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)

Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.

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.