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.”

Q&A: Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 21, 2016.
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Private foundations give millions of dollars to public education every year, but these powerful institutions typically operate behind a curtain of secrecy. In a new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, University of Michigan public policy professor Megan Tompkins-Stange sheds new light on the role philanthropy plays in public education, particularly in the arena of charter schools and other market-based reforms. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 8, 2016
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The National Labor Relations Board issued a pair of decisions in late August, which ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, therefore falling under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. The cases centered on two schools with teachers vying for union representation: PA Virtual Charter School, a statewide cyber charter in Pennsylvania, and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located in Brooklyn. In both cases, the NLRB concluded that the charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB determined that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, as governments provide the funding but do not originate or control the schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Reform Democrats Look Ahead to Life After Obama

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 26, 2016.
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Lately on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has been talking about how she wants to end the “so-called education wars.” The Democratic presidential nominee wants to see the factionalism among education groups end and instead see new coalitions form to advance policies on which all can agree. Clinton took this message on the road to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers conferences earlier this month, and her campaign proffered another education olive branch to the Democrats for Education Reform on Monday in downtown Philadelphia.

Virtually every speaker lauded President Obama’s education legacy, highlighting his support for charter schools and test-based accountability at the organization’s day-long Democratic National Convention forum. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, said he recognized that many have been feeling anxious and unsure about whether Obama’s successor will be as friendly toward their political agenda as he was.

Ann O’Leary, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, assured the school choice–supporting audience that the Democratic presidential nominee and the reformers have a “shared vision.” She said that Clinton touted “great charter schools” at both of those recent teacher union conferences. But Clinton notably did not lavish praise on charter schools when she appeared before the American Federation of Teachers last week in Minneapolis. After denouncing for-profit charters and vouchers, she said simply, “where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.”

Kira Orange Jones, the executive director for Teach for America’s greater New Orleans region, said that she’s “profoundly concerned” that the Democratic Party may divert its attention away from protecting the rights of all children, especially the most disenfranchised. “That’s our party, that’s why I’m a Democrat,” she said.

Meanwhile, school integration also prompted a vigorous discussion among attendees. Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, made an impassioned case for a deeper focus on integration. “We cannot turn our backs on Brown [v. Board of Education],” she said. “And, yes, I do think [Democrats for Education Reform] stands to play an important role in moving that project forward.”

Others made the case for successful segregated charter schools, and questioned whether a real political will exists to pursue new desegregation efforts. Surprisingly, attendees had very little to say about Clinton’s Democratic vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, or his wife, Anne Holton. Holton, who recently stepped down as Virginia’s education secretary, was a strong supporter of school integration and had opposed the further expansion of charter schools. Her father, former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, a Republican, championed school desegregation during his time in office in the early 1970s.

Though the forum focused on the future of the Democratic Party’s educational agenda, teachers unions, a core constituency within the party, received little attention. “Unions don’t get all the seats at the table,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesperson who now heads a communications firm working toweaken teacher tenure and other job protections.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a Newark parent who came down to Philadelphia for the discussions, told The American Prospect that she believed that teachers unions in Newark are “very territorial” and don’t want to collaborate. “They don’t want to even find out about what’s happening in the charter schools,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re unwilling or if traditionally they’re standoffish.”

While education reformers were clearly throwing their political weight behind Hillary Clinton—organizers passed out pins with Clinton’s picture on them to all the attendees—some audience members were still “feeling the Bern.” Kean University student Yasmine Veale, a member of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options told the Prospect that she’s been considering becoming an independent in the next election cycle. “I’d like to see Democrats become more progressive, and not stay in the center,” she said. Like many millennial women, Veale backed Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary.

“I’m glad that some of what Bernie wanted made its way into the party platform,” she said. “But I’d still really like to see free education for all. It’s crazy that I have to work three jobs … and I’m still going to have a whole bunch of debt.”

Joy Russell, a Washington parent who serves on the advisory board of the Democrats for Education Reform’s D.C. chapter, told the Prospect that she feels confident Hillary Clinton will continue to push for the education policies that Obama has backed, but that overall, “politics have been getting in the way” of ensuring high-quality education for all kids.

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

Originally published in the The American Prospect on July 6, 2016.
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On Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones.

The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools.

Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school advocates in November when she remarked that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Although an adviser emphasized shortly thereafter that Clinton remains a “strong supporter” of public charter schools, many reformers remained leery of her commitment.

But on Tuesday, Clinton gave charters a shout-out, resulting in the loudest boos she received the entire morning. “We’ve got no time for these education wars!” Clinton told the crowd. Facing the evidently anti-charter audience, Clinton quickly pivoted to denouncing for-profit charter schools, saying, “We will not stand for [them].”

The Representative Assembly is the annual conference for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, which gathers each summer to set its political agenda for the coming year. The union, with its nearly three million members, endorsed Clinton in October, following the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her last July. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s ideas around public education have been much debated, with self-proclaimed reformers worried she would be hostile to their policies, while many rank-and-file teachers remained skeptical that Clinton would stand up for unions and fight efforts to privatize public schools. 

Despite these concerns, the mood in the plenary hall on Tuesday was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; members wore “Educators for Hillary” T-shirts, waved signs in support, and cheered with excitement.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the audience early on in her speech. She promised that if elected, educators will “have a partner at the White House” and that they’ll “always have a seat at the table.”

Clinton framed her education policy proposals around the slogan of “TLC,” or teaching, learning, and community. She threw out a lot of ideas that met eager applause, from raising teacher salaries to reducing the role of standardized testing, to creating universal preschool for every child. She discussed “repairing crumbling schools” and making general investments in school facilities and technology.

Clinton’s rhetoric on charters mirrors language in the recently released Democratic Party platform, which says the party is committed to providing parents with “high-quality public school options” and expanding such options—namely neighborhood schools and charters—for low-income children. The platform comes out against for-profit charter schools, which it says are “focused on making a profit off public resources.”

According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter advocacy group, just under 13 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies, though in cities like Detroit, more than 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profits. However, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is often messier than groups like NAPCS readily admit: Nonprofit charters can still hire for-profit management companies to run their schools.

Some states have begun banning for-profit charter schools, or passing laws that make opening them more difficult. Last year, California legislators tried to ban for-profit charter schools from operating in their state, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he did not “believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” The momentum against for-profit schools has clearly grown more pronounced since then, and also reflects growing divisions within the education reform coalition, between those who champion market-based reforms, and those who push for greater accountability.

In her speech, Clinton also denounced her likely opponent, Donald Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed charter schools during a March primary debate and has said he opposes Common Core standards and “may cut the Department of Education.”

The NEA carries formidable political weight. According to the union, its members represent one out of every 58 general election voters. Rallying those teachers who preferred Senator Bernie Sanders for president to not only vote for Clinton in November but also help campaign for her will be a pressing priority for the union’s leadership.

Following the speech, the union released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks “held no punches in articulating a clear and inspiring vision of opportunity for every student in America, regardless of ZIP code.”

Education Reformers Reflect at 25

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 29th, 2016.
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It’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding. And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40.

But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work.

But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two main camps of reformers—market-driven advocates and accountability hawks—have been butting heads increasingly over goals and political priorities. For a long time, these two groups seemed to be one and the same—“choice and accountability” have always been buzzwords for the movement. But over time, the divisions between Team Choice and Team Accountability have grown more apparent. Today, some veteran choice advocates, those who have been pushing market-driven reforms for the last 25 years, have expressed feelings of being hemmed in, and in some cases crowded out, by others who are demanding formal checks and balances.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, is one such frustrated choice advocate. “Reformers have become our own worst enemy,” she declared at an event at the National Press Club earlier this month. Her group organized the event to release its new manifesto, outlining challenges Allen sees within education reform, and steps allies must take to get their movement back on track. “If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts to drive change have hit a wall,” she said. In Allen’s view, reformers saw more progress during their first nine years, than over the last 16.

Her manifesto cites a declining interest in Teach for America, decreasing enthusiasm for the education technology sector, and slower overall charter school growth. She says that officials who authorize charters have grown too overbearing, stifling flexibility and innovation. And she calls on the reform movement to get back on offense—to focus on “opportunity and upward mobility”—so they can begin rebuilding momentum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus at the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, tells me he thinks Allen is correct to note that reformers have not looked ahead to the future enough. He worries that the current partisanship in the country threatens to splinter the reform coalition. But he says he thinks certain gains and accomplishments—like judging schools on whether students are learning, improved graduation rates, better tests, and more rigorous standards—are ones to be proud of. “She doesn’t really give them enough credit,” he says.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, tells me that while he felt many of Allen’s observations were accurate, the overall tone of her manifesto was too cynical and pessimistic. “In the places where we have a lot of charter schools, they won’t disappear,” he says. “The fight now is how many more are there going to be, and what are the regulations around them going to look like.”

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Some groups, like the Center for Education Reform, remain committed to the idea that parents should be able to choose the schools they think best meets the needs of their child. While all reformers still generally use this type of rhetoric, many have actually moved away from the more corporate “parents as customers” language that leaders like Allen still regularly employ. From the perspective of the Center for Education Reform, if a parent is satisfied with a school, then that is reason enough to assume it’s successful and working. If enough parents want to leave a school, and have the freedom to do so, the thinking goes, then bad schools will be inevitably shut down, just as bad businesses close if they can’t sustain demand for their products.

In her manifesto, Allen says that while charter authorizers have a role to play in terms of opening schools, it should be parental choice that determines whether or not schools close. “No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers,” she writes.

“Well, we just fundamentally disagree with that,” Richmond tells me.

Chester E. Finn Jr. says he’s also less willing to leave school accountability up to parents, and believes student outcomes have to be part of the conversation. “Jeanne is a little more willing to settle for a market test, and I want something else besides that. I’m also pretty fussy about achievement.”

Nowhere is this divide more evident than within the ongoing debates surrounding virtual charter schools, which more than 180,000 students attend full-time in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Last fall, multiple research studies found that virtual charter schools yield significantly worse academic results than traditional public schools. Building on those findings, this month, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Richmond’s group), and 50Can, an education reform advocacy group, jointly released a report with recommendations for states to hold virtual charters more accountable for student performance. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” their report said.

As Matt Barnum, an education policy writer for The 74 observed, that reform groups opted to say ‘self-selection’ –rather than “choice”—highlights some of the tensions of this particular moment. For so long, reform advocates argued that schools should be measured on the basis of whether parents choose them. (Or “self-select” them.) But now more groups are saying that perhaps unfettered choice is not the best policy after all.

“What most of the folks in the charter world realized after ten years was that having an unfettered market produced some great schools, but also a lot of bad ones,” Richmond says. He notes that groups like the Walton Family Foundation used to be very generous in terms of who they would fund. “There was a period of time where it was as if almost anyone who wanted to open a charter school could get a grant of $100,000 from the Waltons. It ran like that for a number of years, until eventually they looked at the results and decided this wasn’t working.”

“As supportive as I am about entrepreneurialism and private sector engagement,” says Finn, “there’s also been a lot of greedy behavior—a lot of ‘to the heck with the kids’—and we reformers didn’t really pay enough attention to that.”

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement sharply critical of the three groups’ report, saying it “exemplifies precisely why the education reform movement is at risk—its conclusions endanger the ideals of opportunity and innovation that are so desperately needed in education today.” At the National Press Club, Allen went further, saying there’s been a “death march” around research studies, with too many reports and academics critiquing various aspects of reform, which then inhibits a culture of risk and innovation.

Efforts to transform public education aren’t going away, but what shape they will take going forward remains unclear. A growing number of people, including both school choice advocates and education reform opponents, say there’s little evidence that standardized test score gains in math and reading lead to improved long-term life outcomes. This has further fueled debates over how students should be tested, and how schools should be held accountable for test scores. There are also growing disputes among reformers over the role of for-profit companies, and what type of regulation and accountability a choice-based system really needs.

“I don’t feel that charters are going to go away, but I do believe they will become so hamstrung they will become like the traditional school system,” said Donald Hense, the founder of one of D.C.’s largest charter networks, at the National Press Club earlier this month. Richmond tells me that while he whole-heartedly agrees some authorizers have gone too far in regulating charter schools, many don’t go far enough.

In late May, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a provocative post warning of a narrowing space for conservatives within education reform; its “increasingly aggressive” social justice rhetoric, he said, has served to marginalize Republicans and conservative ideas. A fellow conservative, Fredrick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, followed up, lamenting what he described as growing “groupthink” within the movement. “It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas,” Hess said. “It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy.” These and other critiques have sparked a flurry of internal discussion and debate about the future of the coalition—a fairly healthy conversation as reformers work to grow a more diverse movement, but one that has also left people divided over just how existential these problems really are.

As education policy devolves back to the states, as it’s set to do through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in December, we’re likely to see much more school variation across states and communities. Teacher unions and market-driven reformers have cheered these developments, but many civil rights groupsand accountability hawks worry about what a decreased federal role will mean for struggling students. As reformers continue to mobilize, so do their critics. The discussion around school integration has grown louder over the past two years, and more community advocates are exploring models like full-service community schools as ways to boost student success.

Needless to say, the next quarter-century will require close attention.

 

Charter and Traditional Public Schools Fight Over Money

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 6, 2016.
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Last month, a teachers union-funded study in Los Angeles sparked a furor when it reported that the city’s charter sector—which educates 16 percent of L.A.’s public school students—drains upwards of $500 million a year from the district’s school budget.

In a brief accompanying the report, the teachers union and its allies charged that L.A.’s charter school explosion “limits educational opportunities” for more than 500,000 public school students, and “imperils the financial stability” of the district. Education reform advocate Peter Cunningham shot back in a blog post that the study’s premise that charters siphon money from traditional public schools “is like arguing that a younger child deprives an older child of parental attention.”

Such school budget fights are not just happening in Los Angeles. In cities all over the country—from Massachusetts, to Missouri, from Florida to Pennsylvania, from Washington state to Maryland—charters and local school districts are clashing fiercely over who gets what funding. Districts say charters steal their money, leaving them unable to properly educate the students who remain at their schools—very often those who are the most expensive to educate, like children with disabilities.

Charter advocates counter that districts’ financial woes began long before charters came on the scene, and students who seek alternatives shouldn’t have to suffer just because districts and unions face budget and organizational crises. Money should “follow the child” school choice supporters say, meaning per-pupil tax dollars should be directed towards whichever school system a student wishes to attend.

Charter school policy discussions often devolve into political battles that pit advocates armed with competing research studies against one another in arguments over academic impact. In some cities, like Boston and New Orleans, students attending charter schools have demonstrated significant test score gains. In others, the academic results have been no better than those in traditional public schools. And in some cases, charters have yielded worse results than the district schools.

The research examining charter schools’ academic effectiveness will continue indefinitely, but it is concerns about their fiscal impact that are becoming increasingly charged. As the pressure to expand charter schools continues to mount, and the budgetary health of local districts continues to decline, teachers, administrators, parents, and activists on both sides of the charter school divide are facing off over a dwindling resource: money.

Intensifying the heated political clash between charter schools and traditional school districts is that overall spending on public education, for all schools, has fallen. In 2015, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, found most states provide less financial support for public schools than they did before the Great Recession, and in some cases, much less.

“Even as we’ve come out of the recession, heels are dug in, and nobody is really considering putting in additional funds,” says Bruce Baker, an expert on school finance.

Funds are not only shrinking, but districts are hard pressed to manage costs that are “fixed” or “stranded” when students leave to attend charter schools, experts warn. Charter advocates say that as money follows the child, districts should figure out how to adjust to new fiscal realities. But it’s not always so easy to reduce certain expenses, at least right away, say researchers who have studied education funding. The cost of heating a building, for example, is the same for a classroom of 15 students as it would be for one of 18 students.

Similarly, a district that has lost only a few students from each grade can find it difficult to reduce the number of school employees. In 2013, Moody’s Investor Service, a bond credit rating agency, released a report which concluded that a small but growing number of school districts face severe financial stress as charter schools proliferate, specifically because these districts can’t reduce their costs as quickly as they lose revenue. This has forced already struggling districts to make further cuts to programs and services, and in some cases, to shut down schools entirely.

In 2014, education policy experts Robert Bifulco and Randall Reback co-authored a paper on the fiscal impact of charter schools, noting a dearth in existing research on the topic. They looked at Buffalo and Albany, two cities with relatively large concentrations of charter schools, and with public school districts facing stagnant, and shrinking student enrollments. The two concluded that charter school expansion produces negative fiscal impacts for school districts, yet that such harm can be somewhat mitigated by better coordination between charters, districts, and states. Bifulco and Reback found that, in general, closing schools can be the most effective way to manage some of the fiscal strain produced by charter growth, but that such closures are “politically contentious undertakings.”

Still, given that research shows money matters a great deal in education, many charter critics believe it is neither wise nor ethical to gamble that cost cuts will wind up improving student learning.

Still other academics suggest tight budgets may actually help boost student achievement. Ron Zimmer, an education researcher at Vanderbilt University, has said it’s possible that fiscal strain on district budgets could spur competition, potentially helping all students. Still, given that research shows money matters a great deal in education, many charter critics believe it is neither wise nor ethical to gamble that cost cuts will wind up improving student learning.

When the charter school expansion first started to take off, some states freed up transitional funds to help school districts cope with declining enrollments and fiscal fallout as students left for charters. Such transitional aid began “as a sort of compromise” between charters and district schools says Reback. Yet many of these compromise measures were reduced or eliminated once the recession hit.

For example, in Illinois, state law once provided a three-year, declining payment to districts to help them manage their budgets as charter enrollment grew. According to Kasia Kalata, the external affairs manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, the state offered impact aid to support school districts with declining enrollments, but phased out the policy in 2009.

Similarly, in 2007, Michigan began to provide some categorical funding to districts with declining enrollments. But these allocations were never fully funded, and by 2012, the state eliminated them altogether. Michigan also lifted its charter school cap in 2011, leading to rapid charter growth.

“Right now you could open a charter school, for almost any reason, in any location, regardless of what that will do to district schools,” says Peter Joseph Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says Michigan’s charter law, and the elimination of the state’s charter cap, has just been “devastating” to traditional public school finances. While the categorical grants that Michigan once offered provided some help, Hammer says even those measures were always “very small relative to the need” and mostly enacted to quiet critics.

Pennsylvania used to reimburse local districts up to 30 percent of their charter school costs, but in 2011, the state’s Republican governor eliminated these partial reimbursements. This was a loss of more than $240 million across the state, including over $110 million for Philadelphia alone.

Laws governing pension participation for charter school employees vary from state to state. Charters, though, have generally not been around long enough to accumulate their own unfunded pension liabilities. The question now is: do charters share responsibility to help pay down the pension legacy costs of area school districts?

Monique Morrissey, a pension expert at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, says there is no reason to exempt charter schools from paying unfunded liabilities that are no more the public schools’ fault than they are the charters’. “In fact, I would say that even if charter schools are allowed to opt out of a pension system, they should be required to help pay down the legacy costs to maintain a level playing field,” she says. “Otherwise it creates a downward spiral, where every public school has an incentive to convert to a charter and/or every family has an incentive to choose a better-funded charter school, leaving fewer and fewer students—and less and less funding—in the regular school system to cover the legacy costs.”

In Morrissey’s view, the legacy costs are owed by taxpayers, not students in either regular public schools or charter schools. Thus, she says, “if funding is supposed to follow the students, legacy costs should be taken out of the equation and considered part of the overall budget, not something owed by certain schools and not others. Otherwise, students in regular public schools are effectively provided with less education funding than those in charter schools.”

There have always been disagreements between charters and traditional district schools, but Susan Spicka, the interim director of the advocacy group Education Voters of PA, says that losing those charter reimbursements in 2011 greatly exacerbated tensions between the two sectors. “We support the charter reimbursement and we think it’s a valid argument that, yes, you do have some costs you can’t get rid of right away just because you have fewer children,” Spicka says. “There should be some type of compensation [for districts] to handle those costs.”

Not everyone agrees. Such academics as Marguerite Roza and Jon Fullerton say that policies designed to help districts cope with the effects of shifting student enrollments “weaken the incentives that should drive change and adaptation.” Roza and Fullerton question the idea that schools have all these “fixed costs,” and argue that districts should think more seriously about cheaper alternatives like online schooling, defined-contribution plans, and modified tenure systems. Only by “adopting more nimble expenditure structures,” they have written, can districts feasibly adapt to a changing landscape.

Other “fixed costs” that tend to receive far less attention in conversations about the fiscal impact of charters are the billions of dollars owed by states and districts in pension obligations—and what effect the expansion of charter schools means for local districts saddled with these payments.

Unfunded pension liabilities are the estimated value of benefits earned by employees minus the assets set aside to pay them. Unfunded liabilities can arise because required contributions have not been made in full, or because actuarial assumptions have not been met. States and districts with large unfunded liabilities are now scrambling to find the dollars to pay up, resulting in painful cuts in other areas, including salary reductions for current teachers.

While some unfunded pension liabilities are due to market fluctuations, including sharp stock market declines in 2002 and 2008, leading economists say the most severe cases are due to politicians’ failure to keep up with employers’ share of pension payments over many years (most public-sector workers also contribute toward their own pensions). Instead of setting aside money for future retirees, political leaders opted to defer their responsibilities, borrowing against the next generation of public school students and taxpayers.

Though some education reform advocates have dismissed the idea that districts can’t sufficiently downsize when students leave for charters—they chalk the problem up to bureaucratic recalcitrance—many people acknowledge that such expenses as pension commitments simply cannot be scaled back when student enrollment shifts. “Lifetime health benefits and defined-benefit pensions, sometimes guaranteed decades ago, have created ongoing costs for districts that are unconnected to revenues and enrollment and cannot be easily reduced,” Roza and Fullerton write.

Others disagree.

“The approach of the incumbents—the unions, the administrators—is to chain new teachers to the Titanic because they don’t want to let anyone escape,” says Michael Podgursky, a school finance researcher at the University of Missouri. “These young teachers, charter school teachers, TFA teachers, are cross-subsidizing the pension plans, so [the incumbents] don’t want to let anyone escape.”

He acknowledges that leaving districts to handle those costs alone as charters expand might make things more difficult for traditional school districts. But he says charters “didn’t make this mess.”

Josh McGee, a prominent pension reform advocate at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, also thinks it would be wrong to ask charters to help pay down legacy costs, though he says it’s true it could be “cumbersome” if local districts have to pay the bulk of those pension liabilities alone. “But charter schools didn’t contribute to that legacy debt, nor can they raise funds from local taxpayers,” McGee says. “Charging charters for the unfunded liabilities that they weren’t around for is just a way to tax them and reduce their state aid.”

McGee says there is an argument to be made that local taxpayers should bear some of the pension costs, but suggests that states pick up the bills in order to mitigate any financial harm to school districts. Currently, according to Keith Brainard, the research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, the source of the employer contribution varies across the country, ranging from local districts paying the full cost, to states paying the full cost, to “everything in between.”

Still, Brainard says, it would be fairly unusual for states that don’t currently pay the employer contribution to absorb those costs back from districts, as McGee suggests, though they could increase aid in other ways. In some places where states do currently pay the pension costs, like in Illinois, legislators are even trying to unload their pension obligations right back onto the backs of local districts. (The only district Illinois does not pay the pension contributions for is Chicago Public Schools.)

Some charter operators have begun to explore how they might extricate themselves from their state pension plans. “Charter schools are a cash cow for the pension plans, and once you’re in, it can be hard to get out—which is what a lot of operators face now,” says Podgursky. “As the costs are going up and up and up, many are saying ‘hey, we want out of here’—though generally escaping is hard.” In an effort to avoid adverse selection, pension plans do not typically allow individual schools to opt out.

As a result, some charter operators are turning to the courts. In 2013, charters in Georgia argued to the state supreme court that they shouldn’t be responsible to help pay down debt they didn’t create. Georgia’s high court agreed, and ruled that charters cannot be asked to share in the burden of paying down unfunded pension liabilities.

To complicate things still further, the question of whether charter employees should be eligible to participate in state pension plans remains unsettled. “They’re private employees for some things, like collective bargaining, but public for other things, like pensions,” notes Podgursky. Since 2011, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department have been scrutinizing this issue, and working to determine whether private charter teachers are “governmental” enough to participate in state plans. Asked to check on the status of this guidance, the IRS told The American Prospect that, five years later, it still has not been finalized.

For districts saddled with pension payments, the consequences can be severe.

“If the total payroll of the pension plan is slower than expected, by virtue of slow growth in the number of employees or slower growth in salaries, then there are fewer dollars available to fund the plan,” explains Brainard. Essentially, if charter schools do not participate in their state plan, either by not contributing to it as employees or not helping to pay down legacy costs, then there are fewer available dollars to pay down existing debts—obligations that cannot be “downsized” through layoffs or school closures.

In the absence of increased state and federal funding, tense battles over school spending are likely to be handled in piecemeal—and controversial—fashion. In 2015, for example, the Philadelphia School Partnership, a local philanthropic education reform group, offered to pay the Philadelphia School District $25 million in order to take the issue of stranded costs “off the table.” Partnership leaders wanted to push for more charter schools, without having to contend with school district worries about their fiscal impact. But the school district said the group’s offer was too low—generous, but insufficient to cover the yearly stranded costs they’d bear if more students were to leave for charters. Local advocates also protested the organization’s offer on democratic grounds.

“It would be a terrible mistake to take the money,” Susan Gobreski, the former executive director of the Education Voters of PA, told Newsworks at the time. “We cannot let benefactors make decisions like that. I’m very concerned about how much pressure is being put on the district to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the district or most of the kids in Philadelphia, and certainly not in the interest of Philadelphia as a community. This is ideology gone wild.

Tensions surrounding funding for the charter and traditional public school systems are not going away, and indeed are likely to grow more serious over time. While Bifulco and Reback offer some policy suggestions for ways to help mitigate financial stress as charter schools expand—such as constraining when students may enroll in charters in order to help districts plan their budgets more systematically—right now ideological divisions have left the two sectors at a stalemate. Charters market themselves as ways to “escape” failed school districts, touting their autonomy and independence. Traditional school districts resent charters for wooing away their students, and now fear charters are hollowing out their budgets. The bitter divide between education sectors has blocked cooperation and solutions. As the bickering over money continues, more and more public school students will likely cram into overcrowded classrooms, studying in schools without basic resources like textbooks, computers, teachers, and guidance counselors. With fewer and fewer dollars to go around, the price for policymakers’ impasse will invariably be paid by students.

 

 

Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.