School Funding Litigation Seems Endless But Proves Essential

According to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and lead counsel in the New Jersey school funding case, Abbott v. Burke,  “There is a decades-old and stubborn unwillingness by governors and legislators in state capitols to remedy the stark disparities in educational opportunity that mark the education landscape in most of our states.”

Noticing that states do not adequately compensate for enormous disparities in local taxing capacity from school district to school district, Eduardo Porter, writing a month ago in the business section of the NY Times, wondered: “If education is a poor child’s best shot at rising up the ladder of prosperity, why do public resources devoted to education lean so decisively in favor of the better off?”  This question is related to the much discussed international PISA scores released last week, an international score ranking in which the test scores of U.S. students in schools segregated by poverty and race pulled down the average for our society.

Even before last week’s despair about PISA scores, Porter raised the central issue:  “The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).”  The OECD that conducted the research on comparative school funding equity is also the sponsor of the PISA exams.

Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the PISA assessments for OECD:  “The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”

The PISA scores and the OECD research that demonstrates our society’s commitment to educational inequality provide the context for a victory of sorts last week in Connecticut, where a trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell.   The Education Law Center reports: “The state claimed the case lacked ripeness, was moot, and the plaintiffs lacked standing,” an interesting notion, as the plaintiff coalition includes municipalities, local boards of education, professional education associations, unions, parents, public schoolchildren and concerned Connecticut taxpayers.

The state claimed its funding system had been changed after the original lawsuit was filed (making the original lawsuit moot) and more time would be needed to see if the changes that have been made will render Connecticut school funding more equal (time needed to ripen the fruits of whatever minor changes the state has made).  The Education Law Center identifies these concepts as a new trend: “States are filing ripeness and mootness claims in an apparent effort to delay trials.” “On the basis of minor or even adverse legislative changes to their state school funding systems, Connecticut and New York claimed their funding systems were so different from the systems challenged in plaintiffs’ complaints… that those cases were rendered moot.  Furthermore, these states argued that their ‘new’ funding systems would need several years to show their impact, thus making the cases unripe for trial.”

The news release from the Education Law Center describes the impact of the recent decision: “Judge Kevin Dubay’s CCJEF opinion clearly explains that a trial on the merits is necessary to develop a full factual evidentiary record, including resolution of any issues of mootness or ripeness.”

The seemingly endless pursuit of school finance equity, of course, begins to feel like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the novel in which the Court of Chancery, “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘ Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!'” (p. 2)

But in our society where we have long been conditioned to worry more about funding the schools in our own community than developing a system where we all willingly contribute to pay for the education of all of our society’s children, school funding cases have proven themselves necessary.  In one of the best education books of 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke, the case litigated by David Sciarra and the Education Law Center that has driven resources to New Jersey’s poorest school districts:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of  ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.”  (pp. 84-85)

The Guardian Investigates Far-Right State Policy Network

Yesterday The Guardian published an in-depth investigation of the workings and funding of a network of far-right state think-tanks that make up the State Policy Network (SPN), State Conservative Groups Plan US-Wide Assault on Education, Health and Tax.  “In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.”

(In mid-November, here, I wrote about the Center for Media and Democracy’s recently launched campaign to expose SPN,

The Guardian describes the State Policy Network as a sister organization to the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  “SPN’s president, Tracie Sharp, told the Guardian that ‘as a pro-freedom network of thinktanks, we focus on issues like workplace freedom, education reform, and individual choice in healthcare: backbone issues of a free people and a free society.'”

Despite that the majority of the state affiliates of the State Policy Network are 501 (C) (3) organizations, according to The Guardian, the State Policy Network makes grants to its member think-tanks for projects “aimed at changing state laws and policies, or (that) refer to ‘advancing model legislation’ and ‘candidate briefings’, in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.”

The proposals submitted by specific state think-tanks for funding from the State Policy Network’s war chest include attacks on public employee pensions, campaigns to eliminate or reduce taxes, promotion of school vouchers, attacks on worker and union rights, and opposition to Medicaid.

The Guardian describes a proposal from the Massachusetts Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) that requested $38,825 to reduce regulation of greenhouse gases. “BHI appeared to have already arrived at its conclusions in advance, admitting from the outset that the aim of the research was to arm opponents of cap-and-trade with data for their arguments, and to weaken or destroy the initiative.”

“Watchdogs that monitor the work of SPN and other conservative networks in the US said that the centralised coordination of state-level campaigns showed a significant attempt to build local activism into a nationwide movement.”

K-12 Inc., Largest Education Management Organization, Pays CEO $19 Million from Our Taxes

This week the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado published the fourteenth edition of its report, Profiles of For-Profit and Nonprofit Education Management Organizations.  According to NEPC’s press release, “The real growth in the for-profit sector is with companies that operate virtual schools.  The growth of virtual schools, which is fueled by millions in advertising dollars is astounding because of the sketchy academic results reported by the schools that operate online.”  According to NEPC, K-12 Inc., the largest for-profit Education Management Organization, now enrolls 87,091 students in the 57 virtual schools it operates across the states.

It is therefore appropriate that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently launched a new series of profiles, “America’s Highest Paid Government Workers,” on its web page with the story of Ron Packard, the CEO of K-12 Inc.  CMD’s “highest paid government workers” are people who work for private companies and contractors but whose salaries are paid with our tax dollars.  CMD reports: “K-12 Inc. is a publicly traded, for-profit, online education company headquartered in Herndon, Virginia.” “In 2013, K-12 Inc. took in $848.2 million from its businesses, with $730.8 million coming from its ‘managed public schools’ with 86 percent of the company’s profits from tax dollars.  According to CMD, Packard made $19 million from tax dollars paid to K-12 Inc. in 2013.

Inequities in College Access Threaten the American Dream

Many of us have been watching our society separate by income— the wealthy moving to enclaves surrounding our cities while our poorest families are left behind, concentrated in ghettos from which they struggle to propel their children into places with better chances.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has documented these trends, here and here, with numbers that stun even if we have been paying attention.  Many of us struggle, however to understand the factors that are converging to produce our growing inequality.  Although we are all caught up in the systems that ensure that we live near people who are pretty much like ourselves, the factors that reinforce inequality are as likely to seem as invisible as the air around us.

In an important report published this summer by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl document the ways that Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.

The myth, of course, is that we live in a meritocracy where every April the smartest high school seniors who have worked the hardest receive acceptance letters and financial aid packages that will take them to the most selective colleges.  According to Carnevale and Strohl, however:  “Polarization by race and ethnicity in the nation’s postsecondary system has become the capstone for K-12 inequality and the complex economic and social mechanisms that create it.  The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.”

According to Carnevale and Strohl, “The postsecondary system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations.  More college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children.  Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs …. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings.  As a result , the country also has the least intergenerational educational and  income mobility among advanced nations.”

While overall the number of African American and Hispanic students entering colleges and universities has grown, their enrollment in selective institutions has not grown significantly.  This means that the percentage of whites at the most selective 468 colleges has increased while the share of seats for black and brown young people has stagnated.  Graduation rates at the most selective institutions continue to grow, while dropping out of college is much higher in less selective institutions. As college costs have risen, higher income parents confer privilege by ensuring that their children can make it all the way to graduation.

According to the report, racial segregation compounds economic injustice as a separate variable: “African Americas and Hispanics usually remain concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, even as individual family income increases.  As a result race gives additional power to the negative effects of low-income status and limits the positive effects of income gains, better schools, and other educational improvements.  Hence, minorities are disproportionately harmed by increasing income inequality and don’t benefit as much as whites from generational improvements in educational attainment or income growth.”

“It is difficult to clearly mark the point where racial discrimination ends and economic deprivation begins, but the evidence is clear that both negatively affect educational and economic opportunity and are most powerful in combination.  The interaction of race and class disadvantages results in the spatial, social, and economic isolation that signifies persistent hardship.”

New Orleans Charter Experiment Leaves Behind Poorest and Disabled

The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’s Schools a Model for the Nation—or a Cautionary Tale? asks reporter Andrea Gabor. You are likely to remember that after Hurricane Katrina deluged the city on Labor Day weekend of 2005, the schools in New Orleans underwent a city-wide charter school experiment with encouragement and funding from Margaret Spellings, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education, and huge grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naomi Klein described the mass layoff of New Orleans’ public school teachers and the subsequent rush to charterize the district as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'”

One could wonder how it would all work out in the years immediately following the hurricane, but now, eight years after the New Orleans charter school experiment began, Gabor helps us take a hard look at the evidence: “Figuring out what has taken place in the New Orleans schools is not just a matter of interest to local residents.  From cities like New York to towns like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes… New Orleans tells us a lot about what these reforms look like in practice.  And the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Gabor reports that the mass layoff of local teachers in 2005 has led to importing of many young, short-termers.  In 2011, 42 percent of teachers in the Recovery School District had less than two years of experience—22 percent, one year or less in the classroom.  “In part to help with this lack of experience, charter schools train teachers in highly regimented routines that help them keep control of their classrooms.” Describing Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most successful charters, Gabor reports: “Each morning at 8 AM the teachers, almost all white and in their 20s, gather for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting staff revival meeting, the beginning of what will be, for most, a 14-16-hour workday.” At Sci Academy, students are expected to “SPARK check!” on command.  “The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place hands folded in front); ask and answer questions; respect; and keep tracking the speaker.” Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist who was deeply involved with another of New Orleans charters before he left to manage a local child advocacy organization, now questions the behaviorist culture the competitive charters have created: “The typical charter school in New Orleans is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids… Is that really what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

Gabor critiques Louisiana’s accountability system, which focuses relentlessly on the college matriculation rate of each high school’s graduating class as the one factor that matters most in a high school’s state ranking.  What about the children who barely get accepted at a college?  Although many are likely to drop out of college, they will have accrued college loans they’ll never be able to pay off.

Will students who struggle and students with special needs get enough attention when the primary focus of many schools is graduating kids who are accepted at a college?  The high school dropout–pushout rates are telling. “Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s impressive college-acceptance rate were some troubling numbers.  The school’s first graduating class was 37 percent smaller than the same class had been in the ninth grade—even though some students came to the school after freshman year and filled seats left vacant by departing students.  The attrition rate has improved; the class of 2013 was 28 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade.”

Gabor reflects: “In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives… to foster a love of learning…  The progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace.”

Feds’ Misguided Demands in Race to the Top Create Expensive Policy Disaster that Damages Schools and Further Strains Education Budgets

Taken together, two important reports released on Thursday, September 12, paint a troubling picture of the plight of school districts facing complex demands with little money as the school year gets underway.  The first is from the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education and examines the evidence on the impact of the federal Race to the Top Competition (RTTT) now three years into its implementation:  Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.  The second is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities‘ look at the trend in states’ expenditures for public education: Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.

The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education’s report traces the history and implementation of the federal Race to the Top program, the federal stimulus program launched in 2009 as a grant competition for states with the goal of “creating conditions for innovation and reform.”  The U.S. Department of Education judged grant applications according to how school districts would pledge to adopt standards and assessments, build data systems that measure student growth, tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores, and pledge to turn around the lowest scoring schools through closing schools, charterizing schools, and replacing the staff.

While the report’s author, Elaine Weiss frames her conclusions about the implementation of Race to the Top with a mass of facts and measured language, overall the report depicts a policy disaster.  The report concludes that RTTT was designed to address the wrong issues; it made things worse for teachers and schools in many places; it cost a lot of money that could have been better spent in the Title I formula program; and it failed utterly to accomplish its stated goals of closing achievement gaps by race and economics, increasing high school graduation rates for black, brown and very poor children, and significantly improving the performance of teachers.

Weiss explores the literature about the out-of-school factors that drive opportunity gaps: poverty, disparities in early childhood experiences, disparities in access to physical and mental healthcare, food insecurity, increased residential mobility among poor families, disparities in chronic absence from school, after school and summer learning loss when there is not enriched programming outside of school, and myriad additional factors that accompany concentrated poverty.   RTTT addresses none of these challenges.

Evidence abounds also that Race to the Top’s strategies for addressing in-school shortcomings are not helping and have instead been damaging in many cases to the very schools and neighborhoods being targeted.  Describing reforms implemented under RTTT in  Washington, D.C., the report charges: “On the whole, changing school staff is unlikely to produce real, sustained improvement.  Results from ‘reconstitution’ in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)—replacement of the principal and/or substantial proportions of the teaching staff—suggest the lack of effectiveness of this practice… DCPS reconstituted 18 schools between 2008-2010.  Of those, two have closed, and 10 have seen their test scores decline further…”

Weiss continues,  “With its focus on in-school policies that target and assess only a narrow set of academic issues, Race to the Top’s policy agenda fails to address multiple opportunity gaps that drive the majority of achievement gaps.  Even in the best of circumstances, then, Race to the Top could not achieve what it sets out to do.  That  mismatch is exacerbated by the initiative’s mandate that states fix a complicated, expensive set of problems on the cheap and in an unrealistically short period.”

In each of the winning states grant writers over-promised what states would be able to accomplish:  “In sum, virtually every state has promised to raise student achievement to levels higher than those of the currently highest-achieving state and/or to close race-, income-, and disability-based gaps to degrees that have never before been accomplished and that theory suggests may be actually impossible.  All of this is to be attained through the addition of roughly 1 percent to states’ education budgets over just four years.”  None of the states has come close to what it promised; many have made little progress, which should, perhaps not surprise, as the report documents that the turnaround plans required by the federal Department of Education in RTTT’s design are not aimed at deep causes of unequal school achievement.  Our nation will have to address poverty outside of school and the unequal funding of public schools that compounds the ravages of poverty.

Among the most worrisome in the report is the depiction of states’ struggles to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  All twelve states are way behind their projected timelines because nobody has yet been able to develop a fair, reliable econometric or value-added system for evaluating teachers.  In this area, RTTT is reported to have harmed the schools and teachers serving vulnerable children:  “Race to the Top aims to improve the quality of the teacher pool by enhancing recruitment and retention strategies and using data-driven evaluations to inform teacher practice… Overall, however, they have increased their reliance on hiring young, non-certified teachers who rarely stay long enough to become proficient, rather than developing a strong corps with staying power.  And while they have invested heavily in linking student test scores and other measure of ‘growth’ to teacher effectiveness, as promised, states have devoted the bulk of the effort to identifying effective teachers to be rewarded, and ineffective teachers to be eliminated, rather than focusing on the vast majority in the middle who would benefit from targeted feedback, coaching, and professional development.”

Finally the dollars states sought when they submitted their elaborate grant proposals are meager, averaging only 1.21 percent of the budgets of the states that won the original competition.  The second report, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), puts the pitiful size of Race to the Top grants in perspective.  “States’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago—often far less.  The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-2009 recession but also continued austerity in many states.”  Here are the facts according to CBPP: 34 states are providing less funding per student in 2013-2014 than they did before the 2008 recession; 15 states are sending less per student funding to local school districts this school year than last year; and in most states where state per-student funding has increased for this school year, it has not increased enough to make up for cuts that have occurred since 2008.  CBPP adds: The precipitous decline in property values since the start of the recession, coupled with the political or legal difficulties in many localities of raising property taxes, make raising significant additional revenue through the property tax very difficult for school districts.”

These are desperate financial times for school districts.  The CBPP report creates a very clear context for one of the conclusions of Broader, BOLDER’s report on Race to the Top:  “The sharp decline in resources and capacity due to the recession, budget cuts, and restructuring led many states to seek the RTTT funds, but the $4 billion spread across (the winning) states amounts to an average increase in state education budgets of just over 1 percent.  Yet, at the same time the agreements require substantial new investment.  This contrast between requirements and the resources to meet them has emerged as gaps in state capacity across several areas.”

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.

Rising Income Inequality Tightly Bound to Rising College Costs

Yesterday the New York Times published news of data about rising income inequality, updated for 2012 by respected economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.  “The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012,” the highest level of inequality since data collection began.  The top one percent collected one fifth of total income. “The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age,” according to the reporter.  The income share of the top one percent of earners recovered the level prior to the Great Recession, reaching 22.5 percent in 2012.

Catherine Hill, president of private Vassar College and a professor of economics, recently published a Washington Post opinion piece charging:  Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge Is Income Inequality.  Writes Hill: “The highest-income families are able and willing to pay the full sticker price.  Schools compete for these students, supplying the services that they desire, which pushes up costs…  But the lagging incomes of families that earn less escalate the need for financial aid.”

Hill questions President Obama’s call on colleges to slow growth in tuition, because cuts in tuition for those who can afford to pay only result in less financial aid for those who cannot afford tuition.  “Lower tuition combined with lower financial aid benefits higher-income students and hurts lower-income students.  As a result it reinforces income inequality.”  Noting that, “The federal government is in the best position to directly address the rise in income inequality,” Hill suggests that the President and Congress create incentives to assist colleges and universities to serve the low income students who require extensive financial aid.

A new study from Pro-Publica and the Chronicle of Higher Education examines the rising cost of attending public colleges and universities, cost increases deriving from tax cuts in many states on top of the lingering effects of the 2008 recession: “Public colleges and universities were generally founded and funded to give students in their states access to an affordable college education… But many public universities, faced with their own financial shortfalls, are increasingly leaving low-income students behind….”  According to ProPublica, between 1996 and 2012, public college and university grants declined for the lowest quartile of families by income: “Public universities have been shifting their aid, giving less to the poorest students and more to the wealthiest.”  Financial constraints cause colleges and universities to augment scarce budgets by giving modest scholarships to several students who can pay the rest of their own tuition instead of granting full rides to the neediest students.

In addition, according to Pro-Publica, colleges are also regularly attempting to boost their rankings in publications like U.S. News and World Report by using financial aid to attract students who score higher on the SAT, especially if these students can also bring in more tuition revenue.  According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The whole system is constantly moving up, going upstream to get better and better students, and get students who can pay.  It all looks great for the press release  But you’re systematically leaving people behind.”

Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has extensively studied the role of poverty in American public school achievement and more recently investigated the role of racial segregation, wrote last week about his recent experience  as a member of a panel of responders to an interview of Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Diane Rehm Show.  When asked about the significance of integrated public schools, Arne Duncan answered that for himself the experience of growing up in schools with children of other races and ethnicities benefited him personally by preparing him to work comfortably with all kinds of people.

Rothstein pegs Duncan’s answer as typical of the “diversity” argument used to justify racial integration in two well-known affirmative action cases, Bakke and Grutter.  Rothstein declares that last week Arne Duncan failed to demonstrate a grasp of the deeper problem in segregated education:  “When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods… the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Rothstein correctly challenges Duncan to recognize the damage of what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.”  Rothstein points out that Arne Duncan has been very willing to condition states’ winning  federal Title I competitive grants (through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers) on states’ agreeing to adopt Duncan’s favorite school reforms including the adoption of the Common Core Standards and the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.  Why not, suggests Rothstein, instead provide federal incentives for suburbs to change zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing?  Why not require states to insist that landlords in all school districts accept Section 8 housing vouchers as a condition for receiving competitive federal education grants?

Rothstein is, of course, challenging Secretary Duncan’s simplistic definition of racism as  a person-to-person matter reflecting our prejudices and biases and whether we have had personal opportunities that make us comfortable with people from different races and ethnicities.  A book of essays, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, published four years ago and edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield is among the best resources I know for clarifying issues of racism including a nuanced definition of racism that would perhaps expand Arne Duncan’s approach.

In the third essay, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” John Powell and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University define the layers of racism that pervade our society:  “Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural… dimension of racism.  As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the singular, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and actions.  ‘Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions’ are what we mean by ‘structures’….  Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we generally fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures…  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large, inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures.” (122-124)

Rothstein points to examples of the intersection of the many structures that perpetuate separate and unequal education in our society.  If the Secretary of Education were to recognize that housing policy and transportation policy converge with education policy to diminish opportunity, perhaps he could begin to take broader action.

In the conclusion to Twenty-First Century Color Lines, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA theorizes that today’s accountability-based school reform fails by ignoring structural racism and persistently blaming a range of individuals:  “The basic emphasis in recent decades has been on policies that simply ignore divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status and assume that the problem is nothing that relates to those facts….   So since the early 1980s, as poverty and civil rights policies have been reversed, there has been a tidal wave of requirements and test and accountability measures, insistently rooted in the belief that the principal causes of remaining inequality are laxness of teachers and of students and they they can be cured by more demands and harsh sanctions…. On the welfare side the emphasis has been to push very hard to force welfare moms to take any kind of a job….  At the same time the assumption that laxness by police, the courts and the penal system has been responsible for the growth of crimes has been responsible for the growth of crimes committed overwhelmingly by virtually unemployable young high school dropouts, has been responsible for a massive expansion of the policy of incarceration….  The facts that long-term welfare and high dropout rates tend to be issues primarily of families of color living in areas of concentrated poverty, and that crime is concentrated there as well, have been treated as merely incidental or as a sign that there is something wrong with black and Latino communities.” (300)

Orfield continues:  “In the last half century we have built a civilization unique in world history—a vast predominantly suburban society in which each little suburb has the right (and the incentives) to try to extract resources from the city and other communities and to screen out through zoning and housing policies not only poor people but anyone who does not have a relatively high income…. It is a society in which location in certain sectors of suburbia and certain high schools and colleges confers enormous advantages, but where those are rarely available to the growing Latino and African American populations.  The existing trends are toward a society strikingly divided and declining in dangerous ways…” (288)

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.