I Wonder if It Is Possible to Teach a Billionaire Heiress about Opportunity Cost

I learned about opportunity cost as a child, although I had no idea that was the lesson I was being taught. In the spring of 1957, my parents needed to replace our 1947 Dodge.  My sister and I begged my parents to buy a car with four doors, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to get in the back seat, and my father agreed, finally.  But he said that my sister and I would have to pay for what he believed was an extravagant splurge by giving up our allowance for the rest of the year. I don’t imagine we paid for those car doors with seven months’ worth of our dime allowance, but we did learn that in our family where we didn’t have a lot of money, if you really wanted to buy something expensive, you’d probably have to give up something else.

Years later in college when, as an English major, I took Economics 101 as an elective, I was astonished to discover that economists had actually created a name for that rule my father insisted we practice in our family. Very early in the semester, my professor Robert Haveman, taught us the concept of opportunity cost.  He must have believed this is a very basic concept, because in his little economics textbook, The Market System, Professor Haveman describes it on the third page: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose…. The decision is much easier if family income increases, but choice is still necessary. The cost of the new item may be considered the loss of the opportunity to spend that income for other purposes. This is the opportunity cost principle applied to individual consumer behavior.” Haveman continues: “The same principle applies to societies because of the scarcity of means relative to ends.”

Betsy DeVos inherited a fortune from her father’s car-parts company, and I presume that in Betsy DeVos’s family economic choices were easier than in my family—without obvious lessons on opportunity cost.  Maybe there could be not merely one car with four doors, but instead several cars filling a garage with four doors. It has certainly become clear that, as our nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos doesn’t grasp Haveman’s definition of opportunity cost as the concept applies to societies—in this case to school finance.

It happened again last week when DeVos visited the public schools in Van Wert, Ohio. The day after her visit, she had an OpEd column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which she complimented Van Wert’s schools. But after a few paragraphs she quickly forgot about the schools she had visited and began pushing her one idea: parents in Van Wert need more choices.  Here is what her column said: “Van Wert is a good school district. It is meeting the needs of many students. Yet the parents or guardians of nearly 20 percent of students who live within Van Wert’s district lines choose to send their children to a nearby district or to a different option in Van Wert instead.  In doing so, these parents are seeking the education that’s best for their child…. Every parent should have that option.  School choice is pro-parent and pro-student.”  Ohio offers public school districts the option to participate in cross-district open enrollment, through which students can take their state aid to a neighboring school district.  Apparently Van Wert participates in open-enrollment, and some parents in Van Wert transport their children to a neighboring town, though there has been a huge argument in the Ohio press since DeVos’s column was published about whether 20 percent isn’t a highly exaggerated figure for Van Wert’s participation in that program.

Betsy DeVos’s column indicates, however, that she missed the “opportunity cost” lesson Van Wert’s parents and educators tried to teach her. Van Wert, a small town near the Indiana border, is different from the urban, inner-ring, Cleveland suburban school district where my children went through public schools, but we have one thing in common: Ohio’s problematic method of funding schools.  For all of the thirty years I’ve known this system, our legislature has been dominated by people who have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to vote to raise taxes; many of our legislators also take pride in being members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In Ohio, our legislature has set it up so that we do not have unvoted tax increases. All tax increases including school levies must by voted on at the polls. And… in the DeRolph school funding decision, the courts faulted Ohio’s school funding for being “overly reliant on local property tax.”  And… embedded in our state constitution is a local property tax freeze. Our tax freeze means that any school levy cannot ever generate more real dollars for a school district than on the day it passes.  If property appreciates in value, the state rolls back the voted millage to keep the levy amount flat.

This all means that when inflation naturally occurs, and the state fails to increase its contribution, parents in every school district must create and fund a political committee to go out and campaign for the needed tax increase. The levies sometimes fail, and the parents have to try again, and sometimes again and again.  But inflation keeps occurring and when levies fail, school nurses and librarians begin to cover several buildings, and students on high school football teams have to pay to play. When a levy finally passes, it is very often to get back what was lost—to bring back the librarian to every school library, to make football free, to reduce class size in Kindergarten back below 22 students. In this financial climate—the very definition of opportunity cost—it is difficult for a school district afford something new and glitzy, something like the championship robotics team Van Wert’s voters have managed to fund and that we all learned about last week when Betsy DeVos visited Van Wert.  I learned to understand this public example of opportunity cost back between 1988 and 1991 when I organized a grassroots, door-to-door campaign for three school levies—with 700 volunteers each time ringing doorbells to convince neighbors to vote “yes.”  Then in 1993, I co-chaired a successful levy campaign after two failed attempts. Across Ohio, school levy fights, to be successful, have to be constructed to pull the community together on behalf of the public—the community and all of its children.

Erica Green, the NY Times reporter who traveled to Van Wert to cover the Betsy DeVos school visit, listened carefully. While I know she does not have an in-depth understanding of the school funding complexities behind the comments she reports in her article, she captures some of the urgency of the parents and educators who described the dedication of the Van Wert community to its public schools. Green notes the community’s pride in having passed its levies. She describes what Linda Haycock, newly elected from western Ohio to the state school board said to Betsy DeVos: “Spending federal money or any other taxpayer funds on vouchers for private school tuition is looked on harshly… ‘really theft’…  ‘It’s saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it’s really going somewhere else.'”  And Green continues: “Van Wert educators said they believed their biggest threat was school choice. An expanded voucher program would be ‘potentially catastrophic’ for the district’s finances, said Mike Ruen, the district’s treasurer.”

Teachers and school administrators alike carefully explained what would be the implications for Van Wert of the federal budget cuts proposed by DeVos’s Department of Education. Green describes the early childhood literacy specialist telling Betsy DeVos about how any reallocation of Title I funding to support expansion of school choice would undermine a program that helps very poor children with early literacy. Green quotes the school superintendent telling DeVos, “We struggle every day to make ends meet.” Green reports that an elementary school principal told DeVos, “Our funding is the blood, sweat and tears of our community, and we are held accountable for that.”

The parents, teachers, superintendent, and school treasurer in Van Wert were explaining to Betsy DeVos the essence of Professor Haveman’s lesson on the public implications of opportunity cost: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose.” In Ohio, we already have some school choice and we don’t want it expanded.  Our long experiment with vouchers has meant that tax dollars are taken to support private school education. Charter schools—unregulated and out of control in our state—have created another drain on scarce public school resources. And, as we saw in Van Wert, there is also the option for school districts to participate in cross-district open enrollment. When Betsy DeVos preaches about giving all parents a choice to have the education services they desire, I wonder whether she actually understands that sending money away from the public schools to privatized alternatives removes essential services from the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

In a recent column in the Appleton Post-Crescent in Wisconsin—another ALEC-dominated state, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislative majority also adhere to the anti-tax pledge Grover Norquist has encouraged them to sign—Jane Parish Yang, a member of the Fox City Advocates for Public Education, defines the meaning of the public—“how a nation comes into being by shared events and shared values, and how, in our case, a community comes into being with a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ and strength from all young people being educated in order to become productive citizens. The founding citizens of Wisconsin knew that shared, democratic values from a public education open to each and every student would be the basis for the community flourishing because of that shared experience. But what would those same founders make of present-day Wisconsin, in which a segment of the citizenry rejects public schools… and wishes to segregate itself within its own traditions but at public expense? That is what proponents of so-called school choice are asking the public to agree to: we choose, you pay.”

Check Out PBS NewsHour’s Fine Report on School Vouchers

On Tuesday night, the PBS NewsHour in collaboration with Education Week reporter Lisa Stark aired a short and almost perfectly framed piece on Indiana’s school voucher program. Vice President Mike Pence, who is responsible for the rapid growth of Indiana school vouchers, is, like the new education secretary Betsy DeVos, an avid champion of parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools.

In her report, Stark captures the church-state issues by contrasting a public school, Fairfield Elementary School, with Emmaus Lutheran School, both in Fort Wayne. Vouchers and tax credits across the states fund primarily religious schools where the tuition is low enough to be offset by a modest voucher. The U.S. Supreme Court—in the controversial 2002, Zellman v. Simmons-Harris decision—found vouchers to be legal under the U.S. Constitution, though some state constitutions ban the expenditure of public dollars in religious schools. (This blog covered the church-state, First Amendment issues here.)

The most devastating impact of vouchers and tax credit programs, however, is to create a separate system that devours state public school budgets. Stark is clear from the outset: “At the heart of the debate (is) money, and how education dollars are divvied up.  Normally, the state distributes tax dollars to public schools to educate students. In Indiana, that’s about $5,800 per student. Vouchers change that. A portion of the money, the tax dollars, follow the student instead, allowing parents to use those dollars to pay tuition at the private school of their choice.”

Stark shows video footage of two nurturing, high-quality schools—a public school and Lutheran school, and she interviews their principals to learn about how the rapid growth of vouchers has affected each school. She also interviews Robert Enlow, the president of a national lobbying organization: EdChoice. Here is the background on EdCoice that Stark can’t cover in her short piece. EdChoice is today’s name for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the foundation started by Chicago free-market economist, Milton Friedman. Standford University professor, Martin Carnoy recently described Friedman’s role in promoting vouchers in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute: “As originally conceived by Milton Friedman (1955), the purpose of vouchers is to break the ‘monopoly’ of public schooling and extend families’ school choices for their children to include private education. Friedman, and voucher advocates more generally, argue that an education market that includes private schools competing on a financially level playing field with public schools, can deliver schooling more cheaply and satisfy consumer needs more effectively because private education is more efficient than public.” EdChoice’s Robert Enlow is introduced by Lisa Stark as an advocate, and advocate he does—beginning with this non sequitur: “We have seen over time our traditional school systems, because they’re based on zip code assignment and where you live, not providing always the best options for families.”

Stark also interviews Fort Wayne’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Wendy Robinson, who clarifies that the explosive growth of the voucher program in Indiana has not been neutral in its impact on the public schools: “If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.” “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.”

In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post filled in more of the background that Stark couldn’t cover in a short piece for the NewsHour:  “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.'”  Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.  By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system.”

Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago on new data just released from the state. The number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

In January, Valerie Strauss published a column by Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s state school superintendent until she was defeated in last November’s election. Ritz summarizes how deeply implicated key members of the Trump administration are in a commitment to expand the ideology of the former Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice: “Indiana’s school choice program started under a prior governor as a small pilot, tailored to poor families that did not believe public schools were providing their children with an adequate education. Gov. Pence, however, escalated this program into a de facto entitlement for middle-upper-class families, pulling millions of dollars from our poorest schools so that these more affluent families could subsidize a private school education for their kids. Betsy DeVos wants to expand these voucher programs to as many states as possible. Pence likes to claim that Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. What he does not like to admit is that in five years of this program, Indiana’s taxpayers have sent more than $345 million to religious schools with little to no state oversight or regulation. These taxpayer dollars would have otherwise funded public education in our state.”

Here is what Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s school superintendent tells Lisa Stark in Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour interview: “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”  Please do watch this short piece on Indiana’s school voucher program.

Many Predict Trump-DeVos Will Privatize with Tuition Tax Credits, Not Plain Old Vouchers

Everyone is wondering exactly how President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s plans for expanding privatization of public education will play out. Two upcoming events may provide more details.  It has been predicted that the President will lay out his priorities when he releases his budget proposal in mid-March. Even before that, however, in a major address tomorrow to a joint session of Congress, he has said he’ll outline his policy priorities. Here is Politico commenting on what is expected from tomorrow’s address: “White House officials said that after a first month driven almost entirely by policies they could enact unilaterally, the joint congressional address will focus on work the White House wants done on Capitol Hill during the rest of 2017.”

The President and his education secretary have said they will expand the privatization of education but how that will happen isn’t yet clear. One member of the House of Representatives has already introduced a bill to eliminate the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act) entirely and redirect the money now spent on Title I, ESEA’s primary program, to a school choice expansion. Others predict that Trump and DeVos will expand the one existing federal voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Some have suggested that Trump will convince Congress to go back to tinker with ESSA and pass a program Lamar Alexander and other conservatives endorsed back in 2015, Title I Portability—the idea that each poor child would be able to carry a designated amount of extra money to any public school that child chose to attend. Title I Portability was never broadly endorsed in Congress, however, because it would defeat the primary purpose of Title I, which was designed to address concentrations of poverty in particular school districts.  Schools educating concentrations of children whose families are extremely poor face an overwhelming set of challenges.  In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods where over 90 percent of children live in extreme poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)

It now appears more likely, however, that while Trump is likely to enlarge the federal Washington, D.C. voucher program, any program on a national scale will expand school choice through tuition tax credits.  Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post: “Is there enough support in Congress to close the Education Department and create a federal voucher program for America’s schoolchildren?  No, according to people on Capitol Hill who are familiar with the issue, though a pilot federal voucher program is possible. Still, Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice, and the Hill sources said this could come in the form of a federally funded scholarship tax credit program that would be part of a Trump-promised reform of the U.S. tax code… Scholarship tax credit programs offer lucrative tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to nonprofits that provide money for students to use for tuition at private and religious schools and public schools outside a student’s designated district.  There are now 17 states with programs that offer scholarship tax credits… including Florida, the state that DeVos has frequently mentioned as a model for the kind of reform she is seeking.” (This blog covered the range of voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs here.)

A tax credit plan would be easier to pass in Congress according to Caitlin Emma at Politico, “A federal tax credit scholarship program could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate.”  Diverting Title I funds, by contrast, would require an appropriations bill, that could potentially be filibustered and require 60 votes.

You might wonder how tax credits could damage the public schools, if they merely divert tax dollars to private schools without affecting already-existing federal public school programs. Here is how this would likely work out. While the federal government provides less than 10 percent of school funding, states are a primary funder of public schools, covering about half of school spending. Any federal tax credit program would very likely be designed to incentivize states to launch new tuition tax credit programs or expand existing programs. And establishing or expanding state tax credits would reduce the amount of tax dollars flowing into the states’ public education budgets.  Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188)

Jeff Bryant quotes Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center explaining more about how such schemes  work: “Welner explains, tax credit scholarship programs are a ‘money-laundering mechanism’ that inserts into the transaction a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO). Instead of taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.”

Meanwhile, as Trump and DeVos move forward with some kind of expansion of vouchers or tax credits, in the NY Times, Kevin Carey just published a scathing critique based on three new research reports on the performance of traditional school voucher programs that have been operating for some time in a number of states.  Carey reports on a new study of the Indiana voucher program, created by Governor Mitch Daniels and rapidly expanded by Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor. The new research confirms that Indiana students who have moved to voucher schools “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and no improvement in reading.  Another 2015 study, this time in Louisiana, documents “negative results in both reading and math” when students used a voucher to transfer to a private school. Then this past June, “a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. ‘Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,’ the researchers found.  Once again, results were worse in math.”

Carey concludes: “The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program.  Secretary DeVos’s enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.”

These new voucher studies would not surprise Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, who, in their 2014 book, The Public School Advantage, explain: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (pp xvii-xviii)

What About the Crazy Talk of “Moving Students into High Quality Seats”?

These days, as part of the rhetoric of technocratic school reform, you often hear people talk about the goal of moving more students into high quality seats.  It’s a puzzling way of talking, as though education is purely a function of any student’s placement–part of the idea that moving kids around from school to school via school choice will make up for a state’s failure to invest enough money to ensure that every school has excellent teachers, a full curriculum, and a range of co-curricular opportunities. Such talk is a symptom of a lack of public generosity. School districts intent on moving  kids to “high quality seats” invest lots of money in exclusive magnets and boutique charters instead of the even more expensive project of investing enough in the traditional neighborhood elementary and middle schools and the comprehensive high schools that serve the mass of any school district’s students. By selecting some children for elite schools, the school district will be able to boast about high scores at “successful” schools and graduation rates at the elite high schools.

In Chicago, due to affirmative action policies at the elite high schools, a significant number of students from families with low income have now been admitted. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research just conducted a study to test how poorer students at selective-admissions high schools are faring.  Here are the assumptions researchers set out to examine:  “High-quality public schools may be a lever for closing the gap by providing equitable educational opportunities for students who have fewer economic resources at home. We know that low-income students can succeed in school, but many who are high-performing in elementary school fail to make it to college, suggesting that high-achieving, low-income students may lack good high school options or that there are barriers to entry into high-performing high schools for students who have fewer resources. If selective public schools improve student outcomes for low-income students by a greater amount than they improve outcomes for high-income students, then selective public schools may help close achievement gaps by family income.”

The study’s findings do not confirm the assumptions. “Overall, we find little effect on test scores or educational attainment, but students admitted to selective schools have lower grade point averages (GPAs)… Looking at estimates by neighborhood SES, we find no evidence that admission to elite public schools in Chicago helps close the achievement gap between students from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.  Selective high school admission has no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood SES….  When it comes to grades, the negative effect of selective high school admission on GPAs is larger for students from low-SES neighborhoods than for students from high-SES neighborhoods… (W)e find that students from low-SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighbohoods who just miss the admission cutoff.”

The researchers explain why Chicago’s unique affirmative admissions policies make it important to study the effects of selective high schools on low-income students in Chicago: “Selective enrollment high schools command a lot of attention—they generally serve the most academically successful students, the seats are highly coveted as there are many more applicants than available slots, and they are often hailed as the best schools in the system.  These schools also receive criticism for serving student bodies that are much less racially diverse than the district in which they are situated.  The affirmative action admission policy in Chicago, reserving seats for students from low-SES neighborhoods, makes selective schools the most racially diverse public high schools in the city. This feature also allows us to look at separate effects for students from different SES backgrounds.”

Here is what the new study says about students’ test scores: “We find that when it comes to test scores, attending a SEHS (Selective  Enrollment High School) has no statistically significant impact. Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools.  This finding is consistent with previous studies of selective schools in the U.S. This paper extends the scope of prior work by allowing the effect of selective school admission to differ by students’ neighborhood SES status. Nevertheless, even for students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, we find no positive impact on test scores.”

What about college admissions?  “High school GPA is another important academic outcome that affects both college admissions and college scholarship eligibility.  We find negative effects of being admitted to a SEHS on GPA, and this effect is primarily driven by the large, negative impact on GPA for students from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The negative impacts on GPA in combination with unaffected test scores do not translate into a decreased likelihood that SEHS students enroll in college…. Our results suggest that admission to a SEHS reduces the probability that a student from a low-SES neighborhood attends a selective college, while potentially increasing the probability that a student from a high-SES neighborhood attends a selective college. This finding is particularly troubling.”

Competition, as usual, favors the privileged; the researchers conclude that poorer students are not losing ground academically even though their grades are lower than their wealthier peers: “We do not believe that it is the case that students from low-SES neighborhoods cannot do well in elite public school programs.  In fact, there is no evidence of learning declines, as test scores for less affluent students are unaffected.”

As elite magnet schools do not seem to be expanding equal opportunity for their students’ college admissions, the researchers wonder whether the Chicago School District should eliminate its elite magnet high schools?  The advantages of maintaining such schools, according to these researchers, derive to the reputation of the district itself, not to the competitive edge of students being admitted to elite high schools through affirmative admissions programs. First, at a time when school segregation is increasing everywhere, their affirmative admissions policies have turned the elite high schools into Chicago’s most diverse high schools, economically and racially.  And the elite high schools increase the school district’s tax base and what the researchers call the “overall social capital” of families in the school district by serving as an incentive for families who “would otherwise leave the district for private schools or suburban districts.”

However, the researchers do find one advantage for poorer students who have been admitted to the elite high schools: the students believe their school experience is more positive. Selective high schools “have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the high school experience. When it comes to relationships with students and teachers, SEHS students are more positive than their counterparts in non-SEHSs.  Students in SEHSs also report a greater sense of safety—they are less likely to worry about crime, violence, and bullying…. Perhaps it is factors like these that make SEHSs highly desirable to students and families—more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

All this leads one to contemplate the moral implications in a school district like Chicago where school funding has been in crisis for decades and where Standard & Poor’s just dropped the school district’s credit rating again this month. Investing generously in all of a city’s high schools is far more expensive than creating elite institutions where a city’s brightest students are educated. What would it take to make it possible for every high school in Chicago to ensure small classes so that every student is known and the student’s learning needs accommodated? What would it take to hire enough counselors and social workers and college and career guidance staff to support every student?  What would it take to support a band and orchestra in every high school along with classes in drawing, sculpture and art appreciation and with a full range of sports and other co-curriculars? For years now charters and elite magnet schools have been designed as escapes for academic stars and students whose motivated parents know how to work the system. What would be required to provide a climate of safety and support in all of Chicago’s high schools?

Last month the national NAACP passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools—that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional public system, and that the 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 NAACP’s demands speak to the role of selective magnet high schools as well as their privatized but publicly funded charter cousins.

A system of public schools has been understood historically as our society’s moral responsibility for all of our students. Public schools have also traditionally been understood as the path by which society can benefit from the academic gifts, the skills, and the talents of every student.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s prophetic words come to mind once again: “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.”

All the mechanical talk about attracting students to “high quality seats” through school choice only makes it easier to forget about our broader obligation to the personal and academic needs of the mass of children and adolescents who fill our public schools.

As the One Percent Insulates Itself and Buys Political Power, Public Education Suffers

One of the things that has struck me about National Public Radio’s three week series on public school finance equity is that it is providing refreshing widespread coverage about the most necessary of basic subjects: how to fund the schools that serve the mass of children across America.  (This blog covered NPR’s ongoing series yesterday.)  Most of our public education conversation today revolves instead about education governance ideas being hatched by wealthy philanthropists, economists at think tanks supported by philanthropic wealth, and business leaders.

In our increasingly unequal society, institutions are becoming more stratified by class with the public schools (the focus of NPR’s current series) serving poor and middle class children, while elites buy exclusive, private services—a privilege they seek to replicate for what they consider the deserving poor through the expansion of market choice through charter schools. One need only read Rick Perlstein’s stunning new piece on the creation of Chicago school reform by the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to see how elites are controlling the policies that shape the so-called “public” schools that serve the majority. (This blog covered Perlstein’s article here.)

In a NY Times column yesterday, How the Other Fifth Lives, Thomas B. Edsall describes how those at the top are insulating themselves while shaping the institutions that serve the rest of us.  Edsall examines the updated research of Sean Reardon and Kendra Bishoff, sociologists who have been examining these trends: “The self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.”  Summarizing Reardon and Bishoff’s data, Edsall explains: “In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.  (This blog recently covered the updated research of Reardon and Bishoff.)

Edsall quotes Reardon and Bishoff, who worry about the implications for the rest of us of the growing migration of the wealthy to insulated enclaves: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power. As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle-and low-income families. In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high-income families interact with middle-and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”  It is also entirely possible that, lacking understanding of their poorer no-longer-neighbors’ lives, the rich might come up with educational policies that make problems worse. (Take another look at Rick Perlstein’s piece on Chicago.)

Edsall notes that between 1972 and 2007, there was “a threefold increase… in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees.” However, the investments the wealthy are making to cultivate their own children are only part of their power.  According to Edsall:  “Political leverage is another factor separating the top 20 percent from the rest of America.  The top quintile is equipped to exercise much more influence over politics and policy than its share of the electorate would suggest.  Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels… Equally or perhaps more important, the affluent dominate the small percentage of the electorate that makes campaign contributions.” Edsall concludes: “The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.”

Marketplace school choice has been the primary prescription of business and philanthropic elites for improving education and most particularly the schools that serve the poor, but such policy fails to address directly the documented impact of poverty on the children who struggle at school, and it glosses over the (however limited) protections democracy has traditionally provided to protect the rights of the vulnerable.  Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, summarizes one of the serious failures of policy designed by elites: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments.  One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ (cultivating the image, persona, resume that enhances one’s competitive position in the marketplace of ‘human capital’).” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The rush toward market competition in education that has transformed America’s poorest big cities—with the rapid growth of charter schools and the closure of many neighborhood schools— exemplifies the power of the wealthy who are designing policy according to the rules of the business world.  The political philosopher Benjamin Barber captures the power dynamic among the elites who create and the rest of us who may participate in marketplace school choice: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

As Walmart Does to Local Stores the Walton Family Foundation Is Doing to Public Schools

Jeff Bryant has published an important history of the Walton Family Foundation’s involvement in the growth of charter schools: How the Cutthroat Walmart Business Model is Reshaping American Public Education: “Walmart’s recent decision to close 269 stores was a blip on the national media radar, but it was big news in small towns and suburban neighborhoods across America… But what if that story isn’t just about businesses anymore?”

The Walton Family Foundation announced in January that it will spend $1 billion over the next five years to expand charter schools—“backing new charter schools and helping programs already up and running,” according to Kelly Kissell for the Associated Press.  Kissell continues, “The foundation has spent more than $1 billion on K-12 education over the past 20 years, including $385 million to help start charter schools in poor communities.”

Bryant quotes a Walton Foundation report, written by Michelle Wisdom and published last October at Grantmakers for Education, a report that justifies the Walton Family Foundation’s philosophy of school reform: “There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a ‘Portfolio Strategy’—a concept researched and supported by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Portfolio strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools… The Foundation sees its strategy as agnostic with regard to sector (public charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools). ‘The Foundation’s investment strategy is clear: schools thrive when they have autonomy, are chosen by parents, and are embedded in systems of good governance and accountability,’ says Senior Program Officer Fawzia Ahmed.”

Jeff Bryant examines the ties between the Walton Family Foundation and the libertarian Friedman Foundation that originally favored vouchers as the best path to school choice back in the 1990s, but Bryant explains that the Walton Foundation’s strategy evolved as it began to transition its investments from vouchers to charter schools. Bryant believes that the Walton’s philosophy of education philanthropy is not, in fact, “agnostic with regard to sector,” because there are many ways charters will always have test-score and financial advantages over traditional public schools:

“As currently conceived, charter schools are funded based on the idea that ‘money should follow the child.’  That is, when students transfer from a public school to a new charter, the per-pupil funding to educate that child transfers as well. But research studies have shown that this financial model harms the education of public school students. As a public school loses a percentage of its students to charters, the school can’t simply cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant proportionally. It also can’t cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally.”  The result?  Public schools too frequently close. “We’re at the early stage of the beginning of the end of public schools,” public school advocate Anthony Cody tells Bryant. “(Cody) argues that having charter schools compete with local public schools around student test scores will ‘corrupt education,’ as schools chase after ever higher scores at the expense of educating all children equitably. In Cody’s mind, this will inevitably lead to expansions of charter schools, which have more leeway to game the system, and (to) the closure of more public schools.”

Recent reports in the press confirm Cody’s and Bryant’s concerns. From city to city there is evidence that rapid proliferation of charter schools is driving the closure of neighborhood public schools and contributing to financial collapse in already distressed city school districts.

Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, worries about the rapid expansion of charters in school districts where the number of children is not growing or where the population of school children may be declining.  The Philadelphia Inquirer describes Masch’s concern, “that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools.  At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.'”

Just this week in Detroit as the public school district faces financial collapse, pro-choice Republican Governor Rick Snyder has finally pushed the Michigan legislature to put some limits on the authorization of new charters: “The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.” A spokesman for the governor has said he is “seeking ‘quality choice’ for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.”  Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, identified by the Detroit News as a pro-charter group aligned with Michigan’s wealthy, pro-choice DeVos family, accuses Governor Snyder of trying to “manage and control school choice by propping up the… traditional district at the expense of charters and parental choice.”

The destructive impact of the rapid expansion of school choice has begun to worry even its strongest supporters. It is becoming clear that the Walton Foundation’s third strategy for the expansion of charters and choice—that schools be “embedded in systems of good governance and accountability”—is very hard to guarantee when the rules are established in highly political state legislatures. Last year the alarm was sounded by Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the organization that launched the movement for “portfolio school reform” that so closely mirrors the Walton Family Foundation’s education philosophy. In the summer of 2014, Lake visited Detroit, where she became dismayed by the way portfolio school reform is playing out in an environment where regulation and oversight are lax: “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 DPS (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.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “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.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “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 DPS (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.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)