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How Budget Austerity Puts Public School Parents On Par With Criminals

In researching an upcoming article I’m writing about the St. Louis school system, and the district’s ongoing funding crisis, I came across an astonishing example of who wins and who loses in current approaches to government budget balancing.

As a local St. Louis reporter tells it, during a public meeting about a proposed new $130 million 34-story apartment building in the city, alderman Joe Roddy used a slideshow to make a case for why the city should give the developers 15 years of reduced property taxes, a $10 million subsidy, in exchange for some additional retail space and 305 high-end, luxury apartments downtown.

In a slide show titled “How the City Makes & Spends Money,” Roddy, a Democrat mind you, laid out a hierarchy of those who “make money” for the city at the top and those who cause the city to “spend money” at the bottom. At the top of his slide were businesses. In the middle were residents with no children and retirees. And at the very bottom – in the tier of city dwellers who place the biggest financial burden on government – were “criminals and residents with children in public school.”

When told that some might take offense at equating families with children needing free public schools to criminals, Roddy countered that the project would “target tenants who are young professionals without children. Attracting that demographic to the city is crucial, he says, and after the tax abatement ends, the revenue windfall for the city will be significant.”

By the way, St. Louis has a history of extending tax abatements for developers to longer terms.

But the thrust of Roddy’s remarks is well understood by all – in a budget environment of forced scarcity, there are increasingly strong demarcations between winners and losers, and parents who plan on sending children to free public schools are increasingly losers.

To be fair to Roddy, a great deal of St. Louis’s financial constraints, particularly in relation to the city’s ability to cover the cost of education, is the fault of the state of Missouri.

A 2015 accounting of state school funding found Missouri is “underfunding its K-12 schools by $656 million statewide, nearly 20 percent below the required level.” The budget situation for families with children has not improved a lot since then, with this year’s installment cutting spending on school buses, higher education, and social services.

Missouri is one of 27 states that spends less on education than it did in 2008.

The severity of Missouri’s budget austerity seems specifically targeted at districts like St. Louis that happen to be stuck with lots of low-income families with children (Where would they fall in Roddy’s hierarchy?).

A 2016 study conducted by NPR found that St. Louis schools on average spend considerably less per student compared to the highest spending districts in the St. Louis area.

Another more recent analysis by EdBuild finds St. Louis schools have a cost adjusted revenue per student that is nine percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state even though the district is challenged to educate a student population in which 68 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measurement of poverty.

The trend of financial inequity for St. Louis schools is worsening, according to Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, who finds that the district, since 1995, is increasingly at a funding disadvantage compared to the rest of the state.

It’s not hard to see how this is going to play out for parents.

To pay for the costs of crime, under-funded local governments are “increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system,” according to a report by NPR in 2014.

One community where court fines and fees “skyrocketed” to levels that made them a major revenue generator for local government is next door to St. Louis – Ferguson, Missouri, where, you recall, 18 year-old Michel Brown was gunned down by local police nearly three years ago.

As it is for the accused in the criminal justice system, parents in local schools are having to bear more of the burden of education costs.

According to an annual report, known as the Backpack Index, that calculates the average cost of school supplies and school fees, parents will have to pick up more of the tab if they want their children to participate fully in school.

The annual cost to parents is significant at a time when the majority of school children come from households in poverty: $662 for elementary school children, $1,001 for middle school children, and $1,489 for high school students.

A detail highlighted by NBC’s report on the Backpack Index notes that the biggest spike in direct costs to parents comes from fees charged for activities like school fieldtrips, art and music programs, and athletics. These fees far exceed costs for items like backpacks, pens, and graphing calculators.

Families with children in elementary schools can expect over $30 on average in school fees. For children in middle school, the average cost of fees climbs to $195 for athletics $75 for field trips, and $42 for other school fees. In high school, the fees spike much higher to $375 for athletic (often called “pay to play fees”), $285 for musical instrumentals, $80 to participate in band, and $60 in other school fees. Also in high school, the fees extend to academic courses including participating in Advanced Placement classes, which more schools emphasize students participate in. The average fee for testing related to these courses is $92 and the costs of materials to prepare for these tests, as well as SAT tests, tops $52.

In 2011, I spotlighted the practice of charging parents direct fees for school programs in five states – Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – and connected the rationale for the fees to austerity budgets.

I noted that schools have an obligation to work with all of the varying interests and abilities of students by offering sports, clubs, after-school activities, service learning, and other programs. But states that continually under-fund education pressure schools to shift the burden of these programs from a shared cost of the community onto only those families who need the services.

The problem is getting worse.

In North Carolina, the recently passed state budget again leaves schools woefully short of what they need, and now state administrators are scrambling to pass down the millions in education cuts.

“On the chopping block,” reports left-leaning watchdog NC Policy Watch, “include offices that provide services and support for local school districts, including intervention efforts in low-performing regions.”

In what appears to be an effort to twist the knife deeper, “the state budget also bars school board members from making up the lost cash with transfers from various GOP-backed education initiatives, including the controversial Innovation School District—which provides for charter takeovers of low-performing schools—and other programs such as Teach for America, Read to Achieve, and positions in the superintendent’s office.”

In the meantime, NC’s budget has winners too, as all budget documents do: “Lawmakers continued to set aside millions for a massive expansion of a private school voucher program. The state is expected to spend $45 million on the program this year, with the plan to expand the annual allocation to $145 million in the next decade.”

Now you tell me, who is the criminal here?

Why Teachers Don’t Trust Betsy DeVos, And Neither Should You

The nation’s largest organization representing classroom teachers, the three million-member National Education Association, is getting plenty of guff over its decision to stonewall U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The NEA’s latest rejection note to the secretary came from the organization’s charismatic and blunt-spoken president Lily Eskelsen Garcia who, in an interview with Education Week, said about DeVos, “There is no reason to trust this woman.”

Garcia’s remarks closely follow a keynote address she gave at the NEA’s annual gathering of delegates in which she proclaimed, “I will not allow the National Education Association to be used by Donald Trump or by Betsy DeVos … I do not trust their motives … There will be no photo op.”

The minute DeVos became the nomination, the NEA joined the broad, bipartisan coalition opposing her. And since DeVos took office, the teacher’s group has declared, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”

The NEA’s staunch opposition to DeVos, and Garcia’s blunt statement of non-cooperation, have stirred the ire of those accustomed to the club-like chumminess of the education policy establishment in the nation’s capital. “Refusing to talk to somebody is something I expect more of middle schoolers than of the leadership of organizations,” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute told the education reporter for New Republic.

That article, and others, have noted that public school supporters, including the NEA and the other national teachers’ association, the American Federation of Teachers, have differed on how to relate to DeVos.

But does Garcia’s contention that DeVos is simply not to be trusted have any validity?

Objective sources have no trouble arguing that President Donald Trump is not to be trusted. It’s become commonplace to express strong doubts about almost anything Trump says, including about the gravest of matters. Even the former director of the FBI couldn’t trust the man.

So if it’s reasonable to argue that the nation’s president is not to be trusted, why is it somehow untoward to say the same of a secretary serving under his regime?

There are, in fact, numerous concerns that cast doubt on DeVos’s trustworthiness.

Dark Money Past

First, it’s almost impossible to separate DeVos and her service in the education department from her past in dark money politics.

Jane Mayer notes, in her book Dark Money, that when Betsy Prince, the education secretary’s maiden name, married into the DeVos family, it brought together two of Michigan’s most politically powerful families.

“Betsy DeVos, who eventually became the chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party, was said to be every bit as politically ambitious as her husband, if not more so,” Mayer notes, a reference to Dick DeVos who, along with Betsy, was a major donor on the Koch Brother “list” of “philanthropists bent on using billions of dollars from their private foundations to alter the direction of American politics.”

Mayer highlights remarks DeVos made in a now infamous op-ed for The Hill in which she wrote, “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy … We expect a return on our investment.”

It’s hard to believe anyone uttering such a strongly expressed intent to reap the rewards of political donations would suddenly have a change of heart once in office.

Indeed, news of DeVos and her family donating to Republicans associated with the Trump administration  continues to leak out.

As Politico reports, DeVos and her extended family contributed “at least $22,500 to one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees for the judge’s campaign for a state Supreme Court seat” in Michigan. The donations occurred before DeVos was nominated, but the gifts show the tight circle of money and influence DeVos inhabits with the Trump administration.

More recently, in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District which pitted Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Osoff in the most expensive House race in U.S. history, members of the DeVos family donated at least $27,000 to Handel, according to The Hill.

Evasiveness in Answering Questions

DeVos, in fact, continues to evidence all the symptoms of being someone who is less than straight forward in her dealings with others.

DeVos has “mastered the art of the non-answer,” education journalist Valerie Strauss writes on her blog at the Washington Post.

“Sometimes, for example, she offers a response that deliberately doesn’t answer the precise question,” Strauss writes. More frequently, she diverts the subject of the question to “her favorite education topic, giving parents choices other than their neighborhood traditional public school.”

At other times, DeVos simply seems to have no grasp of what the subject of the question was about, as she most famously exhibited in her confirmation hearing when she couldn’t answer questions about federally guaranteed rights of special education students in schools and about whether standardized testing should be used to assess student growth or subject area proficiency.

A Penchant for Secrecy

When DeVos isn’t having difficulty answering straightforward questions, she is operating in what appears to be a cone of silence.

Rights organizations have accused DeVos and the department she heads of giving Congress “the silent treatment” on how the rights of transgender students will be upheld, since the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance that was provided by the Obama administration.

Advocates for religious minorities have noticed DeVos has been shockingly silent on whether she will press for a federal voucher plan that would send federal money to private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of religion.

News organizations covering higher education have reported on recent lapses in public comment coming from DeVos about the department’s decision to delay and renegotiate Obama-era regulations of for-profit colleges.

Last month, Democratic senators concerned with recent actions taken by DeVos’s department regarding civil rights investigations and a decision to de-emphasize individual complaints of discrimination sent DeVos a letter calling attention to their concerns. To date, the senators have received no reply.

A significant reason the NEA expressed its lack of trust in DeVos is due to her non-response to questions the organization posed to her when she took office.

“If DeVos doesn’t answer the union by September 1,” reports Education Week, “it will call for her resignation, according to the motion, passed at the union’s annual convention here.

Fittingly, when the EdWeek reporter asked for Education Department’s comment on the NEA’s resolution, “DeVos’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond.”

A Cloak of Cronyism

While DeVos gives the silent treatment to news organizations, public officials, rights advocates, and educators, she maintains an open-door policy for those prone to agree with her.

DeVos has angered Democratic officials over her willingness to meet in private with Republican lawmakers who support her agenda for charter schools and vouchers.

Recently, her calendar included a closed-door meeting with the Pacific Research Institute that promotes school choice and has a history of getting financial support from the Koch Brothers to turn back air pollution regulations.

In her travels around the country, she still makes time to meet with influential Republican party donors.

Her reputation for cronyism isn’t at all helped by brother Erik Prince, who operates a mercenary business and has his own secret meetings with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and White House operative Steven Bannon.

DeVos, in the meantime, invested between $100,000 and $250,000 in a defense contracting firm owned by her son-in-law that could potentially benefit from Prince’s back door negotiations.

Among her and her husband’s other investments is a $5 million – $25 million stake in a company that markets a bogus method of training people’s brains to cure them of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss, and migraines.

Nothing to be concerned with here … move along.

So there are good reasons why educators such as Lilly Eskelsen Garcia and her NEA brothers and sisters shouldn’t trust Betsy Devos. And you shouldn’t either.

 

Why Democrats Should Unite On A Charter School Moratorium

Democrats know that success for their party relies on bringing labor and civil rights advocates together on key issues.

Faced with disastrous Donald Trump, labor and civil rights advocates are rallying in common cause behind health care for all, a living wage for every worker, a tax system where the wealthy pay their fair share, tuition-free college, and an end to senseless, never-ending wars.

Here’s another rallying point labor and civil rights agree on: A moratorium on charter schools.

This week, the nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association, broke from its cautious regard of charter schools to pass a new policy statement that declares charter schools are a “failed experiment” that has led to a “separate and unequal” sector of schools that are not subject to the same “safeguards and standards” of public schools.

To limit the further expansion of these schools, the NEA wants a moratorium on new charters that aren’t subject to democratic governance and aren’t supportive of the common good in local communities.

The NEA’s action echoes a resolution passed earlier this year by the national NAACP calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charters and for stronger oversight of these schools. These declarations also align with a policy statement issued last year by the Movement for Black Lives, a network Black Lives Matter organizers, calling for a moratorium on charter schools.

Now that labor and civil rights groups have come together in a unified call for a moratorium on these unregulated, privately-operated schools, prominent leaders in the Democratic party can champion this issue knowing they have a grassroots constituency that supports them.

Democrats in states where charters have been the most controversial – such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California – should be especially interested in leading on this issue for a number of reasons.

A Shared Concern For Basic Rights

First, in most communities, unregulated charters are segregating students and undermining democratically governed public institutions.

In their calls for a charter school moratorium, NEA, NAACP, and the Movement for Black Lives express a basic concern that these privately-operated schools are not subject to the same legal constraints as other public institutions, including federal and state laws and protections for students with disabilities, minorities, and school employees.

The statements share a belief that charter schools have become counter-productive to a school system intent on serving the needs and interests of all students, and they argue that charters are reversing the progress achieved by civil rights milestones like the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

All three organizations maintain that charter schools, as currently conceived, undermine local public schools, particularly those that are in communities that are already marginalized by racial prejudice and economic inequities. These organizations insist that charters must not be financially supported at the expense of local schools.

Each statement shares the concern that charter schools are not subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools, and they argue that making charters subject to a democratically elected local authority is the way to bring these schools back in line with responsible governance.

Charters: An Idea Gone Awry

In a press release announcing its new charter school policy, the NEA declares that charter schools have evolved far from their original intent to serve local communities as “incubators of innovation” and have instead become a force undermining local schools “without producing any overall increase in student learning and growth.”

NEA’s contention that charter schools are an idea gone awry has widely held support.

The original vision of charter schools as laboratory schools, where teachers would have a stronger voice, has evolved to a more politically conservative vision that views charters as competitors of public schools in a market where only the schools with greater advantages can survive.

A cornerstone of this free market version of charters is that their governance and accountability should be diffused into a morass of appointed bureaucrats and unaccountable entrepreneurs.

Currently, most states have no limits on the growth of charter schools regardless of local circumstances and regardless of whether there is a demonstrated need for the school

Often, charter schools have multiple authorizers that can overrule decisions made by local authorities on creating, closing, or renewing charter schools. These schools are most often operated by completely autonomous boards, frequently handpicked by the schools’ operators, that ask for and receive exemptions to local safeguards required for public schools. And families with children in charters are subject to the whims of the school operators who can make decisions with impunity, push out students they deem too difficult to teach, and close up shop when the circumstances suit them.

NEA calls for charter schools to be authorized and held accountable by local school boards, rather than distant boards or multiple administrative bodies, and NEA insists charters should be required to demonstrate a unique benefit to the local public school system, while operating with the same “basic safeguards” other public schools have to comply with.

A Clear Line

Advocates for the charter school industry are likely to say a moratorium on new charters would be unfair to parents who want the privilege of choosing these schools.

However, no one is talking about shutting down existing charters, and no one is calling for ending new charter start-ups in perpetuity.

Further, arguing that charters are needed to serve certain parents who are inclined to choose these schools actually confirms what the NEA and other charter critics are contending – that these schools have become a special interest that’s been allowed to operate to the detriment of a public education system that strives to fulfill the education needs and desires of all students and the entire community.

Centrist Democrats may argue that advocating for a charter moratorium is dumb politics because it divides the party from its Wall Street-friendly branch that financially backs the charter industry. But these are the same centrist democrats who are really the ones dividing the Democratic party when they argue that every time Democrats support civil rights causes, they’re engaging in “identity politics” that alienates white workers.

In its budget proposal, the Trump administration has proposed spending hundreds of millions of federal dollars on expanding charter schools, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made clear that expanding school choice, including charters, is practically the sole focus of her K-12 policy.

Democrats who continue to support charter school expansions under current circumstances risk muddying the waters at a time when there should be clear differences with what Trump-DeVos want.

A moratorium on charter schools draws a bright line between a political regime intent on serving the privileged and a Democratic party that seeks to uphold labor and civil rights. Democrats should step across that line.

Trump Is Vulnerable On Education. Do Democrats Care?

A string of special election defeats has left Democrats bewildered at how they can continue to lose against a party led by the most unpopular president ever.

Seasoned campaign analysts and political observers have criticized Democrats for not having a clear enough message, other than “we’re not Trump.” That criticism usually focuses on Democrats’ poor messaging on economic and healthcare issues.

Democrats haven’t talked about education issues well either.

“It was actually Democrats who helped pave the road for [Betsy] DeVos to take the helm of the Education Department,” writes education journalist Valerie Strauss on her blog at the Washington Post, referring to President Trump’s nomination of a billionaire critic of public schools to lead the nation’s federal department responsible for public schools.

As Democrats, over the years, pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers, Strauss explains, they gradually embraced many of the tenets of Republican “reform” that emphasizes accountability and standardized “outcomes” rather than opportunity and equity.

But as Democrats retool their messages about the economy and healthcare to more sharply differentiate their party from the party of Donald Trump, will they cleave from the Republican education platform too?

There’s new evidence they should.

Voters Want Increased Spending, Not Choice

A new survey of Republican and Democratic voters by Hart Research, for the American Federation of Teachers, finds that a clear majority of voters are not in agreement with the education agenda Trump and DeVos are prescribing for the country.

While Trump and DeVos push for a retreat in federal spending on education and a redirection of funds from public schools to privately operated charter schools and voucher-funded private schools, the vast majority of Democrats and a clear plurality of Republicans want to do the exact opposite.

Delving into specific survey results, Casey Quinlan at Think Progress writes, “a significant number of Republicans and Trump voters” are opposed to the Trump administration’s education budget cuts, especially the cuts to services benefiting students with disabilities and school serving low-income kids.

“Public education is a priority for voters, and fully half of all voters identify education as the part of the federal budget for which they would most strongly oppose cuts,” write survey authors Geoff Garin and Guy Molyneux in their report of the findings.

“Only a quarter of Republican voters say the federal government is overspending on public education,” they report, while 42 percent of Republicans believe the federal government spends too little. Large majorities of both Democratic voters (83 percent) and independent voters (55 percent) say  federal spending on public education is insufficient.

On the issue of redirecting public money to charters and vouchers, clear majorities of voters of all stripes don’t want to see public school supports sacrificed for the sake of more “choice.”

For Trump and DeVos to take money from programs for high-poverty schools and redirect the money to charter schools and voucher programs is especially objectionable to all voters. Seventy-six percent say that priority is unacceptable.

The survey’s findings overwhelmingly lead to the conclusion that Democrats should distance themselves from Trump’s education agenda for the same reasons they should separate from Republican extremism on healthcare and the economy: It makes good political sense.

There’s evidence some Democratic candidates may be starting to get that.

What Happened In Virginia

In an analysis of the recent Democratic party primary for Virginia governor, Rachel Levy notes, in her post at The Progressive, that the opposing candidates’ stands on public education may have made a crucial difference in the race.

Levy is a Virginia-based blogger, public school parent, and doctoral student on education. [Disclosure: I also write for The Progressive.]

The contest between current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former Virginia Congressional representative Tom Perriello was mist-cast, according to Levey, as a “Hillary-versus-Bernie” face-off simply because Perriello enjoyed endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, while Northam was backed by a majority of state-level Virginia Democratic party stalwarts.

However, on the issue of education, Northam was much more representative of the Democratic party’s historic stance on education, by evidence of his long-time support of public schools and his endorsement from the state teachers’ association.

Perriello, on the other hand, had courted the interests and backing of “market-based reformers that the Obama administration, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan favored,” Levey writes. “Yes, these were Democrats, but ones who have largely turned their backs on public education.”

Also Levy notes, Perriello had supported charter school expansion in the state and had received praise from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), “an anti-union group founded by a group of hedge fund managers who favor” the Republicans’ reform agenda.

Levy argues that the “wariness” Virginia Democrats now have about the reform agenda persuaded both candidates to “distance themselves from any perceived support for charter schools,” but the fact that Northam prevailed may have been a result, in part, to the perceived differences in where the candidates stood on the issue.

“[Perriello’s] loss reflects a disconnect between public education defenders and otherwise-progressive politicians who have not yet gotten the memo that defending public schools is a key value for progressive voters,” she concludes.

What Democrats Should Do

That’s good news for public schools, and bad news for candidates who are at odds with voters on the issues.

Republicans have achieved great success behind their drumbeat of an end to government. But they’ve yet to experience, for the most part, how that agenda bears out  when it starts doing serious damage to local schools in the rural and suburban communities they represent.

Those consequences, along with the unpopular education agenda of the Trump administration, may make Republican incumbents more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades.

Democrats, on the other hand, say government works, but only when it’s focused on the interests of We The People, rather than just the wealthy and powerful. Democratic candidates can back that sort of talk up by, among other things, supporting our local public schools.

 

Charter Schools Do Bad Stuff Because They Can

Charter schools have become a fetish of both Democratic and Republican political establishments, but local news reports continue to drip, drip a constant stream of stories of charter schools doing bad stuff that our tax dollars fund.

An independent news outlet in New Orleans, where the school district is nearly 100 percent charter, reports that two homeless children were kept out of class for a month because they didn’t have monogrammed uniforms.

In Oakland, California, a state-based news outlet reports charter school enrollment practices ensure charter schools get an advantage over district schools when academic performance comparisons are made. The advantage comes from charters being able to enroll students who are more “academically prepared” than students who attend district-run schools.

Oakland charters, when compared to public schools, also tend to enroll fewer students with special needs and fewer students who enter the school year late and are, thus, often academically behind.

In Arizona, which has a higher percentage of students enrolled in charter schools than any other state, the demographic characteristics of charter school students don’t resemble anything close to what characterize public schools in the state. According to a state based news outlet, “enrollment data show the schools don’t match the school-age demographics of the state and, in many cases, their neighborhoods. White – and especially Asian – students attend charter schools at a higher rate than Hispanics, who now make up the greatest portion of Arizona’s school-age population.”

In Florida, local newspapers tell of an operator of a chain of charter schools who is charged with racketeering in a scheme to use public education money from the charter operation for his own personal gain.

The charter operator allegedly used more than $1 million for “personal expenses and to purchase residential and business properties.” The charges include falsely marking up bills for school supplies, inflating student enrollments in grant applications, spending public funds on companies affiliated with the owner, and using school money to pay for plastic surgery and cruises and trips to the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Next up, a Philadelphia news outlet reports a charter school, unable to pay employee and other expenses due to a dispute with the district over $370,578 in missed payments to the teacher pension system, simply closed shop over the weekend. It’s unclear how parents would have found out about the closure, and teachers weren’t told until late Monday afternoon, in an email, that students would not be returning.

In Michigan, a charter school recently closed before the school year ended because of a dispute over $640,000 owed to the financial firm supporting the school. Even though the school is closing, it will still get state school aid payments through August.

A news report from Arkansas tells of a charter school that has been in operation for nine years and has never met proficiency standards established by the state.

And here’s a California charter school chain that “misappropriated public funds, including a tax-exempt bond totaling $67 million” and “failed to disclose numerous conflict-of-interest relationships.” The charter operator was able to divert $2.7 million of public charter school funds without any supporting documents. Eight different entities the charter operator was associated with benefited from doing business with the schools.

Public schools are occasionally plagued with similar scandals, but there is an important distinction to be made from public school scandals and what happens in the charter school industry.

As University of Connecticut professor Preston Green explains to me in an email, much of the malfeasance of charter schools comes from the entities that manage them. Called education management organizations (EMOs) or charter management organizations (CMOs), these outfits “create an agency issue with charter school governing boards that generally does not occur in traditional public schools,” Green explains.

“Public schools do not sign over operations to EMOS,” Green states. “By contrast, EMOs operate 35-40 percent of all charter schools.” And while nonprofit boards governing charters may want to ensure their schools are operating in a fiscally sound manner, the EMOs running the show “have the incentive to increase their revenues or cut expenses,” says Green.

Those incentives can lead to numerous bad acts including engaging in conflicts of interest or cherry picking students.

Where is the regulatory function that could intervene in these cases and ensure public tax money is being appropriately spent?

In the case of the NOLA charter impeding the education of homeless students, a federal law requiring schools to accommodate homeless students was the basis for any grievances. But the state’s charter school regulations consider such treatment of students a breach of contract that warrants the school to only provide the students with the opportunity for make-up work or tutoring. In other words, the consequences are more of a burden for the student than they are for the school.

In the case of the Oakland charters gaining an edge over public schools because of their enrollment practices, the report that outs the malfeasance notes that state “revenue policies” incentivize charter schools’ bad behavior.

Charter school closings like we see occurring in Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are a feature of charter schools, not a bug. An analysis by the National Education Association finds that “among charter schools that opened in the year 2000, 5 percent closed within the first year, 21 percent closed within the first five years, and 33 percent closed within the first ten years.”

Charter school scandals of the sort we see in Florida and California have become routine occurrences, yet a national organization that ranks state laws governing the charter industry rates Florida in the top ten of its annual assessment of states with the best charter school laws. And efforts to rein in the abuses committed by California charters have been routinely turned back by the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland.

As for that Arkansas charter school that was able to stay in business despite poor performance, the school has “powerful friends,” according to the reporter. “The Walton Family Foundation, [the charity operated by the heirs of the Walmart fortune,] provided cash infusion to fix [the school’s] red-ink-bathed books. The money was passed through an opaque, unaccountable charter management corporation,” and lobbyists in the state legislature “put the cherry on this hot mess sundae” in support of the school.

Whenever I write a post about charter school malfeasance like this I get accused of writing “screeds” that cherry pick negative anecdotes. But these news reports I cite above occurred within just the past two weeks.

Carol Burris, an award-winning former public school principal and the current executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes in a piece for the Washington Post, “Proponents of charter schools promised that in exchange for freedom from regulations, charters would be more accountable and held to higher standards. Twenty-five years later, however, we find that freedom from the safeguards that regulations provide has too often resulted in theft, mismanagement, fraud, and less transparency.”

The  freedom granted to charters to hire third party contractors like EMOs is proving to be especially problematic.

“EMOs have taken advantage of poorly trained governing boards” Green explains, “and the lack of coordination between governing boards and authorizing bodies” ends up benefiting the interests of charter management groups “at the expense of charter schools” themselves and the students who attend them.

I have been reporting the bad stuff done by charter schools since 2009. Most recently, my reporting on the shadowy business of the charter school industry was cited by media watchdog Project Censored as one of the top 25 most under-reported news stories of 2016.

This is the second time I’ve won this award. The first time was for a piece in 2014 on charter schools that Salon published.

When do you think the malfeasance committed by charters won’t be “under reported”?

Are ‘Nonprofit’ Charter Schools A Distinction Without A Difference?

Quick, is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?

In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus nearly $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic.

Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school.

The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple. In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.

After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 20012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located, spending an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration compared to $628 per pupil spent by the average public school district in the state.

If you’re having difficulty discerning whether this education operation behaves more like a for-profit or a nonprofit, you’re just getting a hint of the confusing realm charter schools now occupy in the public education debate. And it’s only going to get crazier.

A Split In The Bipartisan Charter Alliance

With Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency and Betsy DeVos taking over the Department of Education, charter schools have gained new momentum to expand to more communities. But that’s causing problems among many charter advocates.

As education journalist Emma Brown explains in the Washington Post, the “Trump-DeVos team” has “split the bipartisan alliance that has helped vouchers and charters,” as politically centrist backers of charters labor to distance themselves from the extremist politics of the new regime.

Trump’s budget proposal, with its huge cuts to federal education spending and massive diversion of funds to alternatives to public schools, has widened the divide among school choice proponents, as some charter school backers have started to openly differ with people who want to expand government support for virtually all alternatives to public schools, including education management companies, virtual campuses, and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

A speech DeVos made the other day to an annual gathering of the charter school industry likely adds new fuel to the debate, as she admonished those who take a more measured, “strategic” approach to charter expansion while extolling a desire to let the floodgates of school choice open.

What this means to the average citizen is that she should expect to hear lots more rhetoric about the “good kind” of charter school versus the “not so good” kind of charter school.

The “Good Kind” Of Charter?

People are already confused about charter schools. According to the most recent survey, 58 percent of the general public say they know little or nothing about charter schools. Even people who should know better are confused.

The most prominent example of this confusion was apparent in the recent presidential race, when the Democratic rival for the nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, responded to a question about charter schools saying, “I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private [pause] privately controlled charter schools.”

As I explained, technically, there is no such thing as a “private charter school,” yet virtually all charter schools are “privately controlled.” So it’s not at all clear what Sanders meant by trying to distinguish between “public” versus “privately controlled” charters.

Another popular tactic for separating “good” charters from the pack of awfulness Trump and DeVos want to unleash is to hold a preference for “nonprofit” charter schools over the profit-making variety.

As education journalist Matt Barnum explains in the national Chalkbeat education news outlet, “For progressive charter advocates, keeping an arm’s length from for-profit charter schools may be smart politics.” Barnum points to prominent Democrats, including former education secretary John King, now president and CEO of EdTrust, and Shavar Jeffries of the charter-loving Democrats for Education Reform, who are proposing a ban on for-profit charters.

A new study released by CREDO, a Stanford-based research group, will doubtlessly add to the growing divide over the profit motive in the charter school industry. Barnum reviews the study in another Chalkbeat report and finds, “Charters operated by a nonprofit perform modestly better in both math and reading than for-profit schools.”

So is it more important than ever to distinguish between nonprofit and for-profit charters in crafting public policy governing these schools?

Take that question and circle back to the one that opened this article.

Which Is Nonprofit?

If you guessed that the school in question at the beginning of this article is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong. The charter described is the BASIS charter chain that was examined by public school advocate Carol Burris for the Washington Post.

Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and self-serving as any profit hungry private enterprise would. Not only does BASIS generously enrich the private holdings of a select few of its inner circle executives; it also selectively serves an elite echelon of students – generally the most able-minded Asian and white students who have the stamina and familial support to survive the schools’ test-obsessed culture.

But it’s “nonprofit.”

Here’s another example of a charter school that blurs the line between profit-making vs. mission-driven schooling.

This chain of charter schools presents itself as a collection of charters operating regionally. One group operates a series of schools across the Midwest, another group operates across western states, and another is focused mostly in Texas. But the various charter operations have a lot in common, at least in their business practices.

Each charter group is closely associated with a private E-rate company, a company providing telecommunications and internet services to schools qualifying for the special discount provided by the federal government.

In the case of the Midwest branch, the E-rate provider has bid on 58 contracts representing over $3.2 million exclusively with the charter company. The E-rate firm appears to have no other clients nor any interests in acquiring new clients.

In the case of the charter operation covering Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, the E-rate provider is listed as a holding of one of the Arizona schools. All of its 48 E-rate bids have gone exclusively to schools operating in the charter chain.

At the charter operation in Texas, the telecommunications firm associated with the chain has 23 contracts with the related schools, which constitutes nearly all, 94 percent, of its business.

Compare that school’s operation to this one.

This charter operation, a national company, forms a charter school board to “invite” itself into a community to manage a new school. The governing board is not independent of the management company, and members of the board can serve on multiple charter boards.

After securing a contract to manage the new school, the charter purchases a building – it could be a storefront in a strip mall or an abandoned warehouse – and requests approval from an authorizer to open a school there. After the authorization, the charter board signs a lease agreement with a development company to take over ownership of the building. The development company is located at the same address as the home office of the charter management firm.

Now the charter management firm and its related enterprises own the building and its contents, even if desks, computers, and equipment have been purchased with taxpayer money. It receives rent payments from the district. It owns the curriculum the school teaches. And if the charter management firm is ever fired, the charter board – and by extension the district – is in the awkward position of having to buy back its own school.

A Distinction Without A Difference

Of the three charter operations I’ve examined here, only the last one is technically for-profit, according to CREDO.

In addition to BASIS, the other nonprofit charter operation is the Gulen charter network, the nation’s largest chain of bricks-and-mortar charters, which takes its name from the Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen.

In an in-depth report for Jacobin, George Joseph reveals, “The Gulen charter network has developed a growth model more reminiscent of a Fortune 500 company than a public school district.”

In addition to the partnering E-rate firms, Gulen schools have close business associations with school construction companies that receive millions of dollars from contracts to build and renovate Gulen schools exclusively. The foundations and public relations firms associated with the schools also spend lavishly on marketing campaigns, political campaigns, and junkets for local officials.

The for-profit charter firm I describe is National Heritage Academies, whose shady business practices I reported on in North Carolina.

But in all three cases, whether nonprofit or for-profit, charter schools, simply by the way they are structured and operate, create opportunities for all kinds of third-parties to skim off public funds without adding any education value to the system.

Does it make any difference what their tax status is?

 

Recent DeVos Hires Bode Ill For Student Rights

U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos had another rough day in Congress this week when Senators grilled her on the details of her budget which slashes over $9 billion from the education department and diverts $1.4 billion to privately operated schools such as charter schools and private schools.

Even Republican senators expressed strong reservations for cuts to Special Olympics, after-school programs, and a cluster of programs for supporting low-income and first-generation college students.

But the fireworks in the media focused primary on what DeVos said about enforcing federal government laws related to discrimination in schools.

Senators pointed out that her ideas for diverting public money to private institutions could result in federal dollars going to schools that discriminate against students on religion, their sexual orientation, or other characteristics.

DeVos repeatedly insisted, “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.” But when senators tried pinning her down on whether federal money would go to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students, she stated, “On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees.”

DeVos’s comments prompted news outlets and advocacy groups to declare DeVos and her department would abandon LGBTQ students who are subject to discrimination in schools.

But her remarks are cloaked in such ambiguity, it’s hard to predict what DeVos will do to protect students from discrimination and where, and for whom, her department would enforce protections.

However, based on some of her personnel decisions, there is a great deal of cause for concern.

Already, much has been written about Candice Jackson, DeVos’s deputy assistant secretary and acting head in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

An in-depth profile by ProPublica revealed her “limited background in civil rights law” and her previous writings in which she “denounced feminism and race-based preferences.”

A recent piece in the New York Times tried to rehabilitate Jackson’s image, noting, “She is a sexual assault survivor, and has been married to her wife for more than a decade.”

“The fact that Candace Jackson is gay does not qualify her to enforce civil rights if she does not believe in enforcement of civil rights,” wrote education historian Diane Ravitch on her personal blog after reading the Times piece.

A more recent hire for the department’s deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs is former Koch Foundation employee and director of the Individual Rights Defense Program Adam Kissel.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Kissel has accused universities of “violating the free speech rights of students and faculty. He’s also criticized broader ‘intolerance’ on campuses” and “taken issue with the standard of proof used by colleges in the adjudication of recent sexual harassment and assault cases.”

Kissel has been a high profile critic of the federal government’s enforcement of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, and how it’s been applied to campus sexual violence. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kissel has used op-eds and Twitter to declare, “American higher education is smothered in intolerance of diverse ideas,” a phrase often used to allow hate speech on college campuses.

Another new DeVos hire with a problematic past related to discrimination is Kimberly Richey, who will serve as deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

Richey was previously the state counsel for Oklahoma’s state superintendent of education Janet Barresi. During Richey’s tenure in 2014, Barresi got into hot water for creating a new assistant state superintendent position and hiring Richey’s husband to fill it.

He resigned a year later after a new state superintendent was elected and took over. But the taint of cronyism may follow Richey in her new position with the federal government.

As state counsel, Richey’s duties were to oversee and advise the state on legal matters, including, presumably, on enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Yet under her watch, Oklahoma had a deplorable track record in its treatment of students with disabilities.

A 2015 examination by Oklahoma Watch found, “Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in rates of special education students being expelled from schools. It ranked fourth in corporal punishment of such students, 19th in in-school suspensions, 28th in out-of-school suspensions and 20th in arrests.”

According to state data, students with disabilities “were more likely than their peers to be suspended, expelled, arrested, handcuffed or paddled. In dozens of schools, special education students are anywhere from two to 10 times more likely to be disciplined, the data show. At some schools, every special education student has been physically disciplined, suspended or expelled.”

How this track record qualifies Richey to take over the duties of overseeing the nation’s special education and rehabilitative services is anyone’s guess.

Does it really matter who DeVos hires?

In a nuanced discussion about the issues of discrimination that arose during the DeVos senate hearing, experts on the subject said there is a lot of “unsettled law” on the matter, especially when privately operated schools accept federal money. According to Education Week.,”No state lays out protections for all marginalized groups of students, whether based on their religion, race, ethnicity, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.”

Potential discrimination against students with disabilities is a particularly tricky subject. Many states have set up their voucher programs in a way that requires parents to “waive certain disability rights for their children under federal education law in order to participate in a special-education-specific voucher program.”

The experts explained there are “plenty of questions on what solid protections exist for different groups of students between overlapping federal and state laws.”

The article quotes a former civil rights official at the U.S. Department of Education under President Bill Clinton who emphasizes that, “The design and the operation and the effects of any federal program that may be proposed will, therefore, likely matter … and matter a lot.”

In other words, federal programs affecting students’ rights, and the enforcement of civil rights laws in schools, depend a lot on who’s in charge of them.

 

 

Our School Funding Crisis Has A Cause: Bad Leadership

This week’s disturbing news that Oklahoma schools are so poorly funded some of them may move from five days a week to four got a lot of people’s attention, including my colleague Richard Eskow, who called this an example of “the Republican party’s sickness of the soul.” Unfortunately, the illness is highly contagious.

The contagion stems from revenue shortfalls in states that counted on money that never materialized – at least 29 states, according to Education Week. Although unemployment rates have generally declined in these states, and economies have improved since the Great Recession, lawmakers in many of these states also decided to enact tax cuts and to do nothing about stagnating wages, so income tax and sales tax revenues flattened or even dipped.

Governors in these states say education finance is a priority – at least according to an annual survey of them. The poll, conducted by the Education Commission of the States, asked 42 governors about their education-related priorities. School finance was at the top, with 32 wanting to improve K-12 education through funding. But obviously, these state leaders forgot the revenue side of the equation. Oops!

State lawmakers’ inability to do basic arithmetic is having painful impacts on schools, teachers, and children.

Oklahoma is indeed the poster child for the negative consequences. “Funding for classrooms has been shrinking for years,” reports the Washington Post, “slicing away hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.” The shift to four-day weeks is not the only consequence of the financial crisis. Art and music programs have been cut, teachers are getting laid off, and those teachers who are left are the worst paid in the nation.

But Oklahoma is just an extreme point on a long continuum of bad.

Somewhere else on that continuum lies North Carolina, where lawmakers passed legislation to lower class sizes in the early grades – arguably a good thing – but then failed to provide schools funding to hire more teachers necessary to meet the new class size mandates. The resulting financial car wreck in schools endangers the jobs of art and music teachers and physical education instructors and nurses, counselors, special education teachers, and other support staff.

Years of financial backsliding in The Tar Heel state has reduced local school budgets to skin and bones, according to local school officials, but many state lawmakers continue to talk about cutting taxes.

A potential solution is mired in North Carolina’s General Assembly while some lawmakers contend, astonishingly, that educators are somehow cased this fiasco.

State lawmakers in Kansas have, for years, addressed repeated budget shortfalls with tax cuts that have led to yet more budget shortfalls. (Why does anyone find this surprising?) Many schools ran out of money and had to close early. In other districts, class sizes ballooned, art and science programs disappeared, and parents had to pay fees for their children to play sports

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich recently submitted a budget that would cut funding to two-thirds of the state’s districts. The governor’s cuts are the result of failures to acknowledge inflation in his calculations and a proposed new funding formula that would hurt districts with enrollment declines, cap funding increases in local districts, and decrease state aid for transportation. Oh, and there’s $2 billion more for charter schools.

“This is every superintendent’s worst nightmare,” says a district school leader, who announced the budget would necessitate firing 24 teachers and raising fees for kids to participate in school activities such as band, sports, and technology. A letter to the editor of a local Ohio newspaper notes the cuts to transportation would be particularly devastating to rural school districts. The transportation cuts come on top of previous in 2009 that used to help school districts purchase newer and more fuel-efficient school buses. Those funds were diverted to charter schools.

In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has for years resisted releasing $4.3 billion in “Foundation Aid” a court ruled are due to the schools based on legislation passed in 2007. Cuomo froze the funding increases in 2009.

In an op-ed for a Lower Hudson newspaper, actress Cynthia Nixon describes the difference the additional funding made for her child: “More teachers and aides providing individualized attention, enrichment like art and chess, a richer learning environment … But short-lived, thanks to Gov. Cuomo.”

The New York Times reports that In New Jersey, “hundreds of towns,” especially those whose student populations are nonwhite and lower-income, “have not gotten their full share of funding” they are due, based on a school formula passed in 2008. The article points to a Jersey district that that was due $23 million, based on the original formula, but only got $9 million. As a consequence of the shortfall, one school has had to pack over 500 students into a single classroom.

Local school leaders in the Garden State complain their schools are “literally crumbling,” funding for their pre-k programs have been “flat lined” for five years, and districts have chronic shortages of nurses, guidance counselors, art teachers, custodians, and social workers.

In Illinois, 17 school districts are suing the state, the governor, and his board of education for failing to fund public education in accord with the state constitution.

In Arizona, funding is so bad – the state is 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding – over 2,100 classrooms don’t have a teacher and another 2,200 are led by uncertified staff.

The list of state negligence to education funding goes on and on. But the problems are nationwide

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our public schools a grade of D-plus on its report card on school infrastructure. Over half of our schools need repairs, renovations, or upgrades just to be in “good” condition.

Over 72,000 teachers have created GoFundMe campaigns on the internet to raise funds for classroom supplies their districts can’t pay for. Teachers already shell out $530 a year, on average, of their own money on classroom items, including food and clothing for students. In high-poverty schools, that figure jumps to $672.

Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement.

Surveys show Americans are generally willing to pay higher taxes to for education, especially if the money is used to pay teachers more and improve facilities and technology.

Yet, political leaders continue to slash taxes instead and redirect more funds to unfounded experiments like charter schools and voucher programs.

It’s time to stop treating the symptoms of this disease and go directly to the cause. Vote these idiots out of office.

 

What Betsy DeVos Calls Education Transformation Is Actually Public Theft

Betsy DeVos wants to give your tax dollars to private schools and businesses and tell you it’s an education “transformation.”

That’s the main theme of an address she gave this week to a conference held by the organization she helped found and lead, the American Federation for Children.

Declaring “the time has expired for ‘reform,'” she called instead for a “transformation… that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.” Her plan also opens your wallet to new moochers of taxpayer dollars.

By the way, AFC, according to SourceWatch, is a “conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues.” It also grew out of a defunct PAC connected to DeVos called “All Children Matter” that ran afoul legally in Ohio and Wisconsin and still owes Ohio $5.3 million for breaking election laws.

So DeVos had a supportive crowd for her speech, but what should the rest of us think of it?

The transformation she calls for seems to rest on the premise that, “It shouldn’t matter where a student learns so long as they are actually learning.” But what does she mean by “learning”? And what should the public expect about how its funds are being spent?

In kicking off her address (transcript here), DeVos thanked Denisha Merriweather for introducing her. Merriweather, as I’ve previously reported, often appears with DeVos at events extolling school vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

In Merriweather’s case, exercising school choice meant using Florida’s education tax credit program to attend a fundamentalist Christian academy that presents the Bible as literal history and science, teaches young earth creationism, and demeans other religions.

DeVos then quickly moved to the story of a recent graduate of a Catholic private school, Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who used that state’s voucher program to transfer from a public school to a private religious school at taxpayer expense.

Based on that student’s life story, DeVos declared, “Here in Indiana, we’ve seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country.”

Reporters at NPR recently looked at what “pro-parent and pro-student” policies have accomplished in Indiana and found the state’s voucher program, which DeVos is no doubt extolling, is essentially a coupon program for parents who already send their kids to private schools.

“More than half of all voucher students in the state have no record of attending a public school,” NPR reports. “Recipients are also increasingly suburban and middle class. A third of students do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals,” a proxy for poverty widely used in education.

Clearly taxpayers should be concerned about picking up the tab for an expense that many families seem to be able to afford in the first place. In fact, that’s a point conservatives frequently level in their claims of widespread welfare fraud.

But so long as students are learning, DeVos contends, what’s the beef? Well, evidence of these students actually learning by exercising their “school choice” is scant.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times cites a study which found Indiana students using the state’s voucher program to transfer from public schools to private schools voucher students “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and “saw no improvement in reading.”

But one thing Indiana’s voucher program certainly accomplished is to provide a huge cash infusion to religious schools. As Mother Jones recently reported, of the more than 300 schools receiving voucher money in the Hoosier state, only four aren’t “overtly religious.” The remaining four are for special needs students.

Another premise DeVos argues is, “Education should reward outcomes, not inputs.” But outcomes at what cost?

That’s a question many who disagree with DeVos’s preference for “high performing” charter schools have about her praise for school choice.

In her reporting on a supposedly high performing charter chain in Arizona, Carol Burris, an award-winning educator and leader of the Network for Public education, looked at the school’s supposed great outcomes and found a troubling backstory.

The BASIS Arizona charter chain, she found, “provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made — all hidden from public view.”

DeVos counters any objections to her preference for school choice with the argument, “All parents instinctively know that their child should not follow the money – the money should follow their child,” which is a favorite phrase of the school choice crowd.

Here’s something else parents know: Kids don’t come with price tags. And educating the nation’s future workers, leaders, citizens, and artists has always been, and must continue to be, a communal enterprise shared by parents and non-parents alike.

In her efforts to create the education transformation she calls for, DeVos is supremely eager to “get Washington and the federal bureaucracy out of the way,” but still wants you to pay the cost of privatizing our schools. That’s not an agenda for better schools. It’s about stealing public money.

Trump’s Education Budget Feeds School Privatization At The Expense of Students

The vision of “education reform” coming from the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos entails cutting direct aid to students, especially those from low-income families, in order to expand the private sector’s financial footprint in education.

That at least is what’s reflected by a leaked budget document obtained by the Washington Post.

As the Post reports, deep spending cuts – a net $9.2 billion or 13.6 percent – called for in the document sever funding to many “long-standing programs” and federal government supports that largely serve children and youth from low-income households. At the same time, more money would go to incentivize “alternatives to traditional public schools” at the K-12 level and increase the costs of college loans, a federal program with significant ties to the financial services industry.

A glaring example of this pivot to the private sector is the plan’s cuts to programs that make public schools attractive options for parents, especially in low-income communities, while boosting federal support for “school choice” that incentivizes parents to turn to charter schools and private schools instead.

For instance, $1.2 billion for after-school programs would be eliminated – so would $2.1 billion for teacher training programs that lead to class-size reductions in schools. Funding that supports arts education, international studies, and foreign languages get the axe. Federal help for educating Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students and gifted students are killed. A $400 million fund to pay for an array of school-enriching services and academics – such as mental-health support, anti-bullying programs, and advanced courses – gets zero. Even money for Special Olympics education programs would be gone.

Also under the proposed budget, schools would get a lot less money from the federal government for technical education, adult basic literacy instruction, and a program started by the Obama administration to support for children in needy communities.

In the meantime, Trump and DeVos would take $1 billion out of the federal government’s Title I funds – money sent to the states to support educating poor children – to pay for a new grant program that incentivizes those states to fund the competitive privately-operated schools such as charters and religious schools. The grant program, the Post explains, is called Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) that only goes to school districts that “agree to allow students to choose which public school they attend – and take their federal, state and local dollars with them.”

This proposal, often called “Title I portability,” was proposed by Republicans during the Obama administration and met significant opposition from Democrats. The Center for American Progress called the scheme “Robin Hood in reverse” and declared, “Portability actually drives resources away from high-poverty districts and into more affluent ones.”

Nevertheless, Title I portability is based on the general principle that education funding should “follow the child” – a misguided practice many Democrats espouse also – so it continues to live on in the foundation of all school choice initiatives.

In addition to this diversion of K-12 public tax dollars to privately-operated schools, the proposed budget provides “$500 million for charter schools, up 50 percent over current funding,” and an outlay of $250 million for grants that would ”pay for expanding and studying the impacts of vouchers for private and religious schools.

As the Post reporters explain, “It’s not clear how much would be spent on research versus on the vouchers themselves.” But what’s also unclear is how one studies the “impacts” of an initiative simultaneously as it rolls out. Rather than a research endeavor, this additional money sounds more like it’s for a marketing program.

For higher ed, “The proposed budget would also reshape financial aid programs that help 12 million students pay for college,” the Post says.

The “reshaping” includes cutting loans and work-study programs for disadvantaged students and ending subsidized loans for students still in schools and the program that forgives college loans for students who eventually take jobs in the public sector.

Eliminating these student loan programs means “the government could eventually make more money off of student loans” the Post reports in a sidebar to its main article. But not only is it ethically problematic for our government to treat college students like cash cows; it’s also just another way to ensure more money for education is directed to the immense financial empire that profits off servicing those loans, refinancing the debt, and collecting on loans that go into default.

Not many people who’ve already had a chance to comment on this education budget, including Post reporters who brought it to light, think it has much of a chance of getting through Congress.

The circus of scandal that is sidetracking the Trump administration’s plans for tax reform, healthcare, and infrastructure may thwart any progress on his education plan too. But let’s be clear that this budget reflects the education values that have guided, for years, an agenda to privatize public education.