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/)

After An ‘Educator Spring,’ Teachers Storm Elections

Progressives are seeing the stunning upset victory by first-time congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s over a prominent incumbent candidate in New York as a sign of a wave of change coming in the midterm elections, but a perhaps bigger, clearer sign of change is the groundswell of educators entering political contests.

As an outcome of the wave of teacher walkouts and protests that swept through West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere – a chain of events increasingly referred to as an “Educator Spring” – “angry educators are flooding down-ballot races,” Politico reports.

The numbers are staggering, with nearly 300 candidates coming from just the American Federation of Teachers union alone. Many of them are winning, and not just in the Democratic party.

By taking their cause to the streets and then to the ballot box, teachers have made education a top election issue – not just in states, like North Carolina, where walkouts occurred – but also in states, like Florida, where they didn’t.

It’s an electoral phenomenon that is little understood, much less reported on.

An Angry Wave of Teachers

The specific issues teachers call attention to vary from state to state, district to district, and even school to school.

In West Virginia, poor teacher pay and the state’s dysfunctional employee health insurance program brought teachers to the state capital. In Kentucky, the triggers were unpopular revisions to public employee pensions and the general lack of funding. In Arizona, teachers objected to years of under-funding while the state splurged on school vouchers and charter schools. In Oklahoma, teachers protested against low pay and the lack of a permanent way to increase school funding.

In North Carolina, the list of teacher grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules. But for the vast majority of teachers I spoke to at the rally in Raleigh, the economic trigger was the lack of funding across the board. Many believed fixing the funding was the top priority from which so many other issues could then be resolved.

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.

But there was also a larger context that brought teachers out into the streets.

The Roots of Discontent

“Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized,” writes education reporter Michelle McNeil for Education Week.

Similarly, education journalist and author of The Teacher Wars Dana Goldstein notes that education matters that were once considered settled among policy wonks and Beltway think tanks are now points of strong contention. Her conclusion was that these differences represent a “deep divide” on school reform.

However, the comments from McNeil and Goldstein aren’t from this year. They’re from 2013.

Indeed, this year’s teacher actions arose from a deep well of long simmering discontent in the education community.

This was summed up best by North Carolina teacher Courtney Brown who told me teachers were out en masse because, “We hope people listen to us.”

It’s no secret that recent education policies from federal and state levels are generally mandated without the input of educators, especially rank and file teachers. Neither No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top had strong support of on-the-ground educators, and most policies in politically conservative states either disregard teachers or are downright hostile to them.

The latest example of the disconnect between education policy and the daily realities of teachers’ lives was made evident in reports of the failure of yet another “education reform.”

Recalling Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union declaring “bad teachers” as “the problem” behind stagnant learning outcomes, Matt Barnum reports that the idea of designing teacher evaluation systems to reward or penalize teachers based on how their students performed on standardized tests became all the rage after years of advocacy for these systems by rightwing think tanks and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Experienced educators warned this idea was completely unworkable and based on “junk science.” “Now,” Barnum reports, “new research … finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.”

The billion dollar effort, with $575 million coming from Gates, was not only “wasteful” but “damaging,” Bloomberg reports.

Well, DUH, teachers everywhere are saying.

‘Stop. Help. I Can’t Deal with This.’

This disconnect between what a teacher’s-eye view of education sees and what policy makers decide is not new.

In 2015, during a hearing by the Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions on the subject of “Fixing No Child Left Behind,” Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse observed, “My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contracts and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal, state, and local level. And the other is a world of school principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Whitehouse urged his colleagues, “We have to be very careful that the people who we really trust to do education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this.’”

In calling attention to their lousy pay and lack of job security; the aging, dilapidated buildings they work in; the crumbling, the outdated textbooks they give to students; the lack of basic supplies they must buy with their own money; the scarcity of school support staff including counselors, nurses, and librarians; the competition from charter schools and vouchers that siphon funding out of the system, and an education agenda that values testing students over educating them, teachers are pointing to the overwhelming reality on the ground that public schools and the basic right to an education are increasingly imperiled.

If political leaders don’t care about that, then it looks like there are teachers who will run against them and maybe kick their butts out of office.

(Photo credit: Flikr Creative Commons)

 

Charter School Chain Poised To Profit Off Children Separated From Parents At The Border

Separating refugee and immigrant children from their parents at the border isn’t just a cruel injustice to the families affected; it’s also good business, and the latest enterprise wanting in on the action is a Texas-based charter school chain connected to the operator of detention centers reaping the biggest share of federal government contracts.

As the Washington Post originally reported, deep in its account of conditions at a border detention facility for children operated by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, IRS forms from 2016-17 that show compensation of $1.48 million to the organization’s CEO Juan Sanchez were filed by “a related organization, an Austin charter school Sanchez founded.”

Wiley blogger Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher, picked up the scent and reports Southwest Key indeed operates a charter business called East Austin College Prep which shares the same Austin street address. Other “related organizations” appearing on the same 2016-17 IRS filings include Southwest Key Maintenance, which received $113,000 for “janitorial services,” and Cafe Del Sol, which received $336,000 for “food services.” The school paid Southwest Key Programs, $1.14 million for “administration and rent.”

All four entities, the school and its related “independent contractors,” share the same street address.

“Sanchez sits on the charter school board as its secretary,” Schneider writes, and Southwest Key’s VP, Alexia Rodriguez, is board chair.

It’s a cozy relationship among an operator of youth detention centers receiving federal funds and grants, “public” charter schools funded by Texas taxpayers, a “nonprofit” organization providing a lease agreement and administration services to the charters, and for-profit entities servicing the schools. And the fact the schools, which overwhelmingly enroll Hispanic students, are connected to a booming business separating Hispanic students from their parents and detaining them in facilities at the border raises legitimate questions and concerns of whether a new “prison-to-school pipeline” is just another way for private entrepreneurs to exploit vulnerable children.

A Booming Business in Children

Keep in mind, Southwest Key is the biggest player in the growing business of immigrant and refugee family detention. “Southwest Key has 26 shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, housing more than 5,100 immigrant minors. That’s about half of the total population in the custody of Health and Human Services,” NPR reports. “Its federal contracts now tally more than $400 million annually.”

President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for refugee and migrant families coming to the border has severely strained Southwest Key’s facilities – at the Brownsville shelter in a former Walmart super store, the Post story says, sleeping quarters built to accommodate four beds have been expanded to five, and a rigid round-the-clock schedule for managing the influx of children leaves little time for recreation and education.

Former employees, NPR reports, have spoken of “prison”-like conditions inside the shelters, and experts have warned of the psychologically damaging impact that the austere treatment in these facilities can have on traumatized children.

“Texas regulators found more than 150 violations at more than a dozen shelters run by Southwest Key in the last two years,” Dallas News reports, citing violations of employee “judgment,” poor management of medicines and cleaning supplies, and failure to run background checks on some staff members.

Numerous national outlets recently reported a Honduran teenager housed at Southwest Key’s Brownsville facility walked out of the building and was never found. He is reported to be in Mexico and headed back to Honduras, but no one seems to know for sure.

Nevertheless, Southwest Key has asked state regulators for permission to house more children. From its base of 16 shelters in five Texas counties, Southwest Key is also trying to open another facility in Houston, says the Dallas News reporter. “but the city’s mayor is fighting against turning a warehouse into a temporary shelter.”

A Charter Windfall

Southwest Key is also expanding its charter school business too, and the detention center enterprises is poised to work hand in hand with its expanding school network.

Southwest Key’s two campuses in Austin, East Austin College Prep Academy and East Austin College Prep At MLK, have earned praise for educating low-income, mostly Hispanic students who have a high-propensity of dropping out; although, the schools have yet to record an official four-year graduation rate, and students perform well below state averages on college readiness exams such as SAT, ACT, AP, and International Baccalaureate.

The charter operation, which recently rebranded under management of Promesa Public Schools, is approved to expand to new campuses for the fall semester of 2018 in Corpus Christi and Brownsville, where Southwest operates four immigrant shelters including Case Padre, the detention center in the old Walmart store.

According to Dallas News, leaders from Promesa and Southwest Key have approached officials, who oversee education of school aged children in Brownsville and the surrounding county, with a proposal to use the new Brownsville charter school’s resources and new campus “to serve about 1,000 kids being housed in the nonprofit’s shelters.”

The reporter, Eva-Marie Ayala, notes that federal law requires that contracted care providers for detained refugee and immigrant children “conduct an educational assessment” of young detainees and provide education services to address their needs. Ayala also notes that Promesa’s Austin schools enrolled about 630 students in the past school year which netted the organization about $6 million from the state. “That equates to about $9,500 a student,” Ayala calculates, so adding a thousand news students for the new Brownsville campus might yield $9.5 million for Promesa, using her reckoning.

Southwest Key is also in discussions with the Brownsville school district to “partner” on educating the detained children, but any way you divvy up the total population of detained children among the school district and Promesa, it’s a windfall to Southwest Key.

A ‘Prison-to-School Pipeline’?

For its part, representatives of Southwest Key and its CEO Suarez have strongly defended its facilities, arguing that what the nonprofit provides is significantly more humane than what other detention facilities provide, although of late, the organization has not been responding to reporters’ requests for comments, and its website has gone dark.

Local public school advocates in Corpus Christi have staged protests of the new Promesa campus opening in their community, accusing Southwest Key of “profiting off the backs of immigrant children.” And an Austin-based advocacy group for Latin American citizens is urging that state, county, and city governments boycott Southwest Key.

“is Southwest Key acting compassionately, or is it complicit in a controversial policy?” the NPR reporter asks. “Is it protecting kids or profiting off them?” To those questions, we should add, “Is it providing education to these children or using them to grow its charter school business?”

Advocates for incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated youth have long talked of the need for a “prison-to-school pipeline” for acclimating children and teens from detention centers to mainstream education and a better future. The term is a play on words from the better-known school-to-prison pipeline that refers to the frequent practice of schools, especially charter schools, to use harsh discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, to push out low-income students of color into the criminal justice system.

In developing its collaboration of charter schools with migrant children detention centers, Southwest Key seems to be perverting the idea of an authentic prison-to-school pipeline designed to rescue children from deep injustices and harm. Instead of behaving as a public institution operating altruistically for the benefit of these vulnerable and traumatized children, Southwest Key is following in the pathway of an opportunistic industry.

(Photo credit: Texas ACLU http://bit.ly/2tMkRMl)

New Report Reveals Which States Are Abandoning Public Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet his remarks were mostly ignored.

‘An Education Desert’ Caused by Charters

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

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

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

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

Not Just in Detroit

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

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

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

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

A Sell Job

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

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

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

Exemplars that Aren’t Exemplary

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

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

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

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

Snubbing the Witness

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

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

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

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

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

Policy without People

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: d_gilette/flickr)