Outrage Continues as Standardized Testing Moves Forward in this COVID-19 School Year

Standardized testing—required this school year by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s U.S. Department of Education despite the disruption of COVID-19—is now happening in many public schools across the United States. But even as the tests are being administered, the anger and protests against this expensive, time consuming, and, many believe, harmful routine are not abating.

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “The Biden administration is facing growing backlash from state education chiefs, Republican senators, teachers unions and others who say that its insistence that schools give standardized tests to students this year is unfair, and that it is being inconsistent in how it awards testing flexibility to states. Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice has slammed the U.S. Education Department for its ‘indefensible’ logic in rejecting the state’s request for a testing waiver while granting one to the Washington, D.C., school system—the only waiver that has been given. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose state was also denied a waiver, said testing this year ‘isn’t going to show any data that is going to be meaningful for learning moving forward… The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) describes itself as a nationwide multi-racial coalition of education organizing and policy groups. In a powerful commentary, also published last week, Jitu Brown, J4J’s executive director, and Beth Glenn, a J4J policy strategist, describe the damage wrought by standardized-test-based school accountability across America’s poorest urban communities: “Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized resting. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools ‘failing’ and (as) the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families.”

Brown and Glenn continue: “No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status—which is knowledge we already have! …. (T)est scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.” “These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards.”

Brown and Glenn provide examples of charter schools pushing out the students who need the most help: “The Chicago… Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for… ‘counseling students out’ to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices… were driven by the need to produce high test scores.”

Valerie Strauss quotes Bob Schaeffer, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who believes that Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education has responded inconsistently and with poor attention to the COVID-19 resurgence that is once again shutting down in-person learning in particular school districts: “Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be… The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”

In an action alert on Saturday, the National Education Association invited its members and supporters to submit a formal comment on the Department of Education’s guidance to require standardized testing in this COVID-19 year. “As part of the regulatory process, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from the public about standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year…The official deadline for comments is May 7, 2021, but it is critical that you submit your letter as soon as possible.”  “While some states’ assessments are already moving forward, we are hopeful that the outcry from the public will force the Department to evaluate how harmful and ineffective standardized tests are and start working toward a new system that truly measures student learning… Your opposition to high stakes standardized tests will also send a message to state departments of education and state legislatures that data from this year should not be relied upon to evaluate educators, students, or schools.”

Please do respond to NEA’s action alert by submitting your personal letter.

POLITICO Article on Charter Schools Entirely Misses the Point

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)  Because public education is systemic and schools are operated according to the law, it is possible to ensure that public schools protect the rights and serve the needs of all children, while charter schools are designed to serve the choices of individual families.

Charter schools were set up according to a theory of social entrepreneurship—the idea that if you give individuals enough freedom, they will experiment and innovate and do a better job of meeting the needs of particular students one school at a time.  Of course, our nation’s public schools have never fully embodied the principle of justice; like all core social institutions they have reflected the injustices and biases of the society they represent. But over the generations, as our society has begun to acknowledge racial and ethnic biases and realized that disabled people ought to be made full participants in our society, our representatives have passed laws and regulations to protect the rights of children formerly left out of the blessings promised in our nation’s principles. Our representatives in Congress passed Title I as part of the War on Poverty in 1965 to supplement investment in the public schools that serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help public schools pay for expert teachers to support the needs of disabled children. And the courts have protected the rights of immigrant children—even undocumented students—in the public schools. Further, in accordance with the principles of equity embedded in many state constitutions, courts in a number of states have been able to demand legislative remedies to support services for children previously left out or left behind. Justice in our nation’s public schools is, by definition, a work in progress, dependent on good leadership in the context of our nation’s ideals.

In this year’s race for President, the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination have consistently demonstrated a realization that social entrepreneurship in education—embodied in Race to the Top, for example—has not fulfilled our society’s definition of justice and inclusion. Privately operated charter schools—like their cousins, tuition vouchers for private schools—provide escapes from the public system that continues to serve over 50 million of our nation’s children. But not all of the escapes have been academically adequate; many have ripped off the public investment; and the existence of the charter sector has imperiled the public school districts from which the charter schools suck money.  In many cases the growth of a charter school sector has left the public schools serving masses of poor children and immigrant children without essential operating funds.

Democrats have eschewed vouchers but for two decades have sought to, sort of, compromise—by claiming that privately operated charter schools are not really fully private because they are publicly funded. But they have at the same time been watching the damage to America’s public school districts and begun noticing that promised leaps in charter school academic achievement as measured by test scores have not materialized. The consensus on education policy now recognized by the majority of Democrats who ran for President this year—apart from devoted charter school supporters like Michael Benett and Cory Booker—is that justice for our children can best be realized by fully funding the public schools and working to intensify the effort to come closer to equity in public school investment across rich and poor districts.

Achieving equity in today’s alarmingly unequal society is an enormous challenge. In a stunning editorial last May, the NY Times editorial board declared: “Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short.  Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”

Joe Biden’s education plan recognizes how our society’s shocking inequity affects the public schools.  He proposes to address long-standing funding injustices: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.’” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

Last weekend, POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano questioned what she views as, perhaps, the political liability of Biden’s inattention to charter schools. Gaudiano blames the teachers unions, raising the tired old arch-conservative cliche that politicians who want to support traditional public education are mere captives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It is part of the long Republican cliche about the danger of unions in general and a remnant of Michelle Rhee’s screed that we have to put students first and protect our society from people who support adult interests. I suspect this sort of thinking also derives from some old biases we ought to have put behind us a long time ago—that teachers like child care workers are servants who ought to be working purely for the love of children without selfishly hoping to make a living.

Gaudiano explains that Biden may lose Black voters who want escapes from public schools and looks at the history of Democratic politicians supporting charter schools. She blames Biden’s support on the unions: “Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups.  Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters.  But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.”

It is interesting that Gaudiano quotes policy advocates from organizations known for prominently supporting the growth of the charter sector and of school privatization, but no organization working to build stronger investment in the public schools.  She quotes Margaret Fortune of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools; Michael Petrilli of “the conservative Fordham Institute,” Charles Barone of “the pro-charter group Education Reform Now,” Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the neoliberal Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education Partners.

Explaining that Black and Hispanic voters are likely to support charter schools, Gaudiano defines the future of charter schools as a matter of racial politics. She seems unaware that in 2016, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a resolution, “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools at least until such time as: charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability 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 the 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 may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The  Movement for Black Lives supported the NAACP’s resolution, and the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has strongly advocated for urban public school districts where the needs of public schools and poor children are often ill-served by the expansion of the charter school sector. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the Journey for Justice Alliance as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities… with more than 52,000 members across the United States.”

Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown, J4J’s national director, explaining J4J’s support for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… We at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues.  Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools.  We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.’… We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include: Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better… Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation… The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education has published a series of in-depth investigations of fraud, instability, and mismanagement across the charter school sector. Broken Promises tracks the trend of sudden charter school closures leaving students stranded—sometimes mid-school-year—without a school.  Charters and Consequences investigates fraud and corruption as tiny local California school districts collect state tax dollars to pad their own operating budgets by running shoddy storefront charter schools out of strip malls to draw students and these students’ state funding out of large urban districts. Finally the Network for Public Education has investigated the federal Charter Schools Program (here and here).  These reports document the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to oversee its own Charter Schools Program due to lack of a rigorous process for selecting qualified applicants and the utter absence of good record keeping and oversight.  The Charter Schools Program has seeded the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failed to oversee their operation—wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools it seeded never opened or quickly shut down.

It is too frequently assumed that when students leave a public school district to attend a charter school it is a financial  wash for the school district: the student leaves; the student no longer needs services; the school district no longer has to pay to educate that student. Therefore, the assumption is that the school district suffers no financial penalty when charter schools are opened within its boundaries. Two years ago, In the Public Interest hired the political economist Gordon Lafer to investigate the contention that the growth of the charter school sector has been fiscally neutral for public school districts. Instead Lafer documented that one school district alone, the Oakland Unified School District in California, loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries.

Lafer explains how charter schools serve as a parasite on the public school districts where they operate: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

It is not only Joe Biden who seeks to turn the nation’s attention in this presidential election year to the critical need for equity in America’s public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. This year’s Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles regarding our public schools as the Party’s educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee that every child can receive a great education.”

Why School Choice Ends Up Creating Injustice and Inequality

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, school funding expert, Bruce Baker critiques the rapid expansion of charter schools for siphoning off dollars from state and local public school budgets.  Baker also addresses the philosophical contention frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few.

Our society now accepts the essential promise of liberty defined as freedom from enslavement and domination. We also would like to believe that our society provides freedom from want, and many argue that school choice offers opportunity to those who have been disempowered by poverty.  The wealthy can pay for whatever kind of education they want to choose for their children.  So… what about helping poorer people with freedom of choice—at public expense—in an education marketplace? Won’t that result in what the “portfolio school reform” think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, promises: “a great school for every child in every neighborhood”?

Baker argues that more choice will not necessarily result in equal access to quality schooling.  Instead, equal opportunity can be better protected systemically: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Three charter school news reports—this week alone—demonstrate the truth of Baker’s contention that justice can best be served in an education system which protects—by law—students’ rights as well as the public stewardship of tax dollars.

Detroit: Charter School Promises Miracles, Achievement Plummets, School Closes

In the first example, for Chalkbeat, Koby Levin describes the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, while signs on the grass surrounding Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice declared: “Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy… Now Enrolling 9th-12th Grades,” parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea behind charter schools is that the marketplace will regulate. Parents are expected to demand quality, and the schools they don’t choose will eventually close in what is dreamed to be an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders.

But running a school was much more difficult than Delta Prep’s founders expected, and the management company the board hired couldn’t fulfill the founders’ promises: “Delta officials had promised that ’90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.’ But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity. Officials said they would boost student achievement… Their goal: ‘85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.’  But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.  If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire.  When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic.”

At fault in Detroit? A complicated mix of good intentions and huge problems promises couldn’t solve. Lack of regulation. Well-intentioned founders who hired a management company that spent too little on instruction. A shortage of state funds in Michigan which has failed adequately to fund traditional public schools and charter schools.  Students whose needs were greater than the school’s founders anticipated. A competitive marketplace where parents and students lured by advertising and promises were misled in every way.  After Delta Prep ended up on the state’s watchlist as a low performing school, only 264 students out of the 350 who were expected showed up this fall. As students and their state funding fell away, the school was forced to close by late September.

Levin concludes: “Delta Prep’s sudden demise added to a two-decade drumbeat of school closures that has left Detroit’s education landscape in turmoil, and has forced thousands of students to endure the serious social and academic consequences of unneccesarily changing schools.”

Perfectly Legal: Arizona Lawmaker Profits from Charter Schools and Helps Make Laws to Enrich Himself

This Arizona story isn’t so much about how charter school expansion has disrupted students’ right to an education.  Instead it is about how unscrupulous charter school operators rip off the tax dollars intended for public education and urgently needed by public schools. For the Arizona Republic, Craig Harris profiles Eddie Farnsworth, a member of the Arizona House, and elected to the Arizona Senate on November 6, 2018: “When the Benjamin Franklin charter chain completes the purchase next month of its four East Valley campuses from founder Eddie Farnsworth, ownership will shift to a newly formed nonprofit company.  But the $569 million deal, from which Farnsworth will pocket $13.9 million, won’t be the state lawmaker’s last payday from the schools he’s owned for decades.  Records show he will loan Benjamin Franklin $2.8 million over seven years, earning himself $478,000 in interest while ensuring the schools have enough cash to keep operating.  He’ll collect another $79,600 a year in rent on the building that currently serves as Benjamin Franklin’s corporate headquarters.  And Farnsworth, who has been a staunch defender of charter schools at the Arizona legislature, will continue to be paid as a consultant to Benjamin Franklin… Meanwhile. the new nonprofit organization formed to buy the schools will have little cash, requiring it to borrow the $2.8 million from Farnsworth in order to have 60 days of working capital…”

Farnsworth understands how to make money from the unregulated charter sector he has helped create through the legislature’s hands-off stance: “Farnsworth defended the sale, which makes him the latest charter-school owner in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry to receive a multimillion-dollar payday. Benjamin Franklin will have more long-term stability by converting from a for-profit business to a nonprofit company, he said.”  There is considerable confusion about whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but always operated by private contractors are private schools or some sort of public schools. It would seem very clear that Arizona legislator, Eddie Farnsworth, best understands the private, marketplace nature of the charter school network he founded.

Advertising, False Promises, and Mythology Too Frequently Distort the Truth in Charter School Marketplace

Finally, there is New Orleans, the city where in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina, school privatizers swooped in to create what they continue to brag is now a model all-charter school district.  But the charters in New Orleans were superimposed after the disaster of the hurricane on an already selective and unequal school district.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, was the city’s most selective.  And Fortier High School was transformed from a public high school that served its neighborhood into Lusher Charter High School, where students must submit an application.  We hear all about the myth of rising test scores among New Orleans’ charter high schools, but the fact that the top scoring schools are explicitly selective is usually left out of the story.  Until this week’s report from Jarvis DeBerry for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. DeBerry exposes the irony that several of these selective high schools recently won an equity award from the state of Louisiana: “Equity is the practice of making sure that everybody—no matter their identity, no matter their background, no matter their whatever—can fully access or participate in a particular thing… If you’re familiar with the concept, it will surprise you to learn that some New Orleans schools have… still managed to be named ‘Equity Honorees.’  These include schools that have eschewed oneApp in favor of deliberately byzantine admissions processes, schools that don’t provide buses to pick up and take home students without transportation and/or schools that only admit the most academically talented.”

DeBerry continues: “Lusher Charter School is selective admission and on top of that, has a notoriously complex application process. Lake Forest Elementary Charter School’s application process is also hard by design.  Benjamin Franklin High School is highly selective…  Given that these schools are designed to be difficult to access and are only letting in the most academically prepared students and/or those from families that are more well off, how does the state see fit to praise them for modeling equity?”

Equity and Liberty Conflict When It Comes to the Education Market

The Journey4Justice Alliance’s executive director, Jitu Brown understands that an equitable system of public schools—regulated by law to protect students’ rights and the public interest— is likely to be more adequate, stable, and equitable than what a competitive charter school market provides.  In his Forward to a report,  Failing “Brown v Board,” published in May 2018, Brown addresses Bruce Baker’s concern that in education, the charter school marketplace undermines equity even as it expands freedom of choice:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

School Choice Fails to Create Equity and Justice for Our Society’s Poorest Children

Early this week, in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss published an important reflection on Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education. Burris and Ravitch are responding to a major report from the Learning Policy Institute’s Peter Cookson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Patrick Shields, a report which endorses the idea of “portfolio school reform.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Tapestry of American Public Education, promotes a lovely metaphor, a tapestry of school options woven together—open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and specialty schools based on distinct educational models. The Learning Policy Institute declares: “The goal and challenge of school choice is to create a system in which all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible. The central lesson from decades of experience and research is that choice alone does not accomplish this goal.  Simply creating new options does not lead automatically to greater access, quality or equity.”  Here is how the Learning Policy Institute proposes that such fair and equal choice might be accomplished: “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures. Too often, questions related to the number of charters a district should have address school governance preferences, rather than the needs of children… Work to ensure equity and access for all. Expanding choice can increase opportunities, or it can complicate or restrict access to convenient and appropriate opportunities, most often for the neediest students… Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities, and resources to inform decision making for families, communities, and policymakers… Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations sound familiar. They are the same arguments made by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as it describes its theory of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform imagines an amicable, collaborative mix of many different schools: “A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. Portfolio systems place educators directly in charge of their schools, empower parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focus school system leaders—such as school authorizers or those in a district central office—on overseeing school success.”

Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

This rhetoric is all very nice. But the realities on the ground in the portfolio school districts I know fail to embody equity and justice.  I believe it is a pipe dream to promise a great school choice for every child in every neighborhood.  For one thing, there are the political and economic realities, beginning with the operation of power politics which is always part of the mayoral governance that is at the heart of this theory. There is also the unequal access parents have to information, and the unequal political, economic, and social position of parents.  And finally there is the devastating impact of the ongoing expansion of school choice on the traditional public schools in the school districts where charters are proliferating. CRPE calls its governance theory “portfolio school reform.” Many critics instead describe parasitic school reform.

Fortunately Burris and Ravitch promptly offered their critique of the new Learning Policy Institute report: “What concerns us… (is) the report’s insistence that school governance doesn’t matter. The authors deny the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools, the very schools they acknowledge the vast majority want. We know from experience that charter schools and vouchers drain finances and the students they want from the district public schools, causing budget cuts, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the schools that enroll the most children. Yet the report suggests that charter school caps should be removed, which is likely to further destabilize public schools… From the first recommendation of the report: ‘Debates that focus on questions such as how many charters a district should have are focused on adults and their preferences for school governance, rather than on the needs of children.’ This claim is wrong. School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students… Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”

Burris and Ravitch explain that research confirms the fiscal damage caused by charter school expansion. Here is some of that research:  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, the Rutgers University school finance professor Bruce 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.”

Confirming Baker’s conclusions, in a May 2018, report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how, in California, charter school expansion has been undermining the fiscal capacity of several 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.”

Lafer continues: “Indeed it is the district’s obligation to serve all children that makes it difficult to close schools in line with failing enrollment… School districts—unlike charter schools—are charged with enabling children to attend nearby neighborhood schools; this too is an obstacle to school closures.  Finally because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

We now also more fully understand that the damage of portfolio school reform reaches deeper into communities and neighborhoods than just the fiscal distress for public school districts. After 14 years, researchers have been able to investigate the meaning of portfolio school reform in Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 portfolio school reform in 2004.  At the end of the school year in May, 2013, fifty traditional neighborhood public schools were shed from the school district’s portfolio of schools—shut down because the District said they were “underutilized” after families experimented with school choice in an ever-growing number of charter schools. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research describes the devastation to neighborhoods and the community mourning that followed the school closures—80 percent in the poorest African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.  In her stunning new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explores the personal responses of children, teachers, and parents to the closure of their schools.

Bruce Baker reflects more theoretically in a brand new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, on our foolishness when we conflate of the expansion of school choice with educational justice: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another.  While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same.  Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker continues, confronting the argument implicit in school choice, that any school exists to satisfy the desires and the needs of the particular families and children doing the choosing: “The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the demands—preferred goods and services—of that community within the constraints of the law. Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Public schools promise access for all children to a stable network of schools—across poor neighborhoods just as public schools are are maintained as a stable network in wealthy communities.  Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who now leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, describes how school choice has undermined this promise in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities:  “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

The public schools are our mutual responsibility through public governance—paid for and operated by government on behalf of he public. We have a lot of work to do to realize this promise for all children.  Bruce Baker describes our responsibility: “More than anything else, our system of public schooling requires renewed emphasis on equitable, adequate, and economically sustainable public financing at a level that will provide all children equal opportunity to achieve the outcomes we, as a society, desire for them.” (p. 31)

A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 1

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  In the next few days, I’ll post some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights of the Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Today’s post and tomorrow’s will describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if city parents were supported in ignoring the glitzy brochures, radio ads, and even incentive gifts encouraging them to escape public schools and experiment with charter schools? What if, instead. parents were encouraged and supported to demand public schools designed to meet the needs of their families and children?  I found hope this past weekend in a workshop where the Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) told the story of mobilizing Black and Brown parents to demand the kind of stable, quality public schools middle class children take for granted: no more experiments with state takeover, privatization, and school closure at the expense of their children. The #WeChoose Campaign is national—connecting and organizing parents across America’s big cities. For years, there has been a sense of confusion and despair as corporate reformers with big money swept in to seize governance and policy in big city school districts. Finally a moment of clarity and empowerment is being created.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference we listened as national organizers from the Journey4Justice Alliance and local leaders of their multi-city partners—Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization; New York City’s Alliance for Quality Education and Coalition for Educational Justice; Camden Parents Union and Camden Student Union; Newark’s Parents Unified for Local School Education; Pittsburgh’s Education Rights Network and One Pennsylvania; and the Detroit L.I.F.E. Coalition—explained how their communities are proclaiming #We Choose Public Schools: “We choose educational equity in public schools, not the illusion of school choice.”

The Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) launched its #WeChoose campaign in February, 2017 with plans in at least 25 cities for press events, policy forums, meetings with elected officials, and direct actions along with a coordinated social media campaign. Jitu Brown, executive director of  J4J describes the campaign’s message which organized parents are proclaiming to policymakers: “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion. We have an evidence-based solution for America’s struggling, neglected schools.”

At NPE”s Conference, Brown presented a tight, pro-public education #We Choose agenda, developed from the bottom up through a series of over 30  local Town Hall meetings plus two national Town Halls which together reached over 200,000 people in cities across the country:

1.   We choose a moratorium on school privatization. “The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students, and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people.”

2.   We choose the creation of 10,000 sustainable Community Schools. “Schools that are successful… are grounded in 5 pillars: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and not punitive standardized tests; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement…. These are the interventions we recommend for struggling, underserved schools….”

3.   We choose the end of zero tolerance discipline policies. “We want an immediate end to zero tolerance policies expressed by out-of-control suspensions and expulsions and the over-policing of our schools.  We want resources dedicated to the expansion of full restorative justice initiatives….”

4.   We choose a national equity assessment to move toward erasing the effects of poverty. “America does everything but equity. Closes schools. Online charter schools. Zero tolerance policies to push out students. Creates a charter industry.  Puts a positive media spin on mediocre corporate education interventions. Anything but equity.  Equitable schools are spaces where inspiration happens.”

5.   We choose to stop the attack on black teachers whose numbers have declined rapidly. “A study in 9 American cities, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., all noted a decline in the number of black teachers. All of these cities curiously are places where school privatization has taken root.”

6.   We choose to end state takeovers, appointed school boards and mayoral control. “We have a crisis in school governance. The overwhelming majority of state takeovers, mayoral control and appointed school boards exists in cities that serve primarily Black and Brown families… We need the elimination of these oppressive structures that ignore the voices of concerned constituents and grease the rails for politically connected charter and contract school operators.”

7.   We choose to eliminate the over-reliance on standardized tests in public schools. “Multiple studies have confirmed that standardized tests are an excellent indicator of one’s zip code, not their aptitude.”

In addition to the grassroots town halls, J4J has leveraged the #We Choose campaign by collaborating with national partners including the NAACP, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Advancement Project, the Badass Teachers’ Association, the National Education Association, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, the Dignity in Schools Coalition, Moms Rising, Save our Schools, the Network for Public Education, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference it was exciting to listen as organizers from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Camden, Newark, New York City, and Detroit described successful local victories: expanding sustainable Community Schools; stopping the use of zero tolerance policies, including the use of suspension and expulsion of children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade; getting a local school district to adopt a culturally responsive curriculum; and successfully blocking the closure of local public schools.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.

What Is the Legacy of Renaissance 2010 School Choice in Chicago?

On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.

Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools.  It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”

The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions.  Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”

The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What was Renaissance 2010?  After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.

The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.

Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”  The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s  Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.  A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance.  Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, FailingBrown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

Journey4Justice Alliance Documents Unequal Access to Rich Curriculum and Arts Enrichment across U.S. Schools

Last week, to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Journey4Justice Alliance released a report, Failing Brown v. Board: A Continuous Struggle Against Inequity in Public Education.

The Journey4Justice Alliance is a founding member of the #WeChoose Campaign, a broader coalition of organizations: the Alliance for Education Justice, Advancement Project, Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, Badass Teacher’s Association, Data for Black Lives, Dignity in Schools Coalition, Institute of Democratic Education in America, Network for Public Education, NAACP, Moms Rising and Save Our Schools.

In his “Forward” to the new report, Jitu Brown, Director of the Journey4Justice Alliance, reflects on his own learnings from 20 years of providing leadership development programs in public schools across the state of Illinois: “I implemented programs in schools that served middle class and low income Black and Brown communities where there were no libraries, outdated books, over-crowded classrooms and punitive discipline policies. I also worked in schools with children from working class white families that were well-resourced, where students flourished with fully stocked libraries, science labs, history clubs, art and music.  This type of inequity which runs rampant across the country is failing Brown V. Board.  Our schools are not failing; as a public we have failed.”

I have never read such a pithy and accurate depiction of today’s reality across public schools in urban America as Jitu Brown presents in his “Forward” to the report.  Brown condemns the false and damaging so-called reforms of recent decades: “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery… schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality pre-k through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance from their homes.”

Brown continues: “Not only have Black, Brown and immigrant students been denied access to the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts; but they have been subjected to severely racialized privatization schemes that have deepened the opportunity divide and devastated thousands of public schools throughout the country… Today, school closings and the spread of charters in Black and Brown communities across the country make up the soul of the ‘school choice movement.’  Thousands of schools have been closed… devastating Black and Brown communities and having a direct impact on the decline of the number of Black teachers nationwide. Cities across the United States… have seen the ranks of Black educators shrink as schools close and the teaching force in Black and Brown communities becomes younger, whiter and more transient.”

For the new report, members of the Journey4Justice Alliance collected information gathered by members of the coalition to compare and contrast the course offerings across two schools, one Black and the other white—either two schools in one district or a segregated Black city school and a white suburban school in the region. I urge you to scan the last half of the report where you’ll find the course offerings in the two schools listed side-by-side in columns. What leaps from the pages are the facts that those of us who have toured schools have seen, but which nobody has thought to document so clearly.  Not only do children in majority-white schools have access to a far richer and more advanced curriculum than their counterparts segregated in Black- and Brown-majority schools, but the lists of arts enrichments and school activities are tragically disparate.

In this report, Journey4Justice compares course offerings and enrichments in the the following school districts and regions: in Chicago one set of comparisons is of three elementary schools and another is of three high schools.  Others are two high schools in Oakland, California; and high schools in Milwaukee vs. Menomonee Falls in Wisconsin; Dallas vs. Frisco in Texas; Denver vs. Greenwood Village in Colorado; Camden vs. Cherry Hill, Newark vs. Allendale, and Paterson vs. Wayne in New Jersey; Dayton vs. Oakwood in Ohio; Jackson vs. Florence in Mississippi, and New Orleans vs. Chalmette in Louisiana.

The report’s authors also back up the observations of Journey4Justice members in these locations with material from the academic literature.

Here is some of what the report’s authors describe as their findings: “In too many of the schools we compared, Black and Latino students do not have the option of advanced or rich course offerings. In every pairing of high schools, majority white schools offered more—both in academic subject areas and in the arts—than majority Black and/or Brown schools. Most, but not all, of the majority Black schools offered calculus and/or physics to students, but generally only one course option, while the majority white schools offered several. For example, McDonough 35 High School in New Orleans offered physics. But nearby Chalmette offered a second year of advanced physics and a separate course in physical science. Most of the schools in our survey offer at least one foreign language. But the white schools offered more… In virtually every pairing that we looked at, access to art, music, dance, and drama significantly varied between majority white schools and those serving students of color.”

Please take a look at this report, for it exposes what remains separate and unequal in American public education, 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

Why Betsy DeVos Is Wrong about Privatization of Education: Growing Consensus about Charters

U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos relentlessly promotes school privatization—framed as parental choice—through such schemes as charter schools and virtual charter schools, and vouchers and neo-vouchers like tax credits and education savings accounts.  If you need clarification, Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, has published a primer to explain all these ways of redirecting public money to schools that are not publicly operated.

As DeVos relentlessly assaults our system of public education, a danger for our society is that, becoming exhausted, citizens will merely accommodate themselves to what begins to seem inevitable or capitulate and accept some sort of compromise. In the case of school choice, any compromise that directs tax dollars away from the public institution that serves the majority of our children is a poor policy.

Those who have watched charter school growth in their communities, academic researchers, and national organizations continue to explore the challenges posed by the expansion of charter schools.

Last week the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a comprehensive critique—a Statement on Charter Schools—which begins by reviewing the primary importance of public education: “A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual preference or learning ability. All may enroll—regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before…. (T)axpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and… funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community.”

Despite the claims of their proponents who dub them “public”charter schools, NPE explains: “By definition, a charter school is not a public school. Charter schools are formed when a private organization contracts with a government authorizer to open and run a school. Charters are managed by private boards, often with no connection to the community they serve. The boards of many leading charter chains are populated by billionaires who often live far away from the school they govern.”

“Charter schools do not serve all children… By means of school closures and failed takeover practices… disadvantaged communities lose their public schools to charter schools. Not only do such communities lose the school, but they also lose their voice in school governance.”

The Network for Public Education demands “an immediate moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, including no replication or expansion of existing charter schools” and “look(s) forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards, but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level.”  NPE adds that until charter schools are publicly governed, there is a need for legislation and regulation to ensure public accountability over the stewardship of tax dollars, transparent public governance, protection of students’ rights and each school’s attention to academic standards and qualifications of teachers.

NPE’s Statement on Charter Schools is short and comprehensive. Please read and consider it.  NPE backs up the statement with a toolkit of resources about the danger of school privatization.

At the end of May, from a very different social location, Jitu Brown published a critique of charter school expansion in America’s black and brown communities. Brown is a Chicago community organizer and the director of the national Journey for Justice Alliance. He was a leader in Chicago’s 2015 hunger strike that forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a neighborhood comprehensive high school in the South Side, Bronzeville neighborhood. Brown challenges Betsy DeVos:  “Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems not to hear the fierce protests of parents, teachers and school officials over school closings and charter expansion in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit and other American cities… In truth, school choice does not exist in most black and brown communities in the United States… What DeVos fails to understand is the intentional structural racism that has been accepted by Democrats and Republicans, where children from black and brown communities are intentionally underserved by the system all citizens pay taxes into.  In Chicago, a child who goes to a neighborhood school near DePaul University enjoys a teacher’s aide in every class, robotics, debate teams, fully stocked libraries and after-school programs; while on the south side of the same city, in some schools there is one teacher’s aide in the building, with no library, no world language and 42 kindergarten students in one class… DeVos has not yet learned that we, meaning black and brown families, don’t have the choice of great neighborhood schools within safe walking distance of our homes. In addition to the harm school closings inflict on students’ academic development and safety, only one out of five charter schools outperforms traditional public schools, despite the fact they can pick the children they want and discard the ones they don’t.”

Brown asks not for expanded school choice, but instead for quality neighborhood public schools in the poorest communities—“what many children from middle-class white and upper-income families enjoy: a robust, rigorous and relevant curriculum, support for high quality teaching (smaller classes, teacher aides, effective professonal development), wrap-around supports for every child (nurses, counselors, clubs, after-school programs), a student-centered school climate, transformative parent and community engagement and inclusive school leadership.”

And last week Mark Weber, the school finance researcher in New Jersey, summed up on his personal blog conclusions drawn from  growing charter school research in Newark: “As a proportion of total population, the Newark Public Schools enroll many more students with the costliest special education disabilities. We’ve been over this time and again: while some Newark charters have upped their enrollments of special education students, the students they do take tend to have the less-costly disabilities: Specific Learning Disabilities… and Speech/Language Disabilities. The charters take very few students who are emotionally disturbed, or hearing impaired, or have intellectual disabilities, or any of the other higher-cost disabilities… Just to be clear: I don’t think charters should be attempting to educate these students with special needs. By all indications, they don’t have the capacity to do the job correctly. NPS (Newark Public Schools) has a much lower ‘student load’ per support staff member than the charters. These support staff include counselors, occupational and physical therapists, nurses, psychologists, social workers, learning disability teacher consultants, reading specialists, sign language interpreters, speech correction specialists, and so on. It would be highly inefficient to staff every charter school and network in the city with all of these staff.”

All of this recent work amplifies a growing consensus among researchers and advocates. Rutgers University professor of school finance, Bruce Baker, has explained the collateral damage to the public school system and to entire communities when charters are expanded.  In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Baker showed how expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. 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 resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker continues: “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.”

Finally, last autumn, the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, raised serious concerns when its national convention passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment or expansion of charter schools until:

  • “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability 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;
  • (Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

All of these individuals and organizations understand that, because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools serve all children. While no enormous network of schools can be perfect, the public schools remain the best system for serving the needs and protecting the rights of all our children.

Are Charter CEOs Being Purely Altruistic in Their Demand for More Federal Support for Public Schools?

What’s happening here?  The leaders of 20 of the nation’s charter school networks, including Achievement First, Aspire, Breakthrough, Green Dot, KIPP, Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep published a letter in USA Today demanding that the Trump administration must change its budget priorities to be more supportive of traditional public schools.  Trump’s proposed budget expands by 50 percent the funding for the federal Charter Schools Program to stimulate the startup of new charter schools.  So why are these charter school providers complaining and why are they demanding more money for traditional public schools?

Here is some of what they said in their letter: “(W)e see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts… But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools… We realize that expressing concerns about a budget that benefits our schools might seem counterintuitive.  But we want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy.”

What’s behind this attack of altruism?  What has caused the CEOs of some of the biggest and best known charter school networks to become advocates for federal funding for the very public schools we’ve been taught by Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos to believe charters need to improve by competing with them in an education marketplace?

Well, for one thing, even though they rarely admit it, charter schools depend on their host public school systems to survive. Their mission is to provide escapes for some children from what they call “failing” public schools, but they count on their host school district to provide the special education services and English language instruction for the children they don’t serve. Charter schools don’t have to serve all children; they can “counsel out” the students who are not comfortable in their school culture—students whose behavior they struggle to manage—students who are too often truant—students whose low test scores are undermining their school’s ratings. The public school district provides the escape valve for the children the charters won’t or can’t serve. And in lots of places public schools provide really basic services like school bus transportation to charter schools.

Another reality that has suddenly become a concern for the charter ssector is that, after several years of rapid expansion of the number of charter schools, that growth is slowing.  Robin Lake, a supporter of the expansion of charter schools at the Center on Reinventing Public Education explains: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school year, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent. This year is not an anomaly. So what is going on?”

Why is growth in the number of charter schools slowing?  In a follow-up article, Lake explores the reasons: “There are several plausible explanations for this slowdown. The politics of the charter school movement have taken an increasingly hostile turn of late… Some states, like Massachusetts, took a cautious but high-quality approach to charter school growth. Other states bent to political winds early on and refused to allow anyone other than a school district to approve charter schools. Still others starved charters of funding or access to facilities… It ‘s also true that bureaucratic hurdles have increased even without hostile political pressure. Charter authorizers, the agencies responsible for charter school approval, oversight, and closing, have been getting increasingly choosier. The goal has been to increase the quality of schools—and rightly so—but the result is a much costlier and sometimes prohibitive process for applicants who lack serious financial backing and connections. In many states, applicants are expected to invest a year or more in planning, have a facility secured, and demonstrate strong community support… CMOs (charter management organizations) have relied on Teach for America as their primary labor source, but that well is running dry… CMOs are increasingly asked to turn around low-performing neighborhood schools and address high expulsion and low special education numbers, all while trying to perform well on tougher new Common Core-aligned tests… In short, well-intentioned efforts to address quality and improve equity may be significantly slowing charter school growth, just as fear of increased growth by opponents intensifies. The combination may soon bring charter growth to a halt unless something changes.”

It is heartening to see that a charter advocate like Robin Lake realizes that growing push-back from advocates for strong public schools is having an impact.  Charter schools were launched by those who said the schools ought to be free from regulation, but over the years, concern has grown in communities watching unscrupulous charter operators enriching themselves while their schools flounder.  States have watched rip-offs on an unprecedented scale as owners of for-profit charter management companies and the e-school charters invest in political contributions to legislators who then fail to provide for urgently needed oversight to prevent fraud and corruption. Public school districts have found themselves trying to catch up students returning to their schools far behind peers who remained in traditional schools. Under pressure, states have been increasing regulation.

And there has been growing push-back against what happens in particular school districts—against the school closures that result when a mass of charters in a neighborhood empty out a neighborhood school while parents try out school choice. The district responds by closing the neighborhood school, but when the charter schools flounder, there is no public alternative to which children can return. Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who has watched this process and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (an organization of grassroots community organizations in 24 U.S. cities) delineates in more detail how charter schools undermine neighborhood public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Brown writes: “(T)hese privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Last October, leaders of the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, ratified a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability 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 may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Charter schools have now been around for over two decades and academic research has finally begun to catch up with the need to understand the impact of charter school privatization, particularly the effect of these new schools on the public school districts where charter schools have been rapidly opened. Some researchers have noted that rapidly expanding charters may be functioning as parasites killing their host.  In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the test scores posted by their own students but instead by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to undermine the provision of education by their host public school systems: “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.”

With a mass of evidence published in local newspapers about growing academic and fiscal problems in particular charter schools, with reporting by the national press of academic and fiscal abuses by some of the big charter management organizations and the huge online academies, with resistance from community organizers and the NAACP in the very urban communities where charter schools have rapidly expanded, and with growing pushback from the research community, it is not surprising that charter supporters and the CEOs of the chains of charter schools might be worried.

Their letter this week that endorses more federal funding for traditional public schools probably describes an awareness among charter school leaders that, even though they like to believe their schools are independent, their futures are inextricably connected to their host school districts. It also may reflect their own need to present themselves in a positive light at a time when the public is becoming aware that public schools in many places have been hurt by the rapid growth of charter schools.

Those of us who worry about the threat of privatization to the institution of public education need to keep up the pressure.

Jitu Brown Explains the Reasons for New Anti-Charter School Resolution from National NAACP

In October, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a strong resolution demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and the end of school privatization.  The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) and the Movement for Black Lives have supported the NAACP in demanding that the rapid expansion of charters be stopped in black and brown communities until:

  1. “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools;
  2. “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system;
  3. “Charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and
  4. “(Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The national NAACP has begun holding regional hearings about the resolution, hearings where controversy has surfaced over a very basic difference in philosophy. While many people support charter schools as an “escape” for able students from what are struggling and underfunded public schools in poor areas, many residents of those very communities have come to realize that the charters themselves are intensifying problems for the public schools that must continue to serve many of the children with the greatest needs.  Because charter schools have been around now for twenty years, there is documentation for these concerns.

Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), which Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities.  J4J, with more than 52,000 members across the United States, is committed to winning community-driven school improvement and educational equity…. J4J started in 2013, as parent and student organizations who were impacted by school privatization began to organize national mobilizations to protest policies such as school closings and to push for community-driven school improvement.”

Last Tuesday, Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown about the NAACP’s resolution for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and about his own organization’s support for the NAACP’s resolution: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted—and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… (P)rivatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Writing about the Journey for Justice Alliance, Brown explains: “We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them.  Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago: ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.'”

What are the realities in the communities that the Journey for Justice Alliance has organized?  “Most charter operators,” writes Brown, “can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better—at least when it comes to student standardized test scores—than traditional public schools. Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation.”

Most significantly, Brown, a community organizer from Chicago, describes the way charter school expansion has been part of the destruction and abandonment of traditional public schools.  Brown helped organize and lead the Dyett Hunger Strike in the fall of 2015, that eventually pressured the Chicago Public Schools to keep a public high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  He tells the story of Dyett High School: “In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools. The district starved the school of resources, eliminated effective programs and encouraged students to transfer.  By 2015, the enrollment plummeted to 13 students… After I and 11 other parents waged a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett, it opened as a neighborhood school with a full freshman class and a waiting list.”

In a profound depiction of a privilege that is taken for granted by middle class families across America, here are Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr., reporters for the Chicago Tribune,  describing the reopening of Dyett High School in September, 2016: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes. A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

In September’s report, the Tribune quoted Jitu Brown: “When you go to a middle-class white community, you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools.  You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the statement printed by Valerie Strauss last week, Brown names the real problem at the heart of America’s greatest educational challenge: “The biggest failure of the American education system is deep, entrenched inequity. In many places, black and brown children are not valued as much as their white counterparts. We want the choice of world class, sustainable neighborhood schools to anchor our communities, just as white brothers and sisters enjoy.”