Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 18, 2017.
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The Houston teachers union scored a legal victory in May when a federal judge found that the Houston school district’s system of evaluating teachers could violate due process rights. The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM), a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating a teacher’s effectiveness based on their students’ standardized test scores.

United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have “no meaningful way to ensure” that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are “subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it “flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination ‘in sufficient detail to enable [the teacher] to show any error that may exist.’”

It’s unclear whether the Houston school district will now negotiate a settlement with the teachers union or end up back in court, but either way, the decision comes at a significant time for the test-based accountability movement, which has faced a number of legal and political challenges over the past several years. The outcomes of the court battles have so far been a mixed bag: Teachers challenging VAM have scored some wins, lost other big cases, and a few major suits are still pending. Outside the courtroom, states have begun implementing the new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—which imposes far less pressure on the states to use VAM or similar measures than what they faced during the Obama administration.

Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has also signaled she’s less interested in using test scores to define school performance. (“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” she said in March, in response to a question about measuring school success. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”) Considering all this, some experts have gone so far as to say that regardless of what ends up happening in the judicial system, the political momentum for using test-based accountability measures is all but over.

 

THE MOVEMENT FOR teacher accountability isn’t much older than many schoolchildren. In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread “institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.” TNTP reported that less than one percent of teachers in their study received “unsatisfactory” performance reviews, with most teachers receiving ratings of “good” or “great.” TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement”—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests.

The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 43 states revamped their teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” by 2013, up from just 15 states in 2009.

Many of these policies had the effect of shifting accountability systems away from the school level (where it was emphasized under No Child Left Behind) to the teacher level. Advocates for this shift cited research showing the importance of teacher quality, though critics argued that measuring student growth at the school level was a fairer and more reliable way to use the statistical tools. Not surprisingly, teachers overwhelmingly opposed the shift. A 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly nine in ten teachers felt linking teacher evaluations to student test scores was unfair, and 78 percent felt that all the testing was taking too much time away from teaching.

By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.

Not only does ESSA reduce standardized testing, it also voids some of the Obama-era waivers that incentivized states to adopt test-based teacher evaluations. In 2016, pro-test education reformers were also frustrated to learn that despite the widespread implementation of new evaluation systems under Obama’s tenure, the overwhelming majority of teachers were still receiving high ratings. Reformers had hoped these measures would help identify “ineffective” teachers and lead swiftly to their removal, in addition to rewarding “effective” teachers with new incentives. They held up Washington, D.C.’s reforms as a successful model to emulate, though it’s become clear that the nation’s capital is something of an outlier.

Even before the testing wave had begun to recede, though, some experts had been warning of the legal risks associated with VAM and similar statistical tools. In 2012, education law professors Preston Green and Joseph Oluwole, and education finance professor Bruce Baker, published an article outlining specific legal and policy problems with VAM and teacher evaluations, focusing on due process challenges, equal protection challenges, and disparate impact firings.

Major litigation against VAM quickly followed. Unions brought lawsuits arguing that the measures were arbitrary and capricious, that they unfairly penalized teachers who taught more disadvantaged students, and that they were being inappropriately used to measure things they were not designed for.

The lawsuits have partly been fueled by debates within the academic community over whether it’s even scientifically valid to use these measures to evaluate teachers. These debates have not been settled. Some researchers say the statistical growth measures fail to adequately control for all the disadvantages students face outside their classrooms, meaning evaluative scores may be less “objective” than some supporters claim. Other researchers found evidence that the same teachers could receive different value-added scores depending on what types of tests their students took, and others found that scores could vary significantly from year to year for no discernable reason. A complicating factor for VAM supporters has been that even when high-quality research studies showed that VAM could be theoretically used in ways that reduce some critics’ concerns, many states implemented their test-based systems in ways that ignored these recommended practices.

ONE LESSON THAT TEACHERS and their unions have learned over the past several years is that the courts are unlikely to overturn school district policy, even when they agree it’s unfair. If a teacher sues on the basis that a policy unconstitutionally denies them “substantive due process” or equal protection, a judge will consider their complaint under what’s known as a “rational basis analysis,” meaning the judge will look to see if the policy can be shown to have any kind of rational relation to a legitimate government issue. If it can, even if only vaguely, the courts are unlikely to intervene.

“These testing cases are always hard for teachers to win,” says Preston Green, an education law professor at the University of Connecticut. “A ‘rational basis analysis’ is a low bar for the government to satisfy, and a very hard one for plaintiffs to overcome.”

Take this major VAM case in Florida: In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach. For example, one plaintiff was a first-grade teacher evaluated based on the third-grade test scores of students she herself never taught. Another was a high school math teacher who mostly taught juniors and seniors, but had her VAM score calculated on the basis of freshman and sophomore reading scores. Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights.

But in 2014, a federal district judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. “Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to [teachers in non-tested subjects], let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” the judge wrote. “This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.” A federal appeals court upheld the ruling in 2015.

More failed legal challenges against value-added measures took place in Tennessee. In 2014, two of the state’s teachers, Mark Taylor and Lisa Trout, filed federal lawsuits, later consolidated, arguing they were unfairly denied performance bonuses because so few of their students took the tests used to generate their VAM score. In Taylor’s case, for example, just 22 of his 142 students took the exams that formed the basis of his VAM score. Trout and Taylor argued the measures were arbitrary and irrational, and violated their due process and equal protection rights.

But in 2016, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Knoxville dismissed their case. Though the judge recognized the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ concerns, saying the teachers’ criticisms “are not unfounded,” he cited the Florida precedent, and concluded that it would be up to the Tennessee legislature to make any changes to the system, as it “survives minimal constitutional scrutiny.”

Still, there have been some wins. In addition to the recent legal victory in Houston, last year a Long Island fourth grade teacher named Sheri Lederman won her lawsuit against New York state officials, with a judge concluding that her VAM score for the 2013–2014 school year was indeed arbitrary and capricious and needed to be vacated. During the 2012–2013 school year, Lederman scored 14 points out of 20, the next year she scored 1 out of 20 (considered “ineffective”), and during the 2014–2015 school year she scored 11 out of 20. “It’s the variability and volatility of this model that makes it so arbitrary,” Lederman told The Wall Street Journal.“There’s no reason to suggest that my performance with my children has varied that much year to year.”

Another major suit is playing out in New Mexico. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state’s VAM system in February 2015, arguing that it violates state law and is arbitrary and capricious in design. A state judge issued a temporary injunction in December 2015, blocking New Mexico from using its VAM measures for high-stakes personnel decisions until a later trial could be held. (That trial is scheduled for October.) Notably, the judge said that while value-added modeling can generally be sound, it’s not clear how much New Mexico’s system conforms to those best practices, given that the inner workings of the model “are not easily understood, translated, or made accessible.”

“Courts aren’t really good at parsing statistical details, but if they see something is a blunt instrument, and that information is unstable and unreliable, those are concepts judges can understand,” says Rutgers education finance professor Bruce Baker. “And if it’s being used in an arbitrary way, in a way that requires a precision that can’t be achieved, judges can look at that and say, ‘Well, I can understand those due process issues.’”

AFT president Randi Weingarten told The American Prospect that in addition to working on the legal and legislative fronts to “defeat VAM,” the AFT is fighting for more constructive evaluation systems that actually help teachers improve their practices.

“VAM is an unjust, unreliable, and unconstitutional method of evaluating teachers in America’s classrooms, and the AFT and our affiliates are leading—and winning—the fight against these systems,” she says. “We are heartened by recent court victories in which judges agree with us that VAM does not work for students, teachers, or schools as an evaluation tool.”

OUTSIDE OF COURT BATTLES, one clear sign of how the political winds have shifted is the rhetoric of education reformers. Just a few years ago, prominent leaders were calling to publish teachers’ VAM scores, so that parents and taxpayers could better hold public school teachers accountable.

“Parents and community members have the right to know how their districts, schools, principals, and teachers are doing,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010. “It’s up to local communities to set the context for these courageous conversations but silence is not an option.”

Duncan’s comments came a few months after the Los Angeles Timescontroversially published the value-added scores for Los Angeles teachers, and posted names of individual teachers rated as effective or ineffective on their website. The New York City Department of Education wanted to follow suit, insisting that doing so was in the public interest. “These are public schools and public dollars,” said a spokeswoman for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at the time.

Not all education reformers supported publishing VAM scores. Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, spoke out against it. “I just thought it was an absolutely shameful practice,” she told me. “If VAM were 100 percent accurate I would still have a problem with it—but it’s not, there are a lot of false positives and false negatives.” Bill Gates also published New York Times op-ed urging against disclosing the scores. “At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper,” he wrote.

And while New York did end up publishing teachers’ scores, along with other states like Ohio and Florida, you don’t hear VAM supporters championing such disclosures anymore. (Even Arne Duncan walked back his initial support.) One reason for the retreat is that making the scores available enabled the public to see how biased and error-prone they could be.

“After New York did it, people started realizing it was not a great thing to do,” says Baker. “Researchers reanalyzed the LA Times data and came up with different results, and I analyzed the NYC data, and even though NYC uses a pretty rich value-added model that controls for lots of stuff, eliminating much of the bias, that means you’re left with relatively noisy estimates, that jump around a lot from year to year.”

On top of growing doubts about how states are using VAM, some academics have even begun to challenge the idea that boosted test scores are a reliable proxy for improved life outcomes. This position is most prominently espoused by Jay Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who has argued the evidence for a correlation between test scores and life prospects is weak, especially with regards to high-stakes testing.

In an interview with the Prospect, Greene also said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen,” he says. “Their fantasy is an undemocratic fantasy, that benign dictators will scientifically design the correct evaluation, impose it on an unwilling workforce and population, and then it will stay forever. They always end up sounding a little bit like the ‘communism has never been tried’ argument. You know, once we get the details right, everyone will see how good it is.” Still, Greene thinks that even though reformers have not succeeded in really transforming teacher evaluations, they have effectively narrowed public discourse around education, defining “achievement” down to mean, merely, gains in reading and math scores.

“If you tell me that Chicago public schools are producing greater gainsamong disadvantaged students than other disadvantaged students across Illinois, it might be that Chicago students have figured out how to focus more narrowly on tests,” he says. “I don’t even know if the information we’re getting now [from tests] is a proxy for school quality anymore, or if it’s gaming.”

 

WHILE THE FUTURE of using value-added measures in teacher evaluations is unclear, some researchers have been advocating alternative ideas. One would be to use the statistical growth measures as a diagnostic tool, a preliminary screening test to help identify which districts, schools, and classrooms warrant closer attention. The idea would be to think of using VAM like a doctor who diagnostically screens for major diseases. If patients fail the screening test, they are given another, more careful measure. “As in medicine, a value-added score, combined with some additional information, should lead us to trigger classroom observations to identify truly low-performing teachers and to provide feedback,” Doug Harris, a Tulane education economist, wrote in 2012. Bruce Baker and Preston Green have also voiced support for this idea. Some reformers oppose this, saying that using it merely as a diagnostic tool would “water down the metric.”

In an interview, Harris told me that he’d rather see teacher evaluations be based on peers and experts observing teacher practice and coming to a professional judgment. He says he hopes the backlash against VAM will at least motivate people to think more seriously about alternative ways to evaluate teachers.

Though some are worried the country will move entirely away from holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores—and thereby hurt academic opportunities for historically underserved students—Baker thinks we’ll see continue to see more incremental shifts in test-based accountability over the next few years. But some states, he says, will shift to growth measures that are no better than what states were already using.

Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says she’s inclined to be a pessimist, and the pessimist in her doesn’t see much progress happening on the test-based evaluation front over the next few years. “But then again,” she says, “the winds change pretty quickly.”

Where D.C. Has Failed on Adult Education, Charter Schools Fill the Void

Published in this week’s Washington City Paper

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In 1985, ninth grader Todd Campbell dropped out D.C.’s Cardozo High School to take care of his sick father. Though he planned to return later for his diploma, life kept getting in the way. Campbell’s first daughter was born when he was just 18, and he needed to find work to support her. After taking up trucking for more than a decade, he eventually started his own garbage collection business in 2001, which he managed for seven years until the recession hit. The price of fuel skyrocketed, and Campbell’s Curbside Disposal was forced into bankruptcy.

Just like his business, his marriage ended, and he struggled to find new work. Most companies preferred younger workers, or quickly screened out adults without a high school diploma. Dejected, Campbell moved back in with his mom and tried to figure out his options.

Now, at 50, Campbell is a student again. He’s enrolled at Academy of Hope, an adult charter school in D.C.

“When I first came, I was kind of nervous and didn’t know what to expect, because I felt like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he says. “But everyone here is just so nice and makes you feel like you’re more than just a statistic.”

After just one year at Academy of Hope, Campbell says he now has ambitions of completing a dual-enrollment program with the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and getting his business degree, so that if he does start his own company again, he’ll be better prepared to protect it if the economy goes downhill.

“When I walked out from bankruptcy court, all I had was the clothes on my back and my pickup truck,” Campbell says. “As a person who was thrown into darkness from depression, this school is just a bright light of sunshine for me.”

D.C. has a proud reputation as a “highly educated” city. The city offers universal pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds, and D.C. Public Schools—with rising test scores and graduation rates—has been characterized as the “fastest improving urban school district in the country.” D.C. also leads nationally when it comes to educational attainment—55 percent of adult residents have a four-year college degree or higher. 

But those numbers can be misleading. Graduation rates don’t reflect proficiency, and achievement gaps between rich and poor students in the District have widened over the past decade. In short, not everyone has reaped the benefits of D.C.’s education system. U.S. Census data show that nearly 60,000 D.C. adults lack a high school diploma or its equivalent and that 11,000 D.C. adults speak English less than “very well.” Worse, the Washington Literacy Center estimates that 13.4 percent of city residents—some 90,000 adults— are functionally illiterate, unable to read a newspaper, a map, or fill out job applications.

Lacking basic literacy, numeracy, and English-language skills comes at a high cost in a city like D.C. More than three-fifths of all local jobs already require at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2020, economists estimate that more than three-quarters of jobs in the capital will require some form of postsecondary education, more than anywhere else in the country.

Though improving, D.C. Public Schools continue to produce high rates of high school dropouts. The school district reports that 10,000 students ages 16-24 dropped out between 2008 and 2017—a demographic often characterized as “disconnected youth.” As adult opportunities for this population narrow, finding ways to help these thousands of residents across the city has taken on a new sense of urgency.

“D.C. has never really had a comprehensive or strategic approach to delivering adult education and related services to the majority of those who need them,” says Alex Donahue, deputy director for policy and research at the 21st Century School Fund and a former D.C. Public Schools principal. “It needs to do better.”

Adult education has been described as a “step-child issue” in the District for decades. Never a serious focus for city officials, under-resourced community-based organizations shouldered most of the heavy lifting, and the city’s minimal investment always rested precariously on the chopping block, framed as an ultimately unessential budget expenditure.

“I remember first hearing about adult education when I got involved in school issues in the 1980s, because there was a fiscal crisis and the question was how can the school system cut expenses apart from raising class sizes,” recalls Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent. “One of the ideas on the table for the board of education was, ‘Well, maybe we should only offer instruction for those of compulsory school age.’”

One of the few adult schools that existed back then was Rosario Adult Education Center, which opened in the early 1970s and was later honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for adult learning. Its longtime leader, Sonia Gutierrez, known as one of the most ardent Latino activists in D.C., wanted to create a school that could help immigrants find community and acclimate to life in the United States.

By 1996, amid immense fiscal stress and rapidly declining student enrollment in DCPS (down 45 percent from 1970 at that point), the school district decided to largely end its adult education offerings. Then-D.C. schools superintendent Franklin Smith justified the closures as necessary because adult education was not mandatory, reasoning that adults could attend classes in other city schools if they really wanted. Carlos Rosario, which enrolled 2,000 students at the time, was one of the adult education centers closed that year.

“There was some talk that maybe UDC could take adult education over, but it couldn’t and it didn’t,” Levy says.

 What remained were three small alternative high schools—known as the STAY schools—but they weren’t providing basic adult education. Instead, they were places for younger dropouts to return for their diplomas. Today alternative DCPS high schools collectively serve 1,700 students, and while there are no formal rules prohibiting older adults from attending, school district officials say they try to make clear that these alternative schools are targeting the 10,000 D.C. dropouts under age 24. For the city’s tens of thousands of older adults in similar circumstances, DCPS had no good options.

Where the school district has relinquished its role, the charter system has stepped in to pick up the slack. There are currently nine adult charter schools operating across the city, and the D.C. Public Charter School Board recently approved a new one to open in the 2018-19 school year.

Carlos Rosario, which DCPS shuttered in 1996, reopened two years later as the nation’s first adult charter. Today it has two campuses—in Columbia Heights and Eckington—and serves 2,500 students annually, most of whom are immigrants and English-language learners. Other schools target different slices of the adult population. Briya, for example, serves 640 students across four campuses, educating both parents (or grandparents) and their children together. Founded originally in 1989 as a family literacy center for immigrant refugees, Briya transitioned into a charter school in 2006. There are some schools, like the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center and the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, that target the “disconnected youth” demographic. And then there are charters like Academy of Hope, the one Todd Campbell attends, which focus on older adults who lack basic literacy skills.   

It’s unusual for so many adults to attend charter schools. In some places, this isn’t even possible—Florida’s law, for example, says charters can only provide K-12 education. And within many states, community colleges act as the primary adult education service provider. But the District never even had a community college until 2009.

D.C.’s charter school law is uniquely broad. Jim Ford, then the staff director for the D.C Council’s education committee, pushed Congress to include adult charter schools in the 1995 School Reform Act. (It wasn’t a very hard sell since charters are funded through local taxes, not federal dollars.) As a result, the D.C. law allows for charters that provide education below the college level for adults who “lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills to enable them to function effectively in society,” who have not graduated from high school or have not achieved an equivalent certificate, or who “have limited ability in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language and whose native language is a language other than English.”

Even so, back in 1995 Mary Levy says nobody expected charter schools would one day take on the bulk of adult schooling in D.C. Though it was clear at the time that there was a great need—Levy recalls many packed community meetings organized to discuss adult education —there was also so much ongoing turmoil. With the city’s terrible fiscal crisis, its beleaguered schools, and its surging homicide rate, the thought of where the adult charter sector might go in a decade or two just wasn’t much considered.

Yet given all the difficulties adult learners faced, the charter model ended up being a good match. One key advantage of adult charters is the per-pupil funding guarantee. There is simply far more money available to educate adults through charter schools in D.C. than any other alternative. Base per-pupil funding during the 2014-15 school year in D.C. for adult charters was $8,448 per student, compared to, at most, $800 per adult student at a community-based organization (funded primarily through federal grants). 

“Those [federal] grants are not sufficient. They are woefully inadequate, to be very candid,” says Allison Kokkoros, the CEO at Carlos Rosario.

Academy of Hope, which Church of the Saviour volunteers first formed as a local nonprofit in 1985, transitioned into a charter in 2014, precisely to tap into this more stable, generous funding stream. Lecester Johnson, the school’s executive director since 2006, recalls how difficult it was back then for the school to function, constantly scrambling for money, having to make tough financial tradeoffs all the time. Now, what would have taken Academy of Hope a year to fundraise, it automatically receives from the city as its first quarter budget funding.

“For the first time in my almost 10 years at Academy of Hope, we can buy classroom materials, hire teachers, and provide the wraparound services that our learners need,” Johnson wrote in 2015 in an online forum for adult education practitioners. “Prior to the transition to charter, we were operating on less than $2,000 per student, and we were very dependent upon volunteers to staff our classes.” Switching to the charter model, Johnson said, allowed her school to hire full-time teachers, offer competitive salaries, revise the curriculum and instructional methods, and hire all sorts of additional staff like a special education coordinator, a college and career specialist, and a case manager.

Other factors hastening Academy of Hope’s decision to transition to charter included sharply increasing pressure on all adult education providers to include more college and career preparation into their program models and accommodating imminent changes to the GED. Beginning in 2014, passing the exam to obtain the national high school equivalency credential became significantly more difficult, as it now aligns with the K-12 Common Core standards.

Even before the revamped GED, D.C. was already trailing behind other states when it came to adult education. Adult learners in the District were more likely to leave their programs early compared to students elsewhere, and in 2013 just 64 percent of D.C. candidates passed their GED exams, compared to many states that boasted pass rates well over 80 percent. So some leaders of local community-based organizations, like Lecester Johnson, recognized they needed significantly more funding if they were ever to help their students reach these new, more rigorous standards.

Although things are looking up for D.C.’s adult charters—and many of the students they enroll— there are still some problems ahead. Perhaps the most unexpected threat is coming from within the charter sector itself.

The explicit bargain behind the charter movement is that schools earn more autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. A charter operator can run a school independently of many DCPS rules and regulations if they can demonstrate that their students are meeting certain pre-defined benchmarks, standards, and expectations.

But accountability in adult education isn’t easy to define or measure. Compared to K-12, designing meaningful metrics to evaluate adult learners is an inherently more challenging task, and little research has been invested into doing so. Most studies have examined educational strategies for traditional public school students, the findings of which adult education providers often must awkwardly borrow from.

“Let’s say we’re talking about a 55-year-old woman who worked full-time her whole life, has three grandchildren, but doesn’t have her high school degree,” says Sasha Lotas, the research coordinator at Academy of Hope. “Maybe she’s technically testing on a fifth-grade reading level according to CASAS [a national assessment for adult learners], but she is not a fifth grader.”

While Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario, welcomes the greater accountability demands that come with running a charter—like demonstrating a school’s GED pass rate, whether students in career training ultimately got their certification, and whether students found employment and stayed employed—she acknowledges there are some tensions.

“Showing job placement rates and job retention rates are fine, and one part of the story, but we teach the working poor. They’re working multiple jobs and are still below the poverty line … so [employment] is not really the question,” she says. “We’re happy to report those things for accountability purposes, and we will, but for me, it’s not really capturing the deeper story of what we’re actually trying to do.”

Which touches on another complicating factor for accountability in adult education: Often, the students’ end goals are too practical and pragmatic to be easily captured by a standardized test or statistical measure. Some attendees aren’t trying to go to college, or aren’t even focused on getting a specific job. They’re trying to learn basic skills to help with their daily lives.

“Sometimes their kids have outpaced them in school and they want to be able to help with their homework, and we try really hard to recognize that that’s just as valid as wanting the high school diploma to go back into the workforce,” says Jamie Kamlet Fragale, director of advocacy and communications at Academy of Hope. “Making that case can be a little difficult sometimes.”

D.C.’s charter school movement, at times fixated on boosting its accountability measures as high as possible, has had trouble accepting these realities of adult education.

While each charter school used to negotiate its own accountability goals with the D.C. charter board, the city more recently transitioned to a more unified accountability system so that all local charters could be more easily compared to one another. The charter board developed measures for early childhood education, for K-12, and for adult schools.

Naomi DeVeaux, deputy director of the D.C. charter board, says it was far more difficult to develop accountability measures for adult charters than for K-12 and early childhood because adult schools all target such different populations of students. Still, she describes the framework they ultimately created as “powerful” and adds that the D.C. charter board annually reflects on their measures, making changes to ensure their system remains applicable and appropriate.

But the conflict between accountability-oriented thinking and adult education has persisted, blowing into view this past spring when the D.C. charter board began to consider closing the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy.

The Career Academy opened in 2012 and targets students under age 24—those who have dropped out of high school and those who might have their diplomas but need help getting on track for college or career training. The typical student is significantly disadvantaged, likely having been homeless, formerly incarcerated, living in poverty, or experienced some other form of serious trauma.

This year marked the school’s five-year evaluation, and the charter board announced in January that it was strongly considering revoking the Career Academy’s charter, given the school’s low academic performance and its failure to meet its contractual goals. Board officials said, among other things, that the majority of students who enrolled in the school since 2012 were not on track to earn a GED or receive college or career training. Though the charter board regularly closes schools for low performance, those are mostly K-12 institutions, where plenty of educational alternatives exist. The Career Academy’s staff challenged the board’s conclusions, and months-long fights about data and measuring academic progress ensued.

Before January “there was no indication that we were at risk of closure,” says Lori Kaplan, the president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center. “We were very caught off guard.” She adds that the charter board had even recently upgraded the Career Academy to a “Tier 2” school, from its former designation as a “Tier 3” one, indicating clear improvement.

Shuttering the Academy, advocates pleaded at charter board hearings during the spring, would further deprive vulnerable D.C. residents of already scarce resources and support. The school receives more than $2 million a year from the city to educate disconnected youth, and closure wouldn’t necessarily redirect those funds to other adult service providers. Instead, a funding stream would simply cease to exist. When a K-12 charter closes, its students transfer to other schools, but if an adult charter closes, students are more likely to abandon their education altogether.

“We [ask] that … the public charter school board take into account the full landscape of options, or lack thereof, [for] our most vulnerable young people,” Maggie Riden, executive director of D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, testified in April. “In the District of Columbia, with a graduation rate that has yet to top 70 percent, in a city with over 8,000 disconnected youth yet fewer than 3,000 alternative education seats, to remove an opportunity for success and long-term engagement in the workforce and our community is wrong. If for no other reason than these young people have made a very active choice to commit to their education. … I strongly encourage you to [recognize] … we lack capacity to meet an already existing, intense, and extreme need.”

The hours of hearings and testimony between January and May made clear that the charter board was uncomfortable with the idea of evaluating a school by standards other than traditional academic and economic outcomes. The board did not seem prepared to evaluate the charter’s success in filling a practical role as a well-resourced welfare support to a deprived population.

On May 9, at a special board meeting meant to decide the fate of the academy, the charter board ultimately voted to reverse its decision and keep the school open, under a new set of accountability conditions. (The board could still decide to shutter the school next year.) D.C. charter board member Sara Mead remarked near the hearing’s end that while it’s clear there is “tremendous need” for adult education services throughout the city, the academy closure process had illustrated some ways in which meeting that need “does not fit naturally and well” with various aspects of the charter school model. She urged her fellow board members to “think very carefully” about approving similar applications in the future.

Another problem dogging D.C.’s current approach to adult education is the lack of centralization. Rather than develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure that all adult needs are met and that the broader system has the capacity to comply with federal standards, D.C. has little resembling city-wide strategic planning. As a result, adult education suffers from coordination issues, as nonprofits, higher ed institutions, DCPS, welfare agencies, the D.C. Council, and charters all fill overlapping, disjointed roles.

To some extent, coordination troubles reflect broader difficulties with D.C. governance. In addition to the routine battles between the federal government and local city officials, D.C. also lacks some of the basic planning structures that many states have. Leaders of local institutions often make decisions, and in effect, set D.C. policy for themselves. Rather than DCPS and the charter sector agreeing to develop a joint approach to most efficiently serve the city’s 89,000 students, for example, the charter sector—which fiercely defends its legal independence —generally resists such efforts.

“A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” then-DCPS schools chancellor Kaya Henderson said in 2014, in response to news that a new science-oriented charter would be opening up across the street from a science-oriented DCPS school that teaches the same grades. While the city has since established a task force charged with improving policy coordination between DCPS and charters, leaders say that real progress on these kinds of issues has yet to seriously begin. 

Still, the grassroots constituencies that advocate for adult learners across the city have grown more organized and effective over the past few years. In 2015, the D.C. Adult and Family Literacy Coalition successfully lobbied for city-issued high school diplomas for all individuals who pass the new, more difficult GED, and this year advocates convinced the city council to subsidize the transportation costs for adult learners to get to school. But there remains a general lack of strategic leadership among government officials for how best to meet the needs of adults who lack basic skills and credentials across the city.

As policy experts, government leaders, and community activists keep wrestling with these questions, the few thousand existing adult education seats will, for now, continue to serve as a real lifeline for the city’s most disadvantaged.

In 2014, Jeannette Millimono, then a 21-year-old single mom, was working at Target. She had graduated from high school and even attended some college, but had to drop out when she had her daughter and couldn’t afford to pay the tuition to return. When a co-worker told her about the free medical assistant career pathway the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy offered, she decided to enroll and graduated a year later with her MA certification. Today she owns her own apartment in Maryland, works as a medical assistant, and plans to go back to school again next year to become a certified nursing assistant.

“I feel so fortunate that I was able to go to the Career Academy without a penny, without me having to take out a loan, and I was able to grow so much in such a short time,” says Millimono. “It was really challenging, a lot of work, and I had my daughter to care for, but because of the motivation my teachers gave, I was able to get it done.”

Q&A: Drug Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 7, 2017.
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For the past 30 years, Maia Szalavitz has researched and reported on science, drug policy, and health. Before that, in her early 20s, she herself became addicted to cocaine and heroin—sometimes injecting the drugs several times a day. Even after overdosing, after being suspended from Columbia University, and after getting arrested for dealing—facing a 15-year-to-life sentence under New York’s now-repealed Rockefeller drug laws—Szalavitz struggled to quit. In her latest book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding AddictionSzalavitz explores why getting off drugs is so difficult. She challenges the public to see addiction as a neurological learning disorder—much more like autism and ADHD—than a moral failing, or a chronic illness. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Your book takes aim at some of the nation’s central narratives around drug addiction. Can you start by describing some of these, and why you think they’re off the mark?

Maia Szalavitz: We have this whole public narrative around the idea that addiction is a chronic brain disease, which is wrong, and that narrative is overlaid onto a treatment system which is primarily focused on getting people in 12-step self-help groups that basically involve confession, restitution, and prayer. If such a treatment were suggested for autism, or any other illness, people would say, “Wait a minute, that’s faith healing, and that’s not what we do in modern medicine.” But in addiction nobody seems to notice this contradiction, and that’s because we as a culture don’t really believe addiction is a disease—we see it as a sin.

One of your major arguments is that we should start to think of addiction as a learning disorderWhat does this mean?

You cannot be addicted without learning that the drug fixes something for you. On a very basic and silly level, if you don’t know, then you can’t crave it, and then you can’t go out and seek it. People can recover from addiction when they learn to do different things.

Addiction, like other learning disorders, tends to start at a particular period in brain development. Like schizophrenia, addiction is overwhelmingly a disorder of late adolescence and early adulthood.

You talk about the problem of “overlearning”and say addiction is defined by compulsively using a drug or activity despite negative consequences.

One of the most interesting things about addiction is that it’s a special kind of learning, in that it gets learned more deeply. Basically if you think about it, if you love some subject, like math, you will learn about it with an intensity someone who hates math could never achieve. Or if you fall in love with somebody, you start to learn every little thing about that person.

Our brains are evolved to do this so we can successfully reproduce and raise children, but when that system gets misdirected towards a substance, you get this intense learning of cues associated with the drug, intense longing, this sense that if you don’t have it you just can’t survive. It resets the priorities in your brain. If you don’t have love to compare it to, you’d just think this person is completely crazy and they’re making really stupid choices. But when you understand that it’s basically the same thing as when people have affairs—complete with the lying—you realize this is just a misdirection of a very natural system that we all have and are all vulnerable to having misdirected in varying ways.

So “overlearning” occurs when you just focus so intently on one thing. That is a terrible disadvantage when the thing is a drug. But it can be an incredible advantage if that thing is a subject of inquiry you’re using in your work, for example.

What are some implications of recognizing that addiction is a learning disorder?

So there are several things. One is that there’s this interminable debate about whether addiction is a disease or not. My feeling is basically that if you want to call it a disease, if that’s important to you, you can say it’s a disease that takes a form of a learning disorder, like ADHD and depression. If by “disease” you mean that it’s not the person’s fault—I’m totally with you. If by “disease” you mean it’s chronic and progressive, like cancer or Alzheimer’s, well the data just don’t show that.

And like other learning disorders, it only affects narrow parts of learning. For example, you can have dyslexia, but still have a very high IQ.

The other and even more obvious implication is that if addiction is marked by a failure to respond to punishment, then we should realize that punishment is a really stupid way of dealing with addiction. Yet this is what we as a country have decided we’ll do. It’s just insane that we think we can use the criminal justice system for this. It does not solve anything to put someone in a cage for a couple days for possession of a substance.

You find that most of our drug policy was crafted not based on public health, but on racism.

There is no reason other than racism that marijuana is illegal, and it’s very clear from the history that that’s the case. Many tend to have this misguided idea that the Drug Enforcement Agency sat down one day and rationally weighed the costs and benefits of each substance. But all of our drug laws, including alcohol prohibition, resulted from racist or anti-immigration panic, or a combination of the two.

In your book you talk about the importance of “harm reduction” for drug policy. Can you briefly talk about what that is and why it matters?

The idea is well let’s stop moralizing around the idea that people shouldn’t have these types of pleasures, and instead we should care about a person’s drug use when that person’s drug use does harm. If you’re using and things are good, we shouldn’t care. If you’re using and harming yourself and others, that’s when policymakers should get involved.

Harm reduction says let’s accept the fact that people in every culture around the world for all of human history have used psychoactive substances, and instead of trying to stamp out versions of them that we don’t like, let’s focus on the harm. That allows you to figure out why people are using, help them to get better, or to do it more safely. The beauty of harm reduction is it allows you to say to someone, “Hey I want to save your life, it doesn’t matter if you’re still using drugs, I’m not here to judge you, but I don’t want you getting HIV or dying of an overdose.” When you approach someone like that, especially people who are really marginalized and face all kinds of horrible situations, it’s really powerful. They’re so used to people coming at them with an agenda of I’m going to fix you. Simply treating people with kindness and respect creates an opening for change that you can never get through threats and humiliation.

Most people accept that alcohol prohibition didn’t work, yet for some reason still back broad bans on other types of drugs. And you note in your book that even though the U.S. has fought harm reduction policies for drugs, we all can see that harm reduction policies associated with alcohol, such as teaching people to select designated drivers, have been really effective.

This again comes back to racism. Alcohol has long been accepted by white people. Drugs that white people like are legal and drugs that white people have tried to use to oppress other people are not. In America, and around the world because of America, we have decided that certain substances are OK even though they’re more harmful than some illegal ones.

It’s actually kind of surprising that tobacco was legalized because it was an indigenous American drug, but the reason why is because it was one of the first products that America could sell to support its capitalism. Rum, sugar, and tobacco were big drivers of our economy for a very long time—and a lot of that runs on addiction.

We banned other indigenous drugs like marijuana and cocaine because we basically associated these with threats to white culture, particularly threats to white masculinity. If you review the history of how things became illegal, it’s always about how this particular substance makes it easier for this hated minority to get white women through rape and seduction.

Nixon also had his “Southern Strategy” and the idea was to associate black people with crime and drugs, which created a rationale to lock them up. When black people were seen as a signal of criminality, then harsh measures were needed. But when symbols of drugs are associated with white people, we tend to think they need treatment, not punishment. As someone who has advocated for treatment and not punishment for decades, it is really sad to me that the way we have made progress towards humane policy is because we want to be humane towards white people. If we can get towards compassionate policy, though, then hopefully we can make it humane for everyone.

Your book was published before Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to power, and he’s been spewing a lot of regressive rhetoric on drug policy recently. What do you think the Trump administration means for drug reform?

I don’t think anyone knows, but I do think it will be very, very difficult to put the marijuana genie back in the bottle, and that’s a good thing for drug reform generally. Once people realize that you can legalize marijuana and the world does not end, once you see what nonsense our drug laws are based on, it opens the door for creating sensible policy. Our current policies are not rational. They are not scientific. They are not based on anything other than prejudice. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean I think we should create Philip Morris heroin—that would be a bad idea, too—but what we should be thinking about is what is the best way to regulate the human tendency to use psychoactive substances and how do we make sure that the substances people use are the least likely to yield harm. That’s the basis on which we should craft drug policy, not that drugs are immoral.

You talked a bit about disability rights advocates pushing for ‘neurodiversity.’ Do you see addiction as something that should, or will, be part of this movement?

I absolutely do. I think addiction should be considered a form of neurodiversity and we should understand addiction through the lens of disability. If you think about it in terms of autism, people with autism often take comfort in repetitive behaviors, which is very similar to people with addiction who take comfort in repetitive behaviors. When you accommodate people and allow them to be their weird selves, you make things better for everyone.

How was your book received by other experts in the field?

It’s been received amazingly well, which really surprised me because I’ve been saying pretty much the same kinds of things for a long time and it used to be seen as really out there. I’m not the first person to make these arguments, but there really has been a sea-change.

I certainly have gotten criticism from some 12-step people, mainly those who felt like they wouldn’t have been able to recover if they weren’t forced into the 12-step program. My answer to that is that 12-step programs can be fabulous self-help, and should be available, but if we want to argue for more compassionate medical treatment of addiction, then we need to let doctors actually treat it.

Progress often feels slow. As someone who has followed this for many years, is it hard to stay hopeful?

Actually it’s funny because some of the younger activists will say to me, “How can you be so optimistic?” But when I first tried to get people to pay attention to humane drug policies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was cast as fringe and radical. And now we have eight states where recreational marijuana is legal. In the 1980s, you’d be told you’re a traitor in the drug war if you even think about stuff like that. We also today have white empowered parents fighting for harm reduction, whereas in the past the white empowered parents were saying to lock up drug users, use tough love. Nobody today even has a good case for why locking up a heroin user for possession is helpful, and that’s a really radical change compared to all the stuff I used to hear during my own addiction and early recovery.

Stable Homes

Originally published in the Johns Hopkins Magazine summer 2017 issue.
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Officials from Baltimore Housing‘s Code Enforcement Division keep track of the city’s roughly 16,000 abandoned buildings—those deemed too unsafe to live in—but progress has been slow in tearing down those properties. Resources are limited, and demolition is expensive. It’s cheaper to intervene before they deteriorate to that point by finding new tenants who will take responsibility for upkeep. The biggest challenge? Locating those estimated 30,000 vacant yet habitable properties before they become hazardous, attract crime, and lower property values.

Problem

The best housing vacancy information currently available—from the American Community Survey—produces census tract–level estimates only every five years. As a result, city planners are almost always working with obsolete information when looking for vacant houses.

Baltimore Housing acting Commissioner Michael Braverman, A&S ’81, turned for help to Johns Hopkins researchers Tamás Budavári, an applied math professor, and Philip Garboden, a doctoral student in sociology and applied math. Could they develop a statistical tool to help city officials more quickly and accurately identify vacant properties, so they could then intervene with code enforcement tools, rehabilitation grant programs, and other homeownership subsidies? The goal is to get new occupants into the vacant buildings before they deteriorate further and ultimately destabilize their surrounding communities.

Proposal

Budavári knew that Baltimore City officials were already using digital maps with data overlays to guide decisions on everything from administering city services to managing abandoned properties. “I started thinking about whether there was a way to help them take those maps to the next level,” Budavári says. His team started building a model that aims to use real-time information from sources such as water utilities and mail deliveries to produce a parcel-by-parcel portrait of each home’s daily activity. The goal is to create an algorithm that predicts whether each home is occupied, temporarily vacant, or long-term vacant. (Remember, the city already knows where the abandoned properties in need of demolition are, so this tool would not be used to identify those.)

Researchers have been going door- to-door, collecting what is known as “ground truth” data, or information about a set of properties for which they know, with 100 percent certainty, the occupancy status. Budavári and Garboden will use half the ground truth data, along with postal service and water utilities information, to train their tool. Then, they will assess whether that tool does a good job of predicting occupancy status by testing the algorithm on the other half of their ground truth dataset. The researchers say this will be an iterative process; they can look to see where errors are, figure out why, and experiment with adding new sources of information to improve their predictions.

What’s Next

Once the researchers perfect their tool, they hope to share it with other cities struggling to identify vacant housing. “If the postal service data turns out to be a really accurate way to measure and predict these things, for example, then that will be useful to know nationwide,” Garboden says. Budavári and Garboden applied for more funding from the National Science Foundation to develop similar tools with partners in Kansas City, Kansas, and New Orleans. Both cities are included in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative to help midsize cities better leverage data-driven decision making.

“I really like Baltimore. I have been living here for close to two decades, and it’s really turning in a good direction,” Budavári says. “I’m hoping that we can help with that improvement. That’s my primary goal with this. However, I see a lot of other interesting mathematical challenges with this project that inspire me as a scientist.”

‘Parents Involved,’ A Decade Later

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 28, 2017.
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Wednesday marks the ten-year anniversary of legal conservatives’ last great effort to kill school integration in the Supreme Court. That effort failed—though few understood that at the time. To this day, misconceptions abound about whether voluntary school desegregation is constitutionally permitted in the United States.

The legal showdown came in a landmark decision called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Five Supreme Court justices rejected voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, finding it unconstitutional for school districts to rely on the race of individual students when making student assignment decisions. But, it turned out, it was the opinion of just one of those justices that really mattered.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote a plurality opinion, co-signed by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, concluding that the districts’ race-based desegregation plans were unconstitutional violations of students’ individual rights. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote, glibly.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, co-signed by Justices John Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter. The court’s four liberal judges called it “a cruel distortion of history” to compare the discrimination in 1950s Topeka, Kansas to Louisville and Seattle in 2007. The decision, they warned, was one “the court and the nation will come to regret.”

But there’s a frequently overlooked twist to the Parents Involved decision. Four justices voted broadly against race-conscious integration plans, and four voted broadly in favor of them. In the middle was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who agreed with Justice Roberts in certain respects, and with the dissenters in others. In the places where Kennedy agreed with the dissenters, he represents their fifth vote, and it’s those arguments that prevailed—not the chief justice’s.

Thus it is Kennedy’s concurring opinion that most dramatically shapes our modern legal landscape today on questions regarding school segregation. Kennedy agreed that Seattle’s and Louisville’s race-based integration plans were unconstitutional, insufficiently tailored to pass legal muster, but said his conservative colleagues were “too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race” and that it was “profoundly mistaken” to conclude that states and school districts “must accept the status quo of racial isolation in schools.” Kennedy even endorsed specific strategies that he felt could be used to foster school diversity—like drawing attendance zones that take into consideration the demographics of students’ neighborhoods, and “allocating resources for special programs” such as magnet schools.

Kennedy’s concurrence included a passionate defense of the value of school integration, arguing that “[t]he nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children.”

Ten years later, what happened at the Court that day is still regularly misunderstood and misrepresented. Just last week, The New York Times incorrectly stated that the Supreme Court “declared it unconstitutional to consider race as a factor when assigning students to schools.” Three months earlier, NPR wrongly claimed that the Parents Involved decision prohibits the use of race and ethnicity to foster school integration.

“To say you can’t use race after Parents Involved is really misleading, unnecessarily constraining, and may even make districts hesitant to do anything at all,” says Erica Frankenberg, an education policy researcher at Pennsylvania State University. “I think it can be a real disservice to furthering integration.”

Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, describes Parents Involved as a major loss for civil rights. Looking at the race of individual students to help achieve racial balance, he says, had been “a very standard, basic tool” that school districts had used to promote voluntary integration, and a strategy that had been long-used in court-ordered desegregation plans.

“But the Supreme Court’s decision does not stand for the proposition that school districts can’t think about race, or plan for racial integration,” he says.

The court’s decision initially spooked school districts that were pursuing their own voluntary integration plans, and deterred others that were considering launching their own efforts. George W. Bush’s administration also contributed to the confusion; following Parents Involved, his Department of Education posted a federal guidance suggesting only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal. A coalition of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders joined together in 2009 and made urging the Obama administration to take down the Bush-era guidance their first priority.

They were successful. Obama’s DOE posted a new legal guidance in 2011, affirming that “educators may permissibly consider the race of students in carefully constructed plans to promote diversity or, in K-12 education, to reduce racial isolation.” The guidance, which remains in place today, also listed specific strategies school districts could use to pursue voluntary integration.

“Getting that correct interpretation, with some real practical guidance for school districts—I can’t even emphasize how important that was,” David Tipson, the executive director of New York Appleseed, told me in 2015. “There was a very deliberate effort to misconstrue the 2007 [Supreme Court] decision and put fear into many school officials across the country. Everything we’ve been able to do to promote school integration has come in the wake of getting that new federal guidance in place.”

Over the past few years, New York City has indeed seen a flurry of unprecedentedadvocacy around school integration. Just earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced his administration’s most ambitious effort yet to diversify public schools. Though the mayor has plenty of critics who say his plans still don’t go far enough, few could have imagined this proposal even five years ago.

Aside from the new federal guidance and a few modest measures implemented largely at the end of Obama’s tenure, the Obama administration by and large refused to promote desegregation in the bulk of its major education initiatives. In some cases, the Obama administration even incentivized policies that exacerbated racial and economic isolation. While The New York Times just this week criticizedthe Trump administration for eliminating a small socioeconomic diversity grant program launched in the final month of Obama’s presidency, civil rights advocates generally agree that even that program was much too little, too late.

Today, some argue that in light of the political and legal landscape wrought by Parents Involved, integration advocates should focus primarily on socioeconomic integration, and keep the more polarizing discussions of race to a minimum. Yet other civil rights leaders counter that the benefits of socioeconomic integration and racial integration are not interchangeable, and that a narrow focus on socioeconomic diversity threatens to strip the desegregation movement of much of its historical and moral power. Some advocates also suspect that too many school districts now hide behind the threat of litigation to avoid actively pursuing racial integration.

“A lot of school districts are being too risk-averse, when they actually have a lot of legal latitude,” says Tegeler. “I think it’s appropriate for lawyers to advise districts to avoid looking at the race of individual students, but looking at the racial composition of neighborhoods, the combined race and poverty characteristics of census tracts—that’s completely fine.”

To figure out where school integration may go over the next few years, it helps to consider how the country has changed over the last decade. When Barack Obama was elected in 2009, many Americans took his win as a sign that America had entered some new “post-racial” age. But these delusions were largely crushed by 2014, when a wave of high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement fundamentally challenged and changed the country’s politics and narratives around racism.

And with that, the conversation around school segregation has changed as well. Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones reached millions of Americans in 2014 with her award-winning reporting on school segregation, and has worked determinedlysince to make the public grapple even more with the issue. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Rothstein published a wave of articles (and later books) challenging how Americans think about inequality and racism, and influential academic research emerging in 2015 and 2016 strengthened the evidence base in favor of racial and economic integration.

On the political side, civil rights advocates worry about what a major expansion in school choice policies—a stated priority of Donald Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos—could mean for school segregation. “Any unregulated choice program has real potential for increasing segregation by race and class, in particular increasing racial isolation and poverty concentration in the schools and school districts left behind,” warns Tegeler.

In 2016, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, both Democrats, introduced the Stronger Together School Diversity Act, a $120 million effort to support voluntary integration in U.S. public schools. Though mostly symbolic, advocates expect that bill to be reintroduced this year.

On the legal side, there is likely to be an increase in state-level school desegregation lawsuits over the next few years. While winning far-reaching remedies in federal court has been much more difficult ever since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Milliken v. Bradley decision, which prevents many urban school desegregation plans from including white suburbs, states courts are under no such restriction. Legal advocates see opportunities for more state-level litigation relying on state constitutional obligations. One such lawsuit was filed in Minnesota at the end of 2015, and it’s making its way to the state’s supreme court later this year.

Civil rights advocates clearly have their work cut out for them, whether it be affirmatively furthering school integration, or preventing new kinds of school segregation. Just last week, EdBuild, an education nonprofit, released a report that found 71 U.S. communities have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000—most of them wealthy, white communities looking to extricate themselves from poorer black and brown locales. EdBuild finds that 47 of those secessionist communities were successful.

“We’re not expecting a lot of new affirmative enforcement coming from the Trump administration, but this issue of white enclaves looking to opt out of county-wide districts, particularly in the South, it’s a very dangerous trend,” says Tegeler. “We’re really hoping that the Education and Justice Departments pay attention to this, and recognize the importance of keeping these diverse, large districts together.”

But for all the obstacles confronting a rebooted school desegregation movement, the legal path towards integration still lies mostly open. A decade ago, it was far from clear that would be the case: Part of why the erroneous, far-reaching interpretation of Parents Involved has had such staying power is because many progressives at the time expected the worst. Instead, Justice Kennedy helped keep many traditional civil rights remedies alive, and the movement has pushed forward ever since.

School Suspensions, Test Scores, and Lead Poisoning

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 9, 2017.
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Over the past several years, education advocates and civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm on the harms of exclusionary school discipline policies. Critics say these punishments—suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests—are increasingly doled out for minor infractions, and disproportionately given to students of color.

A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper published in May adds a new wrinkle to the debate on disparities in school discipline: Economists found causal evidence linking young children with higher exposures to lead in their bloodstream with an increased probability of getting suspended from school and placed in juvenile detention.

Anna Aizer, a Brown University economist, and Janet Currie, a Princeton University economist were the first researchers to look at the relationship between lead exposure and school discipline. While others have explored links between lead exposure, criminal activity, and cognitive development, this study breaks new ground by tracking individual children over time.

One reason why researchers hadn’t studied lead and school discipline before is due to insufficient data. Most children exposed to lead tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but even if a researcher had identified a relationship between lead levels and future disciplinary infractions—they could not determine if lead was driving the relationship, or the if underlying poverty was the cause.

Getting precise measurements of lead has also been a challenge for researchers. Blood tests are relatively cheap and easy to administer, but depending on when the blood is drawn, the results may or may not accurately capture a child’s exposure because lead remains in an individual’s bloodstream for a little over a month before their organs absorb the metal. In other words, researchers worry that they potentially underestimate children’s exposure to lead when they analyze blood tests.

Only 11 states and the District of Columbia even mandate blood-lead tests for children, which exacerbates the problem of measuring lead. Researchers estimate that maybe a quarter of all U.S. children nationally ever get screened. A Reuters investigation published last year documented how millions of kids fall through the cracks, even among those who are required to undergo state-mandated screening.

Yet Rhode Island, where Aizer and Currie did their study, presented some unique research opportunities. Unlike most states, the number of children in Rhode Island who get screened for lead is high, close to 80 percent. Not only that, but Rhode Island children are also screened three times on average during their first six years of life. This means that the chances of getting an accurate measure of lead exposure are significantly higher than usual since kids are tested multiple times.

Aizer and Currie studied Rhode Island children born between 1990 and 2004. They accessed state health department data on each child’s preschool blood lead levels from 1994 to 2010, and then linked that information to school suspension data for the 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 school years. The researchers also compared this information to data from the state’s juvenile detention facility and all Rhode Island correctional institutions.

“What we find is that there’s a pretty robust relationship between early childhood lead levels as measured by the blood tests and future disciplinary infractions,” says Aizer. Not only were children with elevated blood-lead levels more likely to be suspended, but Aizer and Currie found that suspended children were also ten times more likely to end up in juvenile detention.

The two most common sources of lead poisoning are old paint and soil. A robust movement to reduce lead in the environment didn’t really take off until 1971, when the U.S. surgeon general issued a policy statement on childhood lead poisoning, and the EPA’s first administrator declared that “an extensive body of information exists which indicates that the addition of alkyl lead to gasoline … results in lead particles that pose a threat to public health.”

The federal government finally banned lead-based paint in 1978, but older housing units may still contain the metal. Washington also phased out leaded gasoline between 1979 and 1986. While the amount of lead in soil has significantly decreased over time—because it’s been washed out, blown, or tracked away—the soil near roadways, especially in urban areas, may still contain lead that had seeped into the ground from automobile exhaust.

One strategy Aizer and Currie used to track the relationship between blood-lead levels and future misbehavior was to look at where kids with high lead exposure live. “We tried to address the question of confounding variables by looking at the same kids who live near the same roads at different periods of time [with the] same racial composition, the same income,” says Aizer. “The difference is they are living or born near roads fifteen years later, as the amount of lead in the soil near roads declined because of repaving or rain runoff or new turf.” The economists found that the dramatic declines in lead levels were linked to significant declines in disciplinary infractions.

Aizer and Currie’s findings related to race and gender were complex. They found that white girls with high lead levels were not likely to be suspended, but that was not true for African-American girls, or, generally, for boys. They also found that the relationship between lead and suspensions was much stronger for kids who received free lunches. While Aizer and Currie have not settled on definitive explanations for why lead had different effects on different children, they have developed some possible theories.

“There is some evidence that cognitive stimulation reduces or mitigates the negative impact of lead,” says Aizer, who explains that if a child who receives free lunches—a proxy for low-income households—gets less stimulation, they might react differently to the lead exposure compared to a wealthier student exposed to lead. Another explanation could be that schools respond differently to the misbehavior of different groups of students. Currie and Aizer say that there is evidence for both interpretations.

Their research comes on the heels of another working paper Aizer, Currie, and two other colleagues co-published last year. Using a slightly different research strategy but still involving Rhode Island children, they found that reducing children’s lead levels had significant positive effects on third grade reading test scores, especially for black and Hispanic students. “A one-unit decrease in average blood-lead levels reduces the probability of being substantially below proficient in reading by 3.1 percentage points,” the economists concluded.

While average childhood lead levels have fallen by more than 90 percent over the last 40 years, progress has been uneven, especially in poor urban areas with old housing stock.

Some states, like Rhode Island, have taken effective steps to reduce exposure to lead. In 1997, for example, Rhode Island officials implemented policies that required landlords to ensure that their rental properties were lead-free. One policy required all Rhode Island landlords to obtain “lead-safe certificates” if they intend to rent their properties. Another required landlords who own buildings where a child had elevated lead levels to mitigate the lead hazard or face legal action by the state attorney general.

In 2010, the U.S. spent more than $80 billion on corrections expenditures at the federal, state, and local levels, according to the Brookings Institution. They found that total correctional expenditures had more than quadrupled over the past 20 years. And in 2014, after surveying 46 states on their costs of juvenile detention, the Justice Policy Institute reported that average per-person costs for the most expensive juvenile confinement options reached $407 a day, or nearly $150,000 per year.

“Governments need to think about this,” says Aizer. “Crime is just an incredibly expensive outcome for a state, and lead mitigation is so much cheaper relative to that.”

Crooked Chicago Cops May Get Off the Hook Thanks to Trump

Originally published in VICE on June 8, 2017.
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Ja’Mal Green has had an exhausting year. Last July, after a protest he helped organize in response to the police shootings that killed Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Green was arrested for allegedly attacking Chicago police, put in jail with a $350,000 bail, and ultimately indictedon nine felony charges. Green and his friends and family denied the allegations, but after nine months of back-and-forth, he decided to take the prosecutors’ deal: plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of resisting police in exchange for dropping all felony charges.

Green, a 21-year-old activist in Chicago, says he wanted to alleviate his stress and move on with his life—but insists that even the misdemeanor charge was bogus.

“As a black male coming up in Chicago, I mean we all had that experience of being racially profiled, and officers treating us like we’re suspects and criminal,” Green told VICE. “Even at protests, you go through so much crap, they yell out slurs, hit you for no reason. Getting arrested and charged showed me first-hand how corrupt the police [are].”

Green’s experience roughly coincided with a sweeping investigation of Chicago cops by the Justice Department under Barack Obama, which found evidence of routine civil rights violations and excessive use of force. After the scathing federal report came out in January, Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, signed an “agreement in principle” to negotiate a consent decree, or a legal settlement between a city and the feds overseen by a federal judge. This wasn’t unusual: The Obama administration routinely opened investigations into police departments, looking closely at 25 of them between 2009 and 2016, and entering into consent decrees with 14.

But President Donald Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about consent decrees, once calling them “undemocratic” and “dangerous.” In February, Sessions went so far as to dismiss his own department’s 161-page report on Chicago cops, suggesting he hadn’t read it, but that it seemed “pretty anecdotal.”

Now the question is whether Chicago will essentially use Donald Trump’s presidency to avoid changing the way local cops do their jobs, and more broadly, whether other big-city mayors with relatively progressive political profiles might hide behind a pro-cop White House to avoid aggressively responding to legacies of police abuse.

Even as some cities like Baltimore commit to using consent decrees to overhaul police practices, Mayor Emanuel no longer feels a federal judge is necessary to ensure police reform actually happens in his city. Instead, the mayor wants Chicago to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the feds, a tool cities like Washington, DC, and Cincinnati pursued to deal with their police problems. There are “many roads to reform, but they all hit the same destination,” as Emanuel put it this week in a press conference.

Prominent civil rights leaders and experts who worked on police reform under Barack Obama were quick to blast the mayor’s retreat.

“There are significant factual differences between what happened in Cincinnati and DC compared to Chicago, and you didn’t have the same kind of corruption and cover-up,” said Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the former chief of special litigation in the DOJ’s civil rights division who oversaw the federal probe of police in Ferguson, Missouri.

The cover-up Smith is referring to is the case of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who was (fatally) shot 16 times on a Chicago street in 2014. Dash-cam video of that incident was buried by city officials until late 2015, when a court order helped force it into the open.

“History has demonstrated that [MOAs], which are not court-enforceable, are not robust enough to remedy longstanding problems,” added Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and former head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department under Obama. “Given the size of the Chicago Police Department and the severity of the accountability and use of force problems that were thoroughly documented in the findings report, a [MOA] in this matter will become yet another set of recommendations for the Chicago Police Department that will have no teeth. Chicago has seen this pattern over and over again.”

The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment, but Adam Collins, Mayor Emanuel’s communicators director, defended the move in part by suggesting the new regime in DC forced their hand. “Obviously there’s a new administration and their opinions of consent decrees are very well documented,” he told me. “For months the city and city attorneys have been in discussion with DOJ about a framework to guide future reforms, and the draft MOA that we submitted last week is a product of those discussions.”

Collins emphasized that over the last 18 months, Chicago has implemented a number of police reforms, including body cameras and new training oversight.

And it’s true that without a consent decree, Chicago has made some progress. Last month, the Chicago Police Department announced a package of new rulesdesigned to restrict when officers use deadly force, and guide officers on how they should deescalate situations and aid wounded suspects. (Critics note that the changes were watered-down from reforms first proposed last fall.)

William Calloway, another Chicago activist, thinks the new accountability measures were “a really monumental win” for reformers. While he was greatly disappointed to see his mayor back away from the consent decree, he wasn’t exactly surprised.

“Once you’ve been a resident for a while and you’ve seen the dealings of Rahm Emanuel and the way he plays politics, nothing too much shocks you,” Calloway said.

Green, for his part, expressed skepticism that even a consent decree would work in Chicago, emphasizing that real change has to come from inside the police force. “But I think if the Justice Department is going to step in, then they should actually start bringing justice and lock up people in power,” he added.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that while there’s a legitimate argument thatconsent decrees can force a city’s hand, especially if reforms are being held up by police union contracts or other barriers, he worries they’re becoming somewhat of a fad. “I don’t know if Emanuel gives a damn about police misconduct,” Moskos said. “But if he does, he could do something. The department is under his control.”

But citing police reform in Seattle and New Orleans, Smith, the former DOJ official, insisted consent decrees are effective tools, and especially necessary in the worst cases—Chicago among them.

“The bad news is that this new DOJ is retreating from its commitment to enforcing the constitution,” says Smith. “The good news is there’s a lot of incredibly talented activists in Chicago who are not going to let this go. It may take a little longer, it may be a little harder to get there, but they’re going to insist on change.”

Illinois Poised To Strip Rahm Emanuel’s Control Over Chicago Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 7, 2017.
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For more than 20 years, the mayor of Chicago has had the power to appoint not only the CEO of the nation’s third-largest school system, but also the entire school board that governs it. But after years of protests from Chicago residents, the Illinois state legislature may finally end this controversial governance structure, potentially setting the stage for much larger public school shifts in the Windy City.

Chicago used to have an elected school board, just like every other school district in Illinois, and like more than 95 percent of school districts nationwide. But in 1995, as a reform strategy for the state’s largest and poorest district, state lawmakers passed legislation granting Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard M. Daley the authority to appoint his city’s school leadership. Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor in 2011, and took control over Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Supporters of mayoral control—a strategy also instituted in New York City in 2002 and Washington, D.C., in 2007—say that challenging the status quo of chronically underperforming urban school districts is easier if one elected official has expansive decision-making power, rather a divided school board sharing it.

The mayor can also theoretically better leverage the school system with other governmental agencies, the private sector, and civic institutions. Researchers find that cities with diffuse civic capacity tend to be less effective in promoting urban school improvement than cities that can take coordinated civic action. Mayoral-control supporters also argue that it can increase political accountability for schools’ performance: School board elections have notoriously low turnout, and it can be easier for voters to hold a highly visible politician responsible for the success or failure of a district.

Yet critics of mayoral control say it is the opposite of democratic and reduces the public’s ability to shape their schools and local communities. The Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful critic of the Emanuel administration, argues that while Chicago’s school board “is composed primarily of corporate executives,” the CPS’s predominantly poor, black, and brown student body come from communities that have no say in running their schools.

In 2015, Chicago residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding referendum to switch back to an elected school board. The Chicago Tribunereported then that “perhaps no issue in Chicago politics has been more polarizing in the last four years than Emanuel’s handling of CPS.” As public dissatisfactionwith Emanuel’s education policies grew, so did the momentum to end mayoral control.

In 2016, a bill to end mayoral control passed in the Illinois House, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The House sponsor, Representative Robert Martwick of Chicago, said that the absence of an elected school board has “eliminated democracy” in his city.

Martwick vowed to make a more concerted effort to get his Senate colleagues on board this year, and was successful. On May 26, the House again overwhelmingly approved a bill to end mayoral control, and last week, the Senate passed a similar bill, which would create a Chicago school board with 15 elected seats. (Chicago’s school board currently has seven members.) The House and Senate are expected to pass a version they both can agree on later this month.

Chicago has for years been a high-profile city for national education reformers. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, who had been serving as CPS’s CEO, to serve as his first secretary of education. Duncan brought to the federal level some controversial school reform strategies he had promoted in Chicago, such as linking student test scores to teacher pay.

Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff, also launched an ambitious school reform effort when he took over as mayor, one that included robust charter school expansion, school closures, and longer school days. Opposition to Emanuel’s policies helped mobilize the Chicago Teachers Union to launch in 2012 their first strike in 25 years, a seven-day effort that influencedunion strategy across the country, and Emanuel’s policies continue to attract national attention. This year, his administration announced a new graduation requirement found nowhere else in the country: CPS seniors must now prove they have post-high school plans, such as going to college, getting a job, or joining the military.

Emanuel and CPS officials have testified against ending mayoral control, and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner said last year that he opposes Chicago reverting to an elected school board. But even if Rauner vetoes such a bill, Illinois lawmakers have enough support to override his veto.

Chicago isn’t the first city to bounce between mayoral and electoral control. In 1999, Michigan’s state lawmakers stripped power from Detroit’s elected school board, and empowered Detroit’s then-Mayor Dennis Archer to appoint the school district’s leadership. But in 2004, Detroit residents voted to return district authority to a locally elected school board.

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, notes that Michigan state lawmakers had much less confidence in Kwame Kilpatrick, Archer’s successor, which was a significant factor in Detroit going back to an elected school board. Similarly, Illinois lawmakers’ worsening relationship with Emanuel is playing a role in the decision over Chicago’s school governance.

“The state is a key actor here,” says Henig. “The legislature can either make this happen or prevent it from happening. If the [Michigan] legislature had trusted Kilpatrick, they wouldn’t have necessarily let it go back to an elected board. As it often happens, the personal relationships of the mayors with the legislature are a big part of the story.”

This same dynamic has played out in New York, where state lawmakers granted former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg six-year terms of control over the nation’s largest public school system. By contrast, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected in 2014, has had a much rockier relationship with the legislature, and lawmakers have only granted him one-year extensions of mayoral control, leading to tense annual fights between the city and the state.

If the Illinois legislature approves a compromise bill this month, Chicago’s change in school governance might not take effect for another six years. But Henig says the bill’s passage would still likely lead to some “immediate changes” in Chicago; for example, how parents and teachers mobilize to fight current policies.

Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says that painting the fight over mayoral control as “some grand philosophical crusade” exaggerates the stakes of the debate. He notes that the public doesn’t say it’s a crisis of democracy when a mayor appoints a police chief, or when the president appoints the attorney general.

“They’re both democratic models; it’s just a question of how much authority you want to give the mayor,” Hess says.

Henig agrees, noting that parents and teachers tend to cast a disproportionate number of votes in the low-turnout school board elections. “When someone says one [model] is more democratic than the other, that’s just rhetorical posturing,” he says. “There’s a pro-democratic argument for either one.”

Why “Pay for Success” Financing Could Cost Taxpayers More Than They Bargained For

Originally published in In These Times on May 30, 2017.
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With looming pension payments and a budget deficit of $129 milllion, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is in financial turmoil. Earlier this spring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel even hinted that CPS might be forced to end the school year three weeks early to save money.

Yet despite these financial woes, Chicago’s school district recently agreed to pay more than a million dollars to Goldman Sachs and other investors that fronted funds for an early childhood education program, part of a social experiment known as “Pay for Success.”

Under Pay for Success, described as an “innovative financing structure,” private investors such as banks and foundations put up money for social programs with measurable outcomes—for example, reducing chronic homelessness by 200 individuals per year. If the predetermined goals are met, the government will pay the investors back with interest.

Chicago’s Pay for Success project launched in 2014, and aims to improve students’ kindergarten readiness, boost third grade literacy and reduce special education services. Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust and the Pritzker Family Foundation invested $16.9 million into the program, with the potential to roughly double their investment over the next 18 years. The bulk of those returns would come from reducing special education services for the 2,600 program participants—about $9,100 per child.

Undergirded by narratives of wasteful government spending and market-driven accountability, a small group of philanthropists, financiers, and policy leaders have helped elevate the Pay for Success model quickly over the past few years. State and local governments have launched 16 such projects across the U.S since 2012, tackling a range of issues from foster care and education, to criminal justice and public health. Dozens more wait in the pipeline.

At its best, advocates say that Pay for Success could foster greater government accountability, fund needed programs in cash-strapped political climates and potentially save the public money down the line. “Innovative models like Pay for Success … shift the risk of achieving targeted outcomes away from the taxpayer and enabl[e] governments to pay only for what works,” said Andrea Phillips, the Vice President of Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group.

But at its worst, Pay for Success can leave taxpayers paying substantially more than if their governments had just funded programs directly, cement narratives of fiscal austerity and incentivize misguided social outcomes.

The Trump administration has yet to embrace Pay for Success by name, and cut funding for a significant Obama-era program that promoted the model. Yet the underlying goals of Pay for Success—expanding public-private partnerships to tackle societal ills—fit comfortably with the new administration’s stated priorities. Though some supporters have expressed concerns about Pay for Success’s future under Donald Trump, there’s strong evidence to suggest it will continue to grow over the next four years, especially in the realm of education.

The roots of a new model

In 2010, the first Pay for Success project launched in the United Kingdom, a six-year pilot aimed to reduce recidivism from a prison in Peterborough. It was funded by “social impact bonds” and promoted by Social Finance UK, a group that had formed three years prior by Ronald Cohen, a man dubbed “the father of British venture capital.” Social Finance UK helped raise the upfront £5 million, mostly from the philanthropic sector. (The Rockefeller Foundation was the only U.S. institution to invest.)

Enthusiasm for and deep faith in Pay for Success’s innovative potential spread quickly across the Atlantic Ocean, long before the results of the Peterborough pilot were in.

Some U.S. groups were already organizing. New Profit—a “venture philanthropy fund” with a board that boasts Bain Capital executives and other investment leaders—launched an advocacy arm in 2007, innocuously named America Forward. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the group recommended that his transition team establish a “social innovation fund.”

The Obama administration ran with the idea, and in early 2009 established the first-ever Social Innovation Fund, administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the first-ever White House Office of Social Innovation—both of which mobilize private-sector partnerships and Pay for Success projects. Sonal Shah, an alum of both Goldman Sachs and Google, came on board to lead the new executive office.

“We’re very lucky that this [Pay for Success] concept really resonated with the White House, and Sonal Shah, she quickly saw that this tool combined many things that the Office of Social Innovation was trying to do,” says Tracy Palandjian, the CEO and founder of Social Finance, the U.S. sister organization to Social Finance UK. Shah, who left Obama’s administration in 2011, is now an emeritus board member of Social Finance.

In its short existence, Pay for Success has been championed by a small, interlocking group of actors within the Obama administration, financial institutions, advocacy groups and research institutes. Meanwhile, three foundations have played particularly significant roles: the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. In 2015, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation gave $8.4 million to the Urban Institute to launch an effort dedicated to advancing Pay for Success projects across the country. By 2014, the Rockefeller Foundation had spent nearly $10 million getting Pay For Success off the ground, from facilitating meetings with PFS supporters and the White House, to funding Center for American Progress promotional materials. And all three foundations have funded the Government Performance Lab at Harvard, established in 2011, that helps implement and expand Pay for Success initiatives. Jeffrey Liebman, who served in the Obama administration as the deputy director for policy at the OMB, runs the Harvard center.

Federal support for Pay for Success continued to mount steadily under the Obama administration. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the successor to No Child Left Behind—and changed the law to allow states and school districts to use federal dollars to fund Pay for Success projects. The move was applauded by groups excited about leveraging public money with private partners, and criticized by others for the same reason. Senator Orrin Hatch, (R-UT), largely responsible for the inclusion of Pay for Success in ESSA, said “rather than being limited by what federal bureaucrats at the Department of Education think best, funding should be more connected to local innovation and successful outcomes.”

Lexi Barrett, a former policy advisor in Obama’s DOE who also served on his Domestic Policy Council, left the executive branch in 2014 to work as the policy director for America Forward, where she pushed for Pay for Success’s inclusion in ESSA. Now she works as the director of National Education Policy at Jobs for the Future, which was recently awarded $2 million in Department of Education grants to spearhead Pay for Success projects in career and technical education.

“The fact is you have very senior level officials leave the federal government and then turn around to lobby and influence their former agencies,” says Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, which advocates for tougher restrictions on former federal employees.

The Obama administration laid the groundwork for Pay for Success, paving the way for its potential expansion under Trump—who has declared his intent to expand public-private partnerships across all sectors of government.

A bipartisan commission established last March by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will be issuing formal recommendations later this fall on how to grow the evidence-based policy movement. America Forward lobbied for this federal commission, and Jeffrey Liebman serves on it. And a bipartisan bill—the Social Impact Partnership to Pay for Results Act—was reintroduced this past January, which would direct at least $100 million to states and local communities to expand Pay for Success projects.

Meanwhile, in March, Trump announced the creation of the White House Office of American Innovation, charged with improving government and society in collaboration with the “private sector and other thought leaders.” With its stated plans to tackle areas like workforce development and the opioid crisis, PFS supporters have been eyeing the Office of American Innovation as a potential new base of federal support. Senior White House advisers, including Goldman Sachs alumni Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, were even tapped to help guide the new agency. Before joining the Trump administration Powell herself had led Goldman’s “impact investing” initiatives, a portfolio that includes Pay for Success.

Differing definitions of “success”

With its inclusion in ESSA and its relatively strong DOE support, investors, nonprofits, and policymakers have identified real potential for using Pay for Success in education.

Last September, Senators Hatch and Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced legislation that would encourage schools to use Pay for Success to expand career and technical education. The two legislators introduced another bill earlier this month to include Pay for Success initiatives within the Higher Education Act, so that PFS could fund interventions around things like increasing college completion for low-income students.

Moreover, this past December, the federal education department awarded more than $3 million to eight government organizations to launch Pay for Success feasibility studies in early childhood education. The winners include the state of Minnesota, a charter school in South Carolina, a school district in California, and five local government agencies. The goal, the DOE said, will be to assess each program’s design with a “cost-benefit analysis showing the return on investment to the community.”

Yet despite the enthusiasm, there are reasons for wary. So far, just two Pay for Success preschool programs have launched, neither of which could yet credibly be called successful.

One was an early childhood education program in Utah, which was initially reported to help 99 percent of students in its first cohort avoid special education services. Goldman Sachs fronted $4.6 million for the project, and took home its first payment of $267,000 in 2015 for supposedly reducing the number of children who would have otherwise needed special education. But experts later questioned the program’s high success rate, and criticized its evaluation metrics for being designed in a way that could dramatically overstate the program’s impacts.

Specifically, a number of early education experts noted in The New York Times that the Utah program had far less funding than that of other high-quality programs, and those better-funded models generally see success rates of around 10 to 20 percent—not 99. Utah’s high rate was premised on an unfounded assumption that every child would need special education without the preschool intervention, yet there was little evidence to suggest that was true. Nevertheless, Pay for Success advocates—including Obama White House officials and DOE leaders—continued to point to Utah as evidence that the PFS model “works” and should be replicated.

The other ongoing PFS education project is Chicago’s, which has sparked opposition for using such an expensive financing tool—particularly amidst a local fiscal crisis—for such a non-risky investment. Critics note that Chicago’s PFS preschool model, Child Parent Centers, has boasted positive results for decades, and is well known to deliver improvements in student performance. The mayor’s office justified the Pay for Success investment by saying today’s students are Hispanic, whereas much of the earlier research was done with black students.

“It’s not a high-risk program for the investors because they have all these metrics and studies that show these programs have a positive impact on the measures they’re going to use to measure success,” Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, told The Chicago Reporter in 2016. “They wanted to declare success a year from now and propel [social impact bonds] across other education endeavors. It’s very prescient, as investors know public education is struggling for funding.”

In 2016, Chicago’s program yielded an initial kindergarten readiness “success payment” of $500,000, and last month evaluators reported another $500,000 payment for the second cohort. Evaluators also recently reported an initial $17,597 payout for reduced special education services—a figure lower than investors anticipated.

But is reducing special education services a success?

“I’ve spent my entire career working on improving special education services, and school districts continually look for ways to not have to provide them because it’s expensive,” says Bev Johns, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois, who has been a vocal Pay for Success critic.

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which fights to protect students with disabilities, says their members first started raising alarm when they heard Pay for Success was to be included in ESSA. They worry such projects can run afoul, or compete with federal special education law and civil rights law—specifically the “Child Find” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which obligates schools to identify and evaluate students who lag behind, and provide them with needed services.

“Incentivizing reduced referrals flies in the face of that [federal] obligation,” says Marshall. “Being placed in, or becoming eligible for special education services is not something that should be frowned upon, or looked at as a social problem.”

Their concerns were exacerbated by Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, who demonstrated shocking unfamiliarity with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during her Senate confirmation hearing.

Nicole Truhe of America Forward defends using Pay for Success in education, and says they’re working on establishing “appropriate guardrails” to protect students with disabilities. The Department of Education also says they will require “proper safeguards” for the projects. Of the eight early childhood education pilots recently awarded federal grants, three included reductions in special education services as a rewardable outcome measure.

Some in the Pay for Success orbit are optimistic that the field will continually improve with more evidence and rigorous evaluation—ideally experimental models known as ‘randomized control trials’—but others, like those at Social Finance, put less stock on research evaluations, and urge leaders to focus primarily on results.

While Obama’s administration catapulted Pay for Success onto the national stage, the public-private model is likely to grow under Republican control. Supporters are quick to say that PFS is just “one tool in the toolbox” to advance social programs—yet there’s good reason to think it could become an awfully popular tool in the coming years. After all, with conservative themes of using the private sector to hold governments accountable, and with its invitation to enrich the rich further if they can advance some sort of social good—well, banks are likely to deem that deal quite a success.

This reporting was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. 

Massachusetts Charter School Backs Off Exclusionary Hair Policies — For Now

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 25, 2017.
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The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, a suburban Boston charter in Malden, Massachusetts, is under fire for its dress-code policy prohibiting hair extensions and afros, rules that critics say are racially discriminatory.

Despite protests from civil rights groups, the state’s charter school association, and even the Bay State’s Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, Mystic Valley—which voted Sunday to suspend its policies for the remainder of the academic year—defends its dress code as critical for promoting equity and student academic success.

The school’s dress code sparked national attention earlier this month when parents of two African-American students at the school (15-year-old twins Deanna and Mya Cook) said their daughters received multiple detentions for wearing their hair in braids. They were also both barred from after-school sports, and Mya was banned from the junior prom. Though black students have worn hair extensions before, parents say Mystic Valley started cracking down on them in April.

Other Mystic Valley parents told The Boston Globe that their black children also received punishments for how they wore their hair. One mother said her daughter received detention for wearing braids. Then, when her daughter refused to remove them, she was suspended. Another mother told the Globe that an administrator called in her daughter, and 20 other girls, and asked them if they wore “fake” hair. Ten of those girls received detentions.

The school’s policy bans “drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles” and hairstyles that might be “distracting” to others. One example of an “unnatural” hair style is “hair more than two inches in thickness or height.” Black parents have noted that the school has taken no disciplinary action against white students who color their hair.

Mystic Valley originally defended its policy as necessary to minimize fashion expenses for enrolled students. “The specific prohibition of hair extensions, which are expensive and could serve as a differentiating factor between students from dissimilar socioeconomic backgrounds, is consistent with our desire to create an educational environment, one that celebrates all that students have in common and minimizes material differences and distractions,” Alexander Dan, the school’s interim director, said in a statement.

But civil rights advocates representing the Cook girls say the school’s explanation makes little sense. In a May 22 letter, the advocates—including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the National Women’s Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League—wrote that “the assumption that wearing braids with extensions constitutes a marker of wealth is erroneous” because braids cost less than other hairstyles that are permissible under the school’s policy. Moreover, the civil rights groups note that Mystic Valley “imposes significant costs” on students who participate in athletic programs, potentially limiting those extracurricular activities only to students “who can pay to play.”

“The school charges kids to be in certain clubs, and you pay much more to be on an athletic team,” says Sarah Wunsch, the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in an interview with The American Prospect. “So if they’re trying to even out any economic differences, it sure doesn’t look like it.”

The Boston Globe reported that braided styles using human or artificial hair can cost between $50 and $200 at Boston-area braiding salons. (Some individuals rely on family or friends to braid their hair at little to no charge.) The Cook girls have also worn chemically straightened hair styles; their parents said the price tag for both braids and straightened hair was about the same.

On May 15, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, saying that Mystic Valley’s hair policy “appears to be especially harmful to female students of color” and has been “enforced in a disparate manner against them.” This marks the second time the ACLU has filed a complaint against the charter school. In 2015, the civil liberties group contacted the state after Mystic Valley displayed signs that appeared to endorse a nearby Baptist church. The school quickly removed the signs.

Last Friday, even the head of the civil rights division in the state attorney general’s office informed the charter school that their hair and makeup policy “includes a number of prohibitions that are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively single out students of color.” The attorney general’s office is continuing to investigate the case, but called on Mystic Valley officials to “immediately cease enforcing or imposing discipline for violations” of their dress code as it pertains to hair extensions, afros, and shaved lines.

This past Sunday, the Mystic Valley board of trustees met privately to discuss the matter and ultimately voted to suspend the policies for the remainder of the school year. “The school will continue to work with the attorney general’s office to ensure that the uniform policy reflects our longstanding commitment to the rights of all our students,” said Dan, the school’s interim director. “Students who are either currently serving consequences or accruing them may immediately resume all before- and after-school activities.”

The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association praised the school officials’ decision but urged them to eliminate the policy altogether. “The Board took the right action to suspend its discriminatory policy, and now needs to rescind it permanently,” said Marc Kenen, the MCPSA’s executive director. “Charter schools aspire to develop cultural competence and achieve cultural proficiency. … Our students learn from each other’s differences.”

This week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP LDF), the ACLU of Massachusetts, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice announced they would be representing the Cook family and exploring legal action against Mystic Valley.

The civil rights groups criticized the charter school for failing to indicate how it would deal with the past punishments students received for dress-code violations, including whether the school would expunge students’ records of suspensions and detentions. They point to data from the state education department that shows black Mystic Valley students are nearly three times more likely to be suspended than white students, and for longer periods of time. And, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education data, every girl suspended during the 2013–2014 school year was black.

In an interview with the Prospect, Rachel Kleinman, a senior counsel at NAACP LDF, said that the situation at Mystic Valley “goes way beyond just the braids ban” and reflects a national problem with aggressive disciplinary policies for minor infractions that disproportionally impact black students. While noting that laws vary from state to state, Kleinman says that “in general as we see a move towards so-called school choice, towards funding private schools and charter schools at the expense of traditional schools that are subject to greater accountability, we worry about [this] trend.”

Even though the school has suspended the policy, Mystic Valley officials have since doubled down on a defense of their dress code. In a May 21 letter to parents, the school claimed the code is “central to the success of our students” since it provides “commonality, structure, and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions caused by vast socio-economic differences and competition over fashion, style or materialism.” Mystic Valley officials also said they believe their dress code could withstand a legal challenge—though they do not wish to pursue one.

“I think they’re simply wrong about that,” says Wunsch of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in regards to Mystic Valley’s claim that their dress code is legally defensible.