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

Published in this week’s Washington City Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.C. Charter Teachers Seek to Unionize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

 

 

Teachers Look to Unionize at Another New Orleans Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 26, 2016.
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Earlier this month, teachers at Lusher Charter School, an arts-based K-12 school in New Orleans, went public with their intent to unionize. Sixty percent of teachers, teacher assistants, and other Lusher staff signed a petition in support, but over the weekend the Lusher board voted 6–5 against recognizing their union. Now the teachers will ask the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.

If the teachers prevail, Lusher would become the third charter school to unionize in New Orleans, the city with the highest density of charter schools in the country. The first two—Benjamin Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School—formed their unions last year. Ben Franklin staff signed the first collective-bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina.

Lusher teachers began organizing in secret about a year ago. They waited until they had a majority of teachers in support before they went public, they explain, because they worried they’d lose their jobs or face other negative consequences unless most of the teaching staff was with them.

“I’ve been in a union pretty much all my career and I think it’s a great way to give voice to teachers, and a great asset to a school,” says Julie Sanders, a Lusher social science teacher. This is Sanders’s second year at Lusher, and her 17th year teaching in Louisiana public schools.

Since going public, Lusher teachers have been working to explain to parents and community members why they feel a union is right for them. Some parents wondered if collective bargaining would disrupt Lusher’s unique school culture, or if students’ educations would somehow be harmed. Unionized educators at Ben Franklin and Morris Jeff have also been helping to assuage the concerns of Lusher parents by telling them what having a union has meant for their schools.

Michael Masterson, a teacher who serves as a union representative at Ben Franklin, attended a Lusher community meeting last week to share his experience. “When someone says there are teachers who may have been tricked into agreeing to a union, or someone else says this is going to hurt kids,” Masterson says, “I can raise my hand and say, well, at Ben Franklin we also had people who were really worried about unionizing and it’s turned out okay, the kids are fine, our fundraising is actually up, our applications are steady, nothing bad has happened, and things have been calm.”

Indeed, U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Ben Franklin as the 53rd-best public high school in the United States, and the nation’s 15th-best charter. Ben Franklin’s rankings actually went up 27 spots over the past year.

Lusher is also considered one of the best schools in the state, and Morris Jeff has received national recognition for its approach to creating a diverse student body. This has led some people to wonder why it’s New Orleans’s top schools that are opting to unionize, not others.

Peter Cook, a vocal education reformer based in New Orleans, wrote that it is “apparent that the AFT and its state and local affiliates have been quietly lurking on the sidelines looking for opportunities to eat the city’s charter schools, presumably in an effort to eat away at the city’s reforms from the inside out.” Noting that the American Federation of Teachers has invested nearly half a million dollars into New Orleans charter organizing over the past year, Cook wrote that “we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking” the union wouldn’t ruin all the progress reformers have achieved “if we gave them the opportunity to do so.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said in a statement to The American Prospect that the AFT is excited that three New Orleans charter schools “have formed unions and want contracts that give them a voice on the job, resources for their students and treat them fairly.” The AFT currently represents 225 charter schools in 15 states, and Weingarten says “we’re working with educators at other charters in the Crescent City and across the country who want a voice at their school.”

Masterson told the Prospect that “there are definitely other schools” in New Orleans that are organizing unions, but none of them are public yet.

When asked why they think it’s been the more elite, high-performing charter schools that have unionized in New Orleans, both Masterson and Sanders say they believe the stability at their schools plays a significant role.

“Schools with teachers that are stable with their employment are going to be the first to unionize,” says Masterson. “It’s not that the elite schools get to have a union and others don’t. It’s that stability is absolutely key to getting a majority, and having people feel comfortable to come together and not be scared.”

Schools with high teacher turnover—a condition that describes many New Orleans charter schools—can be difficult places to organize unions. “If teachers start having conversations with each other about unionizing, but the next year half the teachers are gone, then that process breaks down more easily,” Masterson says. Other charters, he adds, might be filled with teachers who are not necessarily looking to stay in the profession beyond a couple years, which can make it harder to motivate people to go through the unionization process.

Sanders notes that Lusher has far less turnover year to year than some other charters in New Orleans. She points to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education researcher who has found that one of the main factors influencing whether teachers stay at or leave a school is how much voice they have in making decisions that affect their job. Increasing teacher voice, job security, and transparency, Sanders believes, will help to keep her school stable and strong.

“We’re trying to be proactive here; the union doesn’t come out of anger or spite,” she explains. “This is just teachers coming to together saying, ‘What would it take to attract and retain the best people?’”

School Desegregation Lawsuit Threatens Charters

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 26, 2015.
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Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation
rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”


It’s fitting that this fight would take
 place in Minnesota
, which is both the birthplace of the charter school movement, and a longtime champion of civil rights.

Minneapolis enacted the nation’s first fair housing and fair employment ordinances, and Minnesota passed one of the first state laws banning housing discrimination. In 1948, it was an impassioned speech to the Democratic National Convention by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey that led the Democratic Party to pass its first civil rights platform plank. In the early 1970s, under a court order, Minneapolis moved to integrate its public schools. This prompted the state to issue desegregation rules applicable to schools across the state. By the early 1990s, Minneapolis and St. Paul had not a single racially segregated school, and the Twin Cities metropolitan area was one of the most desegregated regions in the United States.

“We had no segregated schools because we had strong civil rights laws and we enforced them,” says Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

Today, the educational landscape looks quite different. While the number of people of color living in the Twin Cities metropolitan region—defined as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs—has increased considerably over the past two decades, integration advocates say that demographic shifts alone are insufficient to explain the growth of segregated schooling in Minnesota.

And grown it has. Since 2000, the number of elementary schools in St. Paul educating more than 90 percent students of color grew from 2 to 18, while the overall percentage of students of color in the district rose only 11 percent. Similar shifts occurred in Minneapolis. In 1995, the Minneapolis School District was 63 percent nonwhite, but had only two elementary schools that were 90 percent segregated. Today the district has 13 such elementary schools, and 26 percent of district students attend schools with over 90 percent students of color.

MPS SPPS demograpic change chart FIXED.png

The demographics of the 164 charter schools in Minnesota—which roughly 50,000 students attend—have also impelled the state to argue, for the first time, that charters should no longer be exempt from state integration laws. (An administrative judge will rule on this separate dispute in late February.)

The resegregation of the region’s schools, critics say, was the product not just of demographic change but also of conservative pressure in the 1990s to weaken desegregation mandates, coupled with the rise of a charter sector that targeted specific races and ethnicities, thereby accelerating the isolation of poor and minority students. The growth of charter schools, they add, also created new opportunities for white children to congregate in separate schools. Charters attended by predominately white students grew by 40 percent between the 2007-08 school year and the 2012-13 one. Researchers found that more than half of these white charters are located in attendance zones with racially diverse traditional schools.

Opponents of the state’s proposal, and of the Shulmans’ lawsuit, argue that their proponents—state officials, Myron Orfield, and his allies—misapply the label of  “segregation” when talking about charter schools. “I find it offensive and insulting to compare parents of color making choices to send their kids to schools that are better addressing the academic needs of their kids with segregation, a system that was set up by white supremacists decades ago to force students of color to inferior schools,” testified Alberto Monserrate, the first Latino ever elected to the Minneapolis School Board, in early January.

Whether or not one thinks these schools should be considered segregated, the rise of schools with high concentrations of racial minorities—both in traditional schools and in charters—means an increase in the number of schools serving high concentrations of poor students. Researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity find the poverty rate at Twin Cities minority-segregated schools to be two-and-a-half times greater than the poverty rate at integrated schools, and five times greater than the poverty rate at predominantly white schools. They also find that math and reading test scores for black students at highly segregated schools are lower than test scores for black students at less segregated schools. Suspension rates, too, are substantially higher in racially segregated elementary schools than in less segregated ones.

IMO.png

“Yes, there’s a difference between segregation that’s imposed by the state versus segregation that is through choice, the first is worse than the second,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a longtime researcher of school integration. “However, the negative effects of concentrated poverty obtain even when concentrated poverty is a matter of constrained choice.”

 

This is not Daniel Shulman’s first time filing a school segregation lawsuit against the state. In 1995, Shulman sued Minnesota, arguing that segregated schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area violated both the state and federal constitutions. The case settled five years later, and as part of the settlement, Minnesota established a voluntary integration program between Minneapolis and ten neighboring suburban districts. Most participants were poor minority students who enrolled in predominately white suburban schools.

“But the segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul is worse today than when I started the first case 20 years ago,” says Shulman. “That’s why I brought the case again, and I’m sorry I waited this long to do it.”

Shulman’s legal strategy rests on a theory that, at this point, is still very much untested. In the past few decades, it’s become increasingly difficult for civil rights advocates to win federal school desegregation lawsuits. Following the 1978 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, courts began to draw sharper distinctions between de jure and de facto segregation; the Supreme Court said unless it could be shown that a district deliberately sought to discriminate against students by race, it could not be held responsible for school segregation.

“Federal desegregation rulings are about racial discrimination, which looks at intent to discriminate,” says Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who studies education law and policy. “Since the 1980s and 1990s, it’s become more and more difficult to prove intent, which means more and more districts have been released from their desegregation obligations.”

By suing the state, rather than the federal government, the Shulmans aim to bypass all those sticky questions about intent. “What they’re saying is that the actual existence of segregated schools creates an educational harm, and the state ought to correct that harm, regardless of why it came about,” explains Black.

Their strategy has been tried once before, in a 1989 Connecticut lawsuit known as Sheff v. O’Neill. The plaintiffs argued their constitutional rights were violated because the concentration of African-American students in a particular district was a violation of the state’s right to equal education.

The case made its way up to the state Supreme Court, and in 1996, the justices ruled that Connecticut had an affirmative obligation to provide its students with equal educational opportunity. This constitutional right, they concluded, necessitated providing students with integrated educations, and so the state moved to establish an array of voluntary integration options.

Though Sheff is not controlling law in Minnesota, it is expected that Minnesota judges would consider it if they adjudicate the Shulmans’ suit. “I think the more courts that say an idea is a good one, the more likely it is that courts that follow after them will agree,” says Black, pointing to school funding lawsuits as an example. However, Sheff was notably litigated before the rise of charter schools.

In 1993, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that all students are guaranteed a fundamental right to an adequate education. In their new suit, the Shulmans seek to argue that no education could possibly satisfy the state’s adequacy requirement given the highly segregated environments.

Lawsuit opponents argue that “adequacy” should be measured not by the composition of student bodies, but by demonstrated achievement. “What we’re saying is the first thing to look at is whether kids are learning, not who is sitting in the classroom,” says Cairns, the attorney representing the charters. “And once you establish that kids are learning, then that’s the measure of an effective and adequate education.”

Derek Black says most states do consider achievement “outputs” when determining whether students are receiving adequate educations. Such outputs could be scores on standardized tests, graduation rates, or college readiness measures. Though variance exists from state to state, Black says most courts would look at both outputs and inputs. “The question would be whether the failure to provide certain inputs is the cause of an inadequate education, as measured by various outputs,” he says. If Minnesota’s judiciary takes up this groundbreaking case, they will have to decide whether racially and economically integrated schools are necessary inputs.

“I think there’s an increasing recognition that equal education is the constitutional responsibility of state governments, and therefore [states] have to promote policies to avoid racial and economic segregation,” says Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and a leader in the National Coalition on School Diversity. Tegeler hopes lawyers in other states will follow the Shulmans’ lead. “We really need to see more creative, affirmative litigation,” he says.

“This is huge, you could potentially have 50 state lawsuits on this issue,” says Kahlenberg.

Opponents of the lawsuit, and of the state’s plan to include charters under statewide integration rules, say that there’s been a fundamental misinterpretation of what segregation is. They deny that charter schools targeting specific races or ethnicities are illegal or unjust. Rather, they say, these schools provide students with “culturally affirming” environments in which to learn.

Bill Wilson founded one such “culturally affirming” charter in St. Paul—known as Higher Ground Academy. Though Higher Ground’s student body is more than 90 percent East African immigrant and low-income, it’s one of the highest performing schools in the region. Advocates say the school’s success is due to its unique, and culturally sensitive education strategies. “I know people who brought this lawsuit against the state use the word ‘desegregation’ but let’s find the intentional action,” Wilson says. “I won’t call this segregation, I won’t call it racial isolation, because it’s not true.”

“It’s a false analysis that’s being applied to culturally specific charter schools, that tends to consider those schools to be segregated,” testified Nakima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. “That flies in the face of civil rights history and also the fact that we have historically black colleges and universities around the country that are specifically designed to affirm, enrich, and enhance the educational experiences of African-Americans who we know have faced historical discrimination throughout our time in this country.”

Darrick Hamilton, an urban policy professor at The New School, says his research suggests there certainly could be instances where predominately black schools may be better learning environments for black students. Quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, he says, “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”

Even among those in the Twin Cities who advocate for integration, the civil rights community remains torn over how to think about charter schools.While the St. Paul NAACP welcomes the Shulmans’ new lawsuit, for example, its leaders have not taken a position on their charter school argument, or on whether charters should be exempt from statewide integration laws.

“It’s hard enough to get a broad coalition of people to say we want to integrate the schools, and when you add the charter school issue, the politics just become much more challenging,” says one Twin Cities civil rights leader. “There are definitely some advocates who say we should focus on desegregating the traditional schools, and if the districts can get their act together then demand for charters will [naturally] go down, because parents will trust that traditional schools can take care of their kids.”

But researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity say that segregated charter schools perform even worse than segregated traditional schools. With the exception of a few high performing networks—including Bill Wilson’s Higher Ground Academy—they find that most charter schools that serve high concentrations of impoverished racial minorities produce poorer academic results than traditional schools, even after controlling for variables like poverty and race. The Minnesota Star Tribune also found that slightly more than half of all students in Minnesota charter schools were proficient in reading, compared to 72 percent in traditional public schools.

Defenders of “culturally-affirming” institutions don’t spend much time talking about white charter schools. Yet white charters are on the rise.

“One of the problems with allowing culturally-focused schools to become single-race enclaves is that, once you create a legal justification for these schools, it becomes very difficult to prevent white parents from adopting the same language to create white segregation,” says Will Stancil, an attorney with the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. “Integration isn’t about exposing kids to some magic aura of whiteness, it’s about the importance of universal inclusion in education: providing all children full access to the teaching, resources, and networks that the most privileged kids currently have.”

IMO Charters.png

Those who do support including charters in the lawsuit and under statewide integration rules point to a “Dear Colleague” letter that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent around in 2014. Duncan’s federal guidance said charters must be included in court-mandated or state-administered desegregation plans.

“You just can’t exempt charter schools from the basic civil rights laws of the state, they’re supposed to be publicly funded public schools, and they should be subject to the same civil rights requirements as other public schools,” says Phil Tegeler. Myron Orfield says Minnesota is the only state that he knows of that explicitly exempts charters from its civil rights laws.

The rhetoric surrounding these legal battles will likely grow even more charged in the coming weeks and months. By the end of February an administrative law judge should make her final decision on whether charters will be exempt from statewide integration rules. However, if the Shulmans ultimately win their lawsuit, some say this could render any charter school exemptions moot.

“I think ultimately the lawsuit could trump the rule,” says Derek Black. “It could require the state to do a whole variety of things.

Daniel Shulman isn’t worried about what the judge will decide with regards to charters and the state rule. “It would be nice if there were a rule that effectively desegregated Minnesota’s schools—that’s one way the state could begin to remedy the result of its past constitutional violations,” he says. “But this rule is not going to effect the lawsuit.”

The state of Minnesota has filed to dismiss Shulman’s lawsuit, and a judge will consider this motion in a hearing in April. (A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education told The American Prospect that they cannot comment on the case, but is “committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”) If the case is not thrown out—and it can be appealed, if it is—then the trial will likely be scheduled for late 2017.

“I know for a lot of leaders it’s convenient to not do anything or to not talk about these issues, but for the children who are kept separate, it’s wrong,” says Cruz-Guzman. “We feel we’re doing the right thing by bringing the lawsuit.”

Minnesota is not the first state to wrestle with the challenges of balancing school choice and desegregation. And it surely won’t be the last. Cairns, who serves on a litigation panel for the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, says that he and his colleagues recognize the “wide-ranging implications” of this case. Though it’s not a federal suit, Cairns believes its outcome will be “hugely important to provide direction” to the rest of the country.

Charged with Firing Teachers for Organizing, a Chicago Charter Network Settles

Originally published in the American Prospect on January 12, 2016.
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The National Labor Relations Board finalized a settlement agreement this week between Urban Prep Academies, an all-male charter network in Chicago, and more than a dozen Urban Prep teachers who were fired abruptly back in June. The firings came less than a month after a majority of teachers at Urban Prep voted to unionize with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). Urban Prep will pay over $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 fired teachers, and two of the fired teachers were able to return to work on Monday. The others, who already had taken new jobs elsewhere, waived their right to reinstatement and settled for back pay.

Back in June, the union responded to the firings by filing two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. One alleged that Urban Prep fired three teachers for their union activism; the second charged Urban Prep with failing to bargain with the union over all the teachers’ terminations. Educators, parents, and community members organized protests, urging Urban Prep to rehire the teachers.

Urban Prep’s COO, Evan Lewis, said earlier this summer that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

However, the NLRB launched an investigation into the situation, and on November 20, the board issued a complaint, finding that one teacher was fired for union activity and that Urban Prep failed to meet their legal obligations by not bargaining over the teachers’ firings. The NLRB scheduled a hearing for January 13, which has now been cancelled since Urban Prep decided to settle.

“We’re glad we were able to settle the charges rather than having to continue a long legal fight, because if Urban Prep had lost at the hearing they could have appealed,” says Carlos Fernandez, an organizer with ChiACTS. “These kinds of charges can take years to settle, so [resolving this] in just a little over six months is pretty good.”

The teachers at Urban Prep have been meeting regularly with their employer since September to work out the terms of their first contract; the union says they’ve made “significant progress.”There are currently 29 other unionized charter schools in Chicago, and a growing number nationwide.

The total amount that Urban Prep has agreed to pay—$261,346—marks the largest unfair labor practice settlement for charter teachers to date. Back in June, the I Can charter network, based in Ohio, had to rehire four teachers and give seven teachers back pay for firing them during their 2013-2014 union drive. That settlement totaled $69,000.

“It’s unfortunate that these publicly funded schools often react so poorly when their teachers choose a union, and it’s even worse when they’re able to waste so much time and money union busting, something well outside the scope of the work the people of Chicago pay them to do,” says Brian Harris, a special education teacher in Chicago and the president of ChiACTS. “We often hear from charter operator groups that they’re ‘not anti-union but pro-teacher.’ One would assume that the ‘pro-teacher’ part would kick in after a mass illegal firing. Nonetheless, we’re very happy that we can move forward and finally begin to work on what is most important: making Urban Prep a better place to teach and to learn through empowering teachers.”