School Choice Undermines Urban School Districts

Proponents of school choice have dubbed this week School Choice Week.  In honor of  School Choice Week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under the first George Bush and today the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced a new bill to provide a kind of federal school voucher program.

According to the NY Times,  Alexander’s bill would re-purpose $24 billion federal education dollars, 41 percent of all federal education spending.  Alexander’s bill  would allow states to choose “whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a pubic school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.”

He claims the money would provide a voucher for 11 million low-income children with an average per-child grant of $2,100.  The NY Times explains, “Under Mr. Alexander’s bill, states would be allowed to opt in to the voucher program.  States could also continue to distribute federal funds to public schools rather than individual students.”  While there is little chance vouchers will be adopted by today’s U.S. Senate, the introduction of such a bill illustrates the dogged persistence of those who support this old, old idea.

Voucher programs have never been popular.  When proposed as ballot issues across the states, voucher plans have never been adopted by the voters.  Not ever.  The oldest voucher plans in Cleveland and in Milwaukee have neither significantly demonstrated higher academic achievement among their participants nor have they, as promised, improved the public systems in their respective cities through competition.  Voucher schools have not been well-regulated by their states. Voucher schools in Louisiana’s new program, for example, have been reported to teach religiously based creationism as though it were scientifically proven.

While vouchers are always proposed as so-called solutions for poor children said to be “trapped in failing public schools,” in many states a child is not required even to have attended a public school before receiving a voucher.  In states like Ohio, the vouchers have instead been a way for private and parochial school parents to receive scholarships to the schools their children were already attending.  A new report by StateImpact Indiana documents that during the initial two years of  Indiana’s relatively new voucher program, “income-eligible students had to have spent two semesters in public school” to be granted a voucher made up of funds taken from the state’s public school budget. But the rules keep being adjusted and the number of children who previously attended a public school continues to drop.  “Indiana will pay an estimated $81 million in private school tuition this year, up from $15.5 million in 2011-12.”

School choice programs are very often established by states in their poorest urban school districts. When asked her opinion about Senator Alexander’s proposed bill, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, identified the most serious repercussion for public school districts of school choice programs including vouchers:  “Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have done a tremendous amount of harm in destabilizing already austerity-filled and under-resourced schools all throughout America.”

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, describes the same problem: parents and children left behind without any choices at all as their schools are abandoned by children considered desirable by charter schools or by children who can secure a voucher.  “Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school—as it is rapidly being de-funded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents….”

Last fall, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current school choice policies are driving some urban school districts into a fatal decline.  Moody’s worries about school choice in the form of charter schools.  Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.’”  Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and  over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.

According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study:  “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines.  It begins with people leaving the city or districts.  Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts.  The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students.  As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts.  Rinse, repeat….”

Ohio School Choice Leaves Behind Traditional Public Schools of Last Resort

Policy Matters Ohio has released Misleading Measurements: How Ohio School Ratings Foster False Comparisons, a new report on school ratings in Ohio’s large urban districts.  The report examines demographic characteristics of students in Ohio’s highest rated urban district public schools (often special or magnet schools) and highest ranked urban charters.

“Policy Matters compared demographics of the urban schools scoring highest on state measures with the districts in which they are located.  We found that the majority of the highest-rated schools served different populations from those districts, enrolling fewer children with disabilities, fewer poor students, and fewer minorities.”

Here are specifics:

  • Of 28 high-rated schools studied, 27 enroll a lower percent of students with disabilities than the school district where the school is situated.
  • While Ohio’s urban districts serve, on average, 86 percent of students in poverty, the higher rated district and charter schools average only 50 percent poor students.
  • Highly ranked schools, with one or two exceptions, serve significantly fewer black and Hispanic students and more white students.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the schools studied are selective.  Examples of screens include a minimum GPA, standardized test scores, auditions, interviews, or the requirement that students or parents sign contracts.
  • High scoring schools frequently cap their enrollment (which means they turn students away)  to keep class sizes small.  Some have early application deadlines that screen out late-comers.  Some do not replace students who drop out.
  • Many of the charters in particular  that are located in urban districts accept students from surrounding suburbs.

School choice programs where selective screens are permitted segregate children not only by race and economics but also by disabilities. If the selection process is quite complicated then the selective schools screen out children whose parents are less able to be savvy advocates.

Selective screens create yet another way to concentrate advantage in selective schools and concentrate need in traditional public schools that soon become schools of last resort for the children who appear less desirable.  This philosophy of education differs markedly from our traditional American belief in public schools called to serve all the children who come through the school house door.

The words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson once again describe what is happening: “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.”

De Blasio Appoints Experienced Educator as NYC Chancellor: A Sign of Hope

In A Brief History of Reform!, life-long and much beloved educator Deborah Meier contrasts the educational philosophies of John Dewey, who believed the school should model and therefore teach democracy, and Ellwood Cubberley, the technocrat who promoted so-called scientific management of schools.  As an educator Meier founded schools that modeled Dewey’s philosophy; Cubberley was the direct ancestor of today’s school reformers.

Today Meier celebrates New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Farina, a 40-year teacher, principal, and school administrator—her entire career spent serving the children of New York City.

Clearly Farina and de Blasio have much work to do to curb special favors like free rent for charters and to undo policies like almost universal school choice at the high school level.  This is the policy that the Annenberg Institute for School reform exposed last year for assigning what New York City schools formally designate as “over-the-counter-children” (the children of parents who do not participate in school choice but instead expect the district to make a school assignment) to schools already being dismantled in preparation for closure.  And then there is the school closure policy itself that is already underway to dismantle several of New York City’s comprehensive high schools one grade at a time.  Addressing these issues will be a daunting task.

As we begin a new year, however, there is reason for optimism in New York City.  A forty-year, veteran educator has been appointed chancellor.  It wasn’t too long ago that the outgoing mayor appointed as chancellor Cathleen P. Black, whose work experience was limited to publishing—overseeing Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Good Housekeeping for Hearst Magazines.

Racing to the Bottom through School Choice and Privatization

Here is a third and final reflection stimulated by my trip last weekend to Fort Wayne, Indiana.  (The first two pieces are here and here.)  At an afternoon forum last Sunday on public education—during panel discussions and in informal conversations—I heard people trying to parse out the impact on their lives of Indiana’s rapidly accelerating privatization of public schools.

Indiana has a three-year-old, rapidly growing voucher program that has, according to the Associated Press, doubled in size since last year. And Indiana hosts a thriving charter school sector.  While the sponsors of charter schools persistently refer to them as public charter schools, these schools are public only in the sense that they receive public funding. They are almost always privately managed and often privately owned.

In this post, I will compare comments I heard by individuals last Sunday afternoon with reflections by experts writing from a broader, philosophical point of view.  The experts’ comments are abstract, but they do a good job of generalizing the particular observations of individuals in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  After all, school privatization is neither merely a Fort Wayne issue nor an Indiana issue.  Privatization is a major concern today across America.

On one panel I heard a proponent of privatization extol the supposed benefits of vouchers for children as though we are to view our society’s broad mandate to educate over 50 million children and adolescents one child at a time.  This appealing notion is especially understandable from the point of view of parents who feel responsible for protecting the needs of their particular children.  But what about the public’s responsibility for all of our nation’s children?  The Governing Board of the National Council of Churches considered the public’s moral responsibility for all children, not just to each child one at a time:  “We… affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”

One Indiana mother complained to me that she thought she would be able to get more involved by choosing a school for her child, but the first charter school she had chosen pushed out her child, and a second school refused to involve her in creating her child’s special education IEP plan.  Political philosopher Benjamin Barber examines the philosophical and moral implications of privatization in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007).  Here is be Barber’s understanding of the issue raised by the Indiana mother who wondered where the power really lies as public services are privatized. “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.  We choose what kind of car we drive, but it was the automobile, steel, rubber, and cement industries through their influence on congress that chose a highway-based private transportation system….” (p. 139)

Again and again in Fort Wayne I heard community leaders despair about the sacrifice of public ownership and public oversight. They worried about dollars being diverted from the state education budget, dollars desperately needed by the public schools whose fiscal capacity has been significantly diminished by privatization. They also worried about whether there is adequate public regulation of voucher schools and charters. Here is Barber’s understanding of how market systems undermine our capacity to protect the needs of society itself:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power (brute force), personal skills (randomly distributed), and personal luck.  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.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (pp. 143-144)

Pauline Lipman, professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in The New Political Economy of Urban Education (2011), also reflects on the loss of public ownership when school choice becomes the mechanism for distributing educational opportunity:  “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’….” (p. 11)

I heard parents complain about a system framed through competition which always produces losers as well as winners.  Barber directly confronts the notion of competition: “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy, and a race to the bottom for everyone else.  Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise.  The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual “public” sector” (a kind of self-financing leper colony that cannot self-finance) and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private “commons.’  The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (p. 157)

School choice is always sold through the promise that competition will improve the public schools.  But I heard parents in Fort Wayne describe their sinking realization that school choice is instead undermining the viability of their traditional public school district. State funds are being siphoned away for the private alternatives, but choice itself seems to be privileging the parents who know how to play the game and leaving behind the poorest families.  Education historian Diane Ravitch’s extrapolates these parents’ worries in her new book, Reign of Error: “The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.  What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them. Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fall, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools….  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.  Then parents will be forced to travel long distances and hope that their children will be accepted into a school; the school chooses, not the students.” (319-320)