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.”

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.

The Untold History of Charter Schools

Originally published in Democracy Journal on April 27, 2017.
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Despite the controversy over their very existence, there isn’t much disagreement over how charter schools came to be. For over 25 years, charter supporters and opponents alike have settled on a straightforward creation story, one defined by a single irresistible irony: Charters were first and foremost the brainchild of teachers’ unions, the very same groups that would become the schools’ greatest foes.

The story goes something like this. In 1988, Albert Shanker, legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech at the National Press Club where he outlined his vision for a new kind of publicly funded, independently managed school. He called them “charters” and saw them as educational laboratories, where teachers could try out new pedagogical approaches. By empowering teachers to experiment with their craft, charters could serve as R&D spaces for new and better practices that could then be transferred back into traditional public schools. In a New York Times column published later that year, Shanker carried his ideas to the wider public.

Shanker said his piece, policymakers heard him and acted, and the rest—the explosion of charters, the debates over unionization and privatization, the constant experimentation with the form and structure of public schools—is history.

Today, this story has been weaponized by every side in the endless war over education reform. The Shanker speech, it turns out, is useful no matter where you stand on charter schools.

Many supporters use it to argue that charters are, ultimately, a progressive and student-friendly idea—but one abandoned by self-interested latter-day union leaders. Reform proponents like Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have defended the charter sector against union attacks by lifting up that Shanker “conceptualized” them. “Union leaders haven’t always been adamantly anti-charter,” Rees wrote last year in The Wall Street Journal. “[AFT President Randi] Weingarten’s former boss and mentor Al Shanker is actually credited with proposing charter schools.” “Here’s a fact,” wrote Laura Waters, a vocal charter advocate. “If Albert Shanker were alive today, he’d still be an education reformer and would support NJ’s efforts to expand school choice for poor urban students.” When a ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts struggled to find votes on the left, David Osborne, a centrist Democrat, penned a column to gin up progressive support. “Al Shanker gave a speech and wrote a column advocating charters,” Osborne said. “Needless to say, Shanker was no Republican.”

For their part, teacher unions and reform skeptics invoke the same origin story as evidence that they do support school choice and innovation, just teacher-led, unionized, mom-and-pop forms of it. They tell it as a story of an idea stolen and betrayed, drawing a contrast between good charters—those described by Shanker—and what the schools have become today. Supposedly, the creator of charters watched with horror as his idea was “hijacked” by conservatives, profiteers, and privatizers. As described in his biography, Tough Liberal, written by the Century Foundation’s senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Shanker “became quite exercised” by state laws written to allow for-profit corporations to enter the charter school sector. Shanker grew worried that charters might actually promote segregation, undermine public education, and be used as tools to destroy unions. By the mid-1990s, Kahlenberg writes, “Albert Shanker largely repudiated a major reform he had helped launch.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten likes to remind audiences that Shanker was one of the first proponents of charter schooling, but that unfortunately some “have shifted the intent of charters from incubating ideas and sharing successes to competing for market share and taxpayer dollars.” Unions are quick to point out that, in Shanker’s mind, charters would employ unionized teachers, would have union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.”

There’s only one problem with the idea that charters started with Shanker and his speech: It’s almost completely wrong.

Shanker didn’t invent the concept of charters. He wasn’t part of the long-running campaign to popularize them. His significant contribution was the term “charter school”—except he used it to describe a very different, loosely related idea.

Oh, and he didn’t invent that term, either.

The truth is that the modern fight over education reform has changed less than the people fighting would have us believe. Who invented charter schools? The same groups, it turns out, that are charters’ strongest backers today: business-oriented moderates and technocrats, focused on deregulation, disruption, and the hope of injecting free market dogmas into the public sector. Charters do have a founding father—but he’s a quintessentially neoliberal “policy entrepreneur” who has mostly kept his name out of the history books. The major principles undergirding charter schooling—choice, deregulation, and so-called accountability—had already attracted significant attention long before 1988, and proposals to break up the “monopoly” of school districts had been building for more than a decade. If Shanker helped usher some of these ideas into the limelight, the truth is that those ideas’ backers had many other roads into the inner circles of government—even if some of those roads had not yet been taken.

Progressives have always occupied an uneasy role in the charter movement—one that’s unlikely to get any easier so long as Donald Trump’s Administration remains the nation’s most powerful promoter of school choice. The untold history of charter schools shows why this is: Progressive reformers are stuck fighting against the tide in a campaign that has, from the start, looked at public institutions, labor, and government with a wary eye.

The real origin story of charters isn’t about unions gone astray or progressivism betrayed by reformers. It’s the story of the Third Way in public schools. And it begins, of all places, in Minnesota.

In the 1970s, deregulation was the name of the game. Efforts to deregulate major sectors of government took root under Ford and Carter, and continued to escalate throughout the 1980s under Reagan. From banking and energy to airlines and transportation, liberals and conservatives both worked to promote deregulatory initiatives spanning vast sectors of public policy.

Schools were not immune. Since at least the late 1970s, political leaders in Minnesota had been discussing ways to reduce direct public control of schools. A private school voucher bill died in the Minnesota legislature in 1977, and Minnesota’s Republican governor Al Quie, elected in 1979, was a vocal advocate for school choice.

Two prominent organizations were critical in advancing school deregulation in the state. One was the Minnesota Business Partnership, comprised of CEOs from the state’s largest private corporations; another was the Citizens League, a powerful, centrist Twin Cities policy group. When the League spoke, the legislature listened—and often enacted its proposals into law. In 1982 the Citizens League issued a report endorsing private school vouchers on the grounds that consumer choice could foster competition and improvement without increasing state spending, and backed a voucher bill in the legislature in 1983. The Business Partnership published its own report in 1984 calling for “profound structural change” in schooling, with recommendations for increased choice, deregulation, statewide testing, and accountability. The organized CEOs would play a major role throughout the 1980s lobbying for K-12 reform, as part of a broader agenda to limit taxes and state spending.

Efforts to tinker with public schooling took on greater urgency in 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation At Risk. This influential (though empirically flawed) document panicked political leaders across the country. Among other things, the report concluded that American public schools were failing—“eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity”—with ill-prepared teachers and low-quality standards. Its authors tied the country’s economy and national security to the supposedly poor performance of U.S. public schools, and Reagan capitalized on the alarm. His narrative fit snugly within the larger Cold War panic, and as in Minnesota, national business leaders were happy to promote this new movement.

School choice was not specifically mentioned in A Nation at Risk, though Governor Quie, who was then serving as a member on the National Commission, tried to get such recommendations included. But reformers didn’t have to wait long for a national endorsement. In 1986, the National Governors Association, chaired by Tennessee’s Republican governor Lamar Alexander, backed school choice in its Time for Results report.

Back in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, was elected as governor for his second non-consecutive term in 1983. (He had first served from 1976-1979.) During the four years that Quie governed Minnesota, Perpich worked on a global business committee for a supercomputer firm, and returned to government deeply shaped by his corporate experience.

Ember Reichgott Junge, the state senator who would author Minnesota’s—and the nation’s—first charter school bill, described Perpich’s role bluntly: “According to the history books, Minnesota DFL governor Rudy Perpich had nothing to do with passage of chartering legislation. In reality, he had everything to do with it.”

Junge traces this history in Zero Chance of Passage, her first-person account of legislating charter schools, published in 2012. Junge says Perpich was greatly troubled by A Nation at Risk, and thought increasing competition among schools would be a constructive response. As such, in 1985, with Republicans in control of the legislature, Perpich recommended two school choice proposals: postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), to allow high school juniors and seniors to attend nonsectarian public and private colleges, and open enrollment, to allow parents to send their children to schools anywhere in the state. PSEO passed in 1985, and open enrollment in 1987.

1987 was also the year that the Citizens League waded back into the subject, publishing a report calling for “cooperatively-managed schools”—where teachers could participate in the operational decisions of their workplace. The thinking was this could help drive more distinctive schools—because school choice would mean little without varied options to choose from. The Citizens League’s description of cooperatively managed schools is strikingly similar to modern-day charters. Teachers would be “held accountable” for student achievement, and the schools would “have flexibility to function differently from the schools we know today, from different uses of personnel and technology to different work hours.”

In the midst of this policy ferment came the famous—or infamous—1988 Al Shanker National Press Club speech. The AFT was in a precarious spot. Public support for organized labor was wavering. Ronald Reagan was still in office, and had earned a reputation as one of the most anti-union presidents in American history, in part by firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

Shanker thought part of the path toward saving public education was coopting the forces attacking it. He controversially endorsed aspects of A Nation at Risk, embracing its ideas about higher standards, teacher accountability, and “restructuring.” He wanted a seat at the reform table, and leaned into the idea of “professionalizing” teachers to bring his members along. Shanker felt educators needed to not be seen as obstructionist, and the years following A Nation at Risk marked a massive shift away from the blue-collar unionism that had previously defined the AFT. In 2011, Louise Sundin, who was president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 1984, said that Shanker’s agenda following A Nation at Risk “was a pretty screeching U-Turn” for the union, “and still is [today] a difficult one for a lot of our members and a lot of our leaders.”

When Shanker gave his charter speech, he fused his ideas about restructuring and teacher professionalization with the growing popularity of school choice. He got the idea (and the name “charter”) from a little-known educator in Massachusetts, Ray Budde, who proposed the idea of school boards issuing charters directly to teachers to create new departments or programs. Budde presented his ideas at an academic conference in 1974, but they received little notice. Budde decided to try republishing his ideas in book-form in the years following A Nation at Risk, and sent it around widely in early 1988. It landed, among other places, on Shanker’s desk.

As Kahlenberg notes in Tough Liberal, a focus on restructuring appealed to Shanker politically. Pressure had been mounting throughout the 1980s to lengthen the school day and school year, to vie with America’s competitors in other industrialized nations. But this idea was deeply unpopular with union members. “The re-structuring focus allowed Shanker to argue that a longer school day or school year was not worth the extra expense,” Kahlenberg writes. Charters offered Shanker a useful alternative.

Shanker wasn’t even the first noteworthy public figure to call for reorganizing public schools. In the late 1960s sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose work helped form the basis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, advocated for alternative public school systems run by institutions ranging from universities to the Department of Defense.

And once Shanker put his ideas forward, many ascribed to him far more power to shape the charter movement than he ever had, or even tried to have. Shanker’s endorsement was certainly politically valuable to reformers, but most had long had their own agendas. Ultimately he was just one of many people clamoring to define what direction school reform should take.

In fact, if charter schools can be attributed to any single person, it’s certainly not Shanker, Budde, or even Clark. It’s Ted Kolderie, a Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” and one-time Citizen’s League director who spent much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in the middle of discussions over school reform. His influence can be traced to almost every corner of the charter movement’s development, and unlike Shanker and the others, he remained dedicated to building and promoting the idea through decades of effort. Throughout the 1970s—through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO)—Kolderie’s group researched and advocated for different ways to provide government services, including education. As early as 1972 Citizens League published a report calling for “new arrangements”—namely with more choice and contracting. By 1981, Kolderie and a leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership launched Public School Incentives, a PSO successor focused exclusively on education.

One of Kolderie’s central ideas was to “end the exclusive franchise” of school districts providing public education. In several reports, he described the decline of public education as the direct consequence of public districts’ monopolistic power over schooling. His proposal: independent schools, accountable to parents through free market choice, and to the government through a set of contractual obligations. He specified that many different types of entities—universities, corporations, public school districts, nonprofits—should be able to manage these new schools, state law permitting.

This was a remarkably complete vision of the modern charter school, quirks and all.

So why do most people credit Albert Shanker with creating charters, and not Kolderie, who had been developing the concept for nearly two decades longer? One reason is because Kolderie liked it that way.

“To know Kolderie is to know someone of extraordinary vision, who often thinks light-years ahead, but still gently prods others along to where he wants them to go,” wrote Junge in Zero Chance of Passage. “Kolderie was a master at creating, refining, and redirecting ideas. He never would publicly ‘own’ any ideas, and ways to improve those ideas always presented themselves. He nurtured ideas and connected the dots for others.”

Kolderie seems to have understood that Shanker’s very different vision was a useful vehicle for his own ideas. In October 1988, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted its 14th annual Itasca Seminar, a summit for Twin Cities political and business leaders, and the year’s theme was public education. Shanker was invited to speak, and he took the opportunity to expound on charter schooling. His speech complemented the mix of school choice and independent school proposals that had been bouncing around Minnesota for quite some time.

Shanker wasn’t the only person to give a choice-oriented speech at that summit. Other speakers included Joe Nathan, a Twin Cities education reformer who personally worked with Lamar Alexander in the early 1980s to shape the school choice recommendations in the National Governors Association (NGA)’s Time For Results report. At the Itasca Seminar, Nathan would emphasize the need for greater school deregulation in exchange for “results.”

Two months later the Citizens League would issue yet another report, concluding with a strong and specific recommendation that the state legislature allow for the creation of “chartered” schools.

With Junge’s help, Minnesota would pass the nation’s first charter law three years later. Kolderie and Junge like to credit Shanker for helping to shape their ideas, but the final legislation appeared to be in response to the Citizen’s Leagues recommendations—and more than anything else, reflected Kolderie’s own vision of independent, contractually authorized schools.

In the end, Shanker’s comments on the law he was supposedly instrumental in creating were limited. Though Minnesota’s teachers unions fought the law’s passage, Shanker chose not to speak out during the legislative debates.

“I wish the architects of the bill had worked out the collective bargaining issues with the teachers unions,” Shanker told Kolderie, two months after it passed.

Although conservatives led the way in for pushing education reform in the 1980s, centrist liberals jumped on board in the early 1990s. In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as its chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie met PPI’s president in 1990, and was invited to write one of its first policy papers about school choice. Kolderie was happy to bring his ideas about “withdrawing the exclusive [monopoly]” of school districts to the Third Way. Bill Clinton embraced Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches that year, even though he knew it was vexing teachers unions. (“It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches,” Shanker would later complain.)

1990 was also when Wisconsin’s Republican governor Tommy Thompson signed the nation’s first private school voucher program, and when John Chubb and Terry Moe published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, an influential Brookings Institution book that called for school deregulation, market competition, and parental choice.

The “New Democrats” saw charters as a way to seem proactive on education policy, offer an alternative to private school vouchers, and avoid catering to the “More Money Dem” crowd, as DLC’s co-founder, Will Marshall, put it. For liberals who sought to weaken their party’s relationships with “special interest groups” like teachers unions, charters were a boon.

At the DLC’s national convention in May of 1991, Bill Clinton and DLC delegates would endorse an education agenda that included, among other things, school choice, accountability, and Kolderie’s idea, which the DLC explained as “giving entities other than school districts” the chance to operate public schools. Even in this early stage, the agenda followed Kolderie’s market-oriented vision, not Shanker’s union-oriented one.

Democrats’ endorsement of charters did little to dampen conservative enthusiasm for the idea. Indeed, Kolderie continued to serve as a trusted education advisor for David Durenberger, Minnesota’s Republican senator, who became an early federal champion for charter schooling.

At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the “technocratic centrists”: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism. While charters have drawn praise from other quarters—for instance, some educators and progressive activists see them as tools for racial and economic justice—these groups have never formed the heart of charters’ power base.

It hasn’t always been easy to hold the bipartisan charter coalition together, and fairly stark philosophical divisions have been bubbling to the surface over the past few years concerning what the movement’s priorities should be going forward. The election of Donald Trump, and his appointment of GOP billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, has plunged the charter movement into an even deeper crisis of identity.

Progressive and centrist charter leaders have so far been trying to walk the line between pushing back on the President’s far-right politics and remaining reserved, lest useful opportunities for bipartisan cooperation arise. But grassroots pressure for more aggressive opposition has been mounting.

Other parts of the coalition are moving in the opposite direction. The stocks on for-profit charters have spiked significantly since the election, with industry leaders anticipating a friendly new political landscape for what some in the reform coalition see as low-quality schools. In New York City, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz has emerged, to the chagrin of many liberals, as one of Trump’s most prominent charter defenders. (Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors include major Trump donors such as John Paulson and Robert Mercer.)

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charters, educating nearly three million students. Whether charter supporters can maintain the movement’s bipartisan backing while receiving support from a deeply unpopular President who promises to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” remains an open, and dicey, question.

The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.

Besides, on some level, the dramatically compelling nature of the story—unions creating their own greatest antagonist—keeps people from digging deeper. As a writer, it’s easy to want to believe it. This author would know, having once subscribed to it herself.

But the Shanker tale may have also helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform. Most charters are more segregatedthan traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.

The Shanker myth also leaves those who support traditional public schooling, in its original form, stranded in a political no man’s land. And right now, those people are in the fight of their lives, looking for firmer footing. More broadly, the Democratic Party has grown wary of the Third Way policies of the 1990s, suspecting they provide little defense against a resurgent right. As the charter coalition enters a new, treacherous era, the consensus history of charter schools may at last meet some resistance.

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 19, 2017.
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When it comes to education reform, perhaps no city has inspired more controversy and acclaim over the last decade than Washington, D.C. Even today, uttering the name “Michelle Rhee”—the city’s first schools chancellor appointed in 2007 after a major shakeup in the district—still evokes heated reactions from local residents. Following the dissolution of the local school board and the centralization of education decision-making within the mayor’s office, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty commanded an unusual amount of power to change D.C.’s schools.

Over the past ten years, the policies undergirding the national education reform movement—offering more school choice, weakening teacher union power, and creating new accountability systems (with incentives like pay-for-performance and teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores)—have taken hold in the nation’s capital. Some see these moves as encouraging proof that education reform is working. Proponents point to positive benchmarks: District enrollment is growing; D.C. scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved (in some cases at a much faster rate than students in other large urban districts); and teachers who left the district after receiving low marks on D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system were replaced with higher-scoring teachers who boosted student achievement.

Research suggests that D.C. charter schools have made strides in student learning compared with the city’s traditional public schools, and the city’s overall test gains cannot be explained by demographic changes alone. In 2016, Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine (whose wife helped craft some of D.C.’s new policies and now works for a local charter school), declared, “The dramatic improvements registered in places like Washington show the revolutionary possibilities of education reform.”

For others, these gains have been overstated. Critics point to large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, misleading claims made by the school district’s public relations department, uncritical press coverage, a precipitous decline in black educators, and funding that has been inequitably distributed to some of the city’s most impoverished schools.

“I know that too many of the successes boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores,” a D.C. charter teacher wrote recently. “Too much of what I see in my school today is exactly what I saw ten years ago.” After a decade working in D.C. schools, she is calling it quits.

Subsequent D.C. mayors (Vincent Gray, elected in 2011, and Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014) and schools chancellors (Kaya Henderson, appointed in late 2010, and Antwan Wilson, in late 2016) have largely continued to promote the school reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee. Though it’s been more than two months since Wilson took over as D.C.’s new schools chancellor, it is unclear how he will steer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) between these competing narratives of success and hype. A better understanding of D.C. school reform, which was long heralded by the Obama administration as a national model, matters even more now that Donald Trump’s administration aims to expand school choice policies across the country—likely beginning with the nation’s capital.

 

THOUGH PEOPLE REMAIN starkly divided over education reform in D.C., the one thing both critics and supporters agree on is that the old way of evaluating teachers had to change. Removing bad teachers from the classroom had been too difficult. Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent, says it was well-known that some teachers shouldn’t have been there, but they were hard to fire.

“There was peak enrollment in the late 1960s, and after that [the district] just abandoned their gatekeeping test and started hiring anyone who was breathing so long as they had a degree,” Levy says. “My older daughter had one of those teachers, and she was unbelievably bad. So the district had an older workforce to whom no standards had been applied, and when enrollment started going down, and there were big layoffs in the 1980s, every elementary teacher with less than ten years in the system lost their jobs, and the older ones got to stay.”

“The union contract in D.C. was awful,” says Mark Simon, an Economic Policy Institute research associate and a former president of the Montgomery County (Maryland) teachers union. “It was an example of the kind of contract that existed in some school districts where the limitations placed on teachers’ time and the specificity of what administrators had to do [for] an evaluation [to] hold weight was so rigid that more often than not, teachers could not be evaluated out of the school system.” Simon added, “If a principal did not get the right documents filled out the right way on just the right line, then the whole thing was thrown out by an arbitrator.”

An American Prospect review of a 2006 D.C. teacher evaluation handbook corroborates these observations. One byzantine rule stipulated that to terminate an ineffective teacher by the end of the school year, the administrator had to make a decision no later than the first week of January. If the process began with less than 90 days remaining in the school year, “the educator must be granted permission to return to the same site the next school year” as the process continued.

Simon opposes D.C.’s new system, IMPACT, which ranks teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, minimally effective, or ineffective, arguing that it de-professionalizes teachers. He contrasts IMPACT with the system he helped pioneer in the 1990s as union president for Montgomery County, D.C.’s suburban neighbor. Simon wrote in 2012, “The focus of teacher evaluation in Montgomery County is professional growth—the nurturing of good teaching, not the sorting and ranking of the teacher workforce.” He added: “Although an evaluation system must be able to weed out people who never should have entered teaching, that objective only applies to a tiny percentage of the workforce and must not be the system’s main purpose. Good teachers are not found through some magical recruitment pipeline. They are made, over time.”

Simon says that in 2008 he approached Jason Kamras, the D.C. school official charged with developing a new teacher evaluation system, and suggested that the district craft a system similar to Montgomery County’s. “[Kamras] ran it up the food chain, said other people had suggested the same thing, but that the response was that it takes too long, costs too much, we’re not interested, we want to use a rubric to hire and fire,” says Simon.

There had been some innovative teacher evaluation models at the time—Toledo, Ohio, was experimenting with peer review and others were exploring so-called professional learning communities. Even though Simon was critical of IMPACT, he agreed that policymakers had not been focusing much on improving teacher quality through feedback and evaluation.

“I think the reformers are right that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to teacher evaluation, and in a lot of places the systems were pretty pro-forma,” says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California, Berkeley public policy and economics professor. “But there were places that were doing it better, and that typically involved things like mentor[ing] teachers and careful classroom observations.”

One reason D.C.’s education reforms attracted significant attention across the country was their timing: DCPS started using IMPACT to evaluate teachers during the 2009–2010 school year, just as the education reform organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report recommending that districts develop evaluation systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.”

IMPACT and TNTP’s 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. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

By January 2010, 40 states had applied for the first round of competitive Race to the Top grants. The first two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants of $500 million and $100 million, respectively. Tennessee’s proposal notably included a teacher evaluation system that looked just like D.C.’s.

Since Tennessee won the first and biggest prize for a proposal modeled on IMPACT, D.C.’s program garnered even more notice. There was little research on its actual effectiveness, but many states nevertheless looked to D.C. as a leader to emulate. “All of these states were in the middle of a financial crisis, where their revenue declined dramatically, and to get this grant money they had to pretty quickly come up with new plans,” says Matt Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. “I certainly think there is a tendency, an understandable tendency, to look around and see what other people are doing who were successful winning funds.”

 

FOR YEARS, THE D.C. public schools have been known as factious battlegrounds for education reformers of all stripes; new plans and policies would be implemented every few years, only to have new leaders and competing agendas ushered in shortly afterward. The day before Rhee was appointed, The Washington Post traced this trajectory, noting: “The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. … Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.”

In 1989, a coalition of more than 60 business and community leaders published a report calling for sweeping changes to D.C. education, including closing and rehabilitating schools, lengthening the school day, and drafting new curriculum standards. “There have been countless studies, task forces, and five-year plans for the District’s schools, but few come close to the size and scope of this effort,” the Post reported at the time. The coalition spent six months and $500,000 on the effort, yet like those that came before it, their recommendations bore little fruit.

By 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority issued another report declaring the city’s public schools to be in crisis, and called for urgent changes. By 2004, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national nonprofit, published its own report, noting that D.C. remained one of the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation. They recommended a series of reforms that had been floated over the past five decades—new accountability systems for student achievement, more standardized curricula and instruction, and incentives to attract high-quality teachers to work in the most challenging schools.

Unlike other places, elected D.C. officials must compete with federal leaders for authority over the city’s public schools. Congress can overturn laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and the District’s two members of Congress cannot vote on legislation. The introduction of an elected school board in 1968 and the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973 were attempts to increase local political representation, but the school board and council lacked independent taxing authority. It was no small sacrifice for residents when city leaders voted to dissolve the school board in 2007—dismantling one of the city’s only elected bodies. But local officials felt drastic action was needed given DCPS’s poor outcomes.

Rhee’s tenure as chancellor was controversial, both locally and across the country. In addition to pushing forward a new teacher evaluation system, she fired hundreds of teachers, replaced principals, and closed schools. Her brash style of leadership frustrated even those who backed her policy ideas. Following Rhee’s resignation in 2010 after Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic mayoral primary, the new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, continued to promote her predecessor’s policies—albeit in a less polarizing way.

MEANWHILE, D.C.’S REFORMS continued to attract glowing praise. In 2013, The Washington Post editorial board concluded that there was “unassailable” evidence that the city’s reforms, based on “high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice” worked. In 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said D.C. was “by every measure the fastest-improving big city school district in the nation.” New America called D.C.’s teacher evaluation “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get.”

All the talk of success and failure led Steven Glazerman, a Mathematica Policy Research fellow, to coin a new phrase—“misNAEPery”—which describes how leaders and pundits wrongly attribute the rise and fall in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to the success or failure of specific education policies. “D.C. [NAEP] scores [rose] faster than other cities—that part is basically true, but if you want to say it’s because of school reform, that’s a harder case to make,” says Glazerman. Alan Ginsburg, a retired 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Education, published a report in 2011 that found that D.C. NAEP scores were already steadily improving before Michelle Rhee took over in 2007, and that “the rates of D.C. score gains under Rhee were no better than the rates achieved under [the prior two superintendents].”

Another thorny issue is demographics: Some critics charge that any documented learning gains can be attributed to the increase in white, affluent students who now enroll in DCPS. Yet when controlling for demographics, about two-thirds of the city’s ten-year gains in math persist for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students. However, controlling for demographics does make the ten-year reading gains for eighth graders almost entirely disappear. In late February, Levy, the independent D.C. budget analyst, went before the city council to testify about the district’s low academic performance. She noted that the lowest achieving groups are black males, at-risk students, and special education students. Achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students have narrowed somewhat since 2003, but white proficiency rates still run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates, and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates. Socioeconomic gaps have widened.

“We have an ever-worsening achievement gap in this city, that has been spun into the D.C. miracle,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Were a teacher to perform in this manner for their students, they’d have long since lost their jobs.”

Critics have raised other concerns about the way D.C school reform has been cast as an example of “clear progress.” School funding advocates have criticized DCPS for inequitably distributing financial resources to the neediest schools, and last September, the Washington City Paper published a cover story on Kaya Henderson’s failure to deliver on her five-year strategic plan. A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project explores the city’s heavily segregated schools.

But if there’s one reform that supporters of D.C.’s school policies point to as evidence of success, it’s IMPACT. In 2013, two education economists published a working paper suggesting that D.C.’s teacher evaluation system induced teachers with low evaluation scores to voluntarily leave DCPS, and improved the performance of teachers who stayed. In 2016, the researchers published another working paper that found DCPS teacher turnover between 2011 and 2013 led to a net positive effect on student test scores—suggesting that turnover is not necessarily bad if low-performing teachers can be replaced with higher-quality ones.

These were encouraging results, but DCPS officials went on to exaggerate the findings. School administrators falsely said the research showed teachers and students improved because of IMPACT, and that IMPACT caused low-performing teachers to leave. The researchers had repeatedly emphasized that their work was not an evaluation of IMPACT, per se.

“DCPS has one of the best publicity operations I have ever seen,” says Levy. “I think, unfortunately, they go beyond spin, and into some areas of half-truths.”

DCPS was not alone in spinning the IMPACT studies. Supporters of VAM, a controversial statistical tool that uses student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness, tried to frame the positive IMPACT studies as proof of VAM’s merit. “People looked at the study and concluded it must be the VAM-based firing that did it, and that’s not supported by the evidence,” says Jesse Rothstein, who has raised concerns about using VAM in teacher evaluations.

The real issue with attributing the researchers’ results to IMPACT is that there’s no proof that other new teacher evaluation systems wouldn’t have also worked. Dee and Wyckoff also caution that despite the positive results of their research, IMPACT might not work as a national model, given that D.C. is a particularly attractive location to live in (thus it has an unusually robust labor pool). The high salaries and bonuses DCPS teachers earn would likewise be difficult for many struggling school districts to adopt.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Dee adds that the leadership in D.C. was very strong and thoughtful, and that a system like IMPACT might not thrive under different political conditions. “When I present the IMPACT work, I say, yes, it does seem extremely promising but I worry it won’t be a proof point,” says Dee. “You had certain planets in alignment politically, and capable, entrepreneurial leadership.”

Indeed, one factor that worked in DCPS’s favor was that the 4,000-member Washington Teachers Union was significantly weakened, and unable to successfully fight against using test scores to evaluate teachers. The WTU has been under siege since the Rhee years, and teachers have been working under a contract that expired in 2012.

According to Davis, the union president, DCPS educators still strongly oppose the new evaluation system. “IMPACT does little to seed improvement in practice,” Davis says. “Our professionals don’t believe teaching every year should be a scene out of The Hunger Games, fighting for survival against what could best be considered arbitrary standards.” She adds, “WTU teachers believe that educators should have an evaluation system that focuses on supporting and assisting those who work in the classroom and holds the whole system accountable, not one that obsesses on points, ratings, and consequences solely for teachers.”

David Grosso, a city councilmember and the chairman of the education committee, tells me that while he respects the teachers union, when they “testify or complain or say things are awful, it’s hard to believe” based on his personal conversations with educators. “Nine out of ten teachers I speak to are pretty happy and feel like they’re making a difference,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re a teacher in the District of Columbia, you have the support that you need and when you are successful, you will get paid a lot of money and be treated with a lot of respect, and that’s just a reality.”

For what it’s worth, schools located in the poorest areas of the city have the smallest percentage of teachers rated “highly effective” under IMPACT. Teacher turnover districtwide also remains very high. Levy, the budget analyst, finds almost half of all newly hired teachers, whether experienced or new to the profession, leave the classroom within two years; and 75 percent leave within five years. There is similar turnover among principals: Levy finds most schools have had two or three principals in the last five years.

ONE REASON IT’S become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.

When D.C. passed its 2007 education reform law, one provision required the mayor to produce annual evaluations on new school reforms, such as academic achievement and personnel policies. The law also allowed the mayor to skip the annual reports and produce a five-year independent evaluation by September 2012. Fenty opted for the latter—but his two proposed evaluators, Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Kenneth Wong of Brown University, had both supported the DC mayoral school-takeover plan. Then-councilmember Vincent Gray objected to Fenty’s picks, arguing that they involved conflicts of interest.

Gray also objected to the mayor’s desire to have the $750,000 evaluation paid for by an entity known as the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private organization launched and run by a former Fenty aide, which solicits private-sector donations to support education reform. Gray believed that the evaluation should be publicly funded. Yet three years later, when Gray himself ran for mayor, his tune on rigorous evaluations changed. “Adrian Fenty refused to carry out the evaluation, and when Gray ran against Fenty, he also lost interest,” says Levy. “Gray’s attitude changed a lot when he became mayor.”

Levy thinks that incentives for oversight worsened after the switch to mayoral control. Before the change, the city council would sketch out the school district’s finances, but the body could not control how those funds were actually spent. This dynamic frustrated councilmembers who were often blamed for the public schools’ struggles, but had few tools to address the problems. This issue led the council to enact tougher oversight measures. “The public would come down and say, ‘You need to give us more money,’ and the city council wanted to justify not coming up with all of it,” Levy explains.

But after the move to mayoral control, DCPS failures were no longer pinned on the city council. “Now the mayor comes up with a budget number for the school system and that’s pretty much it,” says Levy, who thinks the city council is not interested in rocking the boat. “They too have gotten all this good publicity,” Levy says, in regards to the supposed successful turnaround of DCPS.

D.C. finally produced a publicly funded independent evaluation of its school reforms in 2015. The National Research Council, an organization chartered by Congress, conducted the review and found some promising evidence of improvements, but the evaluators identified many persistent disparities, and noted a lack of comprehensive, accessible data. They said they were often unable to obtain important information for their research effort, and recommended the creation of a data warehouse for ongoing, independent studies.

After the NRC issued its report, a group of education advocates and public policy researchers gathered in 2016 to discuss creating an independent think tank to evaluate D.C. education policies. Inspired by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has access to a broad range of Chicago Public School data, the D.C. group envisioned their think tank serving a similar function as the Congressional Budget Office.

Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. “The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,” he says. “Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”

He thinks the idea of a publicly funded research organization akin to the CBO is a good one, but that it could be a heavy lift to get off the ground. It would take real leadership, and right now, the mayor and the city council have few incentives to poke holes in the narrative that D.C. school reform has been a tremendous success.

“We met for about six months and put together a proposal,” says Mark Simon, who was involved in the 2016 effort. “Initially we got good, positive encouragement from David Grosso, and he basically promised to put money in the budget, but when we got to the actual budget hearings we were iced out.”

The Prospect asked Grosso why he withdrew his support for the independent research organization. “I hadn’t heard that much about it, but I do support the idea for third-party analysis and review of what we’re doing in DCPS, but I was not convinced that what they were offering at the time was the best approach,” he said. “It seemed like it was a purely academic thing. There was a desire to do something similar to what was done in Chicago and, in the end, I decided I did not want to do that. I thought it would confuse governance in the city more than it would help.”

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, DCPS’s new schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, took over. Prior to coming to D.C., he spent two years as the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California and worked as a public school administrator in Denver. He also participated in a superintendent training academy funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which finances education reform efforts. “The candidate [Mayor Bowser] has selected appears by résumé and reputation to have the same kind of forward-thinking passion for excellence that has helped make D.C. schools the fastest-improving urban school district in the country,” The Washington Post editorial board said in November.

Wilson declined the Prospect’s request for an interview through DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. Lerner is a former communications manager for several reform-driven organizations, including the Fordham Institute and the advocacy group American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. secretary of education.

Looking to the future, Councilmember Grosso says D.C. will need to invest more heavily in wrap-around services for poor students, including basic health care, housing, and resources for coping with trauma. He says that he’s spoken with Antwon Wilson and that the new chancellor “absolutely understands” this.

The bipartisan political forces that shepherded D.C.’s education policies may shift in the coming years, as the election of Trump and the ascendance of the controversial DeVos threaten to fracture some of the Obama-era coalitions. New leadership, both in the district and the mayor’s office, could also portend greater changes for D.C. public education.

Though Glazerman is skeptical that a publicly funded research agency committed to robust, independent evaluations will be created, it is possible that Wilson may be more open to the idea, since his outsider status might shield him from the fallout from any negative findings—at least at the outset. Mary Levy also thinks the independent think tank idea could resurface, citing the new influx of upper-middle-class families who send their children to D.C. public schools.

“They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “These are city parents behaving like persistent suburban parents. So in the future, this idea may grow.”

D.C. Charter Teachers Seek to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 22, 2017.
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This morning, teachers at Paul Public Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Washington, D.C., publicly announced their intent to unionize—a first for charter schoolteachers in the nation’s capital. As in other cities where charter teachers have formed unions, the Paul educators are forming their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which will be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. 75 percent of Paul’s teaching staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked administrators to voluntarily recognize their union.

The Center for Education Reform estimates that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized nationally, up from seven percent in 2012. As more and more charter teachers have launched organizing efforts, the absence of charter unions in Washington, D.C., has been notable—particularly given the city’s high density of charter schools. There are 118 charters—run by 65 nonprofits—within D.C., educating 44 percent of the city’s public school students.

Patricia Sanabria, a high school English and special education teacher at Paul, is excited about unionizing with her colleagues. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Sanabria is a product of D.C. public schools, and spent two years teaching at Ballou High School, a traditional public school in one of the poorest parts of the city, before coming to her charter.

When she first started working at Paul—which educates about 700 students from grades 6-12—Sanabria felt very supported by the staff, which was much smaller than Ballou’s. “It felt more like a family, I felt a lot more at home,” she says. But over the past three years, that feeling has waned, and this year has been especially frustrating.

“When I first got here, the teacher in the classroom next to mine told me that charter schools are ‘teacher factories’, and it’s very true,” Sanabria says. “They keep giving us things to do, and they don’t take into account how much time that adds to our work day. I would say I’m pretty routinely here for 10 hours or more a day, and that’s just not something you see in other professions, and certainly if you do see it, people are compensated for it.”

Sanabria thinks the working conditions negatively impact her school’s special education program, and she hopes a union can help improve it. “Part of that is linked to teacher retention and the hiring of teachers,” she explains. “I think [Paul] is not a very attractive one for special educators, who often have multiple degrees, because we don’t offer competitive salaries. If I had stayed working for DCPS I would be making more than $10,000 a year more than I am now as a fifth-year teacher.”

Two things happened last year which helped precipitate the union effort.

The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-16 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements. After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class sizes, and increased time for teacher planning. But the suggestions went nowhere.

“Soft diplomacy has been tried,” says Dave Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul, and the first person at his charter to reach out to the AFT.

“Nothing really came out of the consultant committee, nothing substantial, no major changes,” adds Katrina Foster, a special education coordinator who has been working at Paul for seven years. “So the union was just kind of the next step, [we] organically moved into starting this movement.”

Paul teachers also grew frustrated at the end of last year when the high school’s popular principal did not have her contract renewed. Educators say they were given no clear explanation for her firing, and the teachers rallied together for the principal’s reinstatement. Their efforts, too,  went nowhere. For teachers like Koenig, that was the last straw.

“In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them. I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown,” says Koenig. “I don’t want that to continue to happen. I want the staff to be stable and happy, and I think a union is part of how we get there.”

“I don’t think the union is for any one particular thing, but mainly to support staff, to give teachers a voice, and recourse,” says Foster.

Representatives from Paul Public Charter were not available for immediate comment.

Two key factors have inhibited charter organizing in Washington, D.C.

Charter teachers in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans—where successful charter unions have taken root—have had the benefit of receiving help from their state teachers union. When charter teachers have just begun trying to launch a brand new local off the ground, state affiliates have provided them with valuable transitional support and bargaining staff. No such intermediate body exists for the District of Columbia.

The Washington Teachers Union, D.C.’s traditional public school teachers union, has also been particularly embattled in recent years. In 2007, the city hired a controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who was empowered to make decisions largely without school board or city council approval. As charter schools expanded throughout the city, Rhee proceeded to fire hundreds of teachers from traditional public schools, and regularly engaged in high-profile fights with the WTU.

Rhee left in 2010, but the union has since struggled to find its footing and regain power. Its current president, Elizabeth Davis, was elected in 2013, and has spent the majority of her tenure trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Teachers have been working under a contract that expired back in 2012, and haven’t had a base-level salary increase since then.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Davis says she’s always been interested in helping to support charter school organizing, and that her members are interested in it, too. “The first three years of my presidency just ended up being far more than I anticipated,” she says, in reference to the contract negotiations that have commanded the union’s attention and resources.

“But our union is going to support charter teachers organizing in any way we can,” Davis said. “We want teachers, irrespective of what schools they teach in, public or charter, to have a union.”

Paul charter teachers say they’re looking forward to forming DC ACTS, rather than joining the 4,000-member WTU, because it will allow them to build something from the ground up. “I think being in our own local, and such a small unit, is going to allow us the freedom to be creative and innovative in terms of what we negotiate for,” says Koenig.

Paul’s educators plan to organize under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Last summer, the NLRB issued a pair of decisions which said that charter school teachers are private employees who fall under the federal labor board’s purview. Even before the NLRB ruling, D.C.’s public employees’ labor board, which covers teachers and other staff in traditional public schools, had excluded charters from its purview.

If Paul Public Charter School administrators do not voluntarily recognize their teachers’ union, and challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction should the staff then move for an election, the administration would effectively be saying that D.C. charter school teachers should have no formal rights under any labor board—public or private. Union opponents may see an opportunity to overturn the NLRB’s charter rulings in the Trump administration, given that Trump has named Philip Miscimarra as the board’s new acting chairman. Miscimarra was the sole dissenting voice in the 2016 charter school decisions, and argues that charter labor law should be left to state and local regulators.

Across the country, charter administrators and board members have generally fought union efforts, insisting that collective bargaining agreements would inhibit charter school success and flexibility. Gina Mahony, the former vice president for government relations for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a group that strongly discourages charter unionization, sits on the Paul Public Charter School’s board of trustees.

While Koenig says improving Paul is his top priority, he’s also hopeful that starting DC ACTS could spark broader change within D.C.’s charter school sector.

“This has always been partially political for me,” he says. “Problems we face at Paul are also problems in other charter and public schools. A really disturbing theme in education today is how teachers are treated so poorly, so that the good ones are pushed out, and automatons are brought in who are willing to simply teach skills for standardized tests. I think teachers unions are our only way to fight back against things like that, and unions in general are very important to fight back against a changing economy that crushes working people.”

Public Education under Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect winter 2017 issue.
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On November 8, 2016, the man who vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” won the presidential contest. About two weeks later he announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has aggressively lobbied for private-school vouchers, online education, and for-profit charter schools, would serve as his education secretary. In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers in Washington, D.C., that he hoped “there’s an earthquake” in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. “Be big, be bold, or go home,” he urged the crowd.

To say education conservatives are ecstatic about their new political opportunities would be an understatement. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate, a politically savvy conservative ideologue leading the federal education department, a vice president who earned notoriety in his home state for expanding vouchers, charters, and battling teacher unions, not to mention a president-elect who initially asked creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up his Department of Education, the stars have aligned for market-driven education advocates.

Donald Trump neither prioritized education on the campaign trail, nor unveiled detailed policy proposals, but the ideas he did put forth, in addition to his selection of Betsy DeVos, make clear where public education may be headed on his watch. And with a GOP Congress freed from a Democratic presidential veto, conservative lawmakers have already begun eyeing new legislation that just a few months ago seemed like political pipedreams.

Many aspects of education policy are handled at the state and local level, of course, but Republicans will govern in 33 states, and Trump will have substantial latitude to influence their agenda. The next few years may well bring about radical change to education.

School Choice

“President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proclaimed. “Donald is going to create incentives that promote and open more charter schools. It’s a priority.”

Giuliani’s comments reflect the enthusiasm that Trump expressed about choice and charters while campaigning for president. During a March primary debate, Trump said charters were “terrific” and affirmed they “work and they work very well.” A few months later he traveled to a low-performing for-profit charter school in Cleveland to say he’d invest $20 billion in federal money to expand charters and private-school vouchers as president. His campaign has not outlined where the money would come from, but suggests it will be accomplished by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

Trump’s ambitions will likely be aided by his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers while serving as Indiana’s governor. Pence loosened the eligibility requirements for students to obtain vouchers, and eliminated the cap on voucher recipients. Today, more than 30,000 Indiana students—including middle-class students—attend private and parochial schools with public funds, making it the largest single voucher program in the country. Pence also helped double the number of charter schools in his state; he increased their funding and gave charter operators access to low-interest state loans for facilities.

In the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to expand Washington, D.C.’s private-school voucher program, which has paid for about 6,500 students to attend mostly religious schools since the program launched in 2004. “I think [the Republican Congress and new administration] could eventually turn D.C. into an all-choice district like we see in New Orleans,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Congress also allocates $333 million per year to the federal charter school program, and groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are calling for that number to rise to $1 billion annually. Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that to the extent the federal charter school program is well funded, states will continue to feel pressure to position themselves competitively for those dollars.

Conservative leaders at the state level are also looking to expand private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, in addition to private-school tuition. At the Washington conference where Jeb Bush keynoted, panelists spoke enthusiastically about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in all 50 states. On the campaign trail, Trump called for expanding private-school vouchers for low-income students, but his vice president-elect and his nominee for education secretary both support giving vouchers to middle-class families, too.

Congressional Republicans may also try to establish federal tax-savings accounts for K–12, which are similar to the 529 plans that already exist for higher education, and which mainly benefit well-off families. They also may push for federal tax credit scholarships, which would provide tax relief to individuals and businesses that help low-income children pay for private school.

In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Bush and Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy traded federal standards for more federal funding. The subtext was the Republican narrative that public schools were failing. This in turn led to the era of standardized testing and punitive measures against “failing” schools. Later, by appointing former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, and passing over such progressive reformers as Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama sided with those who sought measures like the nationalization of academic standards. The new backlash from conservatives against testing and the Common Core should not be interpreted as a rejection of a federal role. The right loves it when Washington intervenes—if it serves the right’s purposes.

The Department of Education

Trump has boasted that he would reduce the size of the federal government, and his DeVos-led Department of Education is one likely place he’ll start. Though threatening to dismantle that federal agency is a long-standing Republican tradition, surrogates say it is more likely that Trump will try and “starve” the department, and downsize its responsibilities, rather than kill it outright.

In October, Carl P. Paladino, a New York real-estate developer who was briefly considered for education secretary, took to the stage on Trump’s behalf at a national urban education conference and said the department’s Office for Civil Rights—which oversees initiatives like tackling college sexual assault and reforming school discipline—was spewing “absolute nonsense.”

Obama’s Education Department has given unprecedented attention to reducing racial disparities in school discipline, issuing the first set of national guidelines in 2014 and making clear that it would hold districts accountable for discriminatory practices. Policy experts think these efforts will fall quickly by the wayside in the coming years.

In a press conference following Trump’s victory, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said his boss believes the Office for Civil Rights should be reined in. “There will be aggressive oversight from Congress to make sure it shrinks back to its statutory authority and responsibilities,” Cleary said.

Another major threat to the Education Department is a significant loss of institutional knowledge. Politico reported that the agency is already experiencing a loss of morale since the election, and bracing for a serious brain drain: Many veteran employees who have served for decades, in addition to younger staff who entered government under Obama, are considering leaving because they don’t want to work for a President Trump.

Common Core

One crowd-pleasing element of candidate Trump’s stump speech was his promise to “kill” Common Core—the standards launched in 2009 that lay out what all K–12 students are expected to learn in English and math. The standards, which were created by a coalition of state governors, and incentivized by the Obama administration through the federal Race to the Top program, have been a flashpoint for conservatives, who see them as a threat to “local control.” Trump vowed to eliminate Common Core through the so-called School Choice and Education Opportunity Act—part of the legislative agenda he says he’ll focus on during his first 100 days. DeVos now stresses that she does not support Common Core, although an organization she founded—the Great Lakes Education Project, which she also funded and served as a board member for—strongly backed the standards in 2013.

While there are limits to what Trump and DeVos could do to end the Common Core standards (they are state standards, after all), Trump’s executive bully pulpit could certainly help embolden Common Core opponents on the local level.

Still, Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, is not so worried about the future of the national education standards. “I don’t even think Donald Trump knows what the Common Core is,” she says. And despite candidate Trump’s demagoguery, Brown points out that states haven’t really abandoned them, even in more conservative parts of the country. “To the extent that states have changed their standards, they basically renamed them and kept the basic content,” she says.

Teachers Unions

This past year, public-sector unions faced an existential threat from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn a 40-year-old ruling that required public employees represented by a union to pay fees to cover the union’s bargaining and representation costs, even if they do not pay full membership dues. Five of the nine justices were clearly primed to rule against the so-called “agency fees” and upend decades of legal precedent, but Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, before the Court could rule. The case ended up in a 4–4 tie, leaving the law, and collective bargaining, in place.

Now that the Republican Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s appointment of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump will nominate a conservative Scalia successor to the Court. With a number of Friedrichs look-alike cases headed to the Supreme Court, it’s a near certainty that a reconstituted majority of five conservative justices will strike down agency fees, which could considerably reduce the resources available to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—two of the nation’s largest unions. Were that not trouble enough, the massive support that the AFT and NEA gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not likely to endear them to a president with a well-known penchant for revenge.

Every Student Succeeds Act

At the end of 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to school performance. The new law is set to take full effect during the 2017–2018 school year. While there was broad recognition that ESSA marked a positive step forward from the test-and-punish regime that had reigned for 13 years under No Child Left Behind, a diverse coalition of civil-rights groups has worried that its replacement, which substantially reduced the federal government’s role in public education, will not do enough to hold states accountable for the success of racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language–learners. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill during the ESSA negotiations.

For the past year, the Obama administration worked to draft regulations that would help maintain some level of federal accountability for student learning and funding equity, particularly for disadvantaged students. These executive-level regulations, which have been controversial among congressional Republicans, are likely to be abandoned, or weakened, under President Trump.

One policy that congressional Republicans might push for under a President Trump is known as “Title I portability,” which would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. While still a candidate, Trump brought in Rob Goad, a senior adviser to Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, to help him flesh out some school-choice ideas. Messer co-sponsored a bill during the ESSA negotiations that would have launched Title I portability, but Obama threatened to veto any version of the law that contained it. A White House report issued in 2015 said that Title I portability would direct significant amounts of federal aid away from high-poverty districts toward low-poverty ones, impacting such districts as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia particularly hard. Conservatives may see a more politically viable route to push this policy under Trump.

Brown of the Center for American Progress doesn’t think Congress will likely pursue Title I portability, however, in part because it has a lot of other legislative priorities to attend to. “The ink is barely dry on ESSA; states haven’t yet submitted their plans. I think [portability] is probably dead on arrival, but maybe six years from now,” she says. Even then, Brown thinks the policy will never be all that popular, since huge swaths of the country lack many school options, making them poor candidates for private-school vouchers.

But other education experts say that the lack of brick-and-mortar schools in rural communities just means that the door could open more widely for for-profit virtual schools, which DeVos has strongly supported. In 2006, Richard DeVos, her husband, disclosed that he was an investor in K12 Inc., a national for-profit virtual charter school company that has since gone public. As of mid-December, Betsy DeVos had not clarified whether her family still holds a financial stake in the for-profit education sector.

Higher Education

Trump, who founded the now defunct for-profit college Trump University, recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits alleging fraud. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college affordability, predicts America will be “open for business” under President Trump when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges. “This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal,” she wrote on her blog following the election. The Higher Education Act, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is also up for reauthorization in 2017.

Trump didn’t devote much time while campaigning to talking about colleges and universities, but he did say in an October speech that he’d look to address college affordability by supporting income-based repayment plans, going against many Republicans who say such initiatives are fiscally reckless and create incentives to acquire too much higher education. Conservatives have also proposed rolling back Obama administration reforms that federalized all new student loans and applied stricter regulations, particularly to for-profit institutions. If President Trump does ultimately re-privatize student loans, consumer protections would likely disappear, and the cost of borrowing would rise.

University leaders are also worrying about what a Trump administration could mean for research funding. The government is likely to cut back on investments on budgetary grounds, but also on ideological grounds, since universities tend to be seen as liberal enclaves. Experts say that non-ideological scientific research is particularly vulnerable. House Republicans, led by Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have tried before to cut federal funding for social sciences and climate and energy research, and having a president who refers to global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” doesn’t augur well for federal research investments.

Moreover, as the president-elect frequently rails about political correctness, higher education leaders worry that a Trump administration will not look kindly on student free speech and protest. Ben Carson, who was briefly considered for Trump’s education secretary, said that if he were in control he would repurpose the department to monitor colleges and universities for “extreme bias” and deny federal funding to those judged to have it. Decrying alleged campus bias is a staple of “alt-right” (read: white nationalist) media outlets like Breitbart, whose chief, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategic adviser and senior counselor.

The Path Forward for Progressives

For a week following the election, it wasn’t clear how exactly the liberal groups that backed Obama’s education reform agenda—Common Core standards, test-based accountability, and charter schools—would respond to their new choice-friendly president. The fact that the school reform agenda has long had bipartisan backing has always been one of its strongest political assets.

As pundits tried to guess whom Trump would pick for various cabinet-level positions, rumors started to float that Trump might be eyeing Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, or Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for education secretary. Both women back the Common Core standards, and are broadly revered among Democratic school reformers.

But on November 17, just over a week after the election, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, issued a strongly worded statement urging Democrats to refuse to accept an appointment to be Trump’s secretary of education. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids,” Jeffries said. He condemned Trump for his plans to eliminate accountability standards, to cut Title I funding, to reduce support for social services, and for giving “tacit and express endorsement” to racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes, and he called on the president-elect to disavow his past statements.

Shortly thereafter, Moskowitz announced that she would “not be entertaining any prospective opportunities” in the administration, but defended the president-elect, saying there are “many positive signs” that President Trump will be different than candidate Trump. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, took a tour of a Success Academy charter in Harlem later that week. Rhee, following a meeting with Trump a few days later, issued a statement saying she would not pursue a job in Trump’s administration but that “[w]ishing for his failure” would amount to “wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

The equivocating didn’t end there. Democrats for Education Reform soon walked back their original declaration of opposition to Trump. In a statement sent to the group’s supporters, Jeffries wrote that DFER was not saying Democrats should not work with Trump on education, but just that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education. “[W]e draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump,” Jeffries wrote. “Where appropriate, we will work with the Administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.”

In a political climate where teachers-union strength may dramatically diminish, opposition to Trump’s agenda from liberals who supported Obama’s education reforms could be an important deterrent to Trump’s rightward march on education. But with DFER already signaling that it’s open to working with Trump, with high-profile reformers like Moskowitz and Rhee also giving him a public nod of approval, and since some of the same billionaires who fund the charter school movement also back the president-elect, the chances aren’t great that Democratic education reformers will staunchly oppose Trump’s school reform agenda.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is under no illusions about the enormous challenges that loom for the future of public education. Yet she notes that over the past half-decade, educators and their unions have worked with their communities like never before. “If Donald Trump opts for privatization, destabilization, and austerity over supporting public education and the will of the people,” she says, “well, there will be a huge fight.”

The complicated history of America’s first ‘union-backed’ charter authorizer

Originally published in MinnPost on December 21, 2016.
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Despite its name, the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul has not distinguished itself with excellence. Instead, the Hmong-focused charter has become one of Minnesota’s most scandal-ridden schools. Battles between teachers and the administration have been common, with educators repeatedly reporting threats and retaliatory behavior. And since 2012, the school has been found not only to have suppressed multiple reports of suspected child abuse at the urging of its controversial superintendent, but also to have misdirected federal funds for subsidized student lunches — even after receiving a hefty fine for the practice.

Nor has the Community School of Excellence excelled academically. Since its inception, the school has produced poor test score results. In 2016, just a third of its students met state reading standards.

Yet these troubles have not prevented the school’s rapid expansion. When it opened in 2007, the CSE had 176 students; today, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Minnesota, with nearly 1,000 kids enrolled.

After a state investigation and reams of bad publicity — within just a few years the school had been investigated by the FBI, the Minnesota Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, local law enforcement, and the National Labor Relations Board — the powers-that-be had had enough. When efforts to jettison the school’s superintendent failed, the school’s legal backer abandoned it altogether, a move that could have effectively shuttered the flailing charter.

Instead, something else happened. The Community School of Excellence was bailed out — just hours before it would have been closed permanently — by an unlikely savior: The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit created by the local teachers union and funded in part by its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A unique law

To understand what a union-backed group was doing rescuing a notorious charter school — and why that was so unusual — you have to dive into the little-noticed world of charter authorizing.

Charters aren’t unregulated, of course, but their monitoring system isn’t well understood, either. Across the country, charter schools are generally overseen by another organization: most often a public school district, but it could also be anything from a university to a state commission. This third party — called an authorizer — grants a charter the right to exist, and in turn, takes over much of the work of ensuring that the school complies with relevant laws and regulations. Authorizers are also tasked with monitoring schools’ academic performance. In theory, if a charter strays too far from the straight and narrow, authorizers are expected to shut it down.

Minnesota, long regarded as a leader in education reform, virtually invented the authorizer system when it opened up the nation’s very first charter school 25 years ago. By the early aughts, however, state officials recognized that they had accumulated an awfully high number of charter authorizers (then referred to as “sponsors”) that were not taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, a situation that enabled some charter leaders to seek out especially lax authorizers.

In response, in 2009, legislators decided to increase the responsibilities assigned to Minnesota authorizers. When all was said and done, the reforms reduced the number of authorizers in the state from 51 to 13, and education reform advocates took the dramatic drop as an encouraging sign: an indication that bad actors were weeded out, or at least those not serious enough about monitoring school quality.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says Minnesota’s 2009 reforms were “certainly the most rigorous form of accountability for authorizers that has occurred anywhere in the country, then and today.”

But at the same time that Minnesota cracked down on negligent charter authorizers, state officials opened a new can of worms. Within the same 2009 legislation, lawmakers created what are known as “single-purpose charter authorizers” — unique nonprofits that exist nowhere else in the United States. Only two states, Ohio and Minnesota, currently have nonprofits authorizing charter schools, but these have traditionally been pre-existing entities like universities or social-service organizations.

A “single-purpose charter authorizer” was a new idea: a nonprofit that exists only to open, close, and monitor charters. The thinking was that such an organization could devote all its attention to diligently overseeing charters, thus boosting education quality more broadly.

An unusual alliance

Today, the Minnesota Guild is one of four single-purpose authorizers in the state, though that’s not the only reason it’s unusual. To see why, it’s important to know that teacher unions and charter schools have long had a fraught relationship. Most charter teachers are at-will employees, and the more students that charters attract, the less union jobs are likely to exist at traditional public schools.

And while a growing number of charter school teachers have received support from the labor movement to organize at their schools, teacher unions still generally lobby to limit charter expansion, pointing to negative fiscal impacts they have on traditional public schools, among other things.

The idea for the Minnesota Guild came from Lynn Nordgren and Louise Sundin, two former presidents of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate. In 2010, they applied for an AFT Innovation Fund grant, money for local unions in pursuit of creative projects. Nordgren and Sundin proposed creating an authorizer that would open schools “in the spirit of Albert Shanker” — the former AFT president who originally propelled charter schools onto the national stage.

Shanker envisioned charters as small, independent schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas, and bring the most successful ones back into traditional public schools.

At the time, Sundin and Nordgren said their plan would elevate teacher voices and secure unions a seat at the education reform table. An AFT press release called the Guild “a bold and unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charters.” Writing in the Star Tribune, Nordgren said it would “approve new, high-quality schools” and ensure that teachers “are respected and have a voice.” Arguing that unions want and need to be part of the charter school conversation, Nordgren stressed the Guild would “accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

In late 2011, the Guild was officially approved as a single-purpose charter authorizer, the new type of overseer the State of Minnesota had approved two years before. In its formal application to the state, the Guild pledged to open 35 charters during its first five years. 

A complicated relationship

It didn’t work out that way. The Guild was slow to get started, and two years in it had zero schools in its portfolio. Now, though, the Guild is opening new charters and taking over existing charters at a much more rapid clip. It is now the authorizer for 11 charter schools, five of which came under its control this fall. Eleven more are in the pipeline, and the organization says it’s still committed to its original plan of authorizing a total of 35 schools.

Though one might expect a union-backed authorizer to oversee a bunch of unionized charters, especially given its public comments at the time of its inception, that’s not the case. The Community School of Excellence is actually the only Guild charter school to have a union, and it was organized in 2014, two years before coming under the Guild’s auspices.

That made more sense after talking to Brad Blue, who has served as the Guild’s director since its inception. Blue is an eclectic figure: He’s played professional hockey, owns a farm, holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — and, as it turns out, isn’t really so jazzed about unions. In fact, he goes to great lengths to emphasize how neutral he is on the subject. “We don’t work directly, or even indirectly, with unions, or locals,” he said. “We’re neutral about that — we’re neither for unions, nor against. It’s a school’s decision.”

Over the years, many have wondered if the Guild represents a subversive attempt to unionize charters. After all, one of its unique aspects is that it requires employers to stay neutral if teachers decide to launch an organizing drive. But Blue flatly rejects that notion. “How many Guild schools are even unionized?” Blue says. “Only one, and they just transferred in July. For us it’s a really moot point.”

For the past five years, the AFT has given the Guild roughly $500,000 in total grants. But when AFT representatives were asked if they thought it was an issue that so few of the Guild’s schools were unionized, officials said they weren’t worried, noting that charter teachers overseen by the Guild are well positioned to move forward with union campaigns. “There’s no way to wave the wand and make a union happen,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president. “There were no hard deadlines [for organizing unions]. It was more aspirational.”

Ricker also seemed unconcerned about Blue’s remarks regarding unions at the Guild’s schools. “The Guild has to approach authorizing with integrity,” she says. “If you look at the original purpose of the Guild, and the authorizing agreement, there is an effort to deliberately recognize the rights of workers to organize in their workplace. At the same time, the Guild cannot both authorize and organize them. At the end of the day, the organizing itself is our responsibility as current union members.”

Given the unprecedented nature of an authorizer like The Minnesota Guild, I asked Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, if he thought it would violate authorizer norms if the Guild were openly pro-union. “I think it’s more than fine. It’s even good,” Richmond answered, noting that one of the benefits of having multiple charter authorizers in a state is precisely so they can encourage different types of schools.

Locally, the Guild has gained notoriety among traditional public school teachers, many of whom consider the schools it authorizes to be in direct competition with their own schools. Robert Panning-Miller, a 25-year veteran teacher of the Minneapolis public schools and a former MFT president, says there was absolutely no debate or discussion among rank-and-file members about whether their union should back a charter authorizer.

“The first time I learned our union planned to authorize charter schools was when Lynn Nordgren announced it in the Star Tribune,” echoes Valerie Olsen-Rittler, a high school social studies teacher who has been working in Minneapolis for 27 years. She now serves on the MFT executive board, and tries to find ways to protest the Guild’s activities.

Panning-Miller, Olsen-Rittler, and several others I spoke with told me emphatically that their local union has not invested time in organizing the Guild’s charter schools. The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Michelle Wiese, did not return multiple requests for comment.

For the Guild’s first several years of existence, the MFT provided the group office space, free of charge. “Those of us who are MFT members had no say in the creation of the Guild, and now we continue to subsidize our own demise,” Panning-Miller wrote in the winter of 2015. (The MFT voted to have the Guild leave its building before the start of the 2015-16 school year.)

Some members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests between the Guild and the union. For a while, Lynn Nordgren was both the MFT’s president and a Minnesota Guild board member. Louise Sundin still serves as the MFT’s lobbyist in addition to being a Guild board member. Panning-Miller has floated the idea of taking legal action, saying that a union leader supporting the creation of nonunion schools should be seen as a violation of their fiduciary obligations.

From the ‘spirit of Albert Shanker’ to ‘financial pragmatism’

In theory, single-purpose authorizers are supposed to be better able to devote their attention to regulating and monitoring the charter schools under their purview. As Nordgren wrote when the Guild was founded, “In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.”

Yet unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that authorize charters, single-purpose authorizers are limited in their ability to fundraise. Aside from grants, they can only raise revenue from authorizing fees, which are paid by the schools being authorized on a per-student basis. In other words, if a single-purpose charter authorizer closes down a school, or turns down an authorizer-seeking charter school, it would be directly harming its own bottom line.

Blue, for one, has been upfront about the reason for the Guild’s ambitious goal of overseeing 35 charter schools: financial pragmatism. “We need to build a portfolio of schools that’s substantial enough for our expenses,” he says.

Blue says those expenses currently include office space, contractors to help review charter applications and monitor schools, an employee who manages the Guild’s projects and portfolio, and a web-based tool for authorizers, Epicenter. Those expenses also include Blue’s salary. In 2013 — before the Guild authorized any schools — he took home $110,000 in compensation from the organization, 72 percent of the Guild’s overall expenses that year. In 2014, the organization raised his pay to $128,000.

Yet Blue’s responsibilities with the Guild have not prevented him from serving in other positions in the charter sector. In 2013, in addition to serving as the Guild’s director, he founded a St. Paul charter school, where he was paid $33,000 in 2014. Tax forms also stated that Blue worked 40-hours per week for each organization. (The school, Upper Mississippi Academy, is not authorized by the Guild.) He has since left that school to found another charter, which will open in the fall of 2017.

“I’m a Canadian, I’m a social welfare guy at heart. I’m also a capitalist, which is why I live in America,” Blue tells me.

Performance issues

Often lost in the Guild’s complicated history is a fundamental question: How are its schools actually doing?

Five years ago, the union insisted the venture would enable it to open up high-performing charters that help close the achievement gap. Or as Nordgren wrote in the Star Tribune: “The Guild will ensure applicants’ proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.”

In its drive to add schools to its portfolio, however, the Guild has become the authorizer of some of the worst achieving charters in Minnesota. Take the Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter school that opened in 2005, and that the Guild added to its portfolio this past summer. According to state data, just 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficiently in math in 2016. Or College Prep Elementary, where just 17 percent of students met state reading standards, compared to 60 percent statewide. The state found 26 percent of College Prep Elementary students were on track for math success this past year, down from nearly 50 percent in 2012. Or Lincoln International High School, where just 2.7 percent of students met math standards in 2016, and 6 percent met reading standards.

And while it’s possible that these schools will improve under the Guild’s stewardship, the odds are against it. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers discourages authorizers from taking over low-performing charters, as there’s very little evidence to suggest that new authorizers can turn them around. In fact, such takeovers tend to help poor charters avoid closure and accountability, the very thing single-purpose authorizers were designed to curtail when the law was passed seven years ago.

If the Guild meets its goal of opening 35 charter schools, it would become one of the largest authorizers in the state, though there does remain one possible obstacle. Every five years, Minnesota officials are required to review the performance of charter authorizers, and the state’s evaluation of the Guild is set to be issued by the end of January.

It’s highly unlikely that the Guild won’t pass that evaluation, given the way those reviews are conducted. So far, most authorizers have passed, even if they receive low scores on important metrics, like their criteria for opening or closing a school.

And with each new school that it authorizes, the Guild becomes less financially dependent on the AFT; its most recent grant from the union was for just $50,000, as the Guild now earns sufficient revenue on its own through authorizing fees.

The irony underlying the country’s first “union-backed” charter authorizer is that it soon may not be backed by, or accountable to, any union at all.

The Right Way to Assess Charter Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 30, 2016.
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On November 8, Massachusetts residents went to the polls not only to cast their vote for president but also to weigh in on a hotly debated question regarding charter schools. The ballot initiative—which proposed lifting the state’s cap to allow establishing up to 12 new charters or expanding existing charters annually—had generated a heated battle for months, with voters inundated by mailings and advertising from both sides. About $34 million was spent on these efforts, making them easily the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in state history. Teacher unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while out-of-state donors and Boston’s business community shelled out most of the money in support.

The debate mostly went like this: Supporters of the ballot measure, known as Question 2, argued that charter schools in Boston have proven extremely effective for disadvantaged students. They pointed to research studies that show students who attended Boston charter schools, compared to students in Boston’s traditional public schools, were more likely to graduate high school in five years, more likely to attend and complete college, and less likely to enroll in remedial education. In addition, researchers found attending Boston charters led to significant gains in state tests, AP tests, and the SAT.

Supporters of charter expansion also pointed to long charter school waiting lists as evidence that families, especially poor families, desperately seek better school options. If the ballot measure failed, proponents insisted, it would be because wealthy white suburbanites were too selfish, or short-sighted, to let low-income African-Americans escape their failing public schools. Polls conducted throughout the campaign did reveal higher support for charter school expansion among black and Latino voters.

Critics of the charter school ballot initiative challenged the legitimacy of the waitlist figures that supporters wielded—pointing to evidence that the stats were substantially inflated. Critics also pointed out that the research on charter school effectiveness was dramatically less impressive outside of Boston, and this statewide ballot measure would impact schooling all over Massachusetts.

But the most salient argument critics levied—and one that Question 2 supporters never figured out how to overcome—was that the ballot measure might expand opportunity for some students, but would ultimately drain money and resources from those students who remained in traditional public schools. Supporters tended to dismiss these concerns, saying that per-pupil dollars would “follow the child” so there would be no real negative impact on other students who didn’t attend charters. But a number of experts, including Boston’s chief financial officer, said the fiscal strain would be tremendous. This became the rallying point for Question 2 opponents—and the primary reason the ballot measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, with cities all over the state, including Boston, voting in opposition.

Throughout the campaign, many Massachusetts voters said that they found the news coverage confusing. Someone would make an argument, a new report would come out claiming the opposite, so-called experts would go back and forth about it, and the media would often do little more than cover the “he says, she says” discussion—leaving residents unsure of what the truth really was.

Today, the Economic Policy Institute is publishing a report by Bruce Baker, a national expert in state school finance, charter schools, and teacher and administrator labor markets, that he hopes will help improve the level of public discourse the next time residents and political leaders are asked to make such high-stakes education decisions.

Baker’s report looks at the fiscal impact of charter school expansion—an area that has received surprisingly little academic attention, despite the charter sector’s 25-year existence, and the growing public awareness that this is a critical issue to understand.

I covered the topic back in June, and at the time the only real research study available on the issue was one published in 2014 that documented the negative fiscal impacts that traditional public schools in Buffalo and Albany had experienced from charter schools proliferating. Since then, David Arsen, an education policy professor, published research finding that the biggest drivers of fiscal distress across Michigan school districts were declining enrollment and revenue loss, particularly where school choice and charters were most prevalent. Moody’s Investor Service, a bond credit rating agency, has also been sounding the alarm about the severe financial distress a growing number of school districts face as charter schools expand.

For Baker, the debate over whether charter schools are seen as good or bad was for a very long time “one-dimensional”—based on whether charters produced marginal increases or decreases in students’ standardized test scores. The debate over whether to lift Massachusetts’ charter school cap, Baker says, was more “two-dimensional,” in that people talked about both academic impacts and some fiscal tradeoffs. But still, the parameters of the fiscal conversation were limited, and Baker says he hopes his new report will provide a framework for a more “multi-dimensional” discussion of tradeoffs going forward.

So what does a multi-dimensional discussion look like?

“If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available,” Baker writes. “That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children.”

Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.

In an interview with the Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis. He cites transportation costs as one example that rarely gets attention when leaders decide whether or not to open more charter schools.

“If we’re saying that driving kids two hours here, and one hour there, is creating liberty of choice, which some people simply like as a policy, and we’re also getting some marginal test score gains—well, we have to be clear about how much we’re spending to get those things,” he says. “We have to ask, could we be getting similar test score gains, and similar favorable public opinion for a better price for more students? We’re not even bothering to take those measurements and to ask those questions.”

Baker says that before leaders decide to open new charter schools, they should take into account the inefficiencies created from having multiple transportation systems, duplicative administrative overhead costs, additional financing fees associated with alternative capital investments, and any transition costs that arise from creating new school systems. Baker wants to see leaders wrestle with whether it’s possible to achieve comparable gains by investing in programs and services in existing public schools. Do the gains of charter expansion outweigh the costs? Is it possible to design a more equitable and efficient system by other means?

Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel says he hopes this report will lead to greater attention paid to the impacts of unbridled charter school expansion, especially under Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We would like the focus to be on what really matters—giving the students the support they need to make great learning possible, which involves their homes, their families, their neighborhoods—and to integrate those concerns with schooling,” Mishel says. “We’ve had a 25-year history of being distracted by issues of governance. We see charters as an evasion of the core questions.”

Fining Teachers for Switching Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 3, 2016.
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Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer—a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment.

Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquidated damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for alternative jobs. Kowalski signed Mystic Valley’s 2016-2017 contract in April, got a job offer from a traditional public school in May, and gave the charter written and verbal notice by May 20. Mystic Valley then hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained. Two months later, his $6,000 bill arrived. It didn’t take long for Kowalski to learn there were others who had faced a similar fate. MTA Today reported on another teacher who had worked at Mystic Valley for four years, who was billed $4,900 in “damages” for giving notice over the summer.

As MTA’s legal division worked to help the former Mystic Valley teacher fight these charges, Kowalski’s attorney stumbled upon something surprising: Mystic Valley employment contracts included non-compete provisions, prohibiting teachers from working in any public or private school in any of the six “sending districts” near the charter school. Though charters are often framed as a way to induce competition into American schools, non-compete agreements—which have grown increasingly common in the private sector—make clear that some charter employers don’t believe that schools should compete for teaching talent. Nor is it clear that the agreements are even legal, or enforceable.

Just how common contracts like these actually are remains a mystery, but they’re not just limited to Mystic Valley.In 2015, the Akron Beacon Journal found that Summit Academy Schools, the largest charter network in Ohio, sued nearly 50 former teachers in a three-year period for leaving for other jobs. Summit Academy schools have non-compete provisions in their employment contracts.

“Summit Academy’s legal team filed [lawsuits] against as many as eight [former teachers] at a time,” the Akron Beacon Journal reported. One such teacher was Joel Kovitch, who quit in 2013 to take a higher-paying position. He gave his notice one month into summer vacation, and thought there’d be plenty of time to replace him. He ended up paying Summit Academy $1,200 after growing tired of fighting the legal battle.

The American Prospect also reviewed an employment contract for a charter school within the Constellation Schools network, another Ohio charter chain with 17 campuses throughout the state. The contract requires teachers to work for one year, to have no expectation for employment beyond that, and to pay their school $2,000 in liquidated damages if they terminate their employment at any time before their contract expires. The Constellation contract says this is not a “penalty” for leaving, but an acknowledgment that the employer “has expended considerable time and effort recruiting and/or retaining and training you to ensure you are prepared for your position, and … that such a disruption to the educational process is difficult if not impossible to calculate.”

In other words, teachers can’t expect to stay more than one year, but if they leave before one year is over, then they will need to pay their school two grand. Constellation Schools did not return request for comment.

Teachers who work at Ozark Montessori Academy, a charter school in Arkansas, also have to sign non-competes, agreeing to not “directly or indirectly … solicit, induce, recruit, or cause another person in their employ of Employer to terminate his/her employment for the purpose of joining, associating, or becoming employed with any business or activity which is in competition with Ozark Education, Inc.” The agreement lasts for two years after the teacher leaves the school, and it applies “in any area in which Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” Charter teachers at Ozark are also required to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not directly or indirectly disclose “trade secrets” which are “used by Employer and give it an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know those trade secrets.”

The American Prospect contacted Ozark to inquire about their employment contract, and in regards to their non-compete requirement, a school representative said, “We pay for our teachers’ Montessori training, and since that’s such a big expense for us, we wanted in [the contract] that we’re not going to pay for a teacher’s training and then they go quit and work for someone else.”

The American Prospect reviewed a contract for another charter school in Washington, D.C., that, in addition to having a one-year non-compete provision and requiring teachers to keep “trade secrets” confidential during and after employment—including information related to the school’s “academic policies and strategies”—also requires teachers to not “create, or appear to create, a conflict of interest with Employee’s loyalty to or duties for” the school, “including, but not limited to, providing any tutoring for hire.”

This charter school also requires teachers to agree to mandatory arbitration—a process that involves waiving away your right to sue for grievances, or to contest the terms of the contract itself. The provision requires teachers to waive their rights accorded them by worker protection, civil-rights, and anti-discrimination acts, as follows:

The parties agree that … any dispute (“Dispute”) between the parties arising out of or relating to the Employee’s employment, or to the negotiation, execution, performance or termination of this Agreement or the Employee’s employment, including, but not limited to, any claim arising out of this Agreement, claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, as amended, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and any similar federal, state or local law, statute, regulation, or any common law doctrine, whether that dispute arises during or after employment shall be resolved by final, binding, and non-appealable arbitration by one arbitrator in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, in accordance with the National Employment Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association, as modified by the provisions of this Article.

The Covenant Keepers Charter School in Little Rock, Arkansas, requires its teachers to not disclose “trade secrets” and to agree to not work for any “business or activity in competition with the charter school” for two years after leaving, in “any area in which the Employer currently solicits or conducts business, and/or any area in which an Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” The teacher also has to agree to pay liquidated damages in the amount of “$100,000 plus court costs, litigation expenses, and actual and reasonable attorneys’ fees” if the non-compete or confidentiality agreement is breached.

No one has sought to tally how many charter schools include non-compete agreements in their contracts. Schools certainly don’t publicize them; it often requires individual teachers coming forward to alert the public to their existence. A Gainesville, Florida, elementary school teacher wrote on a legal advice forum asking whether the non-compete agreement she signed at her charter school was enforceable. A teacher at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School confirmed to The American Prospect that they too must sign non-compete agreements.

The Prospect reached out to the National Association of Public Charter Schools to inquire if the group promoted any kind of model charter employment contract, or if there are any provisions they specifically discourage charter schools from adopting. Vanessa Descalzi, a senior communications manager, says her group had never heard of other charter schools with practices like suing departed teachers for liquidated damages, or including non-compete, or forced-arbitration clauses.

The revelation of such provisions in charter school contracts comes at a time when the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board have begun to crack down on overly broad confidentiality agreements, mandatory arbitrations, and non-compete clauses. The White House says 20 percent of American workers are bound by non-compete agreements, and just last week urged state legislatures and policymakers to ban them for certain categories of workers, particularly those unlikely to possess real trade secrets.

The Economic Policy Institute says survey evidence reveals that many workers have no idea they are bound by non-compete agreements, with fewer than one in five employees consulting an attorney before signing, and only about one in ten attempting to negotiate the terms of their agreement. And as Economic Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey notes, even when workers know about the clauses, it’s a choice “between taking a job and not taking it in a tough labor market that favors employers.”

Even if such provisions are one day banned by legislatures or nullified by the courts, their current inclusion within charter employment contracts may be enough to deter teachers from taking the legal risk of moving on to a different school. This may be what the employers are counting on.

When Public Schools Go Private

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 28, 2016.
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The Census Bureau released new data earlier this month that showed the median household income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent over 2014. This marked the largest single-year increase since at least 1967, the federal agency reported. Moreover, this income growth was concentrated among the poor and the middle class, and 2.7 million fewer Americans were living in poverty in 2015 than a year prior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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