The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Another Key Figure Changes His Mind: Challenges the Test-and-Punish Conventional Wisdom

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  “Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem… within a considerable range (the individual)…. may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable…” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

The idea that school achievement can be fixed in our poorest communities by testing students and punishing so-called “failing” schools where test scores are low, by holding teachers accountable, by privatizing what are described—even by Democrats like Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, in the words of conservative Milton Friedman—as  “government monopoly schools,” has come to be widely accepted since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002.  No Child Left Behind celebrated the philosophy of test-and-punish, and test-and-punish has been the conventional wisdom now for almost fifteen years, more than enough time for many students to go all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Galbraith was right: support for this philosophy became bipartisan.  The George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration have implemented the test-and-punish conventional wisdom with a vengeance.

The conventional wisdom, however, does seem to be influenced by people who we think are expert enough to know, particularly if they have supported the conventional wisdom and then changed their minds. It seems that the knowledgeable people who never accepted the conventional wisdom have a lot less influence even though they may have been wise enough never to have gone along in the first place.  Hence we have all the experts in the field of education whom we ignore, because, as Arne Duncan has repeatedly pointed out, they just support that weak educational status quo.  The list of these people is endless, but I’ll name some of the stars to whom we ought to have been listening: Linda Darling-Hammond and James Comer and Jean Anyon and Pedro Noguera and Rudy Crew and Pauline Lipman and Deborah Meier and Richard Rothstein and Gary Orfield and Mike Rose and David Kirp and Gene Glass and David Berliner and Susan Eaton and George Wood and Helen Ladd, and John Kuhn and and Sonya Nieto and Lisa Delpit and Gregory Michie and Paulo Freire and John Dewey and John Jackson and David Sciarra and Michael Rebell.  There are dozens of others I am forgetting in this quick catalog. These are the experts who have defined and defended good teaching and the role of out-of-school factors on school achievement and the importance of the whole child and the urgent need for well funded public schools and access to education as a civil right for every child. Because these people base their opinions on academic expertise or a lifetime of work, we consider them ringers and we pretty much ignore their arguments.

We pay more attention if someone who originally got sidetracked into the conventional wisdom or who strongly believes in the principles behind the conventional wisdom recants and changes sides.  This has, after all, become a battle with two sides.  If enough of these unlikely folks change their minds and keep on changing their minds, just maybe the conventional wisdom will shift a bit.

Today this blog will quickly review five years’ of mind-changing and then add another defector from the conventional wisdom to the catalog of mind changers.  First there was Diane Ravitch who, as a former member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution, wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010 to announce her change of heart and mind and basically to apologize for her long, intense support for test-and-punish school accountability.  In 2013, Diane published another book, Reign of Error, to establish her new views more strongly.  Her about face, as a former assistant secretary of education, launched a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom.

Then last fall there was Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform is a school choice scheme that imagines a big city school district like a business portfolio filled with public and private schools.  The district is imagined to promote the successful schools and shed the failures as a businessman would build a successful investment portfolio.  But last summer Robin Lake went to Detroit, became dismayed by what she observed, and wrote a  scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation she found there:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.” Lake did not entirely recant the conventional wisdom, but she raised some serious questions that let people know she was very disturbed about the implementation of the idea she had been promoting.

Then Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution came to the Cleveland City Club to talk about the functioning of the charter sector in Ohio.  She was asked a question about the future of charter schools in the state, and here is what she said: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  Later Raymond tried to backtrack a little and blame the lack of information being provided to the parents choosing schools, but even so, she strongly challenged the conventional wisdom.

Then last month the Education Trust-Midwest condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan.  Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, but its new report worries about out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Michigan: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.  Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”

Now there is another defection, and this is one of another kind altogether.  David Hornbeck was Maryland’s state superintendent of public instruction from 1976 to 1988, and then superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1994-2000.  Hornbeck is a retired public school educator who—as the test-and-punish, pro-charter school “reform” began to take off leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002—believed it would be possible to maintain a strong system of public schools and at the same time try out the new reforms and have them enrich each other.  Hornbeck believed at that time that you could improve things by having it both ways.  This week in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Hornbeck declares he was mistaken: “As Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students.  The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong… New policy should not build on current inequities and flawed assumptions….”

Hornbeck’s defection is very strong.  He resides in Maryland and he writes in response to a new proposal in that state that regulation of charter schools be strengthened.  But Hornbeck rejects privatization through charter schools; he is not merely recommending stronger laws to regulate charter schools: “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better: Advocates say we need a ‘stronger’ charter law, noting that Maryland ranks near the bottom. Pennsylvania’s law is ranked much higher, yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.”  Hornbeck points out that, “Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance.”  “Charter funding is also negatively affecting regular public schools.” “Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges. Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students.  Some do.  However, the citywide charter lottery inherently skims.  Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for him/her to apply and succeed.”

Hornbeck concludes: “Charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms.  In fact, chartering is not an education reform.  It’s merely a change in governance.  A charter law doesn’t deal with the hard and often costly slog of real reform.” He then lists what makes the difference in education:  high standards, quality teachers, prekindergarten for 3 year olds, lower class size, and “attacking concentrated poverty through community schools; after school programs; more instruction time… and high quality child care.”

In his recent op-ed, Hornbeck also wades into one of the hottest issues in the debate about education reform: teachers unions:

“We need the best and brightest teachers: The proposed ‘stronger’ law undermines collective bargaining that protects teachers from politics and favoritism and has been crucial to improvement in compensation and benefits… Unionization is not the problem.  There are no unions in many of the nation’s worst educational performing states.  All schools, charter or traditional, must pay competitive salaries and benefits to attract experienced, skilled teachers who can succeed with children.”

Congratulations David Hornbeck for your courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom and your support for a just system of public schools as the best way to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.

PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Schools Drags On

After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools.  The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years.  Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.

In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year….  Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years…  A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction….  Something is seriously wrong with this picture.  Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world.  But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”

The reasons are complex.  Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone.  The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.”  Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”

Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper.  His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.

Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools.  After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district.  The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia.  They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”

Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.”  Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.”   The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007.  Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.”  Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.”  Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.

Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent.  The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.  The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…”    In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis.  In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions.  The prize in return?  Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”

We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”

A Special Christmas Wish for What Children Need This Year: Quality Teachers

The Rev. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator Chicago Theological Seminary.  His wonderful blog post for this Christmas is about the importance of quality public school teachers:  All I Want for Christmas.

“While the old holiday song suggests that children might want two front teeth for Christmas, this year I’d like to suggest an alternative: “All I want for Christmas is a teacher.” Sunday’s New York Times reported the stark impact of the recent recession on schools, namely, the massive loss of public school teachers since 2008. According to Labor Department statistics, public schools across the country employ 250,000 fewer people today than they did prior to the recession. Meanwhile, pupil enrollment has grown by 800,000 students. To maintain pre-recession staffing ratios, public schools nation-wide would have had to add 132,000 jobs.

“What does this look like in the classroom? In Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a declining steel town forty miles outside of Philadelphia, the professional workforce of 600 prior to the recession has been cut by twenty percent. This means that some of the thirty students in one fourth grade class sit halfway into a coat closet. In a middle school social studies class one teacher handles twenty-five students, ten with special education needs, four who know little or no English, and several others who need advanced work to stay engaged. He used to have two aides to help; not any more.”

Thomas concludes by sharing the story of the public school music teacher who composed the song, “All I Want for Christmas.”  Read Rev. Thomas’s blog post here.

Good wishes for the season to all readers of this blog!

Is There Such a Thing at School As a High-Performing Seat?

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss publishes a reflection on the ongoing financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia from the point of view of Anne Pomerantz, a linguist and lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pomerantz shares tragic details about closing schools, slashing staff, in increasing the size of classes in Philadelphia, all of which make it so much harder for teachers to know and support each child.  She describes how the very words we use shape our thinking about schooling.

Advocating for the use of the term, “schooling” rather than “school,” Pomerantz points to school reformers’ language that diminishes the humanity of our conversation about public education. We continually hear talk about “low-performing schools” as though the school building itself is somehow tainted—which makes us less worried about closing such schools, even though they may be supporting children in myriad ways we never name.

Pomerantz quotes Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who rejects an even more reductive and de-humanizing way of talking about schooling: “When our discussions are framed around high-performing ‘seats,’ and expanding access to those ‘seats,’ we dehumanize the process and easily lose sight of the true meaning of ensuring Philadelphia’s students a safe, welcoming, and rigorous environment to learn.”

How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter

“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” reports Othella Stanback, a Philadelphia high school senior whose high school was closed over the summer.  She knows no teachers at her new school well enough this fall to ask someone to write the recommendations she needs to apply for college.  In Dispatch from Philadelphia: The Brutal End of Public Education Julianne Hing reports for ColorLines on the meaning for students of the school closures in Philadelphia and the implications of similar problems in other struggling city school districts.

“Last year the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools.  On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution… In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s.  This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.”

At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia where hundreds of students were transferred this year from closed schools, cuts in previous years have pared the curriculum, eliminating pre-Calculus, honors classes for ninth graders and an advanced writing class. Today the school is served by only one counselor.  In November, after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finally released an additional $45 million to the Philadelphia schools, 80 counselors were hired by the district, ensuring that every high school has one counselor.  The reporter notes: “Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now.  Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times.”

Compounding the financial problems in Philadelphia is the imposition by the state imposed School Reform Commission of a “portfolio school reform” plan, prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group.  This is a plan designed with business-model “creative disruption” in mind—open and close schools including private charters in a continuing cycle, rewarding success and punishing failure.  But as the reporter notes, instability and loss are the way this looks to the students, and they are adolescents who desperately need stability in the institution on which they depend.

“Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone.  In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas.  In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor…. the consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system are falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates.”

School Reform Information Controlled by Funders and Think Tanks? What about the Public’s Right to Know?

In Philadelphia, the state-appointed School Reform Commission got the William Penn Foundation, a philanthropy, to pay the Boston Consulting Group, a contractor, to design the “portfolio school reform plan” that recommended closing public schools and opening charter schools.

Twenty-four public schools were eventually closed last spring.  For the public, it has been hard to parse out which part of Philadelphia’s ongoing school catastrophe derives from Governor Corbett’s slashing $1 billion from the state’s public education budget and what part comes from an ideological, “portfolio” Philadelphia school reform plan that promotes privatization.  (For more on the crisis in the Philadelphia schools this year, check out the three part series earlier this week from National Public Radio, here, here and here.)

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss republishes a piece by Helen Gym, a parent activist in Philadelphia.  Gym writes about the struggles members of the public have experienced as they try to secure access to the list of 60 public schools the Boston Consulting Group recommended for closure.  Gym speculates that these days, while information may be available to the philanthropies funding reform plans and the consultants and contractors designing the plans and other big givers who are trying to influence school reform, the public cannot get access to the information that is shaping public institutions.

Gym writes: “The closing of 24 schools in Philadelphia remains the single most important issue of the year. The closings affected more than 9,000 students and transformed school communities. They also had an impact on political and real estate dealings, with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Last week, city leaders guaranteed a $61 million swap to fast-track real estate deals for shuttered school buildings. News reports indicate that several, mostly unnamed, buyers have shown interest in sweeping up all the properties for a single sum — in one case, an offer of $100 million.  Given the stakes, it is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in the documents presented to the District.”

Trouble for Public Education in the Industrial Heartland

The end of June brought action across the states that will affect public education for millions of children. Here are reports from three states in the industrial heartland where children’s right to quality education remains seriously threatened: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

In Pennsylvania the state has slashed funding for the School District of Philadelphia, forcing massive school closures and the elimination of 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff; libraries, the arts, nurses, aides, assistant principals, counselors—all gone. Daniel Denvir continues to report the catastrophe in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia City Paper. Here is Corbett to Philly: Fix Your Own Schools. Last week Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and education historian and reformer Diane Ravitch wrote a letter asking Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, to intervene to avert catastrophe in Philadelphia. I urge you to read the letter in which teachers describe what cuts will mean for particular schools and the children they serve. Cuts to the School District of Philadelphia will have a disparate impact with poor students of color most seriously denied opportunity.

The Akron Beacon Journal reports Ohio Budget Rewards Low Performing Charter Schools. While this piece reports only on funding for Ohio’s charter schools and skips the subject of cuts to public schools that serve the majority of Ohio’s children, remember that funds for charters in Ohio remove funding from traditional public schools. Here the Beacon Journal describes the influence of David Brennan, owner of White Hat Management (a Charter Management Organization), Ohio’s most significant investor in political contributions to legislators.

One bright spot: Education Justice at the Education Law Center reports Michigan Court Rules Children Have the Right to Education. On June 27, a Michigan Circuit Court ruled that the state’s constitution guarantees the children of the Highland Park School District the right to an education and rejected a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the ACLU protesting the Highland Park emergency manager’s hiring of the Leona Group (a Charter Management Organization) to run the school district without the emergency manager’s having taken steps to provide for the basic literacy of the children. According to the Education Justice Newsletter:

” ACLU-MI filed the case in July 2012, on behalf of Highland Park’s students, many of whom are years behind in reading and writing. At the heart of the lawsuit is a Michigan law that requires districts to provide additional “special assistance” to students who are not performing at grade level on fourth- and seventh-grade tests. The assistance must be “reasonably expected … to bring reading skills to grade level within 12 months.”

Plaintiffs are seeking a court order for immediate remedy by the state, including research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, new educational materials and textbooks, a clean and safe learning environment, and implementation of a process for monitoring progress. ACLU’s Moss asserts that the state, district and for-profit charter company have no program to systematically deliver the mandated reading assistance.

ACLU’s lawsuit in Highland Park is urgently important as a brake on Michigan’s emergency manager legislation that abrogates democracy by permitting the state to seize power from local school boards and appoint emergency financial managers who can over-ride labor agreements, fire entire teaching staffs, and hire private firms to run local school districts without public oversight. The citizens of Michigan overturned the “emergency manager law” in a referendum last November, but Governor Snyder and the Michigan legislature responded by passing a new emergency manager law that is supposedly referendum-proof.