Q&A: It’s Not the Cost of College — It’s the Price

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 20, 2016.
This election season Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aimed to galvanize millennial voters by raising the issue of college debt. In a new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab lays out why college has grown far too expensive, and why our existing systems of aid so often fail to help students manage their financial obligations. In an interview with The American Prospect, Goldrick-Rab discusses her research, her proposals for reform, and why the price of college needs to be at the forefront of affordability conversations.

Rachel Cohen: A prominent theme in your book is that the nature of going to college has changed, but the policy discussions around college have not really changed.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: There’s been a lot of discussion over the last five years about how the students in college are different. The Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and most of the D.C. policy people recognize that what we used to call a “non-traditional student” is now a traditional student—meaning there’s recognition that college students are now older, more racially diverse, more likely to be a first generation student, more likely to have children, and so on.

So there’s been a lot of talk about that, but as I’ve listened, it’s become very clear to me that these people don’t realize how paying for college has changed. In other words, they recognize that the students are different, but they seem to assume that the same sorts of strategies to pay for college that they were used to 10 or 15 years ago work today.

How are things different?

There’s been a lot of change in a very short period of time. First of all, one of the biggest changes is that families are not getting ahead. Prices are rising and people’s incomes are not keeping pace. And at the same time, college feels less optional than it once did.

Prices have notably risen very dramatically in the public sector, including at community colleges. Community college was supposed to be the one place you could go if everything else was unaffordable.

Another shift has to do with work—it is increasingly difficult to find stable, part-time employment, and this really complicates the ability to match work with school.

And then lastly, there used to be more supports for low-income people who wanted to go to college. Those systems have been dramatically changed since welfare reform, which added work requirements, and made it much harder for people to go to college if they’re on cash assistance, or receiving food stamps.

You say there’s too much focus on the “cost” of college and that really we should be focusing on the price. What do you mean?

The cost is what it actually takes to deliver the education. The price is what the institution charges. The price is going up because states are now putting in less money on a per-student basis. We need to understand that the reason that the price is going up is not because the cost of education is rising quickly, but because the government has stopped putting in their share, which forces tuition in the public sector to increase.

You describe how the longer it takes someone to get their college degree, the less likely it is they will finish. So if students have to switch from being a full-time student to being a part-time one in order to manage school and work, they actually decrease their odds of degree completion. Why is it not slow and steady wins the race?

Part of it is because there’s a momentum issue. If you’re trying to learn, it’s very helpful to do it continuously and to focus. It’s very hard to split your attention, and if you’re a part-time student, and you’re working, and you have a family, and you’re probably doing all kinds of other things—to carry on all those roles, for a long, really extended period of time, is hard. Eventually something gives.

Here’s the thing though. The idea that it’s best to go to college full-time has also led to a movement that I strongly disagree with. Now people are telling kids that they should take 15 credits a term, not just 12 [which represents a full-time class load], so that they can finish faster. But that’s hardly realistic unless we make it so that students can really focus. There have been really awful changes to financial aid policy to push people to go faster. The broad assumption is that students just don’t know they should go faster. I find that offensive, and without empirical basis.

More so than just affordability, your book spoke to the importance of public higher education institutions. You raised a lot of questions and concerns about the subsidies the government funnels to private institutions, especially as public colleges grow more expensive, and struggle to stay afloat.

I don’t have many colleagues, if any, who have been speaking about this and I really don’t get it. I don’t get what’s so terrifying about questioning the distribution of sizeable taxable resources to private education. We subsidize private colleges and universities in many ways, and one is through the tax code, and the other is through federal student aid. We have a voucher system in higher education—Milton Friedman liked this thing. This was all about choice, and the theory that the only colleges that would exist were those that provided a good quality service at a good price to the so-called consumer. And the federal aid system would facilitate that choosing. I think it’s sort of laughable that people thought this would work, and that this system would put low-income people in a position where they could somehow exact accountability from powerful institutions.

I don’t know how that was even going to happen, but I think there’s also this question of change over time. I think initially there was a capacity issue. We didn’t have enough public colleges and universities. But now we’ve got plenty of public seats, and I think most of our private institutions are drawing away resources that should go to the public sector.

I’ll add that there is a class of private colleges that exist to serve the most vulnerable—one of them is religious schools, one of them is for our students of color, like HBCUs, and one is tribal schools. Those institutions are a very different category of private schools, and I think we could easily carve out another category for them to continue receiving federal aid, or make them state-supported in some fashion. I think it’s legitimate to say we don’t have a public alternative for those schools.

You’ve done a lot to draw attention to the for-profit college sector. Some defenders say these are the only institutions that will educate poor black and Latino students. How do you respond to that?

That’s nonsense. Any opportunity at a for-profit is available at a community college with sufficient resources. Now, many community colleges are underfunded so they can’t provide night classes, which are what many low-income students want to take. But if community colleges are funded appropriately, then they almost always expand their course offerings to the evening. The University of Phoenix, [a for-profit], invests all these dollars into advertising, but community colleges don’t spend their limited resources on advertising.

This past summer, when Chris Christie came out with a proposal to divert public funds away from New Jersey’s poor urban schools towards wealthier suburban schools, the public was outraged. Yet as you discuss in your book, this happens regularly in higher education, and we don’t have the same sorts of reactions. We don’t direct more resources to higher education institutions serving the most needy students, or even really talk about how we should be doing so.

Yes, the process is quite opaque. Even when people talk about declining investments in higher education, the discussion is never about the breakout in types of institutions, which means people aren’t really asking the right questions. I think there really are big tensions because people assume that higher education is not like K-12, and if there are inequities existing in the system, then it has to do with people’s personal failings. But it’s really a systematic underinvestment in institutions like the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

And then look at the Community College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. Why should UPenn be getting federal student aid with the endowment it has, when the Community College of Philadelphia sits there without the resources it needs?

You’ve done research to show that many college students are going hungry, lacking the resources to afford food. You’ve proposed creating a subsidized meal program for college students, just like we have in K-12 public education.

Yes, and this idea has gained some traction. Most people don’t seem to realize that people end up hungry in college, and once I proved that and started to explain the types of fixes out there—well, I’ve heard from folks who disagree with me on 90 percent of things I say, yet call my proposals to curb college hunger “common sense.” And this gives me a little hope that maybe under a Clinton presidency we could get this one done.


Can Teachers Unions Bargain for Better — or Fewer — Charter Schools?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 19, 2016.

In cities across the country, teachers unions have been strategizing ways to broaden the demands they bring to the negotiating table. Organizing under the banner of “bargaining for the common good,” educators and their community allies have started to challenge a legal regime that for too many years left unions solely focused on wages and benefits.

One window of opportunity that teacher unions are exploring is charter authorizing—the process of opening, closing, and monitoring charter schools. Though laws vary from state to state, 90 percent of the nation’s roughly 1,000 charter authorizers are local school districts. (The other 10 percent include statewide boards, independent boards, and nonprofit organizations.) Someone looking to open a charter school would in most cases have to apply to a local school district for permission. If their application were approved, the school district would then be tasked with ensuring that the charter meets academic standards and all other relevant laws and regulations.

In recent years, more charter teachers have started to form unions at their schools. But since most are at-will employees who work on year-to-year contracts, the threat of retaliation presents a serious hurdle to unionization efforts, particularly since the charter sector is generally known for its union animus.

As a result, teachers unions representing educators at traditional public schools have started to explore how they might use their leverage at the bargaining table to make union organizing easier for their charter brethren.

“You can see a pathway when school districts are the authorizers, because the union bargains with school districts as employers, and could put proposals on the table around rules for charter authorization,” says Shaun Richman, a labor writer who directed the American Federation of Teacher’s charter organizing program from 2010 to 2015.

The first local to do this was the Cleveland Teachers Union. By the middle of the last decade, the Cleveland School District had sponsored several non-union charter schools. With a new round of contract negotiations coming up, the local teachers union wanted to figure out how they might insert their voice into their employer’s charter authorizing process. When bargaining began, the union sought the right to talk freely about organizing with teachers in any charter school authorized by their district. Though ultimately unsuccessful in winning this demand, the union did win language in its 2010 contract requiring their school district to remain neutral if teachers at any charter school it authorizes sought to unionize.

This neutrality language has proven useful, according to David Quolke, the Cleveland Teachers Union president. He says that when three Cleveland charter schools organized unions this past year, their anti-union charter operator, I Can, wanted the school district to intervene. “The employer was trying hard to stop the union, but the school district had to stay out of it,” Quolke says.

While his union did not get everything it wanted in 2010, Quolke says its “foot is now in the door” and he can envision pushing for more authorizing concessions in the future.

The Chicago Teachers Union took Cleveland’s efforts one step further in its recent round of collective bargaining. Rather than push for a commitment that their employer—the Chicago Public Schools—remain neutral, the union demanded that the school district require all charter schools it authorizes to remain neutral if their teachers decide to organize.

Chris Baehrend, acting president of ChiACTS, the union representing Chicago charter teachers, says that neutrality agreements make a profound difference for workers. “The main reason that teachers don’t form unions is because they’re afraid—they’re afraid they’ll get fired, or they won’t succeed,” he says. ChiACTS currently represents 32 schools, and roughly 1,000 teachers.

Stephen Lerner, a veteran labor organizer, likens these types of efforts to the Justice for Janitors campaign that he helped lead in the early 1990s. “The whole idea of that campaign was to use our existing base to bargain for neutrality for other folks,” he says. “A major part of the organizing strategy was negotiating where the union was strong for neutrality in other parts of the contract, and for other divisions [of the employer’s company] that were non-union.”

While the Chicago teachers did not win their demand for citywide charter neutrality when they reached an accord with the district last week, they actually won something even more surprising: an agreement to halt charter growth. In the new contract, the Chicago Public Schools agreed to not increase the net number of charter schools or charter school students through 2019, an unprecedented concession.

The United Teachers Los Angeles has gone even further with these contract efforts—bargaining not just for labor rights for charter teachers, but also for greater overall accountability for charter schools. During its last round of contract negotiations in 2014, the Los Angeles teachers union, in partnership with local community groups, called on the Los Angeles Unified School District to ensure that all schools under its purview—district and charter—be held to the same set of transparency, equity, and accountability standards. The union also proposed requiring that before the district opens up any new school, it first must assess what the economic, educational, and communal impact would be on existing schools. (Under California state law, however, school districts are prohibited from considering such factors when reviewing new charter school applications.)

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union, says that although it wasn’t successful in getting these demands codified in their contract (not surprising, in light of the state law), raising the issues catalyzed new and important conversations with their employer. “Our efforts also had an impact on other affiliates across the state,” Caputo-Pearl says. “They read our proposals and are now really thinking about how to introduce similar types of demands.”

It should be noted that not all teacher unions are yet ready to think creatively about their contract negotiations. In an interview with the Prospect, George Jackson, the communications director of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said, “there’s really no advocacy [the union] could do at the bargaining table” around charter authorizing since charter teachers are not directly part of their union.

And not every instance of unions inserting themselves into the charter authorizing process has been so positive. In 2011, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers actually created the nation’s first and only union-backed charter authorizer. The goal was to open innovative charters that elevate teacher voice, and to secure unions a seat at the education reform table. But five years into the experiment, the authorizer, the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, oversees mostly low-performing schools, and only one is unionized. Many rank-and-file public school teachers have also protested their union’s decision to fund charter authorizing.

In addition to bargaining with school districts, unions are also beginning to flex their legislative and lobbying muscles to try and influence the charter authorizing process.

In New Jersey, it’s the state department of education that authorizes charter schools, not local school districts. Marguerite Schroeder, a staffer with the New Jersey Education Association, says her union closely monitors the entire process from start to finish. “We navigate, we scrutinize, we legally request every application for new charter schools that the department of education considers,” she says, adding that her union is prepared to work through all legislative and legal channels to ensure that New Jersey is held accountable for any charter it authorizes. It also works to monitor how and where public funds are spent within the charter sector.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a set of national policy recommendations to promote increased charter accountability, transparency, and equity. The recommendations called on charter governing boards to file financial disclosure reports, and to prohibit charters from using registration procedures that directly or indirectly discourage certain students from enrolling. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers came out in strong support of the Annenberg proposals, and have since been advocating for school boards and state legislators to adopt them.

In California, the local unions have lobbied the state legislature for a number of bills inspired by the Annenberg standards, including bills that would require charters to be more financially transparent, and to establish more equitable discipline policies. Though many of these bills have failed to make it through the legislature or have been vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown, they’ve sparked a larger political discussion in the state around charter regulation. And such efforts haven’t been confined to blue states. In 2015, after a campaign led by parents and the local teachers union, the school board governing the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted in favor of adopting all of the Annenberg standards.

Ultimately there may be legal limits to what unions can bargain over with their school district in matters of charter authorization. Advocates hope, however, that opening up the conversation on the local level through contract negotiations can help to create broader political momentum for legislative change.

But other questions remain. For example, as unions get more involved in the charter authorizing process, and as more charter teachers go union, how willing will unions be to close down failing charters that have unionized staff? The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools recently rescued a scandal-ridden charter from closure at the last minute, and the fact that the school had unionized teachers may have been a factor.

Still, Secky Fascione, the National Education Association’s director of organizing, is optimistic about unions’ ability to positively impact the charter school environment in conjunction with community groups. She sees all these efforts as just new iterations of bargaining for the common good. “I think there is real excitement here,” she says. “There are many community stakeholders who would love to make proposals around charter schools, and we have a real opportunity as unions to open up the process to really get those voices heard.”

Chicago Charter School Strike Deadline Looms

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 18, 2016.

Unionized teachers and staff at UNO, a charter network comprising 16 elementary and high schools in Chicago, may go on strike Wednesday.

Many local news organizations have incorrectly claimed that a walkout by the unionized charter school teachers would be the first labor action of its kind. But as Jacobin first reported, teachers at a Philadelphia charter school staged a “sick-out” in 2011 when school administrators refused to bargain in good faith; the two sides ultimately reached a contract compromise. In 2014, the unionized teachers at the same Philadelphia charter voted to strike, but reached a contract deal with administrators before a walkout took place.

Nevertheless, a UNO strike would be significant development. UNO is one of the largest charter chains in the city, educating roughly 8,000 students. As more charter teachers opt to unionize across the country, more educators will likely begin engaging in traditional labor protests.

More than 95 percent of the 532 unionized UNO workers voted in favor of going on strike. The stickiest points of the charter union’s negotiations revolve around pension payments, class size caps, and salary increases. Their first-ever contract, negotiated in March 2014, has expired. Teachers and school administrators have been in contract talks for the past eight months.

“We aren’t going to strike just to make history,” says Erica Stewart, a fifth grade UNO teacher on the union bargaining team. “It’s just not feasible, or the right thing. If we need to walk off the job, it needs to be for the right reasons.”

While UNO administrators have said that they can’t afford to pay for all the teachers’ demands, the union members don’t believe them. Teachers point to things like UNO’s central offices located in downtown Chicago, which rent for more than $30,000 per month. They argue that their employer could be making very different budget choices.

Union leaders and school administrators plan to bargain all day Tuesday. If they fail to reach an agreement by midnight, then teachers will strike. UNO has already reached out to families to warn them that all school and extracurricular activities may be cancelled beginning Wednesday.

Stewart, who has taught at UNO for six years, says that the working conditions at her school were very challenging before the charter network formed a union in 2013.

“I was constantly afraid to ask for anything, I was afraid to leave my classroom if I needed a bathroom break,” she says. “I always felt I was going to get fired, and I took the job because I’ve got three kids at home to feed and I needed the work. I love teaching, and I love my students. It was just really difficult to work in a culture of fear like that.”

When I asked how parents and students have reacted to the possibility of a strike, Stewart says they’ve tried to keep bargaining politics out of the classroom and have organized informational meetings for parents, off-campus, after school hours. “The parents have been going out of their way to talk to us,” says Stewart. “They’re also trying to get their own voices heard within UNO.”

Will The Nation’s Capital Become a National Leader on Paid Leave?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 13, 2016.

The clock is ticking, and pressure is mounting for the D.C. City Council to vote on the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015—a bill, that, if approved, would become the most progressive paid leave law in the country. Originally introduced last October, the measure has to be voted on by the end of 2016 lest it die in committee.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world to not offer paid leave, and only 12 percent of U.S. workers are currently entitled to it through their employer. While Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993—which offers new parents and those with sick family members the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs—even this law covers only about 60 percent of the workforce, and many eligible workers simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off.

In light of these realities, some states have taken paid family leave into their own hands. Four—California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York—have passed their own paid leave laws, and some cities are following suit.

Washington, D.C., would be the first jurisdiction to create a paid family and medical leave program entirely from scratch. The four states that have passed paid family leave have had the advantage of adding the benefit onto their existing temporary disability programs—something only five states have. As such, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York were able to incorporate paid family leave relatively easily into their existing state welfare systems.

Joanna Blotner, a Jews United for Justice organizer advocating for the paid leave bill, says that D.C.’s lack of existing infrastructure actually provides the city with an opportunity to become a real national leader on paid leave. “We can build a top-rate program unencumbered by outdated systems,” she says. “And if we can create a paid leave program in D.C., it can be done anywhere.”

Jews United for Justice has been the anchor organization for the Campaign for Paid Family Leave—a coalition of more than 180 businesses, community groups, and advocacy organizations working together to pass the Universal Paid Leave Act. While the legislation was introduced in 2015, the roots of the campaign actually stretch back to the summer of 2014, when Jews United for Justice leaders began exploring potential campaigns. In September of 2014, the D.C.-based Jewish activist group voted to focus on promoting paid family leave.

The organization spent the next eight months figuring out what other jurisdictions were doing around paid leave, assessing who else would be interested in getting involved locally, and studying what would be legally viable in a city like Washington, D.C.

Preliminary conversations for the bill began in May of 2015, and advocates spent the rest of the summer working to flesh out the legislative language with the bill’s co-sponsors, councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso. (Silverman is an alumna of Jews United for Justice.)

The bill currently being considered looks a little different from the legislation originally introduced last October, which would have allowed employees to take up to 16 weeks a year off from their jobs. (California and New Jersey offer just six weeks of paid leave.) The D.C. legislation has since reduced its proposed leave to just 12 weeks, which is how much New York’s program provides for.

The city council held three hearings on paid leave over the past year—an unusually high number for local legislation. The final hearing, in February, ran past midnight, with more than 100 people turning out to testify in support.

Paid family leave is popular, both locally and nationally. In D.C., Public Policy Polling found that 80 percent of D.C voters agreed that the city needed paid family leave, and a Washington Post poll found that 82 percent of D.C voters supported the paid leave legislation in front of the city council.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also endorsed paid family leave at the national level, announcing support for it during the first major speech of her campaign. Clinton wants to push for 12 weeks of paid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, and in aWashington Post op-ed published in May, she wrote she “strongly supports” the paid leave proposal in front of the D.C City Council.

If elected, Clinton might need support from congressional Republicans to push paid leave forward, unless the Democrats manage to win both congressional houses next month—no easy task. The GOP has generally been loath to support social programs that require raising taxes, and Clinton says she would fund paid leave by taxing the wealthy. (Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro, on the other hand, introduced a bill in 2013 that would fund paid leave through a small tax on employers and workers, which is essentially the way it’s funded in California and New York.) Still, this past September, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump came out in support of a paid maternity leave program (albeit one that targeted middle-class rather than poorer families), a sign that perhaps the political winds even in parts of the GOP are changing.

D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Act would be funded through small employer contributions—up to 1 percent of a worker’s salary—into a citywide fund. Self-employed workers would pay directly into the program, though they would have the option to opt out if they wanted. A citywide pool of coverage, advocates say, means a more affordable contribution rate for everyone.

Opposition to D.C.’s paid family leave bill has come from unsurprising sources: the business lobby, representing large corporations and trade associations like the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and the Consortium of Universities, representing D.C. area colleges. These critics generally focus on the legislation’s costs and potential consequences. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce says it “would make the District of Columbia dangerously uncompetitive.” The Washington Post editorial board argues the bill “goes way too far.” A number of small businesses, by contrast, have been strongly supportive of the Universal Paid Leave Act.

Some D.C. residents have worried that such a generous paid leave program could lead to fraud and abuse. The legislation calls for reimbursing 100 percent of wages up to $1,000 a week, and 50 percent of wages above that amount. In other words, the less you earn, the higher percentage of your earnings you’d get back—a key progressive feature of the bill.

But Blotner of Jews United for Justice thinks that many of these concerns about fraud stem from misconceptions regarding how insurance applications works. “To be certified or approved for family or medical leave, you’d have to submit medical paper work, birth certificates, and more for your unique situation,” she says. “All that is then cross-referenced by medical coding and expert advice of professionals. Insurance programs are likely to deter and catch fraud better than a paid leave benefit offered in-house by a company.”

The D.C Chamber of Commerce and the Consortium of Universities recently came out with their own paid leave proposal, a plan that would require all businesses to offer workers eight weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of their paycheck, but to pay for it how they see fit.

Advocates of the Universal Paid Leave Act say this alternative would make it harder for small businesses to participate, since big companies can afford to purchase large disability insurance plans. Councilmembers Grosso and Silverman also say this plan would lack an enforcement mechanism, and would be less efficient than a program administered by the city.

The D.C. City Council failed to vote on the paid leave bill before breaking for recess this past summer, but the odds that the council will vote on paid leave in some form look pretty good. Councilmembers recently tabled a fair-scheduling bill, largely because they didn’t want to overload employers with too many new costs at once. Just how progressive the final legislation will be remains to be seen, as the council is still making final changes to the bill. Paid leave supporters would like to see councilmembers adopt broader definitions of “family” to ensure that all sorts of important relationships would be covered, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and cohabitating partners. And advocates worry that D.C. residents who work outside the city, and those who work for the federal government, may also be excluded from coverage.

Nevertheless, if the city council does move forward with a new universal program, one that particularly addresses the needs of low-wage workers, it will mark a significant leap forward for paid leave, not just in the District but also across the country.

When Public Schools Go Private

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 28, 2016.

The Census Bureau released new data earlier this month that showed the median household income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent over 2014. This marked the largest single-year increase since at least 1967, the federal agency reported. Moreover, this income growth was concentrated among the poor and the middle class, and 2.7 million fewer Americans were living in poverty in 2015 than a year prior.

Despite these encouraging trends, they come nowhere close to reversing the dramatic rise in inequality we’ve seen since the late 1970s. As the Economic Policy Institute reported in June, in 2013, the top 1 percent of American families gained 25 times as much income during that time as the bottom 99 percent. And as The New York Times recently noted, the median household still earns 1.6 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars now than it did prior to the housing market collapse.

With that in mind, a new report released today by In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization, makes the case that the increased privatization of public goods and services over the last few decades has contributed to, and exacerbated, the stark inequalities we see today. The report sifts through various sectors that have grown increasingly privatized—from foster care and transportation, to public schools and prisons—outlining commonalities between them, and recommending ways to undo some of the harms of private contracting.

One area the report focused on is charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. While income inequality is a concern for these schools—charter teachers are generally non-union, work more hours, and earn less money on average than their traditional public school counterparts, In the Public Interest also delves into concerns of oversight and segregation, issues common among increasingly privatized sectors.

The heated debate over whether charters are “public” or “private” tends to grow quite muddied, particularly as most charter schools are structured as nonprofits. Charter supporters point out that these schools are open to all students, funded by taxpayers, and free to attend—ergo, public. Critics say that charters are happy to take advantage of public laws and benefits when it suits them, and claim private status otherwise. The dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Jim Ryan, remarked in an interview earlier this month that he “scratches his head” when he hears that charter schools are efforts to privatize public education, and that “it’s hard to see how [such claims] have a lot of merit.”

Donald Cohen, the executive director of In The Public Interest, hopes the group’s new report can help cut through some of this confusion, and provide progressives with a more useful way to conceptualize privatization in public education. “People tend to think privatization is about giving it to the private sector, or a private corporation,” he says. “But privatizing is more than that. It’s when there is less public control, fewer regulations, and more governance by market forces.”

And despite two recent National Labor Relations Board decisions that found charter school employees to be private-sector workers, Cohen says this shouldn’t deter progressives from viewing the teachers who work in charters as public employees.

“If you’re a subcontractor working as a janitor in City Hall, or a subcontractor picking up trash around a neighborhood, you’re still providing a public service,” he says. “There’s a falsehood that we can create through subcontracting that they’re not our employees, and our responsibility.” In The Public Interest’s report argues that when governments directly provide services, they generally offer living wages and decent benefits to workers. But when private companies take control, they tend to slash labor costs, hurting not only individual workers and their families, but also local economies and the stability of middle- and working-class communities.

For Cohen, the nonprofit/for-profit debates also tend to obfuscate some larger issues regarding regulation and public control. He notes that nonprofit charter schools still regularly contract out their operations to for-profit companies anyway. And while traditional public schools also engage in some level of subcontracting, the public’s ability to review the deals and financial contracts their school makes with private companies, paid for by tax dollars, is made far more difficult when those institutions are nonprofits and for-profits.

As a result, education advocates have started to push for laws that would require greater accountability and transparency in the charter sector—lifting up unacceptable instances of fraud, discrimination, and abuse. A report issued in 2014 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform laid out some concrete policy recommendations, many of which have been since promoted by teacher unions across the country.

Lastly, In The Public Interest’s new report also discusses the ways in which charter schools accelerate the racial and economic segregation of public schooling—something they say is common for sectors that grow increasingly privatized. They cite research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA showing that charter schools are more racially isolated than neighborhood public schools in almost every state and large metropolitan area in the country. Rapid charter growth, coupled with increased segregation, In The Public Interest says, helps to destabilize school finances, resulting in fewer resources, particularly for students of color, disabled students, and poor students.

I asked Cohen what he hopes to see come out of this new study. “Look, this is a big, deep, and dense report,” he answered. “We deal with privatization and outsourcing in a million pieces—the charter schools here, the prisons there. We wanted to say no, there’s something bigger going on here that’s a significant contributor to growing inequality. And that’s the slow and steady transfer we see from public responsibility to private responsibility.”

Q&A: Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 21, 2016.

Private foundations give millions of dollars to public education every year, but these powerful institutions typically operate behind a curtain of secrecy. In a new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, University of Michigan public policy professor Megan Tompkins-Stange sheds new light on the role philanthropy plays in public education, particularly in the arena of charter schools and other market-based reforms. 

Tompkins-Stange spent five years conducting confidential interviews with foundation insiders at the Ford Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Analyzing their diverse, and sometimes competing, approaches to grant-giving, she raises important questions about the influence that philanthropic interests wield in American education and public life. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

Rachel Cohen: You chose to dive into a controversial topic—education reform. What kind of feedback has your book received?

Megan Tompkins-Stange: Honestly I was really scared building up to the book’s release date, especially since I am a junior scholar. For months I was like, what am I doing? Why did I decide to do this? I was terrified. But honestly, most of the response to the book has been really supportive and positive, including from the foundations. I still haven’t heard anything from the Broad Foundation, but I’ve also heard from retired teachers, and people who experienced some of the politics first-hand.

One major critique I’ve received is that I’m not vocal enough about whether philanthropic giving is good or bad. But I did this intentionally—I wanted it to be accepted as an academic and empirical book, as opposed to a piece of advocacy. I’ve taken a more critical stance in the press though, I’m now more comfortable to do so.

Your book talks about the secrecy of foundations. Can you say more?

Foundations are private nonprofit corporations. There’s very little they have to do in order to be accountable to the public. They publish their tax forms, they have their 990s. They’ve established some professional norms over the past 50 years, so many will publish their grants in a database, or put out annual reports. That’s more just good practice, though. Foundations don’t have boards that are democratically accountable, and they are very private by nature of their organizational form. They don’t have to talk to anyone.

Of course, the argument that comes up again and again is, well is that a good thing? That’s a debate that’s gone on for many years. My position is that foundations need to be much more legally accountable. They have enough power in the public realm that they need to be held to some accountability procedures beyond the ones they institute on their own. That could be a formal mechanism, or creating space for people to weigh in on efforts they’re pushing that will impact the public at large. They could have boards with some kind of public member component, or make some investments subject to an external review.

People often lump the Gates and Broad Foundations together, but you explore some differences between these two education reform-friendly foundations.

Eli Broad is the only person to have founded two Fortune 500 companies, and part of his theory of change is about getting the right people into the right positions. So Broad focuses on pipelines: training superintendents, creating leadership positions for individuals to then shape school districts. He very intentionally talks about “venture philanthropy” and having “dramatic results” and creating “transformative breakthroughs.” The Broad Foundation moves unapologetically with urgency; that is their core value.

Gates is a little more skittish about where the public stands on them, they’re more careful. They have legions of lawyers who work to make sure their advocacy doesn’t cross any line. The Gates Foundation also has a sense of urgency, but they’ve always been a bit more cautious. Some people say this may be due to some things Microsoft went through with antitrust—Bill Gates has always just been much more public and attracts more criticism and critique than Eli Broad.

Many supporters of the Common Core insist that the standards originated from the states, not the federal government. Your book recounts the many ways in which they were actually pushed forward by the Gates Foundation, on both the state and the federal level.

Gates was very much about building up the power at the state and local level, and then bringing in the federal government. That was their strategy, and the main way they did that was by getting all the governors on board in ’08 and ’09. Gates made huge grants to The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association designed to build political will.

The grants were basically for instituting standards, educating the public, and research. It was all very above-board, but they really played that convener role to get everyone on the same page. Their strategy was to give money to elites to move the effort efficiently and quickly.

HistPhil, a blog about the history of philanthropy, hosts debates about what’s changed in the modern landscape of philanthropic giving. Your book describes some shifts in education philanthropy over the past few decades. What do you think has changed?

HistPhil is such a valuable website, I really appreciate the role that they’ve taken in advancing the conversation and bringing it back to history. There’s a tendency in political discussions about philanthropy to argue that today is the biggest it’s ever been. The truth is that foundations have been really powerful for more than a century; if you look back at some of the press from the 1920s and 1930s, there are very similar arguments being made about the influence of the Rockefellers.

All that’s old is new again. I think that what’s changed is that people today are more concerned about the size of foundations. It’s the first time in many decades we’ve seen foundations that are in excess of a billion dollars, and the growth of their assets has also grown significantly. The presence of market-based values and the influences of neoliberalism over the past 30 years is a big deal, too. People tend to get hyperbolic because there are wealthy people in tech and business who are more assertive in ways that foundations haven’t been in the past.

Your book suggests “evidenced-based” policies are often far less rigorous, and far more political, than their proponents suggest.

Right, what is evidence? I’m working on a book proposal now with [political scientist] Sarah Reckhow about teacher quality debates. We look at the new industry of advocacy research, and its influence on policy discussions. So many ideological arguments have the veneer of neutrality confirmed by the label “evidenced-based.”

We’re in the midst of a presidential election that actually has a significant focus on philanthropy. Both Clinton and Trump have foundations, and particularly the Clinton Foundation’s influence is regularly in the media. Do you see this having any import for the education philanthropy conversation?

It’s an interesting question because the broad public doesn’t really know what a foundation is, or what it does. Clinton’s foundation doesn’t make that many grants, it’s more like brokering and convening. I teach a class on philanthropy and I start by asking my class “what is the foundation you most admire?” Students will say things like the Salvation Army. Most people really conflate foundations and public charities, and there’s not a real understanding of who gives the money and who does the work on the ground. There’s a real lack of knowledge about what power these different groups have, which also carries implications for our democracy.

The national conversation around inequality has grown far more pronounced. Has this impacted the public’s focus on philanthropy?

That was fascinating for me. Literally I kept having to add things to the book as we were going to press. ESSA passed, Bernie Sanders became a real viable candidate. I think people are starting to realize that philanthropy is inextricably linked to an unequal society. You can’t have philanthropy without having some people who have a lot more than others.



How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State

Originally published in VICE on September 13, 2016.

Somehow, the policing nightmare in Baltimore keeps getting worse.

In July, charges were dropped against all the officers responsible for 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a massive defeat for police accountability in a city crying out for it. Just weeks later, the feds released a scathing report finding Baltimore cops engaged in systematic racism and callousness towards victims of sexual assault. And perhaps most spectacular of all, a magazine story late last month revealed cops have been running a secret aerial surveillance program in city skies.

All of which is to say that just as cynical and frustrated residents began to plot the long road to reform in a city wracked by gun violence and shady policing, experts and reform advocates now find themselves at a loss to explain how one city is wrapped up in just about every kind of police excess there is.

The aerial surveillance program consists chiefly of flying planes over 8,000 feet in the air and gathering video footage across a roughly 30 square mile radius, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The program was funded secretly by Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, who say they are looking to support new tools that can help police departments more effectively solve crime. The planes have flown about 300 hours in Baltimore since January.

For its part, the police department denies that officers have done anything wrong, or that the planes even amount to a form of surveillance. TJ Smith, media relations chief for the Baltimore Police Department, told VICE the aerial program “doesn’t infringe on privacy rights” because it captures images available in public spaces. “We do not feel like citizen’s rights were violated because they weren’t,” he said. “This phase is a trial run to see if this is technology would be useful in the city of Baltimore. We are constantly searching for creative ways to solve crime in a city that saw 344 murders in 2015.”

An evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, also funded by the Arnolds, is expected to come out later this month.

Meanwhile, last week, in the final days available for public comment on the feds’ scathing appraisal of Baltimore cops—the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a town hall for residents to share their thoughts on police reform. Michael Wood, a former city cop turned reform activist, attended, and while he expected racism to be at the top of the list, the surveillance bombshell was clearly overwhelming residents, too.

“I haven’t spoken to a person who isn’t furious,” Wood told VICE of revelations about the program.

Remarkably, the mayor and the city council were both unaware of the surveillance experiment’s very existence, namely because it was funded secretly through a local foundation. The foundation’s leadership have claimed they did not realize what the Arnolds’ money was going towards, and in a statement, Laura Gamble, board chair, and Thomas Wilcox, the foundation’s president and CEO, said they have “learned valuable lessons from this experience.”

Baltimore public defenders were also kept in the dark, and argue that police and prosecutors’ failure to disclose—in court documents—when video footage came from aerial surveillance is a serious problem. Defenders have called for a suspension of the program.

Meanwhile, state and local politicians are looking at legislative responses to the city’s latest police scandal. At the next session, Curt Anderson, the head of Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, is considering introducing surveillance regulations that would apply to all Maryland police departments. He told the Baltimore Sun that lawmakers need to figure out “how and where [footage] would be used, where you keep the information, how much it would cost to store that information, and how much it would cost someone if they made a request for that information.” On the local level, the ACLU of Maryland plans to craft legislation for someone on the Baltimore City Council to sponsor, which would limit the scope of police surveillance and/or increase the level of civilian oversight.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis who specializes in policing and technology, told me that while police secrecy is nothing new, the kind of dragnet surveillance that Baltimore has engaged in—where officers aren’t necessarily looking for one particular person, or conducting a specific investigation—raises serious political issues. “You need to balance some legitimate police needs with the idea that police may just have too much information on innocent people,” Joh said. “And that’s a real struggle for people in a democracy to figure out. Police can go as far as they want, but what do communities want?”

Baltimore police officials maintain the aerial surveillance program is just an extension of CitiWatch, its street-level closed circuit television system. But according to Anne McKenna, a visiting law professor at Penn State University and a national expert on technology and surveillance, the “breadth and scope” of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program raises new questions that are nowhere near settled in case law. And when you take the department’s reported aggregation of social media posts, overlay it with aerial surveillance and closed circuit TV footage, “Well, you’ve really created Big Brother,” McKenna said.

But Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, actually sees the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who took over not long after Gray’s death, as someone who genuinely understands the importance of reform. Which makes the surveillance revelations all the more surprising. “It seemed completely contradictory to the actions we’ve seen Commissioner Davis take,” Huffman told VICE.

Baltimore, of course, is continuing to struggle with gun violence—the Sun reports there have been 215 homicides already this year, and the police’s clearance rate for solving murder cases has tended to be dreadfully low. But the connection between aerial oversight and catching violent criminals isn’t always so clean-cut.

“I think what is alarming—and I think it’s fair to say uniquely alarming about what we’ve seen going on in Baltimore—is there’s been a massive investment of resources to monitor speech and protest,” said Lee Rowland, the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Exercising your First Amendment right is not probable cause, it’s not reason for suspicion. That the police would be directing their investigative resources to fly over protests or spend their days on Facebook looking for speech when there’s been no complaint or evidence of a crime, that is a use of power we should call out as wrong.”

Challenges remain for Baltimore residents, as the deadline for a consent decree with the Department of Justice draws near and opposition from the police union looms large. But most glaring of all to some observers is the fact that the police department continues to argue that tracking social media and conducting aerial surveillance shouldn’t even bother people.

“The community’s reaction to the surveillance helps to underscore just how fractured the relationship is, just how deep the distrust, the resentment, the suspicions run,” said Huffman. “The community is in a position where transparency is the order of the day.”

What The Texas Ruling Means for Fair Housing

Originally published in Next City on September 9, 2016.

Fair housing advocates scored a major victory in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “disparate impact” standard, a legal theory that says individuals can allege housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas-based nonprofit, had argued in court that the Texas Department of Housing awarded its low-income housing tax credits in a way that perpetuated segregation, concentrating affordable housing in black neighborhoods with high poverty.

Lost amid the excitement of the nation’s highest court reiterating the aims of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in 1968 that bars housing discrimination and requires recipients of federal funds to promote housing integration, was that ICP’s original case got sent back to a lower court for review. Two weeks ago, a district judge in Texas issued a new ruling for this case, finding that ICP failed to prove housing discrimination under the disparate impact theory. Their case has been dismissed, and they have not yet decided if they’ll appeal.

Fair housing disparate impact cases are fairly rare, and also hard to win. Stacy Seicshnaydre, a professor at Tulane University Law School, has analyzed the history of disparate impact claims brought under the Fair Housing Act. She found that plaintiffs were successful in only 20 percent of their cases on appeal, a notably low rate.

Seicshnaydre says that disparate impact cases under the Fair Housing Act are just generally more expensive and difficult, compared to other kinds of suits. They tend to require more outside expertise, for example, since one has to include a statistical analysis demonstrating there have been disparities.

“A Supreme Court decision eliminating the disparate impact theory would have been a huge setback,” says Seicshnaydre. “The fact that the district court decided the ICP didn’t prove its case is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the same impact that a Supreme Court decision would have had. Disparate impact theory is still recognized as a good theory, so I think that’s still an incredibly favorable result for the fair housing movement.”

Indeed, the past year and a half has brought about a host of additional gains for integration advocates. Just before the Supreme Court released its decision in 2015, Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz released a study illustrating the connections between one’s geography and economic mobility. The researchers analyzed which counties were the worst for facilitating upward mobility, demonstrating how opportunity is significantly impacted by where a person grows up. Research released this spring by Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, found additional evidence to support the idea that moving poor children into higher-opportunity neighborhoods carries long-term benefits for them as adults.

The federal government has also stepped up its efforts to promote fair housing. Following the Supreme Court decision, HUD released a new federal rule to provide communities with the supports they need to meet their fair housing obligations. They have since pushed for historic fair housing settlements in places like Maryland and Minnesota, emphasizing the need to affirmatively integrate housing under the Fair Housing Act.

“These efforts and events are having an impact. They’re encouraging, and sometimes forcing, communities to grapple with difficult, entrenched issues that were decades in the making,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Much more scrutiny is being given to where and how affordable housing is developed.”

There have also been notable improvements in Texas since ICP first brought its original suit. The state agency revised its process for allocating housing tax credits, now offering greater rewards to developers seeking to build in higher-income areas. Some recalcitrant towns have presented challenges, but in Dallas, a housing committee on the city council has been working on a plan to expand affordable housing units throughout the city, as part of a major effort to write the city’s first-ever housing policy. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently praised these efforts to create more mixed-income neighborhoods, saying this carries “the potential to make Dallas a more equitable city for all of its residents.” The committee’s proposals should head to the full city council as soon as next month.

Ultimately, to achieve fair housing, Yentel says we’ll need greater investment in programs like the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers, in order to expand access to affordable housing, while also revitalizing distressed areas. “Realizing fair housing means providing low-income people with genuine choices about where to live,” she says. “And that requires that we work towards making every community one of opportunity.”

The National Labor Relations Board Says Charter School Teachers Are Private Employees

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 8, 2016

The National Labor Relations Board issued a pair of decisions in late August, which ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, therefore falling under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. The cases centered on two schools with teachers vying for union representation: PA Virtual Charter School, a statewide cyber charter in Pennsylvania, and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located in Brooklyn. In both cases, the NLRB concluded that the charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB determined that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, as governments provide the funding but do not originate or control the schools.

For Donna Novicki, a seventh grade science teacher at PA Virtual, the NLRB’s decision signaled that her long wait for a union had finally neared its end. Novicki and her colleagues voted to unionize in March of 2015, but her school challenged the NLRB’s jurisdiction, and the case has been under the board’s review ever since. The votes, which were impounded after PA Virtual challenged the election, were finally counted yesterday, and the teachers voted for unionization by a 57-to-15 margin.

Novicki has been teaching for 17 years, in both charters and traditional brick-and-mortar schools. This marks her 12th year at PA Virtual. “The teachers at PA Virtual are an amazingly dedicated force,” she says. “But we work longer hours, we work more days, we carry greater student case-loads, and after all that, we get paid less than our traditional counterparts. We’re hoping for a union to better meet that compromise with the end goal of greater student success.”

The NLRB’s decisions came amidst fierce ongoing debates over whether charters are truly public schools, or tools to privatize education. Unions and charter critics say charters are happy to be “public” when it affords them state and federal dollars, but claim they are private when seeking to hide from public oversight, or to opt out of rules applicable to those in the public sector. Advocates defend charters as public schools, saying they are open to all students, free to attend, and funded by taxpayers.

To understand the significance of these recent NLRB decisions, one has to go back a few years.

In 2010, charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy (CMSA) filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. CMSA responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their school was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. While the regional NLRB director initially dismissed CSMA’s challenge, the national labor board agreed to review the case. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus brief in support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate.”

In a 1971 Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, the justices deemed Hawkins County a “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate. The NLRB applied this same “Hawkins test” to the CMSA charter, and concluded in 2012 that CMSA was not a political subdivision, and thus private. While advocates sometimes say that charters’ public nature is evidenced in part by their need to comply with various laws and regulations enacted by public officials, the NLRB concluded that most government contractors are “subject to exacting oversight in the form of statutes, regulations, and agreements.”

Since 2012, the landscape has remained fairly murky for charter teachers looking to organize; charter operators have challenged the jurisdiction of both public labor boards and the NLRB, depending on which their staff is petitioning for the right to unionize.

In April 2014, teachers at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—a different, but similarly named virtual charter—voted for union representation. (This school has gained notoriety because its founder and former CEO was accused and finally pleaded guilty to $8 million in tax fraud.) While Pennsylvania Cyber challenged its staff’s attempt to unionize with the NLRB, the regional director dismissed management’s challenge, citing the 2012 CMSA case as precedent.

Two months later, though, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, saying that President Obama’s recess appointments of three members of the NLRB were unconstitutional. This ruling called into question hundreds of decisions the labor board had recently made, including their 2012 decision related to charter school employees.

A year later, when Novicki and her PA Virtual colleagues voted for union representation, the NLRB decided not to dismiss the employer’s challenge, as it had dismissed the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s challenge in 2014. In New York City, another charter case was also being reviewed; this time the teachers had tried to unionize with New York’s public labor board, and their employer, Hyde Leadership Charter School, argued that the teachers should be covered under private labor law instead. With the board’s ruling in CMSA undercut by the Court’s decision in Noel Canning, the board was returning to the question of the status of charter schools.

“The NLRB really took its time on Hyde,” says Shaun Richman, a campaign consultant who writes on labor issues, and the director of the AFT’s charter organizing program from 2010-2015. “I think that’s because the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy precedent was vulnerable to procedural challenges and they wanted to be very clear about how they are going to rule on most charter cases. As an organizer that clarity is helpful.”

The New York teachers union fought against classifying educators as private employees, but as organizing charter schools continues to grow as a priority, the NLRB’s recent decisions offer unions some advantages. In recent years, states with anti-union Republican legislators, like Wisconsin, have significantly weakened the power of public-sector workers to collectively bargain. Under federal labor law, as long as a Democrat remains in the White House, a teacher’s right to organize is more likely to be protected.

Richman says he loves the recent NLRB decisions because they force people to ask tough questions. “Charter schools were designed to be public but at a very fundamental level they are not public,” he says. “There are very critical errors in the way the laws are designed. They decided to make these things be nonprofit corporations, and almost all the problems with charter schools flow from that essential, unnecessary decision. You want a school with autonomy over its pedagogy and hiring? There’s no reason to make it a separate corporation.”

Going forward, challenges to charter unions are likely to be resolved faster for two reasons: There are now additional NLRB precedents, meaning there is less ambiguity as to how charter teachers should be classified. (Employers can still challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction at any point during the election process, but there’s a greater likelihood that their claims will now be dismissed.) And in April of 2015, the NLRB adopted new rules to expedite the time it takes to hold an election, while also reducing the number of ways an employer could challenge a union effort. Teachers at both Hyde and PA Virtual had voted for union representation prior to these rules going into effect, but teachers seeking unionization in future campaigns may look forward to having an easier time of it.

The Afrocentric Education Crisis

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 2nd, 2016.

Growing up in the 1960s, Bernida Thompson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Attending high school and college during the civil-rights movement and the Black Power days, she says her dream was to work some day at an African-centered school. “A school for black children to learn who they are, where they are, what they must to do liberate themselves and their people to be successful in the world,” she explains.

After graduating college and getting a master’s, she taught in public and Catholic schools for a decade, all the while developing her own curriculum for the school she dreamed of one day opening. That day came in 1977, when Thompson became the founding principal of Roots Activity Learning Center—a private school in Washington, D.C., designed to “serve the specific needs of children of African heritage.” She served as its principal from 1977 to 1999.

Such schools began cropping up in black communities around the country, but their birthplace is widely recognized to be Washington, D.C. The first full-time independent African school—Ujamaa—opened up in 1968, founded by one of the organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a graduate of Howard Law School. Four Howard student activists founded NationHouse in 1974. And three years later came Roots.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but those working within the field say African-centered schools peaked at around 400 in 1999, and have been on the decline ever since. When charter schools first emerged in the 1990s, some private school leaders decided to convert their African-centered institutions into charters, sacrificing their independent status in exchange for the increased financial stability that comes from receiving state and federal dollars.

Today, however, many Afrocentric charter schools are being shut down for poor academic performance and financial mismanagement.

“The [charter] rules and regulations get worse and worse every year,” says Thompson, who opened up an Afrocentric charter in 1999—Roots Public Charter School—but didn’t close down her private school, as many others did. “First they lead you on and tell you can just do your thing. But that was a come-on, and every year they’ve got more bureaucratic red tape.”

The remaining Afrocentric private schools have also suffered, as families left for less expensive charters. While Roots Activity Learning Center offered schooling from infancy up until the eighth grade, and always had a waiting list, Thompson says enrollment demand has dropped significantly over the past decade. It has become so difficult to attract students that this past school year Roots Activity Learning Center had fewer than ten students of elementary age, forcing the school to announce that it will provide only preschool education.

Conditions are similarly stressful for the Afrocentric public charter schools that still exist, which now face steep competition from all the other charter networks families can choose from. Two years ago, Roots Public Charter School had to shut down three grades due to decreased enrollment demand, switching from a K-8 school to a K-5 school. “When you haven’t had choices all your life and all of a sudden you have 85 different choices, you walk away from your culture and heritage,” Thompson says of the families that aren’t choosing her school.


Credit: Rachel M. Cohen


WHILE THE RISE OF charter schools may once have seemed a blessing to champions of Afrocentric education, it has brought with it a host of problems. Public charters’ emphasis on standardized testing has jeopardized the standing and existence of numerous Afrocentric schools. A number of non-Afrocentric large charter chains have also taken to defending their overwhelmingly black schools as “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” even though their curricula aren’t Afrocentric at all. In these schools, their critics allege, “culturally affirming” is really just a cover for segregation.

Afrocentric education is not just about teaching African American history and culture, but also about centering the school’s pedagogy and curriculum on what its advocates term the values and traditions of African people. It was created, Molefi Asante, chair of Temple University’s African American Studies department, tells me, to challenge the “Eurocentric” hegemony of American public education. (Afrocentricity, Asante’s 1980 volume, is widely regarded as the bible of the Afrocentric school movement; Thompson says everyone on staff at her schools read his work.)

“The African American child must not be renters of Eurocentric information, they must be owners,” Asante says. “They have to be owners of math, owners of language arts, owners of geography.” When teaching biology, for instance, an Afrocentric school would want to connect it to Ernest Just, a pioneering black biologist who recognized the role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. “This way, the children immediately feels kinship to the subject, the child is not outside biology, biology becomes part of the child’s experience,” Asante says.

In his view, the cost of not centering Africa for an African American student is great. “If we don’t, then our children don’t have the kind of aspiration, the kind of attention and discipline that is necessary for them to advance in society,” Asante tells me. “They will learn, because children are bright, but they will not have the kind of attachment to a subject that is necessary.”

“People want to know why the children are so angry in the streets of D.C.—well, they don’t know who they are!” says Thompson. “They don’t know the power within their genes! They don’t understand that they are the chosen people; they don’t understand that, they don’t know that. They are in poverty, their parents don’t know that, and they need schools to help them know that.”

Thompson says her two schools—both the private school and the public charter—are committed to Afrocentricity, a model, she believes, that instills confidence and resilience.

ALTHOUGH MANY AFROCENTRIC private schools transitioned into charters, Afrocentric school leaders have had shaky relationships with leaders in the so-called education reform movement, particularly those who are dogged about test-based accountability.

“In my frame of reference, educational reform is taking children of African heritage and teaching them who they are, where they are, and what they must do to liberate themselves and their people,” says Thompson. “But education reform to the status quo is totally bogus. They want everyone to take the same tests, and hold them to the same set of standards—like the Common Core standards—and want to measure everyone by the same yardsticks. That’s ridiculous.”

Many Afrocentric school leaders have grown increasingly frustrated by the expectations that they will meet certain annual student achievement benchmarks; they say these demands encroach on the autonomy they were promised originally by the charter movement, and that their curricular creativity and freedom is inhibited.

Earlier this year, five scholars published a research study looking at Afrocentric charter school student performance based on statewide standardized tests. The researchers found that only 34 percent of those schools identified for the study achieved or exceeded statewide standards. They concluded that increased attention to testing is “paramount to greater acceptance and public legitimacy” of Afrocentric charters.

Indeed, low-test scores have led to the closure of many Afrocentric charter schools across the country. Imani Education Circle Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Philadelphia, closed permanently in June, after local officials revoked its charter for poor academic and financial performance. Imani joins other Philadelphia Afrocentric charters that have had their doors shut in recent years.

Last November the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an Afrocentric charter, citing not only its significantly low national test scores, but also scores well below the city median. Supporters of Barbara A. Sizemore mounted a public campaign to fight its closure, pointing to, among other things, the emotional and cultural value it provides for its students. While the Illinois State Charter School Commission decided to keep Barbara A. Sizemore open, overriding the Chicago Board of Education, the experience highlighted the school’s precarious situation.


Martell L. Teasley, one of the researchers involved in the study on Afrocentric charters, told The New York Times that these schools generally cannot compete politically and financially with large charter networks, and “they’re more demonized” because they’re black. When school boards are looking to make budget cuts, he said, African-centered schools with low-test scores appear to be soft targets. Defenders of Imani Education Circle Charter School argued that their test scores were comparable to other charters that weren’t slated for closure, and were better than some district schools.

“[The charter authorizing officials] seem to be aiming at all the independent [charter] schools they can pick on,” a member of Imani’s board told The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a nonprofit news site. He said officials never target the large charter networks like KIPP, Mastery, and Universal for closure, despite Imani having higher test scores than some of these schools.

The Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers, a D.C.-based Afrocentric charter, was slated for closure in 2010, with the D.C. Public Charter School Board citing its low test scores, high truancy rate, governance shortcomings, and other issues. In 2008, only 10 percent of its students were scoring proficiently in math, and only 22 percent scored proficiently in reading.

The school fought to reverse the authorizer’s decision, but the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the closure in 2012.

“We all fought that closure, but we don’t have the power, and as time went on things just got more and more bureaucratic,” recalls Thompson. “Grassroots people, people within the community, regular folk like me, we all fought against closing Kamit. I live right down the street from my school. I live right in the trenches. I don’t live off in Capitol Hill somewhere or out in Maryland.” Despite protest, officials said they needed higher results in order to justify reauthorizing Kamit’s charter. Such fights, and frustrations, reflect the growing tensions between choice and accountability within the education reform movement.

Other Afrocentric charters, like the Aisha Shule/W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy in Detroit, and Wakisha Charter Schoolin Philadelphia, were recently closed in the middle of the school year—unusually blunt and disruptive moves for their students.


Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION around school integration has grown more pronounced over the last two years, after a long stretch of relative silence. This has, in turn, placed more pressure on the charter sector to defend their school models, which researchers find to be “more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

As many Afrocentric charter schools have closed down, other charter operators have begun to adopt some of their rhetoric in order to justify their own overwhelmingly black and brown student compositions. They protest characterizing their schools-of-choice as segregated—rather, they say, their schools provide “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” environments in which racial minorities can learn.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, and a vocal critic of charter schools, says calling schools that are all black “culturally affirming” or “culturally specific” is just “the new flavor for rotten segregated schools” and an effort to circumvent civil rights laws.

Asante says he does not think much of schools that call themselves “culturally specific” yet lack a formal ethnocentric pedagogical method. “Afrocentricity is something that’s disciplined, it’s scientific, you have to do it that way or otherwise everything is Afrocentric simply because it’s black,” he says. Large charter networks are “fooling the community with their rhetoric,” adds Thompson. As she sees it, a school shouldn’t be considered “culturally specific” merely because it creates a space for black students to learn together.

Thompson and Asante, however, both agree that Afrocentric schools should not be considered segregated.

“There’s a difference between segregation and unity of a cultural group; they’re not the same thing at all,” says Thompson. “Segregation is having the power and the resources and refusing to give them to a group of people, or isolating them somewhere.”

Tommie Shelby, a Harvard professor of African and African American studies, says he’s not sure framing the ethnocentric schools in terms of segregation is helpful. “I can imagine that some advocates see themselves as just trying to do the best that they can for black students in a context of serious injustice, and they think—correctly—that we’re living in a time where deep social and economic inequalities make it very difficult for disadvantaged black people to have a fair shot in life,” he says. “That said, from the standpoint of the state, or from the judiciary, that’s not a position they can necessarily take.”

AFROCENTRIC SCHOOLING HASN’T always been concentrated in private schools and charters. In several cities across the country—particularly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s—school districts actually moved to implement Afrocentric curricula on a broader scale, often at the behest of local activists and black parents.

In addition to helping many private schools and charters sharpen their Afrocentric curriculum over the years, Asante has also worked as a consultant with traditional public schools to help them incorporate Afrocentricity into their classrooms.

The first city to draft Afrocentric curricula and implement it district-wide was Portland, Oregon, in 1987. Other cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., later adopted some of Portland’s materials for their own schools.

But as sociologist Amy Binder details in her book, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentricism and Creationism in American Public Schools, all these efforts eventually fizzled out or were abandoned by the end of the 20th century due to political pressure, leadership change, or some combination of the two.

One educator who worked in Atlanta during the period when its school district experimented with Afrocentric curricula was Meira Levinson, now a political philosopher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “The only required district-wide professional development that every teacher had to undergo back then was African and African American infusion into the curriculum,” she recalls.

Levinson, who taught middle school, said Afrocentricism was incorporated into every class throughout her school. The students studied the French Cameroon in their French class, and wrote essays about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in history class. In that sense, she notes, the presence of Afrocentric charter schools isn’t entirely novel in the American public school system.

What is new, Levinson worries, is that we may be entering a time when racial segregation is championed, rather than lamented. “I would not be opposed to schools that [incorporated] special things for their unique populations,” Levinson says, citing schools like those in the Twin Cities which cater predominately to Somali students. “If you’re going to be segregated anyway, then you should find ways to actually make use of it, and offer a better and culturally responsive education. If all of Detroit is going to be black, and if many schools in Chicago are going to be all black, then let’s at least make them the best schools we can.”

What’s problematic, she says, is when schools say they’re more “culturally responsive” not because they are adhering to a specific pedagogical program like Afrocentricism, but because they exclusively teach students who grew up in similar households.

“I do worry about the fact that racial segregation is being treated as a virtue rather than a vice,” Levinson says. “KIPP and Uncommon [another charter network] are going around celebrating serving this particular population. They are not sorry they are segregated, and that really worries me because I think that’s quite different from the [traditional] school districts. I worry about the way in which we are reverting to this idea that kids should be educated separately.”

For Levinson, integrated public schools are still the ideal. “The dilemma is if we celebrate segregated schools too much then we may forget that there is something better we can be striving for.”