Trying to Sort Out All the Concerns about Charters and Vouchers

After today, this blog will take a two week summer break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 11.

I recently spent far too much time slogging through the over 80 pages of the new report on Charter Management Organizations from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Stanford CREDO is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. The study compares test score gains in four types of charter schools—the independent, stand-alone, charters; the charters run by Charter Management Organizations (that operate “at least three separate charter schools and the CMO is the charter holder for each school”); what CREDO calls Vendor Operated Schools (organizations which operate “at least three separate charter schools, but do not hold the charter for any school they serve”); and finally what CREDO calls hybrids (that “have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS).  After trying to sort through all these definitions plus the over 70 pages of data, I was underwhelmed by the conclusions: that students in independent charters have lower achievement, overall, than those that are part of a network; that charter quality varies by networks; that even though there is a range of CMO quality, “larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students”; that CMOs which directly operate their schools seem to do better than VOSs that bring in a vendor to manage the charters; that there is a need for better oversight by authorizers; that there is huge variation by state based on the kind of oversight the state provides; and that virtual-online charters don’t work for most students.

Although I certainly don’t recommend that you look at CREDO’s new report, you will likely find Jeff Bryant’s response to it as refreshing as I did.  While CREDO seeks to distinguish CMOs from VOSs from Hybrids from Independents, Bryant begins with a different distinction, necessary because he believes there is a lot of confusion about charter schools: “Quick,” he asks, “is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?”  His question is followed by this profile of a chain of charter schools:

“In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic. Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school. The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple.  In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.  After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 2012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located….”

Bryant continues: “If you guessed that the school in question… is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong.  The charter described is the BASIS charter chain….  Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and (is as) self-serving as any profit-hungry private enterprise….”  Bryant goes on to examine some other chains of charter schools to make his point that slicing and dicing and analyzing the operation of various types of charter schools isn’t really very helpful. In all kinds of privately managed schools there is self-serving and fraud that nobody seems to be able to get under control.

How to sort out the claims about school choice—Betsy DeVos’s one favorite subject?  This blog will take a two-week summer break after today, but if you want to clarify your thinking about school choice—charter schools and the various forms of vouchers—here is some important material to read or review.

  • Start with yesterday’s analysis by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a critique of charter schools that appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Burris reminds readers that a year ago the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights group, passed a national resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held accountable like other public schools, until funds stop being diverted from the public schools that serve the majority of our children, until expulsions from charters are stopped because publicly funded schools are supposed to serve all children, and until charters stop increasing segregation. Burris concludes that the charter sector has not even made a pretense of trying to address any of these very legitimate concerns. Charters remain unaccountable—more like businesses than public institutions, but, “Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers… (P)romised accountability is often st aside.”  Burris examines the other concerns in the NAACP’s resolution and concludes: “It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution… There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.”
  • You might want to read Erica Green’s recent NY Times piece on the charter school Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, founded in Grand Rapids—the West Michigan Aviation Academy. This school equips at least some of its students with pilots’ licenses at graduation. But there’s a catch: Dick DeVos’s Aviation Academy depends on enormous financial support and fund raising by Dick and Betsy DeVos in addition to the public school dollars it receives from the state of Michigan: “Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding… But… (the public funds do) not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum… The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.”
  • Or consider Mikhail Zinshteyn’s report for California’s EdSource, Oakland Charters More Likely to Enroll Higher-Performing Students than District Schools. How is it that, while charter schools are always prohibited from using admissions tests or other screens to select their students, they somehow end up enrolling students who arrive at the school door already better prepared than the students who attend traditional public schools in the district in which in which they are located?  Zinshteyn explains that Oakland’s charters actually do enroll similar levels of low-income students and English learners, but they also enroll far fewer students who arrive after the school year has begun and significantly fewer students with disabilities.  Both groups of students are more likely to be academically behind.
  • While the CREDO study and the Oakland study review charter school quality based on the comparison of test scores between traditional public schools and charter schools, there have been several important studies in the past year that examine the impact of school choice on the entire educational ecosystem in particular metropolitan areas where the majority of students, with very few exceptions, attend traditional public schools: Gordon Lafer’s study on Los Angeles (see this blog’s coverage here), Roosevelt University’s study on Chicago (see this blog’s coverage here), and Bruce Baker’s in depth study of parasitic charter schools published by the Economic Policy Institute (see this blog’s coverage here).  All of this in-depth research points to collateral damage for big-city public schools and school districts—including school closures, the under-supply of schools in some neighborhoods and the over-supply of schools in others, for example—- when charter schools are rapidly expanded.
  • It’s also worth re-reading the resources in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 toolkit on privatization. Two of the short issue briefs explore the concerns covered in this post today: Are Charter Schools Truly Public Schools? and Do Charter Schools Profit from Educating Students?

Of course Betsy DeVos’s definition of school choice features a two part expansion of school privatizaton: more charters and more vouchers (and neo-vouchers like tuition tax credits and education savings accounts). You might want to check out the resources here for more on vouchers:

  • Be reminded that the Network for Public Education ‘s 2017 toolkit on privatization also contains important updates on vouchers and neo-vouchers here, here, here and here.
  • Consider Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s new Education Week commentary on vouchers: Student Vouchers Aren’t Working. Here’s Why. The Lubienskis—academic researchers on the effects of school privatization and authors of The Public School Advantage—examine new research on voucher programs in Washington, D.C, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.  They note that, “While vouchers appear to be enjoying a higher profile with Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, the research on outcomes from these programs has taken a dramatic turn, one at odds with the direction DeVos and other policymakers are pursuing.”  Why do the new studies track lower achievement in voucher programs than traditional public schools?  A likely explanation “has to do with the actual students and schools themselves, including how students were grouped in private and public schools.  Prior to the recent batch of research that has cast doubt on vouchers, studies lauding vouchers tended to be based on local and more targeted programs involving relatively small, non representative sets of students and schools. Yet overall, private schools are actually no more effective, and often less so than public schools… Research as far back as the Coleman Report in 1966 indicates that private school students enjoy the beneficial ‘peer effect’ of being around affluent classmates who have abundant educational resources at home and parents who have firsthand experience with school success… This peer effect is a significant factor in student learning, but frankly, there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around.  And so as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted.”
  • Finally, this week there is important news: the Education Law Center is launching a new Voucher Watch website, “an initiative to inform and assist advocates as they oppose the establishment and expansion of vouchers in their states. Voucher Watch… will track voucher proposals in state legislatures and from the federal government, provide details on existing state voucher programs, and compile research on the impact of vouchers on student outcomes.”  The Education Law Center, which has for many years been a national leader in legal challenges aiming to increase school funding equity and adequacy, recently provided pro bono legal assistance in a Nevada voucher case—  Lopez v. Schwartz—“which resulted in a Nevada Supreme Court decision finding ESA (education savings account) vouchers unconstitutional because they diverted funding allocated for the public schools to private education expenditures.”  The site is brand new, with only one page of background about vouchers so far, but the new website will grow.  What’s wrong with vouchers? The Voucher Watch website declares: “(V)ouchers drain critical resources from public education, thereby undermining the capacity of the public schools to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those at-risk or with special needs. Vouchers also lead to increased segregation within our communities, and private schools accepting vouchers do not have to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Even with this compelling evidence, states continue to propose laws to create or expand vouchers, and Congress is considering using federal education funds to incentivize states to do so.”
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What Will It Mean if Trump Extends the Privatization of Public Education?

In the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch asks: When Public Goes Private (in Education), as Trump Wants: What Happens?

Privatization of our schools is not new, but many of its promoters have been obscuring its growth over the past two decades by calling it something different: “For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves ‘reformers’ to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to ‘reform’? These days, those who call themselves ‘education reformers’ are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The ‘reform’ movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.”

Why have people been so anxious to undermine the institution, historically unique to the United States, of a system of publicly operated, publicly owned, publicly regulated schools designed to serve all of the nation’s children?  “The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as ‘government schools,’ hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning ‘education industry.’ The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, ‘We want to privatize public schools.’ They say, ‘We want to save poor children from failing schools.’  Therefore, ‘We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,’ and ‘We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.'”

Ravitch is an education historian, and her story of the growth of privatization under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a trend President-elect Donald Trump has promised to swell—captures the essential elements of what has happened: “The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.  Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures… If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low scores. In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.”

Ravitch lists some of the powerful hedge-fund-backed organizations that lobby for the spread of charter schools—Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools.  And she implicates the role of philanthropy in subsidizing the privatization of education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, Reed Hastings  of Netflix, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma that makes Oxycontin, and Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos who made their fortune through Amway.

Ravitch’s piece is a book review of Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset and Mercedes Schneider’s School Choice: The End of Public Education? These are important books, and I urge you to read Ravitch’s piece as a book review.

But the importance of this article is as an excellent, brief, historical summary of the privatization of education—interesting for all readers, but of particular value for the general reader who has not become deeply immersed in the issues of today’s education war.  The summary is accurate, and Ravitch is very clear about what is at stake.  She describes a resolution passed in October by the NAACP, “which called for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that pubic schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until ‘public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.'”

Ravitch concludes: “(T)here is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education… When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community… We invest in public education because it is an investment in the future of society… Whatever its faults, the public school system is a hallmark of democracy, doors open to all.  It is an essential part of the common good. It must be improved for all who attend and paid for by all.  Privatizing portions of it, as Trump wants, will undermine public support and will provide neither equity nor better education.”