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What To Make Of The Democrats’ Growing Divide On Education

At the same time Donald Trump’s vile presidency is unifying Democratic resistance to his policies on civil rights, healthcare, and immigration, his views on education policy, and those of his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are dividing Democrats.

Evidence of this growing divide is rapidly accumulating, and Democrats in denial of it are only going to make the party’s already marginalized status worse.

Division Is Everywhere

At last week’s Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressives, where so many popular movements have vaulted into prominence, protestors stormed the stage to shout down a Democratic candidate who openly embraces positions DeVos promotes, including privately operated charter schools and school vouchers that allow parents to enroll their children in private schools at taxpayer expense.

In New York, Politico reports, Shavar Jeffries, a prominent black supporter of charter schools and leader of Democrats for Education Reform, recently resigned from the board of Success Academy, a New York City charter school chain whose CEO Eva Moskowitz, also a Democrat, has been openly supportive of DeVos and was one of Trump’s early picks for education secretary. The “collision course” the reporter sees for Jeffries and Moskowitz is going to repeat among any Democrats who diverge on DeVos and her policies.

A dust-up over racist comments made recently by hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb, who also sits on the board of Success Academy, is getting swept into the education space. Loeb, who has donated heavily to numerous political candidates, including Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been a fervent supporter of charter schools. But his advocacy pushed him toward extremism then he likened Democratic State Senator Andrea Stewart-Couisns, who is black, to the KKK.

Stewart-Cousins, who recently opposed legislation to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and calls for more accountability from these schools, is now being derided as an “anti-charter Democrat” by charter advocates and deserving of such criticism. Prominent African-American Democrats in the state, on the other hand, have rallied to her support.

“Charter schools … are going to create new divisions for Democrats in primaries for 2018,” writes Graham Vyse for The New Republic. Vyse cites examples from a Politico report showing efforts to link Trump and DeVos to Democratic candidates who support charters and vouchers.

“This rift within the party over education policy is very real,” Vyse argues, “and has been hiding in plain sight for years. It just took DeVos to bring it out into the open.”

Look At The Data

Evidence of this growing divide is not merely anecdotal.

An annual survey published by the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University revealed plummeting popular opinion for charter schools, which many Democrats favor. As EdSource reports, favorability for charter school expansions fell from 51 percent to just 39 percent, a 12-point decline in one year.

Although support for charters fell among both Democrats and Republicans, the decline among Democrats now means opponents of charters in the party outnumber supporters, 40 percent to 34 percent.

The growing opposition to charters in the Democratic party may be due to the “polarizing impact” of Trump, notes EdSource. The survey found more Republicans agree with him and more Democrats disagree with him on key education issues. “When half of the respondents were told the president’s positions, between 7 and 14 percent more Democrats disagreed with Trump, depending on the issue, while roughly the same percentage of additional Republicans aligned their views with his.”

What Democrats Should Do

In the face of such shifting opinion on education policy, how should Democrats respond?

First, calls to take “partisanship” out of education policy debates should be cast aside. Democrats who say they can’t agree with this President’s politics need to feel uncomfortable when they find themselves advocating for education policies that are very much in line with what Trump and DeVos want.

The bipartisan consensus on education policy that reigned during the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama was always really a collusion of big-moneyed interests and well-meaning, but ill-informed politicians, to wrestle control of a $600 billion sector of the economy away from teachers, parents, and democratic governance.

Strip away the civil rights language that liberals used to sell charter schools and vouchers to America, and you end up with policies that look exactly like what Trump supports: unregulated, “free market” mayhem that opens vulnerable communities to exploitation by powerful interests.

Telling public school advocates in the Democratic party to turn the heat down is also be a big mistake.

As my colleague Robert Borosage writes, movements are now driving the Democratic party debate and not politicians. Social media rather than party manifestos are propelling change, whether we like it or not.

In such a contentious space, “Democrats need a major debate about values and policy,” Borosage argues, not more “hand-wringing” about the need to unify.

Trump’s tanking popularity proves he can be defeated even if Democrats aren’t in agreement on what they want.

Further, the debate Democrats need should take place in the public forum rather in the revolving door between previous presidential administrations and a handful of think tanks, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations.

For years, Democrats have been getting bad advice from that crowd, and the party needs guidance from elsewhere.

Democrats should have faith that out of this tumultuous debate a new consensus will emerge, but that consensus will be an improvement over the top-down one it’s replacing only if it truly comes from the bottom up.

Betsy DeVos’s ‘School Choice’ Looks More Like Crony Capitalism

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she supports “great public schools,” but her actions continue to show her hypocrisy on that subject.

Her recent trip to Michigan, her home state, offers yet more proof of the real focus of her leadership – and it isn’t about supporting public schools.

During her visit to a Michigan community college, reporters questioned DeVos on her support for public school teacher training and professional development programs. The school, Grand Rapids Community College, offers an extensive array of education courses to prepare new teachers or help veteran faculty grow their instructional skills. Reporters couldn’t help but point out that President Trump’s budget has proposed massive cuts to teacher training programs, including eliminating $2.4 billion in funding for Title II, the third-largest federal K-12 program in the country.

Nevertheless, DeVos told reporters, “President Trump and I are very big proponents of continuing to support teachers and develop teachers.”

DeVos also pivoted reporters’ questions to talking about her support for the Van Andel Education Institute, which she had visited earlier in the day. The Van Andel Education Institute also provides career development programs for teachers, more specifically on preparing and supporting educators in teaching science, technology, engineering, and math, commonly called STEM education.

Trump’s budget, which DeVos has repeatedly endorsed, proposes huge cuts that would endanger STEM learning in public schools and the training provided by public institutions to support teachers in delivering STEM curricula.

Yet, again, DeVos professed her support for “those kinds of opportunities,” even though the budget she and the president have proposed cuts funding in those areas.

But here’s a crucial point local reporters didn’t point out: While the community college DeVos visited is a public institution funded primarily by public tax dollars, the Van Andel Institute is a private, nonprofit organization funded principally by friends of Betsy DeVos.

Jay and Betty Van Andel founded the Van Andel Institute after amassing a huge sum of money in creating the Amway corporation with Richard DeVos, the father-in-law of Betsy. “Amway went on to become one of the largest privately held companies in the world, making both of its founders billionaires,” writes a progressive blogger based in Michigan.

So the fact Betsy DeVos would tout the Van Andel Institute at the same time she presides over a federal department that is advocating for deep cuts to teacher training and STEM education should bring up serious questions about her professed allegiance to public education.

While private organizations like the Van Andel Institute have been prospering, Michigan has made huge cuts to public institutions like community colleges. In 2011, Michigan lawmakers passed a budget that cut public institutions most responsible for teacher preparation and career education, community colleges and universities, by 15 percent. Funding levels have never recovered since.

During roughly the same time, enrollments at Michigan community declined 18 percent while the Van Andel Education Institute grew.

DeVos’s preference for private institutions in higher education mirrors her proposals for K-12 schools. The budget she and her boss have proposed essentially cuts direct aid to students, especially those from low-income families, in order to expand the private sector’s financial footprint in education by funding expansions of charter schools and school voucher efforts.

This clear favoritism for the private sector prompted American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to call DeVos “the most ideological anti-public education person to ever be nominated or confirmed to that position.”

Weingarten notes the budget she and Trump promote is “the worst per-capita budget cuts for kids who are vulnerable or poor that we’ve since Reagan. DeVos also wants the worst budget cuts in raw numbers ever.”

At nearly every turn, DeVos favors private and powerful entities over the public and the least empowered in our society, Weingarten notes, “fighting for the predatory lenders rather than the borrowers in terms of student loan debt,” siding against marginalized students such as transgender children and victims of college campus sexual assaults, and weakening enforcement of federal government anti-discrimination laws in private schools that receive vouchers. These are all signs of a U.S. secretary of education who just does not get that the federal government’s role in education is about ensuring equitable access to education institutions that guarantee an opportunity to learn.

DeVos claims that her proposals are intended to provide more “choice” in the education system, but if that were true, she would be proposing to raise funding levels for all options. The fact she boosts education options in the private sector at the expense of public options shows her real intention is to tilt the playing field toward the choices she wants – privately owned institutions.

The fact those private options sometimes have personal connections to her family and its fortunes make it look all the more like this isn’t about education at all. It’s about making money.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Wrong: Public Schools Aren’t The Cause Of Science Ignorance

It’s true that a lot of Americans don’t have a very good grasp of science. Only about half of Americans believe that human beings evolved over time, fewer parents are vaccinating their children, and while most people accept that climate change is happening, they don’t think it will affect their lives.

But are public schools to blame for this?

That’s what astrophysicist and “Cosmos” star Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to say when he recently tweeted, “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.”

Tyson also told an interviewer for the Huffington Post, “I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world.”

Tyson was likely reacting to news stories about the dramatic growth in the flat Earth movement. Yes, there really are people who believe the Earth is flat. Among them, in fact, is NBA star Kyrie Irving who says, “The Earth is flat,” and any evidence of its alleged roundness “is a lie.”

Anti-science views may indeed be in resurgence. President Donald Trump is slashing the budgets of science-related agencies and appointing officials with well-known anti-science biases.

But the hallmark of any good scientist, which Tyson certainly is, is to create a hypothesis and then weigh the evidence. So what’s the evidence that public schools are the main cause of science ignorance?

School Bashing, A Time-Honored Tradition

First, bashing public schools for America’s perceived disadvantages in science education is practically a time-honored tradition.

In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite, the Eisenhower-era political establishment, fearing the nation was losing the “space race,” pointed a blaming finger at American schools.

Driven by paranoia that Communists were spying on us, “the nation responded to the security threat by targeting education” as the reason why the nation was falling behind, noted a Harvard review on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.

“The schools never recovered from Sputnik,” the late Gerald Bracy wrote in 2007. “Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion.”

The scab would reopen again during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

In the early 1980s, Bracey recalled in a 2003 article, the danger was not “the Red Menace” but the competitive threat posed to the nation’s economy by German, Japanese, and Korean manufacturing.

A new report commissioned by the Reagan administration, called “A Nation at Risk,” blamed public schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity” that was allegedly crippling the nation’s ability to compete with the new industrial titans of the world. Using that report, Reagan helped launch a campaign for “greater accountability” from public schools that would stretch into the current century.

Battling False News

Today, when public schools and science teachers aren’t contending with the continued bashing by lawmakers and policy leaders, they have to address an around-the-clock onslaught of propaganda and “false news” which their still highly-impressionable students encounter every day.

As NPR reports, “Kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they’ve read online or heard elsewhere,” and teachers have more false information they have to dispel.

Conservative think tanks know this, the NPR reporter notes, and are carpet bombing schools with glossy information packets designed to provide teachers with convenient – albeit false – answers to students’ myriad questions about climate change and other scientific subjects.

Media celebrities frequently ply students with erroneous “facts” about the world. Among those celebrities is Kyrie Irving with his flat-Earth theory.

The NPR reporter quotes a science teacher whose middle-schoolers believe the Earth is flat because Irving told them so. “As hard as they try,” the article notes, “science teachers aren’t likely to change a student’s misconceptions just by correcting them.”

Against this background of the near-constant criticism and undermining of science learning that schools have to contend with, in steps Tyson with his charge of educational malfeasance.

His charge hardly seems fair.

The Vanishing Curriculum

First, Irving didn’t get his high school and college education in public schools. He went to private high schools Montclair Kimberley Academy and The Patrick School, both in New Jersey, and spent a year at Duke University, also a private institution. His beliefs about the world certainly aren’t a direct product of public schools.

Similarly, neither President Trump nor his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos got their educations in public schools.

Second, what Tyson and other critics of public schools don’t take into account is the challenging context science teachers have to contend with.

As a report from the National Education Association explains, fiscal austerity and policy decisions have been shrinking school curriculum.

NEA explains, “Critical subjects have been crowded out of schools or even eliminated entirely by the lethal one-two punch of deep budget cuts and the singular focus on improving reading and math,” which are the two subjects currently tested under federal government mandates.

The “obsession” with testing math and reading performance, the NEA contends, “has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science.”

NEA points to a 2011 national survey, which found 27 percent of teachers noticed science was being crowded out of their schools’ curriculum due to the over-emphasis on state tests in math and reading.

Recent calls for more education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) may rescue science from the vanishing curriculum. But there’s a new threat.

As NPR reports, a new state law just passed in Florida “allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable.”

Among the subjects that proponents of the new law intend to address is the teaching of “Darwinism” in public school science textbooks.

“Under the law, school districts will still have the final say,” NPR reports. “Even so, some worry the law will have a chilling effect” on what public schools are able to teach without fear of controversy and objections from local critics.

South Dakota is considering a similar bill.

Aim Higher

This is not to say there aren’t problems with science teaching in public schools.

A recent study finds that over two-thirds new teachers who want to teach science are routed into teaching other subjects.

Further, not all science teachers accept scientific conclusions about the world. For instance, there are estimates that nearly one in eight high school biology teachers believe Earth and the human species did not evolve over time.

But this does not necessarily mean these teachers are brainwashing students with creationist beliefs. Good teachers demonstrate all the time that they can present objective information about a subject while not letting that subject matter challenge their own belief systems.

Finally, if Tyson believes science ignorance is more-so a problem of system design rather than the people in it, then fair enough. But he should be aware that, historically, criticism of public schools is turned into negative attitudes against the people in them.

If Tyson wants to blame science ignorance on someone, he should aim higher.

Problems Posed By School Choice Can’t Be Ignored

Enraged school choice advocates stormed the Internet over the past few days to defend their cause from criticism no matter how reasonable.

What sparked the anger of remarkably thin-skinned proponents of charter schools and school voucher programs were criticisms that school choice without proper governance has, and can still, increase racial segregation and undermine the public schools that low-income communities of color rely on to educate their children.

The objects of their wrath, specifically, were a speech given by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on school vouchers and a report issued by the national NAACP on charter schools.

In her speech, Weingarten had the temerity to point out, “Decades ago, the term ‘choice’ was used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians.”

That assertion has a basis in fact. A recent report from the Center for American Progress documents how, more than 60 years ago, county officials in a rural Virginia county who objected to court-mandated desegregation, following the landmark Brown v. Board of decision, chose to close its segregated public schools and issue all the white kids vouchers to attend private schools instead.

The report explains, “By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,”and vouchers were implemented as a means of diverting public funds to those private schools, allowing white communities to evade desegregation requirements.

Today’s voucher programs vary considerably in intent but often produce segregation, if not by race, then by income or other means.

CAP points to Indiana’s voucher program that “increasingly benefits white, suburban, middle-class families more than the low-income students in underperforming schools whom the program was originally intended to serve.”

Indiana is not the only example. Many studies have found that voucher programs lead to more segregation because those parents who tend to use them are more educated and have a higher socioeconomic status than those who do not.

The voucher program in Arizona, an education tax credit program, designates only about 3 percent of voucher money to special-needs students, and barely a third goes to children of low-income families.

In Nevada, most applicants for vouchers are not from low-income areas in the state. North Carolina’s voucher program sends money to private schools that blatantly exclude students on the basis of religion and sexual identity.

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a huge fan of vouchers, was asked during a recent budget hearing before Congress whether a voucher program funded by federal dollars should send money to private schools that can discriminate on the basis of race or disability, she refused to answer the question.

Clearly the record, both past and present, bear out Weingarten’s claim that “private schools can–and many do–discriminate, because they don’t follow federal civil rights laws. Vouchers increase racial and economic segregation. And they lack the accountability that public schools have.”

The report from the NAACP that unhinged school choice proponents was equally grounded in facts.

The subject of the NAACP’s examination was charter schools, another favorite of school choice fans, and the increasingly harmful effects they are having in African American communities

A year ago, the NAACP drew national attention when it passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters until these schools “are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.”

After the storm of criticism coming from school zealots, the NAACP created a task force on charter schools whose mission was later expanded to include recommendations on “actions needed to improve the quality of education for all children of color being educated with public funds and to ensure the sustainability of an effective public education system for all children.”

As my colleague professor Julian Vasquez Heilig reports, the NAACP’s new report acknowledges that public school systems that serve low-income communities of color are indeed struggling to deliver high quality education, but the problems stem more so from unfair funding, not lack of choice. And unregulated choice in the form of charter schools exacerbates problems with inequity.

The evidence base for the NAACP’s conclusions is drawn from “more than 50 hours of public testimony in seven cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and New York,” writes former public school principal Carol Burris in a blogpost at the Washington Post. “Members heard testimony from both charter proponents and opponents. Community leaders, policy experts, parents and students spoke.”

“While high quality, accountable, and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity,” the report authors write, “by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

To create a more stable, sustainable school system, the NAACP recommends equitable and adequate funding for schools, especially for low-performing schools. And the role of charter schools in the system needs to be better regulated, specifically by mandating a more rigorous authorizing process, controlled solely by the local districts where charters reside, and ending the role that for-profit charters and for-profit charter management companies play in the system.

Until charter schools can adhere to these recommendations, the NAACP stands by its call for a moratorium.

It’s important to note neither in Weingarten’s remarks nor in the NAACP report are there any calls to eliminate more parent choice in school systems, or to close down existing charter schools or end the creation of new charters in perpetuity.

Public school advocates readily admit the systems they advocate for are often flawed, criticism from the well-intentioned is necessary, and intervention is often required to right what’s not working well for families and communities.

Is it asking too much of school choice advocates to do the same?

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?