Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Far Broader Implications of the Court Opinion That Struck Down DeVos's Approach to Student Loans

Student debtIn case you missed it, Betsy DeVos recently got a judicial smack down in the battle over student protections in loan repayment.  I won't rehash the merits of the competing student loan policies here.  You can find that elsewhere.  But it is worth emphasizing exactly why DeVos lost and its implications for other administrative actions.  Those two things are extremely important in thinking about the future of the broader landscape of education policy.

The short story is that when an agency seeks to reverse or block an existing or pending regulation, it needs to either go through the normal process of passing new regulations (which takes a while) or, in the case of stopping pending regulations, offer a legitimate explanation. DeVos's action on student loan regulations failed because the Department did not explain itself in any rational way.  Rather, it seemed to use a lawsuit by a group of colleges as an excuse to simply do what it wanted to do--exercise raw power in favor of a particular policy agenda.  That, the court demonstrated, you cannot do.

Second, the court offered an interesting analysis of how a 180 degree reversal of policy requires a little something extra.  The court's analysis was compelling.  It is fine for an agency to enforce the law within the bounds of its discretion.  But when it completely reverses a policy position, it begs the question of whether one of the two agency interpretation is simply wrong.  The public deserves a reasoned explanation of why the prior one was wrong.  Again, it is not enough to simply say: "I'm in power now."  This analysis, in particular, strikes me as being important to other policy fights to come, particularly since this Administration says it wants to entirely remake or end the federal role in education.

Okay, so enough on the commentary, what exactly did the court say?  To appreciate the conversation, a little background is in order.

Continue reading

September 26, 2018 in Federal policy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 24, 2018

What Does School Funding Buy? Lower Discipline Rates and More Learning

A month ago, I tried to show how school quality and school discipline are intertwined.  I talked about my prior research, put up a fancy color-coded map of school funding and achievement gaps from Bruce Baker and another fancy color-coded map of school suspensions by the ACLU and UCLA Civil Rights project.  A rough mashing together of these two maps showed that the funding and achievement gaps had substantial overlap with school suspensions.  But of course, it would take a much more sophisticated analysis to make any firm conclusions.  And the average reader or parent might very well start to feel their eyes glaze over with all the numbers if we did that.

For a lot of people and policymakers, simple examples rather than sophisticated data are better.  That's what makes this new story out of Nashville Public Schools so helpful (and disheartening).  The Nashville Public Schools have been operating under a grant from the state that funds trauma informed services in 10 of the district's schools.  That grant is up and local advocates are worried about what comes next.  They are asking the school district to replace those funds out of their own budget and increase them.

The Tennessean reports that "[t]he increased support for students has helped almost every school see a reduction in office discipline referrals, helping keep kids in the classroom."  The first school to implement the trauma informed practices saw "the most promising results, with a 97-percent reduction in discipline referrals."  All but one of the other schools also saw impressive reductions:

  • Fall-Hamilton Elementary — 97 percent reduction in year one and a 53 percent reduction in year two over the previous year.
  • Eakin Elementary — 73 percent reduction.
  • Waverly Belmont Elementary — 29 percent reduction.
  • Napier Elementary — 15 percent reduction.
  • Hermitage Elementary — 60 percent reduction.
  • Inglewood Elementary — One percent reduction.
  • Tulip Grove Elementary — 52 percent reduction.
  • Meigs Magnet Middle Prep — 37 percent reduction.

So if someone asks what money buys, it buys district and school coordinators for the program, reduced suspensions, and more time in the classroom. 

And for those keeping score, it doesn't look like Tennessee schools have enough money as a general principle.  The national School Funding Fairness report card shows that Tennessee ranks 43 in terms of school funding levels (even after making regional and cost based adjustments).  The level of effort it exerts to fund its schools (based on available resources in the state) similar ranks in the bottom, earning it an "F" on the report card.  And Bruce Baker's study of what it would cost to achieve average outcomes shows that even the wealthiest districts are underfunding education in Tennessee.  The poorest districts are short about $3,500 per pupil.

But when you understand the connection between school quality and student achievement, this might very well be an investment that Nashville needs to make no matter where the money comes from.

 

 

September 24, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Is California's New Ban on For-Profit Charters a Charade or a Step in the Right Direction?

My recent post on California's new charter school bill may have been too quick to lavish praise on the state for banning for-profit groups from managing charters.  For-profit charter operators are definitely a problem.  Allowing them is the equivalent of laying out a welcome sign to exploitation and legalized corruption.  For-profit operators can, for instance, entering into self-serving lease and contract agreements. They can do things that would land public school officials in jail, but which are relatively common  among  charter school operators.  Barring open corruption is a big deal, at least, symbolically.  And California does have some for-profit operators that will have to change their status and practices in the future for those charters to move forward.

But whether this new ban on for-profit charter operators changes the fundamental reality of what is occurring in most charter schools in California is a different question.  And, if it does not change the industry overall, the symbolic victory of this new law may make it harder to actually go after less obvious problems in the future.  The public might simply think the state has cleaned the sector cleaned up and, thus, be more forgiving of other questionable charter expansions in the future. 

As I emphasized in my recent post, 
 
there is still more to be done to ensure that non-profit charters are acting like non-profits.  The California law stops charters from acting purely as shell companies for outside entities, but they don't stop non-profit charters from paying their upper level staff and management unreasonably high salaries while paying their teachers unreasonably low ones. They also don't stop non-profit charters from entering into unreasonable leases.  As Tom Kelley has shown, exorbitant leases appear to be one of the biggest profit-taking mechanisms.  No non-profit acting in its and its students' own best interests would every enter into some of these lease agreements.  California's new statute prohibits for-profit management, but it does not prohibit lease deals that are not on the up-and-up.  To be clear, the point of leasing out one's land is to make money.  So leases that send profits to landlords are not inherently problematic. but California should not think its job is done with this statute.  It still needs to exercise enough oversight to ferret out problematic contracts and leases and ensure that state money is spent on students.
 
Carol Burris's new essay in the Washington Post's Answer sheet digs deeper into the facts and shows that this new bill may not be that big of a deal at all.  First, "Only 34 of California’s approximately 1,200 charter schools are owned or managed by for-profit companies."  Second, the real target of this bill appears to be online for-profit charters. "Connections Academy, run by the for-profit Pearson Corporation, is connected with four California charter schools. Most of the affected schools are run by the for-profit, online schools of K12 Inc. using various corporation names. Online charter schools have a terrible record with average graduation rates of about 40 percent."  In other words, the bill was not about reforming charter school profiteering, but going after one problematic sector--online charters--which, by the way, some other states have already been working to ban or limit for a few years now (because of the corruption that had been exposed).  Third, "because the bill does not go into effect until July 1, 2019," the for-profit corporations have a year to come with plan B.  Apparently, the plan is simply to re-up their charter applications before that date, which would give them until 2024 to actually change their practices.
 
So the cost-benefit of this new law is not as clear as I initially thought. On the one hand, it bars the most egregious and problematic behavior out there.  And if this is just the first step toward more reform, we should welcome it.  On the other hand, this bill leaves an enormous number of problems untouched and, if the public is left thinking those problems no longer exist, California is in a worse position now than it was before the bill.
 
 

September 21, 2018 in Charters and Vouchers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reducing Suspensions and Expulsions of Students with Disabilities: Linking Research, Law, Policy and Practice

This from Loyola University Chicago on its upcoming conference and call for papers:

Loyola University Chicago School of Law and School of Education will be hosting an interdisciplinary working conference entitled “Reducing Suspensions and Expulsions of Students with Disabilities: Linking Research, Law, Policy and Practice. We seek papers that explore current knowledge on the causes of disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities; discuss evidence-supported practices to reduce disproportionality; and identify areas for legal and policy reforms. The papers will be presented at the conference which will occur June 19 to June 21, 2019 at Loyola University Chicago’s Water Tower Campus (Chicago, IL).  The conference is made possible through funding from the Spencer Foundation.

This working conference will bring together a small interdisciplinary group of experts in the fields of disability and school discipline. We seek participants from multiple disciplines, including law, public policy, psychology, sociology, education and critical race theory and with research expertise from a broad range of methodologies (e.g., quantitative, qualitative and mixed methodologies).

A stipend of $400 per paper will be awarded following submission and presentation of the selected conference papers. Reasonable travel expenses for the primary author will be reimbursed upon submission of receipts. Following the conference, up to 10 authors will be invited to submit a conference paper for publication in an edited journal volume or a proposed edited book, and each will receive a $400 stipend following submission of the finalized paper and completion of the review and editing process.

Please see the document Discipline Disparities and Disability Conference 2019 for full submission requirements. Send your completed submission materials (cover page, abstract, and paper summary) to: discipline.disparity@gmail.com (CC pfennin@luc.edu) by September 30, 2018 (midnight, CST).  Please also write “Discipline Disparities 2019 Conference Proposal” in the subject line.  

Please consider forwarding this email and attached submission guidelines to interested colleagues.  If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with either Pamela Fenning (pfennin@luc.edu) or Miranda Johnson (mjohnson11@luc.edu).

September 21, 2018 in Conferences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Education Law Association Hosting a Stellar Lineup at Its Annual Conference

ElaThe Education Law Association is hosting its 64th annual conference in Cleveland this year on Nov. 7-10.  It promises to be one of the best in years, covering a range of immediately pressing topics and recognizing historic anniversaries as well.  This year, Mary Beth Tinker, from the seminal Tinker v. Des Moines, will deliver the keynote.  In fact, the conference will host her in what is, to the week, the 50th anniversary of the oral arguments in the case.  Having been with Mary Beth recently at another event, I can tell you that her presentation will be incredibly refreshing and tell both her personal story and the longer story of how student activism around various different issues--desegregation, war, and guns--has shaped the nation.

Ken Trump, a frequent witness before Congress on school safety issues, will also deliver a featured talk.  And, per custom, Mark Walsh, author of Ed Week's school law blog, will offer his annual update on the Supreme Court.

Those looking for other excuses to attend can visit the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, which is just a few blocks away from the conference, or attend the various mixers and meals, where a huge chunk of the leaders in our field will be mingling about.  Just glancing at the program (and surely leaving people off whom I shouldn't), I am seeing, in no particular order, Rob Garda, Julie Mead, Preston Green, Regina Umpstead, TK Daniel, Justin Bathon, William Thro, Suzanne Eckes, and Perry Zirkel.  I have always found it to be an incredibly inviting group of people.

For more information on the conference and registration, see here.

 

 

 

September 20, 2018 in Conferences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

With Tax Revenues Rising, Texas Plans to Spend Less, Not More, on Public Schools

School funding formulas are one of the most arcane and obscure elements of public policy one can imagine.  The only thing that comes close in my mind is the federal tax code.  The federal tax code does, however, have some rhyme or reason to it.  In those years in which I make more money, I pay more taxes.  In those years in which I make less, I pay less.  Yes, there are tax loopholes for certain capital gains, home depreciation, and the like, but the general rule remains the same.

School funding formulas can work in the opposite direction.  Just because more money comes in does not mean that schools will get more.  This is due largely to the way state government offsets its contribution to public education based on how much local districts raise in property taxes.  In some states, the more the local district raises, the less the state spends.  This might make some modicum of sense if we assume that the district has, and has had, the total amount of money it needs to meet the needs of students.  But it is a brutally harsh system if that assumption is incorrect.  It is like telling a malnourished kid that he will only get half a free school lunch today because the principal noticed that one of his friends gave him a biscuit for breakfast.  

Well, this would seem to be exactly what the state of Texas plans to do--take money from needy school districts because their local property tax revenues are projected to increase without ever asking whether those districts have what they really need.  

So lets start with the question of whether Texas schoolkids already have the resources they need.  Bruce Baker and his colleagues' recent study of how much it costs for children to achieve "average" outcomes (which is probably lower than "adequate" outcomes) found that Texas is in pretty bad shape.  In many states, twenty to forty percent of school districts have enough--and maybe more than enough--for students to achieve average outcomes.  This is true in even relatively poor states like South Carolina and Oklahoma.  It is the students in the bottom 60 to 80% of districts who are getting shortchanged. 

But in Texas, everyone seems to be short on cash.  According to the study, Texas districts that spend in the top 20% are still short $348 per pupil--not a huge number but a striking one given that these are the wealthy districts.  At the other end of the spectrum, the study finds that the poorest districts are short $12,682 per pupil.  That is the 5th largest deficit in the country.  Only Arizona, Alabama, California, and the District of Columbia have larger gaps.  

A few years ago, a Texas trial court examined whether funding levels in Texas were "adequate" to meet constitutional requirements.  Its conclusions all but predicted the results of the foregoing study.  The evidence in that case demonstrated that Texas schools were underfunded by $3.6 billion in 2010 and, after budget cuts, would be $6.1 billion underfunded in subsequent years. Prior state supreme courts had on several occasions ordered the state to fix gross underfunding, but in a surprising turn of events in 2016, the Texas Supreme Court decided that separation of powers concerns and new concerns about whether money matters dictated that it leave school funding to the legislature.  The decision is extremely hard to square with all the increasingly precise and compelling evidence regarding how much money really does matter, but that is another story.

With no check on school funding levels, what is Texas planning to do now?  A new story by the Texas Tribune offers this summary:

In its preliminary budget request ahead of next year's legislative session, the Texas Education Agency projected a drop in the state's general revenue for public education by more than $3.5 billion over the next couple of years, in part because the revenue from local property taxes is expected to skyrocket. General revenue only makes up part of the state's education funding.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath confirmed this projection in front of a state budget panel Wednesday morning as he laid out the state agency's budget request through 2021.

The Foundation School Program, the main way of distributing state funds to Texas public schools, includes both state general revenue and local property tax revenue. Local property values are expected to grow by about 6.8 percent each year, and existing statute requires the state to use that money first before factoring in state funding.

Of course, advocates who understand school needs are none too happy about this. 

[They] have pushed state officials to put more money into public schools, instead of absorbing local tax revenue into the system.

"The state needs to kick in their fair share," said special education advocate and parent Heather Sheffield to the panel Wednesday. "Property taxpayers are fed up with the fact that the state is not funding public education."

Texas, unfortunately, is not an outlier.  As emphasized during teacher protests this past spring, most states continue to fund education at a lower level in real dollar terms today than they did a decade ago, which is strange given that their tax revenues are up.  And this heat map from Baker's study shows where the underfunded districts in the country are.  Anything not in green or light green is underfunded.  Unfortunately, there is a a lot of non-green on the map.

Capture

But what this new story on Texas does clearly reveal is how states minimize education spending and the seeming irrationality of it.  This suggests another problem: states don't appear to be willing to act in good faith toward education.  Putting precise funding levels aside, the mindset with which states approach education is as important as where they ultimately land, as the two questions are inextricably linked.  And so I warned this spring against thinking that state concessions to teacher protests represented a major change in policy. Yes, some new funds would flow to teachers, but the mindset toward education had not changed.  A handful of state leaders were showing that they remained dead-set on carrying out their agenda, regardless of the bumps in the road they confronted. 

Unfortunately, it is too often only courts that can trigger a fundamental shift, but Texas's court system seems to have abandoned its students.

 

September 18, 2018 in School Funding | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Network for Public Education Conference to Feature Groundbreaking Report on the Privatization of Education

NPE_Schott PanelThis summer, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation released on new report on the privatization of public education titled, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report was the one I had been waiting for. It filled in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction. The Network's national conference on October 20 to 21 will feature a panel on the report.  John Jackson, President of Schott, and Tanya Clay House, a long time civil rights advocate and former Obama appointee, will be on the panel along with myself.  Registration for the event is still open here.

The panel promises to be an important one.  As I argue in Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, the analysis of charter schools and vouchers needs to be reframed.  Toward that end, I identify a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education.  I also explain how, even if there is no statewide statutory preference, choice programs can have the effect of undermining the delivery of adequate and equitable education opportunities in particular locations.  When they do, the programs violate state education clauses. We just have to examine the facts on a case by case basis.

My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states.  The NPE/Schott report drills down into the facts deeper than anyone before.  It offers a systematic examination of charter and voucher laws in each state.  As a result, it clearly shows the extent to which each state’s laws represent a decommitment to public education.

The report is the “yin” to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ “yang.” Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have law that promote the expansion of charters.  The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad.  So the states that it labels as having excellent charter school laws will probably fair poorly on the Network for Public Education (NEP)/Schott Foundation report.  For instance, NAPCS ranks Indiana as the top state for charters, but NEP and Schott rank Indiana in the 40s.

But that is what makes this report so important.  Because there hasn’t been any systemic to response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation. This new report brings balance.

Here are some key paragraphs from the executive summary:

Public schools remain a source of pride and hope, helping to level the playing field for children from incredibly diverse racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic groups. Even amid concerns and often unsubstantiated criticism, Americans continue to view public schools as a defining hub for their communities. In the spring of 2001, a national poll found that Americans ranked public schools as “the most important public institution in the community” by at least a five-to-one margin over hospitals, churches and other institutions. Nonetheless, within the past two decades, there has been a fervent push by those interested in privatization who seek to de-prioritize the importance of public schools and effectively undermine their functionality. Ignoring these attacks, most parents and citizens understand that public schools provide a critical service to American society by educating the majority of students with a base level of accountability while protecting their civil rights in the classroom. Moreover, a recent poll conducted in October of 2017 found that among all registered voters, only 40 percent supported vouchers while 55 percent are opposed. This number further decreases to 23 percent with opposition at 70 percent when voters were asked to consider support if it meant less money for public schools.

With the ongoing debate on the relevance and benefit of public schools versus private schools, the historical context of this debate must be understood. The commitment to a free education for American children has its roots in the 17th century and has evolved along with the laws of the nation to include a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children. Those of privilege have always understood that education is the cornerstone to success and inclusion in society. Yet the reality is that disadvantaged groups including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women, the poor, those with disabilities and others have always had to fight for inclusion. For many generations, structural racism inherent in American society maintained a segregated system for African Americans and people of color. From passage of Massachusetts’s first compulsory education law to present day, historically disenfranchised communities have fought for the right to receive a free education.

. . . .

The public education system was developed to serve all children and can continue to do so with the appropriate support from the federal, state and local levels. Public schools offer a rich opportunity for all children to learn from their peers of other racial, ethnic, religious or other identities. Private schools, including charters, were not created to serve all children. Although parents always have a right to send their children to private schools at their own expense, they are not and never can be the model for educating of all this nation’s children, nor should they be supported by public dollars.

The report evaluated education privatization based on the following, assigning numerical values to each:

  • Types and Extent of Privatization
  • Civil Rights Protections
  • Accountability, Regulations and Oversight
  • Transparency
  • Other Factors (charter schools)

It found that:

Overall grades were assigned based on the extent of privatized school choice in the form of vouchers, neo-vouchers and charter schools, as well as the quality of the state’s laws that promoted accountability, oversight, transparency and civil rights. States earned an. The states with the best overall grades for resisting school privatization are predominantly rural states with a strong commitment to community public schools and an aversion to public dollars leaving already cash-strapped rural schools[, although]... rural state support for public education is not a universal pattern.

There are 22 states with grades between a C and a B+. Six states and the District of Columbia received a grade of D or D+ and 17 received a grade of F.

In addition to giving each state an overall grade, we assigned grades for voucher and charter policies as well. There are 22 states that earned an A+ for resisting attempts to give public funds in the form of vouchers and/or neo-vouchers to their public schools.

The six states with an A+ for their charter laws are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia. However, there were also 37 states plus the District of Columbia that received a Grade of F based on their charter laws — states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.

For more detailed findings, see here.

September 12, 2018 in Conferences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 10, 2018

California Strikes Major Blow to For-Profit Charter Schools

One of the major critiques of charter schools, although not the only one, is that they allow private entities to profit off the education of children.  Some say the possibility of profits is a good idea because it brings new players into the education "market," incentivizes efficiency, and creates competition that might drive down the cost of quality education.  In theory, I suppose that is possible, but in reality, we have seen far more evidence to the contrary.  And the possibility of profit taking without sufficient state oversight also opens the door to downright corruptions.  Preston Green has done an excellent job of tracking scandal and corruption in the charter school sector.  I argue here, however, that what we call "corruption" is often actually legal when charters do it.  The self-serving contracts and leases are the type of behavior that would land public school officials in jail, but which are relatively common with some charter school operators.

That is what makes California's new statute barring for-profit charter school operators so significant.  On their face, most charter schools are non-profit.  Many states will not issue a charter to a for profit entity.  If Big Box Stores, Inc., for instance, applies to operate a charter in Kentucky, they state will reject it.  This, however, does relatively little to block for profit entities.  All Big Box Stores, Inc. needs to do is form a non-profit.  They can call it Big Box Academies.  If Big Box Academies gets a charter, it can then simply enter into a contract with Big Box Store, Inc. to supply all the labor and supplies for the charter school.  In fact, non-profit charters regularly turn over their entire budget to for-profit management companies.  Those companies can then take as much profit as they can manage.  As Tom Kelley has shown, they develop "sweeps" contracts that are so egregious that the charter schools are probably running afoul of non-profit rules.

California's new charter law takes a big bite out of this problem.  It makes it clear that only non-profits can receive a charter in the state.  It also prohibits those non-profit charters from transferring responsibility and management to a for-profit entity.  The law states:

On and after July 1, 2019, a petitioner that submits a charter petition or a charter school that submits a charter renewal or material revision application shall not operate as, or be operated by, a for-profit corporation, a for-profit educational management organization, or a for-profit charter management organization. For purposes of this section, a for-profit educational management organization and a for-profit charter management organization are entities that manage or operate a charter school.

“Operate as, or be operated by,” as referenced in paragraph (1), means services provided by a for-profit corporation to a charter school that include any of the following:
(i) Nominating, appointing, or removing board members or officers of the charter school.
(ii) Employing, supervising, or dismissing employees of the charter school, including certificated and noncertificated school personnel.
(iii) Managing the charter school’s day-to-day operations as its administrative manager.
(iv) Approving, denying, or managing the budget or any expenditures of the charter school that are not authorized by the governing body of the charter school.
(v) Providing services to a charter school before the governing body of the charter school has approved the contract for those services at a publicly noticed meeting.
A charter school shall not enter into a subcontract to avoid the requirements of this paragraph.
 
This legislation is an even bigger deal because California has more charter school students than any other state--over 600,000.  The next highest number is 315,000 in Texas.  North Carolina, the state with the 10th most charter school students, only has 91,000.  So this new bill in California is a major blow to for-profit operators nationally.
 
With that said, there is still more to be done to ensure that non-profit charters are acting like non-profits.  The California law stops charters from acting purely as shell companies for outside entities, but they don't stop non-profit charters from paying their upper level staff and management unreasonably high salaries while paying their teachers unreasonably low ones. They also don't stop non-profit charters from entering into unreasonable leases.  As Tom Kelley has shown, exorbitant leases appear to be one of the biggest profit-taking mechanisms.  No non-profit acting in its and its students' own best interests would every enter into some of these lease agreements.  California's new statute prohibits for-profit management, but it does not prohibit lease deals that are not on the up-and-up.  To be clear, the point of leasing out one's land is to make money.  So leases that send profits to landlords are not inherently problematic.  But California should not think its job is done with this statute.  It still needs to exercise enough oversight to ferret out problematic contracts and leases and ensure that state money is spent on students.

September 10, 2018 in Charters and Vouchers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Duncan and DeVos Are Both Wrong, We Need Old-School Reform

Duncan v DevosFormer Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spent the last few months trying to rehabilitate his work and distinguish it from DeVos. This spring he implored us to ignore current claims that education reforms of the past have failed.  On his book tour, he has been arguing that “education lies” often drive education policy. Yet, Duncan was an extremely disappointing Secretary Education who too often fell victim to the education lies himself: money does not matter, ineffective teachers are ruining public schools, charter schools will outperform public schools, and federal leadership on rigorous standards will save us all.

To his credit, Duncan believes in public education and gets a lot right in his current critiques.  He is a strong advocate of prekindergarten education and poignantly says that presidential elections show that Americans love their guns more than the love children.  Yet, Duncan refuses to be candid about his own mistakes. So he feeds the idea that the current problem in education, like every other public policy problem, is the Trump Administration. Our education reform problems, unfortunately, are more endemic than the current administration.  They need better solutions than rose-colored glasses.

The “education reforms” that Duncan says worked—desegregation and more equalized school funding—preceded his tenure as Secretary.  He did nothing to further those reforms.  Instead, he routinely pushed through reforms that didn’t work.  An honest appraisal of the past decade reveals that Duncan caused more harm than good. 

Secretary Duncan created the Race to the Top grant program and offered states money in exchange for major policy changes. In the aftermath of the recession, he could demand almost anything he wanted. He got states to do three things: adopt new teacher evaluation systems that they could use to hire, fire, and promote teachers largely based on statistics; expand charter schools; and adopt college and career ready standard, aka Common Core. Two years later, Duncan doubled down.  He told states that he would waive their pending sanctions under No Child Left Behind if they got on board with the policies he had promoted in Race to the Top.

What Duncan didn’t do is also notable.  He stood by while states implemented the biggest and most sustained education funding cuts in decades. And other than a 2011 letter to the editor, he largely stood by while our schools continued to resegregate to levels the nation hadn’t seen since the 1970s.

Duncan’s legacy lives on today.  His teacher evaluation systems and his cozying up to the attacks on teacher tenure helped drive teacher moral to an all-time low.  It was those policies that led to a national teacher shortage.  This spring’s protests were simply the visual manifestation of a decade of neglect.

Duncan’s policies also unleashed charter growth that is proving extremely hard to control or unwind.  Seeing how far charter school expansion had eaten into the basic ability of public education to do its job, groups like the NAACP finally felt the need to call for a moratorium on charter schools.  Seeing how charters had helped fuel segregation, groups in Minnesota and New Jersey filed state constitutional claims.  The Southern Poverty Law Center just filed a lawsuit arguing that charter school funding practices violate the state constitution.

Finally, Duncan’s willingness to overstep his bounds in pursuit of his brand of reform created the narrative that made Betsy DeVos possible.  Senators, congresspersons, states, districts, and parents all railed against his aggressive approach.  Then, Donald Trump campaigned heavily on the notion that Common Core was a disaster and that states should be making decisions, not the feds. DeVos accelerated that rhetoric to another level and further argued that parents have a “right” to school choice.  Those who disagree are “flat-earthers.”

Since then, President Trump has issued an executive order to decrease the federal role in education and eliminate what he calls federal regulatory overreaches.  DeVos took the directive and ran with it, repealing, for instance, policies that protect LGBTQ youth, promote school integration, and look for systemic problems when individuals file discrimination complaints.  Trump has even proposed eliminating the Department of Education as a stand-alone agency—the ultimate response to federal overreaches in Education.

The one area in which the Trump administration doesn’t mind leveraging federal power, however, is school choice.  The administration wants supercharge Duncan’s charter agenda and add vouchers to the mix. The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget would cut numerous public school programs, including one aimed at supporting teachers. It would use that money for $1 billion in new charter school and voucher grants.

The solution to our current education challenges is not to weigh the merits of DeVos’s brand of reform versus Duncan’s, but to recognize that neither has much merit.  They both have fed a perpetual cycle of reform that ignores our real problems: inequality and segregation.  Solving those problems doesn’t require fancy new reforms.

Schools to once again think seriously about how their student assignment policies affect segregation.  States can foster this by including integration and diversity as measures of school quality in their accountability systems.  And the federal government can provide technical assistance to help districts design new student assignment policies.  Both the federal and state government need to stop funding charter schools and vouchers that increase segregation.

The solutions for funding inequality are simple.  States need to replenish the funds that they have cut from education budgets over the past decade and direct larger shares of those new funds to the neediest districts.  The federal government needs to increase funding for Title I schools, particularly those with the highest concentrations of poverty.  Those may be radical solutions, but they aren’t new.

        --Duncan picture courtesy of Dept. of Ed; DeVos picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore  

September 5, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Polls Show Strong Support for Teachers and Mental Health Counselors over Cops

Phi Delta Kappan just released its annual survey of public attitudes toward public schools.  The survey focused on the two hot button issues of the past year--teacher pay and school safety.  The results signal that those seeking reform in those areas have a strong constituency to support it.

Two-thirds say teacher salaries are too low and 73% say they would support their teachers if they went on strike.  Only 6% say teachers salaries are too high.  This would seem to be bad news for those states that want to keep education spending at current low levels.  Over half continue to fund education at a lower level now, in real dollar terms, than they did a decade ago.  Teacher salary increases would certainly require states to change their current education spending practices. 

More disappointing was the shrinking percentage of adults who would like their kids to become teachers.  That number has fallen to 46%, about 25 percentage points lower than it was a decade ago.  This is a bad sign given that there is already a current nationwide teacher shortage and the long-term prospects of repairing the teacher pipeline don't look good.  A close look at the dip, however, shows this dip in support of kids becoming teachers follows the dip in school funding.  Replenishing school funding, thus, might help improve this number as well.   

Attitudes about school safety were steadier than I expected.  One in three parents fear for their kids safety at school, basically the same percentage as in 1998.  That percentage, however, is triple the concern of five years ago.  The wide short-term variation suggests either that the number isn't that reliable or that it is a pretty emotional number that can easily ebb and flow based on current events, but remains relatively steady over time.  What was maybe most notable was how much safety attitudes differ based on family income.  Only one in four middle to higher income families were afraid for their kids, but half of families earning less than $50,ooo a year were afraid.

The survey also did a great job of breaking down potential solutions for school safety.  About three-quarters or more supported armed police in school, mental health screening, and metal detectors.  Sixty-three percent were against allowing teachers to carry guns, although that position softens when the questions is whether they would support teachers carrying guns with certain conditions.

But, of course, funds are finite, so the poll asked parents to choose between armed guards and mental health services.  A whopping 71% preferred mental health services.  The preference for mental health services interestingly held across all political groups.

It would have been nice to have seen direct questions about charters and vouchers, particularly since Education Next polling shows that support for charters has bounced back after falling last year.  Instead, this new polling asked a vague question: should we reform the current education system or find an alternative to it?  

Those who support the public school system might be encouraged by the 78% who prefer reform over alternatives.  The question, however, is sufficiently loaded and indirect that I am not sure what to take from it.  The fact that the percentage preferring reform is up over time (plus about 8%)  and the percentage preferring alternatives is slight down over time might suggest a little less general appetite for vouchers and charters than there was a decade or so ago, but again the changes are small.  

September 4, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)