Education Opportunity Network

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What Is The Purpose Of School Choice?

Another week, another round of evidence that providing parents with more “school choice,” especially the kind that lets them opt out of public schools, is not a very effective vehicle for ensuring students improve academically or that taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely.

The latest evidence comes from a study of the voucher program in Washington, DC that allows parents to transfer their children from public to private schools at taxpayer expense. The study found that students “who attended a private school through the program performed worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use the vouchers,” reports the New York Times.

This study adds to others – from Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana – finding that school vouchers have negative impacts on students.

Despite these results, many proponents of school choice contend the purpose of school choice was never about generating better results. It’s about choice for choice’s sake.

Results Don’t Matter?

That seems to be what US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos argues in her reaction to the news about the apparent failure of the DC voucher program. As the Washington Post reports, the report prompted her to say, “When school choice policies are fully implemented, there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools.”

That reaction struck education historian Diane Ravitch as an implication that “results don’t matter.” She writes on her personal blog, “If you parse this sentence, what she is saying is that when everyone chooses, none of the schools will be better than any others. They will all get the same results, even if they are dismal. The purpose of choice is choice.”

Ravitch points to an op-ed in a local DC paper that argues the “while point” of choice is for parents to pick schools they believe to be “best” for their children, regardless of the nature of the school or the results of its program.

The writer compares education to breakfast cereal, arguing that some parents may prefer Cheerios while some prefer other brands. What’s the big deal?

This line of reasoning aligns with DeVos’s recent comments comparing schools to all sorts of consumer goods. As the Associated Press reports, in a recent address she made at an education technology conference, DeVos compared school choice to switching phone carriers. “If you can’t get cell phone service in your living room,” she says, “you should have the option to find a network that does work.”

In another of her pronouncements about school choice, she compared education options to ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

For anyone who’s been paying attention, DeVos’s remarks aren’t surprising.

Seven years ago, when a study of the school voucher program in Milwaukee came to a disappointing conclusion similar to the more recent studies mentioned above, it prompted Charles Murray –co-author of the eugenics-inspired treatise The Bell Curve – to respond, basically, “So what!”

Writing in the New York Times, he argued that results from the study of the Milwaukee program didn’t much matter. “Our children’s education is extremely important to us,” he wrote, “and the greater good doesn’t much enter into it.” (Point of irony: Murray argues against using test scores as meaningful measures of school performance, yet the title of his infamous book is a direct reference to how test scores are distributed on a graph.)

More recently, editors of The Economist ruminated over the DC voucher study and  concluded the negative results meant, “A parent with a voucher may increasingly think twice about using it. That is a good choice to have.”

The Ultimate Choice

All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community.

Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms. But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.

And no one has a right to Cheerios, interruption-free cellphone service, or a ride home from the bar. But everyone does have a right to an education.

Further, when you extend the argument of choice for choice’s sake out to its logical conclusion, you’re led to the conclusion parents should have the option to skip educating their children altogether. Don’t laugh. A newly elected Representative in the Arizona legislature recently told a local news reporter, “The number one thing I would like to repeal is the law on compulsory education.

“Education used to be a privilege,” he laments. “Now we basically force it down everybody’s throats.”

His comments prompted education journalist Valerie Strauss to write on her blog at the Washington Post, “Compulsory education has a long history in this country, actually predating it … Education has long been seen not only as a personal ticket to a better life in this country but also as essential for the health of the democratic enterprise.”

Strauss quotes a columnist for the Arizona paper who, after reading the views of her state lawmaker, responded  “Oh the horror, of trying to create an educated citizenry. Of forcing kids to actually learn something … Much better, I suppose, to let them stay home, ignorant and hungry and so not our problem. Until someday, when they are.”

Too Important For Choice

None of this is to say parents should have no education choices for their children at all.

But Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York school principal who now leads the Network for Public Education, makes an important distinction about choice in education in her recent commentary at the Washington Post. “Public school choice programs, if carefully managed, can serve students well and/or promote a social good, she writes. “Privatized school choice, in contrast, is quite different. Privatized school choice is the public financing of private alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis original)

Burris goes on to explain that privatized school choice in many instances has led to negative consequences for the community, including crippling the funding of its local schools while enriching wealthy individuals and adding additional layers of administration and bureaucracy.

“We supported education with our tax dollars not to give individual children advantage,” she writes, “but to build a nation by teaching our children about the blessings of democracy in a publicly governed community school.”

Some things are just too important for choice.

In my recent conversation with progressive radio talk show host Rick Smith, he makes that interesting point in saying, “I don’t want choice.”

He argues that when he gets sick, he wants access to a qualified doctor with up-to-date facilities, and for his children’s education, he wants to know there’s going to be a school nearby with qualified teachers who have the resources they need.

“Why would I want a bad choice?” he asks.

Why indeed.

The Democrats’ Dilemma On Charter Schools

President Donald Trump’s adamant promotion of “school choice” and his selection of Betsy DeVos for education secretary have put advocates for charter schools in the Democratic party in a bind, and now they’re scrambling to keep the luster of the well-polished charter school brand unblemished.

Their latest tactic is to carefully distinguish charters from the system of school vouchers Trump and DeVos favor, but they serve this cause poorly by making erroneous claims about how the charter industry works in most communities and what these schools do to harm public education.

The latest misfire comes from David Leonhardt’s op-ed in Monday’s New York Times in which he takes on DeVos and her preference for vouchers while denigrating charter skeptics as people who need to get “an open mind.”

It’s a precarious tightrope Leonahrdt attempts to walk, and he stumbles quite badly.

First, A Little Background

First, it’s important to understand the source of the school choice schism in the Democratic party goes back 25 years, Jeffrey Henig explains in Education Week, when proponents of school choice came up with two different ways to achieve their goals: school vouchers and charter schools.

While conservatives favored vouchers, which were a creation of free-market economist Milton Friedman, political centrists and some left-leaning people became infatuated with charters because they were birthed by “business-oriented moderates and technocrats” who became the predominant force in the Democratic party during Bill Clinton’s presidential administration.

Around the turn of the century, these two strains of school choice advocacy united after pro-voucher forces, largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame), encountered a series of stinging defeats at the ballot box and a rising tide of anti-voucher sentiment among the general public.

Voucher advocates welcomed their union with charter school fans because it gave their cause a bipartisan aura and some support from the civil rights community. “Charter proponents … welcomed the political and philanthropic support of the pro-voucher forces,” Henig writes, because they needed rightwing leverage and money to undermine opposition coming from teachers’ unions and public school advocates.

For conservatives, the bipartisan unification for school choice established the slippery slope to potentially privatize public education. Moderate and lefty supporters of charter schools, on the other hand, got a Faustian bargain that gave them “education reformer” cred and the favor of Wall Street investors in exchange for colluding with the right wing.

With Trump and DeVos, the bargain Democrats made on charter schools has come due.

What Leonhardt Gets Wrong

So what’s a charter-loving Democrat to do? Based on what Leonhardt writes for the Times, many are choosing to re-up their support with false claims and deceptive rhetoric.

Leonhardt begins his column by calling attention to a new study showing the voucher program in the District of Columbia has had a negative impact on student achievement – a worthwhile news item to note for sure. But it becomes quickly apparent Leonhardt brings the subject up not to lambast DeVos but to miscast charter school skeptics as actors in a “caricature” debate over the fate of public education.

That’s a convenient strawman that leads him to state there are those who “conflate vouchers … with charter schools,” but he cites no credible sources to substantiate his belief that critics of DeVos and school choice are incapable of distinguishing between charters and vouchers.

Most concerning about Leonhardt’s column, though, is the many misleading statements he makes about how charter schools operate and what their impact is.

He cites a few credible studies showing positive impacts of charter schools on student achievement, but he doesn’t appear to have read credible reports that have found otherwise.

For instance, the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education found no overall positive effect for charter schools.

A recent study of charter schools in Texas found charters overall have no positive impact on test scores and have a negative impact on earnings later in life.

So it’s totally misleading for Leonhardt to argue charters have “flourished” (whatever that means) when their track record is decidedly mixed at best.

Leohardt then piles on one misleading statement after another.

His assertion that “charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight” is counter factual to reports from the charter industry itself that show only about 3 percent of charter schools are closed for under-performing, and even those that are closed have operated an average of 6.2 years.

In Ohio, only one of 10 charter school students attend a school rated high performing.

In Michigan, charter schools score worse on national assessments, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” than their traditional public-school counterparts, yet their numbers continue to expand every year.

In Louisiana, charter-school students perform worse than public schools on eighth-grade reading and math tests by enormous margins – 2 to 3 standard deviations.

And if you want to find out how charter schools spend the money they get from taxpayers, your job isn’t easy. Neither the federal government nor the states have created a place taxpayers can go to see how much in taxes these schools get and what they do with the cash, including what happens to real estate the schools purchase with the public’s money.

Leohnardt’s next howler is his assertion, “Local officials decide which charters can open and expand.” Actually, most often state boards or independent charter granting entities make the decisions to open and close charters, not local officials.

If you’re a local official in most states – including Arizona, Florida, California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, – you have no idea if a charter school will pop up in your district and no control over what kind of students the charter will appeal to and how the charter will impact your budget.

In most states – including Florida, Tennessee, California, Illinois, Colorado, and Alabama – local officials who deny a charter application or seek to close a charter are frequently overruled by appointed boards set up by state officials whose political campaigns have been well supported by the charter school industry or its wealthy promoters.

The lack of local control endemic in charter school governance is by design. In its rankings of state legal statues governing charter schools, the charter industry lists “the existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers,” not local control, as a chief determiner of whether a state gets a top grade or not.

Leonhardt is wrong on this point as well: “Many charters are open to all comers.”

Numerous studies have found charters tend to serve lower percentages of students who have disabilities or whose first language isn’t English.

I’m sure Leonhardt can find an inclusive charter here or there, but the fact remains there are no regulatory or statutory requirements that prevent a charter school operator from saying to a family, “Your child isn’t a good fit for our school,” and any attempt to put those requirements onto charters would be fought tooth-and-nail by the charter industry and its powerful lobby.

Who Really Needs “An Open Mind”

Lastly, Leonhardt offers a “political compromise” of “fewer vouchers, more charters,” and he accuses anyone unwilling to take that deal of not having “an open mind.”

But expanding charters comes at a considerable cost to taxpayers as many of these schools continue to fleece the public coffers while traditional public schools lose vital resources.

According to the latest accounting of charter school fraud, waste, and mismanagement, conducted by the Center for Popular Democracy, public funding of charter schools has grown to $40 billion annually while oversight of these schools has languished. CPD has identified over $223 million in public fund misuse by charters but argues this is merely “the tip of the iceberg.” The total estimated loss may top $2.1 billion, CPD calculates.

As charters expand, the cost to public school systems is considerable, and many districts increasingly face financial insolvency as they lose students to these schools.

Maybe that’s a subject Leonhardt can open his mind to.

With A Wary Eye On DeVos, Students Take Fight For Free Higher Ed To States

If you’re worried about the negative impact U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have on K-12 public schools, you should pay attention to what she’s doing to higher education too.

Fortunately, people who have the most at stake – students who aspire to attend college or who have attended at least some higher education and have incurred loan burdens because of that – already have a wary eye on DeVos, and they’re planning to counter whatever she and President Trump do with a renewed push for free higher education.

But unlike efforts by the Obama administration to take action at the federal level, some student activists are targeting states too.

One such group is Student Action, a project of People’s Action, a national network of grassroots, progressive organizations that work together to advance democracy and a racial, gender, and economic justice agenda.

Recently, staff and volunteers of Student Action from across the country met at the founding convention of People’s Action in Washington, DC, to share their struggles with college debt burdens and kick off their campaign to plan the organization’s push for free higher education.

“People came together to imagine what truly accessible education would look like for our communities,” says Student Action Director Aija Nemer-Aanerud. “Then we plotted out what it would take to get there.”

In addition to taking on DeVos directly, student activists at the meeting spoke of going around her to address root causes that are driving the college debt crisis in the states.

What DeVos Has Done

DeVos recently drew the attention of state attorney’s general in the Democratic party who rebuked her for loosening requirements the Obama administration had placed on college loan servicing companies to ensure student loan holders understand what they owe and how they can pay off their debts.

According to Yahoo News, DeVos’ actions undo reforms that ensure four loan servicing companies that handle over $1.3 trillion in college student debt follow legal requirements that protect borrowers from fraud and exploitation. One of debt servicing companies, the article notes, is being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “over allegations it cheated borrowers by deceiving them about repayment options and their rights.”

DeVos’s action follows other concerning developments in how her department may handle college student loan debt.

According to Politico, shortly after Trump took over the federal government, the department “drastically slowed the approval of debt relief to tens of thousands of student borrowers seeking to have their federal loans canceled on the grounds their colleges defrauded them.”

In March, reports Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, the department lifted another restriction the Obama administration had put into place that prevented loan servicing companies from “slapping heavy fees on delinquent borrowers who were trying to catch up on loan payment.”

Then DeVos decided to end efforts the Obama administration had undertaken to streamline its complicated college loan system into a single system and vendor. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called the move a “‘gut punch’ to the nation’s student loan borrowers,” according to Politico, “because the policies would have made it harder for companies to cheat borrowers.”

DeVos has taken these actions despite the well-known problems‘ with fraud and borrower abuse that are rampant in the college loan servicing industry. This caused editors of the New York Times to ask, “Who’s side is Betsy DeVos on?”

Student Action To Counter DeVos

DeVos’s actions to loosen regulations on college student loans come at a time when students need the support and protection of the federal government the most.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, “State funding for higher education continues to fall” nationwide, which puts funding for colleges and universities more on the backs of students.

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute finds, as state direct aid to institutions of higher education has “stagnated,” students have come to rely more on financial aid from the federal government to cover the costs of tuition, books, and other expenses.

In an extreme example, Governor Suzana Martinez of New Mexico recently vetoed all state funding for higher education in her state.

Caught between states refusing to fund higher ed and federal loan programs that, under DeVos, are increasingly likely to exploit students needing college loans, Student Action is proposing to attack the root cause of upward spiraling tuition fees by pushing for free higher education at all two- and four-year, public-funded institutions.

With the aid of People’s Action’s national network of grassroots affiliates in 30 states, with more than 400 organizers and other staff, Student Action aims to drive a bottom-up movement for tuition-free college from campuses and communities rather than a top-down effort through politicians and political parties. [Disclosure: The Education Opportunity Network is a partner of People’s Action.]

At their campaign kick-off in D.C., Student Action staff and volunteers from 12 states shared personal stories of their struggles with college debt burdens and their belief in education as a basic human right.

Student activists spoke of having to take on huge amounts of debt burden – many with tens of thousands of dollars in loans – to pursue their education, so they can attain careers and achieve life aspirations.

Participants at the meeting pointed to a potential early win in Illinois, where an effort launched late last year would make Illinois community colleges and public universities free for in-state students. A large contingent from Illinois who were at the meeting talked about how they are mobilizing college campuses to get behind the effort. Their advocacy will join with other progressive organizations in the state who plan to walk from Chicago to the state capital in Springfield later this month to press for free public higher education, among other demands.

Others at the meeting criticized recent tuition-free college plans, like the one recently promoted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, that are filled with so many exemptions and caveats that substantial numbers of students, particularly the ones most in need, can’t qualify. Instead, Students Action will press for programs that are open to all students, even those who are undocumented or aren’t able to go full time.

Other aspects of what Student Action wants in a plan for free higher education are likely to remain general for now, with policy details looking different in different states and demands driven by grassroots advocates rather than a top-down plan pushed by the organization.

But the goal is to see some form of free higher education winning in some states within five years.

“We can’t afford to wait out Trump,” one participant said.

Says Student Action’s Nemer-Aanerud, “I think we’ve got the energy and the foundation for a groundswell toward free public higher education in the coming years.”

Early Signs Betsy DeVos Will Not Support Civil Rights

It was just an Easter holiday party. But it seemed like an occasion that could give the Trump White House an easy opportunity to show racial inclusiveness.

But as the Daily News reports, when the White House staged its first annual Easter Egg Roll, it forgot to invite local school children. News outlets aligned to the Democratic Party, such as Occupy Democrats and Share Blue, were quick to note that while school children in the surrounding neighborhoods are mostly black, the event attendees were predominantly white – including “an all-white band on hand to perform slavery-era spirituals and soul music.”

The Daily News reporter attributes the whitewashing of the Easter crowd at the White House to a problem with “basic logistics,” but anyone paying attention knows all too well there’s a white people problem endemic to the Trump administration.

That problem is acutely visible in a policy arena where racial inclusion may matter most – education.

So far, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has sent numerous signs she is assembling a staff and laying down a policy mindset that seems indifferent – if not outright averse – to the needs of nonwhite students.

A Growing Racial Divide

DeVos has taken the helm of federal education policy at a time when black and brown school children and youth critically need leaders in the federal government to address their needs.

The number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 schools passed the number of non-Hispanic whites over two years ago. Nevertheless, schools have become more racially segregated than they were 40 years ago.

The weight of research evidence shows when schools are racially and socioeconomically integrated, all students – even the white kids – benefit academically and in their social and emotional capabilities. Yet, without strong federal leadership, states and local districts generally shirk their responsibilities to enforce school integration.

Racial segregation is not the only problem nonwhite students confront in schools. Students of color in our nation’s schools are disproportionally more apt to receive out-of-school suspensions than their white peers, which significantly raises their tendency to eventually get entangled in the criminal justice system. A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy found that in New York City alone these punitive school discipline programs cost the city more than $746 million annually.

How may we expect a DeVos administration to step up to address these challenges?

Alarming Hires For The Department Of Education

As I reported shortly after her nomination, DeVos has a problematic track record on civil rights, based on her actions in Michigan to promote school choice programs that significantly worsened the state’s racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools.

In one of her earliest moves as Secretary, DeVos announced her department’s decision to end a federal grant program created during the Obama administration to encourage more diversity in schools. Experts on poverty and race had called her handling of that program “a real test of her commitment to school integration.” She flunked it.

More alarming is recent news of how many new hires for the education department have a history of making racially offensive comments and expressing controversial opinions on efforts to level the social and economic playing field for African-Americans and other racial minorities.

Many of the new hires for the education department, Politico reports, have made racially offensive social media comments on Twitter and Facebook. And DeVos has staffed-up with people who have no apparent expertise in education or civil rights and who appear to be mostly white.

The most alarming hire, so far, is for the head of the very office tasked to oversee civil rights enforcement in schools.

As ProPublica reports, DeVos’s new acting head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, “once complained that she experienced discrimination because she is white,” has spoken out against feminism and race-based preferences, and has favored writings by “an economist who decried both compulsory education and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

A professed libertarian, Jackson has collaborated on numerous politically conservative projects, including a book on the allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton and had a stint at rightwing legal advocacy organization Judicial Watch.

In addition to their problematic stances on civil rights, many of DeVos’s the new appointments to the department of education also raise concerns about cronyism and conflicts of interest. Many of her new staffers are holdovers of previous Republican administrations, have significant ties to the charter school industry, were employed by the Trump political machine, or have financial interests in for-profit colleges.

Wrong Policies On Race

Moving from matters of personnel to issues of policy, DeVos continues to make public pronouncements that seem antithetical to the interests of civil rights.

Her proclaimed support for “school choice”  – most recently, comparing schools to ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft – ignores how unregulated school choice options often lead to increased segregation in schools.

She regards social justice issues in schools as problems of “character” rather than structural discrimination and racism, according to Think Progress, the action center for left-leaning Center for American Progress. This raises fears among among civil rights advocates that DeVos will focus on supposed flaws of black and brown students rather than address the biased discipline policies that target and jeopardize these marginalized students.

Also, there’s a fear that DeVos and her administration will steer more federal dollars to private schools and charters that create their own policies without outside oversight. These schools have a well-researched track record for suspending black and disabled students at a higher rate than public schools.

These are all signs of an administration that will likely develop policies and support programs that attend to the needs of only some students and, like her boss’s Easter party, will keep marginalized students on the outside looking in.




During Resistance Recess, Join The Fight For Public Schools

In this season of resistance, there’s no issue more imperative to your community than the fight for public education.

While Congress is in recess, until April 23, you’ve got opportunity – and a brand new advocacy tool – to inform your local Congressional representatives about the assault on public education and persuade progressives in your community to join in your cause.

Why should you care?

Whether you have school-age children or not, you have a lot at stake in the struggle to ensure public schools continue to benefit the public.

Public education is America’s most collaborative endeavor by far. We all pay taxes to support public schools. Schools are community anchors like main streets, town halls, public parks, churches, and community centers. And we depend on public schools to prepare our future workers, entrepreneurs, and citizens. Public schools are the foundation of our democracy where students learn to respect and appreciate others who are different from them and schools model civic values to students and the community.

But public schools are imperiled, which means our democracy, and our future, is too.

If you doubt that at all, just review prominent news stories from the past few days. They present ample evidence of the widespread effort to turn public education into opportunities for private gain.

Take reporter Emma Brown’s story in the Washington Post. Brown looks at scheme in Florida that uses tax credits to channel billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to private schools that are mostly religion based.

There is no evidence the children do any better academically because they transfer to these private schools. The private schools can cherry pick only those students they prefer to accept to avoid students who may have learning disabilities or behavior issues. Most of the private schools get “consistently poor results” on standardized tests, according to Brown, but are never held accountable.

Brown covers this story because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a big fan of the Florida scheme and has pledged, along with President Trump, to roll out something like it nationwide.

If that isn’t disturbing enough, consider a recent news story from the other side of the continent. As the Los Angeles Times reports, a new study by pro-public advocacy group In the Public Interest finds that in California, charter schools are getting billions of dollars in state funding to open in places where they’re not needed and compete with public schools for students and precious education resources.

The report reveals that that three-quarters of these charters do worse on standardized tests than comparable public schools, and hundreds of them have been caught red-handed by the American Civil Liberties Union for maintaining discriminatory enrollment policies. Much of the money taxpayers provide goes to charter schools that are part of large chains that operate statewide and across the country. And charter organizations use public funds to purchase vast tracts of real estate and buildings they profit from and can retain even if the school operation shuts down.

Although the study is confined to California, the findings are likely similar to what occurs in the charter industry in other states, says report author Gordon Laffer, during a media call. What’s also worrisome, says ITPI Executive Director Donald Cohen during the call, is that Secretary DeVos and President Trump are strong supporters of charter schools, pledging to provide federal funds to incentivize the spread of these schools.

Perhaps even more concerning than the spread of voucher programs and charter schools is the expansion of the virtual school industry that relegates students to education programs provided exclusively or mostly over the internet.

A new report from the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, CO provides a comprehensive study of these schools that shows virtual schools generally underperform public schools while offering for-profit companies expanded opportunities to harvest tax dollars. Graduation rates are appallingly low – 43.4 percent in full-time virtual schools and 43.1 percent in “blended” programs. This mostly unregulated industry is expanding with little understanding of how public funds are being used.

You can count on this virtual school industry to continue to expand because it’s being fueled by “school choice” policies advocated by the Trump administration and by market incentives that lawmakers in nearly every state have been put in place.

As vouchers, charters, virtual schools, and other forms of school privatization continue to grow, millions in public tax dollars meant for public education are being redirected into private pockets while local schools that our communities depend on continue to have fewer resources to serve all children and families.

Resistance Recess is an opportunity for you to sound the alarm about what is happening to public education, inform your community, and call on political leaders to take action.

A new communications tool from the Network for Public Education has all the talking points and in-depth research you need to bolster your advocacy.

School Privatization Explained provides you with a series of briefs to challenge the myths of “school choice” and counter the propaganda machine pushing for charter schools, voucher programs, and online learning scams.

An overview of the NPE toolkit by Alan Singer at the Huffington Post calls this resource “a thirteen-point question/answer toolkit to expose the lies and distortions of charter school, voucher, and tax credit advocates.”

Check out the NPE toolkit today, download just the briefs you need to inform your community, and make support for public schools part of the progressive agenda where you live.


The Schools Betsy DeVos Wants Parents To Choose

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos finally found a public school she could visit where there wouldn’t be protests. It’s on a military base, safely inside the compound of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

As a local news outlet reports, DeVos used her appearance at Kimberly Hampton Primary, a school operated by the Department of Defense and funded by the federal government, to make her usual pitch for “school choice,” in this case, in the form of vouchers parents can use to withdraw their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense.

For DeVos to use this visit to a public school as an opportunity to tell parents they would do better for their kids by sending them to privately run schools suggests her leadership will continue to advocate for funding more alternative schools rather than for supporting traditional ones.

But as her administration encourages parents to leave public schools, what types of schools would she prefer parents choose instead?

Based on other schools DeVos has chosen for her itinerary, the possibilities are truly frightening.

DeVos Does CARE

After the Ft. Bragg gig, DeVo’s next stop is CARE Elementary School in Miami, Florida.

CARE is a private school, which DeVos has a well-known preference for. Also, DeVos may want to showcase the school because its name, CARE, stands for Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence.

DeVos’s belief in using education as a way to “advance God’s Kingdom” is well documented.

As Kristina Rizga reports for Mother Jones, the lengthy philanthropic record DeVos and her husband have amassed over many years shows “the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools.”

CARE elementary certainly fits that profile. Students at CARE, according to the school’s handbook, “Attend weekly chapel, they are taught Christian principles with love and respect, and they are exposed to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Prayer is part of the CARE experience.”

On its website, CARE says the school admits students of “any race, color, national, and ethnic origin” and “does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin.” Discriminating based on religion is notably absent.

Since the school’s opening in the fall of 2015, it has gotten significant praise from school choice advocates in South Florida, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which endorsed DeVos’s nomination.

FEE was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and has received generous support from DeVos and her foundation. DeVoss has also served on its board of directors.

But what’s most notable about CARE Elementary, is how it’s funded. Although the school is private, it’s completely free.

How can a private school be tuition-free?

Religious Education At Taxpayer Expense

According to FEE’s review of the school, “Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program is a dominant factor in CARE’s ability to offer quality education at no cost to families.” (emphasis added)

DeVos has often praised Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

This program, and others like it, offers tax subsidies to wealthy people in exchange for their donations to private school scholarships. As Carl Davis explains at The American Prospect, these programs let states use private citizens as “middlemen” in a give-away scheme that ensures wealthy people pay less taxes and private schools get public funds.

The Florida program was initially promoted in 1998 to state lawmakers by a venture capitalist, according to a report from the Florida League of Women Voters by Sue Legg.

When the tax credit scheme was challenged as unconstitutional, Legg explains, DeVos paid a million dollars in 2016 to send thousands of children to the state capital to rally against the suit. The state Supreme Court declined to rule on the case in 2017.

Since its inception, the main success of Florida’s tax credit program has been its ability to send public funds to private religious schools like CARE Elementary. As Legg reports, 82 percent of the funds stemming from the program go to religious schools.

The give-away could be partially justified if students taking advantage of the program performed better academically. They don’t.

Legg’s analysis finds, while ten percent of students benefiting from the scholarships “gained more than twenty percentile points on a nationally normed test, fourteen percent lost more than twenty percentile points.”

But if CARE Elementary sounds like a less then desirable choice for American taxpayers and families, the next school on DeVos’s itinerary is arguably worse.

DeVos Visits A SLAM School

Next on DeVos’s Magical Education Tour is a special kind of charter school, also in Miami.

SLAM Miami a charter school in a chain of charters focused on “Sports Leadership and Management” (hence the name). The schools are most notable for their association with the rapper Pitbull.

“Pitbull (Armando Christian Pérez) is the latest in a long list of celebrities lending their star power to the flourishing charter school movement,” reported NPR when the school debuted.

The school “has a vocational bent as a way to hook kids for whom school is boring,” Pitbull explained to a reporter for the Huffington Post. “They’re already labeling me ‘Mr. Education,'” he said.

Since Miami SLAM debuted, more SLAMs have opened in West Palm Beach, Tampa, and Las Vegas.

While Pitbull may like the idea of being known as Mr. Education, he’s most well-known for his misogynistic lyrics. As the Independent reports, at least one popular female DJ has found the lyrics unbearably offensive and has taken a public stand against playing the music.

The article notes, “Pitbull’s song ‘Timber’, which reached number one last year, includes the lyrics: ‘I have ‘em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off/twerking in their bras and thongs… face down, booty up.’ He also sings: ‘She say she won’t, but I bet she will.’ Other songs include the lines ‘I like that when you fight back’ and ‘Shake that shit bitch/And be off in the club with a hard-ass dick.'”

That sounds like a less than ideal figurehead to have at the helm of an education institution for children, but the management company operating the school may be an even bigger cause for concern.

SLAM charters are in a web of the Mater charter school chain operating in multiple states. SLAM, Mater, and other charter school chains are operated by the Academica education management group, South Florida’s largest education management organization (EMO) with schools in multiple states.

Schools connected to the Academica EMO have a disturbing reputation for shady financial dealings.

Schools As Real Estate Schemes

Whether DeVos knows it or not, SLAM charter’s link to Academica may connect it to an investigation by the federal agency she directs.

As the Miami Herald reports, the Education Department’s Inspector General Office is auditing Academica “as part of a broader examination of school management companies nationwide.”

Specifically, the auditors found that schools in the Mater network operated by Academica, which SLAM is also part of, entered into leases with development companies tied to South Florida real estate mogul Fernando Zulueta who “founded the original Mater Academy in 1998 and was a member of its governing board until Sept. 2004.

“Two of the leases were executed while Zulueta sat on the Mater board,” the Herald reports. “In addition, Mater Academy hired an architectural firm from 2007 through 2012 that employs Fernando Zulueta’s brother-in-law, Florida state Rep. Erik Fresen.”

Fresen, another Herald report notes, is a former lobbyist and employee of Academica.

The conflicts of interest likely run deeper. A previous series of reports by the Herald found, “Cozy political connections, favorable tax treatment and little public oversight has allowed Miami charter school chain Academica to exploit Florida’s laws, build a successful chain of schools, and profit off taxpayer dollars.”

Highlights of the series of reports include details about millions in management fees from these schools going to the parent company (all at taxpayer expense), the exorbitant above-market lease payments Academica charges its schools (also paid by tax payers), and the schools’ track record for enrolling disproportionately lower shares of black, poor, and disabled children.

It’s not at all clear whether SLAM charters are plagued with the same sort of conflicts of interest that other Academica operated schools have. But for DeVos to associate herself with these schools and pose them as better choices for parents than local public schools is concerning.

Whose Choice?

As DeVos concludes this itinerary of school visits, she will have visited at least as many private and charter schools as she has visited traditional K-12 public schools in her tenure as Education Secretary so far.

It’s somewhat understandable DeVos would seek out schools where she is least likely to encounter protestors. During her nomination process, she was the “most jeered” of Trump’s cabinet picks, according to the New York Times. Since her confirmation, she’s done little to improve on her image. In fact, she’s the most unpopular official in President Trump’s administration, according to a recent online survey.

But the schools she chooses to visit and what she says to the educators in these schools continue to convey the message that rather than fulfilling her obligation as a public servant to support public schools, her agenda is mostly about distributing scarce resources for education to other types of schools she would prefer parents choose instead.

The fact these schools may have a religious agenda, may rely on schemes to redirect tax money to private pockets, or may be designed to put education funding at risk to privateers and real estate deals seems not to bother her one bit.

That’s not parents’ choice. It’s her choice.


[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated CARE Elementary School’s full name.]


A Gorsuch Approval Would Put Vulnerable Students Further At Risk

Students with disabilities already face a difficult path through our nation’s education system, but President Donald Trump appears determined to add to the disadvantages these students already face. His nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court is yet another sign his administration is less than eager to uphold the rights of these students.

Just how rough do these students already have it?

They score far lower on standardized achievement tests, which have become even more of an emphasis in our accountability-driven education system. They’re more than twice as likely to be suspended from school, and they’re much more apt to be bullied at school. They’re less likely to get help in schools, despite legal requirements for schools to provide a free and appropriate education. And while high school graduation rates have hit a record high of 83 percent nationally, graduation rates for these students continue to be mired below 70 percent in 33 states. In seven of those states, the rate is less than 50 percent.

With the Gorsuch nomination, Trump appears increasingly willing to respond to the real obstacles these children face by telling them, “Tough! You’re on your own.”

A vote to approve Gorsuch would be tantamount to saying the same thing.

Luke’s Case

“Gorsuch is a threat to educational equity and the fundamental rights of all Americans,” says Marge Baker, the Executive Vice President for Policy and Program at People for the American Way.

In an email statement, she points to a previous decision in 2008 in which Gorsuch rejected the opinions of lower courts that had ruled an elementary school child with autism had the legal right to a residential school program.

The boy, Luke, faced serious obstacles in navigating day-to-day life, including using the bathroom and navigating public spaces without breaking out into fits of violence. Although the special education program provided by the public schools had helped, it simply wasn’t enough, and Luke’s parents sought financial remuneration from the school district for his extra level of care.

The case required Gorsuch to apply the proper interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a key federal law guaranteeing students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate education.

He failed to do that.

Doing ‘De Minimus’

Although three lower courts had ruled Luke’s parents, under the provisions of IDEA, were rightfully due financial compensation from the district, Gorsuch reversed those rulings, arguing his own personal precedent that students like Luke only needed to exhibit gains that were “merely more than de minimis” for the school to show it had complied with the law.

“His reasoning in that case was so extreme that it was actually overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court,” Baker explains. Indeed, in recent ruling on a similar case, all eight justices of the Court rejected the “merely more than de minimis” progress Gorsuch had attempted to set in interpreting federal disabilities law.

Gorshuch’s use of the words “merely more than de minimis” in his ruling is not the only instance in which he has failed to uphold legal precedent in enforcing federal disabilities laws.

‘A Lack Of Regard’

A review of his previous rulings by the National Education Association finds, “his record, when considered as a whole, shows a lack of regard for the struggles and rights of students with disabilities.”

According to NEA, “Gorsuch has written or participated in several cases about the IDEA,” but he has “sided with a disabled student without expressing his personal reservations in only one case.”

NEA’s review concludes, “Given this record, the hard-won protections for students with disabilities could be in peril should Judge Gorsuch be confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

“Gorsuch has gone out of his way to impose extra legal barriers for students with disabilities rather than helping them to overcome obstacles,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to Scoop, a news outlet covering developmental disability news. “We should all be concerned by this troubling trend in Gorsuch’s record.”

Gorsuch’s tendency to disregard the rights of disabled students  reflects the Trump administration’s routine disregard for their needs.

A Pattern Of Neglect

During the presidential campaign, Trump infamously mocked a reporter with a physical disability to an audience at a public rally.

But the first sign the Trump administration posed a unified threat toward these students emerged in hearings for U.S. Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos .

During her confirmation hearing, when she was asked a question about her views on IDEA, DeVos “displayed at best confusion and at worst a lack of knowledge” about the law, reports Emma Brown of the Washington Post.

When asked repeatedly by Virginia Senator Tim Kaine whether schools receiving federal funds should uphold federal law in their treatment of students with disabilities, she replied, “I think that is a matter that is best left up to the states.”

When Kaine rightly reminded her IDEA is a federal law and failure to enforce it would force parents into difficult life circumstances if the state they happened to live in didn’t treat their children very well, DeVos made vague mention of a program she liked in Florida that provides parents with a voucher they can use to move to a private school.

The Florida program, Brown notes, “requires students to sign away their IDEA due process rights.”

Indeed, school voucher programs, like the Florida one DeVos champions and Trump appears to favor too, do more harm than good to students with disabilities, in the long run.

An analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress finds that these programs aid in transferring public schools funds to private schools that “can deny admission outright to students … if their needs are considered too severe. If schools do choose to admit students with special needs, they are not obligated to provide necessary behavioral and educational interventions and can refuse to continue services at any time.”

The Gorsuch nomination not only continues the pattern of neglect, even antipathy, Trump exhibits toward students with disabilities; his approval would cement this in legal precedent for generations to come.

Gorsuch Should Go Down

In his testimony to Senators at Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, Luke’s father Jeffrey Perkins states, “Judge Gorsuch felt that an education for my son that was even one small step above insignificant was acceptable,” and his ruling on Luke’s case set the dangerous precedent that, “even if a child, as in Luke’s case, was utterly failing to progress in any meaningful global sense, the educational plan would be judged ‘appropriate.’

“Judge Gorsuch eviscerated the educational standard guaranteed by the IDEA,” Perkines concludes. “On behalf of all children – disabled, typical, and gifted – I urge you to deny confirmation of Judge Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Tell your Senators you agree.

Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, And Ones That Help

[The following is a transcript of a presentation to grantees of the Schott Foundation for Public Education]

I want to start off today with a story about my mom. Trust me, I’ll eventually transition to talking about education. But my mom’s story illustrates how attitudes are affected by media and language.

My mom was born in 1923 on the plains of North Dakota. Her dad, my grandfather was a farmer-rancher. Her mom, my grandmother, ran the house and brought in laundry, sewing, and other work from neighbors.

But then commodity prices fell through the floor and the Great Depression hit. Then my grandfather’s farm blew away in the Dust Bowl. Talk about a perfect storm.

With hardly any income of their own, my grandparents turned to the public sector, the government, for financial assistance. Through what was called the Work Progress Administration, the WPA, created by the Franklin Roosevelt presidential administration, my grandfather got a position operating a grain elevator in eastern Montana.

With a steady source of income, my grandparents could provide for my mom and her three other siblings. Things weren’t always easy. When my mom knocked out a front tooth in a toboggan accident, she had to have a wooden peg fill the empty space until they had a chicken to pay the dentist and they could travel to a town that had a dentist.

Nevertheless, my grandparents, neither who completed more than an elementary school level of education, had access to local public schools for their children, each of whom graduated high school. My mom was the first person, and the first woman, in her extended family to attend community college and then a public state university to earn her degree in nursing education. She was recruited by the US Military to serve in the Nurses Corp training nurses for the frontline troops in World War II.

That job was her ticket out of her small, rural community and led her to move to Dallas, Texas to accept a position in nurse education at a major metropolitan hospital in the late 1940s. It was there that she met the man who would eventually be my father.

Government Is The Problem

By the time I came along, a lot had changed in my parents lives. And by the time I reached my teenage years and began to develop more of an awareness of the larger world, I noticed my parents’ attitudes toward public institutions were changing. Government services and public workers had become subjects of scorn.

If the line of customers at the Post Office was long, it was because of lazy postal workers. When a vehicle needed an inspection sticker or a household project needed a permit, it was government meddling in our lives. Local news stories about any breakdown in municipal services were attributed to “typical” government ineptitude. City busses were irritants in the roadway. Taxes were a theft of family income.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president in the 1980s, it became popular for political leaders to say, as Reagan was fond of saying, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” My parents were happy cheerleaders for that, especially my mom, despite her personal history of getting a hand-up in life from public services.

So what happened?

Now it’s true that governments at all levels have been less than perfect institutions. The local government where I grew up sure didn’t do a very good job of serving low-income black and brown school children.

But in a democratic society, “government” is ultimately up to us, and what it does is an expression of what we want to do for ourselves.

So what the critics of government are saying, really, is that they have a problem with democracy.

It’s important to know government wasn’t turned into a four-letter word by happenstance. It happened by design.

The War On Government

The liberalism of Roosevelt’s Great Society that dominated politics in the 1950s and 60s was the enemy of those who wanted society to be structured to better serve their interests rather than democratic interests. And by the late 60s and early 70s, these forces marshalled their considerable resources to overturn the public’s role to determine the public good.

I could go on all day about the history of this, about 20th century American conservatism, the Lewis Powell Memo, and the shifting of the Overton Window. There are whole books about it: Winner Take All Politics by Jacob Hacker, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.

My parent’s antipathy toward government could have been the result of multiple factors. But there’s no doubt that during their conversion, forces were hard at work conditioning Americans to fear the words “social” and “public,” as if those words are evil or anti-American

Whether or not you accept the existence of “the vast rightwing conspiracy,” which is what Hillary Clinton would come to call this movement, you can’t deny the impact of a decades-long assault on public institutions and public service workers.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute examined public-sector employment trends over the last three decades and found that government employment had dramatically contracted, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. Today, public sector jobs as a share of all employment are at a 30-year low, falling from 9.6 percent in the 1980s to 9 percent 30 years later.

A 2015 article in the New York Times looked at public sector employment and found that even as local and state economies were recovering from the 2008 recession, public sector jobs were continuing to decline, accounting for 1.8 million fewer jobs than in 2007.

The decline in public sector employment has hit black families particularly hard. Roughly one in five black adults works a government job. Black wage earners are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.

Many, attribute the success of the anti-public movement to the vast wealth of individuals in big business and finance. That wealth helps for sure.

But I would argue that they have a weapon more valuable than money: It’s the English language.

Language As A Weapon

The war on the public sector uses the power of language on every front. For instance, slashing financial resources for the public good is called tax relief. Laws preventing industrial pollution from fouling our shared environment are called stifling regulation. Public financial assistance for the poor is called a government give-away program. Funds we collectively pool to ensure our financial security in old age are branded entitlements.

What makes these words powerful are the ideas behind them. As George Lakoff writes in his seminal book Don’t Think of an Elephant, words are representations of values, and the war of words is really a conflict over what values are going to guide our nation – whether, for instance, we’re going to have a government that works for the common good, or one that enforces the power of the wealthy few.

I would also argue that the war of words on the public sector has had some of its greatest success in the effort to dismantle public education. (See, I told you I would eventually get to education.) You can see its success in the fact that now politicians in both parties, to quote veteran education journalist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, basically copy each other on education.

Let’s look at some of the words used to assault our schools and consider how we can fight back:

Public Education Is Broken

How often do you read that “America’s schools are failing” and “public education is in crisis”?

Is there any truth to this? Not really.

In the only longitudinal measure of student achievement – the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAPE – American students have improved substantially over the past 40 years. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American and Hispanic students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged.

The percentage of kids scoring “below basic” on the NAEP has plummeted in both reading and math in both fourth and eighth grade for every racial group except Native Americans. Average reading and math scores for each subgroup in the fourth and eighth grades have also climbed steadily.

High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, and almost half of all American high school students now head off to college each year – also an all-time high.

The story of American education is actually about steady progress – slow, that’s true – but progress nevertheless.

Does this mean that there are no struggling schools in America? Of course not. Does this mean public schools universally work for every student? No.

But the rhetorical frame that public education is a failure is used to convince people the whole system is bad and that it’s collapse has been inevitable.

The way we fight back against this misleading rhetoric is to ask why are there broken schools and who broke them?

Education Is About Getting The Best For Your Child

These days, politicians like to talk about education like it’s a “competition” to get students over the bar or up to speed.

Terms like “college or career ready” and getting young children “ready to learn” all perpetuate the idea that the only purpose of education is to get individuals to a next stage or an end goal.

This rhetorical frame is used to convince people that once their own children are provided for then that’s all that matters.

It ignores that education is really about developing our societal capacity. We want all citizens educated so our whole society prospers.

That’s why early state constitutions in the U.S., like those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, stressed the importance of a system of public schools. That’s why the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. And the earliest advocates for public schools – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann – all agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

Turning our collective investment in education into a competition to get to the top ensures there will be winners and losers. Designing a school system that maximizes self-interest means only those who already have advantages get what they want.

Instead of telling parents their children need to be well educated so they can compete, we should say children need to be well educated so they can take part in a democratic society.

Money Should Follow The Child

This is a favorite of advocates for charter schools and vouchers that let parents transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The idea has a gloss of sensibility to it because education budgets often come with per-pupil expenditures.

But the idea that the money should follow the child when students leave a public school for other options is a bad financial decision.

First, schools have what are called “stranded costs”. When a public school loses a percentage of students to charter schools or a voucher program, the school can’t reduce costs by an equivalent percent. The school still must pay the same utility, maintenance, transportation, and food services costs. The school must still carry the salary and benefit costs of administrative staff, custodial services, and cafeteria workers. The school may not be able to reduce teaching staff because the attrition will occur randomly across various grade levels, leaving class sizes only marginally reduced.

In Philadelphia for instance, a recent study found when a student leaves the school district for a charter school, the public system is left with nearly $5,000 in continuing costs. A study in Boston found the stranded cost is $7,000.

A research study of school districts in Michigan found that 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 sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.

Because schools can’t reduce expenses incrementally, they cut support staff – such as a reading specialist or librarian. They cut courses – such as art and music. And the whole capacity of the school diminishes.

Further, students aren’t a “one-off” expense. The cost to educate each student varies a lot. Students with disabilities or who don’t speak English as their first language often cost significantly more to educate. So as a school loses students, it may often find itself left with a larger percentage of its highest-cost students.

Instead of saying money should follow the child, we should say children don’t come with a price tag, and that every school needs to have enough resources to meet the needs and interests of all its students.

Money Doesn’t Matter

How often do you hear the argument that we can’t fix the problems in schools by “throwing money at them.”

We constantly hear that schools are incredibly wasteful and they have to do better with the money they have.

Arne Duncan loved to call this “the new normal.”

It’s also just not true. Yes America does spend more money per student than most other industrialized countries. But remember, this is an average and there is incredibly wide variance in the system.

The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts. That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student, on average, a gap that has grown 44 percent since 2001.

When spending has increased, about half of the increases, according to economist Richard Rothstein, come from serving students with disabilities and immigrant students who don’t speak English.

But in total, most states spend less money on education today than they did in 2008 – some of them a lot less. And national per-pupil spending has dropped 3 years in a row. In the meantime student populations continue to increase.

But does money even matter? Numerous studies say yes.

According to one of those studies by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, on average, higher per-pupil spending produces better results. School resources that cost money — like class size reduction or higher teacher salaries — tend to be positively associated with better student outcomes.

This is especially true with low-income students. One study found that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers and it got far more of those students into college.

So instead of talking about the need to “tighten our belts” and adjust to the “new normal” we need to talk about giving schools the resources that are necessary to address all their students’ needs and interests.

Schools Should Be Run Like A Business

How often do you hear people say, “If we ran a business the way we operate schools, it wouldn’t be in business very long”?

We’re told that education is too inefficient and not productive enough, that schools need to focus on “quality improvement” and “zero defects.”

We’re told that teachers resist change, that schools are a bureaucratic monopoly, and that more competition needs to be introduced into the system.

So now superintendents call themselves CEOs and parents are called customers.

This rhetoric distorts the mission of education.

First when people say run schools like a business, they don’t say what kind of business? Coal mines aren’t run like restaurants.

Second, most businesses fail. Do we really want schools that are constantly failing? How is that good for kids?

Third, you’ve all heard the Papa John’s tagline “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” Well, as Jamie Vollmer has pointed out, schools can’t control their ingredients. They have to educate all children with the resources they are given by the community.

Lastly, businesses are not democratic institutions. Schools must be democratic if we want parents and taxpayers to have input into how schools are run. And schools must model democracy if we want children to be prepared to function in a democratic society.

So instead of comparing schools to businesses, we should talk about schools as essential infrastructure, like fire and police protection, roads and bridges, and our electoral process.

Any School Getting Public Money Is A Public School

Yes, you heard that right.

According to school choice advocates, the public school system should give parents the option to choose from an array of school options, some of which aren’t truly public.

When a school choice pressure group recently descended on the capital of my home state North Carolina, they advocated for the state’s Virtual Academy, an online school run by private for-profit operator K12 Inc. Other “public school options” the group advocates for are “tax-credit funded scholarship programs” that help families pay for private school tuition.

Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, are part of a public school system.

The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.

But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways:

Charter school buildings are often privately owned by the school founders, or by an affiliated company or private trust, even if the building was originally purchased with taxpayer money.

Sometimes, the materials, furniture, and equipment in the schools are owned by a private charter management company, and if the school closes, the charter “owner” may keep those assets, even though they were purchased with taxpayer money.

While most public schools are governed by democratically elected public boards, most charter schools are run by appointed boards who are not directly accountable to the community.

Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and do not have to “backfill” seats, that is, accept students to fill open spots when students leave.

Generally, charter schools don’t have to follow the same due process rules for students and employees that public schools follow. They can set their own academic, behavior, and cultural standards regardless of community norms.

And while public schools are obligated to share information about their operations, charter schools have very narrow requirements for what information they report and can restrict public access.

Despite these obvious differences, the charter industry lobby has been very successful in convincing politicians and policy makers that their schools are public. And now the same sort of logic is being used to claim other private education operators are in fact public schools too.

Cornerstones Of Effective Communication

But none of these options – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, and online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system. They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of our public schools.

I can go through many more of these phrases that are used to dismantle the public education system. But what I want to leave you with today is some news about a new tool to help you wage this rhetorical war and also a bit of advice on how to plan your own messaging.

First, later this month, the Network for Public Education will debut a new online toolkit to help grassroots public school advocates deal effectively with the powerful advocacy groups who want to privatize our public schools. Part of what I shared with you today is included in this new tool because I helped write it. But the content goes into greater depth. I’m not able to share any samples with you today or give you a website to go to, but if you leave me your card, I’ll send you the website address when it becomes available.

And I’d truly be remiss if I didn’t close out with some advice on how to craft your own messages, at least based on what’s worked for me. It’s what I call a four-cornerstone approach:

1. Don’t address the audience. Address the reader. In the marketing and advertising industry, which I’ve been part of for over 30 years, successful campaigns are not about moving whole audiences. They’re focused on persuading tiny segments. Typical promotions expect to get very small percentages of response, often 1 percent or less. So when communicating about education, target your message to an individual, such as a parent who’s considering enrolling her child in a charter, a taxpayer who no longer has children in schools but cares how his money is being spent, or a local official who doesn’t want to be exposed for putting children at risk. When you narrow the scope of your message you’re far more apt to increase its impact.

2. Emotion is more persuasive than facts. Do I really need to explain this? Look who we elected president. In a standoff of emotions vs. facts, emotions win every time. Research studies have found that people generally make decisions mostly on emotions and use facts and reason to back their decisions up. The best way to generate emotion is to tell stories. Also, use metaphors, but be sure to pick ones based on good values. Arne Duncan wanted us to buy into a Race to the Top, which was a terrible metaphor.

3. Start where people are, not where you want them to be. This is not the same thing as compromise. But what you can do is create an idea or course of action which will lead to what you want in the long run. Those who want to dismantle public education have been masterful at this. They persuaded school supporters to accept standardized testing of schools so that once a school can be deemed a failure it can be punished and closed. They made it acceptable for politicians of all stripes to support charter schools, which now makes it easier to argue that any education provider getting taxpayer funds is part of the public school system. We need to build these kind of slippery slopes for our side.

4. Refine and repeat. You have to whittle down arguments into digestible chunks that you repeat over and over. People too often make the mistake that they have to be relevant to the latest headline or change the messaging because people might be getting bored with it. But staying on message has a snowball effect over time.

My Story Ends

Finally, speaking of stories, I need to tell you the end of mine.

After my dad died, my mom never remarried and gradually withdrew from many of the activities she had enjoyed. Far from the family she left behind in Montana, with two of her sons living on opposite ends of the continent, her third son whose business frequently took him out of town, and her aging friendships dwindling every year, she spent most days alone except for a home care nurse who came three days a week and sons who could visit on the weekends and holidays. Attempts to persuade her to move closer to her family up north or move closer to one of her sons were in vein.

After her fourth fall, we realized she had to be institutionalized in a nursing home.

When I would visit her in the home we would sit in her room and watch TV. Her favorite channel was Fox News. During my visit, I would help her into her wheelchair and take her on a walk around the facility. Because residents were required to keep their doors open, as we wheeled through the corridors we could hear what others were watching. Nearly every TV was tuned to Fox News.

After two years in the home, my mom passed away quietly in her sleep one night.

As we were going through her things, we came across boxes of old photos. Some showed her with her classmates in their trim white nursing uniforms graduating from the University of Montana in Missoula.

There were photos from her years with the Nursing Corps too, showing her working with the trainees bound for the front. And we found photos of her in rank with the Corps, dressed in stately gray uniforms with epaulettes and caps, sometimes marching in holiday parades.

On the hunch these photographs had historical value, we sent them to a municipal museum in Missoula where they are now on public display for all to see.

[Stay in the fight for our public schools by following our education project, the Education Opportunity Network.]

[Correction: Previous citation of international assessment data was deleted due to unreliable source.]


The Big Lie Behind Trump’s Education Budget

Public school supporters are angry at President Trump’s budget proposal, which plans to cut funding to the Department of Education by 13 percent – taking that department’s outlay down to the level it was ten years ago. But the target for their anger should not be just the extent of the cuts but also how the cuts are being pitched to the public.

Trump’s education budget cuts are aimed principally at federal programs that serve poor kids, especially their access to afterschool programs and high-quality teachers.

At the same time, Trump’s spending blueprint calls for pouring $1.4 billion into school choice policies including a $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new school choice program focused on private schools, and a $1 billion increase for parents to send their kids to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The way the Trump administration is spinning this combination of funding cuts and increases – and the way nearly every news outlet is reporting them – is that there is some sort of strategically important balance between funding programs for poor kids versus “school choice” schemes, as if the two are equivalents and just different means to the same ends. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A False Equivalency

Shortly after Trump unveiled the plan, his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was quick to echo the false equivalency.

“The president promised to invest in our underserved communities and our increased investment in choice programs will do just that,” she is quoted in a report for U.S. News & World Report.

Another ardent proponent of vouchers and charter schools, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, praised the plan, calling it “a significant step forward” for “the needs of children and families instead of programs and districts.”

The message being spun out of Trump’s education budget is that it takes money away from those awful “adult interests” – like, you know, teachers to actually teach the students and buildings so students have somewhere to go after school to play sports, get tutored, or engage in music and art projects – in order to steer money to “the kids” who will get a meager sum of money to search for learning opportunities in an education system that is increasingly bereft of teachers and buildings.

Even competent education reporters are falling for this spin, writing that education policy is experiencing a “sea change in focus from fixing the failing schools to helping the students in the failing schools.”

However, there’s evidence that federally funded efforts like afterschool programs and class size reduction tend to lead to better academic results for low-income children, while the case for using school choice programs to address the education needs of poor kids is pretty weak.

The Weak Case For Choice

School voucher programs, like the ones Trump and DeVos seem intent on funding, are particularly ineffective ways to address the education problems of poor kids. Indeed, these programs seem to not serve the interests of poor kids at all.

Studies of voucher programs In Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona, and Nevada have found that most of the money from the programs goes to parents wealthy enough to already have their children enrolled in private schools.

Voucher programs rarely provide enough money to enable poor minority children to get access to the best private schools. And a new comprehensive study of vouchers finds evidence that vouchers don’t significantly improve student achievement. What they do pose is greater likelihood that students who are the most costly and difficult to educate – low-income kids and children with special needs – will be turned away or pushed out by private schools that are not obligated to serve all students.

Charter schools, another program the Trump budget wants to ramp up funding for, also don’t have a great track record for improving the education attainment of low-income students.

Perhaps the best case made for using charter schools to target the needs of low-income students comes from a study on the impact of charters in urban school systems conducted by research outfit CREDO in 2015. The study indeed found evidence of some positive impact of charters in these communities. But as my colleague at The Progressive Julian Vasquez Heilig points out, the measures of improvement, in standard deviations, are .008 for Latino students and .05 for African American students in charter schools.

“These numbers are larger than zero,” Heilig writes on his personal blog, “but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction which are far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. They have 400 percent to 1000 percent more statistical impact than charters.”

Indeed, choice programs in all their forms, at least in how they are being promoted by the Trump administration and its supporters, seem more interested in diverting money away from public schools than they are intent on delivering some sort of education relief to the struggles of poor families.

Direct Harm To Teachers And Students

In the meantime, the negative, direct impact of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on students, especially those living in low-income communities, will be all too real.

In California, Trump’s proposed cuts to federal grants to hire and support more teachers would short the state $252 million at a time when the state is experiencing severe shortages in teachers.

Trump’s proposed cuts to afterschool programs in New Jersey would threaten the existence of these programs in 50 cites in some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities including Newark, Trenton, Paterson, and Union City.

The toll of Trump’s budget cuts on schools in South Florida would amount to $25 million in Broward County and $40 million in Miami-Dade. A program for teacher training would likely be eliminated, and afterschool programs in low-income communities could go away.

Politico interviewed state education leaders to learn the potential impact of Trump’s education budget and found concern across the political spectrum. Republican Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said cuts to federal grants for hiring and supporting teachers come at a time when the state is struggling to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies. And Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester worries about the loss of more than $15 million for afterschool programs.

An analysis by Think Progress, the advocacy center for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, looks at the impact of Trump’s proposed education cuts nationwide and tallies the impact of teacher grant program cuts and cuts to afterschool programs. “Trump’s budget would hinder every state’s ability to deliver critical services and resources to their K-12 students,” the analysis concludes, “impacting thousands of teachers and millions of students.”

The Long-Term Danger

While the direct, negative impact of Trump’s proposed budget cuts seems swift and certain, there is potentially a more long-term danger in perpetuating the myth that the budget trade-off of direct aid versus choice is a valid point of policy debate.

Telling the public that allocating education funding is a battle over whether to pay for direct programs for kids versus stoking the coffers of private schools and the charter school industry is not only disingenuous, it’s harmful to the most vulnerable students and families.

What Betsy DeVos Means When She Says ‘Public Schools’

Betsy DeVos once called public schools a “dead end,” but now that she’s U.S. Secretary of Education, she’s suddenly all for them.

At least that’s what she claims now.

During her nomination process, numerous reporters noted DeVos’s obvious bias against public schools. As education journalist Valerie Strauss reported on her blog at the Washington Post, DeVos “made some controversial statements” about public schools, “calling the traditional public education system a ‘dead end.’” Strauss noted DeVos had once said, “government truly sucks.”

But now she claims to be all for public schools, at least according to reports on her recent speech to a conference of big city school leaders. “I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating,” Education Week reports, “I support great public schools.”

Has DeVos had a sudden change of heart? That’s doubtful.

First, recall her first visit to a public school shortly after taking office. After her brief tour of Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, DC, DeVos castigated teachers for being in “receive mode … waiting to be told what they have to do.”

So what does her claim of a new-found fondness for “great public schools” really mean?

What Does Devos Mean By ‘Great Public School?’

First set aside the squishy modifier “great.”

There is widespread disagreement on what a “great” school is and how you can tell a school deserves that modifier.

Many states that were coerced into imposing school rating systems to supposedly determine, in an objective way, the quality of schools are in the process of dumping those rating systems. Recently, Michigan, DeVos’s home state, got rid of its rating system.

So what does DeVos mean by “public school?”

It turns out that’s becoming a squishy term too, at least if school choice advocates have their way.

Are Private Schools Public?

As NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning group in North Carolina, reports, the Tar Heel state has been targeted by school choice pressure groups to re-define what it means to be a public school.

The effort, according to education reporter Billy Ball, is “geared toward rebranding for-profit virtual charters and private school recipients of taxpayer-backed vouchers as public schools.”

Ball points to out-of-state school choice proponent Public School Options as an instigator in a campaign to advocate the state’s controversial online charter school, operated by private for-profit company K12 Inc., that’s been “troubled by high dropout rates and flagging academic numbers in its first two years of operation.”

Ball writes, “Public school supporters say the new push … is a misleading new tactic that seems intended to reclassify for-profit virtual charters and private schools as public institutions.”

Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, make private schools part of the public school system. The group’s advocacy draws from recent think tank pieces and other sources to argue for “a new definition of public education, which is publicly funded and publicly accountable — and encompasses private schools.”

The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.

Charter School Slippery Slope

Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.

But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways.

In a policy brief from the National Education Policy Center, “The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies that Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit,” Bruce Baker and Gary Miron detail how the very structure of the charter schools makes them very different from public schools.

Charters generally aren’t subject to the same disclosure laws as public officials. They can outsource school operations to private entities that can evade transparency laws for open meetings, public access to records, and financial disclosures. And charter organizations often claim exemptions to constitutional (and some statutory) protections that are customarily guaranteed to public school employees and students.

In my own report about charter operations in North Carolina, I find these schools regularly mask how their charitable dollars are spent and how much they profit from related real estate deals and education management firms. A law professor I interview argues that these schools are likely not in compliance with nonprofit law.

These important differences between charter schools and traditional public schools are not generally understood or appreciated by even the most knowledgeable people, which is why charter advocates put so much energy and resources in marketing their operations as “public” schools.

Now their argument is revealed as a slippery slope to claim any private operator can be a public school simply by getting public funds.

Parallel School Systems

None of the options school choice advocates promote – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system.

They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of the taxpayer supported school system.

“When it comes to the education of a child,” DeVos said in her address to urban school leaders, “I am agnostic as to the delivery system, or the building in which it takes place. If a child is able to grow and flourish, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.”

That might sound like a really nice idea.

School choice proponents like DeVos often argue that all that matters is whether students who attend charters, online schools, and private academies do well on standardized tests and that parents are generally satisfied with these choices.

But this argument ignores the tax-paying public that deserves to know whether those outcomes are being achieved without wasting our public dollars, which more often than not, they probably are.