Jeff Bryant

The for-profit charter school problem

The top lobbying group for the charter school industry is rushing to preserve millions in funds from the federal government that flow to charter operators that have turned their K-12 schools into profit-making enterprises, often in low-income communities of color.

The group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), objects to a provision in the House Appropriations Committee's proposed 2022 education budget that closes loopholes that have long been exploited by charter school operators that profit from their schools through management contracts, real estate deals, and other business arrangements. NAPCS also objects to the legislation's proposal to cut 9 percent from the federal government's troubled Charter Schools Program (CSP).

The House budget proposal, which was passed out of the majority Democratic committee "in a party-line vote," according to the Hill, has been praised by numerous education groups, including the National School Boards Association, the National Education Association, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, for, among many things, more than doubling Title I funding for schools serving low-income children, providing over $3 billion more to educate students with disabilities, and increasing federal spending on K-12 education programs, Education Week reports.

The legislation mostly aligns with the President Biden administration's proposed budget for K-12 spending, as reported by Chalkbeat in April 2021, and the provision ending federal funding of for-profit charter school operators reflects Biden's pledge, made in his presidential campaign, to "not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period."

The For-Profit Charter Problem

The specific provision regarding for-profit charters that NAPCS objects to states, "None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be awarded to a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school."

Controversies over for-profit charter school operators are long-standing and largely unresolved.

A 2016 audit by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General examined 33 charter schools in six states and found that their relationships with their for-profit management companies posed significant "financial risk" to federal funds, including risks "of waste, fraud, and abuse" due to charter school nonprofit boards "ceding fiscal authority" to management companies that control how federal funds are spent.

The loopholes that charter school operators use to extract profit from their education services are well known.

As University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black explains on his personal blog, "Most states require charter schools to be nonprofit. To make money, some of them have simply entered into contracts with separate for-profit companies that they also own. These companies do make money off students."

A 2021 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE)—an organization co-founded by education historian Diane Ravitch that advocates for public schools—examined more than 1,000 charter schools that were contracted with for-profit management companies and found that the schools' nonprofit boards were often mere fronts for profit-making enterprises that use the charter schools they operate to "maximize their profits through self-dealing, excessive fees, real estate transactions, and under-serving students who need the most expensive services."

Among the practices that for-profit charter operators employ, according to the NPE report, is to establish "sweeps contracts" that "give for-profits the authority to run all school services in exchange for all or nearly all of the school's revenue."

The report also "identified over 440 charter schools operated for profit that received grants totaling approximately $158 million between 2006 and 2017," from the CSP, despite "strict regulations" against awarding CSP funds to charter schools operated by for-profit entities.

'A Well-Funded Misinformation Campaign'

While the proposal from House Democrats is clearly aimed at ending federal funding of a specific type of charter school operation, NAPCS, in its petition campaign, claims that the new legislation would "cut off ALL federal funding" to any charter school that contracts with any sort of business entity, which would seem to suggest that the proposal jeopardizes federal funds to all charters, since virtually all schools, charter and public, outsource some services—such as transportation, textbooks, or grounds maintenance—to outside providers.

NAPCS's president and CEO Nina Rees told a CNN reporter that the legislation "could impact schools that contract out for cafeteria services, special education services, or back office staff."

Similarly, the organization's objection to the proposed cut to the federal CSP by $40 million, from $440 million to $400 million, is framed as an "attack" on the entire charter school industry.

After the CNN article was published, it was updated with a quote from Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who chairs the House committee that drafted the proposal, who called NAPCS's petition campaign "a well-funded misinformation campaign," and said, "The language [of the proposed legislation] is clearly focused on ending the practice of charters accepting federal funds only to have the school run by a low-quality, for-profit company rife with conflicts of interest."

In an email sent to the CNN reporter, and shared with Our Schools, NPE executive director Carol Burris wrote, "Rees knows that the intent of the House is not to ban bus contracts," and she called the cut to the federal CSP "modest," adding that the same cuts have been proposed by House Democrats "for the past two years."

Misleading to Say the Least

Indeed, claims that House Democrats would somehow make charter schools "do without food, plumbing, and books," as Rees claimed in a tweet, seem misleading to say the least.

First, concerns expressed by Rees and her organization misleadingly conflate school contracts for discrete services, like textbooks and professional development, with business arrangements that lead to a private entity taking over the complete operations of a school. Their argument also overlooks that school district vendor contracts that exceed a certain monetary threshold are customarily approved by an elected school board in a public meeting, not by private agreements between business partners that control a charter school.

Also, the claim that proposed cuts to for-profit charter school funding would apply to all charter schools seems way overblown—given NAPCS's own analysis.

While the Hill reporter quotes "a Democratic congressional staffer" who said that proposed cuts would apply to only "10 percent of charter schools," and the CNN reporter repeated this figure, without attributing a source to it, NAPCS's own analysis has found that 12 percent of charters are technically "for-profit," namely, that they are operated by education management organizations that have a for-profit tax status.

NPE, in its report of for-profit charters, found that the footprint of the for-profit charter sector varies considerably by state, with two states, Michigan and Florida, having a majority of charters run by for-profits, and other states—including Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio—having over 30 percent of charters run by for-profits.

But to claim that the proposed legislation would affect all charter schools is certainly an exaggeration.

How That Game Is Played

The proposed cut to the federal CSP has a similarly legitimate connection to concerns about how charter schools use federal funds.

As Burris explained in her email, the concerns stem from the increased "scrutiny" that the program has drawn from House members "for the past several years, which is why the House has not been increasing its budget," she wrote.

As evidence of that scrutiny, Burris pointed to stories in the Washington Post that highlighted two NPE reports—one of which I coauthored, and the other I contributed to—that documented how the CSP had wasted well over $1 billion on schools that never opened, or opened and then closed after brief periods of service.

It should also be mentioned that NAPCS has been a past recipient of a grant from the CSP, having been awarded $2,385,960 from former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in 2018.

According to data compiled by NPE, NAPCS spent $2,621,999 lobbying the federal government for charter schools between 2015 and 2019, which means the grant from DeVos and the CSP nearly covered the cost of the group's federal lobbying for those years.

Much of the rhetoric NAPCS employs in its campaign lapses into a cynical posturing about denying funding to students, "who are more likely to be Black and Brown and come from low-income communities," when really there is a business interest at stake.

When NPE's analysis of the for-profit charter sector compared the proportion of disadvantaged children these schools enrolled to proportions of those students present in the surrounding districts, it found, "Fewer disadvantaged students (proportionally) attend charters run for profit." In five cities NPE analyzed, only one—Detroit—had for-profit run charters that served more students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. "In all [five] cities," the report noted, "for-profit-run schools serve fewer students who receive services under IDEA," the federal program that funds education services for students with disabilities.

Yet, the charter industry's opposition to stricter regulation of any kind is not surprising. For years, the industry and its proponents have refused to acknowledge any criticism, no matter how reasonable, of how their schools are conceived and run.

Rather than responding to criticisms with a public examination, as public school educators have to do anytime parents and taxpayers bring their concerns to local school boards, the charter school industry's response to calls for reform continues to resemble the hardball lobbying tactics of businesses—like those in the energy, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries—that have long resisted any calls for reform.

Rees, who served as a deputy assistant for domestic policy to former Vice President Dick Cheney, knows all too well how that game is played.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

The critical race theory panic is a new weapon in the right-wing war on public education

"No one deserves the school I went to," says Celia Gottlieb.

Gottlieb is currently enrolled in Middlebury College and working as an intern with New York University's Metro Center, but she is talking about the high school she attended in Highland, New York, a small community in the Lower Hudson River Valley region of the Empire State.

The Highland Central School District would raise few concerns to the casual observer. Its state data report card says the district graduates 89 percent of its students, above the national rate of 86 percent, with a college, career, and civic readiness level of four, the state's highest rating. But Gottlieb's negative recollections about her high school years have more to do with what went on inside the building.

"There was not a single day that I didn't hear a student openly use the n-word," she told me in a phone call. "Confederate flags were common. Students had Confederate flags on their cars and on their clothes. One kid wore a shirt with a Confederate flag on it nearly every day and was never told to take it off, even though a student who wore a shirt with an LGBTQ message on it was told to take it off."

Gottlieb, who identifies as white and Jewish, describes learning a "whitewashed curriculum" in which the only history taught was American and European. She says there were few references in lessons to the legacies of colonialism, even though the influence of the Dutch settlers who founded the town was ubiquitous in the names of the local streets and buildings.

The Reconstruction period following the Civil War—when formerly enslaved Black people enjoyed a degree of prosperity before the backlash of Jim Crow—received only a brief overview, says Gottlieb. There was nothing taught about Black, Native American, or Latinx culture, she recalls. History courses were taught mostly by white male teachers who were often athletic coaches, who wanted to "talk about what was important to them, not what was important to the students," explains Gottlieb.

The school district is majority white, 70 percent in 2019-2020, but is slowly diversifying—the population of white students was higher, 80 percent, 10 years ago. And there's evidence the nonwhite students are not as well served. According to its report card, Highland Central School District has been designated a Target District by the state, meaning it "struggled to prepare certain subgroups (such as students with disabilities or certain racial/ethnic groups) but not all of their students with some or all indicators of success."

Gottlieb didn't need to look at the data to know that what was going on in her school was wrong. But what she didn't anticipate was that her commitment to change the culture of her high school would in time land her smack in the middle of today's culture war over how public schools should address issues of race, inequity, and diversity in institutions that are dedicated to educating all students.

'I Don't Believe Anyone Believes He or She Is a Racist'

Gottlieb was not the only student who found her school's culture oppressive, and she and her like-minded classmates organized an effort to take their concerns to the local school board.

They began by collecting 117 testimonials from students, parents, and teachers reflecting the discriminatory culture in schools. The testimonials are disturbing and revelatory of why students who are not white Christians would have difficulty learning in such a hostile environment.

"One of my former peers throughout elementary, middle, and high school was very dark skinned," one testimonial reads, "and because of that, many white kids in my grade would talk behind his back and make jokes about how dark his skin is. I remember this occurring from elementary all the way to high school. They'd laugh and joke about how 'you couldn't see him in the dark' and compare the color of his skin to insulting things."

A Latinx parent wrote, "My son was repeatedly called a 'wetback'… [and an 'illegal immigrant'] by [students] who considered this joking. It caused him much embarrassment but as much as I encouraged him to speak out he'd say that these things took place in front of teachers and never were… addressed."

"I've had kids show me Holocaust memes because they think they're funny," another reads. "I've had students go through the Holocaust data base and find people with the same last name [as mine] to make jokes at me or about me. I've had people say I've never seen a Jew in real life before and people drop quarters near me to see if I'd pick them up."

Gottlieb and her fellow activists presented these testimonials to the school board, reading for nearly three hours the significant record of racist and discriminatory behaviors allowed in the school and offering their recommendations. Then they continued to attend every board meeting for the next three months until members demonstrated a commitment to change the oppressive culture in the school.

As a result of this advocacy, the district launched a Climate and Culture/Racial Equity Initiative in 2020 that included hiring outside expertise to advise the district.

"Racism is a truly horrible word that spurs thoughts of intentional actions to harm someone because of their color," district superintendent Thomas Bongiovi wrote in announcing the new initiative. "I don't believe anyone believes he or she is a racist, but hearing these personal experience[s] makes it clear that we, as a district, need to dig deeper into the issues of race and equity. We need to do better for our students and families of color."

Drawing the Wrath of a Nationwide Movement

While Gottlieb's work for her high school alma mater represents a genuinely well-meaning effort to improve the culture of the school, and thus the academic outcomes of its nonwhite, non-Christian students, efforts like hers have drawn the wrath of a nationwide movement fomented by right-wing organizations that insists any work related to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools is an attempt to promote "divisiveness" in communities and to "indoctrinate" students in ideas, such as critical race theory (CRT), that supposedly discriminate against white students.

"In towns nationwide, well-connected conservative activists, and Fox News, have ramped up the tension in fights over race and equity in schools," reports NBC News. The NBC reporters count "at least 165 local and national groups" that receive support from "conservative think tanks, law firms, and activist parents" to "swarm school board meetings, inundate districts with time-consuming public records requests, and file lawsuits and federal complaints alleging discrimination against white students."

So far, none of these right-wing activist groups has targeted Gottlieb or Highland schools. "There was not much visible opposition," she recalls, to what she was trying to accomplish. But she knows "the haters," as she calls them, are there, even if "they don't appear to be organized—yet."

However, the backlash may indeed be close by, less than an hour's drive, where the Onteora Central School District has been identified for a "Flagged Curriculum" that supposedly teaches "political activism, false facts, critical race theory, etc." on What Are They Learning, a website that "allows you to browse problematic curriculum being assigned across the country, and anonymously upload your own examples from your child's school."

The website is the creation of Luke Rosiak, according to the podcast of the Family Research Council hosted by Tony Perkins, the organization's leader. The Family Research Council "bills itself as 'the leading voice for the family in our nation's halls of power,'" according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "but its real specialty is defaming LGBTQ people." And Rosiak is "an investigative reporter" for the Daily Caller, "a conservative/Republican news spin organization founded in 2010 by conservative reporter Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel," according to the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch.

The Onteora district's alleged transgression is that it "pays Morningside Center," a New York City nonprofit that assists schools with racial equity and social-emotional issues, "to train staff to lead 'circles' during class time." Circles, we're warned, "are modeled after Native American religious rituals." Furthermore, the comment on What Are They Learning goes on to say that the district's "teachings have anti-racist, critical theory underpinning."

The Highland Central School District has yet to be flagged on What Are They Learning. Visitors to the site are urged to "be the first" to target districts like this that have yet to be designated for parental concern.

The site also links to Parents Defending Education, which has its own "indoctrination map" to flag schools engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, for "resources." That organization's founder and president is Nicole Neily, who has a lengthy history of being an employee of organizations funded by right-wing philanthropists Charles Koch and his late brother David, according to Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Structural Racism Is Real

Someone who does know what it's like to engage in the hard work of making schools more welcoming, inclusive, and just, and then be targeted for political smears by right-wing agitators, is Letha Muhammad, the director of the Education Justice Alliance (EJA) based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"EJA's work is focused on ending the school-to-prison and school-to-deportation pipelines," Muhammad told me in a phone call, referring to the well-established understanding that students of color disproportionately experience excessively harsh school discipline practices and the involvement of law enforcement officers in schools, and these experiences often lead to those students being pushed out of the school and into the criminal justice system, or, in the case of undocumented students, into the immigration system.

EJA, according to its website, encourages local school officials to explore alternatives to school suspensions, to protect immigrant and undocumented students, and to invest more in school support staff—such as school psychologists, mental health therapists, counselors, and nurses—to help attend to the social-emotional needs of students.

Much of EJA's work, Muhammad tells me, happens through empowering students and families to be front-line advocates in the struggle against racial inequity and injustice in schools, since they are the ones being most affected by harsh discipline policies.

Muhammad explains, "We work with young people and families to… share a narrative about the reality of their lives and their needs for support rather than punitive policies."

It was that work of empowering student and family advocates that made EJA a target of Education First Alliance, a North Carolina-based advocacy group that opposes, among other things, "radical teacher training" in "critical race theory."

In a post titled "EXCLUSIVE: Foreign Money Funding Critical Race Theory in North Carolina's Public Schools," Education First Alliance's president Sloan Rachmuth reported EJA had been among a group of government and nonprofit organizations that had been "awarded part of a $1.4M grant from Switzerland-based Oak Foundation to 'combat structural racism within the education system' in North Carolina."

The piece alleges that grant money awarded by a Swiss foundation is essentially "foreign control of North Carolina's school system" and that this foreign agenda is "being carried out by groups like Durham-based Education Justice Alliance [EJA is based in Raleigh] who trains student activists to campaign against ALL school discipline policies and against allowing school resource officers on campus."

Rachmuth finds it all the more concerning that the Oak Foundation is among the many investors in a massive infrastructure development project rolled out by the Chinese government, and she concocts a guilt by association argument to accuse recipients of the grant, which also includes the North Carolina School Board, of "'transforming' the state's school system into a Marxist system."

When I asked Muhammad about what her reactions were to the article when it was brought to her attention, she responded, "Wow, the lies. I had heard of [Education First Alliance] but had not really paid any attention to them and was really taken aback by the manipulation of facts to support a particular narrative."

"What they say about our organization are just lies. We don't have anything to do with spreading communist doctrine. We do train students to be activists for themselves. We don't train them in advocating communism."

To those who oppose the need to address structural racism in the education system, Muhammad wants to assure them that structural racism is real.

"I am a Black woman and mother of three children who have been and are in the public school system. I've seen with my own eyes how structural racism shows up in schools. You can't convince me otherwise. Look at the data and talk to students and parents. There's just no denying this."

Yet denying that reality has become ideal fodder for groups intent on inciting white rage.

What the Fighting Is Really All About

It's not surprising at all that a newly formed and highly organized campaign aimed at public schools follows closely after the reign of former President Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who revealed that modern-day conservatives don't want to improve public schools as much as they want to undermine and privatize them.

For this reason and others, news stories about these attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion work in public schools are reporting that right-wing radicalism sees a campaign against cultural race theory as a tactic to gain an advantage in a battle with much higher stakes.

NBC reporters place these attacks in an electoral context aimed at "ousting as many school board members" as possible and fomenting the next iteration of grassroots conservative populist revolt "akin to the tea party" movement that radicalized the GOP a decade ago.

Similarly, a report for Time says the conflict is an extension of a decades-long culture war that conservatives believe is "a winning electoral message."

But what DeVos's agenda revealed to the nation was that attacking the institution of public education, and furthering its demise, is an important goal of the radical right in and of itself.

Public schools are, after all, one of the few, if not the only, places where people are brought together in a common space that reveals their differences and engages them in sharing these differences and coming to mutual understandings about them. If that can somehow be framed as something negative—by attacking what schools do to accommodate differences—then the right wing is one step closer to achieving its goal to hasten the demise of public education.

But as long as there are people like Gottlieb and Muhammad, who see in public education the potential to rise above our differences and focus on what unites us, then public schools still have a chance at becoming stronger and more enduring American institutions.

"I'm still patriotic in every way," Gottlieb says, "and there's a potential in our country to create a more just nation, but that requires a more robust public education system."

Here's the truth behind the right-wing attacks on critical race theory

When North Carolina public school teacher Justin Parmenter penned an opinion piece for the Charlotte Observer about the difficulties of teaching in hybrid mode during the pandemic, with students both in-person in the classroom and remote online, he didn't expect to get called out by a legislator on the floor of the state House of Representatives.

The main point of his editorial, Parmenter told me in a phone call, was that teaching his seventh-grade class in the hybrid model isn't sustainable because it forces teachers to make compromises that limit the learning opportunities of their students.

But that point was not what Iredell County Republican Representative Jeff McNeely was compelled to comment on. Instead, he attacked Parmenter, who was named a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, for attempting to "indoctrinate" his students about "environmental pollution."

As Parmenter explains on his personal blog, McNeely's remarks referred to a piece of writing Parmenter asked his students to respond to that happened to be about pollution, and McNeely made his comment in the context of a discussion in the House about a new bill, HB 755, that "would require schools to post online a comprehensive list of all teaching, classroom, and assignment materials used by every teacher in every class session," according to WRAL. McNeely spoke out in support of the bill in the House Education Committee meeting because he felt it would "help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before" and, apparently, avoid having their children exposed to teachers who would "teach 'em in a certain way to make 'em believe something other than the facts."

Aside from pollution being, indeed, a fact, what HB 755 proposes is impractical, to say the least, Parmenter told me. "Teaching is an art form," he said, with multiple opportunities for "teachable moments" to arise spontaneously during every lesson. Having to document that would not only be tedious busywork, but it could also discourage teachers from tailoring instruction to students.

Parmenter suspects that McNeely's comment, rather than being an honest discourse on pedagogy, is more likely a ham-handed attempt at making a "cheap political point."

"It's not surprising," Parmenter said, "given the current national context."

The national context he was referring to is the wave of agitation drummed up by right-wing political organizations and Republican politicians over the perceived "indoctrination" of students that occurs in public schools.

'None of This Is Really About Critical Race Theory'

A prominent flashpoint in this upheaval is the supposed infiltration of the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in public school curricula. The controversy "exploded in the public arena this spring," reports Education Week, "especially in K-12, where numerous state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban… [CRT's] use in the classroom."

The bills have surfaced in at least 15 states, according to Education Week. That includes North Carolina's version, which debuted in May, NC Policy Watch reported.

The bills repeat a nearly identical set of prohibitions on "how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues," according to Education Week, using language similar to that of an "executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers." President Biden has rescinded that order, but efforts to ban diversity training are continuing in universities and school districts, according to the Washington Post, where the focus of legislation has extended beyond employee training to include school curricula and teaching practices.

The specifics in these bills ban teachers from addressing concepts related to race and gender, for instance, prohibiting teachers from making anyone "feel discomfort or guilt" because of their race or gender. But the list of transgressions seems purposefully vague and general, almost as if to invite a lawsuit, explains Adam Harris in the Atlantic. And proponents of the bills have adopted critical race theory, an academic idea dating back to the 1970s, as a "shorthand" for their concerns.

"But none of this is really about CRT," James Ford told me in a phone call. Ford is a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year who currently represents the Southwest Education Region on the North Carolina State Board of Education and serves as the executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education.

"First, in these calls to stop the teaching of CRT," he said, "there is no clarification of what CRT really is. There's no argumentative critique of the actual concept." Indeed, many of the bills don't even mention the term.

The real target, Ford explained, is "divisiveness." For the people who criticize teachers and promote these bills, Ford believes, there can be "no nuance at all" in discussing "matters of religion and customs and the values of rugged individualism and free-market ideology." There can be no challenges of assumptions and no revising of long-standing mythologies about America and American society.

According to Ford, these people see education as a process about "making kids assimilate," and "simply talking about a subject like pollution takes on a heightened sense of alarm about society being undermined."

Outlawing 'Divisiveness' in Schools

Many of the bills specifically target the banning of teaching "divisive concepts," according to Politico, with one bill, in West Virginia, going so far as to call for teachers to be "dismissed or not reemployed for teaching… divisive concepts."

Proposed laws against "divisiveness" in schools prompt Ford to question, "Divisive for who?" and he notes that the people behind all these bills are overwhelmingly white, wealthier folks who have generally benefited most from the nation's education system. Ford suggests they may be provoking white resentment against public schools because schools are now more populated with Black and Brown children who may express doubts about a prevailing narrative about the country that may not include people who look like them.

Ford also finds it ironic that people who are intent on outlawing school "indoctrination" have chosen to impose their own agenda by attacking critical thinking and questioning of cultural norms, which, to him, is what truly sounds like indoctrination.

From a practical standpoint, it would be nearly impossible to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. And it's hard to imagine how teachers of American history would steer clear of violating these laws while teaching about the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Civil War, and the suffragette and Civil Rights movements, or how English teachers could engage students in writing while avoiding current events and topics that are apt to elicit meaningful responses from students.

Because these concerted attacks on public schools and teachers make little sense academically, they have prompted many observers to consider whether there is more of a political intent behind the effort.

Parmenter suggested that attacks on schools and teachers are an attempt to change political momentum at a time when national leadership under a Democratic presidential administration enjoys high approval ratings.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg seems to agree, writing, "Part of the reason the right is putting so much energy into this crusade [against the teaching of CRT] is because it can't whip up much opposition to the bulk of Joe Biden's agenda." She concludes, "Telling parents that liberals want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it might be effective."

But that argument makes sense only if you ignore the other education agenda right-wing politicians have rolled out at the very same time they are whipping up white resentment over diversity in schools.

School Choice's 'Best Year Ever'

It's certainly no coincidence that in many states where there are bills attacking the teaching of divisive topics—including Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and West Virginia—state lawmakers are also considering or enacting new "school choice" laws to create or expand programs that give parents vouchers so they can remove their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense. Other school choice acts create or expand programs that give parents taxpayer dollars to spend on homeschooling and other educational expenses they incur for their children.

The 2020-2021 school year has been the "best year ever" for school choice advocates, says Alan Greenblatt on Governing: The Future of States and Localities. Greenblatt notes the proliferation of new laws has created education savings accounts that give parents public funds to pay for "a wide range of education-related services." Other laws create or expand state tax-credit programs that funnel donations from businesses and wealthy people into school vouchers for parents.

Many of these new provisions have been passed in states that had previously resisted school choice programs—such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia—or that—like Georgia, Maryland, Montana, and South Dakota—had very small programs that are now ballooning into massive redistributions of public funds for education.

"States that were long resistant [to school choice] have now opened up," Greenblatt observes, and once the programs start up, regardless of how small, "they tend to expand, not contract."

Greenblatt credits the pandemic for creating a lot of the momentum for this expansion of school laws. But he also quotes education historian Jack Schneider who notes that the drive for more school choice was accelerating long before COVID-19, during the expansions of charter schools under former President Barack Obama and through the fiery denunciations of "government schools" by former President Donald Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Indeed, school choice proponents like the conservative Manhattan Institute have long contended that a public school system funded by government, but with private entities providing the education services, should be "the democratic norm" for the nation. They call privatization of the school system "educational pluralism," as opposed to the apparent divisiveness of publicly operated institutions.

"Public schooling forces zero-sum conflict such as we are seeing over CRT," writes Neal McCluskey, the director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, in RealClearPolicy. Of course, this "conflict" is "zero-sum," as James Ford points out, only if you insist it is.

But school choice proponents like McCluskey argue that having a public system that allows people from different backgrounds to come together and share varying points of view is not "diverse" at all because it might open a window to a critique of America that potentially "demonizes" the country.

Instead, in this up-is-down and down-is-up view of the world, the only way to solve divisiveness, according to McCluskey, is by "letting millions of families and educators choose for themselves" by funding a system of privately operated schools that cater only to those parents who already share the same ideologies.

McCluskey might be correct that such a system could "end heated disagreement over ideas like CRT" in schools, but it certainly would guarantee these conflicts spill over into other arenas for these students later in life, when they become adults whose views have hardened and become more resistant to change because they never experienced real diversity of thought during their formative years.

"[A] new era of school choice vouchers may be parents' best defense against public school curricula," warned former Attorney General William Barr, according to Just the News, in his first public speech since leaving office under the Trump administration in December.

"Barr suggested," Just the News reports, that "some of the new woke curricula pushed by the left might infringe religious and speech freedoms and impose a secular theology that violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibiting government from imposing religious beliefs."

No doubt, as the effects of the pandemic wane in many places due to vaccinations, fearmongering over supposed divisiveness in public schools will only grow. It is likely that there will be a ratcheting up of the rhetoric for greater school choice to enable parents to escape the supposed adverse consequences of being exposed to anything other than long-accepted narratives about subjects, regardless of a changing world.

A new nonprofit launched in March, Parents Defending Education (PDE), has targeted "woke indoctrination" in schools, Fox News reports. PDE "is just the latest" organization to take up the cause, according to the article, which also lists Discovery Institute, Oregonians for Liberty in Education, and Parents Against Critical Race Theory.

According to Education Week, PDE has already targeted school districts around the country with federal civil rights complaints against schools that address systemic racism. The article notes that "[PDE] staffers work or previously worked at organizations such as the Cato Institute,"—where McCluskey works—the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Coalition for TJ. The Cato and Fordham institutes are ardent proponents of school choice, and Coalition for TJ has filed a lawsuit to stop changes to admission standards that would allow more enrollment diversity at a Virginia high school.

Ford agrees that these attacks on "woke" indoctrination in schools are "unequivocally related to efforts to privatize education," and he points out that many of the same people orchestrating these new laws targeting public education are strong proponents of school choice. "Historically, there is a pattern connecting race issues and privatization," he says.

Numerous studies have found evidence supporting Ford's argument, but it's not at all hard to imagine that an effective strategy for pushing white families out of public schools is to raise fears that their children are being indoctrinated with values and beliefs that could divide them ideologically or emotionally and draw a wedge between them and their families and neighbors.

Nor is it a stretch to believe that families of color, seeing white families become enraged about the teaching of structural racism, would consider fleeing a public school to find a privately operated alternative that would be more culturally affirming for their children.

'I Don't Think That's Funny at All'

In the meantime, public school teachers will be increasingly scapegoated by conservative advocates who are stigmatizing the idea of addressing controversial topics in schools. Proponents of these laws seem to not know teachers "have to leave our politics at the door," Parmenter told me, and these conservative advocates seem to believe teachers "don't have the integrity and professionalism to understand that [they] know there are lines you simply don't cross."

Parmenter senses that the negative impact these laws will have on the teaching corps, already reeling from the stress caused by the pandemic, may discourage future teachers from entering a profession where they're constantly under the watchful eye of people who may not respect them and understand how they do their job.

"Less mysterious" to him are the negative impacts these attacks on public schools and teaching will have on students.

"For children to learn how to read and write, they need to engage with a variety of different texts," he says, and while he found Representative McNeely's accusations of "indoctrination" somewhat comedic—"like because I just happened to mention that the piece of writing my class focused on was about pollution, that made him think, 'I just caught one of these Commies admitting what they are up to'"—Parmenter fears any new law that is so "invasive of teachers" will ultimately be harmful to their students. "And I don't think that's funny at all."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm

How a Florida school improved test scores with a simple but powerful community approach

"What I'm working on—like making sure students have access to food, clean clothing, and streetlights—may not look like what I'm working on," Catherine Gilmore told me over a phone call. Gilmore has worked as an educator in Hillsborough County, Florida, for 13 years, and has spent the last six years at Gibsonton Elementary School where she was in the classroom for four years prior to spending the last two years as the community schools coordinator there. During our phone call, she explained to me how her school has addressed its low scores on the state's school performance report card. And it seems to be working.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Gibsonton received a grade of "D" on the state's annual report card that assesses elementary schools on the basis of their scores on standardized achievement tests. In 2018-2019, Gibsonton raised its grade to a "C."

While Gilmore welcomed the progress, she warned against overemphasizing these assessments, calling them "lagging indicators."

"State standardized testing mostly just identifies student demographics," she told me, an observation that is validated by research. "Sure, we use data, including test scores. But we use data to drive for the right things rather than letting data get in the way."

The "right things," in her view, are the factors—what she spends her time on—that she believes tend to correlate with test scores but are often ignored by school improvement approaches that tend to blame educators when test scores are low.

Often, what can lead to low test scores may have nothing to do with academics. For instance, making sure students are well-fed seems self-evident because students who are hungry aren't going to do very well at schoolwork. Making sure students have clean clothes seems a little less obvious. But streetlights?

What Gilmore is practicing is an approach to school improvement that is getting more attention—and perhaps a lot more money—as schools reopen from the pandemic; and policy experts, politicians, and pundits hail the restart as a clean slate for drawing up new plans for "redesigning" schools.

Addressing More Than Just a Test Score

The approach Gilmore refers to, called "community schools," looks at addressing student achievement by responding to the full range of factors in the community that can influence learning, including factors outside of schools.

The approach, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education's Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, involves "the coordination, integration, accessibility, and effectiveness of services for children and families, particularly for children attending high-poverty schools, including high-poverty rural schools."

The community schools approach got its first significant national attention in the 2020 presidential campaign when, as Reuben Jacobson from American University's School of Education wrote in an op-ed for the Hill, "[a]ll of the leading candidates, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), … committed to further investing in community schools through their education proposals."

The profile of the community schools approach rose even higher in April 2021, reported the 74, when the Biden administration proposed a fiscal 2022 budget for the education department that included an increase in spending of $413 million for the FSCS, a nearly 15-fold boost for the program, from $30 million to $443 million.

Days after the budget announcement, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited an elementary school in Prince George's County, Maryland—where schools recently reopened—that "is one of 65 'community schools' in the county," the Washington Post reported, "each considered a hub for family support and social services, along with student learning." This marked one of the first school visits of his tenure.

'Our Families Are Struggling to Survive'

Gibsonton Elementary is part of the Hillsborough County Public Schools system, the seventh-largest school district in the U.S., serving nearly 224,000 students. The district is in its third year of implementing the community schools approach, Rob Kriete, president of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, told me.

Kriete taught middle school and high school English for 24 years in Hillsborough County before taking temporary leave to serve as the president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the state and national teachers' unions.

Six schools in the district are in their third year of using the community schools approach, two are in their second year, and two more are being added next year.

"We've been very intentional about the schools we've picked to adopt the approach," Kriete said, but the district has not taken a "top-down approach," and has instead chosen schools that seem well-suited to the approach and have leadership and faculty who are agreeable to the demands of it.

Gibsonton Elementary seemed like a good fit. The school is just one of a handful of schools in Gibsonton, an unincorporated, semi-rural community south of Tampa Bay that has its roots in agriculture, light manufacturing, maritime-related businesses, and the carnival industry.

Nearly 20 percent of households in the community are at or below the poverty rate, according to World Population Review, with a median house value of only $188,400, and with 71 percent of adults having attained an education of less than an associate or college degree.

The community seems bereft of many services children and families would need.

Clinics and other health care facilities are sparse and modest and mostly inconvenient to families living near the elementary school. Facilities for dental care and eye care are even rarer. Other than a Walmart Supercenter, there are no grocery stores, so many families have to rely on small convenience stores and bare-bones retailers like Dollar General and Family Dollar that offer very little in the way of fresh and nutritious food.

Gibsonton Elementary also has a student population that often struggles in the public school system. Most of the students (56.4 percent) are Hispanic, according to state data, and nearly all the students are economically disadvantaged (94.1 percent), with 26.3 percent being English language learners, and 23.8 percent having some sort of disability.

"We became a community school because we really needed the outside help," Gilmore told me. "Our families are struggling to survive," she said. Many of the school's families are generational carnival people and live in old and often rundown trailers. Some still leave in May and return in October, which is considered the peak season for the carnival industry.

"There's so much growth in communities all around us," she said, referring to the more prosperous Tampa metro area, "but the growth hasn't improved our community."

What the Community Really Needs

In March 2018, Gibsonton Elementary leadership, faculty, and support staff agreed the school should adopt the community schools approach. "The entire school had to be behind the idea," she said, "and we were." Out of the six candidates who applied for school improvement coordinator, a key position the approach requires, Gilmore was chosen.

Much of what the school needed seemed obvious to Gilmore and her colleagues, but the first year of implementing the community schools model requires the school to conduct a needs assessment, including an audit of program strengths and weaknesses and assets in the surrounding community, and an outreach, via surveys and interviews, to students, parents, business leaders, local nonprofits, and others.

"We interviewed 92 percent of parents, including both parents in two-parent households," Gilmore recalled. "We really wanted to get a thorough understanding of our stakeholders' needs and what they felt were the problems."

After the audit and survey results were accumulated and ranked, the foremost concern was the low rate of student attendance. Parent engagement was also lacking, and families said they wanted a more enriching program for their children—not just the basics.

Poised with that knowledge, Gilmore and her colleagues went about the work of addressing the school's attendance problems.

But what they had not prepared to address, but were actually better prepared for because they adopted the community schools approach, was a pandemic.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

"When COVID-19 hit, the first thing we knew we had to do was find [and reach out to] our [students'] families," Gilmore recalled.

She helped organize a team to make phone calls and canvass neighborhoods. Because of the community's ties to the carnival business, family mobility rates in Gibsonton were already high. COVID-19 would only make transience worse. Yet, within four weeks, Gilmore and her team found every Gibsonton Elementary student, the first school in Hillsborough County to do so.

"We were 100 percent better able to make the transition [caused by COVID-19] because of the community schools model," Gilmore said. "Because we were already talking with our families, they weren't afraid of us. Also, because we had created my position [of school improvement coordinator], we had more capacity. The model ensured we had structures and people in place."

The dialogue the school had already established with its families ensured the response to their efforts would be effective.

"The community schools approach was well-suited to the crisis because the approach demands that you stop, ask questions, and listen to those you serve," Kriete explained. "Another strength of the community schools approach is that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there is a lot of flexibility built into it."

Based on the community input, the school expanded its on-campus food pantry to include more fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, and fresh meat. For those families who couldn't come to campus, the school provided prepackaged boxes.

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mandated schools reopen for in-person learning in August 2020, Gibsonton Elementary had in place resources and infrastructure to support families still reeling from the pandemic.

Parents who attended the open house found, in their children's seats, backpacks full of supplies their children would need for the new school year. "I saw parents leaving in tears from the relief that they would start off the year with supplies," Gilmore recalled. (Parents who couldn't attend the open house got supplies through the school's backpack program.)

Every two months, the school sends out fliers asking families what they need, and in one month, that outreach helped 644 families with a wide array of assistance.

"Today I helped a family find a home," Gilmore told me during our phone call. "In November and December [2020], we helped families deal with evictions and utilities."

What Raised Reading and Math Scores

Big contributors to Gibsonton's rise from grade "C" to "D" on Florida's school performance report card were the school's dramatic increases in students who achieved learning gains shown in assessment test scores from one year to the next.

Comparing 2017-2018 results to those in 2018-2019, achievement gains in English language arts increased by 12.8 percentage points. The gains were even larger in mathematics, 16.3 points. The increases were more significant for the lowest-performing 25 percent of students, rising by 16.6 percentage points in English language arts and 24.8 points in mathematics.

Gilmore believes much of these gains had to do with the work the school did to increase attendance. But how they went about increasing attendance was guided by their use of the community schools approach.

"When we found out there was a problem with attendance, we asked parents why," she recalled, and one of the most frequent responses they heard was that not having clean clothes was an impediment to coming to school.

The school responded by installing a campus washer-dryer and eventually opened a clothing closet that provided some free clothing articles.

Another factor contributing to the attendance problem was that in the shorter daylight hours of winter, streets were often too dark for students to safely walk to the bus or to school, and there were too few streetlights.

Given this response, the school organized an effort to have the county install new streetlights around the school. Working with the commissioners, the number of streetlights near the school quickly increased from nine to 51. Attendance immediately improved.

What Gilmore hopes to move to next is to work with a local nonprofit to provide mental health services to help children and families through the social and emotional traumas of the pandemic.

"Having the community schools approach that includes someone like me in place is critical," she said. "If a school has all these needs, but no one in place specifically focusing on those needs, then that work goes by the wayside. Teachers and principals simply don't have the time to address these issues."

How the federal government’s charter school program went wrong

From the outset, charter schools were somewhat of a blind man's elephant—people saw in them whatever they wanted—but two competing theories that helped propel the charter movement were that the schools would serve as laboratories for experimenting with new education approaches that could be shared with public school districts, or that charters were created to disrupt the public school system by giving parents an alternative to district-run schools.

When the federal government got involved in creating new charter schools, beginning formally in 1994, it leaned into the former of those theories rather than the latter. The bill that led to the forming of the Charter School Program (CSP) under the Department of Education described charters as "a mechanism for testing a variety of educational approaches," and to this day, part of the mission of the CSP, as defined by the education department's Office of Innovation and Improvement that oversees it, is to "increase public understanding of what charter schools can contribute to American education."

Since its inception, the CSP has given out more than $4.1 billion to create and expand charter schools, according to a December 2019 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE).

Yet somewhere along the way, the CSP forgot its duty to create and oversee a charter sector that benefited the public system and instead has chosen to reward schools that give narrow slices of children and families a publicly funded alternative to their local schools. NPE has called on members of Congress to "defund" the CSP, saying it's "a program that has lost its mission."

Indeed, the CSP seems generally to have abandoned its original commitment to a cooperative model of charter schools and has instead tended to award charters that disrupt school districts by creating competitive schools that serve only the interests of specific populations of students rather than developing innovations that all students could benefit from.

Grants Award Discrimination

In compiling a March 2019 NPE report that I coauthored with NPE executive director Carol Burris, we found numerous examples of CSP grants that were awarded to schools that tailored their policies and programs to attract specific populations of students and discourage others.

In one example we found, an Idaho charter school that received a five-year $1,250,000 grant in 2018 to expand its enrollment emphasized a military theme in its recruitment, enforced a strict dress code, and emphasized "patriotism" in its curriculum. Therefore, it was unsurprising that the school enrolled a student population that had a disproportionately lower percent of English language learners and a higher percent of white students compared to schools in the surrounding community.

Another CSP grantee received $1,115,137 in 2018 for expanding its "diverse" student body even though the school had achieved that "diversity" by enrolling 100 percent of the small number of white students in the community and the population of Black students who were least apt to be from households with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

In another alarming case, a recipient of multiple federal grants totaling about $7 million between 2006 and 2015, the Great Hearts chain of schools, was cited four times in a 2017 report from the ACLU of Arizona for operating schools that practiced "illegal or exclusionary" policies and practices—including turning away transgender and special needs students and enrolling students who were disproportionally white and wealthy, compared to the communities where the schools were located.

An Egregious Example of Exclusion

The most egregious example we found was the multiple grants awarded to charters operated by BASIS Educational Group. From 2006 to 2014, the CSP awarded grants of $5,605,000 to several charter schools operated by the education management company, with most of the funding ($4,140,000) passed through a grant to the state of Arizona.

Our report pointed to an analysis of the student demographics of BASIS schools in Arizona that Burris had published in the Washington Post in 2017, which found those schools' enrollment demographics comprised a racial makeup that was dissimilar to the rest of the state.

Specifically, Burris found that although the student population of Arizona public schools was 5 percent Black and 45 percent Latinx, students in BASIS schools were only 3 percent Black and 10 percent Latinx. BASIS overwhelmingly enrolled students who were Asian, 32 percent, and white, 51 percent, compared to Arizona public schools, where Asian students comprised only 3 percent of students, and white students were 39 percent of school enrollments.

Burris observed a number of tactics BASIS charter schools employed to skew their student enrollment to students who are more socioeconomically advantaged, including limiting its schools' enrollment of students with learning disabilities and students struggling with the English language; eschewing the federal government's free or reduced-price lunch program that low-income families rely on to feed their children during the day; and opting not to provide free bus transportation to its schools.

When I looked for a source to update Burris' findings, I consulted Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, whose book on charter schools issues is due out in the fall.

"In BASIS Arizona, only 1 percent of all students are English language learners," he said, "and only 1 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL). This is in a state with 52 percent FRPL students in public schools. We see similar under-enrollment of students with special needs. In BASIS Arizona, only 3 percent of students have [a disability requiring special needs], compared to 13 percent in the state's public schools. Similarly, in 2018, we found that less than 2 percent of BASIS students in Texas received any type of special education services."

Where CSP Went Wrong

But to be clear, schools like those operated by BASIS, and the other charter grantees exposed in our report, were never created to serve all students. They were created to be a specific type of school to serve a specific type of student.

So, if the purpose of the federal government's CSP is to "increase public understanding of what charter schools can contribute to American education," then what we've learned is that these schools, at least how they are currently conceived and replicated, are adding to divisions and inequities in the public system rather than lifting up the common good.

No one argues that schools should not serve the interests of a specific racial student population or the needs of students who have high ability levels. But to make those aims the sole rationale for funding a vast charter entity that competes with local schools, at the expense of other types of students in the community, is antithetical to the whole concept of a public education system. Yet that is what the CSP has been funding. And unless the political will becomes evident, it has no reason to stop doing so.

The program gives millions to schools that disrupt rather than improve a system of public education that needs to serve all students.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Biden and the backlash to standardized testing

Barely a month after President Biden was inaugurated, educators and public school advocates reeled in dismay when his administration announced it would enforce the federal government's mandate for annual standardized testing in public schools. During the Democratic Party's presidential primary, Biden had expressed strong opposition to the tests. In a video taken at a December 2019 forum for public school teachers, Biden, when asked, "Will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools," replied, "Yes… You're preaching to the choir."

Although the decision was made before he took office, Miguel Cardona, Biden's secretary of education, confirmed the Biden administration would not allow states to skip the exams.

So what happened to "the choir"?

It's not like there was a groundswell from across the country to resume the tests.

Prior to the Biden administration's announcement, Chalkbeat's national correspondent Matt Barnum reported, "Several states, including California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, [had] already asked for or said they planned to request a waiver from this year's testing requirements entirely." As of March 29, three states—Georgia, Oregon, and South Carolina—that had requested to offer alternatives to a statewide standardized test were denied, according to a later report by Barnum, but Colorado will be allowed to cut the number of tests it administers by half.

"The two national teachers' unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—have urged that waivers be given," Valerie Strauss reported for the Washington Post. "At least [11,000] people have signed a petition by the Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization known as FairTest, calling for waivers to be granted."

A Backlash to the Biden Decision

The announcement on testing triggered an immediate backlash. "Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations," Strauss reported for the Washington Post. A notable critic, she pointed out, was New York City's outgoing school chancellor Richard Carranza, who "urged parents to refuse to let their children take the tests."

In surveys and widespread commentaries, teachers have long said the tests are of little to no use for their own teaching.

As education historian Diane Ravitch explains in the Washington Post, teachers see the scores months after the students have moved on to another grade, they're not allowed to see the questions on the tests or how their students answered questions, and the tests don't tell them which students need extra help, how their students compare to their classmates, or how they should change their teaching methods.

The tests are of little use to parents too, Ravitch states, because, other than ranking their children, the tests don't inform parents about more urgent concerns for their children's progress in school, such as how they're keeping up with and understanding the work, participating in class, and engaging with other students and with the school community as a whole.

The tests have their detractors among state and local policymakers too, reports Barnum. Although "many states" had already been planning to go forward with the tests, Barnum reports, numerous state and local education officials signaled they may ask the federal government for "additional flexibility, or appear to have disregarded the department's clear language entirely."

More than 500 education researchers have asked Cardona to reconsider the mandate. Cardona has claimed that test results will "ensure that we're providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic," even though plans for distributing the funds have already been determined.

Members of Congress have also spoken out against the tests. Several Democrats led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York have urged Cardona to reconsider the decision, Politico reports: "Bowman said that requiring testing this year would add stress to kids who are already traumatized and divert school administrators' resources and attention away from reopening safely."

This 'Mentality' Isn't Going to Work

So who believes we need the tests?

One of the congressional Democrats who signed Bowman's letter to Cardona, Rep. Mark Takano of California, previously gave me an interesting explanation for that.

In 2015, when President Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was such a huge proponent of testing he insisted test scores be used to evaluate teachers, I interviewed Takano, who, like Bowman, had been a public school teacher before being elected to Congress.

When I asked Takano about what he called the federal government's "test and punish" approach to education policy, he stated that the testing mandate, which began when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 but still dominates today, wasn't "designed for the types of realities in [his] school."

What do colleagues in Congress say when he tells them this? He told me the problem in Congress is that there are two types of people who tend to dominate Beltway ideology and the philosophy that drives problem-solving.

Most people, he explained, are either from the worlds of business and finance or they're attorneys. The former, due to their work experiences, tend to be driven by numbers and production outputs, while the latter, due to their advocacy interests, want to remedy societal problems, including those that are obvious in the education system, by "putting into place a law with all these hammers" to make someone accountable for any statistical evidence of injustice and inequality.

Neither "mentality [is] going to work in education," he told me, because at the heart of the education process is teachers being able to build trusting relationships with students and strategizing with other teachers on how to engage students. Having to hit a mark on the annual test or worry about an accountability measure closing your school or ending your employment just gets in the way.

A Pressure Campaign

Someone who fits the mold of those wanting to drop a hammer on educators is acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, who signed the letter informing state education departments of the decision to carry on the testing mandate.

Rosenblum came to his position having previously served as executive director of Education Trust–New York. Prior to that, he had worked in the administrations of two governors who pushed standardized testing in their states, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania.

Rosenblum's previous organization is part of the national Education Trust, which is currently led by John King, who was secretary of education in the Obama administration after Duncan.

In the run-up to Rosenblum's announcement, the Education Trust organized a pressure campaign with a coalition of other like-minded organizations to advocate for the tests. As the campaign rolled out, the coalition expanded from a dozen civil rights and disability advocates to more than 40 groups with a broad spectrum of interests, including business, civil rights, charter schools, politics, and so-called education reform policies.

In a series of three letters sent to education department officials—in November 2020 and on February 3 and February 23, 2021—the argument the Education Trust and its allies put forth was that the "data" generated by the tests were "imperative" to determine how "scarce resources can be directed to the students, schools and districts that need them most" and "to address systemic inequities in our education system."

In his letter upholding the testing mandate, Rosenblum repeated the identical theme: "we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic."

There are three reasons this argument is mistaken, at best, or, at worst, purposefully deceptive.

First, throughout the pandemic, it has been well understood that students who chronically struggle the most in schools—students of color, Indigenous students, English learners, immigrant students, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students experiencing homelessness—are the ones who have been further disadvantaged by the crisis. No one needs test scores to inform them of this harsh reality.

Similarly, the assertion that test data are needed to reveal the inequities of the nation's education system is absurd. The inequities of the nation's education system were stark and apparent to all before the pandemic. Obviously, a historic health and economic crisis will only worsen inequities.

Finally, the belief that standardized testing will lead to allocating education resources more effectively is simply not borne out in the history of standardized testing.

As New York City art teacher Jake Jacobs states in the Progressive magazine, "Not only have achievement gaps persisted or widened throughout the standardized testing experiment, so-called 'help' has never come, year after year. In fact, the original No Child Left Behind Act meted out escalating punishments, defunding and closing low-scoring schools, or placing them on closure lists to the delight of charter school developers and investors."

The Biden administration has said that the test score data will not be used to discipline or punish low-performing schools, states, or districts. But does anyone really believe predictably low scores won't become fodder in the ongoing campaign to dismantle public schools?

Follow the Money

Because of these flawed arguments behind the demand for testing, public school advocates are suspicious that federal officials are simply doing the bidding of private foundations and political groups that tend to influence education policy.

As evidence of that, Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, posted on Ravitch's personal blog the names of all the organizations that signed on to the Education Trust's pressure campaign and included the amounts of funding each has received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, two of the most influential philanthropies that have spent billions in an effort to transform K-12 education to conform to market-based policy ideas. Most of the organizations have taken donations from Gates and Walton foundations, and some have gotten tens of millions of dollars.

Another source of financial pressure could be coming from the testing industry itself.

Assessment companies have been estimated to rake in over $1.7 billion annually, according to findings from a 2012 Brookings Institution assessment, as reported by Education Week. A 2015 article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post reported that testing companies spent more than $20 million on lobbying state and federal government officials from 2009 to 2014 and frequently hired them to do their lobbying.

When former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, under Trump, allowed states to cancel tests in 2020, one of the larger test companies, Cambium Assessment, took a revenue "hit," the company's president told a reporter for Education Week's Market Brief.

That article also notes that testing companies may take on additional "cost burdens" in 2021 because the Biden administration's requirements allow states to make some modifications to the length of tests and when they can be given.

Regardless of the money trail and its influence, it's not clear why the Biden administration made the decision to continue enforcing the testing mandate, and the effects of this perplexing call to continue testing during such an unprecedented school year could have far-reaching impacts, most of which, on balance, seem negative, while few seem positive.

One thing that appears to be certain though, is that, as Takano also told me, "If you liken education to bean counting, that's not going to work." And so far, the bean counters still seem to be in charge.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

The for-profit charter school industry is completely out of control

A new report by the Network for Public Education (NPE) explains why charter schools are often nonprofit in name only when they are associated with a for-profit management group.

NPE's report, titled "Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain," reveals that many charter schools have contracts with for-profit management groups, commonly called education management organizations (EMOs), which use the nonprofit status of charter schools to hide their business dealings. (Charter schools are defined as nonprofit entities in all states except Arizona.)

The Network for Public Education—an organization co-founded by education historian Diane Ravitch that advocates for public schools—states in the report that between September 2020 and February 2021, NPE identified more than 1,000 charter schools contracted with for-profit EMOs, including "directing schools to their related real estate and service corporations" more often than not.

Charters Run for Profit

The NPE report covers an astonishing range of enterprises that make up the for-profit charter school industry, and their array of profit-yielding business methods.

When Florida couple Dwight and Connie Cenac were losing too many students from the Christian private school they ran, they converted the school to a charter, made their for-profit management company the school's operator, and made their real estate firm the school's landlord, according to the NPE report. Now their financial situation is bolstered by the 10 percent fee the management firm earns from taxpayer revenue sent to the charter school, and by the ever-expanding rental income from the school, also courtesy of taxpayers, because of a 3 percent annual increase they wrote into the contract.

What the Cenacs pulled off by getting into the charter school business, when writ large, can lead to considerable private fortunes funded with taxpayer dollars.

In 1997, Fernando Zulueta, a Florida real estate developer, opened his first charter school as part of a housing development, NPE reports. Shortly after, he and his brother Ignacio created a for-profit management company, Academica, and added more charter schools to their operations. Each charter school the Zuluetas created became its own nonprofit sub-chain, with each holding its own charters to other schools and with each school making lease payments and other business transactions to Academica, or companies associated with Academica, for payroll, construction, equipment leasing, and other services.

By 2010, the Zulueta brothers controlled more than $115 million in Florida tax-exempt real estate, with the companies collecting about $19 million in annual lease payments.

Today, Academica is the largest for-profit charter school chain in the United States, with 189 charter schools in six states and with at least 56 active corporations listed at its Miami headquarters' address and another 70 entities at another Miami address where its real estate corporations, holding companies, and finance corporations are housed, according to the NPE report.

The report found numerous examples of EMOs that lock nonprofit charters into agreements called "sweeps contracts" in which virtually all of the charter's finances are passed to the for-profit management corporation, which then outsources the schools' services to its own related companies that provide leasing, personnel services, or curriculum.

Charter School Profiting Is Not a 'Myth'

The issue of for-profit charter schools became particularly contentious in the 2020 presidential election when Democratic candidate Joe Biden told a crowd of teachers and public school advocates at an event organized by a national teachers' union, "I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period."

The remark was then "distorted" by the Trump campaign as a call to end school choice and "abolish all charter schools," reported FactCheck.org, which corrected the record.

Biden's declaration also created considerable consternation in the charter school industry and among its advocates. Charter school lobbyists at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called the whole notion of charter schools that operate for profit a "myth." Operatives in the so-called "education reform" movement took to websites like Education Next, which advocates for charters, to declare that profit-earning charter operators are merely "partnering" with their nonprofit boards and serving as "vendors," much in the same way that private companies, such as textbook publishers and tech businesses, serve public schools.

The NPE report soundly refutes the former argument and seriously calls into question the latter.

Hardly a myth, charters that operate for a profit are a huge part of the industry. The report "identified more than 1,100 charter schools that have contracts with one of 138 for-profit organizations" that control the schools' operations. The presence of for-profit operators in the charter industry constitutes over 15 percent of all charter schools, educating over 600,000 students, about 18 percent of all students enrolled in charters.

The charter businesses range in size from nationwide chains of schools to smaller operations that are just a few schools. And rather than partnering with nonprofit boards, these charter operations handpick their boards, who then enter into a contract with the for-profit to run the school.

Sometimes the very same people, or members of their family, who are employed by the charter management company also serve on the nonprofit board. And sometimes board members will serve on multiple boards for schools that are run by the same company.

"Opportunities are plentiful," the report states. "And because the schools are publicly funded, the risk is low. Every student who walks through the door brings ample public funds."

These types of business arrangements are very different from the typical contracts that public schools enter when they purchase products and services from private vendors. For instance, when school districts purchase textbooks from a publisher, the contracts are subject to approval by an elected board that is required to conduct open meetings with transparent documentation. And the districts own the books.

Charter operations, on the other hand, generally have minimal oversight and are rarely transparent in their business dealings. And when ownership of school purchases passes from public institutions to private organizations, the difference represents a huge impact to the public's purse, especially when private companies end up owning real estate and school buildings that were purchased with public tax dollars.

Will Biden Keep His Promise to Crack Down?

Further, when for-profit firms control where to place schools, they can choose to configure their businesses to disproportionately serve fewer disadvantaged students—the students who cost the most to educate.

Looking at the five cities with the most for-profit charter schools by the proportion of students attending these schools, the NPE report found that "in all but one city—Detroit—for-profit run charters served far fewer students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch [a common measurement of poverty]. In all cities, for-profit-run schools serve fewer students who receive services under IDEA," the federal program for students with special needs.

Some of the largest for-profit charter chains—such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, and BASIS—were found to have greater disparities of disadvantaged students, something that clearly seems by design rather than happenstance given how large their student populations are.

The report concludes that because of the creative workarounds that profit-seeking charter operators have developed to evade state and federal laws, public officials must toughen regulations that govern how charter schools operate.

At the federal level, that means the Biden administration and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona must make good on Biden's campaign promise to crack down on charter schools that operate for profit by enforcing existing regulations governing how federal funds are distributed to charters and by placing new requirements that make charter schools more transparent about their businesses and their relationships with for-profit companies.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Betsy DeVos is out — but her right-wing agenda lives on

Supporters of public education and school teachers were relieved to see Betsy DeVos leave her job as head of the Department of Education, knowing full well the education policies she and former President Trump supported would go nowhere in a President Biden administration. But they should remain incensed over how her efforts to privatize public schools are being rolled out in state legislatures across the country.

In states as politically diverse as Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, and New Hampshire, state legislators are introducing bills to increase the number of charter schools and create new school voucher programs or greatly expand current ones. According to the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI), a think tank that advocates for vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of "school choice," there are at least 14 states actively considering legislation to pour greater sums of taxpayer dollars intended for public education into privately operated schools. Many of the bills have been introduced since the November 2020 elections, which ousted Trump and DeVos but resulted in big gains for Republicans down-ticket.

These proposals to privatize public schools are taking on new forms that are less transparent, would be easier to pass through legislation, and take larger sums of money from public schools, which educate between 80 and 90 percent of American children. Further, the bills are surfacing when public education is highly vulnerable due to the pandemic and the ensuing economic havoc it is wreaking.

Package Bills Pushing Privatization

In Florida, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana, lawmakers are considering new bills that condense various "school choice" proposals into a "package" of legislation that can be passed with one vote rather than be subjected to public scrutiny one proposal at a time.

In Florida, Republican legislators have proposed a bill, SB 48, that would expand the state's school voucher programs, the Orlando Sentinel reports, and "spend more money on them." Among the many proposals in the bill is to combine the state's five voucher programs under a single taxpayer-funded source that the Miami Herald describes as "the holy grail in the school-choice movement."

Funding for Florida vouchers, often called "scholarships," has come via a program that rewards tax credits to corporations and individuals who donate to a scholarship agency. Under the provisions in SB 48, funding would instead come from government-established educational savings accounts (ESAs) for families to use to pay for educational expenses.

During her tenure as secretary, DeVos repeatedly included a proposal for a federal ESA program in her annual budget, and she advocated for the federal government to create an ESA program for military families. ESAs are popular with school choice proponents because they expand the range of education services that can be purchased with public funds, from private school tuition to tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.

The Florida bill also proposes to expand the number of families who can take advantage of the voucher program. Among those who would become newly eligible, the Florida School Boards Association notes, are students who are already enrolled in private schools or who are homeschooled. In other words, families who are already opting out of public school would now receive a subsidy from the taxpayers to continue to do so.

Another proposal in the Florida bill would make the voucher program less accountable by decreasing the frequency of required program audits from annual to once every three years. ESA programs, however, are in need of even more stringent oversight. A 2018 state audit of Arizona's ESA program found parents used their debit cards to make "fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated" by the program, according to the Arizona Republic.

A new bill up for consideration in Missouri calls for a similar "package" of school choice measures, the Missouri Times reports.

The bill, SB 55, originated as a proposal to make public school districts allow homeschooled students to participate, free of charge, in after-school sports and activities. But as the bill made its way through committee, it was loaded with "provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing," according to an alert sent out by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public school advocacy nonprofit organization.

Included in the bill is a proposal to allow new charter schools, which were originally confined to just St. Louis and a district in Kansas City, to start up in any municipality with a population above 30,000. Another provision added to the bill would establish a tax credit program, similar to the one in Florida, that allows donors to take a tax credit for their contributions, which are then issued to eligible parents to pay for private school tuition, virtual schooling, or homeschooling.

The bill also levels a broadside at state and local school boards by limiting state board members to one term only and by requiring a recall election for any local school board member when a petition campaign generates the number of signatures that equals at least 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last school board election—a ridiculously low threshold since school board elections generally have very low turnout.

In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds is behind a multipronged privatization effort to create a school voucher program, establish an independent charter school organization to increase new charter startups (the state currently has only two charters), and allow students to transfer out of public schools that have voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.

The bill, introduced as Senate Study Bill 1065 but now known as SF 159, according to the Network for Public Education, "is being fast-tracked through the state Senate."

Republican state lawmakers are denying the bill is being fast-tracked, according to the Gazette, but the newspaper's reporter notes the legislature made "some unusual procedural moves… to keep the proposal moving forward."

Should the bill pass, "it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private," Iowa Senator Pam Jochum told the Gazette.

In Indiana, the bill Republicans are pushing expands the state's current voucher program, one of the largest in the country, and creates a new ESA program, Chalkbeat reports.

The Bill, HB 1005, would expand vouchers to wealthier families earning up to about $145,000 per year, nearly double the state's median family income of $74,000, resulting in a 40 percent increase in the number of voucher-funded students.

The voucher program, which "cost the state about $173 million last school year," according to Chalkbeat, will add "more than $100 million" to the cost of vouchers in its first year alone. The bill's provision for a new ESA program is the "most costly element" of the bill, says Chalkbeat, because "[t]he program would be more generous than vouchers."

This Is Not What People Want

What's telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side.

Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly. In 2016, a ballot referendum to expand charter schools in Massachusetts was soundly defeated. The same year in Georgia, a ballot initiative to turn low-performing public schools over to charter management companies was defeated decisively. And a 2018 effort to expand eligibility for Arizona's voucher program lost at the ballot box.

Vouchers and charter schools also don't register as big winners in surveys of public opinion.

According to a 2020 poll by Education Next, an organization that advocates for charters and vouchers, "Support for school-choice reforms either holds steady or declines modestly since last year." The poll found that tax credit programs like the ones proposed in Missouri and Iowa are favored by 59 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats, but it's really hard to believe that most people understand these obscure programs and their consequences. Also, charter schools have become highly divisive along party lines, with 54 percent of Republicans supporting them and only 37 percent of Democrats feeling likewise.

What's also significant about these new school choice initiatives is that Republicans are seeing them as leverage to push through other unpopular measures—in the case of Missouri, to undermine the popular vote and the democratic process used to elect school board members, and in Iowa, to attack racial integration, to undermine the rights of students and families of color, and to continue the dominance of white Western thought in school curricula.

Taking Advantage of a Crisis

School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.

Many parents are beyond distraught with their children's situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning.

Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools.

Governor Reynolds, in her 2021 Condition of the State speech to the Iowa legislature, declared, "If there's one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it's that our parents need choice. And it's not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it's about which school to attend altogether."

That theme is prevalent throughout the right-wing and school choice echo chambers—whose funders generally overlap—from local newspapers, to nationwide campaigns, to mainstream media.

It's true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.

And in some states, the playing field is being tilted to favor non-public schools.

For instance, when private schools in Ohio sued to be exempt from closure mandates issued by local health departments, a federal court agreed. The ruling came at the same time Ohio private schools were getting an enrollment boost where local schools stayed remote.

In North Carolina, when the state announced its pilot program for giving rapid antigen tests to schools, the list included 11 charter schools, and in three of the state's largest school districts—Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth—the only schools getting the tests were charters, reported Carolina Public Press.

A False Choice

But basing broad public policy on the individual choices of some parents during a time of great stress is promulgating a false choice.

Children engaged in face-to-face learning in private and charter schools can still get COVID-19. In North Carolina, figures released by the state health department in November 2020 indicated that outbreaks in private schools made up the majority of school-related COVID-19 clusters in the state.

Also, in most cases, parents switching to charter schools actually reduce their choices by subjecting their children's education to the whims of charter management companies.

Amid spiking infection rates in Florida, a charter school near Jacksonville decided to end parents' option to choose online learning for their children. In New York City, the largest chain of charter schools has chosen to offer online learning only. A nationwide survey conducted for Education Next's journal in November and December 2020 found that 66 percent of students attending charter schools receive remote instruction exclusively, while the percentage of students receiving remote instruction in traditional public schools is less—57 percent.

When school districts make these sorts of decisions, parents can at least voice their opinion at school board meetings, to county commissioners, and with state legislatures. And they do. But parents who enroll in charters, private schools, and other privately run options have no choice other than to leave the school, which, more often than not, is not a practical option, especially in the middle of an academic year.

Would states be ramping up these school privatization efforts had DeVos never set foot in the Department of Education? Probably. But her prominent leadership role and media persona raised public awareness of the well-funded and highly organized effort to privatize public schools and deepened political divisions over charter schools and voucher programs. What Republican state lawmakers are doing with these new legislative efforts will likely worsen those divisions.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

How a fight for an elementary school became a catalyst for positive change

As soon as Anna Grant's busy workday at Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, ended, she would head toward the next school where she was needed. "I would get off work and immediately drive to meetings, press events, whatever we had organized [for the school]," she recalls. Her second school of concern was Lakewood Elementary, where Grant now works. In 2017, Lakewood was a flashpoint of grassroots protest due to a threat by the state to take over the school.

"Roughly 200 protesters, parents and neighborhood residents" rallied at Lakewood Elementary to keep the school out of the state's new Innovative School District (ISD), reported NC Policy Watch, a media project of the North Carolina Justice Center. The ISD was created by the state legislature to take over low-performing schools and transfer governance from the local school board to charter school management companies. Lakewood, along with Glenn Elementary in Durham and three other schools in the state, was on the shortlist of schools at risk of being transferred into the ISD.

"It's a takeover," NC Policy Watch quoted Bryan Proffitt, then-president of the Durham Association of Educators. "I don't intend to allow a terrible legislative idea to ruin our neighborhood school," Durham school board member Matt Sears told a reporter for the Herald-Sun.

Grant now calls the protests "a community effort" that united teachers with parents, community activists, and the Durham school board in an effort to stave off a transfer of school governance from the community to a private organization. The activists formed the group Defend Durham Schools to share research and talking points on state takeovers and started a Facebook page to recruit more community support.

"Our zoned school was Lakewood," recalls Durham parent and current school board member Jovonia Lewis, "and when the state threatened to take over the school using the ISD, I joined a committee that was raising the alarm."

The resistance was successful, as state officials dropped the Durham schools from their list of takeover targets and eventually took over only one school in Robeson County. But today Lakewood remains a much-talked-about school not for resisting the state takeover but for what happened after.

As NC Policy Watch reported in September 2019, after the successful effort to stave off a takeover, Lakewood's performance on the state's annual school report card assessments leaped from a grade of F to a C, and its measures of academic growth improved by 16 percentage points, with grade-level proficiency increasing by 17.6 percentage points.

"For people who believe test scores are accurate reflections of students' academic achievement, and letter grades are valid representations of school performance, Lakewood going from an F-rated school to a C, that never happens," Grant tells me.

"Now I know there are a lot of factors that could be contributing to that improvement," Grant admits, "but had we been taken over by the ISD, that improvement would never have happened."

The conversation that swirled around the takeover threat to Lakewood and how the school eventually turned its performance around is especially important now that many see the disruption that the pandemic has brought upon schools as an opportunity to "restart and reinvent" education.

"I've heard these calls to reimagine education as we come out of the pandemic," says Lewis, "but what does that look like?"

Educators I spoke with in Durham answer that question by explaining a different way to think about school improvement.

Bottom-Up Rather Than Top-Down

"I was shocked that the state would consider a failed reform model that would take control of a Durham school out of our community's hands," Durham school board member Natalie Beyer recalls about her reaction to the threat to take over Lakewood.

The "failed" track record for state takeovers Beyer referred to is well documented in the example of an experiment in Tennessee with a similar approach called an Achievement School District. As the Tennessean reported in 2019, "Six years since it began taking over low-performing schools, new research shows Tennessee's Achievement School District is failing."

New York City public school math teacher Gary Rubinstein has been tracking the progress of Tennessee's experiment over the years and reported in 2020, on his personal blog, that the state program's promise was to take over schools in the bottom 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools, convert them to charter schools, and elevate their performance into the top 25 percent in five years. Of the 30 schools taken over, he writes, "nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that… [rose] into the bottom 10 percent."

The Robeson County school taken over by North Carolina's ISD made scant improvements since it was taken over, NC Policy Watch reported in 2019, making gains in third-grade math only and earning an F rating on its state report card.

"We're willing to innovate locally," Beyer says.

To act on its willingness to innovate, the Durham school board partnered with teachers and local organizations to examine school improvement models being used in communities with similar demographics.

"We studied Cincinnati a lot," Beyer recalls. Cincinnati's record of improving student academic measures had been reported by Greg Anrig, an author and vice president of Washington, D.C., think tank the Century Foundation, in 2013. A 2014 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the district's model of turning schools into "community learning centers" was being hailed as a potential "national model" for urban districts.

Cincinnati schools that had taken up the community learning center model operated as "neighborhood-based 'hub[s],'" according to a 2017 joint report by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center, with schools that had a special coordinator who created partnerships with local agencies and nonprofits to provide a range of academic, health, and social services to students and families.

Cincinnati schools offering these services "had better attendance and showed significant improvements on state graduation tests," according to the joint report, based on the school district's internal analysis.

Durham school board members also listened to local teachers rather than treating them as adversaries and worked with the Durham affiliate of the National Education Association to explore successful approaches that had been used in other urban school districts.

The consensus view that emerged from these discussions was that people wanted schools to serve as neighborhood hubs that serve the multiple needs of families. They also wanted schools, when determining their policies and practices, to be more inclusive of the diverse voices of teachers, parents, students, and community members.

Borrowing from Cincinnati's community learning centers and what the teachers' union called "community schools," Durham gradually put together a school improvement approach that grew from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down.

'What Excites Parents and Teachers'

"The term community schools means literally a million different things depending on where you are," Proffitt, who is now the vice president of the state association of educators, told me in a phone call.

"Community schools is not a program," says Grant. "[It's] about an approach."

These kinds of definitions can seem abstract. But an analogy from former Durham public school music educator Xavier Cason, who is now the district's director of community schools and school transformation, helps clarify.

"Policy demands are only one part of what goes on in schools," he told me in a phone call. "Another important part is what excites parents and teachers and gets them involved. That has nothing to do with test scores."

When he was director of Hillside High School's famed band in Durham, Cason knew he had to prepare his students well enough so they could put on performances at competitions that were clean enough for the judges, but exciting enough for the audience. Now, in his role in school administration, he finds he has to deliver an approach to school that passes muster with policy leaders but also delivers for parents and students.

"Back in 2016, people were saying that schools had to focus mostly on academics," he says. "Now people have come to realize the focus had to be on educating the whole child."

The pandemic has made this change in focus clearer, Cason elaborates, as parents and school leaders have come to realize that in order to get the academic goals they want for students, their schools need to be safe, they need to be fed, and they need access to counselors, nurses, and other support staff.

Building Functioning Democracy

But it would be a mistake to view Durham's model for grassroots school improvement as simply a matter of adding health care and other services, often called "wraparound services."

Formal descriptions of the community schools approach, such as the one offered by the Learning Policy Institute, frequently get into details about multiple components of the model, often called "pillars."

But practitioners of the approach often boil it down to the fundamentals of democracy.

"Every school following the community schools approach is like a micro-experiment in building functioning democracy," says Proffitt. This commitment to democratic governance requires schools to create structures, such as teams or committees, that are representative of the multiple voices that make up the school and that genuinely address problems people care about most.

"As you engage more people in problem-solving," Proffitt says, "you change the culture of the community to be more inclusive of others and more committed to solving inequities."

What does that look like? Grant explains, "[Lakewood] didn't start off with a decision to have a mobile dental clinic. We started off with asking the community what it needed." Eventually the school may indeed decide to start a mobile dental clinic, Grant explains, but the point is to increase engagement and participation.

In another example, Grant explains, the school started using what she calls "family engagement goal teams" to increase interaction between teachers and families. This included home visits at first, but when the pandemic hit, the work shifted to having a weekly phone bank that contacts every family, every week, via phone, text, or other means.

"When we see people participating and proposing solutions we all know need to be addressed, then we know that is the school community model happening," she says.

The emphasis on community engagement and participation creates a sense of cohesion among the community members that make up the school, according to Grant. This greater feeling of belonging to something much bigger than yourself can lead to a heightened concern for those in the community who are struggling, Grant believes, and she points to the fact that when the school sent debit cards to every family during the pandemic, those families who believed they didn't need the cards decided to create and organize a way to redistribute the aid to those families most in need.

"The community schools approach is an attempt to solve problems that have been in the conversation for years," Proffitt says. But it differs drastically in how it aims to solve those problems.

"Take the issue of student suspensions," Proffitt offers. "For years, the district has been struggling with the question, 'Do we suspend too many students? Do we suspend too few?' The community schools approach is a way to get beyond the question of numbers and actually engage in a conversation about how to create a school that gives kids space and grace and opportunities for correcting their behavior."

Classroom teaching also becomes something that has to be responsive to the needs and interests of students rather than a static curriculum. When communities across the country erupted in protests against police violence targeted at Black and Brown citizens, Grant recalls, Lakewood faculty shifted the focus of their routine meetings to talk about integrating the Movement for Black Lives into their teaching and into lessons, and teachers underwent professional development on culturally responsive teaching.

"We understand we need to know what is important in our students' lives and need to make that present in our teaching," Grant says, "and we survey students to ask if they see themselves reflected in what we do."

'Building the Right Systems'

Durham educators and school board members readily admit that all the emphasis on community involvement and inclusive democracy takes time.

It also goes in the opposite direction from the decades-long trend of a school improvement model driven mostly by tests scores, and other forms of "data," and devoted to command-and-control decisions made by central offices in local, state, and federal governments.

"Unfortunately, there are still so many pressures from standardized assessments that are not helping students," Beyer says. "The community schools model creates some tensions for school boards because we're still being held accountable by these state and federal measures. The state should trust local leaders and give them time and space to create what's best for their students," she says.

Another problem the model faces is that it doesn't fall into the traditional media narrative of schools as places with heroic individuals—the one great teacher or the hard-charging principal—but rather as institutions with systems and problem-solving processes.

"Reporters always want those heartwarming family stories," Grant notes, "and I could give you plenty of those, but that's not what's transforming our school. Building the right systems and structures is what makes this work. I know that sounds nerdy."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Joe Biden has a golden opportunity to strengthen public education

In picking Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to be his nominee for U.S. secretary of education, President-elect Joe Biden appears to have made a Goldilocks choice that pleases just about everyone. People who rarely agree on education policy have praised the decision, including Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, who called Cardona "good news," and education historian Diane Ravitch, who also called the pick "good news" because he does not seem to be aligned with advocates for charter schools and vouchers. Sara Sneed, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, a public charity founded by educators, called Cardona an "ideal candidate," in an email, and hailed him for "his emphasis on the need to end structural racism in education and for his push for greater educational equity and opportunity through public schools."

But as Biden and Cardona—should he be approved, as most expect—begin to address the array of critical issues that confront the nation's schools, there's bound to be more of a pushback. Or maybe not?

After decades of federal legislation that emphasized mandating standardized testing and tying school and teacher evaluations to the scores; imposing financial austerity on public institutions; incentivizing various forms of privatization; and undermining teachers' professionalism and labor rights, there is a keen appetite for a new direction for school policy.

Due to the disruption forced by the pandemic, much is being written and said about the need to "restart and reinvent" education and a newfound appreciation for schools as essential infrastructure for families and children. With an incoming Biden administration, Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the influence of incoming first lady Jill Biden, a career educator, we may be on the cusp of a historic moment when the stars align to revitalize public schools in a way that hasn't happened in a generation.

Among the promising ideas that appear to have growing momentum behind them are proposals to fund schools more equitably, to expand community schools that take a more holistic approach to educating students, to create curriculum and pedagogy that are relevant to the science of how children learn and the engagement of their families, and to reverse the direction of accountability measures from top-down mandates to bottom-up community-based endeavors.

In her email, Sneed praised Biden's commitment to expand the community schools model to an additional 300,000 students. She said, "My hope is that his effort will bring community schools to every part of the country, including the American South which is so often under resourced."

Where's the opposition to these ideas?

In her farewell address to the Education Department, before she tendered her resignation with a mere 13 days left, outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos told career staff members to "be the resistance" to an incoming Biden administration, Politico reported. In her farewell letter to Congress, she urged lawmakers to "reject Biden's education agenda," according to the Washington Post.

Does anyone really think there are any federal officials who will heed this advice?

During her tenure, DeVos cut more than 500 positions from her department, 13 percent of its staff, and proposed enormous funding cuts to programs. Employees accused her of "gutting" their labor agreement, reported the Washington Post, and replacing it with new rules that stripped out worker protections and disability rights, among other provisions. Employee morale "plummeted" under her management, Education Week reported, and she threatened to suspend an employee who leaked her plan to slash the department's resources.

In Congress, DeVos was constantly besieged—from her approval, which required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, a historic first, to her contentious final in-person hearing. Her proposals to dramatically shrink federal spending on education went nowhere, and her many proposals for a federal school voucher program were never taken up by Congress.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten captured most people's sentiments when DeVos resigned, saying just two words: "Good riddance."

Instead of taking up DeVos's calls for "resistance," Capitol Hill seems much more likely to welcome Biden-Cardona with open arms.

An "early test" for Cardona, as Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports, will be deciding whether or not to let states opt out of administering federally mandated standardized tests to every student. In 2020, DeVos had let states waive the mandate, but she announced she would enforce the requirement in 2021 should she remain in office.

As Strauss reported, should Cardona decide to waive the order, he would please a broad consensus, including state and local superintendents, teachers' unions, state and local boards of education, and federal and state lawmakers "from both sides of the political aisle." At least one national survey has found that a sizable majority of parents want the tests canceled.

Another potentially contentious issue will be Biden's "pledge to reopen most schools" for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. Attempts to reopen schools during a pandemic have caused teachers in many school districts to rebel by writing their obituaries, staging mock funerals, resigning, calling in sick, and organizing strikes and other labor actions.

However, the operative word in Biden's pledge to reopen is "safely." His proposal rests on key conditions, including getting the virus under control in surrounding communities, setting health and safety guidelines recommended by experts, and providing sufficient funding to protect returning students, teachers, and support staff.

This is the complete opposite of Trump and DeVos, who simply demanded schools reopen and then did nothing to support the reopening process.

When a reporter from the Associated Press asked Weingarten to comment on Biden's proposal to reopen schools, she replied, "Hallelujah."

In his leadership of Connecticut schools, Cardona has taken a similarly non-ideological stance on keeping schools open in the pandemic, as Education Week's Evie Blad explains in a video (beginning at 5:57), by "[encouraging] schools to keep their doors open" and "providing resources" and "support." But he "never mandated" schools to deliver in-person instruction.

Congress, where Democrats have a small majority in the House and a razor-thin margin in the Senate, may be resistant to provide the necessary funding Biden wants. But as Education Week's Andrew Ujifusa explains, Democrats are mostly united in getting a "big new relief package" passed and have a way to overcome Republican opposition using budget reconciliation.

On the issue of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of "school choice," which was DeVos's signature issue, Biden has stated he does "not support federal money for for-profit charter schools," and said they often "[siphon] off money from our public schools, which are already in enough trouble."

Based on this measured stance, some, including Trump, have warned Biden would "abolish" charter schools and school choice, which is simply not true.

Cardona has taken a similarly evenhanded view of charters, the Connecticut Mirror reports. Under his leadership in Connecticut, existing charters were renewed while no new ones were approved. "Asked about charter schools during his confirmation hearing [for Connecticut commissioner of education]," the article notes, "Cardona said he'd rather focus his energy making sure neighborhood public schools are viable options."

This is a refreshing change, not only from DeVos's rhetoric for privatization, but also from previous presidential administrations, including Obama's, that openly advocated for charter schools. It foretells that perhaps what Biden-Cardona might bring to the policy discussion over charter schools and other forms of school choice is some genuinely honest conversation rather than sloganeering about charters.

Where Biden and Cardona are most likely to encounter headwinds to their education policies are from Republicans stuck in the ongoing culture wars.

Eight days before a mob of Trump supporters, driven by the president's tirades against losing reelection, broke into the nation's Capitol, sent lawmakers into seclusion, and desecrated the building, Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, reminded us that public education has long been a public institution in the crosshairs of right-wing ideologues. Asked by Guardian reporter David Smith, "where does the Republican party go from here?" Gingrich replied, "What you have, I think, is a Democratic party driven by a cultural belief system that they're now trying to drive through the school system so they can brainwash the entire next generation if they can get away with it."

Evidence of that "brainwashing" in public schools, supposedly, is the emphasis on the fully supportive inclusion of all students and protection of their civil rights that was behind many of the policy guidelines laid down by the Obama administration. DeVos rescinded many of those guidelines, but Biden has vowed to restore them.

Another source of potential discontent with the new energy that Biden and Cardona will likely bring to education policy are the holdovers of the "education reform" movement, who want to bring back in full force the top-down mandates from the Bush and Obama administrations, including charter school expansions, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and closing public schools based on their test scores.

For this crew, the central problem in education will always be "bad teachers," and nothing but the most punitive accountability measures will do.

A case in point is a recent piece in New York Magazine extolling charter schools in which columnist Jonathan Chait writes that "the core dispute" in education politics is "a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue."

In other words, if you don't think cracking down on teachers and their unions is critical to improving schools, then you're just not informed.

For decades, education policy has largely been a compromise between these two dominant factions of right-wing Republican ideologues and Democratic neoliberals, according to David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. In a podcast hosted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider, Menefee-Libey explains that charter schools and many other prominent features of federal education policy are the results of a "treaty" among these Republican and Democratic factions.

But as Menefee-Libey, Berkshire, and Schneider explain, in so many ways, the treaty has been broken, and after decades of attacks on public schools, we're seeing the necessity of investing in public institutions, especially now, given the strains put on parents and communities by COVID-19.

"We are now at a point," Menefee-Libey states, "where all of those large-scale, long-term public institutions are clearly at risk during the pandemic and the economic crash. [And] there are a lot of people [who] are discovering that maybe these institutions won't automatically survive."

Therein lies the golden opportunity for Biden on public education. Should he decide to go bold—not just by reopening schools with additional funding but also by proposing an ambitious investment in school infrastructure and community schools; not just by lifting burdensome accountabilities but also by actually listening to what teachers, parents, and students say they need for their schools to work; and not by trying to appease the tired, old arguments carried on by right-wing factions and reform fans in the Democratic Party—there is some likelihood he may get exactly what he wants. And that's what our schools really need.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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