chain of I Can schools in Cleveland, along with Brennan’s statewide electronic school, OHDELA.

Packard’s finances are complicated by private equity investment intended quickly to produce significant profit. Investors in Accel and Pansophic Learning include a Saudi private equity firm, Safanad, whose CEO Kamal Bahamdan, leads Bahamdan Investment Group.

Bryant explores the role of private equity ownership not only of charter schools but also of private prisons and nursing homes.  He cites a study which “distinguished private equity for-profit ownership from ‘generic’ for-profit ownership because ‘private equity ownership confers distinct incentives to quickly and substantially increase the value of their portfolio firms.’  It is this form of intense, high-powered profit-maximizing incentives, the authors asserted, ‘that characterizes private equity… and could lead to detrimental implications for consumer welfare.'”

Bryant describes Accel’s use of a sweeps contract to operate the Broadway Academy charter school in Cleveland.  With a sweeps contract, an Accel charter school collects per-pupil charter school funding from the state of Ohio and then turns over more than 90 percent of the funding to Pansophic which then manages the school with virtually no oversight from the appointed charter school board but with a strong incentive to maximize profit by reducing services for students.

Bryant identifies an additional source of profit for Packard and his partners: “While Accel’s contract with Broadway Academy doesn’t include real estate, the authors of (a recent) Network for Public Education report searched the database of Ohio charter school contracts… and found that ‘Global School Properties Ohio, LLC holds the leases for many Accel charter schools. The… landlord is at the same 1650 Tysons Blvd. address in McLean, Virginia, as Pansophic Learning.'” Hence we learn that Pansophic not only collects virtually all the state per-pupil charter school funding, but it also very likely makes a profit by charging inflated rent to lease the building that it secretly owns back to its own school.

Bryant unearths the complicated financial dealings of Pansophic Learning, Safanad, and the Bahamdan Investment Group. His report details the troubling financial web underneath Accel and the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA).  For the Washington Post, Steve Yoder describes how all this affects a Conneaut, Ohio mother and her children. Amanda Nemergut wanted to move her children to online learning as an alternative to in-person schooling during COVID-19.  Wooed by fancy online advertising, Nemergut enrolled her children in OHDELA: “Soon Nemergut and her kids… noticed problems. OHDELA’s model relies on parents to help supervise their children’s instruction, and Nemergut did, stepping in throughout the day to aid with technical glitches and questions on assignments. But there were issues she couldn’t fix.  The homework didn’t match the material teachers covered in class. When teachers gave live instruction—no more than 20 minutes per class… students couldn’t ask questions because chats were blocked. When her daughters sent questions by email, they got no answer. Teachers didn’t give credit for work her kids had turned in and marked them absent for classes they attended.”

One must acknowledge that the test-score-based Ohio state school report cards are flawed measurements of school quality, but even recognizing the inadequacy of the report cards, Jeff Bryant writes that Ron Packard’s Accel Schools in Cleveland area are not breaking any records for academic quality: “Accel Schools in the Cleveland area, where the management company has its highest density of schools, has no schools with A or B ratings from the 2018-2019 school year, the last one measured due to the pandemic. There are three C rated schools, including Broadway Academy.  Eleven others are D and F rated schools.”

Community Schools May Be the Best Post-Pandemic Educational Strategy

Jeff Bryant recently profiled Mary Parr-Sanchez, the current president of the National Education Association’s New Mexico affiliate, speaking about what education will be like after the pandemic: “‘I think we’re all going to be different after this… When I first learned of the community schools model, it hit me like a lightning bolt,’ she told me. ‘I loved it because it focused on the academic and nonacademic needs of children, and the focus was on learning and a culturally relevant curriculum, not just test scores.’ Now, she is convinced the community schools model is the most promising way forward for schools as they reopen to the new realities of recovering from the fallout of COVID-19.”

Here is how the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools defines a full-service, wraparound community school: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities. Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.”

Community schools are designed locally to meet the needs of the particular school community, but they share essential characteristics. The Children’s Aid Society explains that community schools are not mere ad hoc school community partnerships, but are instead the product of careful planning and staffing. A Community School Director—an administrator—partners with the principal to coordinate the social, medical and enrichment services housed in the community school with the academic program. Each community school has a designated lead partner agency, which “maintains a full-time presence in the school and engages in regular joint planning with the Community School Director, the staff, and the community.”

In Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools in New York City, the lead partner has been the Children’s Aid Society, which enumerates the programs community schools typically bring right into the school building: medical, dental, mental health and social services, innovative after-school, holiday and summer enrichment programs, early childhood programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, parent and family engagement and parent education programs, and other programs for community development.

The American Federation of Teachers has endorsed community schools, provides online resources for the establishment of community schools and has supported their development in West Virginia and Cincinnati, for example. The National Education Association has likewise supported the development of these full-service, wraparound schools. The community schools model has until now been adopted primarily in urban areas. But Bryant’s profile featuring New Mexico’s NEA president, Mary Parr-Sanchez, demonstrates how the adoption of this education model has supported children and the community in a small, impoverished New Mexico village, 10 miles outside of Los Cruces.

Parr-Sanchez believes the pandemic has exposed all the reasons community schools are an appropriate response to families’ needs: “The current crisis is exposing the inequality not only in schools but in our society and making people more aware of the conditions of children.”

Bryant adds: “Indeed, the indisputable lesson the pandemic has taught the nation is that local schools are, like it or not, the nation’s safety net for children and families, and that vast inequities in public education and society at large are blocking children’s access to learning—whether it’s being able to get internet service or having a home where children can do schoolwork. We also learned that teacher-student relationships are at the center of the education process, and when those break down, learning breaks down too.”

Bryant shows why the supports embedded in a community school are so urgently needed in a rural area of New Mexico: “In 2017, the state was tied with Louisiana for the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, 19.7 percent, according to World Population Review. Personal finance site, WalletHub, ranked New Mexico as the worst state in America to raise a family… In its most recent annual state-to-state comparison of overall child well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation rated New Mexico at the very bottom. The highly respected analysis was especially brutal in ranking New Mexico 50 in education due to the state’s poor fourth-grade reading test scores (with only 25 percent of students rating ‘proficient’) and high percentage of high school students who do not graduate within four years (29 percent). The state also ranked bottom or near bottom on a number of other factors including health care, economic conditions, and household and community circumstances.  New Mexico, along with Mississippi, has the most children living in high poverty areas—24 percent.” Bryant also cites a recent school finance report from the Albert Shanker Institute ranking New Mexico 13th in the nation on “a measure of the state’s school spending as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product.”

Parr-Sanchez and her union helped support the development of a community school in Los Cruces beginning in 2013, and the number of New Mexico community schools has grown considerably since then, including the transformation of Dona Ana Elementary School into a community school this past February: “Dona Ana, a rural village about 10 miles outside of Las Cruces, already faced formidable educational challenges…. Family food insecurity is widespread, the community lacks affordable housing, and the local economy is stagnant.” The school principal, Cherie Love, reports: “Reliable transportation and money for gas is also a challenge for our families.”

Bryant adds: “Prior to the opening of its community schools program, Dona Ana was already providing free breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack to 100 percent of its students and a free dinner and snack to about 120 students enrolled in its extended learning (afterschool) programs.”  When the pandemic struck a month later, Bryant reports that, “because Dona Ana had adopted the community schools model, it had in place the personnel to meet the multiple needs of a traumatized community.”

Principal Love explains: “Our community schools coordinator worked our help desk to provide information to parents and channel their questions to the appropriate departments and people… We provided mental health support to students and their families through our school counselor and our school special education psychologist.”  The school had begun working to help parents expand their children’s access to the internet, and many of the families who attended the classes “have reported that they are now using (their) iPad to support their child’s learning.”

Bryant adds that with the community school program operational after months of previous planning before the pandemic struck, “Dona Ana had in place the partners it needed to bolster support for students and families. Among those partners is New Mexico State University, which provided school supply packets to more than 200 elementary students.  Another partner, local nonprofit Ngage New Mexico, provided parents a webinar in Spanish and English on ‘Creating Effective Home Learning Environments.”

Teacher and state NEA President, Parr-Sanchez hopes the educational crisis caused by the pandemic will awaken people’s awareness about the benefits of community schools in small communities as well as large cities: “After this, I think schools will be viewed as essential and that we can just own that truth without having to fight for it.  So then the issue is how do we do it right, and we look to community schools as a model.  And we fund them.”

What about research on the effectiveness of the community schools model?  Last winter, the Rand Corporation released a  study confirming that like all whole school improvement models, community schools make an increasing difference over time. The RAND study evaluated NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools across an increasing number of New York City’s public schools: “In particular we found that the NYC-CS has a positive impact on student attendance in all types of schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and across all three years that outcomes were measured (from 2015-18).  We also found positive and significant impacts on elementary and middle students’ on-time grade progression in all two years for which we have data and on high school students’ graduation rates in two of the three years. Our analyses suggests that the NYC-CS led to a reduction in disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students but not for high school students. Finally, we found that NYC-CS had a positive impact on math achievement in the third and final year….”

In its May 5, 2020 newsletter, the National Education Policy Center reports on a study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Jennifer Jellison Holme, who poses a number of questions school personnel and policy makers ought to consider as they implement and improve community schools. Several of the questions are basic to any kind of programmatic educational improvement: “Should classroom learning play a larger role? How can community schools build more on community strengths? How can community schools effectively coordinate with and among their many partners? What is the right balance between grassroots efforts and top-down reforms? What resources are necessary to sustain the reforms and where will they come from? Could more rural areas benefit from community schools?”

Jellison Holme poses one additional question that gets at a much deeper concern: “How can the community schools movement more emphatically address broader structural inequities?” NEPC’s newsletter quotes Jellison Holme exploring the complexity embedded in that question:  “Community schools policies are arguably one of the few efforts within education policy that directly acknowledge, and seek to address, the structural inequities that affect schools, in an era where other policy initiatives gloss over local contextual factors, or treat them as irrelevant… Community schools themselves can be one prong in a policy strategy to address these problems, but they likely will not succeed in isolation from efforts to address these broader issues… In sum, although we applaud the community school approach as a promising solution to massive disinvestment in urban communities, it may not translate into longer term improvements in outcomes for low-income students and their families without coupling it to building capacity and agency within communities, or addressing larger structures of segregation and finance inequity.”

Ongoing Impact of the School Leadership Pipeline Created by Eli Broad’s Superintendents’ Academy

I think it is hard to discern what history will make of what’s going on right now. And it is especially difficult in the domain of education, because newspapers and their investigative reporting are fading. Education reform has also been dominated by powerful philanthropists and ideologues who operate out of the public eye—in the world of think tanks and training institutes and ideas festivals.

That is why I’m grateful this week for Jeff Bryant’s fine new article about Eli Broad and his Broad Academy for urban school superintendents, which has created a pipeline feeding its graduates into urban school districts and then promoting their careers even when things are not going well.  Bryant tells the story of John Covington, the unsuccessful school superintendent in Kansas City, who, in 2011, moved at Broad’s bidding to run Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority.  After a couple of years, when Covington was fired from the Michigan job, “(H)e was hired with a contract for $300,000 to start a new school reform initiative—for the Broad Foundation.”

If you are a Broadie, Bryant explains, you don’t have to be successful; you just have to be connected: “Covington’s story… sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide. Charter advocates and funders—such as Broad, Bill Gates, some members of the Walton Family Foundation, John Chubb, and others who fought strongly for schools to adopt the management practices of private businesses—helped put into place a school leadership network whose members are very accomplished in advancing their own careers and the interests of private businesses while they rankle school boards, parents, and teachers… The actions of these leaders are often disruptive to communities, as school board members chafe at having their work undermined, teachers feel increasingly removed from decision making, and local citizens grow anxious at seeing their taxpayer dollars increasingly redirected out of schools and classrooms and into businesses whose products and services are of questionable value.”

Here’s how John Covington’s tenure worked out in Kansas City and Michigan: “During his tenure in Kansas City, Covington generally angered teachers and parents and focused on leadership imperatives more familiar in the business community, such as ‘right-sizing.’  Student scores on standardized tests declined under his tenure, and after he left, the Kansas City district lost its accreditation due to continuing low achievement… Covington also left his Michigan position under a cloud of controversy over the lack of academic progress in the schools and questions about tens of thousands of dollars a month spent on travel expenses by his administration. The state-operated district he led was regarded as a failure and was shut down in 2017. But what Covington brought with him from Kansas City to Detroit was his connection to Broad and his relationships with private businesses—most notably, a software company called Agilix, its Buzz learning platform, and the School Improvement Network (SINET) consulting firm… Covington’s efforts to advance the interests of education-related businesses, while disrupting the community and accomplishing little on improving academic achievement, are recurring themes of many Broad network school leaders.”

Quoting Thomas Pedroni, an education professor from Wayne State University, Bryant divides the corporate school reform and school privatization movement into two groups. The first, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are ideological privatizers who want to cut government out of education, slash taxes, and expand freedom of choice for parents. The second group, like Eli Broad, want a publicly funded school system but also, according to Pedroni, “want to limit who can make decisions about how that money is spent and to keep those decisions behind a managerial curtain.”  Bryant explains: “Broad-inspired school leaders are seen by Pedroni to be working to increase their collective power by disrupting community-based governance, creating mutually beneficial relationships with private businesses, and limiting the supply of leadership ideas that are acceptable for transforming schools.”

Specifically, writes Bryant, “Broad’s efforts to transform school governance and management include conducting a training center for school leaders; advocating for school governance models that emphasize business methodologies rather than democratic engagement; circumnavigating traditional teacher preparation programs by funding Teach for America; and supporting charter schools and organizations and political candidates that promote charters.” Most important, through the urban superintendent’s academy, Broad has created a pipeline of educational leaders who look out for each other through a network of consultants, education publishing companies, and even superintendent search firms which promote candidates who favor disruption as the way to turn schools around.

Bryant profiles Robert Avossa, a 2011 graduate of the Broad Academy, who went on to be the school superintendent in Fulton County, Georgia, then superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, where, “After serving a little over three years, Aavossa abruptly resigned in 2018 to join publishing company LRP Media Group that specializes in the school leadership market.  LRP publishes District Administration, a long-running magazine distributed for free to qualified subscribers. The publication generates most of its revenues by selling advertising to companies that market education-related products. The same year Avossa joined LRP as senior vice president and publisher of education products, a short article in District Administration announced LRP had also acquired the National Superintendents Academy, a leadership professional development business previously owned by Atlantic Research Partners, the company owned by fellow Broad graduate Joseph Wise. The article includes a quote from the former managing director of the National Superintendents Academy, Peter Gorman, who was Avossa’s boss at Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in North Carolina, where Gorman served as superintendent and Avossa as chief strategy and accountability officer.  Gorman is a graduate of the Broad Academy, class of 2004.  LRP’s events business includes professional development ‘summits’ for school leaders and a graduate style academy, al la Broad, where ‘motivated participants’ can learn from highly successful superintendents and executives. The events often feature speakers who are Broad Academy graduates….”

Bryant briefly quotes Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a book in which Ravitch identifies the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations as a Billionaire Boys’ Club investing in corporate school reform. It is worth returning to a longer section of Ravitch’s book, in which she describes exactly who Eli Broad is: “Eli and Edythe Broad attended Detroit public schools. He received a degree in accounting from Michigan State University. With his wife’s cousin, Broad entered the home-building business and later bought a life insurance company that eventually became a successful retirement savings business called SunAmerica. That business was sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion, and Eli Broad became one of the richest men in the nation. He promptly created the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which invests in education, the arts, and medical research… Having been trained as an accountant and having made his fortune as an entrepreneur, Broad believes in measurement, data, and results. He created training programs for urban superintendents, high level managers, principals, and school board members, so as to change the culture and personnel in the nation’s urban districts…  In 2006, Broad invited me to meet with him…. He explained his philosophy of education management. He believes that school systems should run as efficiently as private sector enterprises. He believes in competition, choice, deregulation, and tight management. He believes that people perform better if incentives and sanctions are tied to their performance. He believes that school leaders need not be educators, and that good managers can manage anything if they are surrounded by smart assistants.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 212-213)

It wasn’t very long ago when Diane Ravitch exposed the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act and corporate education reform in that book. But it is too easy to forget exactly who continue to be the big philanthropic investors in public education policy and management. That is why Jeff Bryant’s new review of Eli Broad’s creation of a pipeline of corporate reformers is so important. The corporate reformers have not for the most part been people who know a lot about the civic purpose of America’s system of public education and they were, for the most part, not themselves educators. We are, however, living with the way they have remade our public schools through their philanthropic investments.

DeVos’s Staff Blocked Researchers Trying to Investigate Federal Charter Schools Program

Writing this week for The Washingtonian, Rachel M. Cohen describes the responses of eighteen federal workers when she interviewed them about what it’s really like to work for the Trump administration.

Cohen quotes an anonymous staff person in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, someone who reflects on Departmental priorities these days and her own particular concern: “I definitely get the sense that the appointees don’t feel many functions of our agency are necessary anymore. Words like ‘regulatory overreach’ and ‘burdensome regulations’ come up a lot, and while it’s true sometimes oversight is burdensome, and ensuring efficacy and quality can feel like overreach, we give out a lot of money—and if we don’t maintain some standard for those funds, then we’re not doing our job.”

Apparently the politically appointed leadership at the U.S. Department of Education wasn’t happy when, on March 8, 2019, the Network for Public Education (NPE) tried to investigate federal oversight over one area of departmental funding by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of routine regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Jeff Bryant is one of the researchers and writers of NPE’s new report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.  In an article published this week at AlterNet, Bryant shares some simple research questions he submitted to the Department of Education and the outrageous response he received: “On March 15, I received a voicemail from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. ‘Apparently you have sent this request to multiple people,’ she said (emphasis original), ‘and that just creates havoc for everyone.’ When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. ‘That’s understandable,’ she replied, but for ‘future reference’ I was told to send inquiries to ‘a director’—though I’m not sure who that is.  And I was told again my questions had ‘created havoc’ in the office but that department staff members were ‘working on it’ and would ‘take a few days.’ As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.”  Perhaps Bryant sent his inquiry to the career staff listed on the Department’s website, but a politically appointed staff member exerted her power over the Department’s communications with the public.

Bryant supplies us with the innocuous enough request he sent on March 8, a set of routine questions that surely ought to have resulted in a clear answer from a functioning governmental department: “This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an ‘Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.’ My questions: (1) Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities? (2) If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above? (3) Regarding a ‘Dear Colleague‘ letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter Schools Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?”

It is interesting to go back and read that 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter.  In the letter, two assistant general secretaries and an advisor to the program remind State Education Agencies (SEAs) of their role in helping the U.S. Department of Education to monitor the quality and fiscal responsibility of charter schools that had received federal money under the Charter Schools Program: “We write today to remind SEAs of your role in helping to ensure that Federal funds accessed by public charter schools are used for intended, appropriate purposes.  We also remind SEAs that the Department serves as an important resource to help with this important task… Although many charter schools are managed effectively and demonstrate promising results, the Department’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) recent semiannual reports to Congress have identified examples of conflicts of interest between charter schools and their management organizations, and examples of charter schools with problematic fiscal and management practices… SEAs should take steps to monitor and help correct poor management practices in charter schools.” Here are links to 2012, 2016, and 2018 U.S. Department of Education OIG condemnations of the management of the federal Charter Schools Program.

A little more history is also helpful.  The 2015, “Dear Colleague” letter was released during a period when the U.S. Department of Education was involved in reviewing the award the Department of Education had recently made of $71 million to Ohio (the department’s largest Charter Schools Program SEA grant in 2015) after it had been pointed out by critics in Ohio that David Hansen, then the director of funding and oversight of charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, had lied when he wrote the grant application by omitting the low ratings of an entire sector of so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools in Ohio and implying that Ohio had already tightened its charter school regulations when in fact the Legislature was only in the process of considering proposed legislation for slightly improved charter oversight.  In November of that year, the U.S. Department of Education was shamed into delaying the $71 million award to Ohio, pending further review.  (In September of 2016, the Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but labeled Ohio “at risk” following a request from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown for increased oversight of the $71 million grant to Ohio.)

Oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program matters for the communities and public school districts where the grants are awarded and for the children and families who will be affected by charter school expansion. And the amount of money in the federal awards to state education agencies and large charter school chains is significant. In its Asleep at the Wheel report, NPE reports that the federal Charter Schools Program, “was established in 1994 and over its 25-year existence, has funded as many as 40 percent of charter schools across the country… We estimate that approximately $4 billion federal tax dollars have been spent or allocated to start, replicate and expand charter schools.” “Hundreds of millions… have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.”

In his recent article, Jeff Bryant reminds us that poor management of the federal Charter Schools Program did not begin with Betsy DeVos: “It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, (and) states were required to lift caps on the number of charter schools in order to receive precious federal (Race to the Top) dollars… And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.” “This is not a partisan issue… Of course, any comparison between DeVos and Duncan can find some very big differences, but a constant throughout both administrations has been to ignore, wall-off, or obfuscate when confronted with any inquiry aimed at the federal government’s efforts to create and expand charter schools.” “It’s actually been endemic in the education policy world for years, particularly in how the federal government continues to hide its agenda to further privatize the nation’s public school system by creating and expanding charter schools.”

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.

How Can School Choice Destroy the Public Schools in Your Community?

In his column last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant examines a scary question: Can school choice create the conditions that entirely shut down a community’s public school system?  Bryant reports on Michigan where school choice laws permitting inter-district open enrollment and unregulated expansion of charter schools conspire with the state’s school finance system to undermine the stability of the state’s public school districts.

“In Michigan, the intense competition for students is taking bigger bites out of student enrollments in some of the state’s largest districts.  In Flint, where there are 14,325 public-school students living in the district, 39 percent attend charters and 32 percent are enrolled in another district—meaning the district loses 71 percent of its students.  In Pontiac, with 10,985 public-school students living in the district, 36 percent attend charters and 29 percent travel to other districts, leaving local schools with only 35 percent of the community’s students.  In Detroit, the state’s largest school district with nearly 104,000 students, 58 percent of them leave the district schools to attend charters (48 percent) or cross district borders (10 percent) to attend schools elsewhere.  How low can student enrollments go before a school district becomes financially unsustainable?”

Bryant explains the thinking of school choice promoters: “The thinking behind a market-based approach to education is that when the funding follows the student, school districts vying across district lines to get their enrollments high for ‘count day,’ feel more intense pressure to provide services with greater financial efficiency.  Adding charter schools, which in Michigan are allowed to start up wherever they want, without regard to the financial impact on district schools, brings into the mix an unregulated agent that can introduce even more financial efficiency into the system, the theory goes.” (Emphasis is mine.)  Then Bryant interviews experts to show why the theory doesn’t work as intended.

Bryant quotes Michigan State University’s David Arnsen on the damage wrought when charter schools reach the point of enrolling 20 percent of a district’s students: “(O)verwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

Bryant also quotes the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker, who explains the factors that contribute to making school choice unsustainable for a school district—“insufficient total revenue, the increased costs of serving special needs children left behind, the mounting health and retirement benefits of teachers, the increased costs of operating and maintaining old, inefficient buildings, and of course rapidly declining enrollment which creates additional financial pressure.”

A growing number of academic research studies in recent years has raised the alarm about the problem Bryant believes is reaching crisis levels in many of Michigan’s school districts. The evidence grows that a rapidly expanding charter school sector is likely to function as a parasite killing the host school district.

In a May 2018, report for In the Public Interest, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how charter school expansion has been undermining several California local school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… 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.”

In a May, 2017, report, Closed by Choice: The Spatial Relationship Between Charter School Expansion, School Closures, and Fiscal Stress in Chicago Public Schools, a group of Roosevelt University researchers describes what has happened to the public schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides due to the rapid expansion of school choice in areas already losing population: “Chicago Public Schools’ 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.”

And in the 2015 Michigan State University report quoted by Jeff Bryant, Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why? Michigan’s Story, David Arnsen warns that Michigan law seems especially designed to destroy public school districts’ fiscal stability as students move to charters or move to nearby school districts via cross-district open enrollment: “Michigan offers an interesting case of a state with a highly centralized school finance system in which the state sets per pupil funding levels for each district, and most operating revenues follow students when they move among districts or charter schools.  Districts have very limited authority to raise additional tax revenues for school operations from local sources. Consequently local responses to financial stress focus primarily on efforts to reduce spending… Nearly all funding moves with students when they transfer to other districts or charter schools, and local districts have very little discretion to raise additional tax revenues.”

In perhaps the most lucid explanation of the way state charter and school choice laws are proactively destroying local school districts, we must turn to the very school finance expert to whom Jeff Bryant spoke this week—Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “One might characterize this as a parasitic… model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to Sort Out All the Concerns about Charters and Vouchers

After today, this blog will take a two week summer break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 11.

I recently spent far too much time slogging through the over 80 pages of the new report on Charter Management Organizations from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Stanford CREDO is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. The study compares test score gains in four types of charter schools—the independent, stand-alone, charters; the charters run by Charter Management Organizations (that operate “at least three separate charter schools and the CMO is the charter holder for each school”); what CREDO calls Vendor Operated Schools (organizations which operate “at least three separate charter schools, but do not hold the charter for any school they serve”); and finally what CREDO calls hybrids (that “have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS).  After trying to sort through all these definitions plus the over 70 pages of data, I was underwhelmed by the conclusions: that students in independent charters have lower achievement, overall, than those that are part of a network; that charter quality varies by networks; that even though there is a range of CMO quality, “larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students”; that CMOs which directly operate their schools seem to do better than VOSs that bring in a vendor to manage the charters; that there is a need for better oversight by authorizers; that there is huge variation by state based on the kind of oversight the state provides; and that virtual-online charters don’t work for most students.

Although I certainly don’t recommend that you look at CREDO’s new report, you will likely find Jeff Bryant’s response to it as refreshing as I did.  While CREDO seeks to distinguish CMOs from VOSs from Hybrids from Independents, Bryant begins with a different distinction, necessary because he believes there is a lot of confusion about charter schools: “Quick,” he asks, “is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?”  His question is followed by this profile of a chain of charter schools:

“In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic. Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school. The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple.  In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.  After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 2012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located….”

Bryant continues: “If you guessed that the school in question… is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong.  The charter described is the BASIS charter chain….  Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and (is as) self-serving as any profit-hungry private enterprise….”  Bryant goes on to examine some other chains of charter schools to make his point that slicing and dicing and analyzing the operation of various types of charter schools isn’t really very helpful. In all kinds of privately managed schools there is self-serving and fraud that nobody seems to be able to get under control.

How to sort out the claims about school choice—Betsy DeVos’s one favorite subject?  This blog will take a two-week summer break after today, but if you want to clarify your thinking about school choice—charter schools and the various forms of vouchers—here is some important material to read or review.

  • Start with yesterday’s analysis by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a critique of charter schools that appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Burris reminds readers that a year ago the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights group, passed a national resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held accountable like other public schools, until funds stop being diverted from the public schools that serve the majority of our children, until expulsions from charters are stopped because publicly funded schools are supposed to serve all children, and until charters stop increasing segregation. Burris concludes that the charter sector has not even made a pretense of trying to address any of these very legitimate concerns. Charters remain unaccountable—more like businesses than public institutions, but, “Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers… (P)romised accountability is often st aside.”  Burris examines the other concerns in the NAACP’s resolution and concludes: “It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution… There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.”
  • You might want to read Erica Green’s recent NY Times piece on the charter school Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, founded in Grand Rapids—the West Michigan Aviation Academy. This school equips at least some of its students with pilots’ licenses at graduation. But there’s a catch: Dick DeVos’s Aviation Academy depends on enormous financial support and fund raising by Dick and Betsy DeVos in addition to the public school dollars it receives from the state of Michigan: “Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding… But… (the public funds do) not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum… The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.”
  • Or consider Mikhail Zinshteyn’s report for California’s EdSource, Oakland Charters More Likely to Enroll Higher-Performing Students than District Schools. How is it that, while charter schools are always prohibited from using admissions tests or other screens to select their students, they somehow end up enrolling students who arrive at the school door already better prepared than the students who attend traditional public schools in the district in which in which they are located?  Zinshteyn explains that Oakland’s charters actually do enroll similar levels of low-income students and English learners, but they also enroll far fewer students who arrive after the school year has begun and significantly fewer students with disabilities.  Both groups of students are more likely to be academically behind.
  • While the CREDO study and the Oakland study review charter school quality based on the comparison of test scores between traditional public schools and charter schools, there have been several important studies in the past year that examine the impact of school choice on the entire educational ecosystem in particular metropolitan areas where the majority of students, with very few exceptions, attend traditional public schools: Gordon Lafer’s study on Los Angeles (see this blog’s coverage here), Roosevelt University’s study on Chicago (see this blog’s coverage here), and Bruce Baker’s in depth study of parasitic charter schools published by the Economic Policy Institute (see this blog’s coverage here).  All of this in-depth research points to collateral damage for big-city public schools and school districts—including school closures, the under-supply of schools in some neighborhoods and the over-supply of schools in others, for example—- when charter schools are rapidly expanded.
  • It’s also worth re-reading the resources in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 toolkit on privatization. Two of the short issue briefs explore the concerns covered in this post today: Are Charter Schools Truly Public Schools? and Do Charter Schools Profit from Educating Students?

Of course Betsy DeVos’s definition of school choice features a two part expansion of school privatizaton: more charters and more vouchers (and neo-vouchers like tuition tax credits and education savings accounts). You might want to check out the resources here for more on vouchers:

  • Be reminded that the Network for Public Education ‘s 2017 toolkit on privatization also contains important updates on vouchers and neo-vouchers here, here, here and here.
  • Consider Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s new Education Week commentary on vouchers: Student Vouchers Aren’t Working. Here’s Why. The Lubienskis—academic researchers on the effects of school privatization and authors of The Public School Advantage—examine new research on voucher programs in Washington, D.C, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.  They note that, “While vouchers appear to be enjoying a higher profile with Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, the research on outcomes from these programs has taken a dramatic turn, one at odds with the direction DeVos and other policymakers are pursuing.”  Why do the new studies track lower achievement in voucher programs than traditional public schools?  A likely explanation “has to do with the actual students and schools themselves, including how students were grouped in private and public schools.  Prior to the recent batch of research that has cast doubt on vouchers, studies lauding vouchers tended to be based on local and more targeted programs involving relatively small, non representative sets of students and schools. Yet overall, private schools are actually no more effective, and often less so than public schools… Research as far back as the Coleman Report in 1966 indicates that private school students enjoy the beneficial ‘peer effect’ of being around affluent classmates who have abundant educational resources at home and parents who have firsthand experience with school success… This peer effect is a significant factor in student learning, but frankly, there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around.  And so as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted.”
  • Finally, this week there is important news: the Education Law Center is launching a new Voucher Watch website, “an initiative to inform and assist advocates as they oppose the establishment and expansion of vouchers in their states. Voucher Watch… will track voucher proposals in state legislatures and from the federal government, provide details on existing state voucher programs, and compile research on the impact of vouchers on student outcomes.”  The Education Law Center, which has for many years been a national leader in legal challenges aiming to increase school funding equity and adequacy, recently provided pro bono legal assistance in a Nevada voucher case—  Lopez v. Schwartz—“which resulted in a Nevada Supreme Court decision finding ESA (education savings account) vouchers unconstitutional because they diverted funding allocated for the public schools to private education expenditures.”  The site is brand new, with only one page of background about vouchers so far, but the new website will grow.  What’s wrong with vouchers? The Voucher Watch website declares: “(V)ouchers drain critical resources from public education, thereby undermining the capacity of the public schools to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those at-risk or with special needs. Vouchers also lead to increased segregation within our communities, and private schools accepting vouchers do not have to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Even with this compelling evidence, states continue to propose laws to create or expand vouchers, and Congress is considering using federal education funds to incentivize states to do so.”

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.