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New Report Reveals Which States Are Abandoning Public Schools

Having a democratically governed local school, accessible to all students and fully accountable to the public for how its spends taxpayer money, has been a given for most American families since segregated schools were outlawed, but a new report finds most states have been abandoning the traditional public system in favor of schools that are privately operated, less accessible to all children, and less accountable to taxpayers and democratic governance.

The report contends the shift in emphasis from public schools to privately managed alternatives is not only an attack on public education, but also an attack on equal opportunity and civil rights.

“We’re spending billions on privatized alternatives to public schools and as a result leaving school children increasingly exposed to civil rights abuse and taxpayers increasingly at risk of being ripped off,” says Diane Ravitch, the founder and president of the Network for Public Education., which along with the Schott Foundation for Public Education, is responsible for the report.

“Our democracy requires that every child has access to a free, public school system,” says Schott president and CEO John H. Jackson. “Any effort to privatize local systems not only threatens millions of students opportunity to learn and to succeed but ultimately threatens our democracy.”

[Disclosure, Schott is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the People’s Action Institute.]

The report, “Grading The States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools,” which evaluated the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia on the extent to which states are shifting public dollars to private alternatives including charter schools and private schools, found only five states – Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia – received A ratings.

Many states with very large public school systems – including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina – were graded F. Seventeen states in total received an F rating.

There are 22 states with grades between a C and a B+, and six states and the District of Columbia received a grade of D or D+.

The report is the first in-depth nonpartisan report card to include these state-by-state measurements of the consequences of shifting public funds from the traditional school system to charter schools and private schools receiving money through taxpayer supported vouchers programs, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships. The consequences the report considers include how well states protect student civil rights of students and guard taxpayers from fraud and the misuse of public funds.

The laws and regulations of each state were graded according to five key criteria based on objective, measurable factors:

  • 1) Types and extent of school privatization;
  • 2) Civil rights protections for students in voucher and charter programs;
  • 3) Accountability, regulations and oversight;
  • 4) Transparency of voucher and charter programs; and
  • 5) Other factors related to charter school accountability.

Based on these criteria, the report teased out details of state law that many would find troubling.

For instance, of the 15 states that have traditional school voucher programs, seven of them fail to require background checks for teachers and employees in voucher receiving schools. Thirteen of those states don’t require the voucher receiving schools to have open meetings or other forms of public transparency.

Of the 6 states with Education Savings Account programs, four fail to require state testing of students participating in the program or require prior public school enrollment for students receiving ESAs. This lets families who can already afford private education continue on the taxpayer’s dime.

Of the 44 states and District of Columbia with charter laws, 28 states and the District of Columbia don’t require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools, 38 states and the District of Columbia have no provisions regulating the spending and funding for education services, 23 states and the District of Columbia fail to protect students against religious discrimination, and 18 states have programs that fail to mandate services for students with disabilities.

The report concludes, ” Instead of diverting resources, we should invest in public schools to make them better for all students.” It recommends a moratorium on all voucher programs with an immediate phase out that does not displace children presently in the voucher system. Regarding charter schools, the report supports the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on new charter schools and urges states to pass laws and regulations ensuring that all students attending charters have equal opportunity and rights, that the schools are fully transparent and accountable to the taxpayers who fund them, and the corruption associated with the sector is weeded out.

Congress Stages A Sell-Job On Charter Schools And Ignores Complaints Of Black Parent

One of the more disturbing aspects of the push to create more charter schools was on full display during a Congressional hearing this week when charter proponents stacked the agenda with biased testimony and completely ignored the lone witness who could attest firsthand to the real impact these schools have on communities of color.

The lone dissenting voice in the battery of speakers lined up to give glowing praise to these privately operated but publicly funded schools was Jonathon Phillip Clark, an Iraq War veteran and black Detroit parent with seven children in the public-school system. Clark is also an assistant director at Mission City, a nonprofit organization in Detroit that provides mentoring and tutoring throughout the school year and an arts camp during the summer, and he serves on the board of an organization called 482Forward, a group of parents and students that advocates for a high-quality, equitable education for Detroit children.

Unlike most of the participants in this hearing – members of the House Education and Workforce Committee, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Nina Rees, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers President Greg Richmond, and Harvard Professor Martin West – only Clark spoke from experience of having children educated in charter schools and a neighborhood affected by free-market “school choice” competition posed by these schools.

Yet his remarks were mostly ignored.

‘An Education Desert’ Caused by Charters

Specifically, Clark described his community as an “education desert” ravaged by Michigan’s policy of school choice, where charter schools open and close seemingly at random, and public schools are shuttered because of the uncertainties created by charter school competition.

A charter school his daughter attended made promises of academic courses and school programs it later dropped. The school, Yes Academy, had five principals in three years. An audit of the school reveled it could not account for $300,000 of Title I funds – money from the federal government for educating low-income students. To evade accountability, the school switched to a different management firm run by the same person. The second firm eventually closed the school a week before classes were to start, leaving students and families in the lurch.

The charter’s board ignored parents when they complained, and the authorizer, located in Lansing, 350 miles away, had no personal experiences with the families attending the school and cared little about their complaints. When parents looked for other school “options” for their children, they realized changing schools would mean massively altering their lives and their children’s education and circle of friends.

Clark explained that his story is not an isolated example. Two of his other daughters have had similar experiences with charters and so have many other families he knows in Detroit.

Not Just in Detroit

Indeed, numerous press reports and research studies have shown Michigan’s system of charter schools and free-market education competition has had a devastating effect on the state’s academic standing, and in communities of color, high-quality schools have become even more scarce and racial inequality has worsened.

Beyond Michigan, charter schools and school choice competition have had similarly negative effects – spreading education malfeasance in nearly every state, committing financial fraud and waste, and exacerbating inequality, while they extract millions of taxpayer dollars from the public school system.

Clark urged the members of the House in attendance to be “vigilant” in their scrutiny of the charter school sector. “I would not wish Michigan charter policies on the nation,” he concluded.

Yet, what transpired during the rest of the committee hearing was less than vigilant scrutiny.

A Sell Job

The hearing, given the grandiose title “The Power of Charter Schools: Promoting Opportunity for America’s Students,” was a sell-job for charters from the beginning. The official press release from the committee did not even mention Clark’s name nor that anyone at the hearing would balance this examination of the “value of charter schools.”

The remaining witnesses – Rees, Richmond, and West – repeated familiar industry talking points about the schools being “public … open to all … and accountable.” Cherry picking primarily from studies published by one source – the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), whose reports of positive charter effects on student achievement are frequently exaggerated – the pro-charter trio spoke glowingly of how charter schools’ are closing achievement gaps, spreading innovation, and satisfying parents, while public schools are “stagnating.”

Regarding federal governance and oversight of charters, the general consensus was the was little needed because most matters regarding how charters are conceived and operated are “up to the states” and should remain that way. That’s not to say there weren’t requests to the committee members for more federal money, particularly for building new charter facilities.

Exemplars that Aren’t Exemplary

As proof of the wonderful things charters are doing, Rees spotlighted Dream Charter School in Harlem, NYC as an exemplary program typical of charters, but it’s not at all clear this school is in any way like most charters.

The school is a “one-off,” independent charter that’s benefitted from large grants and donations, including a $32 million grant from the city and start-up money from the Walton Family Foundation of the Walmart family. The abnormally high teacher turnover rate – more than double of the city’s schools – would seem to be something that would invite more scrutiny than praise.

Richmond’s praise for Indiana’s system for overseeing charter school authorizers seemed odd given the recent controversy over the state’s sub-par online charter and the fact nearly half of Indiana’s charters are failing or doing poorly. The top charter authorizer in the state, Ball State University, oversees mostly “D” and “F” rated schools, based on Indiana’s school rating system, that have had years of declining performance.

As evidence that charter authorizers are accountable to the public, Richmond repeated the statistic that 90 percent of authorizers are public school districts, which could be a very misleading statistic if there are lots of districts with authorizing status but actually have no or very few operational charter schools.

Snubbing the Witness

The Republicans on the House Committee virtually snubbed Clark, directing their questions to the pro-charter witnesses, often to field softball questions or confirm their windy pronouncements about the superiority of charter schools.

The one Republican exception was Tim Walberg of Michigan who told Clark he had “visited” the charter school Clark described and had “concerns.” But then Walberg pivoted to a positive description of a Michigan charter he had also visited. The school he mentioned, Island City Academy, is located in a small town, and it enrolls students who are mostly white (89 percent) and low percent with learning disabilities – nothing like Clark’s situation at all.

Committee members from the Democratic side were much more willing to engage with what Clark told them and to ask follow-up questions, but none openly questioned their own party’s role in expanding charters.

This is not to say that weren’t tough questions and critical comments about charter schools from Democrats. Representative Bobby Scott from Virginia, the ranking committee member was particularly sharp edged in calling out the role charter schools have had in increasing racial segregation in schools, a well-researched outcome the pro-charter witnesses deflected by pointing to statistics that charters enroll much higher percentages of black and brown students.

Rees claimed that many charters are making racial diversity a feature of their programs, yet a recent study that went searching for charters that are “diverse by design” found a grand total of 2.19 percent of all charters.

Policy without People

In her bizarre concluding remarks, Rep Virginia Foxx (NC) used her background as a child who overcame the challenges of growing up in an impoverished community in rural North Carolina by having access to a high-quality public school to praise charter schools – which did not even exist during her childhood.

Dismissing, as mere anecdote, the firsthand experience that Clark brought to this hearing has become routine in education policy circles in Washington, DC, where think tanks and officials often operate at the 30,000-foot level to determine how our system of education should run.

This is not to say there aren’t exceptionally good charter schools doing great things for their students. After all, there are lots of public schools doing great things too.

But public policy makers need to listen to their constituents rather than the well-oiled machinery of wealthy industries and factions. Until they do, we won’t get charter school policy, or charter schools, our students and communities deserve.

(Photo credit: d_gilette/flickr)

Charter School Industry’s Stunning Loss in California Primaries

In reviewing the losers in this week’s primary elections in eight states, one shouldn’t overlook the charter school industry, which took a drubbing in the California governor’s race where its preferred candidate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa drew a very disappointing 13 percent of the vote.

“Villaraigosa didn’t even get support from voters in demographics you’d expect he’d get,” says Meghan Choi in a phone call, referring to Villaraigosa’s poor showing in heavily influenced Latino Los Angeles County. Choi is director of Ground Game LA, an affiliate group of People’s Action that does micro-level organizing on economic and social justice issues.

“Villaraigosa burned too many bridges in the education community,” Choi says, especially in black and brown communities in Los Angeles where he tried to privatize the schools with charter management groups during his tenure as mayor. She notes that many of the wealthy people that helped him in that effort contributed to his losing campaign for governor.

Big Money Loses in California

In the California’s quirky primary system, only the top two vote-getters could advance to the general, regardless of political party. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, finished a distant third to first place winner and fellow Democrat former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome and little-known Republican second-place finisher John Cox.

At the outset of the campaign, Villaraigosa had been nearly tied with Newsome at the top of the polls in January at 21 percent versus 23 percent, respectively. Then in April and May, the charter-school industry began pouring millions of dollars into the race to back Villaraigosa.

The charter school industry’s state advocacy group, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, created Families and Teachers for Villaraigosa to take in huge sums of money from “wealthy contributors,” EdSource reports. This independent expenditure committee helped raise $22.5 million in less than two months, which mainly went toward television and radio ads to support Villaraigosa and attack Newsome.

Among the donors to the pro-Villaraigosa committee were Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who contributed $7 million; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $3.5 million; and Bill Oberndorf who gave $3.75 million.

Hastings is a pro-voucher and pro-charter billionaire who has called for an end to democratically elected school boards. He founded and profits from the Rocketship chain of charter schools where students spend most of their day at computers being drilled for standardized tests. Oberndorf is a Republican and an ally of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Of course, Newsome has his campaign sources too, with contributions coming principally from labor groups. But in contrast to Villaraigosa, Newsome’s independent expenditure committees raised only $7.2 million while most of his funds were raised through direct contributions.

High Stakes for Charters

It’s important to understand what the charter industry believes was at stake in getting Villaraigosa elected.

California’s current Governor, Jerry Brown has been an invaluable backstop for the charter industry, who has defended charters from a state legislature that is increasingly skeptical of the academic performance and business ethics of these schools.

Brown’s support for charters is ideological, and deeply personal. Since he founded two charters in Oakland as mayor of that city, he continues to steer large donations to those schools despite their lackluster academic performance and significantly higher costs of operations.

But while Brown’s perception of charter schools has stayed firmly stuck in his past, California voters have begun to turn on the industry, based on disturbing evidence of its negative impact on the state’s education landscape.

A series of reports have found charter schools in the Golden State have wasted, lost, or confiscated millions of public tax dollars, much of it through fraud and double-dealing in the largely unregulated sector. A litany of negative news reports about charter schools continues to reveal routine practices that violate state and federal laws, produce poor academic results, and subject public money to fraud and conflicts of interest. And communities are beset with the adverse consequences of charters opening and closing whenever and wherever they want.

As awareness of the negative realities of charter schools spread, state lawmakers introduced into legislation efforts to bring more public oversight to the sector. Yet, every time state legislators have passed efforts to eliminate for-profit charter schools and bring all charters into line with open meetings, conflict of interest, and other laws, Brown has blocked them.

Clearly, charter operatives believed Villaraigosa would maintain the status quo. Yet even as billionaire money from the charter industry filled the Villaraigosa campaign’s coffers, his polling numbers steadily sank.

Dodging a Death Knell

“A Villaraigosa victory would have been a total death knell to public education in California,” says Choi.

She believes the state is situated in a history of education reform doctrine that’s made the state a “testing ground of privatized education.”

Indeed, large school districts in the state are financially on the brink due to the negative impact of charter schools.

With a Newsome victory generally assured in November, unless an unforeseen disaster arises, opposition to charter privatization of California public schools moves on to making sure this former San Francisco mayor keeps his promise to rein in the charter industry.

(photo credit: Captain Leadbottom/Flickr Creative Commons)

New Charter School Plan Should Alarm the Nation


Charter schools already have a segregation problem. But a new law about to pass in North Carolina would direct even more taxpayer money into funding charter schools that by design, if not by intent, lead to more racial segregation of school children.

This is not only an alarming development in the Old South, where schools made substantial progress on integration since the landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court case made racially separate schools illegal in 1954.

It’s also a wakeup call to the nation on how a campaign to re-segregate public schools is being carried out in the name of “school choice” and “local control.”

A ‘Design for Segregation’

The bill, House Bill 514, would allow suburban communities outside Charlotte to create and fund their own charter schools.

This is “a design for racial and economic segregation,” writes former NC Teacher of the Year James Ford. “The result of this will ultimately amount to systemic racism.”

The origin of the bill goes back at least two years when the mayor and town board of Matthews, NC, began devising ways to sever ties with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which merges their schools with those in the city and surrounding county.

At public meetings, Matthews town officials and the State Representative for the community talked openly of creating a task force to explore a separate suburban school district and separating with CMS over issues with “trust,” student assignments, and “bussing.”

“It’s within the authority of the [state] General Assembly to do it,” one official is quoted, citing a previous attempt in 2005 that “went nowhere.”

Somewhere between then and now, the plan for separating from CMS evolved into the idea for Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Currently in North Carolina, charter schools – privately operated schools given taxpayer funds, with fewer operational restrictions than public schools – are authorized, approved, and funded by the state.

By the time HB 514 emerged, Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey had dropped his idea of separating from the district altogether, and instead argued community-based charters would address a need for more “seats” in his community, where there are “excellent schools,” but “too few” of them.

The bill, he said, is about “local control” and giving parents more “options.”

Yet while the language for rationalizing this bill may have evolved into something more palatable, Ford is correct about its “design.” Based on both the historical context of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the nature of the current unregulated charter school industry, this new bill opens a new pathway to increased school segregation that other states may decide to follow.

A Return to Segregation

Nearly all school districts in the Tar Heel state are “merged districts,” in which inner-city schools share the same district with schools in outlying suburban and rural areas, a configuration that dates back to Reconstruction.

After the Brown ruling, as well as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which held busing was an appropriate way to integrate schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg became, by the 1980s, one of the most racially integrated school districts in America. Such efforts have led to long-term benefits for Black Americans, including greater income, better health outcomes, and lower incarceration rates.

Since then, rulings by more conservative courts overturning previous legal precedent and a state General Assembly dominated by Republicans have done much to resegregate CMS and other NC school districts. House Bill 514 would surely add to the racial imbalances in schools.

Students who live in Matthews, which is 82 percent white, now have opportunities, either by assignment or by choice, to attend schools in nearby neighborhoods where student populations are anywhere between one third to over one-half Black or Hispanic. The student population of CMS overall is just 28 percent white.

Were Matthews students to attend a charter school in their own neighborhood, the likelihood of that school being mostly white (85 – 90 percent) would increase significantly.

The Segregating Impact of Charters

“Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated [schools],” a recent analysis by the Associated Press found. AP’s findings align with previous studies that have found that charter schools and other forms of school choice are exacerbating existing patterns of segregation.

In North Carolina, there’s little doubt parents use charters to segregate.

North Carolina charter schools are significantly more segregated, with students who are wealthier and whiter than those at public schools in the state. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or school meals, which significantly reduces their appeal to low-income parents. Also, laws governing charter schools in the state dropped the previous requirement for the schools to serve a diverse student population.

In North Carolina, “at traditional public schools,” a recent study found, “only about 30 percent of students attend schools that are ‘highly segregated’ (schools that are more than 80 percent or less than 20 percent white). At charter schools, more than two-thirds attend schools that are highly segregated.”

The impact charters have on segregating students by race and income is especially acute in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. According to a recent study, the growth of charter schools in the district led to more proficient white and Asian students leaving the public schools, while affluent parents used the threat of escape to charters as a way to coerce local officials to redraw student assignment boundaries to reduce racial integration and ensure white parents could send their children to schools in their neighborhoods.

Enacting HB 514 provides white parents with just another mechanism to use charters for what they have become a tool for: separating the races.

A Dangerous New Funding Provision

Backers of HB 514 had conceived a way to use charter schools to legalize racially segregating students, but they still needed a way to fund new community-based charters in the suburbs.

Ironically, CMS alerted NC lawmakers to this problem. A report, funded by the district, warned that in North Carolina “it is against the law for towns to go into debt to pay for schools, so if a town wants to purchase land for a charter school, the town would have to pay in full up front. The report also found that the towns could not use any state funds to build a charter school and can’t raise property taxes for a school without a public referendum.”

During meetings closed to the public and hidden from Democratic state lawmakers, Republican legislators found a way around the funding problem that allows cities across the state, not just Matthews and Mint Hill, to use locally-raised tax money for public schools, including charter schools.

This funding provision “opens the door for districts and charter schools to ask municipal governments to pony up for anything from school resource officers to custodians to teacher pay supplements,” a former state legislator is quoted in an NC news outlet.

So while HB 514 may be confined to just the suburbs of Charlotte, it provides an opening for charters throughout the state to demand funds from local districts and redirect more taxpayer money from public schools to privately controlled “options” that can further segregate schools.

A Dangerous New Pathway to More Inequality

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has expressed “concerns” about HB 514, but should he decide to veto the budget bill, which the new law is attached to as an amendment, his veto would likely be overridden, as Republicans currently command supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Already, other suburban communities around Charlotte have asked for the same sort of option Matthews and Mint Hill want to have to create their own segregated school system via community owned and operated charter schools.

Proponents of school choice and charter schools often justify increased racial segregation their preferred schools cause  by arguing that parent choice is what matters most.

But the legacy of the Brown ruling is that separate schools will never be equal. What North Carolina is doing defies that truth and opens a dangerous new pathway for other states to create more education inequality.

Will Teacher Uprisings Change Democrats?

Anyone wondering whether teacher uprisings this spring will influence party politics and elections in November should look at what’s happened in this year’s primaries so far.

Most prominent among primary contests involving education issues was an improbable win in Kentucky, where a first-time candidate, math teacher R. Travis Brenda, knocked off the state’s House Republican Majority Leader Jonathan Shell.

Brenda had joined with his colleagues earlier this year in staging sickouts that closed schools across the state to protest Kentucky lawmakers’ handling of state public employee pensions and inadequate school funding. Shell “was part of the legislature’s Republican leadership team that crafted and passed pension, tax, and budget bills,” a Louisville news outlet reports.

Elsewhere in the state, of the 16 Kentucky teachers involved in primary contests, seven were victorious and will join with other teacher-candidates who ran unopposed to field 32 candidates in total in November. Nearly all are Democrats.

“The thing to watch is whether this is the start of something broader,” says NPR’s Domenico Montanaro in reporting about Kentucky’s primary races.

Changing on Education

It’s going to be hard to tell where and if teacher uprisings will change electoral politics, especially in states where uprisings have yet to take place. But there are clear signs the dynamics of education politics are changing in the Democratic party, and those changes are taking place at the very same time progressive populist candidates are surging in Democratic primaries across the country. These insurgencies could result not only in a new Democratic party, but also a new vision for education policy in the party.

One of the clearest signs of the changing education politics in the Democratic party was when the Colorado branch of the party told an influential pressure group of charter school proponents, called Democrats for Education Reform, to stop using the word “Democrats” in its name.

The state party approved an amendment to its 2018 platform opposing any attempts to segregate Colorado schools or make public schools private institutions or “private corporations.”

This schism between defenders of the public-school system within the Democratic party and those in the party who don’t care if more school funding is siphoned to privately operated management businesses is becoming more obvious in primary electoral contests.

In Pennsylvania, two longshot candidates for the State House, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who knocked off establishment incumbents in the primaries, based their platforms on a range of progressive issues including opposing “charter schools as a form of ‘privatization’ that drained public resources.”

Their opponents, the brothers Paul and Dom Costa, had both recently voted against legislation to prevent online charters from exploiting failing students and against a bill that would make all charters more accountable for how they spend public funds.

Another Pennsylvania House upset winner in the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Fiedler, campaigned for “a moratorium on new charters and cyber-charters until their effectiveness and long-term costs are evaluated and they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.” Her party establishment-endorsed opponent, Jonathan Rowan, never made his views on charter schools a prominent message in his campaign.

In Nebraska, Kara Eastman’s surprising defeat of former Rep. Brad Ashford has been heralded as a sign of progressives making inroads into the Democratic party establishment and a worrying sign among Beltway Democrats of a surging left within the party.

Here again, the upstart Eastman called for continued investment in public schools and public-school educators and resistance to those “who advertise the benefits of expanding charter schools.” Her establishment opponent left the issue of charter schools unaddressed.

Wooing Teachers

This is not to say opposition to charter schools has become a progressive rallying cry, in the way that Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and other issues already have.

In Idaho, for instance, Paulette Jordan’s win is being cast as a progressive plus in a deep red state, where her Democratic party primary contest could have gone to the more mainstream candidate.

Yet Jordan called charter schools “necessary,” while her opponent argued charters “have not lived up to their promise, they have been copycats of one another and they are a great deconsolidation of our school system, competing with traditional schools for funding… The best choice is the traditional public schools.”

Nevertheless, grassroots uprisings created by organized teachers are wooing more Democrats to support public schools. This is a noteworthy trend.

A Cool Embrace

For years, Democrats have not only been cool to embrace organized teachers; they’ve often been downright antagonistic. A sure sign that this relationship may be changing surfaced recently in North Carolina where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper joined teachers in the capital who had walked off the job and closed schools across the state to protest their poor pay and lack of resources in schools due to years of funding cuts.

Seeing an NC governor, of any party, standing with organized teachers during a strike action is unprecedented. The Tar Heel state is one of the most anti-labor states in the nation, not just because of recent Republican majorities in the legislature, but also because the state has been historically resistant to labor organizing regardless of which party is in control.

Cooper has also not always sided with workers. Yet, no former Democratic governor in recent memory – including education champion Jim Hunt – would have locked arms with organized teachers in union to close schools. The fact Cooper did sends an important message about where the Democratic party may be heading.

A Better Deal?

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., Democratic party leaders are pivoting from teacher walkouts across the nation to call for giving states and school districts $50 billion over a decade to fund teacher raises by canceling the recent tax cut for top 1 percent of earners.

The Democrats’ plan, called A Better Deal for Teachers and Students, calls for another $50 billion fund to pay for new school infrastructure.

During the unveiling of the plan, union presidents Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers joined Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the podium.

The scene prompted longtime Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss to recall when Barack Obama was president, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, was so unpopular that the NEA called for his resignation.

So given that Democrats, under a Trump administration, have little chance of pushing their proposal through, she questions whether this an example of the party making “nice with the leaders of teachers’ union.”

Whether Strauss’s skepticism is warranted or not, political dynamics in the Democratic party are clearly changing, and teacher uprisings are adding to the volatility of the mix.

If the Democratic wave that’s anticipated for November “won’t crest without progressive insurgents,” as some have observed, then maybe it also won’t crest without a change in how the party addresses education.

NC Teachers Rally To Make Lawmakers Listen To Them

Teachers in North Carolina made a huge statement this week when they shut down schools in at least 42 districts and thronged the state capital in an all-day march and rally that drew an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people – way more than the 15,000 the state teachers’ association, that organized the event, promised.

While their list of grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules – there was one theme that recurred when asked to explain what they hoped to accomplish.

“We hope our state legislators listen to us,” said Courtney Brown, a teacher at River Bend Elementary School in Wake County. “They need to understand there’s a problem, and things need to change.”

The “problem” teachers want to call attention to takes on many forms in their schools, depending on where the teachers work.

The Problems Only Teachers See

“We’re here today to bring lawmakers’ attention to what’s hurting children in our classrooms,” said Kathleen Van Kuren, a 29-year teacher veteran from Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, also in Wake County. “While [lawmakers] underfunded resources for our students, cut resource personnel [such as reading assistants and special education teachers], and taken away longevity pay and other salary incentives for teachers, they’ve put more emphasis on charter schools and vouchers,” she said.

Other Wake County teachers offered a long list of complaints, including the loss of reading support teachers and outdated text books. “They tell us to let the kids use their own devices [smart phones or tablets], but in my school there are lots of children too poor to own their own device.”

“This is not about our salaries,” another Wake teacher told me. “Increasing our salary is on the bottom of my list.”

“There’s no funding for pencils, paper, or art supplies in my classroom,” said Jennifer Miske, a teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School. “I’m always spending my own money for these things.” Tar Heel teachers typically spend $500 – $1,000 of their own money for classroom supplies their students need.

Her Durham County colleagues complained of out-of-date textbooks and aging, dirty school buildings that are no longer welcoming, or even safe, for children. “Sure, we could use a pay raise,” one said, “but our students come first.”

A group of teachers from Buncombe County and Asheville City schools, in the western part of the state, also talked of crumbling textbooks – the history books teach that Bill Clinton is president. State funding for textbooks has been slashed for the past four years.

Over-testing of students is also an issue for these teachers, especially in the elementary grades where third-graders are made to take as many as 17 assessments throughout the schoolyear.

A group of teachers from Orange County talked about, not only the inadequacy of school funding, but the inequity too. “I’ve taught in two districts,” one said, “one where there were no supplies, no technology for kids, and roach-infested, disgusting buildings, and one where we had what we needed for students. That’s not fair to kids.”

With exam season under say, these teachers also complained about the battery of required standardized tests their student have to take. “At least three of my students cry every day,” one teacher stated. As a special education teacher, she is assigned students who are most apt to struggle on the exams, yet she is evaluated based in part on how her students perform on the tests. “It’s demoralizing to the kids because they feel like failures. And It’s unfair to me.”

“The teachers at my school are the hardest working I’ve ever seen, but they’re too stressed out,” said Swansboro Middle School teacher Kim Caister, a veteran who has “taught all over the world.” She described harsh working conditions – including long hours, inadequate support personnel, and outdated, inadequate instructional materials and school facilities – that negatively affect teachers, which in turn, impact students.

Her Onslow County colleagues also complained about state lawmakers taking away long-term contracts [commonly called tenure] and the salary supplement teachers get for earning their Masters’ Degree. These incentives were taken away by the state legislature in 2014. The teachers pointed out that losing these incentives has made it more attractive for teachers to seek work in Virginia, which drains their schools of the most capable and qualified teachers.

“We need more and better staffing, like nurses, counselors, and other support personnel,” a group of Chatham County teachers said. (Many teachers preferred to speak in solidarity with their colleagues rather than have their names reported.) “We need to have our teacher assistants back.” State funding for teacher assistants was cut in 2008 and has not been fully restored since.

But in reporting about the teacher action in North Carolina, and elsewhere, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the flurry of specific issues with salaries, and pensions, and per-pupil expenditures, and forget what teachers say matters most: to “listen to us.”

What Teachers Want Most

“We’re here to open up a dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have,” Molly Wright, told me. Wright, a teacher at Millbrook High School, also in Wake County, is a second-generation teacher whose mother, a teacher in Forsyth County schools, accompanied her to the march. Wright explained, with a group of teachers around her nodding in approval, that nothing about what teachers were saying at the rally was new. What was new was that teachers had finally decided to go to drastic measures to make themselves heard.

“We had to close schools and disrupt people’s lives for them to pay attention,” she said. “We’re hoping to take the momentum we’re building here today and carry it over the summer and into November.”

Why does it take shutting down thousands of schools and inconveniencing millions of families to get political leaders’ attention? What is this “dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have”?

The gap between what goes on in schools and what gets decided in state capitals and Washington, DC has gotten way too wide.

For years, it’s been too easy for politicians to ignore teachers because teachers, by the very nature of their work, are discouraged from expressing their anger and sticking up for themselves.

Political leaders instead have relied on a very vocal and powerful faction of elite voices who created an education policy dialgue floating in a bubble far above the real lives of teachers. Instead of talking about what students need, they’ve focused on making teachers more “accountable.” Instead of emphasizing funding, they’ve called for “reform.”

The truth is people who’ve been deciding education policy have forgotten we live in a democracy. Teachers in North Carolina, and elsewhere, are reminding us of that.

Using the hashtags #Rally4Respect and “ItsPersonal, NC teachers were determined to raise the message that their voices need to be heard.

Many of the grievances they brought to the rally have been years in the making, a group of teachers from Gaston, Alamance, and Orange counties told me. But they’ve never believed they’ve had much power to change their circumstances. Until now.

“I’ve been teaching for 19 years,” one said, “and today feels, for the first time, like we have some power.”

Charter Schools Are An ‘Existential Threat’ To Public Education

Proclaiming May 6-12 National Charter Schools Week, President Trump led off a huge public relations campaign by the charter industry to ballyhoo the supposed success of these schools, although that success is a matter of bitter and ongoing dispute. But one outcome these mostly taxpayer-funded but privately-run schools certainly have is that they financially harm the public education system.

“The term ‘existential threat’ is way overused, but charters and vouchers really are a threat to the existence of public education,” Brad Miller tells me. Miller is a highly-rated practicing attorney and a former US House of Representative from North Carolina. While in office, he warned Congress of the risks of the subprime mortgage market in 2004, five years before that market melted and brought about the collapse of the housing loan and banking industry and the Great Recession.

The facts back Miller up.

The Costs of Charters to Public Schools

New studies from California and North Carolina find charter schools extract millions from the public systems.

The California study, written by political economist and University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer, looks at three large public-school systems in the Golden State and concludes the annual costs to the three districts run upwards of $142 million. The three districts in the study – Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified and East Side Union – struggle with annual deficits that have led to layoffs, class size increases, and program cuts.

The North Carolina study, written by Duke University economics professor Helen Ladd and University of Rochester professor John Singleton, finds evidence that charter schools come with “fiscal externalities,” or additional costs to the budgets of public schools. In their examination of urban and nonurban districts in the Tar Heel State, the researchers calculate an additional financial cost of about $3,500 per charter school enrollee to the Durham school district and “comparable or larger” costs to two non-urban districts.

Both studies note that additional costs imposed by charters are most apt to result in local schools cutting funding they need to maintain reasonable class sizes, well-rounded curriculums, and support staff including nurses, counselors, librarians, and special education

A Bad Fiscal Idea

Both studies trace the increased cost burdens imposed by charters to the same source.

As Lafer writes, “In every case [where charter schools have expanded], the revenue that school districts have lost is far greater than the expenses saved by students transferring to charter schools.”

Ladd and Singleton explain why: “If 10 percent of a district’s students shift to a charter school … the district cannot simply reduce its costs by 10 percent because some of its costs are fixed, especially in the short run.”

The NC researchers also point to costs that result from having parallel sectors of charter and public schools, which “implies duplication of functions and services (e.g., central office operations).” Also, the tendency of charter schools to open or close, often without warning, makes district budgeting uncertain and inefficient.

The costs school districts incur due to charter expansions are “unavoidable,” Lafer writes. “Because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down. The district’s responsibility for serving all students creates costs.”

An ‘Established Fact’ of Charters

Findings of these recent studies are in line with other studies.

A study on the impact of charter in Nashville estimated the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district’s public schools resulted in more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period.

Another study from Los Angeles found district public schools lost $591 million due to dropping enrollment rates among students who leave and go to charters.

A research study of school districts in Michigan concluded choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. When the percent of students attending charter schools approaches 20 percent, there are sizable adverse impacts on district finances.

“What was once just rebutted as rhetoric is now increasingly becoming an established fact – charter schools are reducing the amount of funding that is spent on each student who remains in traditional public school,” University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black writes in his overview of the California and North Carolina studies.

What’s worse, Black argues in a different piece, “States are giving charter schools and private schools a better deal than public schools. These better deals have fueled enormous growth in charter schools and voucher programs that is now nearly impossible to unwind.”

The negative impact of this drain on public school coffers is felt most acutely by students and teachers, of course, especially those who live in low-income, nonwhite communities that are already feeling the brunt of depleted resources.

But warnings of the negative fiscal impact imposed by charter schools are also coming from a very different group of people: investors.

Investor Concerns About Charters

At the same time California and North Carolina charter studies were released, a Texas newspaper reported some of the state’s largest public finance firms were pulling business away from charter schools over concerns about these schools undermining the financial standing of public school districts and the continued soundness of investments in the financing of public schools.

“Charter schools increase the cost of public education in Texas by over $600 million per year,” one investment firm warned its investors in its explanation of why the company was pulling business away from the charter sector.

Investor squeamishness over the rapid expansion of the charter sector has been rising for years.

“The dramatic rise in charter school enrollments over the past decade is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas,” a report from Moody’s Investors Service warned in 2013.

Mindful of the Moody’s report, Brad Miller wrote last year for Verdict that Moody’s reduced Detroit Public Schools’ credit rating from B3 to Caa1, two notches above imminent default, specifically because of the “growing charter school presence.” He notes that despite the expanding charter sector in the district, charters are not responsible for any of district’s debts should the cost burden of these schools result in financial problems for the district.

Miller argues investors who backed loans to the district’s public schools will now see the value of their investments eroding due to the influx of charters. Due to charters, he argues, “Public schools lost funds for fixed costs, including debt service for bonds to pay for school construction, renovation, and equipment to serve the expected enrollment.”

His advice to Investors in public school bonds is to consider legal action against charter-friendly state legislation on the basis that such policies may violate the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But Charter Schools Are Public, Right?

Charter school advocates tend to counter any claims that their schools harm public schools by contending “charters are public schools too.”

While it’s true charters are public schools in that they take taxpayer funds, legal defenses of any claims made against these schools tend to play fast and loose with the exact status, public or private, of these schools.

As Houston Public Media reports, recent lawsuits in Texas involving charter schools have surfaced the ever-changing definition of the status of these schools. After examining a series of cases involving charters, the article concludes, “Charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

Similarly, in legal proceedings in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, charter school supporters have used private legal status to evade federal and state statutory requirements that apply to public entities.

Charters as Parasites

Despite what may have been the original intention of the charter school movement, these schools, as they are currently conceived and operate, now pose a severe financial risk to public education. Rather than operating as partners to public schools, they more so resemble parasites.

To address this growing calamity, Lafer recommends in his California study that each school district produce an annual Economic Impact report assessing the cost of charter expansion in its community, and local and state public officials take findings of these impact assessments into account when deciding whether to authorize additional charters.

Ladd and Singleton in their North Carolina study recommend states provide transitional aid to smooth or mitigate revenue losses charter school expansions impose on school districts. They point to examples of these policies in New York and Massachusetts, although they admit, “In neither case does the magnitude of the aid offset the full negative fiscal impacts of charters.”

Getting fair-minded public officials to consider these or other practical steps should not be hard politically.

“Most Americans do not regard public schools as insidious socialism and teachers as union goons,” says Miller. “This is not an issue on which we should be in retreat.”

The Right Lashes Out at Uprising Teachers

UPDATED

As mass teacher walkouts and protests ebb in Arizona and Colorado, bold new actions are ramping up in North Carolina. This spring’s teacher uprisings may well last through the end of this school year.

On the whole, teachers across the nation have strung together an impressive series of victories, including salary raises, pension reforms, and school funding increases. And teachers have vowed to take their unmet demands into November elections to contest their opponents at the ballot box.

But the instincts of retribution that tend to drive rightwing politicians and their operatives have already spurred them to craft ways to strike back against teachers.

Rightwing Retributions

Even during the walkouts, Republican lawmakers and their supporters have tried to intimidate and silence teachers. But these teacher uprisings have a widely accepted moral standing that will be very difficult for their opponents to undermine, despite the big money aimed at opposing teachers.

Leading into the two-day teacher walkout in Colorado, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would lead to fines and potentially up to six month’s jail time for the striking teachers. The bill was pulled, when it became clear even some Republicans weren’t too keen on the measure.

In Arizona, a libertarian think tank sent letters to school district superintendents threatening them with lawsuits if they didn’t reopen closed schools and order striking teachers to return to work. It’s unclear how or whether the threat will actually be carried out should teachers continue the walkouts if lawmakers fail to pass a budget. [UPDATE: Arizona news outlets report Arizona teachers may head back to their classrooms after the governor signed a budget bill gives teachers a 10 percent pay raise with promises of more in the future.]

In West Virginia, where teachers used a nine-day strike to secure a five percent raise, Republicans have vowed to get their revenge by cutting $20 million to Medicaid and other parts of the state budget to pay for the increase. No doubt, when the axe falls on these programs, Republican lawmakers will be quick to blame the “greedy” teachers.

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin accused striking teachers of leaving children exposed to sexual assaults or being in danger of ingesting toxic substances because teachers weren’t at school. Now that the uprising has ended, Bevin has turned his revenge against teachers into an effort to take over the largest school system in the state and take away local control of the schools.

A Zero for DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in her contribution to the right-wing backlash against teachers, has spurned the strikes as being about “adults’ interests,” and scolded teachers for not thinking about “what’s best for kids.” In her recent, closed-door meeting with Teachers of the Year from across the country, she “expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding,” HuffPost’s Rebecca Klein reports.

When the Arizona Teacher of the Year asked the Secretary about her views of the strikes, DeVos reportedly told her she preferred that “adults would take their disagreements and solve them not at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn.”

“For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment,” one of the teachers told Klein. “That is so far from what is happening.”

The Rightwing Messaging Guide

Indeed, the Right’s counteroffensive to teacher uprisings extends beyond the affected states.

The Guardian reports about a “messaging guide” conceived by a network of libertarian think tanks that conveys tips for how to portray the walkouts as “harmful to low-income parents and their children.”

The manual, entitled “How to Talk About Teacher Strikes,” has “dos and dont’s,” including the claims, “Teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families,” and, “It’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

The guide is provided by the State Policy Network, a network of 66 rightwing think tanks funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and other conservative megadonors.

Other talking points included in the guide are to “emphasize the damage done to ‘good’ teachers by the strikes” and counter claims of education funding cuts by calling out money being spent on “red tape and bureaucracy” and “administrators and other non-teaching staff.”

‘Union-Led Shenanigans’

This advice from SPN is already being taken to heart by conservative operatives like the Center for Education Reform, a pro-privatization organization and SPN member pushing for charter school and vouchers.

In a press release, CER warns of the “true nature of these protests and ramifications of supporting union backed rallies, walkouts, and strikes.”

The release quotes CER leader Jeanne Allen saying, “the real fight” is not whether teachers are paid well enough and schools are adequately funded but how to “ensure money follows students and doesn’t continue to get wasted on a bloated bureaucracy and top-heavy school districts that have grown dramatically faster than enrollment.”

Allen also riffs off the SPN manual by claiming walkouts are “union-building activities, pushing charter school teachers to follow them, while at the same time fighting to limit the growth of charters, impose restrictions and, worst of all, fighting to make sure charters are funded at lower levels than traditional schools.”

In its weekly newsletter, CER smears the walkouts as “union-led shenanigans” and argues, “The unions want to make teacher pay a defining issue. But it’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be.”

The Real Defining Issue

What is happening, which is hard for these critics to undermine, is that teachers are not making their pay the defining issue of their uprising. Contrary to what Betsy DeVos asserts, they’re focused on improving the lives of their students.

Indeed, they are asking for what their students really need: Teachers who aren’t distracted, stressed out, and spiritually spent because of poor wages and lack of affordable healthcare or retirement security. Schools that aren’t bereft of teaching materials, textbooks, and safe and functioning facilities; and full support of public services that have positive impacts on how well students achieve in schools.

The Kentucky Teachers’ Walkout Was A Catalyst For More Advocacy

Headlines about teachers’ strikes may have moved on from Kentucky and Oklahoma to Arizona and Colorado, but rebellions teachers who started these uprisings have not, at least according to numerous sources I’ve spoken with in Louisville – Kentucky’s largest school district with over 100,000 students.

Kentucky was where teachers staged widespread “sick-outs” to protest state lawmakers’ handling of pension reform and school funding. After teachers won record new spending for public education in the state and then pushed legislators to override the governor’s veto of the bill, there were still plenty of vows from teachers to “keep fighting” for a permanent pension fix and more new revenue sources for schools. But would they?

“The pension fight woke everyone up,” says Tiffany Dunn, a National Board Certified middle school English as a second language teacher, who has helped found and lead a number of grassroots teacher advocacy groups including Save Our Schools Kentucky.

“Before that, hardly anyone knew or cared” about a range of issues Dunn sees as new targets for teacher activism, including the state governor’s recent actions to stack the state education board with new appointees and a new leader who are charter school advocates. “Most teachers thought [these issues were] just a JCPS thing,” she says, referring to Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville and the surrounding county. But now she sees that teachers who first engaged on the pension issue are turning their attention to “all the issues.”

Recent actions state lawmakers have taken, including passing new legislation to bring charter schools to the state, “could have been stopped if we had the current level of activism,” Dunn believes. “But now at least people are aware.”

“The pension fight was a catalyst,” says Brent McKim, the leader of the Jefferson County Teachers Association. “Also, the West Virginia teachers,” he adds, who had previous to the Kentucky uprising, staged a successful strike in their state to win a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, limits on charter school expansions, and other demands.

The teachers’ victory in West Virginia “was a seminal moment for teachers,” McKim tells me. “It gave them a sense of possibility that if we act collectively, we can make a difference.”

McKim readily admits the wildcat nature of the strike was a challenge for union leaders as well. Because the driving proponents of the teachers’ actions consisted mostly of groups formed on social media, union leaders were often confounded in their efforts to maintain control and the accuracy of information.

“People jump to conclusions,” McKim says, based on hearsay they read online about where the union was or was not engaged in the ongoing conflict with state lawmakers. McKim sees that some teachers currently have an “inherent distrust of the establishment,” which includes the union.

“Skepticism is healthy in any democracy,” he adds, “but we did some pretty remarkable things” by increasing funding for schools. Now he sees teachers moving on to other important battles, including taking their battles “to the ballot box,” he says. “We’re printing yard signs that say “Remember in November'” to remind teachers to vote for political leaders who support public schools and teachers.

The coming fight at the ballot box includes not only voting for candidates but running for office. A public school advocate running for office I spoke with in Louisville is Gay Adelman, who is trying to become the next State Senator for District 36, which includes part of the JCPS district.

Adelmann’s public school advocacy started in 2012 when she enrolled her son in a local school she came to see as underfunded and overly penalized by the state for having too many struggling students whose backgrounds of poverty and trauma were often reflected in their low scores on state standardizes tests.

Students in the school, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) magnet school located in the city’s predominantly African-American West End community, “needed common-sense barriers to learning removed” – including facility improvements, new learning materials, and technology improvements – that better resourced school usually can address.

And she saw that too many good, experienced teachers and school leaders would come and go to avoid the consequence that come from working in an “underperforming” school.

To address these and other challenges in the school, Adelmann helped form a PTA in the school, and she eventually founded Dear JCPS, in 2015, to address similar issues she saw in her school across the district. Now, she’s taking bolder action to not just react to state education policy but to help write it.

“I decided to run for office because my own State Senator told me she was pro public education, but then she turned around and voted for the state’s new charter school law,” she tells me. “My experience at my school drives what I will try to get done in the legislature.”

She wants to see more funding for public schools rather than having funds redirected to new charters. And she wants to see the unfairness of high-stakes standardized testing addressed. “My kids do well on these standardized tests,” she says, “but we need more supports in schools to help with the issues that affect students who don’t do well on the tests.”

She complains of “privileged white men” and “elites” in state office, with no experience in public schools, who won’t “go into these schools to see” the conditions teachers are having to deal with.

“While they may be well-intended,” she argues, their opinions of public schools and teacher are too often “piecemeal or ideological and not at all based on facts and evidence.”

Should she win, one of the first things she pledges to push for would be to form a caucus in the state legislature to write and pass new legislation devoted solely to support public schools.

Adelmann may have lots of like-minded colleagues ready to join her caucus. “At least 40 educators have filed to run for office,” The Hill reports.

[This report is in partnership with the Network for Public Education.]

Why Teacher Uprisings May Hit Blue States Too

Surprising results from a new survey of teachers reveal the depth of “financial strain” classroom professionals face. These include high levels of college debt, stagnation of already subpar pay, increasing housing and childcare costs, rising health insurance premiums and prescription costs, and escalating out-of-pocket expenses for their own classroom supplies.

More than half of the respondents resorted to second jobs to try to close the gap between what their teaching jobs paid versus their actual cost of living.

The revelation teachers are financially struggling wasn’t what was surprising about the survey. Recent news of teacher “red-state rebellions” in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have brought great depths of attention to the economic plight of teachers who are walking off the job in Republican dominated states because of years of education funding cuts. No, what was surprising about this survey was the teachers weren’t in a red state at all; they were in true-blue Vermont.

The sad truth is financial austerity that has driven governments at all levels to skimp on education has had plenty of compliance, if not downright support, from centrist Democrats who’ve spent most of their political capital on pressing an agenda of “school reform” and “choice” rather than pressing for increased funding and support that schools and teachers need.

Colorado Uprising

In a startling sign that teacher uprisings may move to purple and blue states too, Colorado teachers recently left schools and stormed the state capitol to protest their subpar wages – ranked 46th in the nation, reports the New York Times, and “rock bottom” when compared to other professionals in the state. “Colorado has a Democratic governor,” notes the Times, “and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans.”

Soon after their rally at the capitol, teachers in Denver, the state’s largest school system, announced a systemwide walkout on April 27. The next day, administrators in the state’s second largest district, Jefferson County, announced their schools would close a day earlier on the 26th in anticipation of teachers not showing up for work.

Since the Great Recession in 2009, Colorado has had one of the best performing economies in the nation, but school funding has increased only 3.4 percent above 2008 levels according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Much of the school funding woes can be traced to the enactment of a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) constitutional amendment in 1992 that severely limits school funding. Democrats have done little to try to repeal or devise workarounds to the amendment, and centrist Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper recently declared he “can’t imagine” TABOR being repealed.

Another school funding can Colorado Democrats keep kicking down the road arises from a constitutional amendment, Amendment 23, passed in 2000 that was designed to boost and protect K-12 funding but was subsequently limited when state coffers shrank in 2009. (Funny how amendments to increase school funding can be quickly undone while those limiting funding can’t.)

In his final state of the state speech, term-limited Governor Hickenlooper called for more education funding but blamed “voters” for lack of action on that front. Then, his final budget proposed $5.5 million more for charter schools.

Subsequently, Democrats in the state legislature spent considerably more energy staving off further cuts to education, rather than pushing for bold efforts to increase funding. What ultimately passed with “broad bipartisan support” barely raises funding but also mandates school districts share locally-raised tax money with state-created charters.

Saying No to Centrism

The Colorado teachers’ plans to walk out of school is a strong sign they’ve had it with state government inaction on funding. There’s also a sign many Colorado Democrats feel that way too.

At the most recent state assembly of the Colorado Democratic party, delegates sent a strong rebuke to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, demanding the organization cease to use “Democrats” in its name, Chalkbeat reports.

The platform amendment, passed overwhelmingly by the delegates, opposed the group’s intentions of “making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts.”

This rebuke has significant ramifications for the Democratic party and the direction of education policy not only in Colorado but nationwide.

“Democrats for Education Reform, founded more than a decade ago, was at the center of a split within the Democratic Party over school reform that began to play out with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama,” explains Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post. The organization’s embrace of traditionally Republican education policies – including charter schools, vouchers, standardized testing, and enforced closure of neighborhood schools – instead of funding schools and supporting teachers, had the effect of wiping away “the traditional partisan divide over education policy,” she argues.

Now there are growing signs Democrats want to bring those traditional partisan distinctions back.

Where Next?

A recent analysis by Brookings spotlights North Carolina and Mississippi as the most likely states for the next teacher uprising. Other candidates include Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah.

It’s interesting that analysis, likely completed a few days before trouble started brewing in Colorado, doesn’t have that state on the list.