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DeVos Denies Students’ Civil Rights, Locks Out Teachers. But She’s The Victim?

A favorite tactic of the rightwing political establishment is to claim they are being victimized when those who’ve had their civil rights or their political voices stifled by rightwing policies make their grievances known and advocate for change.

It’s a clever way to turn blatant discrimination into a “freedom” and undermine the right to protest.

It appears US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been well schooled in this rhetorical trick.

Shortly after news reports that long-time Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz had been brought in to school DeVos on how to talk about controversial education policies without igniting the ire of parents, teachers, and voters, she played the “victim” card in saying criticisms of her actions as secretary have been “hurtful.”

“[It’s] hurtful to me when I’m criticized for not upholding the rights of students, the civil rights of students,” she told Politico. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For someone who is one of the wealthiest people in America and who is so influential of the ruling party to express vulnerability seems disingenuous, to say the least. It becomes all the more preposterous amidst the recent actions of the department she leads to undo progress in civil rights and undermine democracy.

In her first year as secretary, DeVos has established a consistent pattern of first delaying then eventually curtailing her department’s duties to uphold the civil rights of students. And despite her role as a government official, she’s demonstrated little interest in hearing what the public thinks about these actions. Teachers, parents, and students who recently showed up at the Department of Education to express their dissent were locked out.

Denying the Rights of Transgender Students

Victims of DeVos’s education department include transgender students who want the freedom to use school bathroom facilities that correspond with their gender preferences.

This was their right under the Obama administration, and courts in at least three states – Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maine – have ruled that federal codes enforced by Title IX protect the rights of these students.

But beginning a year ago, DeVos’s education department decided it didn’t like these laws, began to deny their enforcement fell in its jurisdiction, and dismissed complaints from students who claimed arbitrary school rules were forcing them into situations that made them feel uncomfortable or subjected them to bullying.

Now, the department has officially announced it “won’t investigate or take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity,” BuzzFeed reported.

While protecting transgender students when they are “penalized or harassed” is still “prohibited,” according to a department spokesperson, those prohibitions apparently no longer extend to bathrooms.

Since when did people’s rights end at the bathroom door?

Leaving Minority Students Unprotected

DeVos and her department have also signaled their intentions to ignore their duties to take on racial disparities in special education and school discipline policies.

Numerous studies have shown that black and brown school children are disproportionally identified as “learning disabled.” Other studies have found the opposite is true. But it seems reasonable that given the evidence that discrimination – of some kind – against nonwhite students in special education occurs, schools should devote resources to identify and address racial bias in their programs when it shows up.

That is what the Obama administration ruled when it required states to look for racial disparities in special education programs and devote a portion of their federally funded resources to ensure fairness in the identification, placement, and discipline of those students.

The new guidelines were to go into effect this month, giving states a full year to prepare, but DeVos and her department have now issued a two-year delay for “public comment.”

State leaders overseeing special education, who have been preparing to comply with these rules for months, say “they want the rule kept in place,” according to Education Week.

But much in the same way DeVos and her department first delayed and then dropped enforcements of transgender student rights, before eventually announcing a complete denial to enforce them, it’s not hard to imagine this “delay” in special education guidance is the forerunner to eventually abandoning the rules altogether.

Blocking and Locking Out Dissent

DeVos’s troubling history of political influence and her actions as secretary have made her President Trump’s most disliked cabinet member, and she’s constantly confronted with protests wherever she goes.

To shield her from public interaction, DeVos is escorted by federal marshals, an unprecedented security measure at great cost to the taxpayer. Her publically released schedule routinely omits many of the events and meetings she participates in. A recent trip she took to Indianapolis was completely “covert.” And many of the public events where she speaks have been before audiences that align with her political views.

The latest tactic to guard DeVos from the public was to lock the doors of the Department of Education.

Recently when leaders of two national teachers’ unions and 50-odd members representing a coalition of education and civil rights groups tried to deliver 80,000 report cards assessing DeVos’s performance, they were locked out.

Close to 90 percent of the report cards filled out by educators and public school activists gave DeVos an F, according to Education Week.  “A common theme: that DeVos was not doing her job because she appears not to care about public schools.”

“We were locked out,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers told Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. “We asked for an appointment, but they locked us out instead.”

The doors are normally open 24 hours a day, Strauss reported.

DeVos Threatens Our Democracy, Our Future

A year ago, shortly after DeVos took office amidst a storm of controversy, a well-known conservative cartoonist depicted her as a victim of civil rights abuse by inserting her image substituted for Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend racially integrated schools in New Orleans in 1960, in a cartoon rendition of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

The false equivalency of a billionaire white woman able to buy her way into a US Cabinet position to a six-year-old black girl who helped desegregate New Orleans public schools sparked a firestorm of media outrage.

But it’s business as usual for Republicans.

People like DeVos are not victims of anything. She and the rightwing political machine funded by the Koch Brothers want to get rid of public education because they don’t believe in civil rights and democracy. These radical factions have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.

Speaking before the locked doors of the Department of Education, Keron Blair, co-director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, declared the protestors were there to speak out against DeVos’s “deliberate and stated purpose” to undermine her department’s mission and dismantle public education.

“Betsy DeVos and her agenda are a legitimate threat to our democracy,” Blair said, “We will not stand idly by while she dismantles public education and threatens our future.”

Puerto Rico Braces for Wave of School Privatization

The warnings came right after the storm: A devastating Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico would be used as an opportunity to transfer management of the island’s schools to private operators of charter schools and introduce voucher programs that would redirect public education funds to private schools.

Sure enough, with nearly a third of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 schools still without power and hundreds more plagued with crumbling walls, leaky rooves, and spotty Internet, Governor Ricardo Rosselló recently announced he will propose to create charter schools and voucher programs as a recovery strategy for the island’s education system.

That announcement followed shortly after a new fiscal plan from Rosselló that included closing over 300 schools.

The rationale for the school closures relies mostly on the fact that in Maria’s wake at least 22,350 students, or one out of every 13, have left the island, and the education system was shackled by an estimated $120 million debt and pension crisis before the storm. Student enrollment had already dropped significantly in recent years, and 179 schools were closed last summer.

The argument for charter schools and vouchers, on the other hand, is much less supported by statistics and more reliant on rhetoric. Currently, there are no charter schools or voucher programs on the island. But in an interview with The 74, a charter school-favoring media outlet started by former NBC news anchor and public school critic Campbell Brown, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said these “options” are now needed to “have individual schools competing, striving to be the best, to make sure they can maintain their population so they continue to be economically feasible.”

It’s that kind of language that reminds Julian Vasquez Heilig of a pattern of “education reform” policy he has seen elsewhere. “The education privatization playbook uses politics to open the door for more privately controlled schools that are funded by tax dollars but are not democratically controlled,” he tells me in an email.

Pattern of ‘Education Reform’

Heilig, a professor at University of California – Sacramento, has written about Puerto Rican education policy before, saying in an article for The Progressive in 2015 that “Politicians in Puerto Rico are seeking to solve decades of fiscal mismanagement by adopting the same education reforms that are hurting children and starving school districts in the mainland United States. The disaster capitalism coming to the azure waters of Puerto Rico is very similar to the school privatization and private-control education reform causing an uproar in Chicago and Detroit.”

Heilig’s reference to disaster capitalism matches what others are saying about Puerto Rico after Maria.

A week after the storm made landfall on the island, and with most of the island still in darkness, author and journalist Naomi Klein warned in The Guardian that “vultures” circling the devastated landscape were advocating the only way for the island to get the lights back on was to sell off its electricity utility, a phenomenon of what she calls the Shock Doctrine: “the exploitation of wrenching crises to smuggle through policies that devour the public sphere and further enrich a small elite.”

Education Week’s correspondent on the ground in the island reported that Secretary Keleher, whose tenure started just nine months before the storm hit, was “diving deep into the lessons of loss and opportunity in previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005.”

Recall that then-US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” After Katrina, New Orleans schools were shut down, over 7,000 teachers were fired, and the school board lost its power. Today, nearly all schools in New Orleans, but a handful of very elite schools, have been converted to privately operated charter schools.

Keleher’s Plans for Closed Schools

Keleher, who leads the biggest government agency on the island, is a former management consultant, according to her LinkedIn page.

She initially arrived in the Island in 2007 from Washington, DC, as part of the team that would oversee the development of programs and use of Title I funds, according to Puerto Rican news outlet El Nuevo Dia. Title I funds are the federal government’s largest allocations to K-12 schools and are intended to bolster the resources of schools serving low-income children, which makes them the largest source of federal funds in Puerto Rico.

Afterwards, she worked with the Risk Management Service on the island, which monitored the use of all federal funds. She was appointed to be education secretary in December 2016 just a week prior to the new government led by Rosselló taking office.

After her appointment, El Nuevo Dia reported, Keleher also finagled a dual contract with Rosselló that awarded her with another nearly quarter million dollars, giving her a total salary of $300,000 per year. As a new advisor to the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), she would have the authority to gather information about the way empty school buildings would be used, including buildings that she herself may have just closed with her authority as education secretary.

Her FAA position would also allow her to meet with mayors to determine what “innovative projects” could be launched in those closed school buildings. Perhaps even the “innovative” charter schools she now wants to see rolled out across the island?

The Pastorek Connection

Either through her work with the US Department of Education or her “diving” into the history of New Orleans schools after Katrina, Keleher reached out to get advice from Paul Pastorek.

When Katrina hit, Pastorek was Louisiana’s superintendent of education. He saw the storm’s aftermath as a clean slate to remake schools around his desires for privatization, and he is now viewed as the “architect” in designing the district’s nearly all charter school make up.

What’s often left out of the New Orleans school reform “success” story is that converting the district to charter schools gave parents and citizens little to no voice in determining school policies and governance. Most parents lost the ability to have their children attend a school in close proximity to their homes, which resulted in student having to spend more hours in transit to schools across town. Schools now open and close with greater frequency, creating more disruptions in family routines and students’ learning, and more schools weed out difficult students in their enrollment processes. And the district’s teacher corps has grown way more transient and inexperienced after the mass firing of mostly Black teachers after the storm.

Defenders of what happened to NOLA schools point to rising test score results and graduation rates. But these defenses often grossly overstate the progress in the city or fail to acknowledge the many complications that confound clear conclusions about the reforms – including Louisiana’s shifting school performance metrics, the billions of dollars poured into the city by the federal government and philanthropies, and the huge demographic changes in the district’s student populations.

More recent analysis finds that 12 years after Katrina, 34 of the city’s 84 schools that the state is able to assess (not all schools have grades that take state tests) were rated D or F in the state’s A-F ranking. Eighteen of the schools have had D or F three years in a row. The trend is negative, as 65 percent of New Orleans schools have seen their state rankings slide three years in a row.

Something Other Than Privatization

An article at The 74 is already soft-peddling the announcement of school privatization rollouts in Puerto Rico as a sort of New Orleans-light.

“Although comparisons to New Orleans are perhaps inescapable,” the article states, “Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana state superintendent who led reform efforts after Katrina, said Puerto Rico is actually more akin to Denver or Washington, D.C., where reform efforts have simultaneously focused on traditional public schools and charters.”

Regardless which style of privatization Puerto Rico rolls out, educators and parents are bound to protest. As the article mentions, Keleher’s first target for charterizing are 14 Montessori schools. The article quotes a spokeswoman for the government agency that works to expand the island’s public Montessori schools who reportedly said, “Leaders at the existing Montessori schools … are not interested in converting their campuses to charters.”

We’ve already seen how privatization has proven to be a disaster in Puerto Rico. Shortly after Maria hit, an Atlanta entrepreneur working as a one-woman company was awarded a $156 million contract to deliver 30 million meals. Only 50,000 were delivered and those were rejected for not being in compliance with the contract.

Similarly a tiny family utility-contractor operating out of his home in the ski town of Whitefish, Montana, was awarded a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to rebuild 100 miles of power transmission lines across the island’s shattered electric grid. This arrangement also proved to be disastrous.

Could it be that something other than privatization is the answer?

How Public Schools Became The Koch Brothers’ ‘Lowest Hanging Fruit’

Despite his campaign promises to transform American education, President Donald Trump had almost nothing to say about the subject in his first State of the Union speech, and his controversial education secretary Betsy DeVos has not made national headlines for some time. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are pausing their assault on the nation’s public schools.

As James Hohmann of the Washington Post reports, GOP fat cats who make up the powerful donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch recently met in California and declared their intention to “fundamentally transform America’s education system,” including the K-12 sector.

“The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said one of the attendees, a wealthy Texan who co-founded Texans for Educational Opportunity, a lobbying group behind the effort in the Lone Star State to create vouchers that let parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private or religious schools. “I think [K-12] is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”

“The vast network has pledged to devote around $400 million” to influencing political campaigns in the upcoming November elections, reports Annie Linskey of the Boston Globe, who also dropped in on the affair. “That’s 60 percent more than the network spent in 2014, when Republicans picked up nine seats in the Senate and 13 seats in the House of Representatives.”

A “major focus” for those pledging these staggering sums, according to Linskey: referendums and new state laws “to remake the nation’s education system.”

The revelation of a huge, influential network of wealthy conservatives determined to remake public schools into their own vision should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Leading scholars of the conservative movement have been warning for years that radical factions in the Republican party have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.

What’s not certain though is whether Democrats will recognize the onslaught and rise to the challenge of defending public schools and public school educators.

What the Right Wing Wants

Participants at the Koch Network gathering spoke of “disrupting the status quo” in education in order to remake the system around policies that enable more of what they call “choice.”

“The Kochs are particularly enthusiastic about education savings accounts,” Linskey writes, “a mechanism that upends traditional K-12 education by, in some cases, giving parents lump sums they can use to pay private schools or even online institutions to educate their children.”

Currently, five states allow for Education Savings Accounts: Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee. But legislation to create new ESA programs is pending in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere.

ESAs have been called “the next generation of school vouchers,” and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called ESAs “the driver behind school choice of the future.”

The programs vary somewhat from state to state, but generally the programs allow qualifying parents who withdraw their children from public schools to get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The accounts come with debit cards families can use to pay for education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, private lessons and therapists, and tutoring services.

The programs tend to pose significant risks to parents, as states release funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.

Advocates for these programs often begin by targeting ESAs to disadvantaged student groups, such as those from low-income households or those with special needs. But then, invariably, ESA proponents want to expand the program to entice other families to leave the public school system.

Participants at the Koch Network gathering, Hohmann reports, spoke of ESAs being instrumental in redirecting public school funding to an array of privately-controlled alternatives to public schools, including “technologies” that let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors, teacher-less computer based instructional programs often called “personalized” or “customized” learning, and “micro-schools” that substitute computer software platforms for the traditional shared-space of a public school led by professional educators.

ESAs further the conservative cause to transform collectivist endeavors, like public education, into consumer enterprises that give the wealthy the upper hand in maintaining their privileges. The amount of money ESAs provide per student rarely covers the full cost of tuition, fees, uniforms, books, transportation, and other expenses at private and religious schools.

During one session at the Koch Network meeting, the audience was harangued by Doug Ducey, a Koch acolyte and former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery who now serves as governor of Arizona. Ducey offered his state as a model for how to remake public schools.

Last year, Arizona enacted a universal, statewide ESA program that is now being threatened by a citizen-led repeal effort, which voters will decide in November. The Koch Brothers, through their Americans for Prosperity and Libre Initiative organizations, have already spent millions to derail the recall effort in the public forum and in the state courts. A Superior Court Judge recently tossed out their effort to stop the referendum, so now the Koch Network is drumming up more money to defeat the recall at the ballot box.

In his reporting of the discussion, Hohmann incorrectly cites “teacher unions” as the leaders in the decidedly broad-based effort to collect signatures and put the statewide ESA recall to voters. Nevertheless, participants in the Koch Network called “breaking the teacher unions” an essential to getting their education ideas enacted.

The Right Wing’s Long Game

The group gathered at the Koch Network event are not your run-of-the-mill right-wing conspirators. Members of the network, some 700 of them, have to contribute a minimum of $100,000 annually, and they hold huge sway with Republican candidates and elected officials.

They’ve been working on building this influence for a long time.

As Jane Mayer recounts in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Charles and David Koch and other conservative billionaire families have orchestrated a decades-long effort to influence U.S. politics. She makes a convincing case that, after years of careful planning and generous funding, the Kochs have succeeded in spreading their antipathy toward government and progressivism and establishing themselves at the center of conservative Republican politics.

While Trump may have initially distanced his presidential campaign from the Kochs and their network, once in office, he quickly hired Koch allies, like DeVos, and pushed new legislation, such as the recently enacted tax plan that the Kochs now pledge $20 million to “sell” to the American public.

Trump also continues to be, as he was in his presidential campaign, an ardent proponent of the Koch network’s top education initiative: school choice.

in David Koch’s losing run for political office in 1980, Mayer recounts, he campaigned on a platform that called for ending an array of federal programs that make up the social-economic safety net, including welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security; closing numerous federal agencies, including the EPA, SEC, and FBI; and getting rid of public schools.

Mayer calls attention to other wealthy, influential right-wing donors who have targeted public education for transformation, including John M. Olin, Art Pope, Richard Mellon Scaife, Harry and Lynde Bradley, and Richard and Betsy DeVos (yes, that Betsy DeVos).

Among the many campaigns waged by these wealthy individuals and their foundations, Mayer describes numerous examples of their support for “the early national ‘school choice’ movement” and their desires to dismantle teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. The effort aims to “‘wean’ Americans from government” by making it easier for parents to use public funds to send their children to private and parochial schools.

Similarly, Nancy MacLean, in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, details how the right’s vast network, including the Kochs and the academic institutions they’ve sponsored, erected a formidable campaign to dismantle government, with public education being among their chief targets. Their hatred for all collective endeavors – including schools, Social Security, voting rights, taxation, and government supported healthcare – drove them to propose the most radical ideas by using prosaic, positive language of “choice” and “reform.”

MacLean sources much of her documentation of the radical right’s ascension to the “school crisis” in the South, principally Virginia, where court-ordered desegregation sent wealthy white Southerners into a panic over the prospect of seeing their children in the same classrooms with black students.

With the Koch Network’s announcement remaking public education is now a chief cause of the right wing political machine, we are seeing the fruition of the decades-long campaign carefully planned and crafted by wealthy conservatives.

Will Democrats Fight Back?

How much money are wealthy Republicans in the Koch Network planning to spend on their education initiative?

“The network declined to offer exact figures,” according to Hohmann, “but said it will double investment in K-12 this year, with much more planned down the road.”

What is even less clear is how Democrats intend to respond.

Democrats, over the years, have pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers and have gradually embraced the language of “reform” and “choice” Republicans use. Many Democrats have turned against teachers union, joined the Republican chorus to “bust” the public school “monopoly,” and embraced numerous alternatives to traditional public schools that sap the system of its resources.

“To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory,” writes Jennifer Berkshire for The Baffler.

Berkshire traces the Democrats’ turn against public schools back to the Clinton administration and up through Obama. But the course mainstream Democrats chose to follow when talking about public schools sounds not much different from what the Kochs and their kind have been selling, Berkshire argues. “Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix.”

With the deeply unpopular duo of Trump and DeVos leading the Republicans’ campaign to dismantle public schools, Democrats have an an opportunity this November to offer a very different message and policy choice for education that turns it into an effective wedge issue for the vast audience of voters who genuinely want support for education to be on the ballot.

As Republicans are poised to go after public schools as “the lowest hanging fruit,” it would be a shame, and ultimately a tragedy, if Democrats let them pick it.

Largest Charter School Fail Ever Doesn’t Faze ‘School Choice’ Fans

In the run up to what was billed as “record breaking celebrations” of charter schools and other forms of “school choice,” there was a serious bump in the road when news outlets in Ohio reported the largest charter school closure ever in that state, and perhaps the nation, had suddenly sent over 12,000 students and their families scrambling to find new schools midyear.

The school, an online charter called the Electronic School of Tomorrow (ECOT), owed the state nearly $80 million for inflating its enrollment numbers and overcharging the state for thousands of students that never attended full time. Negotiations on a payment plan with the state fell through, and the school’s sponsor, which it needed to operate legally, decided it couldn’t carry the school.

“My kids went to bed last night crying,” said a Cincinnati mom whose children attended the school.

“To just rip them out of the environment they are most used to,” complained another mom whose children had attended the school for eight years. “They have relationships with their teachers,” she said in a news video posted on the ECOT Facebook page.

Older students seem to have it the roughest, especially those nearing graduation, who must ensure credit hours and courses align to their college plans. “A nightmare” one student called the mad scramble for transcripts and other paperwork. “Twelve-thousand people yelling for records all at once.”

The fallout is all but certain to continue as a wave of abandoned charter students washes up in public schools across the Buckeye State, where they may be ill prepared for classwork due to the online school’s poor academic standing.

Yet in kicking off the school choice events – an annual event called National School Choice Week – President Trump, said nothing about the unfolding charter school disaster in Ohio, proclaiming instead, “School choice helps alleviate common hindrances to success and creates the space necessary for students’ aspirations to flourish.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump’s biggest proponent of charter schools and all things choice, addressed a School Choice Week rally in the nation’s capital, the first Secretary of Education to do so, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “I hope you will go out from here and you will tell your stories,” DeVos exhorted the crowd. Yet no one at the event, including DeVos, appeared to want to tell the stories from Ohio.

And as scheduled school choice events rolled out, news outlets across the nation happily reported one unbalanced story after another about the raucous events and speeches at school choice events, with nary a mention about the debacle in Ohio.

Only one prominent charter school enthusiast, Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, addressed ECOT’s closure. She praised it, calling the state’s actions “a good day for those who believe in the importance of closing poor-performing schools.”

Both Rees’s comment on the Ohio charter school failure and the inattention to ECOT’s collapse in School Choice Week events seem to confirm that school choice fans and the charter school industry are convinced things are working just swimmingly and their business model that implies the need for some schools to fail and be closed down actually proves choice is working.

But in a public education system guided by choice, what happens to the parents who choose wrong?

A Billion Dollars for What?

The failed Ohio online charter school, which operated for 16 years, likely cost the state over a billion dollars, estimates former state education administrator Bill Phills in the Columbia Dispatch.

The school got into trouble for inflating attendance at the outset, according to the article, while using an aggressive marketing campaign, with taxpayer dollars, to keep consumer interest high.

Few state leaders seemed to care when a district superintendent reported some students in the online charter hadn’t received computers deep into the school year, weren’t required to report to a central computer lab, or could “go in once every 20 days, log on, do nothing and then go away for another 20 days.” The superintendent surmised the lack of response was due to the generous campaign donations the school’s owner, William Lager, who grew rich from the school, gave to GOP politicians protecting the school.

Longtime Ohio charter school watchdog Stephen Dyer agrees. “Lager himself gave more than $1.2 million to primarily legislative candidates since 2000, less than 5 percent of which went to Democrats,” he writes on his blog for progressive think tank Innovation Ohio. “And while the school is now shut down, what is clear is that the reason it remained open as long as it did was because the school had powerful allies and protectors in state government,” he concludes.

“Until very recently ECOT seemed untouchable,” writes James Pogue in a long form article about ECOT for Mother Jones. But now that the school has seemingly been shut down, “Many of the Ohio students and parents who got caught up in the ECOT experiment already feel like they’re living with the consequences,” he concludes.

For many of those students and parents, especially those now sent scrambling to find a new school, the consequences are likely not good.

Public Schools to the Rescue

The largest charter school closing before the ECOT debacle was the mass exodus from Imagine charter schools in St. Louis. As I reported for the Washington Post, in 2007, Imagine Schools, a for-profit chain of 69 brick-and-mortar schools currently operating in 12 states, moved into the city and opened four new charters. By 201i, Imagine had six schools enrolling nearly 4,000 students, over 10 percent of the district’s student population.

District officials and local reporters noted Imagine’s students performed consistently worse than city and state averages on standardized tests, yet the company was reaping huge profits from its real estate business.

Missouri state officials, alarmed at Imagine’s fiscal stunts and persistently low performance, closed all six schools in 2012, sending 3,800 students from closed schools to district schools that needed millions in new funds to upgrade and outfit buildings to accommodate the influx.

It’s fortunate, those students had public schools to take them in. The same is true in Ohio.

“About 95 percent of Ohio’s 600-plus school districts have students at ECOT,” an Ohio news outlet reports, with the Columbus and Cleveland districts topping 1,200 and 800 students, respectively.

It’s impossible to estimate how many of ECOT’s former students will decide to enroll in a different online school. But these schools are not likely good choices either. Ohio’s online charters tend to preform far worse than their counterpart brick-and-mortar schools do, with students losing between 75 days to a full year in academic learning, according to a new study.

Also, the number of the ECOT students who will end up in Ohio’s brick-and-mortar charters isn’t clear because many charter schools do not have to accept student transfers at midyear even if they have room, a process known as backfilling.

Many of the receiving public schools braced to accept these students already struggle with overcrowding. No doubt, districts will be taking in students who have never attended one of their schools, and will therefore need to have screening for learning disabilities, English language proficiency, and other special needs. Many schools may have to hire new specialized staff to meet these students’ needs.

And the fact these transferring online charter students are used to taking classes online and not in classrooms will pose new problems for acclimating them to a traditional public school.

At least one district, Cleveland, has set up a special task force to meet the challenge.

“We adjust,” a public school administrator from another district is quoted in a local news outlet. “That’s what we do.”

The public schools’ response to the charter closure disaster in Ohio is reminiscent of stories and images from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California recently, where public schools were some of the few institutions to stay open in the disastrous wake of hurricanes and wildfires, and public school teachers were on the frontlines to help desperate families.

Yet, school choice proponents declare public schools the problem with American education.

Whose Choice

No doubt, many parents who chose ECOT strongly believe it was the best choice for their children. That may be true for many of them. And those are the only parents you’re going to hear from during National School Choice Week. But what about the parents whose stories aren’t so happy?

Of course, public schools sometimes close too. But we don’t expect them to. In fact, public schools have long been the default backstop in communities everywhere.

Charter schools, on the other hand, which are driven by market-based principles, seem to guarantee a certain portion are expected to fail. Do you really think that is something to celebrate?

Trump Fills The Swamp To Exploit College Students

President Trump ran on promises to “drain the swamp” of special interests and corporate lobbyists in Washington, DC, but higher education policy in his administration is a quagmire of Okefenokee proportions.

Just to review the latest developments to emerge from the dismal places in his administration:

• His Department of Education contracted with a college student loan service company with financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,

• His Department of Justice sided with a college loan service firm that a state attorney general says has violated college student loan debt forgiveness rules, and

• His Department of Veterans Affairs gave a reprieve to a for-profit college that also has ties to personnel deep in the muck of DoEd headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza.

These developments continue the trend in the Trump administration, and with Republicans on Capitol Hill in general, to favor the interests of the predatory college loan and for-profit college industries at the expense of students, families, and the American taxpayer.

Filling the swamp with higher education exploiters has severe negative financial consequences not only to college loan holders, but also to the public treasury, and according to a new report, the fallout to taxpayers is likely worse than what’s widely understood.

College Debt Collector Tied to DeVos

The Trump administration didn’t start the sordid business of contracting with for-profit companies to help the federal government collect overdue student loans.

But the Obama administration at least made an effort to be more selective in choosing collection firms with clean records and taking steps to prevent them from charging high fees and abusing debt holders. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has reversed those policies and abandoned safeguards that could prevent bad actors from getting federal contracts.

Officials in the education department say the reversals were enacted to cut “red tape,” but it doesn’t add to the department’s credibility that a loan service company chosen to receive one of these lucrative contracts happens to have financial ties to Secretary DeVos.

As the Washington Post reports, the company, Performant Financial Corp., “is linked to LMF WF Portfolio, a limited liability company that DeVos as an investor.” The contract is worth up to $400 million.

During her confirmation, Senate Democrats grilled DeVos about potential conflicts of interest arising from her overseeing contract bids worth millions of dollars to companies she had financial connections to.

DeVos was required to divest her holdings with Performant, but the decision to award a contract to the firm seems even shadier due to the “marginal” management rating Performant has for its previous work under the Obama administration.

Other loan firms that applied for contracts are now suing the department for exhibiting bias in its selection process.

Trump Doing Loan Servicers’ Bidding

An even bigger concern is that DeVos and her department are awarding new loan service contracts at all without adopting any new reforms to prevent these companies from gouging loan holders and running up the bill to the federal government.

In reporting about the Performant deal, a journalist for Dow Jones quotes student loan borrower advocates who compare student debt collectors to firms working for the Internal Revenue Service that, in 2017, collected $6.7 million in tax payments but invoiced the government $20 million for their services.

While the Trump administration puts into place personnel and procedure that benefit the college student loan industry, his Justice department is actively engaged in preventing any other branches of law enforcement from holding the companies accountable for cheating borrowers and running up expenses to the public.

As Reuters reports, the Trump administration recently intervened in a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Attorney General that accuses a company that handles over a quarter of the nation’s outstanding college student debt for “deceptive practices” and overcharging students.

Massachusetts accuses the loan servicer, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, of causing public workers and teachers in the state to lose benefits and assistance provided by the federal government, including a program that forgives student loans after 10 years of public-service employment.

In defense of the loan company, Trump’s DoJ filed papers telling the judge to dismiss the charges because Massachusetts doesn’t have standing to pursue claims against the company. Should the judge comply, this would establish a terrible precedent for future actions against abusive college loan debt collectors.

Favors for For-Profit Colleges

When the Trump administration isn’t sticking up for college loan servicers, it’s doing all it can to help for-profit colleges – the sector that benefits the most from federal college loans – avoid accountability for breaking rules and pushing disadvantaged students, many who are military veterans, into taking out huge loans for degree programs they mostly never complete.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, during the Obama administration, for-profit college Ashford University, that relied heavily for its revenues on GI Bill benefits, was threatened with losing its eligibility to obtain millions of dollars from the federal program because of noncompliance with licensure requirements. But Trump’s Veteran’s Administration recently gave Ashford a reprieve, pending legal action that could resolve the noncompliance.

The VA’s decision could be on the up-and-up, but it doesn’t help that Ashford’s parent company, Bridgepoint Education, has run into trouble for illegal practices before, including deceiving students into taking out loans that cost more than advertised, collecting federal loan money even though the vast majority of students drop out, and rewarding corporate executives and shareholders with huge profits reaped from public funds.

The VA’s decision looks all the more suspect based on the presence of former Bridgepoint employees in DeVos’s education department. As David Halperin writes in one of his many investigative reports on the for-profit college industry, DeVos has in her department two employees with Bridgepoint connections – Robert Eitel, who was Bridgepoint’s chief compliance officer before joining the department as senior advisor, and Linda Rawles, an attorney chosen to help craft rules to govern student debt relief. Talk about foxes attending the henhouse.

This recent action by the VA extends the Trump administration’s reputation for favoring the for-profit college industry, a perception demonstrated last year when DeVos and her department suspended rules that would have allowed student-holders defrauded by Corinthian College, and other for-profits, to have their loans forgiven. In retaliation, more than one-third of states have filed lawsuits.

It Gets Worse

The Trump administration’s efforts to fill the higher education swamp in Washington, DC has dire consequences not only for the students who are shackled with crippling levels of debt but also for the American taxpayer.

A new comprehensive assessment of student debt and default over a 20-year span finds disturbing trends that indicate student debt burdens and the consequences from those debts are worse than what previous studies have found.

This analysis by Brookings finds, for instance, that as many as 40 percent of student loan holders are likely to default, and the cumulative rate of default over the 20-year span analyzed is far higher than previously measured.

The default rate is far worse for students who take out loans for degree programs offered by for-profit colleges. The default rate for students entering for-profit programs is nearly four times the rate of those students entering public programs – 47 percent versus 13 percent. This discrepancy between the two sectors is getting worse. For a cohort of 100 students who began attending a for-profit college in 1996, 23 defaulted within 12 years of starting their programs, compared to 43 for the cohort entering a for-profit program in 2004.

The loan default rate among black students is at “crisis levels,” the analysis finds. The default rate among black graduates is more than five times the rate of white graduates (21 versus 4 percent). Here again, the for-profit sector makes the problem worse. Black students who drop out of for-profit colleges default at a rate of 67 percent compared to only 4 percent for white graduates who never attended a for-profit and complete their degrees.

Default rates are accelerating across nearly all sectors of college entrants – for-profit or public, dropouts or degree holders. But when the results of the for-profit sector are separated out, default rates have risen at only “modest” levels.

For this reason, and others, the analysis recommends “robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector.” Yet the Trump administration is doing the exact opposite.

Because the Brookings analysis is confined only to college loan holders who default, there is an even bigger problem with student loan debt being overlooked here.

All those students who haven’t defaulted deserve attention too. Student debt levels have reached nearly $1.4 trillion and now have become the second-largest source of household debt, after housing, and the only form of consumer debt that continues to grow since the Great Recession.

But the most important point here is that the cost of student loan debt and the malfeasance of the for-profit college industry hurt everyone by bleeding the public treasury, directing huge amounts of economic capital to unproductive ends, and diminishing the opportunities for a whole generation of young adults to realize their life goals.

The Trump administration is hard at work doing everything it can to make this situation worse.

Why America’s School Funding Crisis Is A Race And Gender Justice Issue

Two news stories that recently went viral tell an important story about America today and the nation’s misbegotten values.

The first image comes from Baltimore, Maryland, where students and teachers recently had to wear coats, gloves, and blankets in classrooms because their schools weren’t adequately heated for winter weather. Pipes froze and burst and boilers broke down. About a third of schools were initially affected, and when an intense winter storm sent temperatures plunging further, the city had to close all schools.

The second image is a video from Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, showing a school teacher who politely questioned her school board about teacher pay and working conditions was escorted out of the meeting by an armed guard and then thrown to the floor, handcuffed, taken into police custody, and charged with a crime.

What each of these images has in common is a story about money and priorities.

In a nation that can afford to give businesses a $2.6 trillion tax cut and spend at least $4 trillion on endless wars in the Middle East, we can’t seem to be able to guarantee students that their classrooms will be heated nor promise teachers that they can depend on decent wages and reasonable working conditions.

That’s shameful for sure. But what these two images also convey is that the targets for the systemic abuse are blatantly selective.

Look closely at the images from Baltimore and you’ll see the skin colors of the school children are generally not white. Eighty percent of Baltimore city schools students are black, 10 percent are Latino, and only 9 percent are white.

Watch the video from Louisiana and you can’t help but notice the autocratic board members are predominantly male while the teacher and her colleagues speaking out in her support are mostly female

At a time when wildly popular hashtag-driven campaigns are whipping up intense public fervor for the rights of black lives and women, now might be a good time to address how nonwhite children and women are being treated in our public school system.

It’s About Race

It’s neither a mischaracterization or an exaggeration to point to the unheated Baltimore classrooms and claim their conditions are a national concern.

“Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it,” reads the headline of a recent article in The Washington Post. The reporter, freelance journalist Rachel Cohen, points to a study way back in the 1990s that told us millions of students attended schools with structural problems, and thousands of students were in buildings with poor air quality. A more recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a “D+” grade on it’s A-F national report card on the conditions of public school buildings. And a 2016 report estimated, “In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent.”

Not only is the problem national in scope, but as Cohen points out, “These problems disproportionately affect poor communities,” especially in older cities, where schools tend to be 60 to 70 years old. “Low-wealth jurisdictions such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit face far greater challenges borrowing money and accessing capital investment,” she writes, “making it even harder to address needed repairs. And when repairs are deferred, the costs increase. As a result, students in affluent communities can enjoy higher-quality school buildings than those in lower-income districts.”

The blatant inequity of school facilities funding extends beyond buildings to programs and personnel.

A 2011 report from the federal government found, “More than 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get a fair share of state and local funds.” Consequently, as a more recent article from The Atlantic reports, “High-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do,” which translates to “fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities, and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts.”

And Gender

In a district like Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, where the teacher, Deyshia Hargrave, was forcibly ejected from a board meeting, lack of funding adversely affects teachers’ working conditions too.

Listen closely to what Hargrave said, and you’ll hear her complaints are very specific. As Education Week reports, Hargrave questioned why the board increased the salary of the current superintendent by $38,000 while teachers and other district employees remained underpaid and overworked. “The teachers of this parish have not received a raise in ten years,” the local teachers’ union reports, and Hargrave tells the board her class sizes have swollen from 21 students to 29.

Press accounts of the incident differ on whether or not board president Anthony Fontana signaled for the officer to escort Hargrave out, and there’s so far been no explanation for why the officer threw Hargrave to the floor once they entered a hallway, but Fontana stated he was “100 percent” behind the officer’s actions, even though the video convinced city and board attorneys Hargrave was completely innocent of wrong doing and deserved no formal charges.

The video sparked widespread outrage, including some threatening violence against the board, according to USA Today. But one observation worth noting, by female board member Laura LeBeouf, was that, “What happened here tonight – the way the females are treated in Vermillion Parish … I have never seen a man removed from this room.” USA Today quotes LeBeouf saying, “When [Hargrave] realized she had to get out, she picked up her purse and walked out … Women in this parish are not getting the same treatment.”

It’s no secret that women across America have to deal with lower pay than men, for doing the same job, and women are vastly under-represented in political and business leadership.

This is especially true in public education where the vast majority of classroom teachers are female, while administration is dominated by males, and teachers receive salaries that are much lower than what other professionals with similar levels of education earn.

Not an ‘Education Only’ Issue

The problems that plague student learning conditions and teacher working conditions have become chronic and are growing more acute. But the issue shouldn’t be siloed as an “education only” concern.

This is not to say there aren’t important education ramifications at stake. 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. Studies also show that higher teacher salaries tend to correlate with better student outcomes. And smaller class size reductions often correlate with improvements in student achievement.

But issues related to school funding should not be confined to dry statistical analysis but deserve also to be lifted to the higher ground of what is moral and just. If white male leaders need to be challenged about their views on race and gender, they also must be required to address the worsening conditions in our public schools and the plight of our classroom teachers.

Republican Tax Plan Opens Backdoor To Federally-Supported School Vouchers

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has insisted that her lifelong support for school vouchers and other forms of school privatization does not mean the Trump administration will “mandate” these “school choice” policies, but her Republican friends in Congress put into their tax plan new provisions that will have essentially the same impact as a federally-supported school voucher program and will redirect millions of dollars from public treasuries to private schools.

Republicans and DeVos know that school vouchers are generally unpopular with voters and have been voted down at the ballot box every time they’ve been attempted through referendum. Betsy DeVos and her husband blew millions in funding an attempt to pass a school vouchers measure in their home state of Michigan, only to see it go down to defeat.

Nevertheless, Congress, with DeVos’s blessing, is ramping up federal support for vouchers, with the only difference being, whereas vouchers distribute public education funds directly to parents to pay for private schools, these new schemes bring K-12 school vouchers in through the backdoor by using the tax code.

What Congress Did

One voucher-like scheme Republicans added to the tax code allows parents who have tax-free 529 college savings accounts to use that money – up to $10,000 a year per child – to pay for private K-12 school expenses, including tuition at religious schools.

This gives wealthy families – many who can already afford private school tuition – an option to have tax-free distributions to pay for K-12 expenses every year too.

Further, in the 33 states with tax deductions and credits to incentivize 529 savings, the extension lets private school families avoid state taxes too.

Kathryn Flynn at Forbes explains how this would work in a high-tax state like New York where up to $10,000 in 529 contributions is deductible from taxable income. “By depositing $10,000 to pay for a year of private school,” she writes, “a family with an annual income of $200,000 would see an upfront state tax savings of $665, which can be reinvested in the plan to grow tax-free.”

So while wealthy parents get a double dipping effect on their tax savings from this 529 extension, the rest of us bear the full tax burden of funding public schools for the vast majority of children. And more funds that could have gone to paying for public schools get redirected to private schools instead – just like with vouchers.

Profiting From ‘Donations’

Another voucher-like provision Republicans put into the tax code will not have as much immediate impact as the 529 extension but may have much more negative and wide-reaching effects long-term.

As an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy explains, a loophole added to the tax bill in conference “reward[s] some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals with a strategy for padding their own bank accounts by ‘donating’ to support private K-12 schools.”

The loophole takes advantage of education tax-credit programs set up in many states. Education tax credit programs use a third party – often called a “scholarship granting organization” (SGO) – that is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to the private school industry. Tax credits are issued by the state to private individuals, businesses, or corporations that make donations to the SGO. The money from the SGO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition.

In eighteen states, education tax-credits programs return 50 percent or more, in tax savings, of what the donor gave. In eight of those states, the tax credits return 100 percent of the amount donated. High-income taxpayers taking advantages of these tax-credit programs can also take a federal charitable tax deduction on top of that. So depending on their tax situations, wealthy people can actually make a profit off their “donations” to private schools.

What Republicans did in their tax plan incentivizes more wealthy people to take advantage of this scheme. By capping state and local tax deductions to $10,000, the new tax legislation dramatically increases the attractiveness of giving to education tax-credit programs.

“The profits that could be generated by ‘donating’ would grow in most states,” ITEP finds, as well as the number of wealthy taxpayers eligible to take advantage of the tax advantages.

According to ITEP’s analysis, wealthy folks in at least ten states – Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia – will find it more lucrative to invest in education tax-credit programs than to donate to other charities.

Examples ITEP cites include high-income earners in Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina being able to collect yearly profits as high as 37 percent of the amount donated, meaning donating $1 million to an education tax-credit programs would yield $1.37 million in tax savings.

And in the meantime, money that could have gone to paying taxes for public education gets redirected to private schools – just like vouchers.

Spreading Bad Education

It bears mentioning that these backdoor methods for funding school vouchers through the federal tax code not only rob public education of much needed funds; they also lead to generally bad education results

School vouchers have a generally lousy track record in benefiting individual students and creating systemic improvement.

Recent studies conducted in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington D.C. found students who use voucher programs are more apt to exhibit declines in academic achievement. Other studies in Indiana and Louisiana found the initial dips in achievement were temporary and students tended to catch up to their public-school peers.

But other studies of long-standing voucher programs have found they also pose serious risks to public education systems, including increased school segregation, additional administrative costs, more reliance on inexperienced teachers, and greater likelihood students who are the most costly and difficult to educate will be turned away or pushed out by private schools that are not obligated to serve all students.

So on balance, there’s simply no good argument for throwing new money and program administration at something like schools vouchers that have little to no prospects of producing widespread higher achievement but considerable risks of introducing negative results.

What’s also alarming is that vouchers and voucher-like schemes are eroding the nation’s historical separation between church and state and providing public funding of religious education that indoctrinates students in ideological, ahistorical, and nonfactual curriculum under-written by religiously fundamentalist institutions.

A Recent analysis by HuffPo education reporters found that 75 percent of voucher schools across the country that get taxpayer funds are religious schools, and 33 percent of the non-Catholic Christian schools use textbooks that teach, among other bizarre notions, that Satan created psychology, Manifest Destiny was about “spreading the gospel,” and slavery was “black immigration.”

It also bears mentioning that diverting funds from public schools to private institutions harms our children’s education when schools are forced to respond to the lost money by cutting staff and programs.

Shoe, Meet Other Foot

To be fair, Democrats have taken backdoors to push unpopular education policies as well.

Recall the fury Republicans expressed at the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage states to adopt Common Core Standards and other policy imperatives in order to receive federal grant money from Race to the Top and other education programs.

Complaints that the Obama administration was “overstepping” its authority and “dictating” education policies were countered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan insisting he hadn’t mandated anything at all and that states had adopted the new measures voluntarily.

Democrats in Congress knew that was not really the case but largely remained silent.

Now that Republicans are the ones leading the bait-and-switch game, however, there’s an added irony to the debate when the supposed upholders of “states’ rights” are the ones pushing federal incentives.

Betsy Devos’s current response to this situation is to put on her “radar screen” even more efforts to push school vouchers into federal statutes. And this time, with the backdoor to schools vouchers now wide open, we should take her at her word.

Is Betsy DeVos About To Pump Up The School-To-Prison Pipeline?

It now looks like the Trump administration’s repeal of Obama-era guidelines allowing transgender students to use the school bathroom of their preference was just the beginning of a long list of regulatory reversals including efforts to ensure school discipline practices don’t discriminate against students by race or disability and disproportionally push students into a school-to-prison pipeline.

Recently, Politico broke the news that officials in Trump’s department of education led by Secretary Betsy DeVos seem ready to scrap Obama-era guidance that compel schools to end zero-tolerance discipline policies and curb widespread tendencies to use out-of-school suspensions disproportionally on black and brown school children and students with disabilities.

In a meeting coordinated by rightwing think tanks, according to Education Week, high-level officials in DeVos’s department heard a one-sided presentation by critics of the Obama guidelines and gave little indication of wanting to get all sides of the debate.

Alarmed by the news that the Trump administration might end valuable civil rights protections for their students, concerned teachers generated an outpouring of 500 emails demanding their voices be heard, according to education media outlet The 74. Nine of those teachers organized by teacher-created advocacy group Educators for Excellence flew to D.C. to meet with education department officials to argue for maintaining the discipline guidelines.

No doubt, these teachers reminded DeVos and her department that discipline guidelines put in place by the Obama administration were for very good reasons.

Civil and youth rights advocates have long argued that school discipline practices were out of control and leading to negative life consequences for students, especially among black and brown student populations and students with learning disabilities.

Studies have long shown a high correlation of harsh, zero-tolerance discipline practices and out-of-school suspensions to eventual involvement in the criminal justice system. A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that being suspended or expelled from school made a student nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system within the next year.

A 2015 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that out-of-school suspensions are disproportionally used on students of color and students with disabilities. In the most recent year with available data, 16 percent of black students and 7 percent of Latino students were suspended, while the rate for white students was 5 percent. Students with disabilities had suspension rates that were two to three times their peers.

As harsh, discriminatory discipline policies proliferated, counselors and other support staff have become scarcer. According to a recent study from the Center for American Progress, nearly 35 million children in the U.S. live with emotional and psychological trauma, yet “only a fraction of these students—approximately 8 million of them—have access to a school psychologist. Even fewer students have access to a social worker. Across the nation, only 63 percent of public schools even offer all students a counselor.”

The Obama administration began to take action to curb the use of harsh, discriminatory discipline practices in 2014, The Atlantic reports, when Attorney General Eric Holder and-Education Secretary Arne Duncan the Obmama administration’s first set of discipline guidelines that urged an end to zero-tolerance policies, called attention to the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions on students of color and students with disabilities, and urged schools to seek alternatives practices.

As a result of these guidelines, The Atlantic article explains, many large school districts – including Los Angeles, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, and Bridgeport, Connecticut – put into place discipline practices designed to move away from using suspensions and expulsions and emphasize positive behavior interventions, such as restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm and engaging all stakeholders in the behavior issues. Other schools have invested in additional supports, including school counselors and interventions targeting the emotions and feelings that cause misbehavior instead of on the behavior itself.

The impact of these guidelines is not yet clear. Stark disparities still exist in how out-of-school suspensions are disproportionally aimed at marginalized students. And nearly every day brings a news report spotlighting an incident of overly harsh response to a school behavior situation.

Yet educators in many places report that alternative practices prompted by the Obama guidelines are better than what they were using. And in many situations when alternatives to suspensions don’t seem to work, there’s often an implementation problem, such as a lack of training, an unwillingness to follow the model with fidelity, or a lack of time in the school day to address misbehavior in more constructive ways.

Nevertheless, DeVos and her department seem intent on undermining the Obama protections put into place. The rationale for regulation cutting is that the rules may be “unnecessary” or overly “costly.” But they’re only unnecessary and costly when they don’t apply to you.

Republican War On Learning Takes Aim At Higher Education

New tax bills Congress just passed with zero input or support from Democrats hit higher education hard, but new legislation House Republicans are crafting will likely worsen the damage.

As The Wall Street Journal reports [paywall], the House education committee recently gave a preview to its new legislation, a long overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Like recent tax bills passed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate, this proposed rewrite of HEA will have the effect of further constricting learning opportunities for students, adding to the costs students and families take on for education, and steering more public money for learning to private businesses.

Days after the House and Senate passed their tax bills and the Journal broke its story about new legislation being drafted in the House, Moody’s Investor Services, the esteemed bond rating firm, announced it was “revising the 2018 outlook for US higher education to negative from stable.” Among the rationales Moody’s gave for its decision was “looming changes in federal policy or funding.”

Taxing Higher Ed

Between the dueling GOP tax bills in Congress, the House version is decidedly more damaging to higher ed. But in nearly every instance, the purpose of the proposed changes to existing tax law in both bills seems to be aimed solely at finding revenue sources from higher ed, to offset huge tax deductions given to wealthy families and corporations, rather than to improving learning opportunities for students or lowering the costs of colleges to individuals and families.

For instance, the House bill would make college employees whose spouses or children attend their employer institutions tuition-free report the tuition benefit as taxable income. And employer-provided education assistance would also become taxable, whereas it’s currently tax-exempt up to $5,250 per year.

Similarly, while the Senate plan continues to allow a deduction for student loan interest on federal tax returns, the House plan would eliminate the deduction. While the Senate plan continues to not count college tuition waivers as taxable income, a common benefit for students enrolled in graduate programs, the House version would.

“Any tax changes to tuition support for graduate students could also negatively impact graduate enrollment and research levels since research is a key component of many graduate programs,” notes Moody’s in its ratings announcement.

Both bills apply a 1.4 percent excise tax to private school endowments. In the Hose bill, the tax kicks in when the account is valued at $250,000 per full-time student. The Senate raised that level to $500,000 per student. Colleges that will likely be hit with taxes on their endowments insist their investments are being used to help support tuition costs for low-income students who attend their institutions and for facility improvements.

Both bills also take away tax deductions for interest paid on “advance bonds” colleges use to refund their debts at more manageable levels, and the House version also eliminates tax-exempt private activity bonds that lower the cost of building for colleges. This change was another negative influence on Moody’s downgrade.

Remaking Higher Education

But while GOP tax plans resemble deliberate attempts to strip money away from colleges and universities, without providing any benefit to students and families, new legislation being introduced by House Republicans is arguably worse. If the Higher Education Act rewrite the Republican House proposes resembles what eventually passes, it will remake higher education along very narrow perceived needs of the “work force,” limit financial supports for students, and give advantages to for-profit private providers.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a primary purpose of the remake of the Higher Education Act being introduced by House Republicans – branded the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act –is to address the “skills gap” that supposedly exists between what colleges teach and what employers need.

The Journal quotes North Carolina Republican Representative Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the committee that drafted the proposal, claiming that because much of what colleges and universities teach is “irrelevant” to employers, federal programs should be more supportive of apprenticeships and programs that have come to be called “competency based” education, a nebulous new buzzword often used to describe education that emphasizes the learning of discrete skills rather than broad realms of knowledge.

Political leaders have grown fond of using recent reports finding there are 6 million unfilled jobs in America as proof that higher education no longer aligns with the needs of employers, but those pronouncements about unfilled jobs fail to note, as this report by NPR does, that much of the problem lies with employers inflating their required qualifications and scrimping on wages. As numerous studies show, the so-called skills gap is a myth, and a college degree in liberal arts or other non-technical subjects is as relevant as it ever was.

Likely, what Foxx and other Republicans call a need to teach relevant skills generally means steering more students into for-profit education programs that promise quick employment without ever fulfilling that pledge.

For-Profits Are ‘Winners’

As the Journal reports, “One of the biggest winners in the new higher-education legislation is the for-profit college industry, which faced new regulations under the Obama administration. The rollback of those regulations has been under way since President Donald Trump took office. The reauthorization proposal goes a step further by prohibiting future action by the Education Department on what is known as the gainful-employment regulation.”

The gainful employment requirement is basically a check on schools that claim to provide degree programs that lead to employment to actually live up to that pledge. More often than not, for-profit institutions don’t.

“Blocking the gainful employment rule means that more students will enroll in programs that will ruin their financial futures,” writes David Halperin in the Huffington Post.

Students in these for-profit college programs, he explains, are often people on the edge of desperation  – veterans, single mothers, immigrants, and low-income students from disadvantaged communities who are lured into these programs by “false promises” about landing a great job.

“Many will enroll in programs that aren’t strong enough to help them succeed,” Halperin says. “Even if these students graduate – and many don’t – and even if they get the job they dreamed of – and many won’t – they may not earn enough to pay down their loans, because the tuition was just too high.”

Borrowers Are ‘Losers’

While for-profit providers are “winners” in the Republicans’ proposed bill, the big “losers,” according to the Journal, are student borrowers, especially those wanting to take advantage of the federal government’s public service loan forgiveness program, which allows borrowers who work for nonprofits or government agencies to have their remaining loan balances dropped after they make 10 years of payments. These borrowers, except those grandfathered into the program, would lose this tax advantage.

Other losers include students who run up larger debts to complete their advanced degree programs and student loan debt holders who end up in professional careers that are not top payers.

For students who run up larger debts, such as graduate students in advanced degree programs, the bill proposes “unspecified limits for borrowing by graduate students and parents of college students.” The Journal reports, “The change could cut into enrollment and potentially siphon off billions of dollars a year from universities.” This need to find financial resources for college would tend to, again, go to for-profit lending institutions.

The bill would also, according to the Chronicle, “scale back” the breaks given to student loan debt holders in the federal government’s income-based repayment plans. Student borrowers who want to benefit from the federal government’s income-based repayment program will see their current basis of 10 or 15 percent of discretionary income changed to 15 percent of discretionary incomes. Rather than getting debt forgiveness after 20 or 25 years, college student loan holders, under the new bill, would have debt forgiveness based on as long as it takes “to cover the amount they would have paid under a 10-year standard repayment plan,” according to the Journal. That will increase long-term indebtedness.

War Without End

“There is a long road ahead,” politico reports, regarding the revision of the Higher Education Act. “The Senate won’t start its rewrite until next year. But the upper chamber’s process has already gotten off to a more bipartisan start, with the Senate education committee holding a friendly hearing on simplifying the application for federal student aid and talking about working together on the rewrite.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear the Republican “war on learning” being waged at all levels of education, including higher ed, didn’t end with the tax bills.

GOP War On Learning Continues In Senate Tax Plan, State Funding Cuts

As the Republican-controlled Congress continues to advance tax plans that slash funding from public education, a new report reveals how state and local government officials, especially where GOP leadership dominates, have continued a decade-long campaign to keep school funding below levels that preceded the Great Recession.

There’s little doubt that deep and persistent cuts to education take a toll on student learning opportunities and end the American Dream for millions of young people, especially those who are not white or who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Research studies often show a strong correlation between increased education spending and improved student achievement – finding, for instance, that states forced by court order to increase education spending consequently experienced gains in student achievement. And surveys show Americans are generally willing to pay higher taxes for education.

Yet efforts to cut education continue unabated at all levels of government, especially where Republicans have full control.

Taxing Schools Rather Than the Rich

The tax plan Senate Republicans are likely to pass this week has little to recommend over the House version.

The plan would double to $500 the $250 deduction teachers get for purchasing school supplies with their own money, rather than eliminate the deduction as the House version does. And while the House would eliminate deductions for student loan interest, college tuition and expenses, and tax breaks used by university employees and graduate students, the Senate proposal would preserve them.

But many other features of the Senate plan would deeply harm students and schools.

Both the Senate and House bills propose an excise tax on private college endowments with assets of more than $100,000 per student. Endowment funds are used to help pay for academic programs, campus facilities, and student services, private college leaders and advocates say.

The biggest threats to local schools in both plans are their proposals to end federal deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) that households take when they itemize. The House plan limits the pain with a $10,000 ceiling, but the Senate plan does away with the deduction altogether.

Any reduction to the SALT federal subsidy will imperil the largest sources of school funding to education by eliminating the federal tax benefit to schools, discouraging new state and local tax initiatives to support schools, and pressuring state and local officials to cut local taxes to appease tax payers who can no longer deduct those taxes from their federal returns.

Another feature of the House bill that the Senate also proposes would increase how much schools pay for long-term debt by eliminating a tax exemption school districts get when they refinance their debts at lower interest rates using certain types of bonds.

According to Education Week, in the most recent year reported, districts carried $409 billion in long-term debt – a rate of $8,465 per student – and paid $17 billion in interest on those loans. Taking away any ability to write off some of that interest as a tax exemption would decrease money districts have to pay for teachers and student learning opportunities.

‘Punishing Decade for School Funding’

New GOP federal tax plans compound the harm state and local government leaders have done to public schools and students.

As a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, for the latest year with data available, 29 states currently spend less money per student than they did in 2008. Although some of the 29 states cited by the report have increased education spending lately, the increases haven’t brought back spending levels to what they were nearly a decade ago.

The cuts to K-12 spending have “serious consequences,” CBPP authors contend, including crippling efforts to hire and retain the best teachers, reduce class sizes, expand learning time, and provide high-quality early childhood education.

Of the 10 states that have cut state and local education spending the most – Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Georgia, Idaho, Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Utah (in descending order from 25 percent to 8.6 percent) – all have had a Republican “trifecta” in charge, including a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

Unfortunately, some states where the Democratic party dominates have cut education spending too, although nowhere near the levels of the above-mentioned states where the GOP rules. But another analysis has found Democratic governors have a much stronger tendency to increase school district funding, especially for districts with high proportions of Black and Hispanic students.

“Electing a Democratic governor led to an increase of about $500 per student for districts with a majority of black and Hispanic students,” Chalkbeat reports. “Similarly, the study finds that Democratic governors targeted additional money to colleges and universities that serve more students of color.”

Long-Term Harm

The Republican war on learning will have long term negative consequences to the nation.

While the House tax plan’s cut to SALT deductions would “put nearly 250,000 education jobs at risk,” according to analysts at the National Education Association, the Senate plan to end the deduction would plunge the dagger deeper, potentially leading to a loss of $370 billion in state and local tax revenue over 10 years, the NEA calculates, and endangering 370,000 education jobs.

Changes to higher-education tax benefits in the House tax plan “would cost students and families more than $71 billion over the next decade,” The Washington Post reports.

“Our country’s future depends heavily on the quality of its schools,” the authors of the CBPP study argue. The decade-long effort to cut K-12 school funding they chart “risk(s) undermining schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.”

Perhaps, the whole strategy behind GOP tax plans and budget cuts boils down to a short-term need to cut education in order to offset the large cuts Republicans are providing to wealthy families and corporations.

But next year’s mid-term elections – in which a third of the Senate, 36 governors, and three quarters of states’ legislators are up for re-election – will give the rest of us a chance to speak up.