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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this recent work amplifies a growing consensus among researchers and advocates. Rutgers University professor of school finance, Bruce Baker, has explained the collateral damage to the public school system and to entire communities when charters are expanded.  In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Baker showed how expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Civil Rights Organizations Come Together to Demand Closing of Public School Opportunity Gaps

Eleven of our nation’s most prominent national civil rights organizations released a strong statement on Tuesday to support new investments in the public schools, the institution these groups call “the backbone of our democracy.”  The statement is a rejection of the test-and-punish strategies that have dominated federal and state policies around public schools for over a decade.

The statement’s authors are Advancement Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and  Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the National Council on Educating Black Children, the National Indian Education Association, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  It is noteworthy that these organizations—which have not always been able to agree on public education strategies—have now come together to insist on the urgent need for improving the public schools that serve the majority of children represented among their constituents.

The statement, sent to the President, the Secretary of Education and leaders in Congress emphasizes: “The current educational accountability system has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students….  This particularly impacts under-resourced schools that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color.  In our highly inequitable system of education, accountability is not currently designed to ensure students will experience diverse and integrated classrooms with the necessary resources for learning and support for excellent teaching in all schools.  It is time to end the advancement of policies and ideas that largely omit the critical supports and services necessary for children and families to access equal educational opportunity…”

Criticizing the overly punitive policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, these civil rights organizations urge policy makers to “strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate student success.”  Accountability must be expanded to monitor resource inputs as well as outcomes and “should evaluate the extent to which productive learning conditions are in effect for all students in each school…”  Federal, state, and local accountability should be expanded to cover (1) equity of resource opportunities including funding and access to instructional materials, technology and facilities and considering students’ needs based on poverty, and culture/language learning needs; (2) access to high-quality curricula and enrichment; (3) individualized services that build upon children’s specific cultural and linguistic assets; (4) qualified, certified, competent, and racially and culturally diverse teachers, principals and other education professionals and including ongoing professional development; and (5) adequate and equitably distributed social, emotional, nutritional and health services.

In the midst of the punitive accountability strategies of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s competitive programs that prescribe radical turnaround programs that fire staff, close schools, and encourage privatization, the civil rights organizations endorsing the new declaration advocate improving traditional  public schools in the communities that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children.  “Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools.  Second language learners whose first language is not English now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide, and students living in poverty represent virtually half of all U.S. public school students.”  “On behalf of millions of students and families, and civil rights organizations, communities of color, and organizations that reflect the new, diverse majority in public education, we write urging implementation of a set of strong recommendations for advancing opportunity and supporting school integration, equity, and improved accountability within our nation’s systems of public education.”

Huge North Carolina Rally Protests Roll Back of Voting, Labor, Health, Education, and Civil Rights

Unless you live in North Carolina or follow Twitter, where pictures were posted all weekend, you may have missed that nearly 100,000 people rallied in Raleigh on Saturday to protest the policies and direction of North Carolina’s current one-party government and leadership by conservative Governor Pat McCrory, who even appointed far-right financier Art Pope as his budget director.  North Carolina is one of more than half the states that now lack checks and balances because the governor, and house and senate majorities are controlled by one party.

For much of the past year, the North Carolina NAACP, led by the prophetic Rev. William Barber, has been sponsoring Moral Monday protests at the statehouse to decry a rash of legislation that has wiped out what was thought to have been the progressive, “new south,” direction of North Carolina.

Ari Berman writing for The Nation summarizes North Carolina’s legislative record that has spurred the protests:  “Since taking over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012, controlling state government for the first time in over a century, North Carolina Republicans eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000 North Carolinians; refused Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; axed public financing of judicial races; prohibited death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts; passed one of the country’s most draconian anti-choice laws; and enacted the country’s worst voter suppression law, which mandates strict voter ID, cuts early voting and eliminates same-day registration, among other things.”

The organizers describe Saturday’s rally as the kick-off for weekly protests leading to the November election when members of the legislature will be on the ballot.  The protestors, multi-racial and from all corners of North Carolina, have set five priorities: pro-labor, anti-poverty policies; well funded, quality public education; health care access for all North Carolinians; protection of the rights of all in the criminal justice system; and the protection and expansion of voting rights.

Rev. Barber’s rallying cry is positive: “We’ve come too far to go back now.”

This blog has covered Rev. Barber and North Carolina’s Moral Mondays here,  and here, and the political activities of Art Pope here.  The New Yorker magazine profiled Art Pope here.

Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.