Education Opportunity Network

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Charter School Corruption Is Changing Education Policy And Politics

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

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

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

Charter Scandals Continue

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

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

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

A ‘Backlash’ to For-Profit Charters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Charter Politics

Changing attitudes about charters are affecting electoral politics too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome News

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Derek Bridges, Flickr Creative Commons)

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

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

‘The Education Debt’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hijacked by Billionaires’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Predatory Elites’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back-To-School Season Marred By Chronic Underfunding, Endless Charter School Scandals

Some of the most memorable education news stories from the 2017-18 school year were the photos spreading online virally showing Baltimore school children bundled up against the cold in unheated classrooms, the enormous outpourings of teachers walking out of schools and protesting at their state capitols, and the seemingly endless litany of scandals from the charter school industry coming from Arizona, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

With a new school year starting across the nation, families, teachers, and communities may be feeling a sense of renewal and possibility, but much of the news from schools is still mired in negative reports of underfunded buildings, beleaguered teachers, and charter school corruption.

Poor Conditions, Lack of Resources

Those Baltimore school children who endured freezing classrooms last winter? They’re back in the news again, only this time because their schools are too hot because they lack air conditioners. As a heatwave sent temperatures into the 90s, at least ten schools in the city and surrounding county had to close and sixty more were forced to dismiss early.

Baltimore wasn’t alone. Over 200 schools across Philadelphia dismissed at noon as heat indexes in non-airconditioned buildings climbed above 100 degrees. Dozens of New Jersey schools let out early due to lack of air conditioning. And schools across Ohio – from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati – closed due to high temperatures in buildings with no air conditioning.

School funding in the Buckeye state hasn’t kept up with inflation for a decade, according to a new study.

Lack of air conditioning wasn’t the only problem in schools. Schools in Detroit that serve over 50,000 students had to shut off water fountains and taps due to high levels of lead and copper in the water.

Schools in multiple states are finding elevated lead levels, prompting them to tear out water fountains and faucets. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Indiana tested 915 schools in recent months and found that 61 percent had one or more fixtures with elevated lead levels. Schools in Colorado and Florida, among others, are taking steps to address lead in drinking water.”

For parents with children who suffer from asthma, a chronic shortage in the supply of epipens kept in schools has added to the widespread sense of crisis that increasingly accompany school reopenings.

Lack of basic supplies is another sign of the dire straits schools face, prompting teachers to either shell out more of their own money for learning materials or use crowd-funding sites at record-high levels to beg for cash.

Low Teacher Pay

The poor building conditions and lack of resources that spurred teachers in red states like Oklahoma and Arizona to walk off the job in the spring have become subjects in more recent news stories about how teachers are using their grievances to run for office and throw out lawmakers who refuse to fund public education.

In North Carolina, teachers are using the momentum from their brief walkout in the spring to stage townhalls across the state to push more school funding. The teachers are calling for class size reductions, up-to-date textbooks, and improved teacher pay.

The labor unrest that swept across schools in red states earlier this year has now reached blue states too, as teachers in Los Angles, the nation’s second-largest school district, and across the state of Washington have threatened to strike, or are on strike, over working conditions and poor pay.

Indeed, teachers across the nation continue to be among the lowest paid employees when compared to other comparably educated professions. According to a new study, teachers earn substantially less than other college-educated workers, and their status on the pay scale has worsened over time, from a differential of 4.3 percent less in 1996 to 18.7 percent less in 2017.

While the economy generally continues to recover since the Great Recession in 2008, the “pay gap” teachers experience continues to erode because of, the authors contend, “state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges.”

Teacher pay is so bad, one in five teachers has to work a second job, and one in ten Airbnb hosts is a teacher.

More Money Would Help

Due to the continued erosion in teacher compensation, an increasing percentage of parents do not want their children to become teachers, according to a new nationwide poll. While Americans overwhelmingly say teachers deserve to be paid more, schools are under-funded, and they would be willing to be taxed more to fund schools, 54 percent say they would not want their child to become a public-school teacher, due mostly to the poor pay and benefits teachers earn.

The increased funding Americans want for education would not only improve school conditions and teacher pay, it would improve student achievement.

According to a new study, increases in per-student spending in New York led to higher math and reading scores on state tests.

The research, Chalkbeat reports, “is the latest evidence linking increased school spending to positive outcomes for students, including graduation rates, lifetime wages, and college attendance. State-level studies in California, Massachusetts, and Ohio have also found benefits of increased spending. On the flipside, Great Recession spending cuts appeared to have negative consequences on students.”

More Options Isn’t a Solution

Nevertheless, when pressed with the evidence of worsening conditions in schools and declining support for teachers, recent education policy decisions and legislation have increasingly emphasized creating “alternatives” to public schools rather than doing something to improve the ones we have.

Consequently, back-to-school reports in local news outlets occasionally feature glowing articles about new charter schools and online education providers. But on balance, the positive reports about these alternatives are outweighed by negative stories about what happens when these privately-operated schools, that lack most of the regulatory and statutory guidelines placed on public schools, are allowed to open and operate freely.

With school openings just are barely underway, there is already a lengthy scandal sheet of charter schools caught for committing acts that would never be allowed in a public institution.

A recent news story from Arizona tells about an online charter school in that state that invests 70 percent of the money it gets from the state on the stock market rather than on instruction. The same Arizona news outlet found another charter school that screens out special education students has a leader accused sexual harassment and not paying teachers. And a different Arizona news outlet caught a leader of a charter school bragging about using mass suspensions to improve the image of his school,

A report from Louisiana finds a CEO of a charter school chain in New Orleans employed her sister and son-in-law in the schools and contracted with her daughter as a paid consultant. The situation has become the subject a new law the state enacted, which had never before applied to charter schools. Louisiana has had charter schools for over 20 years.

A charter school in New Jersey became the subject of a widely shared Twitter thread when the school kicked out scores of black students for a minor dress code infraction. A youth advocate and recreational counselor found the children loitering in a local park, unable to attend school because their shoes weren’t an exact match to school guidelines that called for “all black” footwear.

Another New Jersey charter school caught a reporter’s attention after the school dismissed sexual harassment claims against an administrator but then paid a $90,000 settlement to the accuser. Another New Jersey charter school has become the subject of a lawsuit for its excessive discipline of students with disabilities.

And yet another New Jersey charter school operation that suddenly closed was found to have stuck the state with a $10 million loan the state is unable to collect because the development company associated with the school figured out a way to be legally free of any assets the state could collect on.

In Michigan an online charter has become a subject of scrutiny for faking its enrollment, and another charter is being questioned for why it allowed the school leader to splurge on $25,000 in gift cards for an “employee retention program” despite the school running up a $954,399 deficit last year and carrying a current fund balance under legal requirements.

In California, local officials question why a couple operating a charter school continues to draw salary for a year after they left the job and used the building for a political campaign. A reporter notes, “The school has already undergone a yearlong investigation in 2015 prompted by hundreds of complaints involving governance and transparency.”

Also in California, a news outlet reports a charter school that got over $30 million in tax-free bonds from the state to build new campus was suddenly closed by its district authorizer for lagging academics, a 23 percent dropout rate, and questionable financials. The school is connected to a mosque whose leader founded the charter and works for the school.

Further north, in Oakland, a former principal of a charter school admitted the school where he worked is connected to the Gulen religious movement from Turkey, led by an exiled recluse cleric living in Pennsylvania. Charter schools connected to the Gulen movement have been frequently accused of contracting with Gulen-associated companies and staffing schools with Turkish workers who kick back part of their paychecks to the movement.

In Ohio, a charter school operator is being investigated for setting up over 150 shell companies and fake bank accounts to over-charge taxpayers in both Ohio and Florida millions for school equipment and then laundering the profits by calling them as “rebates” and “kickbacks” to the owner.

The Buckeye state is still reeling from the closing of the state’s largest online charter that sent over 12,000 students and their families in search of other schools in the middle of last year. The school owed the state over $80 million for faking its enrollments.

In a Pennsylvania school district, local officials decided to close a charter school just before the doors were to reopen for the new school year. The school ranked the lowest in academics in the district, failed to comply with state law for safety and staffing, and likely overcharged the district.

A Vicious Bind

There’s a tendency to dismiss these stories as mere anecdotes and not truly revealing of general conditions of charter schools. But the above examples of charter school scandals are occurred within the past three weeks.

Indeed, the ever-expanding accumulation of news reports and citizen testimony from communities across the nation point to a chronic problem of corruption and education malfeasance in the charter industry that politicians and industry representatives seem little interested in acknowledging, much less addressing.

In the meantime, charter schools use deteriorating conditions in public schools as fodder for their marketing campaigns – for instance, in Detroit, a local charter used the city’s decision to cut off water in city schools as a marketing pitch for parents to go charter instead.

It’s a vicious bind too many families face.

The ‘Educator Spring’ Continues, Ousting Incumbents And Sweeping New Candidates Into Races

Maybe from now on politicians will think twice before crossing public school teachers. That’s likely what defeated candidates in at least one state, Oklahoma, are thinking after the results of this year’s primary and runoff elections.

After widespread statewide teacher walkouts earlier this year, in which teachers protested poor pay and inadequate school funding, educators running for office and advocates for public schools are making their voices heard in the Sooner State and elsewhere.

Of the 29 Oklahoma state legislators who voted against the teacher pay bill, 18 aren’t returning, CNN reports. Only three won their primaries, a few decided not to run or were term-limited out, and six didn’t have to run. One of the three now has to face an opponent in the November general election who is married to a retired schoolteacher and has the endorsement of the hometown newspaper, particularly because of his stand on education issues.

Oklahoma is not alone. This spring’s teacher uprisings and widespread public discontent with education policy continue to affect elections across the nation and push education issues to the top of contests for governor on down.

Of the 158 current teachers running for office this year, according to Education Week, 95 are advancing to the November general elections in their states, and eight are in upcoming primaries. This doesn’t count the scores of other educators – principals, assistant principals, coaches, counselors, and other school personnel – competing in elections across the country.

There’s a good reason teachers and their issues are influencing election outcomes: The public is overwhelmingly on their side. According to the nation’s most respected and longest running survey of public attitudes about public schools, “Two-thirds of Americans say teachers are underpaid, and an overwhelming 78 percent of public school parents say they would support teachers in their community if they went on strike for more pay.”

The survey, the 50th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, found 70 percent of Americans give their local schools a grade of A or B grade, and 78 percent, a new high, would rather fix public schools than find an alternative to the existing system.

Lawmakers, in both parties, who’ve made it a pastime to dis public schools take heed.

In Oklahoma, the teacher walkouts propelled teacher pay raises and increased school funding to the top issue in every statewide and legislative race.

In Arizona, where teacher walkouts in April also roiled the state, more than a dozen educators are running for office, according to NPR, from the top of the ticket on down, including university professor David Garcia, who won the Democratic party primary contest for governor.

Education will be a top issue in Arizona’s general election in November because in addition to educator candidates stirring the pot, there are ballot amendments to boost education spending by taxing the wealthiest individuals in the state and to stop the expansion of school vouchers.

Educators and education issues have become particularly influential in the red states that experienced the teacher walkouts, including West Virginia and Kentucky, reports Zaid Jilani for The Intercept Jilani notes the defeat of the Kentucky Republican House Majority Leader by R. Travis Brenda, a math teacher, and the takedown of incumbent lawmakers in West Virginia.

“In all, a dozen teachers won Democratic and Republican primaries in Kentucky this year,” Jilani finds.

But educator candidates and education issues have become consequential in states that didn’t experience labor actions too.

“Thirteen educators will be on the ballot in Minnesota this November,” according to the National Education Association.

In Wisconsin, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers will run against incumbent governor Scott Walker by challenging him, to a great degree, on, his atrocious education track record. Polls show the race is a dead heart, and education is the number two issue for voters.

in Connecticut, a former National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes, won the Democratic nomination for Congress, even after she was told she had “no chance,” and she lost the party’s endorsement.

Education has become a “key issue” in the race for governor in New Mexico, Politico reports, where “poor education outcomes, low teacher pay, high unemployment rates, and an active education funding lawsuit” have put education in the spotlight.

In Florida, Andrew Gillum’s improbable win in the Democratic party’s governor party was likely propelled, in part, by education issues, including his bold stance on charter schools – calling them out for “a record of waste and unaccountability” – and his courageous proposition to tax corporations and the wealthy to invest a billion dollars in public schools and teacher pay.

The school funding issue has become particularly contentious not only between the party’s but within. School funding is “one of the most divisive issues for states in this year’s midterm elections,” says Education Week, citing nine states with education funding measures on the ballot, and governor’s races – in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere – where questions of how much or whether to fund schools are generating political heat.

“Republicans, who control most state legislatures, are at odds with each other over whether to continue touting tax cuts,” the EdWeek reporter explains. “And embattled Democrats are divided over what strategies will realistically bail out public schools.”

“Candidates who are focused on education … are winning primaries,” argues former Delaware Governor Jack Markell in a recent op-ed. A review of the record thus far proves him right, and politicians who ignore the concerns of educators run at their own risk.

Betsy DeVos Fills The Swamp For For-Profit Colleges

The Democratic party has vowed to brand Republicans as the party of corruption in political campaigns for the upcoming midterm elections in November. Given the slew of scandal-ridden people that surround President Trump and the alleged crimes committed by Congressional Republicans who support the President, Democratic candidates have lots of fodder to stoke their messaging campaigns.

Numerous current and former officials in Trump’s Cabinet have also been dogged by corruption accusations that have forced some to resign under a “cloud of ethics scandals.” But perhaps one of the most corrupt cabinet officials still in office is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and there are ample reasons Democrats should highlight her in their messaging campaign.

The education secretary is often the most overlooked cabinet officer, but DeVos is the most unpopular official in the Trump team, and Democrats who plumb the depths of her shady actions will be rewarded with a trove of dark anecdotes.

DeVos ascended to her office with a deep resume of corrupt influence in her home state of Michigan, where she used her family’s considerable wealth to elect candidates and lobby for legislation that erected a billion-dollar charter school industry largely operated by for-profit management companies. As secretary, DeVos is now rewarding charter schools with huge grants courtesy of the US taxpayer.

But in her secretarial duties, DeVos’s greatest contribution to corruption has been in the higher education sector. During her nomination hearing, she was questioned about her family’s investments in LMF WF Portfolio, a company that helped finance a $147 million loan to Performant Financial Co., a college loan servicing and debt collection firm.

DeVos was required to divest from Performant, but her favors to the firm have continued.

Shortly after taking office, DeVos appointed James Manning to be Acting Under Secretary, the number three official in the Department, with responsibility for higher education, and also later put him in charge of the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), which oversees compliance by colleges with department rules regarding taxpayer-funded grants and loans. A letter of concern sent by Democratic senators notes Manning has deep ties to companies involved in the college student loan servicing industry, including a client and business associate who sits on the board of directors of Performant.

Another bone DeVos threw to the college Performant and other student loan firms was her department’s reversal of policies from the Obama administration that had disqualified loan servicers, like Performant, that had records of charging high fees and abusing debt holders. Then, when her department had to decide which company to award a new contract for student loan services, lo-and-behold, Performant got the contract.

A court battle eventually pressured the department to rescind the Performant contract, but the clear conflict of interest evident in DeVos’s department of education would emerge again in other decisions.

Indeed, DeVos’s cronyism with the student loan servicing industry is far exceeded by her efforts to promote the for-profit college industry.

The Obama administration chose to crackdown on for-profit colleges due to concerns that these schools pushed desperate students into useless degree programs that led to massive debts and few prospects for jobs –all at taxpayer expense.

But DeVos filled regulatory positions for for-profit colleges with former employees and advocates for these schools.

Two DeVos hires – senior advisor Robert Eitel and attorney Linda Rawles – worked at Bridgepoint Education, which has run into trouble for deceiving students into taking out loans that cost more than advertised, collecting federal loan money even though the vast majority of students drop out, and rewarding corporate executives and shareholders with huge profits reaped from public funds.

Other DeVos hires – senior adviser Diane Auer Jones and general counsel Carlos G. Muñiz – have previous connections to Career Education Corporation, a for-profit operator that made a $10.25 million settlement with New York over charges it had inflated graduates’ job placement rates.

Another DeVos hire, Julian Schmoke, is former dean of a for-profit college DeVry University (now called Adtalem Global Education), which paid $100 million to settle a lawsuit over misleading marketing tactics. Schmoke new job? To lead the unit that investigates claims of large-scale fraud involving student loans.

Unsurprisingly, after Schmoke was hired, the Education Department downsized the unit into a three-person operation, scaled back activities or redirected resources, and cancelled investigations into Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation.

After stocking her staff with cronies of the for-profit college industry, DeVos gave strong signs her department would ease the regulatory environment for the taxpayer-financed career education sector, which for-profit colleges dominate.

She and her appointees dismantled key federal student loan servicing reforms that protected student loan borrowers and made it easier for college students to have loans discharged when they’ve been defrauded by schools.

Then her deparment delayed implementation of the gainful employment rule, an Obama reform that penalizes career-oriented for-profit programs from letting students run up huge debts while they pursue careers that are low paying or have few job prospects. The delay eventually became a reversal, as DeVos recently proposed new rules that let for-profit colleges evade the consequences of scamming students who’ve used federal loans to attend these schools.

Safeguards imposed by the Obama administration addressed widespread fraud committed by for-profit colleges by giving students a path toward relief from loan debt and reimbursement when they’ve been wronged. But new rules proposed by DeVos would make it extremely difficult for students to prevail should they fall victim to fraud.

For instance, standards for what defines false statements made by a school would be narrowed, and schools will no longer be liable for breaches of contract or violations of state law. Students must prove the school intended to commit fraud, and fewer indebted students woiuld be eligible to obtain loan relief.

Tellingly, days after DeVos announced her new rules, Bridgepoint Education’s stock made a huge gain on Wall Street.

While making it easier for for-profit colleges to rip off students, DeVos is also allowing many of these institutions to convert to “nonprofits to free these institutions from remaining federal regulations and help them burnish their tarnished brands.

DeVos’s action have come just as yet more for-profit colleges are closing campuses under suspicion of defrauding students. Branches of the Illinois Art Institute, Argosy University, and South University that operate in Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere have been accused of misleading students about the accreditation status of its campuses and converting to low-quality online-only instruction.

The need to rein in for-profit colleges and rescue their students remains acute. In 2015-16, federal government reports show 3.9 million undergraduates with federal student loan debt dropped out of college. More than 900,000 of these students left for-profit universities, making up 23 percent of all indebted dropouts, although only 10 percent of all undergraduates attend for-profits. In a ranking of colleges by their numbers of indebted dropouts, for-profits comprise the top five.

Addressing the college student loan servicing industry and the corrupt for-profit college industry and their roles in expanding the student debt crisis are not only moral imperatives; they’re also a winning issue for Democrats.

A strong majority of likely voters view student debt as a “crisis,” according to a recent poll, with more than 70 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans agreeing the $1.5 trillion in student debt amassed by millions of Americans is now an alarming issue in need of being addressed by congressional and presidential action.

Sensing the need to act, state attorneys general in 18 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit to prevent DeVos from reversing the Obama administration’s rules for protecting students who borrowed money to attend colleges that have closed or defrauded them. DeVos has called their lawsuit “ideologically driven,” using the near exact language the leader of the for-profit college lobbying arm uses to criticize the Obama-era rules.

Democrats should make clear that given the choice of “ideology” over blatant corruption, they’ll chose ideology every time.

(Photo credit: Rick Schindler, Flickr Creative Commons)

Progressives May End Education’s ‘Funding Vs Accountability’ War

For nearly three decades, the rhetoric of education politics and policy has been dominated by a conflict over inputs versus outcomes, that is, whether public schools and teachers are getting the support and resources they need to adequately educate all students or whether measures of achievement and efficiency prove that our education system is simply not up to the task of educating all students, and schools and teachers need to work harder and be smarter with the money and resources they have. The outcome crowd has almost always won. But that might be changing.

On both the white-hot frontline of political campaigns leading up to this year’s midterm elections, and in the cubicles of data mavens and think tank wonks writing education policy, there is evidence of a change in heart and mind that may foretell a new education narrative that breaks out of the funding versus accountability polarity and re-centers education politics on a more holistic vision of what schools and students need.

A Top-Down Agenda

The outcome crowd has been dominant from the top down.

Beginning in the 1980s, politicians, policy makers, and business elites pointed to measures of student “proficiency” in reading and math, a yawning gap between how white students and their black and brown peers score on standardized tests, and mediocre results for American students taking international exams as proof that schools and teachers were failing students and communities.

Gradually, political leaders in both parties made “raise the bar” the mantra for education policy.

The attacks on schools resulted in a federal agenda to govern education based on test scores, an agenda that was both a product of policies in reform-minded states like North Carolina and Texas and an encouragement to historically high-performers like Massachusetts and New Jersey to impose new standards and more stringent accountability.

Their crowning achievement was the bipartisan federal legislation called No Child Left Behind that required states to use quantitative outcomes – mostly student scores on standardized tests in reading and math, but some other measures – to determine whether schools met standards. Results also had to be broken down into racial, ethnic, income, and ability student subgroups. A school “passed” if all of its student subgroups met the academic thresholds and the school’s other measures weren’t declining. A school “failed” when even one subgroup missed the threshold.

NCLB required states to subject chronically failing schools to intervene by either taking over operation of the school, firing all or part of the school’s staff, handing the school over to a charter management firm, or closing the school.

A revision of NCLB in 2016 eased federal pressures somewhat – new legislation known as Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more leeway over school intervention strategies – but governance based on the all-mighty test scores still remains the standard in determining failing schools.

But there are now clear signs the accountability argument has become unsustainable.

Bad Politics

When teachers in red states across the country walked off the job earlier this year, it sent a powerful message to politicians that the accountability argument had run into a dead end.

The teachers’ actions brought to light to many who weren’t aware that education funding has not recovered from the Great Recession, and the majority of states fund schools less now than they did in 2008, and teacher salaries have been mostly flat or down since the 1990s. Teachers pointed to not only the lack of funding but also to the gross disconnect between the accountability agenda and the deteriorating conditions of their students, their schools, and their communities.

There’s strong evidence some politicians are listening.

In numerous primary elections this year so far, progressives surged to victories in Democratic contests in key House race by discarding the party’s platform crafted by operatives in Washington, DC and Wall Street. Candidates are instead basing their issue campaigns on cues from their local constituents.

The changing dynamic in the Democratic party will undoubtedly shift candidates more toward the funding-input side, as polls consistently show voters want more education spending, even if it increases their taxes.

K-12 funding will be a “wedge issue” in midterm elections this fall, says a report in Education Week by Daarel Burnette. Winners are taking “strong stances on how (or whether) to shore up their schools’ coffers, and their messages seem to be resonating with voters,” Burnette observes.

But the failure of the accountability agenda goes beyond politics.

Bad Policy

The whole idea that more intense accountability will produce greater gains in student achievement, regardless of funding and resources, is not only losing its currency in politics; it’s proving to be bad policy.

According to a new study by researchers at two leading universities, states under NCLB that pushed their accountability agendas the hardest had mostly disappointing results. Setting ambitious goals and putting pressure on schools to reach them led to only small improvements in eighth-grade math and no improvement in fourth-grade reading.

Even among the various subgroups the accountability agenda had been professed to address, more stringent NCLB implementation led to only small improvements in eighth-grade math and possibly in eighth-grade reading achievement, but no effects on fourth-grade math or reading.

This is not to dispense with accountability altogether.

The report finds states that had little to no accountability for schools previous to NCLB were more apt to show improvements after they adopted more stringent standards, and the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged student subgroups. But even these gains eventually plateaued.

The report authors conclude that all the efforts to pressure schools to improve test scores had benefits that were “minor” at best, despite the high expense of the programs and the ill-will they fomented among teachers and communities. “Ratcheting of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” they write. “Schools and teachers also need additional resources to improve instructional practice.”

Breaking Bad

Clearly, it’s time to break from an accountability-only agenda that is both bad politics and bad policy.

But while the authors’ call for a “Goldilocks” solution of getting the balance between accountability and support “just right” is an improvement over the status quo, it’s doubtful that policy leaders who got us into the quagmire over outcomes versus inputs should be entrusted with proposing a better way forward.

New leaders being thrust to the forefront of politics by a surge from the progressive left seem to get that too.

Instead of clinging to the ideas of deeply invested “experts,” they’re listening to voices in their communities who reject the old trade-offs between this agenda or that and call instead for an agenda for the common good. This revitalized populism from the left has united behind policy ideas like Medicare for all, free college, and reigning in Wall Street. Yet it remains to be seen what policies will unify new progressive leaders on K-12 schools. But at least they’re on the right track.

(Photo credit: Calgary Church, https://calgarychurch.ca/about-church/how-do-we-achieve-balance-in-life/)

Democrats Who Opposed Privatizing Social Security Should Be Alarmed By A New Scheme Aimed At Public Schools

Remember when Democrats, at the urging of their progressive base, defeated an attempt to privatize Social Security by President George W. Bush in 2005? As Bush barnstormed the country to sell his plan to let workers place a portion of their payroll taxes in personal account invested in stocks and bonds, “Democrats pushed back, a retrospective for Vox recalls. “In think tanks, on blogs, in activist groups, and in Congress, they sought to rebut the president’s case — arguing that there was no imminent crisis, that private accounts would in fact worsen the program’s financial situation, and that privatization meant putting much of the public’s retirement savings at the mercy of the markets.”

Now, a new marketing campaign about yet another scheme to privatize a valuable public asset is being rolled out across the country, using Wall Street as an analogy to explain how the scheme works. The privatization scheme deserves the same skeptical opposition that Democrats mustered when Bush tried to privatize Social Security.

The Push for a ‘Portfolio Model’

As Chalkbeat reports, wealthy private foundations have contributed at least $200 million to create a new group, The City Fund, to “push cities to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy.” The campaign calls for urban school districts to follow a “portfolio model” of running schools, as if district leaders were investment managers and their schools were collections of different types of equity investments.

The portfolio metaphor is quite literally drawn from the stock market, the theory being that when a performance-based accountability system underlies the management strategy for schools, district leaders will act like wise investors and sell, or in this case, close schools that are deemed underperforming, or hand over school operations to a management group, usually a charter school management group.

The mix of schools in a portfolio managed district is by design to include privately operated charter schools, and in some cases, voucher programs that allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. And the long term goal is for district management and local schools boards to get out of the business of day-to-day operations of schools altogether, give schools complete autonomy, and make them accountable solely for their performance outcome, represented, more often than not, by results on standardized tests.

All About Charter Schools

Everywhere it’s been applied, the portfolio model has led to the rapid expansion of charter schools while closing supposedly failed public schools. A “unifying element” in the portfolio model, write William Mathis and Kevin Welner from the National Education Policy Center, “is the call for many neighborhood schools to be transformed into privately managed charter schools. The district’s central-office role would be correspondingly transformed into a manager of this decentralized collection of schools.”

Dozens of cities have already implemented the portfolio model, at least to some extent, including Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Camden and Newark, New Jersey. But the city portfolio advocates love to highlight as an explar of their model is m is New Orleans, where after Hurricane Katrina struck, nearly all the schools were transferred to charter school management organizations or independent charters.

Currently in New Orleans, 95 percent of student attend charter schools and the district is expected to transition to all charter by 2020. Although the local school board has recently been given some authorizing power over charters, board officials have no authority to oversee the day-to-day operations of charter schools.

Few Pros, Lots of Cons

In nearly every case, the benefits of the portfolio model are questionable at best. ” Understanding the effects of portfolio district reform is hampered by messy reform contexts, where portfolios are only one of several major ongoing reforms,” state Mathis and Welner. But there are immediate and acute downsides.

For instance, the role of the public voice is diminished in every case. “School boards are typically shunted aside,” Mathis and Welner explain, “leading to the objection that the policies are a power play about ‘money and power and control.’ State-level advocacy for these policies, moreover, has often been misleading, and characterized by spin and cherry-picked data.”

Further, the rapid expansion of charters introduces education providers that have no clear advantage over public schools and risks public taxpayer dollars and tax-funded school buildings and other facilities to exploitation by charter operators who frequently use the lack of regulatory oversight for private gain.

Another significant risk imposed by having large percentages of children enrolled in charter schools is the negative impact that has on public school finances.

A study of the financial impact of charters on Michigan public schools finances found that “overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

“The higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances,” the report’s author contends. He warns that when the numbers of charter schools in a district gets upward of “20 percent or so, the adverse financial impacts on district finances are “sizeable.”

A recent study in California, the state with the largest number of charter schools and charter school students, found that 250 school districts in the state face financial crisis due, to a significant extent, to the steady drain of charter schools on public school system budgets.

“Reasonable people may disagree about education policy,” the report’s author writes.. “What reasonable people should not do, however, is pretend that unregulated charter school expansion comes at no cost.”

What’s a Democrat to Do?

When Democratic party leaders made the decision to oppose Bush’s privatization scheme for Social Security, it wasn’t just good politics – it helped propel the party’s candidates to reclaim control of Congress in 2006. It prevented perhaps millions of Americans from seeing their retirement saving severely damaged by the 2008 meltdown of Wall Street and the ensuing Great Recession. ”

Today, Democrats should feel an obligation to fight the effort to privatize public education in urban communities. Taking up that cause could not only be good politics; it could save the public system that educates millions of school children, who are the future of this country.

(Photo credit: Alejandra, Flickr Creative Commons)

A New Push For Charter Schools Should Anger Progressives. Here’s Why.

Progressives angered at establishment Democrats who accuse them of being blinded by ideology and divorced from facts when they champion policies pushed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be equally irritated by a new message from supporters of charter schools and the “education reform” agenda.

Specifically, David Leonhardt, in the opinion pages of the New York Times, draws a false equivalency in the debate on charter schools and accuses “the political left” of “fact-twisting” and being guilty of “classic whataboutism” in questioning the academic record of charter schools and their impact on communities.

“Both sides are to blame,” he says, in a debate over education policy that should be “more around facts than fixed beliefs.”

But much in the same way establishment Democrats admonish progressives for their support of universal healthcare and living wages, the longstanding effort by establishment Democrats to boost private operators of charter schools avoids inconvenient truths about these schools and hides its ideological agenda. And rather than offering a reasoned argument for charters, Leonhardt and other proponents of these schools are attempting to recast a failed agenda into a success.

Where’s the Facts?

As Leonhardt calls for a more “fact based … nuanced” discussion about the supposed superiority of charter schools, one thing he fails to marshal for his argument is, well, facts.

As New York City parent and public school advocate Leonie Haimson writes, the “reams of rigorous research” supporting charter schools Leonhardt claims to exist are generally a no-show in his article. Of the four links to charter studies Leonhardt provides, “three have nothing to do with charter schools, nor are they peer-reviewed studies.”

Because most studies of charter schools show they generally do no better in terms of academic achievement than public schools, Leonhardt’s main point seems to be, “Initially, charters’ overall results were no better than average. But they are now.”

His evidence of this is not clear since he doesn’t even bother to link to a research document. But likely what he means to refer to is a single study on the impact of charter schools in urban communities that contends charter schools generally helped students increase reading and math scores in these systems. But reviews of the study have cast doubt on its findings due to the researchers’ questionable methodology and the exaggerated way the results of the study were reported.

While it’s fair to weigh the evidence of charter schools’ impact on academic achievement against evidence that finds otherwise, Leonhardt chooses to ignore any controversy over the evidence at all, and claims, preposterously, he is the one being fact-based and non-ideological.

One non-controversial fact Leonhardt does bring up is the high propensity of charters to use overly-harsh disciplinary policies. His description of a student walkout at a New Orleans charter over extreme discipline rules is not an isolated situation. Charter schools suspend students more often than public schools do, and the “no excuses” practices many of these schools employ can have negative effects on students.

But more revealing of Leonhardt’s ideological agenda to promote charter schools is what’s left unsaid in his piece.

See No Evil

Ironically, the very next day after Leonhardt’s piece ran, an enormous charter school scandal came crashing to the ground on the opposite coast.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, an operator of a charter school chain in the city, who also served on the district’s school board, had to resign after pleading guilty to using his publicly funded charter school, including its employees (even the low-wage custodians), as a source of funding for his school board campaign, and then lying about it.

The day after, in Pennsylvania, a former head of an online charter school in the state was sentenced to serve 20 months in prison for conspiring to defraud the IRS, siphoning $8 million from the charter school he created to spend on houses, a plane, and other luxuries.

Revelations of these legal and ethical violations on the part of charter school operators are a near daily occurrence.

Yet proponents of charter schools refuse to acknowledge any problems posed by having publicly funded school operations left completely unregulated, bereft of transparency, and accountable only to the very narrow range of test scores they can mangage to produce by using intensive test prep and selective enrollment and pushing out of low performers.

The Bigger Picture

In his Times piece, Leonhardt refers to his previous op-ed in which he extols the success of the New Orleans reform effort that turned that city into a practically all-charter school district.

He notes that after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana took over the system and hired charter school management groups to operate nearly all of the schools. He cites statistical evidence of academic progress compared to students before the storm, based on research provided by an academician who has been given a $10 million, five-year grant from the Trump administration’s department of education to lead a new federal research and development center on programs favoring charter schools.

Yet findings that charter schools have yielded achievement gains for students in New Orleans still remain questionable.

In a ten-year retrospective on the New Orleans school reform model, Emma Brown wrote for The Washington Post, “Many community members feel that the city schools are worse off in ways that can’t be captured in data or graphs, arguing that parents have less voice than they once did and that the new system puts some of the neediest children at a disadvantage, especially those with disabilities or who are learning English as a second language.”

Today, over 20,000 children in New Orleans remain in D- and F-rated schools, based on state rankings, and schools are on a three-year slide, dropping 65 percent from 2014 to 2017. Most of the top-ranked schools are more than 50 percent white, and black students are far less likely to be taught by credentialed teachers, to attend schools ranked A or B, and to have access to advanced courses.

So evidence that charter schools have yielded academic gains in New Orleans or anywhere else are muddled at best. Nevertheless, establishment Democrats like Leonhardt argue charter school skeptics are the ones driven by ideology and twisting of facts.

There’s a reason for the desperate arguments promoted by Leonhardt and other charter school proponents.

Just as the general public supports progressive proposals for universal health care and minimum wage, surveys find that Americans have increased confidence in public schools while support for charter schools has dropped by double digit percentages among Democrats and Republicans.

Now there’s some facts for you.

(Photo credit: Kinga Ka, Flickr Creative Commons)

Teachers Join Progressives As Partners “In A Revolution”

Conservatives may believe they accomplished what they’ve endeavored to do for decades with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v AFSCME, which undermined the ability of public-sector unions to raise funds from workers, but they may have also unintentionally unified progressive Democrats with teachers’ unions as never before to form a more powerful grassroots movement.

That unification is certainly the image conveyed by the annual conventions of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that both took place in July. Union leaders at both events made strong speeches denouncing President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, vowing to thrive despite Janus, and pledging to harness the energy of the #RedForEd movement that sent teachers out into the streets to protest in state after state across the nation this spring.

The unions also hailed the unprecedented number of teachers running for elected office this November, including a former national teacher of the year.

Partners in a Revolution

At the AFT meeting, the two former rivals for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – joined union President Randi Weingarten on stage – although not together. All three hailed teachers as partners in a “revolution.”

Clinton, in her speech, placed the union firmly in an “unprecedented outpouring of grassroots activism” for the broad progressive agenda for affordable healthcare, immigrant and refugee students, LGBT rights, and gun safety measures. With a reference to the “wrongly decided” Janus decision, Clinton declared, “Teachers’ unions aren’t going anywhere.”

In his address to the AFT, Sanders placed teachers in the “political revolution” that served as the theme of his political campaign. He called the Janus decision “disastrous” but said it may have “unintended consequences” and become “a big surprise … that helps us rebuild the trade union movement in America.”

Backlash to Janus

Indeed, political and labor journalists have reported that an anti-union decision for Janus could throw employment policies into chaos by opening a Pandora’s box of countersuits from labor groups and a ratcheting up of labor militancy.

Already, there are signs of a powerful union counteroffensive to the Janus decision.

In New York, teachers are going door to door to encourage “fee-payers,” those teachers and school staff who had declined to join the union but were still obligated to pay union fees pre-Janus, to pledge to “recommit” to the union. The campaign thus far has resulted in the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliates obtaining recommitment pledges from some 500,000 members in 18 states over the past five months, according to the New York Times.

In California, “unions have been preparing for Janus for several years,” reports Capital & Main. Prior to the court’s decision, teachers’ union members voted in favor of raising dues, and the unions conducted outreach to fee-payers to cut their numbers in half.

Public sector unions are engaged in a “Conversations and Cards” campaign to get fee-payers to sign recommitments, an effort modeled after a successful campaign by the United Domestic Workers of America health care workers.

Organized labor’s response to Janus “might represent a paradigm shift that could transform public-sector organizing,” says the C&M reporter. “California has already erupted in a virtual fever of union organizing and membership-building unseen since the public-sector labor movement’s formative heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s.”

“We’ve already had close to 100 percent of our members recommit,” says the president of the Boston teachers’ union. The Illinois state teachers’ union claims to have recommitment cards from 90 percent of its members, the Minnesota teachers union claims to have gotten its number of fee-payers down to only 5 percent of members, and the Pennsylvania teachers union reports its number of recommitments is 30 percent so far.

In legislative action, labor organizing has helped push through new measures in state legislatures to protect unions, including bills in California that improve union access and communications to employees, a Maryland bill requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative, a New Jersey bill that gives unions a broad range of new protections, and in New York a new bill expressly written to counter the Janus ruling and an executive order from the governor to protect public unions from union opt-out campaigns.

‘A Crisis for America’

Conservatives of course are not resting on their laurels after Janus.

As The New York Times reports, The Mackinac Center – a Michigan-based rightwing advocacy group funded by an array of conservative foundations, including those linked to the Koch Brothers and the DeVos and Bradley families – “is planning to spend $10 million this year and $40 million to $50 million over the next two or three years on a ‘national awareness campaign’” to convince current union fee-payers and members to opt out of their unions

The organization’s “My Pay, My Say” campaign funds a national call center, with round-the-clock 20 paid staff, canvasses, and literature campaigns across the country.

Mackinac’s pressure campaign is linked to an even broader effort by the State Policy Network – another rightwing creation of state-based advocacy groups funded by the same web of extremist billionaires – “to persuade public-sector trade union members to tear up their membership cards and stop paying dues,” The Guardian reports.

“The secret push, the group hopes, could cost unions up to a fifth of their 7 million members, lead to the loss of millions of dollars in income and undermine a cornerstone of US progressive politics,” says the reporter.

The unions’ strong counteroffensive to the post- Janus campaigns by conservatives may have been expected, but the full-throated support from Democrats that teachers’ unions are getting was never a sure thing and may be yet another consequence of Janus that conservatives may not have not considered.

Indeed, conservatives may have convinced Democrats that teachers are front-and-center in the fight for the party to regain its representation in government.

In her address to the AFT, Clinton told teachers, “Every American has a stake in what you do … whether they realize it or not.” She implored teachers to reach out to others in the progressive movement and convince them that unions aren’t just about helping workers but uplifting communities.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also spoke at the AFT event, declared, “This is a time of crisis, and a crisis for America’s teachers is a crisis for America.” In her powerful rallying cry, she implored teachers to join other progressives in “raising our voices for democracy” and “organize like we’ve never organized before.”

(Photo credit: American Federation of Teachers, Facebook.)

Kavanaugh Would Advance Betsy DeVos’s Religious Agenda For Schools

Immediately after Betsy DeVos took over as US Secretary of Education, numerous education policy experts expressed doubts she’d have much success in enacting her well-documented agenda to impose her brand of Christian religion on public schools and direct more public money to private religious schools. President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, however, is yet another indicator that DeVos’s detractors were wrong, as he would surely support a legal pathway to what DeVos wants.

“In private practice, Kavanaugh backed the government when it sought to support religious interests and challenged schools when they attempted to exclude religious groups,” the Washington Post reports, citing his defense of student-led prayers at high school football games and a religious school club from being barred by school administrators.

In tracing a potential legal pathway from taxpayer money for school prayer and religious clubs to “more sweeping voucher programs,” the Post reporter points to a narrow ruling from the court last year, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, that said denying a church-affiliated preschool from receiving a general public benefit, in this case funding for playground resurfacing, violates constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.

But Kavanaugh’s support of the DeVos agenda for school vouchers and religious education goes way beyond that narrow ruling, and it relies on a bizarre, but long-held view of conservative jurists.

Kavanaugh’s Ties to Voucher Proponents

As the son of a public-school teacher and a volunteer tutor of students in Washington, DC, the Kavanaugh narrative may come across as friendly to public schools, but Kavanaugh was raised in elite private schools and has nothing in his record that would indicate a strong support for public education.

His history of legally undermining the separation of church and state is a fact not in dispute. In his work with the Federalist Society – the rightwing project that has largely engineered today’s high court and compiled the list of potential nominees for Trump – Kavanaugh has led its “School Choice Practice Group” and “Religious Liberties Group.” These groups help the Federalist Society craft its legal arguments on the unconstitutionality of excluding religious options from school choice programs.

Among the primary targets for these groups is to repeal amendments in 39 state constitutions that prohibit direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation. This argument already has the Supreme Court’s partial consent, given its ruling last year that ordered a New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider a decision barring religious schools from a state textbook lending program.

Kavanaugh also has a history of supporting school vouchers that allow parents to use public taxdollars to pay tuition for private, religious schools. In 2000, he represented then Florida Governor Jeb Bush to push through the state’s first school voucher program, which was eventually struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in a 2006 decision.

But just as Kavanaugh and his conservative colleagues were being stymied in state courts, they were blazing a legal pathway for federal support of school vouchers.

Religious Is ‘Secular’

In an appearance on CNN in 2000, Politico reports, Kavanaugh “predicted … that school vouchers would one day be upheld by the Court.”

His comment was in reference to a Supreme Court ruling that year, Mitchell v. Helms, which challenged a federal program that provided all schools, both public and private, with instructional materials and equipment, including computers and film projectors. The split decision to uphold the program was extremely narrow, with some judges tipping the scale in favor deciding that the federal government can provide secular aid to any institution as long as the aid was used strictly for secular activities – presumably, using computers, even when they are helping to operate a religious program, and running film projectors, even when they are showing religious movies.

Defining education-related activities as essentially “secular” provided conservative jurists a huge loophole to use in later rulings to advance religion in public education.

Another narrow decision by the Court in 2002, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, upheld an Ohio program that gave school vouchers to low-income families even if they used the vouchers to send their children to private, religious schools. In that ruling, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that in this instance government support for private religious schools was “religiously neutral” because the program was based on the economic means of the student and on the geographic location of the family. The fact vouchers were restricted to low-income children in the district made them “secular.”

“The Ohio [voucher] program is entirely neutral with respect to religion,” Rehnquist argued. “It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”

While Rehnquist was arguing that private funding for religious schools could be religiously neutral and subject to private choice, he was also asserting in other cases that institutional support for religious advocacy in public schools was also a private, neutral activity and thus allowable under the Constitution.

Education Is ‘Neutral’

in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Kavanaugh praises Rehnquist’s reasoning.

Among the cases where Kavanaugh took Rehnquist’s side, Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, court majorities ruled there was clear evidence that when the assets and staff of a school are behind organized prayer activities, then schools are overstepping their boundaries and using public funds to promote religion. Rehnquist sided with the dissent in each case, according to Kavanaugh, arguing against a “strict wall of separation between church and state” and against court precedents that “cordon off public schools from state-sponsored religious prayer.”

Kavanaugh praises Rehnquist for having “had much more success in ensuring that religious schools and religious institutions could participate as equals in society and in state benefits programs, receiving funding or benefits from the state so long as the funding was pursuant to a neutral program.”

Kavanaugh’s argument that religious expression in education settings is somehow neutral occurs again in in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last year. According to a report by the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Kavanaugh argued that “’religious schools and religious institutions’ should be able to ‘receiv[e] funding or benefits from the state so long as the funding [i]s pursuant to a neutral program that, among other things, include[s] religious and nonreligious institutions alike.’”

Given this line of reasoning, Kavanaugh might agree that a program funding textbooks in schools would be “neutral,” even if the textbooks used in the religious schools taught a version of history that says “the majority of slave holders treated their slaves well” or a version of science that says humans and dinosaurs lived together.

What DeVos Wants

Certainly, the fundamental principle that public money should not be used to advocate religious beliefs in a public school is already at risk.

There are voucher programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private, religious schools, according to a report by the Network for Public Education. Other states have created school tax credit programs and education savings account programs that are voucher-like but set up differently to deliberately get around the issue of state funding going directly to religious schools.

Each of those programs has been approved along very narrow lines either on the basis of what is allowed in state constitutions, or similar to legal precedent established by the Supreme Court.

But the slippery slope conservatives have been plotting for decades leads inexorably to what Secretary DeVos wants.

In her advocacy for education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom,” DeVos envisions a greater presence for religion – the Christian religion – in public schools.

In her advocacy for school vouchers, DeVos compares education to a consumer good – a commodity that is neutral – and a matter determined strictly by “parent choice” and not public governance, even when the public has to pay for it.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed, which is what is expected, DeVos is far more apt to have a Supreme Court that agrees with her.

(Photo credit: Concit, http://concit.org/separation-of-church-and-state-is-biblical/)