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What School Funding Advocates Should Learn From Midterm Elections

One of the big winners in the 2018 midterm elections you may not have heard about was education funding. Why this may be news to you is because much in the same way some observers incorrectly concluded the blue wave was merely a ripple, quick takes on last week’s results of important education-related ballot referendums have overlooked important lessons to learn about where and when increased funding for schools can win.

First, high-profile ballot initiatives to boost school funding statewide have always had mixed success. This year’s referendums were no exception.

The Winners

Voters in Georgia overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that allows school district within the same county to put sales and use tax increases for funding public schools on local election ballots.

Maryland’s voters nearly unanimously voted to dedicate from state video lotteries to education supplementary funding, potentially boosting school spending by $125 million in 2020, with an additional $500 million annually thereafter.

In New Jersey, voters passed a ballot referendum that raises $500 million in funding for school security. And a strong majority of Montana voters agreed to continue a mill levy that provides an estimated $19 million a year to the state’s university system.

The Losers

On the other hand, in Utah, a “ballot question” asking voters to approve a ten-cent tax increase on gas that would allowed more state funding to go to public schools was rejected by roughly two-thirds of the voters.

A Missouri initiative that would have allowed for a 2 percent tax on medical marijuana to go toward drug treatment, veteran services, and early childhood education lost.

And Colorado voters rejected an amendment that would have overridden constitutional restraints on state spending and provided $1.6 billion a year for school funding by creating a progressive income tax system that would raise taxes on those making more than $150,000 per year.

(An Oklahoma school funding initiative that failed at the ballot box really wasn’t a vote for increased funding, as it would have mostly just given school leaders permission to engage in a shell game with school funds.)

Local Success

Yet, while voters were often rejecting sweeping, statewide ballot measures, they were overwhelmingly approving increased school spending closer to home. In Florida, in large counties across the state, every proposed local education tax for funding education passed.

Similarly in Ohio, 69 percent of levy referendums to raise schools funding passed. In Wisconsin, 55 of 67 local initiatives to raise taxes for schools on ballots across the state were approved, potentially generating as much as $980 in new funding for schools.

In southeast Minnesota, nine of the 12 ballot referendums to generate more tax revenues for local schools were successful. including in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where voters said yes to more than $1 billion for new construction, renovations, and technology improvements for schools. Indianapolis voters approved two ballot referendums increasing tax revenues for schools, extending a long winning streak for education-related ballot referendums across the state.

And Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed a $600 million levy for local schools.

A Pattern, Not a ‘Paradox’

The dichotomy of rejecting grand calls for school funding versus embracing measures closer to home was particularly jarring in Colorado, where voters rejected the statewide ballot initiative while “about two-thirds” of the local school tax measures across the state passed.

Education correspondent for the New York Times Dana Goldstein looks at this inconsistency between success for education funding in local elections while broader initiatives often fail, and she sees a “paradox.” She also observes that while most public opinion expresses support for increase school funding, voters frequently approve ballot measure that cap income tax or require hard-to-achieve two-thirds majorities for new taxes and fees, which make it “difficult to direct money to schools.”

But what would seem to be a contradiction is actually consistent with a pattern.

For years, surveys have found that while public attitudes about schools in general have continued to sour, local schools continue to be held in high favor. In the long-running public opinion survey conducted annually by PDK, “public school parents overwhelmingly believe the schools attended by their oldest children are worthy of A’s and B’s,” while only about 20 percent of parents give the same high ratings to the nation’s schools.

Many have speculated why this would be case – that local attitudes toward schools vary based on proximity – but the pattern nevertheless holds true to school funding initiatives too, and it would seem that advocates for increased school funding are bound to have more success if they aim initiatives at local levels.

When Going Local Won’t Work

Of course, relying on local taxes alone for increased school funding is an imperfect solution.

Economically disadvantaged communities are often unable to raise local taxes and desperately need the financial assistance of the state.

Also, rightwing political advocates and stingy business proponents have understood that voters are way more inclined to boost tax rates for local schools, for years, and have worked steadily in many states to cap or prevent local property, sales, or use taxes and severely limit local revenues for schools and other public services.

One of those states is Michigan, where the state limits annual property tax revenue growth to the rate of inflation and restricts annual property valuation increases after they’ve experienced a downturn due to an economic recession, natural disaster, or other calamity.

Michigan is also where voters just elected Democratic candidate for governor Gretchen Whitmer over her Republican opponent due in large part for her support for making greater investments in public schools. Down-ballot progressive challengers like Rashida Tlaib also won due in part to campaigning for increased funding for public schools.

All this suggests a way forward for school funding advocates in 2019 and 2020: Go local when you can, and when you can’t, get behind candidates who will champion your cause.

Education Issues in the Midwest May Have Saved the Democrats

Those who speculated that the Democrat’s prospects in the midterm elections would only happen if they won big in the Midwest were prescient. Indeed, it’s hard to make the argument that any semblance of a Democratic Party “wave” would have been possible without key wins in these states.

The need for Democrats to prevail in the Midwest was critical to the party’s success. Donald Trump won Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2016 and came close in Minnesota. But a perhaps more important trend in these states had been the Republican dominance down ballot where Republicans controlled both chambers of state legislatures and governors and most of the U.S. House seats in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.

In the 2018 midterm contests, that trend took a substantial turnaround. Of the 75 Republican Congressional Representative seats that were rated “vulnerable,” 28 flipped Democratic, so far, and 12 of those red-to-blue flips were in the Midwest – four in Pennsylvania; two each in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota; and one each in Kansas and Michigan – more than any other region. The Democratic Party held on to vulnerable Senate seats in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In state races, of the seven governors who flipped red to blue, four were in the Midwest – Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Democrats flipped the Minnesota House, broke a Republican super-majority in Michigan, and won a super-majority in Illinois.

The importance of Midwest races to the Democrats should also be appreciated because of what the winning campaigns were about, more often than not.

Democrats running for offices across the Midwestern states ran against “the Republican establishment rather than against Mr. Trump,” according to political analysts for the New York Times.

“Democrats in these states ran on health care, education, and other bread-and-butter issues,” writes Jennifer Rubin, a Republican political analyst for the Washington Post. Education was “the major theme,” writes Ruth Conniff for The Progressive – especially in Wisconsin races, but also throughout the region.

Indeed, up and down the ballots, especially in state contests, Democratic candidates emphasized increasing school funding and ending or at least providing greater government control of school privatization efforts, such charter schools and voucher programs that give families public funds to transfer children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer knocked off her Republican opponent for an open but previously Republican-held governor’s seat by campaigning on women’s reproductive health and investing in public infrastructure – especially in public education. She won the backing of the National Education Association by calling for greater investments in schools, ending for-profit charter schools, and enacting more accountability for nonprofit charters.

Down-ballot wins in the Mitten State included one of the country’s first two Muslim-Americans to serve in Congress, Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat elected in the 13th Congressional District around Detroit. Tlaib’s campaign pledged to “increase funding for public schools and to ensure charter schools are regulated and held accountable. Charter schools cannot be allowed to take money away from public schools while failing our kids.”

In Wisconsin, where voters rated education a top issue in the election – with 40 percent saying it’s a first or second priority, second only to the economy at 41 percent – longtime state school superintendent Tony Evers defeated two-term incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker. Evers drew a sharp contrast to Walker, who had made Wisconsin a national leader on cutting education funding. “Evers proposed increasing funding for schools by $1.4 billion over the next two years,” while Walker pledged increased support but left few details.

In Kansas, Democratic State Senator Laura Kelly defeated Secretary of State and Trump ally Kris Kobach for an open governor’s seat long held by Republican Sam Brownback, who had a disastrous legacy of crippling tax cuts that left schools so inadequately funded that the state Supreme Court sued state lawmakers. Kelly called for increasing spending on local schools, while Kobach maintained the state “couldn’t afford” to adequately fund schools.

Pennsylvania reelected Democratic Governor Tom Wolf who was swept into office by a wave of opposition to the previous governor’s massive budget cuts to public schools. In this year’s midterms, voters in state level races flipped a substantial number of seats in the State Senate and House from Republican to Democratic, although Republicans remain in the majority in both houses.

In Pennsylvania Congressional races, the red-to-blue trend was significantly more apparent, where Democrats split the 18 seats formerly dominated by Republicans. Among the victors in Pennsylvania U.S. House races were May Gay Scanlon who ran on “making education, and its funding, a national priority,” and Susan Wild whose campaign pledged to “keep public tax dollars in public schools. The myth that ‘school choice’ will be the tide that lifts all boats is much like the myth that tax cuts for the wealthy will ‘trickle down’ to the middle and lower class. Tax revenue should be invested in our public schools – especially those that are struggling.”

In Illinois, Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker defeated incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, in part, by drawing stark differences on education. While Rauner pledged to expand the state’s voucher program to $100 million tax credit scholarship “to a billion” dollars if he could, Pritzker said he’d curtail the program, which already diverts public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for 5,600 students, and use that money instead for public education.

In Minnesota, voters elected Democratic candidate Tim Walz, to an open governor’s seat.. Walz, is a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, who during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives authored the Forever GI Bill to expand veterans’ education benefits and voted against a school voucher program the federal government funds in Washington, D.C..

While he made support for public schools a cornerstone of his campaign, his opponent Jeff Johnson insisted that what Minnesota families need is a voucher program like Michigan’s or Wisconsin’s that would direct public education funds to private schools. Walz pledged to block any proposed voucher programs.

Of course, Democrats had setbacks in the Midwest too, especially in Ohio where a strong candidate for governor lost to a vulnerable Republican.

But as Democrats now prepare for hopefully bigger wins in 2020, the party should take the valuable lessons learned from the Midwest midterms to heart.

(Photo credit: Amtrak)

The Education Wave That Began In West Virginia May Change Politics For The Nation

Whether Democrats take back the House in the midterm elections may come down to races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District.

“Richard Ojeda has taken a district that Trump won by almost 50 points … and turned into a toss-up,” writes Bill Scher for Politico. The article includes Ojeda in a list of 15 candidates that will not only determine control of the House and Senate, but also signal “how the party tries to oust President Trump” in 2020.

“If Democrats want to reclaim white working-class Trump voters in West Virginia, Ojeda may be their best hope to do so,” writes Elia Nilsen for Vox, “His … challenge is to persuade the Trump-loving voters of his district to send him to Congress as a Democrat.”

But if races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District determine the direction of politics in the country, the fight over education will have a lot to do with it.

‘The Political Face’ of the Education Wave

Ojeda (you pronounce the “j”), a much-tattooed Iraqi war veteran who appeared in Michael Moore’s recent documentary, state senator of the district that includes counties that sparked the statewide teacher strike earlier this year that shut down schools in all 55 counties. His prominent support of the teachers made him the “the political face” of the strike, reported the New York Times .

The teachers eventually forced the legislature to fix the state employee’s health-insurance plan, raise public workers’ salaries, halt an expansion of charter schools, kill a proposal to eliminate seniority, and scuttle a bill that would take away the rights of unions to deduct dues through paychecks. Their labor action is credited with inspiring teaches in nearby Kentucky – then, in turn, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina – to also walk out of schools to protest lack of education funding, poor teacher pay, and other grievances.

Scher and Nilsen note that Ojeda is running on a populist platform that mixes some of the proposals of Bernie Sanders – such as a public option and Medicare buy-in for health care and legalized medical marijuana – with some of the rhetoric of Donald Trump, including tirades against big business, Wall Street, and the loss of jobs in coal mining and manufacturing.

What Scher and Nilsen overlook completely, however, is the impact education has, not only on Ojeda’s race, but also on the potential redirection of the Democratic party.

‘Education Is a Major Factor’

“Education is a major factor in both our federal and state elections,” Gary Zuckett tells me in a phone conversation. As Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, Zuckett leads a grassroots progressive advocacy that is canvassing and phone-banking to elect a slate of like-minded candidates who support public schools, affordable housing, environmental protections, and universal access to affordable healthcare, among other issues.

“We’re out in places like Fayette County knocking doors in towns with only 200-300 people because they are the folks we need to bring over” to the Democratic party, Zuckett says.

Zuckett considers sending Ojeda to Congress “a major focus” of his organization’s advocacy. “He was one of the first state lawmakers to come out in support of the teacher walkouts,” Zuckett explains. The movement by and large started in Mingo, Wyoming, and Logan counties. Logan is wholly in Ojeda’s State Senate district (the seventh), and the other two are split down the middle with half in his territory. He was on the floor of the capitol broadcasting live videos telling teachers how Republican lawmakers were screwing them. He was the first to warn the West Virginia State Senate to pay attention to the teacher rebellion.

“Our other objectives are also to whittle away at the Republican majorities in both chambers of our state government and build momentum to electing a Democratic governor in 2020,” Zuckett tells me. Education has become a hot button in many of those state races as well.

Grassroots Momentum

Zukett sees much of the grassroots momentum for Democrats coming from the teachers’ walkouts because of “the sense of pride going back to our labor roots,” that includes historic railroad strikes and “mine wars.” West Virginians take a lot of pride that so many teachers in other states used the teachers’ action in their state as inspiration for their own school walkouts. he feels. “I loved seeing teachers in other states carrying signs that read, ‘Don’t make me go West Virginia on you.’ That people looked at West Virginia as a ‘if they can do it, we can do it’ model continues to inspire us.”

It should be noted that the impact of the teacher walkout is not just being felt in the Democratic party. Many of the West Virginia Republicans who opposed the teachers’ demands lost in their state primary elections. Republicans – including Ojeda’s opponent for the open seat, Republican State House member Carol Miller – credit themselves for having voted to pass the pay raise, but that came after fighting the pay raise all session, notes Zuckett, calling the supposed claims Republican make for raising teacher pay “revisionist history.”

“Our Republican governor has even announced, a month before the election, that he will seek an additional raise next session,” Zuckett explains, while, in the meantime doing nothing about the constantly increasing costs to teachers for their health insurance plan. “It’s a game of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he argues

A Crossover Issue

While Zuckett concedes healthcare is truly “the top issue” in this election, he explains how that issue easily crosses over to education as well because the teacher walkouts were just as much about healthcare as they were about teacher pay and school funding. Every year, public employees, including teachers, face higher health insurance premiums and copays in the state’s healthcare plan, while salaries remain essentially flat, when accounting for inflation.

Further, Medicaid expansion is a huge issue because one-tenth of the state’s population is covered by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which provides federal funding for the expansion. Battling the state’s horrendous opioid crisis – West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdoses in the nation – is another major healthcare-related issue.

Yet, even these issues cross over into education because teachers are often the first employees of the state to see firsthand how lack of medical care and the ravages of drug addiction affect children. Groups around the state that came together first because of education issues are now also organizing around economic, environmental, and social justice issues.

Another profound impact the teacher walkouts are having on West Virginia politics is the “heightened awareness among teachers about how the workings of state government, and their individual state representatives, directly affect their lives and livelihood,” says Zuckett. “Many of the throng of teachers who filled the capitol last year had never met as constituents with their lawmakers, and most got a quick civics lesson on political power.” That “lesson” was that, far too often, that power resided with corporations and big money interests rather than with voters.

Changing ‘The Old Rules of Politics’

Plus, the fact that teachers in West Virginia are overwhelmingly women, as they are everywhere, has resulted in many more teachers running for statehouse seats who were never in politics before, Zuckett notes.

“In this election the old rules of politics seem to be out the window,” says Zuckett. “I see more people getting fed up by the craziness coming out of Washington, DC and the indifference in our state legislature to the struggles of working people.”

Chances are, that if teachers are fed up, many more others are too.

(Photo credit:: Lily Altavena, Arizona Republic)

Education Matters More Than Trump to Wisconsin Voters

Local issues hold the key to many midterm elections, despite all the talk about how President Donald Trump is nationalizing these races and Democrats should follow his lead and do the same. It’s important to know that in many places, voters still care first about issues that affect them at home, more than the latest outrage coming from the White House.

One of those places is Wisconsin, where deep cuts to education by the incumbent Republican governor, Scott Walker, have put it at the top of many voters’ priorities.

Wisconsin, which went for Trump in 2016, has been under Republicans’ control in both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat and mostly sends Republicans to the U.S. House. If a “blue wave” is truly to take place in November, it will have to include Democratic victories in Wisconsin. And it will have to include a new direction for education in the state.

“Education is either the top one or two issue in this election,” says Matt Brusky, Deputy Director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Health care is Badger State residents’ other top priority, he adds.

Brusky should know. He and and other members of this progressive grassroots group, part of the People’s Action national network, have been going door to door across Wisconsin to canvass for candidates that support the group’s Rise Up platform, an eight-year plan to move the state towards guaranteed comprehensive healthcare, environmental safeguards, criminal justice reform, and equality of educational opportunity.

When I called Brusky, he was gassing up his rental car after knocking doors in Fountain City, where locals are struggling with a school consolidation due to lack of funding from the state. “Education is usually a top issue in the state because of what Walker has done to it,” he says. “Almost all candidates are running on it.”

“It is moving to see how education has become a headline issue for the election,” says Julie Underwood, a University of Wisconsin professor. “During the public hearings on the last budget, over 30 percent of the public comments had to do with public education, and there has been a focus on education issues in candidate forums and debates.”

‘An Arms Race Over Who Can Sound the Best’

The race between Walker, who was elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave that swept Wisconsin, and his opponent, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers, has become especially focused on education – “an arms race over who can sound the best,” says Robert Kraig, Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s Executive Director.

Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools. Under his leadership, the state enacted Act 10 – a crackdown on teachers job protections’ and collective bargaining rights – which has resulted in widespread teacher shortages and inexperienced staff.

In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending, a repeal of Act 10, limits on the state’s voucher programs, and increased financial transparency of private schools that receive voucher money.

Yet astonishingly, Walker claims he is the “education candidate” in the election, pointing to recent funding increases he signed, that despite their impressive sticker price, still provide less per pupil than in 2011, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

“Walker can try to pump up his education credentials, but the problem is he is a long-standing incumbent with a clear track record,” says Kraig, “The fact he has done a lot to try to change his education profile is evidence, given his campaign’s immense polling apparatus, the he must know the issue is causing people who voted for him in the past to vote against him this time.”

“Clearly Tony Evers has the best grasp on the issues,” says Underwood. “He has been a teacher, administrator, and state superintendent.  He understands that public education is the heart of a community and critical for our democracy. Although Scott Walker claims to be an education governor, public education has been greatly damaged during his term.”

‘Public Schools Under Attack’

In down-ballot races, education issues diverge somewhat, depending on community characteristics. “In the suburbs,” says Brusky, “most of the talk is about losing programs and the needs for holding local referendums” to shore up budgets. “Schools are getting crushed” In rural communities, he says, with many having to consolidate or close altogether.

The candidate who seems to have set the pace on education for other Democrats to follow is Marisabel Cabrera who ousted her incumbent opponent Josh Zepnick in a district on Milwaukee’s south side in the Democratic primary. She does not face a Republican opponent in November.

Cabrera is an unabashed advocate for public schools, saying, “We continue to see our public schools under attack, and it’s time to stand up and put an end to the takeovers, the cuts in funding, and the sale of public buildings to private interests.”

In interviews and candidate debates, Cabrera explicitly opposed school privatization, while Zepnik expressed support for voucher programs.

Another down-ballot candidate, Julie Henszey, running as a pro-education candidate in State Senate District 5, says, “Schools still face class sizes that are too large, special education programs that are underfunded, and a lack of investment in art, music, libraries, and physical fitness … The trend has been to siphon millions of dollars in public money over to private schools through less accountable, and less successful, voucher schemes.”

In addition to endorsing Evers, Cabrera and Henszey, Citizen Action of Wisconsin is also backing Jeff Smith, running for a state senate seat in the western part of the state that includes Eau Claire and many rural communities. Smith, who was elected to Wisconsin’s State Assembly in 2002 but was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, got his start in politics as a public school parent activist, who served on a statewide education task force, then ran for office because he saw the need for funding schools.

Smith’s platform calls for raising education funding back to previous levels, ending the state’s “failed voucher school program,” expanding early childhood education programs, and mandating universal kindergarten.

Democrats Have the Education Advantage

None of this is to say Trump is not a factor in Wisconsin midterms, or that Democrats are unified on education.

While Kraig can’t personally attest to knowing many Wisconsin voters who voted for Trump and are now poised to vote Democratic, he hears secondhand accounts of voters flipping from Republican to Democrat and notices the enthusiastic reception Democratic candidates are getting in traditionally red parts of the state while rightwing campaign funders and groups, such as the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, are investing heavily in areas where their candidates have easily won in the past.

And Democratic candidates in the state often present a muddled message on education issues, says Kraig. For instance, when Republican candidates threaten to remove insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions from the Affordable Healthcare Act, Democrats tend to rally around in unified opposition.

“Threats to insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions are a political third rail,” Kraig argues, whereas, “we have not defined what a third rail would be in education.” While Democrats have created a clear idea of what a pro-healthcare candidate is, according to Kraig, “we haven’t created a clear perspective of what a pro-education Democrat is versus one who isn’t.”

Nevertheless, the impact education is having in Wisconsin’s midterm races appears straightforward, given the record Walker and his Republican allies have of enacting historic cuts and their antipathy for teachers, and Democrats are at least united in opposition to that and are using their opposition to their advantage.

Recent polls show the face-off between Evers and Walker is a toss-up, and Democrats could win two more seats this election, just a 12 percent change, to gain a Senate majority and have a chance to win 15 House seats, representing a 15 percent gain, to have a majority in that chamber.

(Photo credit: Sue Ruggles, LaborNotes)

Spring’s Teacher Walkouts Put Education On The Ballot In Fall Elections

This year’s Educator Spring that brought teachers into the streets in massive protests has resulted in hundreds of educators running for office in November midterm elections, thrust education issues into electoral contests between Democratic and Republican candidates up and down the ballot, and pushed education-related initiatives on ballots in 16 states, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. “From taxes to bonds, governance to vouchers, education is on the ballot this November,” says the analysis. “Voters should not miss the chance to make their voices heard.”

In states such as Arizona and Georgia where gubernatorial candidates are locked in tight races and Democrats are anticipating gains in state legislatures, state ballot measures could help provide the difference between victory and defeat.

At least one study on the impact of ballot initiatives on voter turnout has found in midterm elections they can increase turnout at 7 to 9 percent in initiative states compared to non-initiative states, while turnout in presidential elections tends to be 3 to 4.5 percent higher in initiative states than in non-initiative states. Ballot measures have the power to “transform low information midterm elections to high information elections,” according to the study, and the presence of “even one initiative ballot is sufficient” to boost turnout.

School Privatization at Stake in Arizona

In what is perhaps the most-heated ballot initiative contest, in Arizona, voters will decide whether a state school voucher program providing taxpayer money for families to pay for private school tuitions will be expanded.

The massive #RedForEd teacher walkout that occurred in the state this spring resulted in a grassroots campaign to place an Invest in Education income-tax measure on the November ballot. Having that measure in the election, with the referendum to expand vouchers, was expected to bring out pro-education voters. But now that the state Supreme Court has ruled to remove the income-tax measure from the ballot, its supporters can focus their wrath on the voucher issue.

Incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey has come out strongly in support of the school voucher plan while his opponent Democratic nominee David Garcia is urging voters to vote no on the measure.

The program currently provides some 23,000 qualifying families access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) that give them public education funds to spend as they please for education services. About 5,000 families currently participate in the program, mostly to enroll their learning-disabled students in private schools.

An analysis of the Arizona program mainly serves wealthy families leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts to attend racially and economically segregated private schools. A state auditor’s office identified more than $102,000 from the program being misspent in just a 5-month period, including parents who spent program monies after enrolling children in public school, parents who did not submit required quarterly expense reports, and parents who purchased prohibited items. The report recommends the state strengthen safeguards and enforcement measures rather than expanding the program.

Nevertheless, last year the state enacted a new law expanding the program from only students with disabilities or who are enrolled in underperforming schools to all 1.1 million public school students in the state.

A petition campaign waged by grassroots groups supporting public schools successfully challenged the law expanding the voucher program, gathering enough signatures to push the law onto a ballot referendum, called Proposition 305, where a no vote would prevent expansion.

A recent poll found that Prop 305 could pass, primarily due to voter confusion about the true nature of the initiative and a disinformation campaign about the initiative funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and the organization founded by education secretary Betsy DeVos. But grassroots efforts to defeat school privatization attempts have come from behind and won in the past despite the big money campaigns they fought against.

School Funding Needs ‘Yes’ Votes in Many States

In Georgia, Amendment 5  would amend the Georgia Constitution to authorize a school district or group of school districts within a county to call for a sales and use tax referendum to fund local schools. The state funds its schools less than it did in 2008 and ranks fourth behind Arizona, Alabama, and Idaho for making the deepest cuts, 16.5 percent, to education funding.

Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacy Abrams has campaigned for fully funding Georgia schools and strongly backs a yes vote on Amendment 5. Abrams, who, if elected, would be the first female African American governor in America, has also received endorsements from both state and national teachers’ associations.

Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp has said little about his plans for education except for a vague pledge to raise teacher pay. Recent polls find the difference in voter approval for each candidate is “razor thin,” and a ground swell for Amendment 5 could only help Abrams over the top.

In Colorado, another state that saw a mass teacher walkout in the spring, voters have a chance to vote for increasing public school funding with a yes vote on Amendment 73 that would give a $1.6 billion boost to school funding in a state that has chronically shortchanged schools and created massive teacher shortages due to underfunding.

A yes vote on Amendment 73 would increase state income taxes for people earning more than $150,000 per year and increase the state corporate tax rate to 6 percent. These changes are estimated to generate $1.6 billion in revenue for fiscal year (FY) 2019–2020, all of which would support school funding.

Amendment 73 opponents have falsely framed the initiative, calling it a “massive tax hike” mainly to feed administrative bloat in the system. But supporters of the amendment point out that should it pass, 92 percent of Colorado taxpayers will see no impact on their state tax bill and school boards of the state’s largest school districts have already pledged the increased funds would go to vital classroom needs, including raising teacher pay, reducing class sizes, providing more mental health services, and expanding pre-k programs.

Some school funding ballot initiatives are not what they seem, which is the case in Oklahoma, where State Question 801 proposes to let schools use property tax revenue for operations in addition to paying for buildings and maintenance.

Oklahoma is another state that saw massive teacher walkouts this year to protest low teacher pay and drastic cuts to education funding, and the ballot question is a response to the walkouts placed on the ballot by outgoing Republican Governor Mary Fallin as a way to deflect criticism of the state’s negligence in funding education.

The state’s education association has come out in opposition to State Question 801 because although it provides school districts with some added flexibility it does nothing to address the matter at hand – the state’s drastic underfunding of schools. “It is a shell game,” the director of National Education Association in Oklahoma tells a local news outlet, “another gimmick.”

Grassroots opposition to Question 801 may help feed the campaign for Democratic governor nominee Drew Edmondson who is facing off against Republican candidate Kevin Stitt in what has surprisingly become a red-hot race. Edmondson forcefully opposes Question 801, saying “it would lead to inequities in funding and provide the Legislature a ‘cop out’ for school funding needs,” while Stitt favors the measure.

Education-related ballot measures aren’t confined to states that experienced teacher walkouts. Other initiatives that put education funding on the ballot include an amendment for a gas tax to support schools in Utah and a referendum in Ohio to provide extra funding for school safety.

But the ballot initiatives, wherever they occur, observed a reporter for Politico, “reflect education-related fights smoldering around the country.”

During Kavanaugh Craziness, News About DeVos Gets Lost

While the serial outrages of the Trump administration continue to make headlines and whip up popular protests, there’s a danger that the more mundane activities of his cabinet officials and their underlings are being ignored.

Take US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for instance, whose nomination drew a history-making opposition and set off an avalanche of ridicule in social media and late-night comedy, but who now operates largely out of public view behind a security screen that is projected to cost the taxpayers nearly $8 million over the next year.

What’s largely being overlooked behind all the lurid headlines and endless insults are all the ways in which officials like DeVos are quietly at work continuing to use our tax money to advance a deeply troubling agenda.

Doing the Koch Brothers’ Bidding

In her latest low-profile appearance, DeVos and her high-priced security detail paid a friendly visit to Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas without telling local officials, the media, or any other public outlet. The purpose of her stopover was to meet with a select group of representatives of Youth Entrepreneurs, a Wichita-based non-profit group founded by Charles and Liz Koch.

Youth Entrepreneurs, according to an investigative report by the Huffington Post, provides high school curriculum designed to inculcate students in the blessings of unfettered capitalism and libertarian ideology. Among the teachings included in the program’s lesson plans and classroom materials are that “the minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Public assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty.

“Charles Koch had a hands-on role in the design of the high school curriculum,” the reporter reveals, based on leaked emails from a Google group left open to the public. “The goal … was to turn young people into ‘liberty-advancing agents’ before they went to college, where they might learn ‘harmful’ liberal ideas.”

While the purpose of DeVos’s trip to Youth Entrepreneurs remains unclear, it fits a pattern of DeVos using her visits to select education programs in order to feed her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform and privatizing public schools.

Selling the Education ‘Reform’ Lie

Another recent trip brought the DeVos caravan to New Orleans to drop in on two charter schools – nearly all taxpayer-supported schools in New Orleans are charter schools – and praise the district for being “a great example of what can be if people embrace change.”

The schools were carefully selected to build her narrative of market-based reform, the ideology that remade New Orleans schools after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

But as Louisiana-based public-school teacher Mercedes Schneider explains on her personal blog, the charter schools DeVos chose to visit are hardly representative of the conditions of New Orleans public schools under the reform regime.

First, both schools are among the few A-rated schools, based on state rankings, in a sea of D- and F-rated schools. Further, the two schools have much higher percentages of white students than is typical in a district that is overwhelmingly populated by black and brown students.

So what DeVos really illustrates by her visits to these New Orleans schools isn’t how reform produces what works but how reform creates “incredible racial inequity” Schneider correctly concludes.

Stoking the Charter School Industry

It’s important to note how the rhetoric DeVos employs in her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform gets reflected in the policy decisions made by her department.

As Politico reports, USDoE recently awarded $399 million in federal grants to expand and support charter schools across the country.

The grants, made through the Charter Schools Program, which has enjoyed a $40 million boost under the Trump administration, went to individual charter school operators and various state education agencies and nonprofit groups that either help secure funding for charters, push for their expansions, or advocate for the charter cause.

Even a cursory scan of some of the recipients warrants deeper scrutiny.

For instance, among three Alabama charter schools that received $1 million each in grant money, two have already been the subjects of multiple lawsuits.

Birmingham charter Legacy Prep – which recently changed its name, postponed its opening date, and has yet to find a building – just settled a messy court case with its founder – a Baptist church pastor – over who had authority over the school’s operations and whether the school’s governing board was properly constituted.

The court settlement follows closely after the Alabama Public Charter School Commission won its effort to overturn the Birmingham district school board’s original denial of the charter’s application. The district board had ruled last year that the school’s application did not meet the requirements of the district’s request for charter proposals.

So now, thanks to DeVos and her department, federal funds are going to a charter school under suspect leadership, with no building, that the district doesn’t want.

Similarly, another Alabama charter with a million dollar grant, University Charter School in Livingston, had to hurdle a lawsuit to open its doors.

In May, the county board that oversees the district filed suit to prohibit the charter’s authorizer from operating the school in a former high school that the district sold to the authorizer with the specific condition not to open a charter school in the building.

Here again, federal dollars are funding a charter startup in a local community that does not want it. So much for DeVos’s promises to curb the “overreach” of the federal government in education.

Supporting Rightwing Cronies

Another charter school grant winner on the list that deserves a closer look is the American Heritage Academy in Idaho.

The school’s founder Frank Vandersloot is a conservative billionaire, with a net worth of $1.9 billion, who was a finance co-chair of Mitt Romney’s 2012 failed presidential campaign and has given money to Florida Republican US Senator Marco Rubio, former Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, the Republican National Committee, and state Republican parties across the US, according to a report in Forbes.

Vandersloot made national headlines in 2015 when he sued Mother Jones magazine for defamation after the news outlet published an article detailing his efforts to oppose gay rights.

Vandersloot has hosted a closed door meeting with President Trump at the headquarters of his company, Melaleuca. The company – which sells diet, personal care, home cleaning, and cosmetic products  – has been compared to Amway, the mega-company DeVos is heiress to, in that it employs a multi-level marketing strategy.

Vandersloot and DeVos are, in fact, connected through their participation in a multi-level marketing trade group that has been active in promoting legislation that attempts to limit the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to investigate and prosecute multi-level marketing scam operations.

All the Things We Don’t Know

None of this is to consider whether Vandersloot’s charter school, or any of the other charter school grantees, may or may not be worthy institutions, but shouldn’t taxpayers know more about why the school deserves our money?

Should we know, for instance, why grant money will go to a North Carolina charter, the Charlotte Lab School, that touts racial diversity in its mission, yet has a student population that is two-thirds white in a district where only 30 percent of the students are white?

Should we know more about why a federal grant is going to a Kansas City charter school, Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School, that is located at an Italian Cultural Center and had to pay $30,000 to former principal who filed lawsuit claiming the school’s founder made her fire her same-sex partner who also worked at the school?

Because of DeVos’s general lack of transparency, what we’re left with, instead of answers, are more questions and a well-founded suspicion that her purpose in office is to purloin as much public money as she can into the hands of private interests while justifying it as a much-needed reform.

Perhaps if there’s a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives after the upcoming midterm elections, there will be inquiries to reveal the inner machinations of DeVos’s department. But in the meantime, she and her associates toil away behind a shroud of scary headlines, and that’s just the way they want it.

(Photo credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

When Communities Lose Their Public Schools For Good, What Happens To The Students? Michigan May Soon Find Out.

CORRECTED*

What if some communities no longer have public schools? That question, once unthinkable in America, may now be something policy leaders and lawmakers in at least one state may want to consider.

In Michigan – home state to US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos whose political donations and advocacy for “school choice” and charter schools drastically altered the state’s public education system – some of the state’s largest school districts lose so many students to surrounding school districts and charter schools that the financial viability of the districts seems seriously in question.

According to a new report, more than half of Michigan school districts experienced a net loss in enrollment last year, and the percent of student attrition in many of the state’s large districts is shocking, upwards of 60 to 70 percent.

Can a school district experiencing such losses in student enrollment continue to keep the doors open?

That question should be relevant to education policy leaders beyond Michigan as more states have enacted market-based policies that allow charter schools to proliferate, students to travel outside home districts to other districts, and voucher programs that let parents transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense (something not yet allowed in Michigan).

Indeed, Michigan may be the canary in the coalmine warning that not only does unrestrained choice and competition fail to improve academic results, it also may risk the financial feasibility of having functioning public schools in every community.

School Districts on the Brink

In Michigan, the intense competition for students is taking bigger bites out of student enrollments in some of the state’s largest districts.

In Flint, where there are 14,325 public-school students living in the district, 39 percent attend charters and 32 percent are enrolled in another district – meaning the district loses 71 percent of its students.

In Pontiac, with 10,985 public-school students living in the district, 36 percent attend charters and 29 percent travel to other districts, leaving local schools with only 35 percent of the community’s students.

In Detroit, the state’s largest school district with nearly 104,000 students, 58 percent of them leave the district schools to attend charters (48 percent) or cross district borders (10 percent) to attend schools elsewhere.

How low can student enrollments go before a school district becomes financially unsustainable?

Why Schools Collapse

“Financial collapse is usually a function of multiple factors,” Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker tells me in an email. The factors he lists include Insufficient total revenue, the increased costs of serving special needs children left behind, the mounting health and retirement benefits of teachers, the increased costs of operating and maintaining old, inefficient buildings, and “of course, rapidly declining enrollment [which] creates additional financial pressure.”

Many of those factors certainly apply to Michigan where inadequate funding, rising populations of low-income and special needs students, mounting teacher pension costs, and a decaying infrastructure strain school district budgets.

Obviously, adding more choice to the education system in Michigan does nothing to address any of the above factors. But increasing the supply of schools in a state like Michigan where demand is in decline is especially nonsensical – student enrollments in Michigan are at their lowest point since the 1950s.

“It’s just inefficient,” Baker says. “Even if we believe that choice-induced competition creates some market-based efficiency gain, much if not all – or more – of that gain is lost due to the huge inefficiencies of trying to operate an increasing number of schools in the presence of smaller numbers of students.”

But what about states where student populations are stable or on the rise?

Choice Is Financial Nonsense

The thinking behind a market-based approach to education is that when the funding follows the student, school districts vying across district lines to get their enrollments high for “count day”, feel more intense pressure to provide services with greater financial efficiency. Adding charter schools, which in Michigan are allowed to start up wherever they want, without regard to the financial impact on district schools, brings into the mix an unregulated agent that can introduce even more financial efficiency into the system, the theory goes.

The academic benefits of a market-based approach to education have always been highly questionable, but in Michigan it has been a demonstrable disaster, as the state, when compared to the rest of the nation, continues to fall “further behind on test scores, on-time high school graduation rates, and getting young adults through college or post-secondary training,” according to recent analyses.

But did the argument for more market-based school competition ever make financial sense?

Baker doubts it, pointing out, in fact, that unrestrained school choice and constantly shifting student enrollments among schools introduce multiple financial inefficiencies into the system. “We increase transportation costs,” he writes, “create duplicative/redundant administrative structures and increase the inefficiency with which facilities are used (leaving empty space in some while creating pressure to build others).

“These problems exist even when we increase chartering in the context of more financially healthy school districts,” he argues. “It’s just that much worse in cases [as in Michigan] where total population is in decline and where districts are already cash-strapped.”

How Low Can Schools Go

So at what point does the financial inefficiency of school competition push a public school district into collapse?

A recent study of the financial impact of charters on Michigan public schools finances found that “overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.” David Arsen, the lead author of the study, warns that when the share of charter schools in a district gets upward of “20 percent or so,” the adverse financial impacts on district finances are “sizeable.”

Baker suggests that for larger districts, there may be “a minimum scale threshold somewhere between district enrollment of 2,000 and 5,000 students” for optimal cost efficiency.

Should either of these calculations be anywhere near accurate, many of Michigan’s school districts are on the road to big financial problems. Pontiac schools, with 65 percent student attrition and a net loss of 7,166, are left with fewer than 4,000 students. Flint schools with a net loss of over 10,000 students now serve under 5,000 students.

School districts have gone belly up in Michigan before. In 2013, two small districts, Buena Vista and Inkster, closed for good due to bankruptcies. But in these cases, the few hundred students left without schools could be bused to surrounding districts. What happens when that fate befalls a much larger district?

When The Safety Net is Gone

Some may blithely suggest that were a large school system to close due to financial insolvency, charter school operators, seeing a new source of demand, would rush to fill the void with a supply of new schools.

But the reality is charter opportunists aren’t likely to start up new schools when prospects for a quick return on investment are unlikely. And charter schools can close whenever they want to, as they do all the time in Michigan.

Currently, lawmakers and policy leaders seem little concerned with the churn of charter schools coming and going because there is the reassurance of a safety net of public schools for students and families to fall back into. What happens when the safety net is gone?

“When charters suddenly close, there may be few other options available,” Baker warns.

Even worse, when the community has been especially reliant on a large charter operator to serve thousands of students across multiple schools, should the charter suddenly close, “Not only would it be difficult for other charters and district schools to absorb all of these kids,” he explains, “but it would come at infeasible short run costs.”

State and local taxpayers, or other charters, would need to either build new schools or buy back – in bankruptcy proceedings – the buildings to house the students. Should the burden fall on taxpayers, as it almost certainly would, they would face the triple financial whammy of having paid for the school buildings to begin with, having paid the former charter’s lease and maintenance costs, and then having to pay to get the buildings back after the charter operator collapsed.

How ironic it would be that faced with the consequences of having had so much school choice, some Michigan communities may soon find out just how few choices they really have.

* Baker’s calculation of 2,000 – 5,000 students for large districts is for optimal cost efficiency, not necessarily sustainability, as first stated.

(Photo credit: johnsoncitypress.com)

Why A ‘Blue Wave’ May Depend On Changing Education Politics

Democratic party strategists and supporters may believe a “blue wave” is coming in the midterm elections because of widespread opposition to President Trump, but they risk their party’s success if they forget that state and local races more often revolve around issues closer to home – like education.

Education, often overlooked during presidential elections because of the federal government’s relatively small footprint on education policy and funding, rises in prominence in off-year political campaigns, because candidates running for state and local offices have to explain how they’ll spend tax dollars on local schools – or not. This year’s contests are not an exception.

“Education is a top issue in the midterms,” declares a headline of an article in TIME that reports on the close contest for governor in Oklahoma, where the Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson is up by a point over his Republican opponent, according to recent polling. The reason for the uncharacteristic advantage the Democratic candidate may have in a deeply red state is “public anger over education funding,” the article contends.

The reporter traces the surprising political turnabout in the Sooner State to “the wave of wildcat teacher strikes” that occurred earlier this year in a number of red-leaning states, including Oklahoma, and finds “a similar dynamic is playing out in” electoral contests elsewhere.

For years, Democrats have more often than not been somewhat agreeable with their Republican opponents on most education issues. But this election season is shaping up quite differently. And how and whether Democratic candidates take advantage of the changing politics of education may make a difference in whether a blue wave happens at all.

Educators Are Running – And Winning

Indeed, school walkouts earlier this year have propelled many of the protesting teachers into the electoral ring, and so far, many of the teachers are winning, according to Education Week, which tallies 101 of the 158 current classroom teachers running for state legislature moving on to the general election.

But the number of educators running for office is actually much larger than what Education Week calculates when you add in former and retired teachers (like former teacher-of-the-year Jahana Hayes who won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District and could become the first African-American Democrat in the state to serve in Congress), school administrators, and other school-related personnel.

In all, “some 550 educators will be on election ballots this fall, according to the National Education Association,” says US News & World Report, “running for everything from local school board to governor … from Maine to Alaska.”

The other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, has a separate count of its own members running for office that is “just shy of 300,” reports HuffPost. A list of those educator-candidates by state is on the AFT website.

Hot button education issues vary from state to state. To see what’s firing up educators to run for office, NEA has a state-by-state analysis of the key education issues. AFT also has an interactive map of work life, school funding, legislative, and election issues in each state .

But a “common theme” among the candidates, according to the US News reporter, is “the neglect in state K-12 education budgets,”  and although not all the candidates are Democrats, those who are, point to their Republican opponents as chief perpetrators of the neglect. That accusation is being wielded to great effect by Democratic candidates vying to flip governor seats in traditionally Republican-dominated states.

Education Boosts Garcia in Arizona

In Arizona, where education professor David Garcia is the Democratic nominee taking on incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey, “Democrats see education as Ducey’s greatest vulnerability,” according to Governing magazine. Similarly, AP reports, “Education is one of the top issues in Arizona’s gubernatorial race.”

Arizona is another teacher walkout state where Republicans have cut education spending more severely, arguably, than any other state, and voters want that turned around.

In the first debate between the two candidates, “education dominated the discussion,” according to the Arizona Republic. “Garcia used the massive #RedForEd teacher walkout this spring, as well as the contentious decision to remove the #InvestinEd income-tax measure from the November ballot, to criticize the governor for the state’s ongoing ‘education crisis,'” the newspaper reports.

Garcia has also criticized Ducey for signing legislation to expand a state school voucher program that had been limited to only students with special needs.

Garcia’s criticism of Ducey’s education record is likely boosting his campaign. In a state where Trump beat Hilary Clinton by over 90,000 votes, Garcia is running nearly even with the incumbent, according to recent polls, and appears to have the potential to turn out the rising electorate represented by the state’s growing population of young voters, Latino citizens, and women.

Education May Take Down Walker in Wisconsin

A similar theme recurs in Wisconsin where a Democratic challenger is punishing his incumbent Republican rival in that state’s gubernatorial contest.

According to Education Week, Issues of school funding and privatization have “come to dominate” the contest pitting Republican Governor Scott Walker against his Democratic challenger, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers.

“Evers generally is strongly supported by people connected to advocacy for public schools and Walker generally is strongly supported by people connected to advocacy for charter schools and private schools involved in the state’s voucher programs,” says an ope-ed writer for a Milwaukee news outlet.

Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools, yet he astonishingly claims he is the “education candidate” in the election.

In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending and says he would put limits on the state’s voucher programs and increase their financial transparency.

Evers’s attacks on Walker’s education record appear to be working. According to a recent poll, he holds a 13 point advantage.

Can Education Win Back the Midwest?

Across the Midwest, “Democrats are surging,” says Politico, “led by a class of candidates for governor that have Republicans on their heels.”

That analysis points to recent decisions by the Republican Governors Association to pull back funds from gubernatorial contests in Minnesota and Michigan as evidence of an anticipated defeat for their candidates in those states.

In Minnesota, the Democratic front-runner in the contest for governor is Tim Walz a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, who during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives authored the Forever GI Bill to expand veterans’ education benefits, co-sponsored the bill to make Congress pay its full share of funding for students with disabilities, and voted against a school voucher program the federal government funds in Washington DC.

In Michigan, where the race for governor pits former state Democratic Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer against Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, the candidates are sharply divided on issues of education funding and charter schools, with the Democrat Whitmer calling for greater investments into the public education and more accountability for charter schools.

In Ohio, the race for governor between Democrat Richard Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine is “one of the most competitive races in the country,” according to Politico.

Polls show Cordray either ahead or tied with the better known DeWine, and the candidates are using education as a potent wedge. Particularly at issue is the recent failure of a low-performing statewide online charter school that closed midyear, abandoning over 12,000 students and their families and sticking the state with millions in wasted costs.

Cordray accuses DeWine, the Buckeye State’s attorney general, of doing “nothing” while the school “stole $189 million from taxpayers.” Since the school’s closing, DeWine filed a lawsuit to recover at least $80 million, but Corday says, “That’s not a protect-Ohio lawsuit. That’s a I’m-running-for-governor lawsuit.”

Abrams Challenges ‘School Choice’ in Georgia

In Georgia, progressive Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who would be – if elected, the first black woman to serve as Georgia’s governor – has made a point to differentiate herself from Republican Brian Kemp on education issues.

An issue they’re completely divided on is the state’s tax credit scholarship program, a school voucher-like  program that redirects public revenues to unaccountable private schools and rewards investors with a profit at taxpayers’ expense. While Kemp would double the current cap on the program to $200 million, Abrams wants to put that money into already under-resources schools instead to help them with add wrap-around services like a healthcare and nutrition, after-school programs, and counseling.

For this reason, “Georgia school choice backers worry about governor’s race,” according to Politico. “Republican support for Georgia’s school choice program isn’t universal. Rural Republicans in particular have questioned how it would benefit their constituents.”

Polling for the race shows candidates are in a dead heat.

Pro-Public Education Boosts Gillum in Florida

In Florida’s tightly fought contest for governor, progressive star and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is taking on a Tea Party favorite and Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis. Again, sharp differences over how to pay for schools and oversee an expansive industry of charter schools and voucher-supported private schools help define the candidates.

Gillum has called for raising corporate tax rates to boost teacher pay, increase early childhood education, and provide vocational and technical training for students not entering college. He also maintains the state must stop “siphoning off public money into privately run schools” through its current voucher programs.

DeSantis responds with the typical Republican bromides to find more money for schools by cutting “administrative costs” and to expand more “school choice” as a way to alleviate huge inequities in the system.

Gillum’s strong stand for public schools must be helping. A recent poll has him nine points up.

(Photo credit: Dimmerswitch, Flickr Creative Commons)

Charter School Corruption Is Changing Education Policy And Politics

After years of credible reporting on the rampant corruption in the charter school industry, the schools are now drawing more scrutiny from state lawmakers and regulators, and political candidates are making negative stories about charters a contentious issue in the upcoming November midterm elections.

Government officials from California to New York are increasingly considering, proposing, or passing new regulatory restraint on these privately operated, publicly funded schools, and in electoral contests from Arizona to Ohio, Democratic challengers are challenging Republican incumbents to defend their lax governance that has allowed charter schools to run amuck, costing the taxpayers millions and undermining the financial stability of public education.

As scandalous news stories and scathing reviews of the charter industry continue to emerge, the negative impacts these schools have on families and communities will prompt more to question the wisdom of expanding these schools and draw more attention to the need to ratchet up regulations for the charters already in existence.

Charter Scandals Continue

With the new school year barely underway, negative news headlines about charter schools abound. Among the hits so far:

  • A Dallas charter school leader who suddenly quit after local reporters obtained statements from a school-issued credit card showing charges for air travel, accommodation at ritzy hotels, and meals at high-end restaurants.
  • Parents and students from a North Carolina charter school complaining to a local news outlet that when experienced teachers leave their school, the administrator fills in with substitutes and low-grade online courses, even in core subjects such as math and reading.
  • A South Carolina charter school that may close one month into the new school year because, while the school was approved for 380 students, budgeted for 180, and claimed 150 enrolled, only 50 students showed up and 32 attend currently.
  • New school A-F ratings issued by Ohio that show among Dayton’s 22 charter schools, there are no A-rated schools, only two rate B, five are C-rated, and the rest are D and F schools.
  • An Arizona Republican lawmaker who’ is set make as much as $30 million after selling his for-profit charter school chain, largely funded by taxpayers, to a non-profit company with the same name operated by a board of his close associates.

In Florida, a state-based watchdog group monitoring corruption in government issued a new report saying charters in the Sunshine State waste taxpayer money and too often give rise to conflicts of interest in which for-profit management companies reap millions from the state. The study showed how Florida’s elected officials are frequently influenced by the money in charter school development and operations. Since its start in 1998, the charter school industry has spent more than $13 million to influence state education policy in Florida through contributions to political campaigns. The report recommended more financial transparency and tighter regulations on how charters use public money, especially when for-profit management companies are involved.

A ‘Backlash’ to For-Profit Charters

As a consequence of the seemingly endless scandals in the charter school industry there is what Education Week’s charter school reporter Arianna Prothero calls, “a growing political backlash to for-profit charter schools.”

Prothero points to a new law passed in California, a charter-friendly state that hosts more charter schools and more charter school students than any other state, that prohibits for-profit companies from running schools. That law “strikes a major blow to for-profit charter schools” says Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor, because it not only bars for-profit charters from receiving a contract to operate in the state; it also prohibits non-profit charters from transferring responsibility and management to a for-profit entity.

Those arrangements that partner nonprofit charters with for-profit management groups have been a major source of corruption and self-dealing, Black argues, in which taxpayer money intended to educate students gets turned over to private companies that divert much of the funding to management fees, administrator salaries, and lucrative real estate deals, much of which is technically legal but ethically corrupt nevertheless.

Prothero reports that three other states – Maine, Mississippi, and Washington – have passed laws that either outright or in part prohibit for-profit companies from running charter schools since 2010 and another four states – New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, and Rhode Island – that have some kind of ban on companies running charter schools.

In addition to enacting its new law banning for-profit charters, California is planning to “update” its charter school law, according to the outgoing state superintendent, and both candidates running for that office support a review of charter regulations, although they disagree on the role charters have in the system.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, the state auditor has decried charter school laws that allow charter schools and their allied organizations to use a legal loophole “to keep the public in a dark” about financial dealings that divert public funds intended for education to private pockets through school construction and land deals. “The law needs to be changed,” he declared.

And in New York, the state body governing education has revised criteria for evaluating charter school performance to align with how public schools are evaluated. While the new evaluation process being considered does nothing to address charter school corruption in the state, the trend to govern privately-operated charters on a comparable level to public schools runs counter to the charter industry’s desires to advance regulatory-free enterprises.

Changing Charter Politics

Changing attitudes about charters are affecting electoral politics too.

As EdWeek’s Prothero points out, Ohio’s upcoming election for governor is to a significant extent becoming a contest between who will be tougher on the state’s charter school industry. While Democratic candidate Richard Cordray is calling for an outright ban on for-profit companies running charter schools, she reports, Republican nominee, Mike DeWine, has “stopped short of advocating for a prohibition on for-profit charter operators” and proposed more accountability for the online sector of these schools.

The failure of Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic School of Tomorrow, and the state’s ongoing attempts to recover nearly $80 million in student enrollment overpayments have become one of the most contentious issues in the state’s midterm elections, and Democrats have been successful at pinning the blame for the charter fiasco on Republicans.

Similarly, in Arizona, Democratic challengers in the upcoming midterm election are nailing Republican incumbents for their lax governance of the state’s charter schools – Arizona has the highest percentage of students attending charters in the nation.

In the contest for governor, challenger David Garcia has succeeded in pushing incumbent Doug Ducey into advocating for financial reform of the charter industry. “In 4 years Ducey’s done absolutely nothing to stop [charter school] shams,” Garcia tweeted. “As governor I’ll hold charter schools accountable and insist on one set of rules for all schools receiving public dollars.”

Additionally, Republican Arizona  State Senator Kate Brophy McGee has become a vocal advocate for increased oversight of the conflicts of interest and nepotism rife in the state’s charter schools and Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has called on lawmakers to pass tougher charter-school laws.

Brophy McGee faces Democratic challenger Christine Marsh, an Arizona high school teacher, who Brophy McGee sudden conversion to tighter charter oversight. She noted, “The Democrats have been yelling into the wind for a very long time for some degree of charter accountability … I don’t understand why this would become an issue for [Brophy McGee] when it hasn’t been for the last eight years.”

“The political landscape in Arizona is changing, with politicians from both parties seeking charter-school reforms,” declared a recent article in the Arizona Republic, due in part to that news outlet’s recent investigations into charter-school finances. The series of articles “has been a ‘PR nightmare’ for Republicans, who have long supported charter schools as part of a broad school-choice agenda,” the reporter noted.

Welcome News

While charter school skeptics should appreciate the changing attitude toward these school, they should not be too quick to celebrate.

The new ban on for-profit charters in California, for instance, “will not shut down California’s for-profit schools anytime soon,” warns Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy group. “Whether they are for-profit or nonprofit, there will still be ample opportunity in the charter sector for profiteers to take advantage of the public treasure and trust.,” she argues.

“While it’s easy to prohibit a for-profit corporation from chartering a school, it’s trickier to ban a for-profit corporation from controlling the operation of a nonprofit charter school,” observes John Fensterwald, a reporter for the California-based news outlet EdSource.

Nevertheless, the rapid expansion of the charter school industry started with a few pioneering schools, with perhaps good intentions, that eventually grew into a huge industry conservatives use to impose competition in local school systems and instill a market-based philosophy in public education. That the slippery slope propelling these schools might be finally tilting in the other direction is welcome news.

(Photo credit: Derek Bridges, Flickr Creative Commons)

Wealthy People Are Destroying Public Schools, One Donation At A Time

Recent news stories about wealthy folks giving multi-million donations to education efforts have drawn both praise and criticism, but two new reports by public education advocacy groups this week are particularly revealing about the real impact rich people have on schools and how they’ve chosen to leverage their money to influence the system.

‘The Education Debt’

The first report, “Confronting the Education Debt” from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools examines the nation’s “education debt” – the historic funding shortfall for school systems that educate black and brown children. The authors find that through a combination of multiple factors – including funding rollbacks, tax cuts, and diversions of public money to private entities – the schools educating the nation’s poorest children have been shorted billions in funding.

One funding source alone, the federal dollars owed to states for educating low-income children and children with disabilities, shorted schools $580 billion, between 2005 and 2017, in what the government is lawfully required to fund schools through the provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The impact of not fully funding Title I is startling, the report contends, calculating that at full funding, the nation’s highest-poverty schools could provide health and mental health services for every student including dental and vision services, and these schools would have the money to hire a full-time nurse, a full-time librarian, and either an additional full-time counselor or a full-time teaching assistant for every classroom.

State and local governments contribute to underfunding too by keeping in place tax systems that chronically short schools, particularly those that educate low-income students, mostly of color. Two school districts in Illinois are highlighted – one where 80 percent of students are low-income and gets about $7,808 per pupil in total expenditures, while another, where 3 percent of students are low-income, spends $26,074 per student.

The disparities were made worse after the Great Recession in 2008, when most states slashed taxes for funding schools and often gave bigger tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, while many local governments rolled out tax abatement programs that exclude corporations and developers from paying taxes that fund public schools.

In the meantime, while the nation’s education debt expands, the accumulated wealth of the richest Americans continues to grow. During that time period the federal government was shorting schools billions, the personal net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals grew by $1.57 trillion, the report notes.

“There is a direct correlation between dwindling resources for public schools and the ongoing political proclivity for transferring public dollars to the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations,” the report declares. “The rich are getting richer. Our schools are broke on purpose.”

While wealthier Americans are being increasingly unburdened of the expense of educating the nation’s children, many of those same individuals have decided to spend their dollars on education politics instead.

‘Hijacked by Billionaires’

In its report, “Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools,” the Network for Public Education examines state and local elections that affect education policy the most – such as school board, mayor, ballot referendums, state superintendent, and governor – and finds, “Some of America’s wealthiest individuals collaborate to hijack the democratic process by pouring millions of dollars into state and local races, often in places where they do not live.”

The report spotlights 9 case studies of state and local elections, accompanied by 10 interactive maps (two for Louisiana), that show the intricate networks of dark money activated by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and state election loopholes.

What motivates these wealthy people from exerting their will in the electoral process varies. They are bipartisan politically. Some are directly connected to the charter school industry. Others have expressed disdain for democratically controlled schools and argue, instead, for school governance to transfer to unelected boards. Some are motivated by their hatred of teachers’ unions. While others believe strongly that public education needs to be opened up to market competition from charters.

But what billionaire donors all have in common, the report authors write, is their devotion to blaming schools and educators for problems posed by educating low-income children. Instead of using their political donations to advocate for more direct aid to schools serving low-income kids, wealthy donors “distract us from policy changes that would really help children,” the report argues, “such as increasing the equity and adequacy of school funding, reducing class sizes, providing medical care and nutrition for students, and other specific efforts to meet the needs of children and families.”

Of course, those policy changes would require wealthier folks to pay more in taxes.

‘Predatory Elites’

“Rich people are playing a double game,” writes Anand Giridharadas in his new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. “On one hand, there’s no question they’re giving away more money than has ever been given away in history … But I also argue that we have one of the more predatory elites in history, despite that philanthropy.”

In a recent interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Giridharadas derides the “win-win” game wealthy folks play, insisting they can keep their huge sums of money sequestered from taxation while donating for “social change that offers a kickback to the winners.”

Giridharadas accuses the nation’s billionaire class of “peddling a lot of pseudochange instead of actually fixing the American opportunity structure, instead of actually repairing the American dream over the last 30 to 40 years.”

Instead of attacking structural inequity in the system, something that would likely require the wealthy to pay more taxes, “they offer a light facsimile of change,” says Giridharadas. “They offer change that doesn’t change anything fundamental.”

Although Giridharadas doesn’t mention it in the interview (I’ve yet to read the book), nowhere is this charade played out by the wealthy more evident than in public education, where rich people have steered public policy to minimize their taxes, which would fund school programs and resources low-income kids really need, while they peddle false promises like charter schools.

“A move that America’s plutocrats have been making for a long time,” he argues, is that “the arsonists are the best firefighters.”

They’re certainly doing a good job of burning down public education.