Ideology Drives School Privatization without Much Attention to the Real Consequences

Whether school privatization involves expansion of various kinds of vouchers or the proliferation of largely unregulated charter schools, the policy tends to be driven by its proponents’ ideology, not careful policy analysis. That is, promoters believe in an idea—They usually call it the expansion of parents’ choice rather than naming the privatization that is happening.—and they push that idea without describing, or worse without even examining, the side effects on individuals and institutions. Economists call these other implications externalities, and they may be positive or negative. In the area of education, because the expansion of the privatized education marketplace has implications, budgetary and otherwise, for the public school system that is expected to continue to serve the mass of children in any locality, the externalities are too often negative.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives recently defeated a bill for statewide education savings accounts, a far-right proposal from the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Education savings account vouchers are explained here in the Network for Public Education’s new toolkit, School Privatization Explained.) The Texas bill to establish education savings account vouchers had passed the state senate and been declared by the state’s lieutenant governor as “the civil rights issue of our time.” But then the Texas House began considering the negative externalities for schools in Texas’s hundreds of small towns and rural areas.

Reporters for the Austin American-Statesman describe what happened: “An effort to redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition—a favorite cause of conservative education activists in Texas and nationally—seemed to have momentum at the beginning of this year’s legislative session… But after sailing through the Texas Senate, the effort has run aground in the House, thanks to pushback from rural Republicans and Democrats… The senate passed its large school choice bill this month—calling for the creation of so-called education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships…. Then, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget on April 6, legislators overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.  All but one House Democrat, who was absent, voted for the amendment as well as Republicans, 40 of them representing districts with at least one rural school district.”

The distribution of state school funding was the primary negative externality discussed. The state’s school funding pie is too small said members of the Texas House of Representatives, and increasing the number of slices to include tax credits and education savings accounts would reduce the size of the piece for public schools. It was also pointed out that privatized schools are not held accountable for serving their students well.  And in rural areas, there are few private schools to which students could carry their tax-credit and education-savings-account vouchers: “A major argument against school choice from rural lawmakers is that there isn’t a market for private schools in rural areas.  Private schools are located within the boundaries of just six of the 459 school districts that the Texas Education Agency considers rural….”

Spending Blind, a study just released by Oakland’s In the Public Interest, traces a two-decades-long experiment in California with the rapid growth of charter schools: “Unfortunately, the central conclusion of this analysis is that funding for charter facilities is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard… Far too much of these public funds are spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”  The report explores the negative externalities of rapid expansion of charter schools.

The report’s author, Gordon Lafer, an economist from the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, explains that in California, public school districts cannot spend tax dollars to build new schools unless they can prove there are enough students to justify a new school. But charter schools have been started up in all sorts of places that did not need new schools: “The most fundamental question to ask about any type of school construction is: how many schools are needed for the number of students we have?”  By contrast, proponents of school choice imagine a marketplace with an over-supply of schools so that parents have options from which to choose. Here is what Lafer finds in California: “As a result, nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support, including $111 million in rent, lease, or mortgage payments picked up by taxpayers, $135 million in general obligation bonds, and $425 million in private investments subsidized with tax credits or tax exemptions.”

Lafer continues: “(T)he rationale for charter schools is not that they supply needed seats but that they provide a model of education that is new, different, and better than otherwise available. However, this presumption is not written in to any of the charter facility financing laws. As a result, hundreds of low quality charter schools are supported by taxpayers.”  Lafer finds that 75 percent of California’s charters have performed worse than their public school counterparts: “Again, the public has paid dearly for these disappointments…”

One negative externality has been an intensifying public school funding crisis as charters operators have located their schools in places where there are already plenty of public schools: “Such indiscriminate funding comes at a time when schools across the state face urgent needs that are going unmet due to budgetary shortfalls.  Parents, teachers, superintendents, and school board members alike point to model programs in danger of closure… overcrowded classrooms that make personal attention impossible; and insufficient funding for school counselors, social workers, special education, and English language learners.”

Finally, Lafer describes the most serious negative externality. The charters are a parasite devouring their host: “(T)he overbuilding of charter schools not only wastes tax dollars, but it also imposes significant costs—above and beyond the direct costs of charter facility financing—on traditional public schools and school districts, as well as on competing charter schools in the area.  Studies estimate that between 33%-55% of school budgets are dedicated to fixed costs such as buildings, student transportation, and central administration that cannot be reduced when enrollment declines due to a surplus of charter schools. Furthermore, many charter schools receive full funding for special education but enroll students with disproportionately mild needs, leaving the school district to serve the neediest children but without the resources to do so.  As such schools proliferate, they create a growing crisis for traditional public schools and students. Yet there is no place in charter facility funding policy for these impacts to be taken into account or mitigated.”

In Massachusetts last November, voters actually turned down expansion of charters after they were informed about the negative externalities. Moody’s, the bond rating agency, sent a warning letter to Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River that their school district credit ratings could be lowered if charter schools were to be rapidly expanded, thereby undermining the school districts’ fiscal viability. And Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh explained what he believed would be the fiscal realities for the public schools of Boston: “Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts—not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them. This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question… (O)ur charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning. If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high needs students are concentrated in district schools—and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements—the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.”

Next time you see a photo of Betsy DeVos visiting a school—on a regal visit, for example, with Melania Trump and the Queen of Jordan—imagine what would happen if a reporter were to ask her the policy question that she—the person who leads our national education department—ought to have been carefully considering.  What if the reporter were to ask: “Have you thought about the negative externalities of the program you are proposing—the impact, for example, on the public schools that serve most of our children?”

Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “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 ear, 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?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

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 performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host 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.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.

Major New Report Shows that Charters Are Too Often Parasites Weakening Host School Districts

On Wednesday, The Economic Policy Institute published a comprehensive report by Rutgers economist Bruce Baker, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  Reviewing Baker’s report for The American Prospect, Rachel Cohen explains that Baker speaks to the very question that became central in the $34 million political fight that just concluded in Massachusetts, where Question 2—to expand charter schools statewide—went down to resounding defeat.  Opponents of unregulated expansion of charter schools defeated Question 2 by asking: How will charter school expansion affect all of the children including the children who remain in traditional public schools?  Usually instead promoters of charter school growth make their argument based on a very different question: How will expanding charter schools affect the test scores of the relatively few children who leave the public schools to enroll in charter schools?

Cohen reports on her interview with Bruce Baker about his new report: “Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative, that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.  In an interview with The Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis.”

In the new report, Baker questions the economic viability of the charter school model based on what is now 25 years of experience with school choice: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Baker grounds his argument in some history: “Since its origins in the early 1990s, the charter school sector has grown to over 6,500 schools serving more than 2.25 million children in 2013.  In some states, the share of children now attending charter schools exceeds 10 percent (for example, Arizona and Colorado), and in select major cities that share exceeds one-third (for example the District of Columbia, Detroit, and New Orleans.”  The vast majority of America’s children and adolescents, 50 million of them, remain in the roughly 90,000 traditional public schools across the states. Baker examines the impact of charter school expansion on the host public school districts that serve the majority of students and that are being affected by the growth of charter schools within their boundaries.  “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”

Baker credits charter advocates like Paul Hill at the Center on Reinventing Public Education with envisioning a more collaborative “portfolio” model in which “a centralized authority oversees a system of publicly financed schools, both traditional district-operated and independent, charter-operated.” But competition, not collaboration, has come to dominate the expansion of charter schools: “A very different reality of charter school governance… has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters 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 rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. “(S)ome 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 challenges claims by charter school advocates that the growth of charters has little negative effect on the fiscal viability of the host public school districts: “(N)umerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.” “(T)he assumption that revenue reductions and enrollment shifts cause districts no measurable harm… ignores the structure of operating costs and dynamics of cost and expenditure reduction.”  Baker reminds readers that for several years now, Moody’s Investors Services has been warning about a range of concerns for host urban districts when charters are rapidly expanded.

Choices made that ignore the needs of host public school districts are likely to create formidable barriers to turning back if, for example, “policymakers and the public at large tire of the recent wave of charter expansion.” Baker worries especially about the consequences as school districts lose students to charters and then respond by selling off underutilized buildings for the use of the charter schools: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests).  Increasingly, districts… have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker also worries about shifts in the teacher workforce that frequently accompany rapid charter growth—by which “the teacher workforce has been substantively altered from a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce to a temporary workforce… In some cases, the newly minted teacher workforce is dominated by teachers narrowly trained in specific ‘no excuses’ methods, as charter operators have expanded their reach into the granting of graduate credentials and certification of their own teachers….”

There are also concerns about the protection of students’ rights when schools have been privatized: “Rarely if ever considered in policy  discourse over charter school expansion is whether children and families should be required to trade constitutional or statutory rights for the promise of the possibility of a measurable test score gain.  In fact, the public, including parents and children, is rarely if ever informed of these tradeoffs and does not become aware until an issue arises… Children in low-income and predominantly minority communities are more likely to be asked to make these tradeoffs, while not being told what rights they are trading off.  Concurrently, taxpayers in impoverished, minority communities are disproportionately foregoing their rights to understand where the money goes, in the hierarchical public-private structure of charter schools in their neighborhoods, and increasingly losing control over long-held public assets including land and school facilities, while affluent suburban residents are not being asked to make similar tradeoffs.”

Finally, Baker slams the federal Charter Schools Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education: “The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes…. The federal government has also, through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense…. Federal funding for charter expansion generally, or for facilities acquisition, should be put on hold until better parameters can be established for ensuring that these funds advance systemwide goals and protect public interests.”

After voters in Massachusetts were educated about some of these tradeoffs, they voted, by an astounding 63 percent to 37 percent margin, to protect their public school districts. Under a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos—a pro-charter, pro-voucher, pro-competition ideologue—serving as Secretary of Education, it will be up to all of us to ensure that Bruce Baker’s well-documented concerns about the dangers of unregulated expansion of privatized education are better understood by the general public and by our state legislators and members of Congress.

Here Are Key State Issues Decided Tuesday that Impact Public Schools

Donald Trump has been elected President. It would be lovely if his pledge to “make America great again” included a plan to make America’s 90,000 public schools great again by investing in equity.  Our public schools make up a system in which—with adequate funding and regulation—there would be the capacity to meet the needs and protect the rights of the 50 million children and adolescents enrolled.  We know instead that Trump has declared more charter schools and vouchers and Education Savings Accounts to be his priority.  We will have considerable time to explore the story of Trump’s education policy in the next weeks and months.

In the meantime, here are some quick state-by-state election updates that will directly impact public education. This blog provided background information about many of these issues here.

  • In Massachusetts, Question 2—that would have permitted the authorization of 12 new charter schools each year across the state—went down to resounding defeat.  The margin was 62.6 percent against the measure and only 37.4 percent in support.  The ballot issue had been opposed by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who worried that expanding charter schools would break the city’s budget and serve relatively few children at the expense of the public schools that serve the many.  In a press release, the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, explains: “Key to the defeat of Question 2 was the fact that charter schools—in Massachusetts and elsewhere—siphon funds from traditional school districts, undermining the quality of education provided to their students. In Massachusetts, the ‘Save Our schools’ campaign calculated that charter schools (in Massachusetts) will drain $450 million from public school systems next year, even without additional schools. Their assertion was strengthened by the release last week of a statement by Moody’s Investor Service finding that lifting the charter cap would have a ‘credit negative’ impact on three Massachusetts cities.”
  • In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal’s Amendment 1, a Constitutional amendment to permit a state takeover school district for so-called failing schools, went down by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.  The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools explains: “In this referendum, voters rejected the legislature’s request to change the Georgia State Constitution to allow the establishment of the Opportunity School District—a state takeover district.  While polling initially favored the Amendment, public mistrust grew as it became apparent that the State planned to turn the schools over to private charter management companies, removing them from local control permanently.”  Maureen Downey, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution describes “What voters apparently saw: Should the constitution be amended to allow the state to trample local control, seize local tax dollars and create a new bureaucracy to run schools deemed to be failing?  Georgians voted on four constitutional amendments…. Only Amendment 1 is losing. That tells me voters were aware of Deal’s state takeover plan. This cannot be seen as an accidental loss or the outcome of a befuddled electorate. This has to be seen as a conscious repudiation of what voters saw as a power grab by the state.”
  • Californians voted, by a 73 percent to 27 percent margin, to repeal the 1998 Proposition 227 that mandated English-only instruction across the state’s public schools.  Jazmine Ulloa for the Los Angeles Times explains: “Public schools in California will have more power to develop their own bilingual and multilingual programs…. Proposition 58… overhauls key parts of a 1998 law that requires students to take classes taught only in English…”  English-only instruction has been supported in California by Ron Unz, a venture capitalist, despite that academic research on language acquisition demonstrates conclusively that children who learn to read in their primary language and then transfer their reading skills to English become better readers.
  • Californians also voted to extend Proposition 30, a 2012 tax on the wealthiest Californians for another 12 years to support the state’s education budget.  Here is how California State Comptroller Betty T. Yee described Proposition 30 in June of 2016: “Approved by California voters in November 2012, Proposition 30 temporarily raised certain tax rates to provide additional financial support for public schools. Prop 30 revenues must be spent on classroom expenses and may not be used for administrative costs… Since January 1, 2012, Prop 30 has generated more than $31.2 billion.”
  • In Oklahoma, voters defeated Question 779, a 1 percent state sales tax that was to have been allocated for a $5,000 raise for school teachers. Tulsa World reports: “Of the money collected through the tax, 69.5 percent would have been allocated to common education, 19.25 percent to higher education, 8 percent to early childhood education and 3.25 percent to career tech. Of the 69.5 percent allocated to common education, 86.33 percent would have been used to increase teacher pay a minimum of $5,000 per person and to ‘otherwise address and prevent teacher and certified instructional staff shortages.'”
  • In Nevada, Democrats were elected to regain control of both houses of the legislature, replacing Republican majorities elected in 2014.  As voters overturned Republican super-majority government in Nevada this week, they are likely also to have prevented the re-emergence of the controversial Education Savings Account voucher program found unconstitutional in late September by Nevada’s state supreme court.  In its decision, the Nevada Supreme Court found the funding mechanism for the vouchers, not the vouchers themselves, in violation of state law.  Here is Sandra Chereb of the Las Vegas Review-Journal on the implications of this week’s sweep of the legislature by Democrats: “One likely casualty is the program approved by Republicans in 2015 to pay for tuition at private and religiously affiliated schools.  The program was ruled constitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court, but the funding mechanism was found invalid, requiring lawmakers to act. With majorities in both houses, Democrats are unlikely to support funding for the program.”
  • Three justices of the Washington state Supreme Court were re-elected on Tuesday despite smear campaigns designed to unseat them.  Members of the court have been under attack for insisting that the legislature come up with a plan for adequate funding of the state’s schools by the end of the 2017 legislative session.  And the same members of the court have been attacked for finding charter schools unconstitutional in Washington because, according to Valerie Strauss, “they are governed by appointed—rather than elected— boards and are therefore not ‘common schools’ eligible for state education funds.”  Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post Intelligencer describes Tuesday’s vote to re-elect the three besieged state justices: “Three Washington State Supreme Court justices won landslide re-election victories on Tuesday…. The high court has been under attack from the political right—and from the state’s technology billionaires—for its charter school ruling… and requiring that the Legislature come up with a plan to fully fund K-12 education.”
  • In Kansas, despite a huge campaign to unseat members of the state supreme court, four besieged justices were retained in Tuesday’s election.  Here is Sam Zeff from the statehouse report of radio station KCUR: “(A)ll four of the justices who had been targeted by the Republican Party, Kansans for Life and other conservative groups comfortably won retention… Kansans for Justice led the fight to fire the… four, raising more than half a million dollars to run ads saying they had improperly overturned a number of death penalty cases.  Conservatives also attacked the justices over rulings on abortion and school funding. In a statement Chief Justice Nuss, speaking for his colleagues, said voters put aside their political beliefs and backed a nonpartisan court. ‘The supreme court’s ability to make decisions based on the rule of law—and the people’s constitution—has been preserved,’ Nuss said.”

Jonathan Kozol and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh Warn About Danger of Expanding Charter Schools

Massachusetts Question 2 is the ballot issue that would lift that state’s cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The debate about Question 2 has attracted wide attention beyond Massachusetts this autumn because expanding charter schools in Massachusetts would create many of the same problems charter schools are posing in other states.

In a stunning commentary for the Boston Globe, education writer Jonathan Kozol, also a Massachusetts voter, seized next week’s vote on Question 2 as an opportunity to reflect on the public role of the state’s public schools: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”

Kozol continues: “This commonwealth has been an exemplar of democratic public education ever since the incubation of the common school idea at the midpoint of the 19th century.  For all its imperfections and constant need of diligent repair, it remains a vision worth preserving. The privatizing forces from outside of this state have wisely recognized the powerful symbolic victory they’d gain by turning Massachusetts against its own historic legacy.”

Who are these privatizing forces?  Kozol points to the New York hedge fund billionaires who have invested in Families for Excellent Schools, a dark money organization that has underwritten the rapid expansion of charter schools in New York City, and that, as of last week, had spent $13.5 million to support Massachusetts Question 2.  He also points to the Walton billionaires in Arkansas: “The Walmart heirs have every right to pour their money into causes they support. But voters also have the right to get some sense of what those causes are.  The Waltons have for decades been standard-bearers in attempts to undermine support for public education—which they and their allies have derided as ‘the pubic school monopoly’….”

What does Kozol mean when he writes about the parents with the greatest social capital?   These are the “parents who, no matter what their economic status, are most likely to command the social skills involved in navigating application processes, learning about deadlines for a lottery, seeking interviews, and handling those interviews effectively.  More importantly, they also tend to have the literacy skills and English language fluency to meet the terms of those demanding ‘contracts’ that most charter schools require in order to be sure that parents can provide a back-up education in their home.” Kozol warns about “draining-off parents who no longer have a stake in advocating for the schools from which they’ve chosen to depart… Who will stand up for the children at the schools they’ve left behind?”

Kozol shares a primary concern with Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh—that expansion of charters will, as it has most devastatingly in Chicago and Detroit, take urgently needed dollars from the public schools that continue to serve the students whose needs are greatest.  Here is Mayor Walsh: “Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts—not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them. This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question… (O)ur charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning. If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high needs students are concentrated in district schools—and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements—the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.”

In a 2012 book about the growth of charter schools, New York education professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine summarize the concerns raised this month by both Boston’s mayor and Jonathan Kozol: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas… The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p. 87)

School Choice via Charter Schools: Individualism vs. the Common Good

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced new grants of $245 million (a quarter of a billion dollars) under its Charter Schools Program (CSP), for the creation and expansion of charter schools. The federal government awards these grants to what are known as SEAs —state educational agencies or, in common parlance, state departments of education—and to charter management organizations—the big chains of charter schools, many of them for-profit. But while the U.S. Department of Education continues to operate the Charter Schools Program as though nothing has changed, there is a whirlwind of controversy these days about the impact of charter schools.

In Ohio, everybody is waiting to see what Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Jenifer French will decide in the case brought by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—a huge online school being investigated by the Ohio Department of Education for collecting hundreds millions of tax dollars over the years for phantom students—students who sign up for ECOT but log-in for only about an hour every day, when the state requires five hours of active participation.  Why has ECOT sued for a preliminary injunction to block the state’s demand for records of students’ computer log-in times?  Because ECOT has not bothered to set up a comprehensive system for collecting this seemingly important information.  On Monday of this week, the Ohio Department of Education reported on an audit it has conducted with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “ECOT was paid about $106 million in state funding last year for a reported 15,322 full-time students.  But after a preliminary attendance review in March and a final review in August that required the school to verify its enrollment through student log-in durations, the department has concluded that ECOT’s actual verified enrollment is 6,313 students.  Based on the final determination, the department could try to force ECOT and its politically influential founder, Bill Lager, to repay about $60 million to the state.”  And potentially much more if there is a retroactive claw-back for over-payments in previous years.  Much hangs on Judge Jenifer French’s decision in what is rapidly becoming an outrageous scandal.

Then on Thursday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second installment of Carol Burris’s blockbuster report for the Network for Public Education on financial and academic abuses in California’s charter schools. California serves more students in charter schools than any other state, and the problems described by Burris astonish.  She describes Desert Sands Charter High School with 2,000 students, a four-year graduation rate of 11.5 percent and a dropout rate of 42 percent: “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website. Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif., address given on its own website.”  Burris describes a Desert Sands Charter School student whose “classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sands’ address. Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning.”  Former students “found their experience at the charter to be anything but ‘personalized.’  They described education at Dessert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit… The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores.”  Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and a retired, award-winning high school principal, knows what she is looking at when she evaluates a school. I urge you to read this week’s stunning critique, to go back and read her first post, and to anticipate upcoming releases.

Finally this week, In the Public Interest published a new report, How Privatization Increases Inequality and reached the very same conclusion about charter schools as Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who clarified her position in opposition to Massachusetts Question 2, a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would raise the state’s cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. In the Public Interest emphasizes two negatives as charter schools proliferate: they increase economic and racial segregation, and they drain money from the public schools that serve the majority of students and concentrations of children with special needs: “The introduction of private interests into public goods and services can radically impact access for certain groups.  In some cases, privatization can create parallel systems in which one system propped up by private interests typically serves higher income people while another lesser quality system serves lower income people. In other cases, the creation of a private system siphons funding away from the public system meant to serve everyone. In some situations, poor individuals and families can lose access to a public good completely… The rapid growth of charter schools in the landscape of public K-12 education has ignited many concerns, including their financial impacts on public school districts, the ability of state and local governments to hold charter schools accountable, and whether they provide a quality education to students. However, another related and serious concern is the evidence showing that charter schools create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation among students.”

Jeff Bryant, in his weekly commentary for the Education Opportunity Network, quotes Senator Elizabeth Warren as she rejects Massachusetts Question 2 for the very same reasons: “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth… Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren echoes the ethical concern formulated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Washington, D.C. town hall in 2011: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” There should be no losers built into the system: Jackson points to public education as the very definition of public responsibility for “lifting” all children—not just the children we might consider the winners and not merely the children whose parents know how to play the school choice game well enough to make their own children the winners.  As money is sucked out of large public districts in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Cleveland to serve the relatively few children who can “choose” their way into a charter school, more and more people are considering the very premise of school choice in the context of their most basic values: support for the common good vs. endorsement of the pursuit of self-serving individualism.