School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will DeVos Department of Education Enforce Students’ Civil Rights?

One of the U.S. Department of Education’s primary roles has been the protection of students’ civil rights.  The federal government’s role in education emerged after the Civil Rights Movement, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which began the dismantling of de jure school segregation, and the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 as a centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Later came the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, that protects the rights of children of undocumented immigrants to a free public education. Part of the reason for the U.S. Department of Education has been to step in when states neglect to protect students’ rights at school. The Department’s record hasn’t been perfect; some administrations have more fully embraced the Department’s mission to protect children’s rights.

While the Obama administration brought us some politically (and some believe morally) questionable programs like Race to the Top, it is generally acknowledged that under Arne Duncan’s leadership and then John King’s, the U.S. Department of Education—through its Office of Civil Rights—aggressively pursued injustices reported around racial discrimination, the disparate impact of school discipline plans, services for disabled students, and violations of the rights of LGBT students.

What is likely to happen around civil rights enforcement in the Trump administration, with the Department of Education led by Betsy DeVos?  This is the subject of an interview conducted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire with Derek Black, a law professor in South Carolina, author, and bloggerBerkshire’s interview appears on her own blogIt was also reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post on Monday.

Derek Black believes we are likely to see “a rollback of civil rights enforcement in education under Trump and DeVos.”  He has been watching Betsy DeVos: “At her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos was reluctant to take an affirmative stance on enforcing students’ disability rights. Since taking the post, she has remarked that she could not ‘think of any’ current pressing civil rights issues where the federal government has a role to play….  Even if they do not rescind other department positions on integration, school discipline, English language learners, and school resources, they are very unlikely to enforce existing regulations and policy guidance.”

Black believes, however, that public engagement around a range of civil rights protections in schools during the Obama era will keep these issues very much alive during the Trump-DeVos years: “The school-to-prison pipeline is a household word now. More districts are voluntarily pursuing integration. California is bringing back bilingual education. And parents are fed up with standardized testing.  On a host of issues, there are local advocates and local politicians that are going to do the right thing regardless of what the Department of Education does. No doubt about it, there is a storm coming, but there are a lot of hard-working and committed people on the ground.”

Black authored a book on disparate treatment in school discipline policy. In his interview with Berkshire, he explains why he thinks zero-tolerance discipline policies not only frequently violate the rights of students who are expelled and suspended, but also affect the climate of a school: “(A)verage student achievement is lower in schools with high numbers of suspensions and expulsions.  Part of that lower achievement comes from the kids who’ve been excluded.  They’re almost necessarily going to score lower because they’re not in school and they’re falling behind. But does it really affect the other kids?  The assumption is that if you get the troublemakers out of there. the other kids will do better. But when you suspend Johnny for what his peers perceive to be petty or unjustified, that has a negative effect on the good kids too. It’s not as though high suspension rates turn A students into F students. But d0es it undermine their perception of the school environment?  The data would suggest so. Moreover if the environment is punitive rather than nurturing, it has a tendency to become chaotic and that chaos is going to undermine the academic achievement of the good students too.”

Black is particularly concerned about the so-called “no excuses” charter schools: “I think the difference between the charter system and the public system… is that the public system doesn’t really get rid of its students; they come back. The charter school doesn’t have the responsibility of serving the community and all of its children, so that what it’s trying to do is sort of slash and burn… It’s not that they’ve made the students who are left perform better, but that they’ve lopped off their low performers.”

Black concludes: “The one thing that scares me is that I’m not sure that we’ve entirely got the conversation about discipline framed in the right way. There is still this gut instinct that there are bad kids and good kids and that the bad kids are messing things up for the good kids… One of the things I try to argue in the book is that better discipline policy is about better education for everyone.”

I urge you to read all of this thoughtful interview here or here.