State Takeovers: Radical Seizure of School Districts vs. Organic, Community Grounded School Improvement

This blog will take a one-week, mid-summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, August 5.

We are in the midst of a wave of state school takeovers.

On Tuesday evening In Providence, Rhode Island, the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education granted the authority for Rhode Island’s recently appointed State Education Commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, to take over the Providence Schools. A new and scathing report by a team from John Hopkins University had criticized the current operation of the school district—already under mayoral governance.  For the Providence Journal, Linda Borg reports: “Under a 1997 statute, Infante-Green now has the power to revamp the teachers’ contract, revise how the school district is governed, even make decisions over hiring and firing… Infante-Green also confirmed that she will hire a superintendent to takeover the schools by early November. In fact, she is already speaking with several individuals, although no one has been named.”  Diane Ravitch provides some background about Angelica Infante-Green: “Infante-Green has never run a school district. She has never been a school principal. She entered education through Teach for America, then ran bilingual programs in Bloomberg’s (NYC) Department of Education. She belongs to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change.”

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer continues to threaten to close Benton Harbor’s high school or take over the school district.  In a commentary for Bridge Magazine, Tom Watkins, the state’s school superintendent from 2001-2005 warns that shutting down the high school or taking over the district won’t solve the core problem: “The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional educational funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address the problem going back decades… If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally, structurally unsound….”  In a recent podcast (link includes a transcript), the education writer Jennifer Berkshire and Massachusetts education historian Jack Schneider add that Michigan’s system of cross-district open enrollment conspires with structural racism to undermine poor school students by driving out students, each one carrying school funding away from places like Benton Harbor. The system is set up to progressively threaten the fiscal viability of majority poor and majority African American school districts.  This blog has covered the current situation in Benton Harbor.

And  in Ohio, where state takeovers of Lorain and Youngstown have proven catastrophic, the Republican dominated state Senate has refused to repeal a 2015 state takeover law, even despite bipartisan passage of a repeal in the Ohio House by a huge 83/12 margin. Legislators finally agreed to compromise with a one year moratorium on state takeovers in the new state budget while the Legislature deliberates. Three districts—Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland—are currently under state Academic Distress Commissions, while ten additional districts face takeover within the next two years—Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.  This blog has covered Ohio’s current and threatened state takeovers.

Whether you think state takeovers of public school districts are a good or a bad thing depends on how you think about school reform. Chiefs for Change, the organization of “corporate reformer” state superintendents and now also local school superintendents even posts on its website guidance on how to do a state takeover. Chiefs for Change was spun off several years ago from ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s corporate reformer think tank. Its state takeover guidance, The Hidden Equation in School Improvement: Lessons Learned About Governance-Based Strategies, lists three types of “governance-based” school improvement efforts: turnaround zones—in which a state creates a turnaround district which subsumes a number of so-called failing schools, sometimes from several different distinct school districts; receiverships—commonly called state takeovers, when a state takes over the operation of a particular school district; and charter school expansion.  Chiefs for Change prescribes three conditions its think tank advisers believe are necessary to ensure the success of any governance-based reform:

  • A strong “new leader to make decisions that unflinchingly put the needs of students first.”
  • Autonomy, including “control over staffing, budget, schedules, teacher collaboration opportunities, and school culture in ways that are often politically difficult in traditional school systems.”
  • A third-party consultant “external to the school system has helped guide nearly every real transformation we’ve seen.”
  • Flexibility because, “Successful changes aren’t one-size fits all models.”
  • Accountability. “It must be clear who is responsible for achieving results and what happens in the event improvement goals are not met.”

Chiefs for Change’s model is the one being adopted in Ohio and, I suspect, in Providence, Rhode Island.  School improvement in this model is measured by standardized test scores—how much and how quickly they rise.

Many who reject the “corporate school reform model” understand that public schools are intended to be democratically governed local institutions operated within their communities.  And many of these advocates recognize that schools being seized in state takeovers are nested in Black and Brown communities where poverty is concentrated.  These advocates recognize that challenges for educators and students in these districts are associated with generations of under-funding of schools along with poverty and racism. The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Dr. John Jackson characterizes the underlying issues beneath state takeovers of public schools:

“First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools.  Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services.  Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn… It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers.  An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters.  The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools… Take away democratic rights and the ability to vote to influence schools—the most meaningful public institution in any community—and you take away citizens’ greatest opportunity to become civically engaged, to work together to improve schools, to build healthy living and learning communities…”

Three organizations supporting organic reform within traditional public school districts, along with reforms in funding and wraparound social and health services inherent in the Community School model, have released major reports about strategies for addressing the challenges facing our society’s poorest school districts.  After profiling disastrous state takeovers takeovers in New Jersey, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools lists specific reforms likely to be more supportive of students and democratic community engagement:

  • “Curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant and challenging;
  • “An emphasis on high quality teaching;
  • “Wrap-around supports such as health care, eye care and social and emotional services available before, during and after school and provided year-round to the full community;
  • “Positive discipline practices such as restorative justice; and
  • “Transformational parent and community engagement in planning and decision-making.”

The Southern Education Foundation prescribes the same kind of interventions as an alternative to radical imposition of governance changes like mayoral control and state takeover.  And the Center for Popular Democracy recommends the same formula for school improvement. This report’s authors also warn about a record of significant failures in the corporate reform model: “Children have seen negligible improvement…state takeover districts have been a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement… staff face high turnover and instability… (and) students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures.”

Going deeper than the recommendations in the previous three reports, just this month, the National Education Policy Center published Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultous Times, from academic researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, Northwestern University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. This new report rejects top down, “corporate” reform and makes a strong case for school reform which engages parents and community in the collaborative transformation of their schools:

“In a national moment of political tumult and violence directed at immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups, our education systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities in ensuring equitable learning for our youth.  Not only do families and communities bring historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through these challenges, they can also bring critical expertise in how to advance educational justice and community well-being… System, school, community and foundation leaders committed to racial equity and family co-design work should: support initiatives that tap into and develop the collective leadership of families and communities of color in improving schools… rather than programs that seek to change parent behaviors to better support schools’ agendas; prioritize school change efforts that engage families and communities with educators and seek to build solidarities across racial and professional divides…; partner with community-based organizations and public agencies to enact educational change; invest in building and supporting the capacity of local leaders (not policy elites) to facilitate meetings and conversations across racial, cultural and other differences; (and) recognize that histories and systemic inequalities shape how families and communities experience and participate in formal spaces, and that patterns of inequity tend to re-assert themselves despite good intentions.”

Organic school improvement is likely to be accomplished over several years. State takeovers—in the corporate, Chiefs for Change model—routinely define penalties if quick turnaround, defined as raising standardized test scores—isn’t accomplished by a one-year or two-year deadline. State takeovers are cheap, technocratic, top-down schemes prescribed by politicians who know very little about building trust among parents, teachers and school administrators. Too often, their “unflinching” leaders create community chaos—what has been happening for the past year in Lorain, Ohio under the takeover czar David Hardy.

There is one other big problem with the corporate, state-takeover model. It is almost always imposed as a way to “fix” schools without the kind of school finance reform necessary for generating adequate investment when our society’s poorest children are concentrated in a school district or neighborhood.  In his (2018)  book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert addresses the always unmet financial needs of the poorest school districts:

“Because student backgrounds vary, because students are so unevenly sorted across schools, and because backgrounds and sorting lead to disparate outcomes, we must do everything we can to leverage resources to mitigate these disparities.  For without equitable and adequate resources, there’s little chance of achieving educational opportunity.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 52)”  “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes.  The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time.  Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. It’s reality.  It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.  These differences exist both across school settings and over time as student population demographics shift.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Baker writes in the dry language of a school finance economist. The relevance of his point to this post, is that state legislatures will do almost anything (appointing state takeover czars) instead of raising taxes and restructuring state school finance systems to invest adequately in our society’s poorest school districts.

To accomplish educational equity, however, state governments need to be spending far more on the school districts serving our society’s poorest children.  As Baker explains, when state funding and local property taxes are massed together, “The models included here suggest that, in some states, the highest-poverty quintile of districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 213)


Southern Education Foundation Traces Tax Funded Segregation via Vouchers, Tax Credits

While schools remain highly segregated by race across the United States, the de jure kind of segregation in which Southern states had explicit laws to separate white from African American children was eradicated during two decades’ of civil rights struggles that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  As the Brown precedent was used to test and overturn segregation statutes across the South, one of the responses was to offer various tax credits to families whose children moved to the private, white segregation academies.  In a major report released at the end of March, Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding of Private Schools, the Southern Education Foundation traces that history as a backdrop for an up-to-date investigation of the role of private schools today as segregationist escapes for white children and the implications of the expansion of tax credits and vouchers to support private schools that virtually exclude African American, Hispanic and American Indian children.

Here is a bit of the history recounted in the report: “From 1954 to 1964, Southern state legislatures enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions attempting to block, postpone, limit, or evade the desegregation of public schools.  A large number of these acts were aimed at re-directing public resources, including those in the public school system, to benefit private schools.”  But such statutes were eventually overturned by the early 1970s: “Each of these enactments supporting private schools, even indirect efforts like tax credits shrouded in non-racial language were invalidated by federal courts or abandoned by Southern states that faced likely court challenges because the bills were seen as indirect, covert efforts to evade or disrupt public school desegregation….”

Today, according to this report, beginning in the 1990s, nineteen states have once again passed vouchers or tuition tax credits to pay students’ tuition at private schools including nine states across the South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia: “Most legislation adopted and considered to fund private schools in the Southern states in recent years has been introduced and supported with the stated purpose of improving educational opportunities and success for low income students, many of whom are students of color, especially African American and Hispanic students.”  The report notes that most of these states “do not collect or publicly provide reliable data that includes reporting of the race and ethnicity of students who attend private schools with public funding.  For this reason, there is no verifiable means at this time to determine accurately the demographic characteristics of private school students whose attendance has been subsidized by state funds….”

The Southern Education Foundation therefore considers another question as a proxy for the unavailable documentation that would identify the number of children of color receiving vouchers and tax credits: “(W)hat is the role of private schools in comparison to public schools, in educating students of color in the South and the nation?” After all: “Unlike public schools… private schools… are often entirely free to decide which children to admit as students, so long as the schools adopt a non-discriminatory policy and publicly declare that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Therefore, an analysis of enrollment patterns among white students in private schools throughout the 50 states can advance an understanding of the choices that private schools have made, with and without public funding, in selecting students to admit.”

What are the report’s findings?

  • Across the South, from 1998 to 2012, the percentage of white private school students exceeded the number of total white students in the region by 20 percentage points, twice the margin in the rest of the nation.
  • Across the U.S., from 1998 to 2012, the number of all students enrolled in private schools declined slightly for both white and students of color.
  • A third measure is what the report calls “virtual segregation” of white students—white students comprising 90 to 100 percent of a school’s enrollment.  “In 2012, white students were far more likely to be educated in virtual segregation in private schools than in public schools. “Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school (white) students attended virtually all-white schools in contrast to 26.9 percent of public school students.”  In South Carolina, 63 percent of white students in private schools were being educated in extremely segregated settings compared to 5 percent of the state’s public school students. The difference in Mississippi is 56 percent segregation of white students in private schools vs. 15 percent in the public schools.
  • The report adds another category: virtual exclusion—the number of white students attending private schools with 10 percent or less students of color. “Nearly two-thirds of white students attending private schools across the 50 states were in schools that virtually excluded African American, Hispanic, and Native American students.”  Again South Carolina led the states with 84 percent of white students in South Carolina’s private schools attending schools that exclude children of color.  Delaware came in second with 72 percent of white private school students attending schools with a virtual absence of racial-ethnic minorities.  “Seven of the ten states with the largest measures of racial exclusion in private schools were in the South… The percentage of white students in private schools in the 15-state South exceeded the percentage in the public schools by 37 percentage points.”

The report’s conclusion: “Today… private schools in nine states of the South, and eight other states including Kansas and Arizona in the rest of the nation have begun to receive special public funding through vouchers and/or state tax credits.  As a result, private schools receiving special public funds are no longer entirely private, no longer free of special government support.  With the special public funding of vouchers and tax credits, private schools should have a higher pubic duty to observe higher public standards—higher standards of non-discrimination—than before.  In other words, public funding of private schools, directly or indirectly, should… mean that token desegregation and ‘schools for whites’ among the private schools in the South and other sections of the nation are no longer acceptable as a matter of law or practice… The predominance of virtual segregation and virtual exclusion, which this study documents in private schools in the South and beyond, is clear and convincing evidence that private schools are failing to achieve a practice that meets a reasonable public standard for non-discrimination.”

Stunning New Report Shows Power of Wraparound Community Schools

Three organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation have released an in-depth and very significant report: Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.  It is a primer for those who want to understand what a full-service Community School is and who want to know why such schools are today’s most significant policy development. The new report can also serve as a beginning guide for school districts that seek to transform their schools into Community Schools.

The new report profiles elementary, middle and high schools that are currently implementing a variety of strategies of successful Community Schools. “Their stories describe what these schools and districts were grappling with prior to becoming Community Schools, how they began to use a transformational strategy, what elements were implemented in what specific ways, and the amazing results that accrued.”

The essence of a Community School, according to the new report, is its whole child strategy—that schooling cannot be conceptualized or measured with a mere test score.  Community Schools are described as increasing attendance, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, creating healthy and safe communities, as well as improving academic outcomes.

A Community School is a set of formal partnerships with “the Community School Coordinator… part of the leadership team” and a Community School Committee including “parents, community partners, school staff, youth and other stakeholders.”  Such partnerships can be sustained by patching together a number of readily available funding streams, but the coordination and administration of the funding partnership must be sustainable for a Community School to thrive: “Community Schools require sustainable funding and resources.  This can be realized through a combination of resource provisions leveraged through partnerships; investment at the federal, state, and local government levels; and foundation and government grants.  For example, a site coordinator may leverage health and dental care, early childhood programs, before and after school learning programs, and/or restorative justice programs using free school space like an empty classroom, cafeteria, or gym after school hours.”  The public school is the primary site of such programs, which, “In addition to wrap-around services… bring a particular emphasis on high-quality teaching, deep learning, restorative justice, and authentic family engagement.”  “When schools become Community Schools, they become more than just schools; they become centers of community life.  Together, educators and community partners collaboratively address issues traditionally independently addressed by agencies like health and human services, parks and recreation departments, and housing agencies.”

At Webb Middle School, a struggling school in Austin, Texas, the threat of closure motivated teachers, parents, and the community to push for a Community School model beginning with an intensive needs assessment.  Partnerships now include after school programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, college mentoring, a mobile clinic that provides free immunizations and physicals. “One interesting and beneficial outcome that Webb experienced by adding the mobile clinic was much greater participation on the school’s athletic teams.  Before the mobile clinic, few students participated in after school sports… because the district required that students receive a physical prior to participation in sports, which most students could not afford… Now participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.”  Families wanted the arts brought back to Webb, and the Community School staff helped bring back a band, an orchestra, and a dance troupe.  The Community School also brought English-as-a-Second-Language classes for parents, classes offered right at school for 2.5 hours three days a week.  Webb has become a desirable school; after five years as a Community School, Webb’s enrollment has grown from 485 to 750 students.

The greatest strength of this report is the set of stories of the transformation of schools across very different locations—Austin, Orlando, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati; a county-wide strategy in Multnomah County, Oregon, and a statewide program in Kentucky.  I urge you to read these profiles carefully, for they demonstrate the complexity and the rewards of the transformations that have occurred.  At Evans High School in the very poor Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando Florida, “students ha(d) gone without health care of any kind… With the help of their health and social service partners, Evans has been able to implement full service physical and mental health services located in their Wellness Cottage, a separate building on campus that is connected to the school… Much of this medical and mental health support is paid for through Medicaid.  The school provides assistance to students and families to fill out applications.”

Nine years ago when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy became a Community School, it “was ranked 77th in the district in academic measures…. In 2014, after eight years as a Community School, Wolfe Street ranked an astonishing 2nd in the city academically, its mobility rate… down to 8.8 percent.”  “Baltimore has put together a quilt of funding sources to accomplish the funding of 52 Community Schools in the city.”  Funding streams are patched together from the City Government, philanthropic donations, and general school district funds controlled by each Community School’s principal.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 43 of the city’s 55 schools now have Community School site coordinators and—importantly considering Ohio’s paltry investment in urban public schools—“no program has an impact on the public school system budget.  All services are leveraged and fully sustainable within themselves,” although, “Federal government Title One funds do… currently fund a portion of the Community Learning Center site coordinators.”  “Community engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood and site by site, from the very beginning led to Local School Decision-Making Councils… which constitutes the schools’ current governance. Because Cincinnati’s goal was to do this work at a district level, rather than school by school, it became necessary to embed the concept in policy to protect it for future generations… We’re now up to 43 schools…. This has lasted through four superintendents.”

Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools is such a positive report that it makes the formation of Community Schools sound easy.  Clearly the obstacles from community to community are overwhelming, but I urge you to read this report to understand just how such transformation can be accomplished.

Report Decries State Takeovers through “Opportunity” and “Achievement” School Districts

You might imagine that the morass in Michigan—the tragedy of Flint’s water poisoning under a state-appointed emergency fiscal manager, the dilapidated condition of Detroit’s public schools under a state-appointed emergency manager, and Governor Rick Snyder’s own admission of the failure of a now three-year state takeover of 15 low-scoring Detroit schools into a “Michigan Education Achievement Authority”—would cause other states to re-think plans to impose state takeovers on struggling cities and school districts. When local citizens no longer exert any control through elected city councils and school boards over the officials who oversee their towns and schools, government doesn’t seem to work very well.

But states persist with plans to take over poor places. On Tuesday, officials in Atlantic City agreed to a takeover by the state of New Jersey to avoid bankruptcy.  Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has threatened to take over the Chicago Public Schools (though the state legislature in Illinois seems adamantly opposed to such a takeover), Ohio is proceeding with plans fast-tracked through the legislature last summer to take over the public schools in Youngstown, and voters in Georgia will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment which would enable the state to take over low-scoring public schools.

Kent McGuire, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) has published a commentary in Education Week, A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers.  McGuire explains: “Louisiana was the first state to implement such a model in 2003.  Its Recovery School District is now the nation’s first all-charter district… A decade later, New Orleans still reports some of the nation’s lowest achievement scores and graduation rates. Beyond poor academic outcomes, recent research from Stanford University found a host of negative consequences, with a majority of families reporting long commutes to school, overcrowding, a bewildering gauntlet of enrollment procedures, high rates of pushout, and difficulty finding schools able to serve students with special needs (including that the most vulnerable are the least likely to receive needed supports). The research also revealed that New Orleans’ charter takeover has resulted in schools’ increasing stratification by race and class.”  This blog covered the Stanford research on New Orleans.

McGuire adds: “In Tennessee, student performance has been decidedly mixed in buildings overseen by the state-run Achievement School District—all but five of which were turned over to charter-management organizations.  When ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic resigned last year, even he conceded the difficulty of state-driven turnaround, specifically the challenge of achieving results in a zoned charter school environment.  Opposition to the ASD, including a call for a moratorium from the Shelby County school board on ASD takeover of any additional schools, is growing.”

While some state takeovers are proposed for purely fiscal reasons, the majority of state takeovers of school districts promise to raise test scores in so-called “failing” schools.  McGuire warns that: “A common thread in all of these ‘reforms,’ along with… new proposals in Georgia… is the heavy reliance on standardized-test scores to deem schools ‘failing’ and in need of state intervention—even as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education legislation, acknowledges that a broader set of indicators should be used to measure schools’ progress…. In many cases, urban districts and schools have been deprived of the resources required to deliver high-quality education and then have been targeted for takeover by the same state policymakers who set those inadequate funding levels.”

McGuire continues: “The result of this reliance on test scores in underfunded schools is a disproportionate impact of state-run turnarounds on people of color and low-income communities.  People in poverty and communities of color nationwide report being disenfranchised by these state takeovers, which leave them and their children even further marginalized… Whether the arrangement is called a portfolio district, a recovery district, or, most egregious, an ‘opportunity’ or ‘achievement’ district, the goal of these policies is the same: the transfer of local, public funds and decision making to non-accountable, often remote- or chain-charter operators.”

McGuire’s piece in Education Week announces the release of a new report from the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a report that affirms strategies known to “repair communities from the inside out—not the outside in.”  SEF’s new report suggests that local school improvement has a better chance of closing the opportunity gap for students and families than the proposed Georgia state takeover—called the “Georgia Opportunity School District”—that will come before voters in November in the form of a constitutional amendment:  “In early 2015, Governor Deal proposed and the Georgia State Legislature passed legislation to create a state-run ‘Opportunity School District’ (OSD) that would take control of some of the state’s lowest performing schools.  The OSD proposal is based on initiatives in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee where state-run districts have removed public schools from local authority and imposed strategies including charter conversion, wholesale staff and leadership removal or school closure.  Despite these interventions, takeover districts have failed to consistently improve student outcomes.  Instead they have destabilized schools, angered parents and demoralized educators.”

SEF’s new report suggests that Georgia try a very different strategy: “Instead of taking schools away from communities, we suggest that Georgia embrace proven strategies that can (and should) be implemented without lifting schools away from local control.  We introduce eight specific, research-proven ingredients that show the potential for increased student learning, better school climates and stronger public commitment: “access to high quality early childhood and pre-K education; collaborative and stable school leadership; quality teaching; restorative (justice) practices and a student-centered learning environment; a strong curriculum that is rigorous, rich and culturally relevant; wraparound supports for students and their families; deep parent-community-school ties; and investment, not divestment.”  The report cites academic research affirming each of these strategies for school improvement.

SEF raises the same serious funding question in Georgia as a recent independent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) showing that Georgia’s overall state school funding is 16.5 percent below what the state was spending before the Great Recession in 2008 (measured in inflation-adjusted dollars).  CBPP ranks Georgia at the very bottom of all the states in the percentage drop in combined state and local funding for schools: a drop of 16.6 percent.

The Southern Education Foundation warns: “(E)ffective school reform isn’t done to communities, parents, students, and administrators.  It’s done with them.  Top-down mandates, school takeovers, external corporate operators—these strategies have not proven successful in building high quality public education…. It is the teachers, the school leaders, the students and parents who must carry out and push forward any improvement strategies.  It is these same, local individuals who will be asked to support their public schools with their tax dollars. If they are not personally invested in change, change will fail.”

Short, Pithy Video Graphically Critiques Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

We worry more about the widespread scandals in charter schools these days when we talk about privatization of public education, but voucher programs, begun in a big way in Milwaukee 25 years ago, have been steadily increasing in number across the states. In a  short, informational video, the Southern Education Foundation explains how private school vouchers and closely related tuition tax credits are robbing public schools across the states of the funds public schools need to serve all children.

I urge you to watch the video and send it to others. Watching it takes only a couple of minutes.

The graphic presentation shows where vouchers and tuition tax credits are popping up in state legislatures, summarizes the ways vouchers rob needed public funds, and defines lesser-known tuition tax credits as vouchers in disguise.

The Southern Education Foundation’s video emphasizes the growth of vouchers and tuition tax credits across the South, but they are popping up all across the United States.  The NY Times reports that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo included tuition tax credits in his state budget proposal, although the idea appears to have been dropped (for now) because Cuomo was unable to garner adequate support.  In Pennsylvania, Bobby Kerik, reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that there is currently bi-partisan support in both houses of the legislature for expanding two already-existing tax credit programs.  The first gives businesses “a tax credit—a reduction in actual taxes paid—if they designate money to any of 1,270 approved organizations with an educational component.” The second, the Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, gives tax breaks to businesses  for contributing money for “tuition assistance to students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school who wish to attend another school.”  The bill currently being discussed in the Pennsylvania legislature  would expand “the combined budget for the two programs from $150 million in tax credits annually to $250 million annually.”

Vouchers and tuition tax credits fund private and parochial schools while undermining the public system, which is more likely to distribute opportunity for all children, not just for some.  Although it is often assumed that private schools are accountable to the market, vouchers and tax credits support schools that may be neither transparent nor accountable. In a public system it is possible to pass laws to protect the needs of all groups of children including students learning English and children with disabilities and to protect children’s rights.

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains the difference theoretically: “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…. 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)

Watch this new little video.

Southern Education Foundation Documents Poverty Concentration in Cities

Educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” [Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose, editors, Public Education Under Siege (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), p. 228].   The Southern Education Foundation (SEF) documented these trends again last week in a new report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation.

There has been considerable discussion of SEF’s finding that the majority of public school children in both the southern and western regions of the United States now qualify for free and reduced lunch, classifying them as low income.  (For children to qualify for reduced price lunch, for a family of four income must be $42,643 or less.  Students who qualify for free lunch live in families whose income, for a family of four, is under $30,000.  While these numbers are, of course, higher than the federal poverty level which is just under $23,000 annually, they are an indicator of what can barely be stretched sustainably to meet the family’s needs, including housing, food, transportation, child care, and medical costs.)

What I find even more troubling than the stark data about poverty in America’s South and West, however, is the report’s documentation, once again, of poverty concentration across America’s cities: “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.”  According to the report, low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.

This is, of course, not new information. We know from Thomas Timar at the University of California at Davis that, “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education…  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty… Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990… Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…  In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” [Narrowing the Achievement Gap (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2012) p. 232] The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores are and have always served in large part as a wealth indicator: “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” [Tienken and Zhao, “How Common Standards and Standardized Testing Widen the Opportunity Gap,” in Closing the Opportunity Gap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 112.]  And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income with the rich living near each other and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  Fewer families now live in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrates here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, is now 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

And yet, with all this research to demonstrate that poverty and inequality are serious problems, we continue to have a school reform policy being pushed across the states from the U.S. Department of Education that punishes urban schools in impoverished neighborhoods where  standardized test scores continue to lag.  Our school reform policy is being driven by the conditions required for states and school districts to apply for federal funds through the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant and No Child Left Behind waivers.  To qualify, school districts must promise to institute punitive turnarounds for schools unable to raise scores, turnaround plans that include school closure, rapid privatization through the opening of charter schools, and punishments for teachers based on their students’ scores. For example, over 90 percent of the students affected in Chicago by the recent closing of 50 elementary schools and the relocation of the students are poor and African American.

The danger is that policies that close and privatize public education in America’s poorest urban neighborhoods where poverty is deeply concentrated are destroying public education and further damaging the life chances of what the Southern Education Foundation has again identified as poor children segregated together in our cities.

Here is what Diane Ravitch warns : “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.” (Reign of Error [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), pp. 319-320].