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.”

NBC’s 2013 Education Nation: Look at Who Will Be Featured and Who Is Missing

It is, of course, impossible to foresee exactly how a TV news program will go, but one worries when the sponsors of the supposed “news” about public education include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the for-profit University of Phoenix.

NBC, which will present its fourth annual Education Nation Summit early in October, has published a disclaimer:  “While all of our sponsor organizations are actively engaged in the education issues in various ways, we choose our programming with the general public in mind – hoping to foster thought-provoking conversations with a wide range of participants.”  Despite these words, viewers should remember to think about the impact of the Gates Foundation on the development of the Common Core Standards, the enormous push for evaluation of school teachers by students’ test scores, and the Foundation’s partnership with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and its District- Charter Collaboration Compact that encourages privatization through the development of new charter schools in big city school districts.

NBC has published a list of confirmed panelists, presenters and interviewees, and some trends seem to emerge.  There is a smattering of public school professionals and supporters: a number of school superintendents including Dr. Joshua Starr of the highly respected Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools; David Kirp, the Berkeley professor who recently published Improbable Scholars, the story of the extraordinary revitalization of the Union City, New Jersey Public Schools; Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, who has led an innovative program to engage African American college students in the hard sciences as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the mass of speakers are associated in one way or another with what has become known as “the corporate school reform model.”  Here are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (known for closing public schools and expanding school choice, charter schools, and co-location of public and charter schools) and his current Chancellor Dennis Walcott, along with Bloomberg’s former Chancellor, Joel Klein, who is now leading Rupert Murdoch’s school technology and electronic tablet division, Amplify.  Indiana’s former governor Mitch Daniels and current governor Mike Pence will both appear; they led Indiana to develop a voucher program.  At the same time Glenda Ritz, the public school teacher who got herself elected as the leader of Indiana’s education department on a pro-public education platform is conspicuously absent.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melody Barnes, the former domestic policy chief who had everything to do with developing Race to the Top and other programs to turn the Title I formula into a competition, will both be speaking.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Excellence in Education is pushing hard for privatization, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, supporter of privatization and founder of a large and radical voucher program, are included along with Paul Pastorek, who helped lead the charterization of New Orleans and who is prominent in the far-right Chiefs for Change. Then there is Jonah Edelman, director of Stand for Children, a national astro-turf organization that has made its name opposing teachers unions.

Jeff Bryant, who edits the weekly newsletter for the Education Opportunity Network, affiliated with the Campaign for America’s Future, directs his skepticism this week toward one particular confirmed speaker, however: Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman-Sachs.  Bryant writes:  “While many of Education Nation‘s guest panelists have troubling track records on education—particularly Joel Klein—none of them rises to the level of the direct harm that Blankfein has meted out to the nation’s youngest citizens… In presiding over a culture of corruption that helped fuel the nation’s slide into the Great Recession, Blankfein has had a special role….”

Bryant reminds us that Blankfein has also been a cheerleader for sequestration, the federal deficit reduction program that operates to reduce federal budget allocations by a flat percentage without regard for the importance or merits of the programs being cut back.  Sequestration, Bryant notes, has particularly hurt programs for vulnerable populations—students whose Indian Reservation schools depend on federal impact aid, Head Start programs, the Title I formula, and allocations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Writes Bryant: “As a collaborator in the Wall St.-created campaign called Fix the Debt, Blankfein lectured Americans on ‘lowering their expectations’ and accepting ‘shared sacrifice’ of the across-the-board cuts.”

If you watch Education Nation, you might want to remind yourself about who is missing from the roster of confirmed speakers: any of the over three million public school teachers who lead our nation’s classrooms; Carol Burris, the articulate, prize-winning school principal from New York; elected members of the local school boards that oversee the nation’s roughly 15,000 public school districts; any of the very competent staff at New York’s Children’s Aid Society who could talk about the full-service, wrap-around community schools they help develop; well-known scholars at our nation’s universities who are conducting research about improving the public schools including Kevin Welner and Bill Mathis at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado; Gary Orfield or other researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; or any of the academics who have recently published respected policy books that support public school improvement  including Diane Ravitch, and Mike Rose.

If you are watching NBC’s Education Nation in early October, please do think carefully about what you are hearing and what is missing from the conversation.

Arne Duncan: Do Not Sacrifice Title I through Inconsistent Enforcement of Rules

Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to help equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children.  President Lyndon Johnson believed that childhood poverty is deeply connected to school achievement; Title I was a part of Johnson’s War on Poverty.  While the Title I formula has never been fully funded by Congress, Title I has historically been a primary federal tool for  equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.

Today, however, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education (DOE) persists in redesigning Title I.  In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began transforming Title I from a formula program into competitions like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.  A much discussed problem with the DOE’s competitive grants is that competitions with winners always create losers, which means that federal support for expanded access to education is increasingly becoming a right for poor children only in winning states and school districts.  It has also become apparent that too much money is going to grant writers and consultants and too little reaching the classroom.

Now we learn that receipt of Title I funding is also being conditioned on states’ complying with the DOE’s requirements for states to earn waivers from the impossible requirements and sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  On Saturday, in Why Arne Duncan Is Threatening to Withhold Funds for Poor Kids, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post column to a problem arising from tying Title I grants to conditions set through the regulations of the DOE instead of through a uniform formula approved by Congress and applied nationally.

According to Strauss: “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold some of the approximately $1.5 billion that California receives annually from the federal Title I program… if state officials don’t agree to implement a standardized-testing regime that he likes…  California passed a law (AB 484) to abandon the standardized tests that have been given to students for years because the state adopted the Common Core standards and is revamping its curriculum.  The old tests don’t reflect the new curriculum, so it would seem to make infinite sense that kids should no longer have to take them.  While new tests aligned with the Common Core are being designed, state officials want to replace the old tests with a limited version of the exams that are coming in 2015—but only in those districts that have the technology to administer the exams, which are to be done on computers…  But here’s the problem: The No Child Left Behind law which Congress was supposed to have rewritten in 2007, remains in force and mandates annual exams.  To implement this plan, California would need a waiver from the U.S. Education Department….”

California’s original application for a NCLB waiver was rejected because California would not agree to use students’ standardized-test scores to evaluate teachers, one of the conditions to which Arne Duncan says states must agree to qualify for a waiver.  And, according to Strauss, at this point Secretary Duncan “takes a dim view of AB 484 because not all students would take a test this year, as the law requires, and because the state would not release the results of this practice run…”

This is, of course, a technical disagreement about enforcement of rules.  It is also a predictable consequence of a situation in which a federal department is administering a policy that affects each state’s Title I money on the fly through waivers for which each state must apply and negotiate, waivers that require state compliance with administrative rules emanating from the DOE in a way that is neither uniform nor consistent.

Strauss concludes that Duncan is selectively enforcing NCLB.  In addition, “He is trying to come down hard on California as a way of warning other states not to try to defy the Education Department.” “It’s no wonder some people are accusing Duncan of using strong-arm tactics to force states to do what he wants in education.”

This is all so complicated that it is easy not to pay attention.  But the controversy matters:  a civil rights formula program created to assist school districts that serve impoverished communities is being undermined as the programs are made competitive and as waivers are inconsistently approved and implemented.  The Title I formula is a  fairer, more supportive, and less confusing way of helping the school districts and schools that serve our poorest children.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our poorest communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them.  This is, of course, precisely what the Title I formula was intended to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Income Inequality, Educational Inequity, Privatization…  Pittsburgh to Chicago

Two blog posts arrived in my in-box today.  The first is from a young woman, Jessie Ramey, whose blog is called Yinzercation and whose recent post is titled Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style.  This sent me, of course to Google and ultimately Wikipedia for a definition: “Yinzer is a 20th century term playing on the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania second-person plural vernacular “yinz.”  This post is about Diane Ravitch’s book launch for Reign of Error on last Monday night at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The event drew a thousand people and involved presentations by several school music groups.  Writes Ms. Ramey, ” Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together.”

The second blog post, The Myth of the Level Playing Field,  is from the Rev. John Thomas at Chicago Theological Seminary.  He too writes about public education, describing the scene as he rides his bike to work each morning down Stony Island Parkway, “past two schools within a quarter of a mile of each other.  On one stretch… sits the new Earl Shapiro Hall, a slick, multi-million dollar campus for the early childhood program of the University of Chicago Lab Schools.”  This is the school where President Obama sent his children when he lived in Chicago and where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel now sends his children.  According to Rev. Thomas, “Full day tuition for nursery through grade 5 at the Lab School is $25,300 a year.”

Rev. Thomas also rides his bike past Bret Harte Elementary School, a Chicago public math and science magnet school. Comparing the expenditure per pupil in the two schools, Rev. Thomas writes: “Per pupil spending in the Chicago Public Schools was about $12,000 per student in 2011 before this year’s round of large budget cuts.  While these numbers admittedly compare apples and oranges, the fruit is still rotten.”

Rev. Thomas examines updated research on income inequality recently released by University of California economist, Emmanuel Saez, research documenting that America’s growing inequality is unprecedented—with the top 1 percent controlling 95 percent of real income growth between 2009 and 2012.  “The children skipping to school on the sidewalks along Stony Island have not read Saez’s report,” writes Thomas. “They’re just living it.  The enormous imbalance of privilege will become more and more apparent to the children at Bret Harte while the children at the Lab School will move through lives often shielded from the tough south side neighborhoods where the pitiful scraps of America’s economy are tossed.”

The subject of Ravitch’s new book is the damage being done to public education by policies that encourage privatization and that punish rather than helping public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  Pittsburgh’s Jessie Ramey describes what she views as the kernel of Ravitch’s new book: “Our pubic schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way…. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization—competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies—undermine that shared obligation.”

Forbes Article Deplores Private Profits at Expense of Public Good

Writing for Forbes Magazine, Addison Wiggin writes ostensibly to advise potential investors about charter schools as an opportunity for profit.  But his research for Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City seems to have led Wiggin in a very different direction.

Maybe Wiggin once took a class in the philosophy of education or maybe he just remembers his high school civics class. Somewhere he learned the importance of public ownership and public oversight of public schools.

The article begins: “On Thursday, July 25, dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors gathered in New York to hear about the latest and greatest opportunities to collect a cut of your property taxes.”

The rest of the article is the composite of all sorts of research about charter schools and for-profit education providers across several states.  Here are some examples:

  • “In Ohio, two firms…  are collecting 38% of the state’s charter school funding increase this year.  The operators of both firms donate generously to elected Republicans.”
  • “The Arizona Republic found that charters ‘bought a variety of goods and services from the companies of board members or administrators, including textbooks, air conditioning repairs and transportation services,’ Most charters were exempt from a requirement to seek competitive bids on contracts over $5,000.”
  • “In Florida, the for-profit school industry flooded legislative candidates with $1.8 million in donations last year.”
  • “Researchers from Michigan State and the University of Utah studied charters in Michigan, finding they spent $774 more per student on administration, and $1,140 less on instruction,” than traditional public schools.

Wiggin’s conclusion is for the potential investor: “The history of publicly traded charter school firms is limited and ugly…  For now, the big money in charter schools is confined to those on the inside.  In late 2010, Goldman Sachs announced it would lend $25 million to develop 16 charter schools in New York and New Jersey.  The news release said the loans would be ‘credit-enhanced by funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.’ Of course.”

New Ravitch Book Exposes Bush-Obama School Reform as Reign of Error

You don’t need to be an expert on education policy to enjoy and learn from Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, published tomorrow, September 17, by Alfred A. Knopf.  Packed with details and surprises, the book will answer just the questions you may have after trying to sort through the rhetoric of the education policy wars.

And if you know quite a bit about this issue already, you’ll also be engrossed.  My personal favorite chapter on first-reading the book is “Trouble in E-Land,” an exploration of the history of for-profit virtual charter schools and their growth in particular states at the expense of the public education budget.  While I already knew a lot about this topic, the chapter connected the dots for me in new ways.

This book should feel threatening to supporters of today’s school “reform.”  Ravitch has built and documented a formidable critique of their movement and a deeply principled defense of public education.

You’ll learn who is pushing hard for school “reform” and privatization—Americans for Children, American Legislative Exchange Council, Better Education for Kids, Black Alliance for Educational Options, Center for Education Reform, Chiefs for Change, ConCANN along with 50CAN and other state affiliates, Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Equality Project, Education Reform Now, Educators 4 Excellence, EdVoice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the National Council on Teacher Quality, New Leaders for New Schools, NewSchools Venture Fund, Parent Revolution, Stand for Children, Students for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, Teach for America, Teach Plus.  The list goes on and on.

You will also learn something about the lexicon of these reformers—that they really mean “deregulation and privatization” when they say “reform” and that “personalized instruction” means sitting children in front of computers.  Writes Ravitch, “The reformers define the purpose of education as preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce.  They view students as ‘human capital’ or ‘assets.’”

Ravitch, a well-known historian of education, was formerly a supporter of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and many pieces of the current education “reform” movement until she underwent an apostasy that was the subject of the book she published in 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  In that book Ravitch registered her own shock and dismay as she watched the policy failures of NCLB and as she realized that the public education policies of the Obama Administration replicated the strategies of the Bush Administration.

More than three years have passed since Ravitch’s last book, and the evidence has begun to pile up:  “When I wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I thought that two very different reform movements just happened to converge in some sort of unanticipated and unfortunate accident.  There was the testing and accountability movement, which started in the 1980s and officially became federal policy in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind law.  Then there was the choice movement which had been simmering on the back burner of education politics for half a century, not making much headway…  NCLB breathed new life into the choice movement by decreeing that schools persistently unable to meet its impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency be handed over to private management, undergo drastic staff firings, or be closed…  Now the two movements are no longer separate.  They have merged and are acting in concert.”

Ravitch sorts out the acrimonious debate about students’ standardized test scores. For seven years during the Clinton Administration, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board, an independent oversight agency that manages the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a national test given without high stakes or any rankings or ratings of students or teachers or schools.  Its purpose is simply to measure student achievement across the United States over time.  One form of the NAEP goes back to the early 1970s.  Without jargon or heavy psychometrics, Ravitch explains that all demographic groups of children continue to improve academic performance on the NAEP.  Unfortunately children isolated in impoverished communities remain far behind.

The first half of the book is organized around myths vs. facts—about test scores, the achievement gap, international test scores, high school graduation rates, college graduation rates, the impact of poverty on school achievement, teachers and test scores, the problems with merit pay, and the role of tenure and seniority.  These chapters are short, easy to read, and filled with facts.  This section is followed by chapters on how privatization is damaging public schools today—the role of charters, the horrors (academically and financially) of the virtual e-schools, the unworkability of the parent trigger, and the failure of vouchers.

Ravitch condemns the crisis being created by federal policy for public education in America’s poorest communities: “Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail.  When a school is labeled a ‘failing school’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus’ school according to the metrics of the Obama administration’s program, it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and student flee the school. 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…  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort, not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.”

Ravitch devotes the last third of the book to social reforms along with public school reforms that will improve opportunity for our nation’s most vulnerable children, the over 22 percent of our children living in poverty, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world.  There is no mystery here. Our society needs to ensure that all pregnant women get medical care; children need pre-kindergarten; elementary school children in small classes should be provided a rich, not basic, curriculum; children should be tested sparingly; the curriculum in middle and high school should be balanced with sciences, literature, history, geography, civics, foreign languages and the arts; teachers should be well-credentialed and provided ongoing training and mentoring; students should have access to supervised after-school and summer programs; families need wrap-around social and health services; and our society must build the political will to overcome poverty and segregation by race and family income.

Our current school reform fad has been a reign of error; the future is up to all of us.  This book is essential for helping us realize what’s happening and what needs to change.

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.