William Lager and Ohio’s ECOT: Parasite Feeding on Tax Dollars

In Ohio’s First Public School Hundred-Millionaire: ECOT Founder William Lager, Plunderbund, the Columbus Ohio blog, continues to track the riches in tax dollars being siphoned by William Lager, owner of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest on-line academy, and the two private companies Lager owns that provide all curriculum and services for ECOT.

ECOT’s 13,836 students fare poorly on standardized tests, and its four-year graduation rate is only 35 percent, rising to 38 percent in five years.  Plunderbund has updated all numbers as of the end of 2013.  Since 2000, William Lager’s political donations to Ohio legislators total $1,444, 242.46.

Altair Management Company and IQ Innovations, Lager’s private companies that provide services for ECOT have each received over $50 million in tax dollars since 2001.  In December of 2013, ECOT won an Ohio Straight-A Fund innovation grant of $2,951,755, approved by a State Control Board, three of whose members, according to Plunderbund, have shared $57,000 in campaign contributions from William Lager.

In Ohio political contributions continue to protect ECOT at the expense of traditional public schools.  Ohio’s school funding takes from state and local tax dollars for traditional public schools to support charters including the on-line academies like ECOT; see this post.  And the federal government that has created incentives for the authorization of a growing charter sector has at the same time made no attempt to regulate them.

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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.”

Is There Such a Thing at School As a High-Performing Seat?

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss publishes a reflection on the ongoing financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia from the point of view of Anne Pomerantz, a linguist and lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pomerantz shares tragic details about closing schools, slashing staff, in increasing the size of classes in Philadelphia, all of which make it so much harder for teachers to know and support each child.  She describes how the very words we use shape our thinking about schooling.

Advocating for the use of the term, “schooling” rather than “school,” Pomerantz points to school reformers’ language that diminishes the humanity of our conversation about public education. We continually hear talk about “low-performing schools” as though the school building itself is somehow tainted—which makes us less worried about closing such schools, even though they may be supporting children in myriad ways we never name.

Pomerantz quotes Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who rejects an even more reductive and de-humanizing way of talking about schooling: “When our discussions are framed around high-performing ‘seats,’ and expanding access to those ‘seats,’ we dehumanize the process and easily lose sight of the true meaning of ensuring Philadelphia’s students a safe, welcoming, and rigorous environment to learn.”

Read This Stunning Critique of Utilitarianism and Creative Destruction as Education Theories

Commonweal has published Reform of the Reform, a stunning critique of today’s dangerous, bipartisan conventional wisdom about public education.  It is, specifically, a review of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, but it is much more than a simple book review.

The writer, Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and editor in chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review, explores the danger of the business-school theory of creative destruction when it is applied to the institutions that form children and anchor our communities. He critiques, “the broader cultural attitudes that got us in this mess: the superstitious reverence for high-tech entrepreneurship, the techno-determinism that assumes we must allow technology to shape our future for us, the market-utilitarian indifference to anything that can’t be valued in dollars.”

“At bottom,” writes Lears, “the reformers’ aim is uncreative destruction: the hollowing out of the commons, where public education once occupied an honored place. However intractable the difficulties of the public schools, we would do well to remember that they are the difficulties of the larger society as well. The privatization project—scapegoating public schools, starving them of resources, and depriving their teachers of professional dignity—is a dangerous business. As Otis Redding said, you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.”

I urge you to make some time this weekend to read Lears’ piece.  To be specific, you ought to read Ravitch’s book and Lears’ review of her book.  Reading one or the other isn’t enough.

Will We Permit the Theft of Our Democracy?

This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work.  As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.

Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions.  The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.

My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district.  The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools.  The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union.  Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”

Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit.  The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door.  Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening.  In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission.  In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.

And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education.  We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes.  Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,

Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance.  Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization.  In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:

“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue.  They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change.  In short, they are a democratic forum.  They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively…  They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account…  There is an arrogance to unchecked power.  There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes…  No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)

Teachers Unions and Their Allies Proclaim Core Value of Public Education

Tonight 400 members of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Communities for Education Reform and allies of these organizations joined AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles where the sponsors released a new set of principles on which they have agreed.  When AFT and NEA along with allied organizations agree on joint principles, it is an indication of deep concern and broad consensus.  There are well over 3 million public school teachers in the United States, the vast majority of whom belong to one of the unions.

Event keynoter, the Rev. William Barber, the prophetic leader of North Carolina’s NAACP, declared: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenged Friday night’s crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

For 20 weeks, Rev. Barber has been leading “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. Marchers have been protesting North Carolina legislative actions this year that have eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; cut Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; and slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent.

Endorsed by AFT, NEA and allies, The Principles That Unite Us, is a statement of seven primary values that address what is happening due to federal incentives for states to impose punitive school reform in the context of austerity budgeting across many states: closing schools, rating teachers according to students’ test scores, and privatizing schools—all policies that target the poorest communities.

  • Public schools are public institutions, while, “The corporate model of school reform seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition…”
  • Voices of teachers administrators, school staff, students, parents and community members matter.
  • Schools are community institutions that should help coordinate services for students and families to address poverty and other challenges children bring with them to school.
  • Assessments are critical to help teachers guide lesson planning, but are “misused when teachers are fired, schools are closed and students are penalized based on a single set of scores.”
  • “Teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way to one.”
  • Schools should be welcoming and inclusive.  Schools must not push out vulnerable students or treat parents as intruders.
  • Schools must be fully funded.  “We have not come far enough.  Today our schools remain segregated and unequal. When we short-change some students, we short-change our nation as a whole”

And from the introduction that frames the principles:  “We believe that the only way to give every child the opportunity to pursue a rich and productive life both individually and as a member of society is through a system of publicly funded, equitable and democratically controlled public schools… Our interest is in public schools that serve all children.  We need schools that are rooted in communities, that provide a rich and equitable academic experience and model democratic practices.  We want schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.  We need schools where students feel safe, nurtured and empowered to become productive adults—that provide an alternative to the prison pipeline that too many of our children are caught in.  We believe that the only way to achieve these schools is by strengthening the institution of pubic education.”

New Website Exposes Privatization: Focus this Week on K-12 On-Line Schools

The Center for Media and Democracy, which has explored the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in its long-term project ALECexposed.org, has launched a new project—OutsourcingAmericaExposed.org—to help “taxpayers identify the corporations seeking to privatize public assets and services in their communities: including their schools, roads, prisons, drinking water, court systems, and more.”

Yesterday OutsourcingAmericaExposed.org reported on K-12, the cyber school giant in From Junk Bonds to Junk Schools: Cyber Schools Fleece Taxpayers for Phantom Students and Failing Grades. K-12, the giant cyber school network that claims to enroll 77,000 students nationwide, was launched in the 1990s with an investment of $10 million by “junk-bond king Michael Milken.”

According to OursourcingAmericaExposed.org, K-12 prioritizes enrollment over quality education. “Evidence is mounting that for-profit charters spend a massive amount on advertising to pack in students… but once they get the cash, things fall apart.” Many of the students K-12 collects tax dollars to educate never log-in; others fail to complete the supposedly required work. “Only 27.7 percent of K-12 Inc. online schools met AYP in 2010-2011, compared to 52 percent of public schools.”

Today’s report on K-12 reports that even hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson has turned against K-12 as an investment. “When you introduce unlimited government money and virtually no government regulation, the industry will run amok,” warns Tilson.

The new expose of K-12 from the Center for Media and Democracy compliments two recent pieces from Stephanie Simon at PoliticoPro, here and here.