Authorities Close in on Pro-Charter School Nonprofit for Illicit Campaign Contributions

Originally published in The Intercept on September 19, 2017

A NEW YORK-BASED education reform nonprofit funneled nearly $2.5 million to a related group in Massachusetts, according to new disclosuresunearthed as part of a legal settlement.

The Massachusetts operation, called Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, a pro-charter group, was hit with a record $426,500 fine for failing to disclose its donors related to a 2016 Massachusetts ballot campaign — a race that became the most expensive ballot measure in state history.

FESA is a 501(c)(4) offshoot of the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, a 501(c)(3). That connection raises the stakes for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has jurisdiction over Families for Excellent Schools in New York and has made clean campaigns a centerpiece of his agenda.

In exchange for their tax-exempt status, federal law bars 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activity, and some are calling on Schneiderman to investigate why Families for Excellent Schools made a multimillion-dollar contribution, now that the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance has acted.

“This group spent $2.5 million on a Massachusetts ballot initiative. That is a screaming siren, a flashing red light,” says Michael Kink, executive director of the union-backed Strong Economy For All Coalition in New York.“I think it’s something the AG absolutely should look into. A number of other groups are aware of this potential violation, and we’re talking to each other. A substantive investigation is clearly needed.”

A spokesperson for Schneiderman’s office declined The Intercept’s request for comment.

“I’d be willing to bet my serious money that Mr. Schneiderman will look into this,” says Marcus Owens, the former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division from 1990 to 2000. “He’s an aggressive attorney general when it comes to charity money.” Earlier this summer, Schneiderman’s office announced it would be looking into the financial practices of Eric Trump’s charitable foundation.

On November 8, 2016, when Massachusetts voters went to the polls, the most hotly contested vote was not the presidential one (Hillary Clinton’s victory there was all but assured). The real political battle for Bay State voters was a ballot initiative known as “Question 2,” which proposed lifting the state’s charter school cap.

It was easily the most expensive ballot measure in Massachusetts history, with more than $40 million raised by both sides. Teachers unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while Boston’s business community and out-of-state donors gave most of the money in support. In the end, the measure came nowhere close to passing, with cities all over Massachusetts, including Boston, voting against it.

The $426,500 penalty — which was the amount of cash FESA and Families for Excellent Schools had on hand as of August 21 — represents the largest civil forfeiture negotiated by the OCPF in the agency’s 44-year history. The OCPF charged that FESA violated state campaign finance laws by receiving individual contributions and then funneling those funds to Great Schools Massachusetts, a ballot committee that supported Question 2. Ballot committees are required to disclose their donors, but with FESA acting as an intermediary, individuals could shield their names and contributions.

“A review of bank records showed that FESA’s transfers to the ballot question committee closely followed FESA’s receipts from individuals,” the OCPF said in a press release. “Additionally, the money received by FESA significantly increased during the four months before the Nov. 8 election, and then dropped significantly afterward, further suggesting that FESA solicited or received contributions with the intent to give the money to the ballot question committee.”

As part of the settlement, in addition to the fine, FESA agreed to disclose its donors, to dissolve as a 501(c)(4), and for Families for Excellent Schools to avoid fundraising and participating in any election-related Massachusetts activity for the next four years.

“OCPF is a real beacon to the state. What they did was heroic,” says Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who tracked dark money during the 2016 election. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in many places.”

Adam Smith, communications director for Every Voice, a campaign finance group, says the new Massachusetts OCPF settlement really points to the importance of state elections enforcement agencies having teeth. “With so much shady money sloshing around politics these days, it’s critical that watchdogs have what they need to defend election and campaign finance laws and hold violators accountable,” he says. “Nobody ever expects the FEC (Federal Election Commission) to do anything, and you don’t want that same expectation at the state-level.”

FESA gave $15 million to the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. According to their recent donor disclosures, most came from wealthy Boston individuals — notably Seth Klarman, a billionaire hedge fund investor who contributed $3.3 million; co-chair of Bain Capital Josh Bekenstein and his wife Anita, who together gave $2.5 million; and Jonathon Jacobson, CEO and managing director of the Highfields Capital Management hedge fund, who gave $2 million. Other large donations came from Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who gave $750,000, and Paul Sagan, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who gave $496,000.

While it was long suspected that these wealthy individuals provided most of the money behind efforts to lift the charter school cap, the $2.5 million donation from Families for Excellent Schools was a genuine surprise.

In the OCPF legal settlement, FESA and Families for Excellent Schools denied all “wrongdoing, fault, or liability” under Massachusetts state law. Families for Excellent Schools did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

To bolster their case that Schneiderman should pursue an investigation, activists point to one that former Attorney General Kamala Harris launched to unmask secret donations that poured into California’s 2012 election. In 2013, after Harris’s investigation concluded, California levied a record $16 million penalty on groups linked to the Koch brothers that had secretly funneled money to two California ballot initiatives. The improperly disclosed funds went toward fighting Proposition 30, which would have hiked taxes on the wealthy to fund schools, and Proposition 32, which would have limited unions’ political power. Though California’s campaign finance laws prevented the groups from revealing their donors, some names were unearthed, among them Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, a prominent education reform backer. Broad had donated $1 million to a Virginia-based group, that then transferred funds to an Arizona-based nonprofit, which then transferred money to a California political committee working to oppose the tax hike. Broad had said publicly that he supported the tax increase.

How and whether the four-year ban on Families for Excellent Schools will affect education reform politics in Massachusetts remains to be seen. Liam Kerr, the Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, had no comment on the OCPF settlement or its implications for the group’s work.

In February, following the 2016 election, a new education group called Massachusetts Parents United launched, which claims to be “the independent voice of parents in the Commonwealth.”

Keri Rodriguez Lorenzo, who founded the group, served as the former Massachusetts state director for Families for Excellent Schools, and also serves as an advisory board member for DFER Massachusetts. Massachusetts Parents United receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Longfield Family Foundation, both known for supporting education reform efforts.

“To some extent, the [Families for Excellent Schools] suspension could be whack-a-mole — they can form new groups,” says Cunningham, the political science professor. “But what’s going to chill anyone in Massachusetts is that the OCPF has shown it will be very aggressive in following the law.”

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Teacher Tests Test Teachers

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 12, 2017.
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Just 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in American against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state.

Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race.

Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board members—mayors in cities like Chicago and New York appoint their school boards, and Washington, D.C., dissolved its local school board altogether in 2007, giving education decision-making power to the mayoral-appointed schools chancellor.

Despite the current showdown, Los Angeles is hardly anti-reform. With 279 charter schools, Los Angeles has more charters than any other city in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 156,000 LA public school students—24 percent of total enrollment—attended charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. The second highest city on NAPCS’s list was New York, which enrolled 93,610 students in charters that year.

But the ambitions of national reformers still far exceed the district’s appetite for change, at least thus far.

Although the LA school board has approved most petitions for new charters and charter renewals, charter advocates say they feel the board’s support for opening new ones is waning.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.27.36 AM.pngScreen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.27.29 AM.png

And in September of 2015 The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document from billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation, revealing plans to increase Los Angeles’s charter school market share to 50 percent over the next eight years. This transformation would require the creation of 260 new charters, at a cost of $490 million. The bombshell report sparked intense controversy.

By March of 2016, education reformers had toned down their public rhetoric and goals, emphasizing that they’d support expanding all types of high-quality schools, not just charters. The modified plan did little to tamp down tensions between charter supporters and opponents. A union-funded study released in May of 2016 reported that the city’s charter sector drains upwards of $500 million a year from the school district’s budget. The teachers union and its allies charged that unmitigated charter school growth “imperils the financial stability” of the district, and limits opportunities for those students who remain in traditional public schools.

Last month, in a 4-3 vote, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to endorse three controversial bills in the state legislature that would place more oversight and restrictions on charter schools. The California Charter Schools Association strongly opposed the bills, and both Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez said they would oppose the measures if elected. (Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bills, and Padilla declined to take a position.)

Money from outside the city and state has been pouring into the two races. The previous record in outside donations for school board elections had been $7.4 million in 2013. As of April 29, outside spending had already reached $11.3 million, according to the city’s ethics commission campaign finance data. As LA Weekly put it, “To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.” (And this is all for a job that pays $45,000 a year.)

Nationally, charter advocates often justify their reliance on the deep pockets of billionaire supporters as necessary to compete with the spending of local teachers unions. But other sources place reform spending at least in parity with union spending. As EdSource, a nonprofit education news site focused on California recently reported, “In past years, the teachers union far outspent the [charter] association on campaign contributions. Not anymore.”

In the Los Angeles school board race, the charter advocates have outspent the unions by roughly a third, with significant money coming from billionaire-donors like Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

And LA Weekly reports that $4.1 million has been spent on negative campaigning in the runoffs, compared to $1.1 million in the 2015 race, and under $1 million in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has been directed by charter proponents against Zimmer.

The unprecedented escalation of the races has also attracted some high-profile, highly unusual endorsements from political leaders and celebrities.

“Billionaires should not make a profit off of public school children,” said Democratic senator Bernie Sanders in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why I’m supporting Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for the Los Angeles School Board. They will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools.”

Sanders’ endorsement—which links the education reform agenda of Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez to President Trump’s controversial education agenda—reflects a larger national strategy being pursued by advocates of traditional public education since Donald Trump was elected. It attempts to link charter advocates to a man Democrats despise. It also frames Tuesday’s choice as something larger than charter schools or traditional schools: an extension of a national debate about whether the public sector, including education, will be democratic and equitable, or privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Is it working? Time will tell, but Melvoin seems to be feeling the heat: in an article in LA School Report from March, he discussed pressure to dispel myths that he was a “Trump guy.”

Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez can claim support, however, from prominent Democratic charter backers. Both have received endorsements from Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under Barack Obama, while Fitzpatrick-Gonez formerly worked as an Obama administration education adviser.

New Jersey Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Dismissed

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 5, 2017.
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Another legal effort to weaken teacher job protections through the courts has been dismissed, this time in the Garden State. On Wednesday afternoon, a New Jersey Superior Court judge tossed the latest case, ruling that the plaintiffs—six parents from Newark Public Schools—failed to prove that seniority-based layoffs harmed their students.

Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), a national education reform group that aims to challenge teacher job protections across the country, funded the New Jersey lawsuit. Originally filed in November, the case marked the third time PEJ has gone after tenure provisions. Their first case filed in New York in 2014, is currently before the state Supreme Court. In October, a Minnesota district judge dismissed PEJ’s second suit, filed there in 2016. That case has since been appealed.

A 2012 California lawsuit, the country’s first legal attempt to challenge teacher job protections, inspired PEJ’s litigation. Lawyers in that high-profile case, Vergara v. California, argued that the rules that help keep ineffective teachers in the classroom violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The problem, the attorneys argued, was even more serious given that poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to attend schools with bad teachers.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2014, finding that five long-standing teacher job protections, including a two-year probationary period for new teachers and a layoff system based on how many years one’s been teaching, violated students’ constitutional right to an equal education.

However, in a unanimous 2016 decision, a three-judge panel on California’s Court of Appeals struck down the lower court ruling and the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

These decisions have not deterred PEJ leaders. But their other Vergara-style lawsuits have run into similar legal hurdles—namely, the plaintiffs have failed to prove that teacher tenure and seniority directly cause the problems that the plaintiffs say exist.

The California appeals court judges concluded that the plaintiffs “failed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.”

Likewise in Minnesota, the district judge said that the plaintiffs failed to establish that they had been harmed in any way by the statutes, but even if they had, “because Plaintiffs’ alleged harms are not fairly traceable to the teacher tenure and the continuing contract provisions they challenge, a decision by the Court to strike those laws would not redress the harms.”

In the New Jersey case, the judge said that she does not “see any link other than speculation and conjecture between the LIFO statute and the denial of a thorough and efficient education to these twelve children.”

It is not yet clear whether the Newark plaintiffs will appeal Wednesday’s decision. Naomi Nix, a journalist with the education news website, The 74, reported that a lawyer for the plaintiffs said they may appeal the dismissal or replead the case.

“We are very pleased that the judge saw through this transparent attempt to undermine New Jersey’s seniority statute by making false claims and denigrating Newark’s dedicated educators,” said New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Wendell Steinhauer, in a statement. The NJEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, had filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

David Sciarra, the executive director of the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, a legal advocacy organization, told The American Prospect that Newark’s State Superintendent Chris Cerf supported the plaintiffs in the case, claiming that state law tied his hands when cutting the district’s budget. “This is a huge distraction,” Sciarra argues. “Newark students don’t need more layoffs. They need Mr. Cerf to stand up and call on Governor Chris Christie to increase state funding so Newark can hire back the hundreds of teachers and support staff lost over past five years.”

The Untold History of Charter Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPACT and TNTP’s report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why D.C.’s First Charter Union Election Was Called Off

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3, 2017.
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In February, I reported on the first public union campaign at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Teachers at Paul Public Charter School wanted to form their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Seventy-one percent of Paul’s staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked their administrators on February 22 to voluntarily recognize their union.

When the administration refused to do so, Paul teachers filed for an NLRB election—scheduled for Thursday, March 30. (In a statement, the charter’s management said, “We do not believe that a union is necessary at Paul PCS.”) But the day before the scheduled vote, a surprising thing happened. The AFT, not the charter school teachers, called it off.

David Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul told WAMU that their teacher organizing committee felt they had enough votes to win, and wanted to go ahead with their election, but “we did not have enough people who were willing to be public with their support to convince AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

While 58 of Paul’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signed the initial union petition given to administrators in February, in the days leading up to the NLRB election just 33 people were willing to publicly commit to voting “yes” on March 30. Teachers on the organizing committee said that despite this, they were confident, based on private conversations with their colleagues, that they would still have a majority in support of the union when taken to a secret vote.

Experts who’ve studied NLRB elections have no such confidence, however. “If the teachers went forward, they would lose, absolutely,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. “If workers will not publicly say that they will vote for the union, that means they are voting no. That has been proven a hundred times over.”

If the staff’s support for the union has dwindled, that looks to be chiefly the result of management’s opposition. Since the time teachers went public with their union campaign, Paul’s administration engaged in what some teachers described as an aggressive, scorched-earth effort to dissuade teachers from voting to unionize.

The charter school maintains that it never pressured staff on how to vote, and that it “support[s] the right of all employees to participate in such [union] activity.”

But on March 15, Emily Farley, the high school dean of academics; Danielle Singh, the middle school principal; and Rosemarie Ragin, the director of student services, sent Paul staff the following letter:

Make no mistake, this election will have a lasting impact on you, your job, and the entire Paul community.

We are deeply concerned about what this election means to Paul’s staff and our Scholars. We do not believe that this union would be good for you or for our school, and believe the entire community—including teachers and staff—will be better served by continuing a collaborative, cooperative dialogue and problem solving process that does not include a third-party union. One of the advantages that draws both teachers and students to Paul is our ability to work directly and efficiently with our staff on a range of things that matter to all of us. This allows us to meet the needs of our students and families while engaging directly with teachers and staff to create the work environment you need to be successful. We readily agree that this is not always been a perfect process and that it can always be improved, but by voting for AFT in the election, you may be voting away your legal rights to deal directly with Paul and your supervisors on issues that will determine your pay, benefits and working conditions.

We also believe that our future success and security hinges on our ability to provide a high quality education to our Paul Scholars. This is why their families entrusted them to us. We do not believe that the involvement of AFT will help any of us educate our students.

This issue is about our commitment to each other. You will be asked to decide whether you want to continue to have a cooperative working relationship with the Paul administration, or whether you want an outside third party, AFT, to speak for you. Remember, AFT can only promise to do things; we have proven that the Paul community can deliver when we work together. Our proud history demonstrates that we do not need outsiders trying to get us to work against each other.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to provide you with the facts about AFT and the potential impact of unionization at our school. We believe that once you get all the facts you will see that unionization is not right for Paul staff or students, and you will vote “NO.”

And in an email sent to staff on March 20, Paul administrators told staff to “PROTECT YOUR PAYCHECK. VOTE NO ON MARCH 30TH.”

xx

Moreover, on March 27, three days before the vote, Tammy Wythe, the school’s director of talent, sent a letter to Paul staff saying the school would hold off on issuing employment contract information for the 2017–2018 school year until after the NLRB vote. The school had previously told staff that they would receive this information by the end of March—acknowledging that “this information allows all of us—teachers, staff, and school leaders to plan for the next year.” The AFT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint in response, saying administrators crossed a line by withholding information about whether teachers would continue to have their jobs until after the vote. (Following the election’s cancellation, the union withdrew its ULP.)

Despite all of this, the teachers still wanted to move forward with their vote. An AFT spokesperson told POLITICO that Paul’s administrators “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

From the union’s perspective, the fact that more teachers no longer wanted to publicly declare that they would vote for a union meant that management’s aggressive tactics were working, and that they had lost a significant amount of support.

By cancelling the NLRB election, teachers are able to schedule a new one in six months. If they had held the election and lost, then staff would have to wait one year before filing again. More importantly, from the union’s perspective, if the teachers lose their union election, then management might take that as a mandate to do whatever they want over the next school year. But by canceling it, management will have to remember that a failure—union advocates would say, a continued failure—to satisfy teachers’ conditions could mean that the staff could file again quickly for a vote. In other words, the union says it can help keep the boss on their best behavior.

Bronfenbrenner says that based on her 25 years of labor research, the AFT was right to conclude that the vote would fail given the drop in public commitments to vote in favor. “The initial petition is not a measure of ‘yes’ votes—it’s a benchmark as to whether you should go forward to the next step,” she says. “And if you vote and lose, it’s much harder to win than if you withdraw and try again. If you vote and lose, then the employer can go after the pro-union teachers and reward the anti-union ones. If they withdraw, then the campaign can continue.”

Despite not getting to vote for a union, it appears the staff’s organizing effort already helped increase teacher voice somewhat within Paul Public Charter. Since the teachers went public with their campaign, Paul’s administration added teachers to both the charter’s CEO hiring committee and the high school’s principal hiring committee.

The optics of canceling a vote that teachers wanted to hold doesn’t look great for the AFT, given that union officials regularly make a point to say that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to be represented by a union. Bronfenbrenner stresses, however, that a unionization campaign isn’t about voting, per se. “It’s about winning. And if they vote, they will lose—they will get slaughtered,” she says. “It’s not democracy to let them vote. What would be democratic is to let them build their union.”

One Paul teacher, who didn’t want to be specifically mentioned in this article, said the campaign’s stalwarts are likely to continue organizing with their colleagues, but that it’s unclear what shape those efforts will take, or if they’d consider working with the AFT in the future.

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.”

DeVos Might Not Force Private School Vouchers on States — But She Could Promote Them

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 6, 2017.
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In 1997, when Arizona launched the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship program, allowing individuals to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits offering private school tuition grants, legislative aides estimated it would cost the state $4.5 million annually. By the 2015-16 school year, the yearly cost of the program had grown to more than $140 million, even though private school enrollment was actually below its 1997 levels.

Florida launched the nation’s second tax-credit private school voucher program in 2001, with a cap of $50 million. Today the program tops out at $559,000,000 annually, and will increase to $699,000,000 in the next fiscal year.

Pennsylvania’s tax-credit school voucher program, also launched in 2001, was originally capped at $30 million. Designed to provide tuition assistance to private schools, pre-K programs, and “innovative” public school initiatives, it now hits $175 million annually.

Tomorrow the Senate will hold its final vote on Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the federal education department, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has spent decades advocating for charter schools, private schools, and virtual education. No other Trump appointee has faced the same magnitude of opposition, with hundreds of thousands of Americans calling, emailing, and faxing their senators in protest.

Though it’s widely expected that she’ll be confirmed on Tuesday, the past few months of anti-DeVos campaigning have created some new fault lines within education reform coalitions. In addition to labor unions and civil rights groups, more liberal school choice organizations, like Democrats for Education Reform and Education Trust, have lined up against DeVos’s nomination. Billionaire Eli Broad, who funds charter schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and other cities, penned a letter last week against his fellow billionaire education reform champion. On the other hand, Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, has emerged as one of DeVos’s most ardent supporters.

One major concern critics have voiced about DeVos is whether she will use her federal perch to push school privatization. She’s referred to the public education system as a “dead end” and has neither attended a public school, nor worked in one. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos has spent years (unsuccessfully) pushing private school vouchers, and has funded voucher efforts in other states.

Though DeVos has promised she would not “force” voucher programs on states, there are other ways she could support their growth if she’s confirmed as education secretary. She might get behind what’s known as “Title I portability”—a policy that would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow them to the public or private school of their choice. At $14.5 billion annually, Title I is the federal government’s largest program for K-12 students. Some congressional Republicans tried to include Title I portability in the federal education law that passed in 2015, but Barack Obama said he’d veto any bill that contained it. Democrats and Obama’s administration maintained that such a policy would significantly harm poor students by directing federal funds away from high-poverty school districts.

Title I is likely to come up again, given that in early January Donald Trump tapped Rob Goad, a senior education adviser to Representative Luke Messer of Indiana, to join his administration. Messer is known as one of the most vocal Congressional advocates for Title I portability, and Goad will serve as the key education expert on Trump’s White House Domestic Policy Council. A DeVos-backed Title I portability amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act could win congressional approval unless Senate Democrats successfully filibuster it.

DeVos is also likely to support states establishing education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, as well as private school tuition. In December, right-leaning education reformers gathered together in Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education advocacy group on whose board Betsy DeVos served until recently. At the conference leaders spoke animatedly about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in every state across the country.

Noting the liberal opposition to DeVos’s nomination, some education analysts have suggested that private school vouchers are unlikely to expand beyond conservative legislators and red states. However, the reality is that private school voucher programs are often pushed in blue cities and purple suburbs—where a plethora of religious schools are located. In fact, it’s Republican-leaning rural areas that tend to have some of the greatest opposition to private school vouchers, given their scant school options.

Indeed Maryland, a blue state that went for Hillary Clinton by 26 points, established its first private school voucher program last year, appropriating $5 million to the effort. While school voucher initiatives are often pitched as vehicles to help poor, black students escape their local public schools, data from the first year of Maryland’s program reveal that more private school vouchers went to white students than black students, and 78 percent of the 2,464 vouchers issued went to students who were already enrolled in private schools. Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan says he wants to double the funding for the voucher program over the next three years.

“In Maryland, no one has lobbied harder or been more excited about Governor Hogan’s voucher program than religious schools,” says Sean Johnson, the legislative and political director for the Maryland State Education Association. “Despite the rhetoric you hear on vouchers from President Trump, Governor Hogan, and Betsy DeVos, vouchers are less about moving kids from public schools and more about moving taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools. We can’t afford to fund two different school systems—public taxpayer dollars should be spent improving our public schools, not subsidizing expensive private schools.”

Meredith Curtis of the Maryland ACLU says what’s happening in Maryland is similar to what’s happened in other states, where private school voucher programs start out small, but continue to steadily grow, even as public school budgets are cut.

“Maryland public schools have tremendous needs that need to be addressed by the state, but we have no promises from the governor to meet those urgent needs, and yet he proposes increasing funding to religious schools,” Curtis says. “What we’ve seen in other states is that once allocations for vouchers are set in place, they just continue to increase, but there’s no accountability for benchmarks to compare the quality of education. We support [the right of] private schools to set their own curriculums, but we object to publicly funding [them].”

Assessing the educational value of private school voucher programs has been difficult. As Erin Richards details in The American Prospect’s most recent issue, Wisconsin, which launched the nation’s first private school voucher program 27 years ago, still lacks high-quality data for assessing performance, and still lacks robust mechanisms to hold private schools that receive public dollars accountable.

DeVos, congressional Republicans, and a host of GOP governors around the country may be enthusiastic about increasing the number of students enrolled in private schools, but public support for such policies is actually falling. According to an annual poll conducted by Harvard’s Education Next journal, nationwide support for vouchers targeted at low-income students fell from 55 percent to 43 percent between 2012 and 2016, and support for universal vouchers fell from 56 percent to 50 percent.

If private school vouchers become increasingly associated with Donald Trump, the nation’s staggeringly unpopular new president, then public support for vouchers may fall further yet.

 

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.”