Expert Documents Diminishing Commitment to School Funding Equity

By definition, justice must be systemic. In public education our society will be just when our laws distribute opportunity equally to all children whatever their school and wherever their school district.

In a blog post to mark the transition to a new year, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker reflects on a primary injustice in our society’s provision of public education: “The bottom line is that providing for a high quality, equitably distributed system of public schooling in the United States requires equitable, adequate and stable and sustainable public financing. There’s no way around that. It’s a necessary underlying condition.”  Baker worries that we are in the midst of a “post-equity era in school finance.”

Baker writes: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers).  How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

While the details of Baker’s fairness ratio—by which he evaluates the fairness over time of a number of state school finance systems—can get a little complicated for the general reader, the trends he traces between 1993 and 2012 in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut, Kansas, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are crystal clear.  All of these funding systems have become less eqitable since the 2008 recession.

Baker concludes: “And yet we wonder why our lower income children’s educational outcomes continue to suffer? We pretend that if only our higher poverty districts would fire that bottom 5% of teachers who produce bad test scores (gains), they’d do better (because of course, they can hire a new crop of better teachers even if they can’t pay a competitive wage?). We pretend that expanding charter schooling, to siphon off the less needy among the needy into privately subsidized (soft money) schools (and diminished legal protections) that somehow we’ll achieve a desirable systemwide effect?”  “Meanwhile, the damage that’s been done to our public education systems by outright and at times belligerent neglect of state school finance systems has, in the past 3 years alone set us back in many cases 20 years.”

Troubling Stories That Broke During Holidays about Education in Denver and D.C.

The holidays are a busy time.  It is easy to miss important news, and it is also a good time for unsavory news to be released quietly.  Here are two tidbits you may have missed in the past week.

DENVER—According to the Denver Post and Denver’s ABC Channel 7 News, on Christmas Eve, a judge in Colorado ruled that the Douglas County School District (Denver, Aurora, Boulder) violated campaign laws when white papers were commissioned to praise the school board’s conservative, so called “corporate school reform” practices in the lead up to the November school board election.

Rick Hess, education policy staffer at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), was hired to “‘research, create and publicize’ a white paper that would describe the district’s reforms, explain what made them unique, and ‘describe some of the advantages of the model.'”  Hess and AEI were paid $30,000—half from the school district’s public funds and the other $15,000 from the Douglas County School District Foundation, a 501(C)(3).  The school district circulated Hess’s paper to 85,000 subscribers.  According to Channel 7 News, “The final report uses superlatives like, ‘unusually ambitious,’ ‘remarkable,’ ‘bold,’ ‘illuminating’ and ‘cage-busting leaders,’ to describe the reform agenda.”

The judge also found against the school district for inducing the Douglas County School District Foundation to pay former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett $50,000 to produce another report “that was an endorsement for the District’s reform agenda and was intended to influence the outcome of the Board election.”  The Denver Post  reports that all four of the candidates supporting the “school reform” agenda (endorsed in the Hess and Bennett papers) were elected.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Monday, December 23, the District of Columbia Public Schools announced that 44 teachers last year received faulty teacher evaluations due to an error by Mathematica Policy Group, the contractor calculating the value-added contributions of teachers according to their students’ test scores.  Nick Anderson, the Washington Post‘s reporter, explains: “The value-added calculations are complex.  The first step is to estimate how a teacher’s students are likely to perform on the citywide D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, based on past test results and other information.  Then the predicted classroom average is compared to the actual classroom average.  The difference is what school officials call the value that a teacher adds.”

According to Anderson, half of the teachers were rated too high and half too low.  The school district will retroactively raise the scores of the teachers whose scores were too low, and it will rehire the one teacher who was fired due to the mistaken rating.

Valerie Strauss, the Washington Post columnist who also reported this story, quoted Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teacher whose affiliate, the Washington Teachers Union represents teachers in Washington, D.C.: “It is very troubling when the district continues to reduce everything about students, educators and schools to a nameless, faceless algorithm and test score.”

Strauss reports that  Washington, D.C.’s  IMPACT evaluation system, introduced by Michelle Rhee in 2009, used students’ test scores for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation until this year when the current chancellor, Kaya Henderson, reduced the weight of students’ test scores to “at least” 35 percent.

Strauss comments: “Testing experts have long warned that using test scores to evaluate teachers is a bad idea, and that these formulas are subject to error, but such evaluation has become a central part of modern school reform.  In the District, the evaluation of adults in the school system by test scores included everybody in a school building; until this year, that even included custodians.”

“Creative Disruption” Destroys Public Education in Chicago’s Bronzeville

Portfolio school reform is the theory that underpins much of what is happening across the school districts in America’s biggest cities.  It is the idea that a school district should be managed like a business portfolio, shedding the failed investments and resourcing the smart investments.  It is a program of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and it is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  One of its primary features is the practice of closing schools.

Trymaine Lee, who has been covering school reform in Chicago for MSNBC, reflects in this powerful article on the impact of the rash of school closures in recent years on the children and adolescents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.  “After Parrish Brown graduates from Walter Dyett High School this spring, it’s likely he’ll never set foot in that school building again. Not for a 10-year reunion or to catch up with former teachers or to admire the gleaming trophies inside the school’s display case.  Because if all goes according to the city’s plan, there soon will be no Walter Dyett High School to return to in Bronzeville, an historic African-American enclave on the city’s south side.  ‘They closed my elementary school and now they’re phasing out my high school. One day there’ll be nothing in my community to come back to,’ said Brown, 17.”

Describing Chicago, Lee reports, “Since 2001 the district has shuttered or phased-out about 150 schools, including 49 over this past summer. It was the largest single mass school closing in American history and affected more than 30,000 students who were either displaced or whose schools absorbed the massive spillover.”  According to Lee, 88 percent of the students affected by the Chicago closings are African-American, with 94 percent from low-income families.  Public school closures in Chicago have clustered on the city’s south and west sides, with far fewer schools closed in the white neighborhoods on the north side.

While Chicago’s public school closures have been described by district officials as part of a cost-cutting measure, the school district has continued to encourage the start-up of new charter schools.  According to Lee, “Just last week, CPS proposed the addition of 21 new charter schools.”  The theory behind portfolio school reform is that new, often privatized, schools will open to compete with the traditional neighborhood schools.  The strategy assumes that a school district will be improved through “creative disruption.”

Jitu Brown disagrees.  He is a community organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization that has been organizing parents and students to protest the closure of their public schools.  “This is not about school choice, says Jitu Brown. “If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools. When you shut down neighborhood schools you’re not providing choices, it’s displacement by force.”

Local Activist Exposes How Ohio Charter Funding Undermines Traditional Public Schools

Susie Kaeser, a long-time public school supporter and activist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, just researched the way Ohio funds its public schools and siphons local as well as state funds away from public school districts to pay for children attending charter schools.  She has published her conclusions in a local community paper, The Heights Observer.

Her lucid explanation is shocking. It is amazing what we can choose not to see and what the press continues to avoid pointing out.

“Each year the legislature determines the funding level for charter students and those in traditional public schools. According to a 2013 Department of Education report, the funding level for every charter student was set at $5,732. By contrast, state funding for traditional public school students is specific to the school district they attend, based on the property wealth of each district. Because I live in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District, I thought I’d focus on its funding. According to CH-UH treasurer Scott Gainer, our per-pupil allocation in 2012–13 was $1,741, or just 30 percent of the amount promised to charter students.

“Not only do charter students receive more state funds than their public school peers, but the difference comes out of the per-pupil contributions for public school students. This is how it works. The state creates a pot of money for each school district that will pay for both charter and traditional students who reside in that district. While the state promised $5,732 to charter students living in Cleveland Heights, it only put $1,741 in the pot for each of those students. This is the same amount that is added to the pot for each of the 5,787 public school students who live in the district.

“When it is time to pay for charter students, the state subtracts the guaranteed amount—$5,732—for each student and sends it to their charter school. Public school kids get what is left. The $4,000 shortfall for each charter student comes out of what was put in the pot for the public school students. In 2012–13, about $2.5 million was sent to pay for 371 Heights charter school students, even though they only brought 30 percent of that money into the pot. In effect, traditional public school students subsidize 70 percent of the cost of charter school students.”

Kaeser also understands that traditional public schools are publicly owned, publicly operated, and publicly accountable, while in Ohio charter schools are poorly regulated.  “Charter schools—no matter their quality—operate without adequate safeguards to protect public funds and undermine authentic public schools by draining away resources and children.”

Moody’s Investor Service Confirms Worry that Privatization is Destroying Urban School Districts

In an earlier post, Creating Public School Districts of Last Resort, I described my own concern that public school policies being driven by the federal Race to the Top grants, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind Waivers—policies that include incentives to close public schools and expand charters—are creating urban public school districts-of-last-resort.  Charter schools that must keep up their overall test scores or be castigated for failure have little incentive to accept  the children who bring special challenges—disabilities—the need to learn English—extreme poverty or homelessness.  As privatization increases, the public schools that must accept everyone increasingly serve the children who are least desirable from the point of view of the charters and most expensive to educate.

Diane Ravitch agrees, according to her new book, Reign of Error.  She describes school districts in poor urban areas being pushed by the federal government to close traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods where test scores are low and expand charter schools to serve the children from schools that have been closed:

“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)

Earlier this week, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current policies are driving urban school districts into a fatal decline.  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….”

While the Moody’s report itself is available only to subscribers,  an announcement of the report by Moody’s summarizes the warning: “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs…”   Here is the interpretation of  Washington Post reporter, Niraj Chokshi:  “Charter schools don’t suck up enrollment from just one school. They pull from schools across a district, meaning each takes a slight hit while none loses enough students to justify substantial restructuring. There is no critical mass of empty classrooms or schools.”

In Ossining: An Integrated School District Striving Hard to Serve All Students

In a society threaded through with racism, creating racially integrated public schools that serve all the children is a job that must be actively undertaken all day every day.  The effort must be intentional and constant, because unless there is an intervention, primary social institutions like schools will reproduce the society in which they are set.  Confronting institutional racism is a huge challenge.

Once Racially Troubled, a District Shrinks the Achievement Gap is the story of one school district, in Ossining, New York, where staff have thoughtfully and persistently examined challenges for black and Hispanic students and worked together to help children from all racial and ethnic groups cross racial boundaries.

This is at the same time an inspiring and very mundane story.  How to build enrollment of black and brown students in Advanced Placement classes?  How to help students arriving at the high school as new immigrants with few English skills learn chemistry and advanced math?  How to close a sad and frightening racial-ethnic gap in high school graduation?

The efforts that have paid off in Ossining did not feature expensive consultants, on-line curriculum, or the distribution of electronic tablets to every child.  Instead Ossining instituted a district-wide elementary school integration plan at a time when the federal government had eliminated grants to support such efforts.  It experimented with a bilingual program at the high school particularly in science and math classes.  It launched Project Earthquake, an intensive program to encourage black male adolescents to engage in school. It developed an award-winning advanced science research program.  The staff in Ossining continue assess how things are going and they respond to the needs they identify.

Ossining High school has also begun a partnership with the State University of New York in Albany to offer college level courses open to all students in subjects like “Racism, Classism, and Sexism,” “The Black Experience,” and “Crossing Borders”—courses that have drawn students from all races and cultures and encouraged students to “see their lives mirrored in the curriculum.” “’Some of the material that we use is challenging, it’s controversial,’ said Jillian McRae, an English teacher at Ossining who co-teaches several electives. ‘We’ve had students who have been angry. They’ve broken down,’ she said. ‘They see inequities in systems, they see inequities in terms of what they’ve had access to, what their parents have access to, what their grandparents did or did not have access to.'”

School reform in Ossining has nothing to do with punishing teachers or closing schools.  It has emerged locally as the staff and the community have actively and intentionally grappled with what Ossining must expect of itself if it is to support all of its children in a diverse community set in a nation that persists in being separate and segregated.  The high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates for all groups of students continue to rise.

Flipping Schools, The Story of Ohio Charter Schools

Doug Livingston, the education reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, describes an old, old practice permitted by Ohio charter school law:  Failing Charter Schools Often Close, Reopen with Little Change.

“Analysis of Ohio Department of Education records for years prior to 2013 show(s) seven charter schools operated by for-profit management companies were closed for academic performance and were reopened under that same company, with only one exception,”  writes Livingston.

Members of the public are rarely aware of the shady practices of Ohio’s big charter managers, because the privately held companies control information and the Ohio legislature, beholden to large contributors who manage charter schools, has made it impossible for the Ohio Department of Education or anyone else to regulate such scams.

Livingston reports: “The process of flipping a failing school is an easy one. The original idea behind charter schools was that a group of citizens interested in experimenting with new education concepts would create a nonprofit organization, form a school board and work with the Ohio Department of Education to launch a school.  In practice, however, many for-profit management companies do all the work.  And when they see a forced shutdown on the horizon, they create a new nonprofit, establish a new school board—or keep the same one—and in essence control the entire process.”  Notice that the management company is creating the school board when it ought to be the community, non-profit school board deciding whether to run the school or bring in a management company.

Livingston quotes John Charlton, an official with the Ohio Department of Education: “We have no authority to make a judgment about the worthiness of a [prospective] school.”  “If we suspect that there may be recycling of a school closed for poor academic performance—same management company, same building—we ask the sponsor to verify that a different program is going into the building; that the majority of staff at the building are different; that there’s a different governing authority.  We ask for this verification, and we have gotten assurances that it is not the same old, same old, but we have no explicit legal authority to prevent this from happening.”

One of the turnaround strategies being prescribed nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education when a public school persistently struggles to raise standardized test scores is that the school may be turned over to a Charter Management Organization or an Education Management Organization.  However, regulation of such privatization is left to the discretion of state legislatures.  While the U.S. Department of Education conditions qualification for federal grants under programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers on states’ adopting its prescribed turnaround models, the federal government has no legal authority to regulate the charter schools it is encouraging states and school districts to create.  The regulation itself is controlled by the politics of the states qualifying for the federal grants.

Nor do the federal grants that “incentivize” privatization pay the full cost.  In Ohio, as in other states, when charters and e-schools are created, state funds follow the child away from the public school district.  In some states local tax money is diverted as well.

In their applications for these competitive federal funding streams, states promise to create quality alternatives.  In Ohio, at least, legislative politics have ensured that the state has no way to prevent mismanagement of the funds  charter schools suck out of public school coffers.  Neither can Ohio ensure that children will be provided a quality academic experience.

Money Follows Child in Ohio Budget—Cleveland Public Schools Learn They Lose Millions

All spring through the 2014-2015 biennial Ohio budget debate in Columbus, the legislature was provided printouts of the implications of the budget for the state’s 631 school districts.  The only catch is that the printouts counted charter schools as part of their public school districts for budgeting purposes.  Nobody—no legislator, no school superintendent, no school board member, no citizen—could tell how much money the public schools in any school district would receive once money followed some children to charter schools.

Critics questioned whether there might not be school districts that appeared in the printouts to benefit from additional state aid or at least stay even but would actually lose state funding when the money for the charters was broken out.  Computer runs that would reveal the truth did not appear before the budget was passed by the legislature and signed in to law by Ohio’s Governor John Kasich on June 30.

Months later and a couple of weeks into this school year, the Ohio Legislative Services Commission released the data.  The September 6 Plain Dealer shared the news:  “Estimates for how much the state would deduct from districts for students attending charter schools were not available when the budget passed June 29….  The most dramatic case those estimates reveal is the Cleveland school district, which has no aid increase from the 2012-2013 school year to the current school year under the budget, but much higher deductions for charter students.  Depending on how you calculate it, the district will end up with $3 million to $4.5 million less for its students, after the state deducts a greater share for charter schools.”  In other words Cleveland, one of the nation’s poorest big city school districts, had been told its state aid would stay even in the upcoming budget cycle, only to learn this week that it will lose millions of dollars it had counted on.  And this after Cleveland voters passed a 15 mill levy last November to replace the millions cut by the state in the 2012-2013 budget.

There are ample reasons to be concerned about the emergence and growth of Ohio charter schools.  A recent report by the Columbus Dispatch describes Charter Schools’ Failed Promise. Our state is reputed to be among the weakest in its regulatory oversight of charters, with many earning state-issued grades of D or F on the report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education.  To his credit, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson tried to create a Cleveland Transformation Alliance with the power to authorize only quality charters and to put the rest out of business, but it turned out that the legislative fine print denies the Transformation Alliance any real power to regulate Cleveland’s charters.

Of additional concern, however, is the allegation made by reporter Stephanie Simon in a Reuters investigative report last February, Class Struggle–How Charter Schools Get Students They Want, that one of Cleveland’s top-rated charters is controlling its test scores by selecting its students.  According to Simon,  a boy at the top of the waiting list for the Intergenerational Charter School was required to take a two-hour entrance examination.  The principal  then told the mother the child “wasn’t academically or developmentally ready for third-grade–even though he was enrolled in the third grade at his local public school, where he remains.”  Simon continues: “A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said charter schools are obligated to admit students into the grade they would attend at their neighborhood school, regardless of skill.”  Simon continues: “The community authorizer that supervises Intergenerational Charter said that it is confident the school’s admissions policy is legal but that it will review the policy.”

Simon’s article describes the many ways charter schools across the United States cream-skim the most promising students and those whose parents bring the most savvy to the application process; she alleges that the sometimes subtle ways charters select students leave behind students with special needs, English language learners, and homeless and other children living in extreme poverty.  These students are the most expensive to educate  In Cleveland this year we see the state budget punishing the public school district which is required to serve all children.

In a fascinating analogy, former middle school life sciences teacher Anthony Cody blogged last winter that charter schools exist as organisms in a symbiotic arrangement.  He warns that parasitism, in which one set of organisms are “helped at the expense of the other,” cannot survive if the parasites kill off their hosts.