Jeff Bryant

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.

A flood of new charters shows how the industry may try to thrive — despite the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began closing school buildings and forcing schools to quickly ramp up online learning programs in April, an op-ed by Alex Medler, the executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers, made an appeal to Betsy DeVos's Department of Education to change the guidelines of her department's grants for new charter school startups to allow the money to go to existing charter schools. Medler justified the request to address "immediate needs during the pandemic." But when Chalkbeat broke the story that DeVos would agree with Medler and approve Florida's request to repurpose about $10 million in grant money for new charter schools to be redirected to existing charters, Medler made the curious admission to Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum that another reason for the need to change grant requirements was because "there aren't enough new [charter] schools being created across the country to spend all the… money on the one purpose of funding the start-up of new charters."

Is the charter school industry, even before the current crisis, really on the skids?

The annual rate of charter school growth nationwide from 2014 to 2016 was half of what it was between 2008 and 2014, according to a 2019 report from pro-charter nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. And in some states where charters have proliferated, these schools are seeing student enrollments drop.

Many communities that have been reliable markets for the charter industry are now having fewer new charter school openings. Some of these cities are getting no new charters at all.

But this negative view of the charter market is contradicted by evidence of new charter schools proliferating in some places.

One of those places is northeast Wake County, North Carolina, a suburban sprawl outside Raleigh that includes Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wakefield, Zebulon, and other rapidly growing bedroom communities. The generally affluent region—the sixth-wealthiest zip code in the state—is now home to 11 out of the 24 Wake County charter schools. And more are scheduled to open.

In 2019, local school officials and school PTAs implored the North Carolina State Board of Education not to approve the two newest charters coming to Wake Forest, a community in northeast Wake County, arguing that charter "saturation" was adding to racial segregation in local schools and threatening to financially destabilize the district. The state board approved the schools anyway.

In 2020, Wake County parents have written letters to local news outlets saying new charter schools aren't needed, and they've protested at public hearings considering whether to open the new charters.

One of the charters the state had approved to open in Wake Forest, Wake Preparatory Academy, was rejected by the town's Board of Commissioners, the Wake Forest Gazette reported, because the board found the school's site plan and subdivision proposal had not met the town's requirements. The school is appealing the ruling to the state.

Why are new charter schools opening in northeast Wake County?

"Charter schools can open where they choose," Christine Kushner answered. Kushner, a Princeton graduate in public policy who has lived in Wake County for more than 20 years, has been on the school board of the Wake County Public School System since 2011.

In our phone conversation, Kushner asserted the schools are not needed, "academically or for capacity reasons." She disputed claims charter operators have made that the northeast part of the county "needs seats," and she called that claim, "not an accurate statement."

One reason why charter schools are expanding in northeastern Wake County seems to be because they can.

In 2011, when the North Carolina state legislature voted to lift the state's maximum limit of 100 charters allowed in the state, there was little to no consideration of where charters should expand to. Ten years later, with the number of charters nearly doubled, it seems that the charter industry itself has been allowed to determine that.

The state's light regulatory hand consists of a Charter Schools Advisory Board that receives and reviews charter applications and renewals and makes recommendations to the State Board of Education, which makes the final decision.

It is not uncommon for members of the advisory board to have close associations with charter schools, including Joe Maimone who co-founded a charter, NC Policy Watch's Progressive Pulse reported; Jeannette Butterworth who served on the board of a charter school, Blue Ridge Now reported; Cheryl Turner who was a principal of a charter school, Movement reported; and Lindalyn Kakadelis who was an employee of a state-based right-wing advocacy group that promotes charter schools, Nonprofit Quarterly reported.

Another member, Steven Walker, was appointed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Courier-Tribune reported has repeatedly tried to squelch information from the state's education department showing charter schools serve disproportionately larger percentages of white and affluent students.

The Charter Schools Advisory Board sets "a pretty low bar" for new charter applicants to gain approval, Kushner told me, and the State Board of Education "often follows the advisory board's recommendations," according to NC Policy Watch.

A Policy Mystery

From a policy standpoint, the geographic placements of charter schools are murky.

The shifting policy justifications for charters—whether they're a civil rights cause, an agent for improving the performance of public schools, or a necessary choice for choice's sake—don't clearly explain why charter schools show up where they do.

If charters are necessary for equity, then why are they showing up in affluent northeast Wake County? If charters are needed in places where the state's public schools are the lowest-performing, then Wake County is well down the list of districts in need. And if choice for choice's sake is the goal, then the state's many rural school districts—where schools are often few and far between, and parents don't have the wherewithal for private school or homeschooling—seem much more in need of new state-supported education options.

Another reason the choice for choice's sake argument seems especially misapplied to Wake County is that the district already offers more choices than are typical of most school districts.

Kushner pointed out that the district has adapted to the "culture of choice," as she put it, by expanding its magnet programs, adding 12 new ones in the last eight years. In her mind, many of the new charters that have recently opened amount to a "duplication of seats" because they're not offering anything more innovative than what the surrounding district schools offer.

In a 2019 letter to the state education board, Wake County school board members note one of the new charters offers a Chinese immersion curriculum, despite the district already having a Chinese immersion school and several schools "where significant portions of the instructional day are provided in Chinese."

The letter also points out that another new charter, Doral Academy, is located within 5 miles of 22 schools, two of which are charters and 10 of which are public magnet schools, each with its own diverse curricular theme.

Kushner is skeptical of charter school proponents who claim these schools have long waitlists of parents who want to enroll their children but can't. Although some of these claims may be true, the numbers often can't be confirmed, as pointed out in a 2014 National Education Policy Center memo about charter waitlist numbers generally.

"I've heard there are waitlists," Kushner said of charters in northeast Wake County, "but I don't know if those lists are verified. [District schools] have to be transparent about our enrollments."

The Education Imperative

The argument that schools are needed in northeast Wake County for academic reasons seems thin too.

Based on an analysis of NC Department of Public Instruction data conducted by nonprofit education advocacy group EducationNC, the state's school performance report card from 2018-2019 grades about 82 percent of Wake County schools either A, B, or C. Only two schools were rated F.

School performance in the district based on EducationNC's data tends to trend downward going from the western part of the county to the eastern, with more C and D-rated schools in the northeast corner, which could bolster the case for charters in these communities.

However, these school ratings are deceptive. As state-based advocacy group Public Schools First NC explains, the ratings are calculated based on 80 percent of the weight drawn from test results and 20 percent from year-over-year growth. This gives a significant advantage to schools serving higher-income students who tend to get better results on standardized tests. So schools serving greater percentages of low-income students are at a distinct disadvantage even if they produce greater gains with their students from year to year.

Going back to the EducationNC analysis of state ratings, when the growth rate is adjusted to 50 percent of the ratings, almost 90 percent of Wake County schools are A, B, or C rated, and none are F schools. The number of D-rated schools in the northeast corner is significantly reduced.

When income is taken into account, many more schools with 50 percent or more of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty, are located in the eastern part of the county than in the western.

So if public schools in northeast Wake County have a performance problem, it likely correlates to the population of students they serve and not their ability to serve them.

The Business Imperative

So why are new charters converging on these communities?

A few of the more than 900 parents who signed a petition calling for an end to new charters told me their ideas.

Julie Raftery said, "[The] area has become a cash cow for charter schools."

"All these charters are setting up in northeast Wake County because they've likely done market research that convinced them to set up here," Brad Saunders, another parent and petition signer, told me. "They probably have some sort of data."

"It seems like it's mostly a financial decision," Kushner ventured after being pressed.

Charter schools are, after all, businesses, and businesses have existential needs and interests, and when they decide to expand to new markets they can pick a market with evidence of higher consumer demand or a market that offers prospects for higher profitability.

Also, rather than being under the regulatory umbrella of democratic school governance, charters are operated by private boards that have intentions that aren't as well known to the surrounding community. And charters often employ private, even for-profit, organizations to manage their schools, adding yet other motivational factors that can drive expansions.

So if the charter industry is experiencing growth declines in its traditional markets, as Medler and Bellwether have stated, charter entrepreneurs have gradually turned to new markets in suburban America.

Another Bellwether report found that in 2015-2016, before the decline in charter growth set in, 57 percent of charter-school students lived in cities, versus just 25 percent of public school children.

In a 2015 article for the Atlantic, Laura McKenna observed that charter schools were "less popular in suburbs than in cities" due to policy decisions and high levels of dissatisfaction urban parents had for their public schools. Many states, such as Missouri, confined charters only to the largest urban school districts, and charter advocates have been lobbying to eliminate those restrictions.

McKenna also noted charter advocates were eagerly eyeing states that had recently lifted restrictions on charter expansion, where they expected new markets would open up in suburban communities.

When charters were legalized in North Carolina in 1997, early charter startups were mostly in urban communities—including Durham, Charlotte, and Raleigh. But as elsewhere, new startups and enrollment growth in these communities have been slowing down. So when the state lifted the cap on the number of charters, suburban communities became logical targets for the industry.

Charter School Retail Strategies

But if business imperatives demand that charters move to the suburbs, why Wake County suburbs?

"It's an easier entry point to get into the school business," Kushner offered.

She suggested that by expanding in these communities, charters can attract marginal-cost students who are less likely to require special services, which can lower the school's outlay per student without affecting revenue. They can also attract parents who have increased mobility because they have a car and time to transport students to and from school.

Kushner's hunch is supported by research.

In one of the few empirical studies of why charters locate where they do, University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Peter Weitzel and Brown University professor Charisse Gulosino found that "market competition induces most charter schools to locate in areas where they have a competitive advantage (often on the periphery), capitalizing on the opportunity to target students with less risky socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds."

Especially when communities are being targeted by for-profit-oriented charter schools, as is the case in northeast Wake County, the study found, "key decisions about where to locate appear to be driven by the willingness to pay high real estate costs in exchange for appealing to less riskier students in neighborhoods with low need indices, utilizing the incentives that arise from choice and competition. For-profit charter schools frequently avoid areas with students who may be most likely to damage their market position."

When I first contacted Lubienski about the study for an article I wrote in 2016, he described to me how charter operators, especially those operated by for-profit management companies like the ones moving into Wake County, employ "ringing strategies" in which they'll locate schools on the outskirts of communities with more disadvantaged students to lure the more-advantaged families with time and access to transportation to enroll their children in suburban schools.

Lubienski described how this strategy often leads to the creation of "white flight" schools that serve higher concentrations of white and more well-off families, which is what parents say seems to be happening in northeastern Wake County.

"Charters have become a vehicle for which we see more forms of student sorting," he said, "not just by race, but that's easier to see."

One of those harder-to-see student characteristics is when the appeal of attending a sparkling new charter that has just shown up in a neighborhood of well-worn public schools attracts the attention of parents who generally have higher aspirations for their children—what I called, and he agreed, a "bright flight" of students more inclined toward striving academically.

Another obvious strategy charter school operators use is to cluster near other schools, including charters. Clustering is a well-known strategy used in the retail industry to more effectively and efficiently market all sorts of goods.

The most obvious uses of the clustering strategy are food courts, where food vendors actually benefit from being located close to their competitors. But clustering also works for higher order purchases too, like car dealerships that often locate nearby each other on the outskirts of a metropolitan area to enable families to quickly compare different makes and prices of cars.

A Land Rush

"Obviously, businesspeople are doing the analysis to determine locations of charters," Lubienski surmised, "and there are a lot of considerations, including the availability of buildings and land" that can influence where to site new schools.

"Land is still generally available in the eastern part of our county," Kushner confirmed, "which is not true of the western part."

Not only is land available in eastern Wake County, it's also rapidly increasing in value. Communities being targeted by charters are some of the fastest-growing in the state, with housing markets that are booming.

Even though charter schools are financed with public money, they often own their land and school buildings and can lease them to a subsidiary and eventually sell them at a profit.

This is a reason why many charter operators have their own associated real estate development businesses.

Charter Schools USA, which operates two of the new charters Wake County parents are objecting to, has its own development firm, Red Apple Development. Doral Academy (which Wake County school board members pointed out in their 2019 letter was redundant to existing schools nearby) is operated by Academica, which is also a landlord to charter schools it manages, according to In the Public Interest.

Both of these companies are based in Florida, where charter schools have become a hugely lucrative investment and real estate enterprise.

It's also not at all unusual to find charter school boards populated with people who have connections to the real estate industry.

Hilda A. Parlér, for instance, is owner of Parlér Properties LLC, founder and president of Wake Forest Charter Academy, and founder and president of Wake Preparatory Academy, according to her business's website. She also briefly served on the state's Charter Schools Advisory Board where she had the opportunity to make money operating and building charter schools, according to the News and Observer.

"Charter schools are mostly looking for places where they can locate and sustain their revenue sources," Lubienski said. In the case of northeast Wake County, the more lucrative revenue source by far could be in real estate.

Better Schools or Better Marketing

In their applications to open new campuses, charter operators justify the need for their schools with multiple reasons, often by including an analysis showing the need for more seats in a given area or an argument about the low performance of a district's current schools compared to the charter's supposed superior instructional model—an argument that is often unsupported by any third-party research.

However, charter school applications often seem to read as if they were conceived after the decision was already made about the education market to be targeted.

Applications for two new schools managed by Charter Schools USA—North Raleigh Charter Academy and Wendell Falls Charter Academy—include the statement, "The information we have provided in this application may be similar or identical to information that you will find in the application of other applicants who have also partnered with CSUSA."

The application for North Raleigh Charter says the school "plans to focus on the student population residing in and around the Wake Forest community located in north Wake County," while the application for Wendell Falls pledges to "focus on the student population residing in and around the Wendell community located in northeast Wake County."

"Wake Forest was chosen due to its current student-aged population and population growth rate, as well as the overcrowding and below-average performance of the public schools," one application states, while the other declares, "The community of Wendell was chosen due to its population growth and lack of school choice in the area."

Much of the rationale for the perceived need for charter schools often seems to boil down to marketing.

"Charters have honed their message to attract Black and Latinx students over the years, particularly with the ploy that charters can provide students with a private school educational experience," Preston Green told me. "It is quite possible that this messaging might also sway suburban parents."

Green, a University of Connecticut professor, is the author of numerous critical studies of charter schools, including one in which he argued that the charter industry's operations resemble the business practices of Enron, the mammoth energy corporation that collapsed under a weight of debt and scandal.

"Some of these charters are also marketing themselves as a vehicle for students to attend well-regarded universities," Green said. "This advertising can be very attractive to parents who want to give their children every possible advantage."

Some Wake County parents also attributed the allure of charters to a narrative created by news media.

"You hear the nightly school reports about bad things happening in public schools like a student bringing a knife to school or a student calling in false alarms about a shooter," said Saunders, whose work is in sales and marketing. "Some parents just don't want their children to be exposed to this. People think these kinds of things never happen in charters."

A new narrative pushed by pro-charter media outlets in North Carolina is about how during the pandemic local public schools struggled to provide remote learning to their students while charter schools "haven't missed… a step."

Yet, many new charter schools that were scheduled to open during the pandemic have chosen not to open, Kushner said. And existing North Carolina charters that have stayed open have become sites of cluster outbreaks, report WFAE and the Charlotte Observer.

'What Gets Lost'

When I reached out to Lubienski to see if there was an update to his 2009 study of charter school geolocation, he replied in an email that he and his coauthors were completing a statewide analysis of charter schools in Indiana and weren't ready to share results.

But consistent with his previous findings, he continues to find that charters, especially the ones that count on making profits, tend to "focus on the bottom line by limiting costs" and "locating in places that tend to filter out the 'less desirable' students."

"There are certainly a lot of charter operators trying to do good, and do it the right way," he wrote. "But the amazing amount of financial scandals we've seen with many charter operators suggests that some are in it for the money, and not for the kids."

Ferreting out the intentions of charter school operators may or may not be something government officials or parents are very good at. But in the meantime, having the decision of where to locate charter schools solely left up to the business plans of charter entrepreneurs seems like a less than effective way to ensure all families and taxpayers are well served.

"What gets lost in the discussion," said Kushner, "is that schools need to be accountable to the whole of the community, not just to the parents who may happen to choose them."

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.

Worse than Betsy DeVos: The disturbing story of 2020 school board elections

When a Biden victory in the 2020 presidential election became certain, supporters of public education gleefully took to social media to say good riddance to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos came into office with an agenda to further the privatization of public education by expanding charter schools and by encouraging families to opt out of public schools by any means possible. During her tenure, she effectively used her bully pulpit to cheer on efforts by Republican state lawmakers to expand various forms of voucher programs that give parents public money to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. She awarded many of the nation's largest charter school chains with millions in federal funding, and she used the pandemic as an opportunity to redirect emergency funds for public schools to private schools and internet-based instruction—all the while refusing to even visit struggling public schools.

Biden is expected to oppose voucher programs and limit the growth of the charter school industry. But despite the promising prospect of a transition from DeVos to a Biden administration, progressive public school advocates can't afford to overlook a threat to democratically governed schools that preceded DeVos and will continue when she is long gone.

In midsized metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and Stockton, California, parents, teachers, and public school advocates warn of huge sums of money coming from outside their communities to influence local politics and bankroll school board candidates who support school privatization. In phone conversations, emails, and texts, they point to a national agenda, backed by deep-pocketed organizations and individuals who intend to disrupt local school governance in order to impose forms of schools that operate like private contractors rather than public agencies—an agenda not dissimilar from that of DeVos.

In the 2020 school board election in Indianapolis, local teachers and grassroots groups the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the IPS Community Coalition backed four candidates against a slate of opponents whom locals accuse of representing outside interests. At stake, according to WFYI, was "an ideological tilt" over whether the district would continue to "collaborate with outside groups and charter organizations" or "return to more traditional methods of improving struggling schools."

Both sides raise the banner of "improving struggling schools," but locals say what's really at stake is whether voters retain democratic control of their public schools or see them turned over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders.

Similarly, in Stockton, the clash between opposing slates of candidates in the 2020 school board election included controversies over charter school expansion and the influence of outside money in the district.

The controversy broke into public view in July 2020 when 209 Times reported that "[p]aid operatives" connected to Stockton's outgoing mayor Michael Tubbs and three school board members were engaged in "a coordinated campaign of undue influence from outside of the city whose aim is… charter school expansion" into the district.

In both elections, candidates backed by outside organizations and individuals massively outspent candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates.

In Indianapolis, WFYI reported that political action committees supporting the candidates aligned with charter school interests had contributed more than $200,000 into the election by October 9, while the "[f]our candidates backed by the IPS Community Coalition… [had by then] raised less than $20,000 in total."

In Stockton, 209 Politics reported independent expenditure committees supporting candidates favoring charter school expansion outspent their opponents 25 to 1.

While the language used by these outside organizations and their benefactors is different from the rhetoric DeVos wields—substituting a message of rescuing struggling schools for DeVos's calls for libertarian autonomy—the result is much the same: local citizens see democratic governance of their schools being swept aside as private actors get more control to do what they want.

The fear, as Indianapolis teacher and community activist Dountonia Batts described to me, is that the influence of outsider money will "further remove public voices from public education."

Who Are the 'Outsiders'?

"Indianapolis school board races have become no longer a local phenomenon, but an event caught up in a national agenda to privatize and corporatize public education," says John Loflin, a longtime Indianapolis public school advocate with Parent Power, the Indianapolis affiliate of Parents Across America. "What started out as a push for a few local charters has grown [over the last decade]. Now, Indianapolis is home of America's second-most privatized public school system," he observes, citing an analysis by retired teacher and blogger Thomas Ultican, who has meticulously tracked the influence of national groups disrupting local school politics.

Ultican explains the "major role" played by local organization the Mind Trust and the substantial financial backing the Mind Trust receives from philanthropists and foundations outside of the district, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame; Arnold Ventures, the private foundation of former hedge fund manager and Enron trader John Arnold; and the City Fund, a nationwide organization providing financial support for city-level charter school expansions.

Another outside big spender in Indianapolis is Stand for Children, an Oregon-based education 501(c)(4) recruited by the Mind Trust in 2011 to advocate for "education reforms" that eventually entailed the creation of "autonomous" schools, including charter schools.

In a 2014 op-ed for the Indianapolis Recorder, local columnist Amos Brown posed the possibility that the outsized spending by Stand for Children meant it was "buying" the school board. Brown criticized the group for not divulging its total spending in the district, which experts estimated at around $500,000, Brown stated.

By 2016, six of the seven Indianapolis school board members had "been elected with the support of Stand for Children… which has poured undisclosed amounts of money into the IPS elections since 2012," reported IndyStar.

In the 2020 election, Ultican reports, outside money flowed to four candidates: four-term incumbent Diane Arnold; Will Pritchard, who had barely missed out on being appointed to an open seat in 2015; one-term incumbent Venita Moore; and challenger Kenneth Allen, who was taking on incumbent Elizabeth Gore, the only candidate to win in 2016 without the support of Stand for Children.

In 2020, campaign contributions also came from a new PAC aligned with Stand for Children, RISE Indy, whose major contributors, WFYI reports, include $200,000 from Alice Walton, a daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and $100,000 from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

RISE Indy's leadership also has personal ties to the charter industry. Its founder has a sister who started a charter school and another sister who worked for the Mind Trust before becoming a partner at the City Fund, Chalkbeat reports.

As Ultican reports, another pro-charter actor wielding outside money to influence Indianapolis schools is Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, an organization founded by former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose administration brought the first charters to the district. The organization has drawn donations from charter school promoters, including $200,000 from Netflix founder Reed Hastings.

Four candidates endorsed by the Indiana teachers' union (Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, or I-PACE, the political action division of the Indiana State Teachers Association, or ISTA) and the IPS Community Coalition were the incumbent Gore and first-time candidates Christina Smith, Daqavise Winston, and Brandon Randall.

According to Ultican's calculations of the money that has been disclosed so far, total campaign contributions from pro-charter PACs dwarfed contributions from the teachers' union by more than 11 to 1.

Stockton has drawn a similar cast of outsiders to its local school politics scene, according to 209 Politics, with large donations coming from Bloomberg and the Campaign for Great Public Schools, the "political arm" of the City Fund.

The candidates who benefited from the largesse were first-time candidates Viola Shackelford and Valentino Silva as well as incumbent Lange Luntao. Opposing these candidates were candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates: Alicia Rico, first-time candidate Ray Zulueta, and incumbent Cecilia Mendez.

"There's a lot of division in our community caused by big money coming into the district," Zulueta told me in a phone call. "Mayor Tubbs and some current members of the school board don't want to admit this… or communicate what's really going on."

Although Zulueta did not mention names, the current board members whom he might have been referring to were AngelAnn Flores, who "is a current employee of Aspire Charter Schools," according to a July report by 209 Times; Candelaria Vargas, who 209 Times reports is married to Max Vargas, senior policy adviser to Mayor Tubbs; and Luntao, Zulueta's opponent, who has been under a conflict of interest investigation for approving a board resolution to add charter schools to the district despite having been an employee of Aspire, one of the charter organizations considered for the district, as the Stockton Record reports.

Zulueta said that Stockton's current political leadership is generally out of touch with the character and needs of the community. "We're an agricultural and small-business and trades community," he explained. "This current group doesn't understand this and looks to ideas from big cities… like corporatization with charter schools."

A Big Business-Right-Wing Agenda

The presence of the City Fund in these elections is particularly noteworthy.

Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum describes the City Fund as a "major player" in using its considerable financial clout to promote the growth of "charter and charter-like schools" in local politics and school board races. The organization has targeted more than a dozen cities, including Indianapolis and Stockton, with large sums of money they pass through "city-based organizations and charter networks" that can add to the illusion that their support is local rather than national.

Barnum has previously reported how the success of the Mind Trust's efforts in Indianapolis inspired the creation of an advocacy network in 2017 called Education Cities and then, in 2018, the formation of the City Fund, with a $200 million grant from Arnold and Hastings.

The idea behind all these organizations, Barnum explained, was to form a network of groups across the country intent on advancing an idea known as a "portfolio model" for schools.

The portfolio approach uses a Wall Street metaphor as a philosophy for governing schools. The basic idea is that school boards should treat their schools as if they were a stock portfolio, and board members should be agnostic about who runs individual schools. Private contractors, such as charter schools, are brought into the district in order to diversify the investments in the portfolio, and the role of the elected board becomes more about tracking the performance of each school, based on test scores, and selling off (closing) schools at the bottom or turning them over to other private contractors.

Another organization that was nurtured by this well-funded free-market ideology is School Board Partners, which announced its debut in 2018, Barnum reported.

According to Barnum's reporting, School Board Partners seeks to "form a network of [current] school board members in at least 10 cities" who have an interest in "coaching and consulting services" related to adopting the portfolio model. Current Stockton board members Luntao, Flores, and Vargas appear to be partners in the organization, according to 209 Times.

The "national scope" of these organizations "has gone mostly unexamined," Barnum writes, "even as their influence is arguably far more likely to affect schools in the average American city than a Betsy DeVos-inspired voucher program."

In addition to emphasizing charter schools, the portfolio model also often calls for creating so-called innovation schools—charter-like schools that are led by private boards and therefore are much less accountable to locally elected public officials. The idea originated in the policy workshop of the American Legislative Executive Council, a collaborative of big businesses and right-wing organizations to influence state legislation through the creation of model bills.

The concept, says Loflin, "is another way to wrestle away the voters' direct democratic control of their public schools and turn them over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders."

Batts calls innovation schools "charter schools without the charter," i.e., the contract document between a charter school and its authorizer.

But does the portfolio approach actually benefit the communities where they operate?

The City Fund's website cites research that has shown some positive results from charter schools in urban communities, but the studies do not appear to be about results that can be attributed to the work of the City Fund or adopting the portfolio model.

In a 2016 policy brief on the portfolio schools model issued by the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Kevin Welner write that there is "a very limited body of generally accepted research" on the benefits of the model, and they note that "the private management of a community's schools eliminates democratic accountability."

Looking solely at innovation schools, a 2020 analysis Terrenda White and Anna Noble did for the National Education Policy Center cautions, "Districts should temper their calls for 'unrestricted autonomy' of public schools. This suggestion to exercise caution is due not only to evidence of the varied and short-lived nature of academic gains among autonomous schools, but also because of unequal geographies of opportunity within districts."

White and Noble warn that further reliance on autonomous schools like charters and innovation schools risks "[d]istrict responsibility for equity" being "displaced, or too broadly diffused across schools." And rather than importing ideas from distant think tanks and advocacy groups, the authors' recommendation is for "[s]chool improvement strategies" to be "tied to regional and community-based approaches."

'Selected Not Elected'

In their 2019 book Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics, Jeffrey Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Sarah Reckhow examine the injection of external funding into local elections in five urban districts, including Indianapolis. They find a dramatic escalation in money spent in school board races, especially by outside donors who "hope that local education reform efforts" they backed in some communities "[become] national models for other school districts to follow."

The authors contend that financial support from teachers' unions can sometimes counterbalance the influence of outside donors and their associated organizations. However, it seems clear from the 2020 school board election campaigns in Indianapolis and Stockton that there are many communities in which unions simply can't match the financial clout of outside money.

The authors' research finds very few examples of nationally prominent progressive political groups and individuals who have consistently allied with local teachers and public school activists to oppose the influence of outside money.

A notable exception, the authors find, is the Working Families Party, which has organized for teacher-backed candidates in school board races in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Since the book's publication, the Working Families Party has emerged as an ally to public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, too.

While Henig, Jacobsen, and Reckhow find the consequences of outside money in local school politics can be "neither wholly good nor wholly bad," one conclusion they reach is that the media attention that increased outsider money brings to school board elections often leads to "a narrower policy agenda focused on nationalized issues, sometimes at the expense of more localized issues that may be of more immediate concern of the local citizenry."

Narrowing the conversation to ideological issues backed by outsiders—whether it's DeVos's libertarian belief in "school choice" or the emphasis on free-market ideals favored by advocates for the portfolio model—risks crowding out more research-based approaches to school improvement, such as adequate funding, high-quality teaching, and equity of learning opportunity regardless of students' race, income, or language. This certainly was the case in the 2020 school board elections in Indianapolis and Stockton. Yet, while these races had much in common, they had starkly different results.

In Indianapolis, "Candidates favoring charters and school choice claimed a sweeping victory," Chalkbeat reported, "winning all four seats."

In Stockton, teacher- and community-backed candidates Mendez, Rico, and Zulueta all won, the Record reported.

The results in Indianapolis prompted John Loflin to reflect, "U.S. citizens want the right to control public education by electing school boards. People went to jail and others died for our right to vote for those who represent them. Allowing boards of charters and innovation schools to be selected, not elected, is nothing more than a power grab to transfer control of public education and its funding to private interests."

In Stockton, Ray Zulueta's comments are understandably more upbeat. "There is no higher civic duty than community coming together to make decisions on their locality as one," he said. "We have resoundingly rejected the influence of outside interests in Stockton, and [we] look forward to returning the decision-making power back to our community members."

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 online learning companies are using the pandemic to take over the classroom

This article was produced by Our Schools.

Opening schools during a pandemic in an underfunded urban district like Providence, Rhode Island, where buildings are in miserable physical conditions, is already a huge undertaking, but the situation is made worse when district leaders bring in private contractors who know nothing about the community and make no effort to collaborate with public school teachers. That's what's happening in Providence, according to Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, who spoke to me in a Zoom call.

As part of its plan to start the new school year with a gradual opening for in-person learning and an online option for all students, the district announced the creation of a new Virtual Learning Academy operated by Scottsdale, Arizona-based company Edgenuity.

When Calabro looked into Edgenuity, she found out the parent company, Weld North Education, was owned by a private equity firm, which had recently acquired Odysseyware. She recalled that when Providence had used Odysseyware for a high school credit recovery program there were problems with students cheating. "Students were quickly flying through courses that should have taken weeks or months," she remembered.

Calabro is also concerned the Edgenuity platform requires little to no human instruction from Providence teachers and will instead rely on learning coaches, who are expected to be the parent, guardian, or someone else in the household of each child. She feels most parents signing up for the program may not realize this because the district's description of the program largely relegates the complete explanation of the responsibilities of a learning coach to a list of bullet points parents have to click a link to get to.

Calabro is also miffed at the process in which Edgenuity was hired. Since the district was taken over by the state in 2019, local officials have no clear authority in decision making, and a state commissioner appointed by the governor has complete control of budget, program, and personnel. Contract terms for the Edgenuity deal have yet to be made public as of this writing.

"They issued a plan that had no input from teachers," she said. "We should be using the expertise we have here—our teachers—to improve on what we did in the spring." She accuses district leaders—both the state commissioner and the superintendent—of picking "an off-the-shelf, canned product without any rigorous review" by teachers.

Also interesting, the sign-up deadline for the Virtual Learning Academy was before parents would know whether their home schools were opening with in-person or remote learning, giving it a head start for parents wanting to secure an early option for their children.

Despite Calabro's concerns, 6,200 students have enrolled in the Virtual Learning Academy—more than one in every four students in the district.

The rush to outsource teaching to online learning companies is happening in school districts across the country.

Douglas County, Colorado, a relatively affluent and mostly white school district near Denver, is very different from Providence, but teachers there have similar complaints about having Edgenuity take over the district's online learning.

"Teachers had no formal role" in choosing the program, Kallie Leyba told me in a phone call. "It was very top-down." Leyba is president of the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Also, the process was very rushed, Leyba said. The first public mention of the deal with Edgenuity was at an August 4 school board meeting, according to Leyba, when teachers were scheduled to report to work on August 10. The start of the online learning program was eventually delayed to August 31, the Douglas County News-Press reported.

Further, when principals were told that instead of following a districtwide implementation plan, each school would need to develop its own plan, they had only one week to figure out how to employ the platform, Leyba said.

As school districts across the nation faced the daunting task of opening the new school year with online learning or a blend of online and in-person, many contracted the work to private companies, and there's widespread evidence these arrangements are rush jobs that give teachers and parents no say in the adoption process as taxpayer funds are wasted on products of questionable quality.

"With the pandemic, districts have struggled and made hasty decisions, and some have been enticed by the promises of the established online providers," writes Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University, in an email. "These companies can say all kinds of things about their awesome platforms and curricula, but the evidence shows that students [who use the platforms] fail, and taxpayers are ripped off."

'A Disaster' and 'a Mess'

One of the most prominent examples of a failed attempt to outsource teaching to a private, online firm during the pandemic comes from Florida, where the Miami-Dade school district, the largest in the state and fourth largest in the nation, abruptly fired online learning company K12 Inc. just two weeks into the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. From the opening day of school, NBC Miami reported, parents described the online platform as "a disaster" and "an absolute mess," referring to what the district superintendent said was a "software connectivity switch problem."

The deal with K12 was "rushed," reports Wired, with the board approving a $15 million no-bid contract the district ultimately never signed. A CBS Miami report on the contract termination places the failure of the program on a rushed implementation, a misplaced trust in a private provider, and the lack of involvement of teachers in the decision to adopt the platform.

Adding to those problems, an inspector general for Miami-Dade County schools is looking into another aspect of K12's involvement there, CBS Miami reports, because of a donation of nearly $1.6 million K12 made to a nonprofit linked to the Miami-Dade school superintendent the day before the school board was to vote on whether to keep the online system.

In another high-profile controversy involving an online learning provider, the New York Times reported teachers and parents in several school districts had complained about racists and sexist lessons in curriculum provided by Acellus Academy based in Kansas City, Missouri.

"In one lesson, students are asked whether Osama bin Laden led the Islamic Jihad Union, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or 'Towelban,'" the New York Times reported. "In another, they are shown two images—one of a woman holding a small bag over her shoulder and one of a robber in disguise with a large sack over his shoulder—and asked which best depicts Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery."

As the 2020-2021 school year opened, controversies with "racist, sexist, or inappropriate" lesson material in the Acellus curriculum surfaced in school districts in California, Illinois, and Hawaii, according to EdSurge.

According to Honolulu Civil Beat reporter Eric Stinton, the program's creator Roger Billings "left or was excommunicated from the Mormon church" for his extreme polygamist views. His PhD in research is from the Institute of Science and Technology, an unaccredited institution he co-founded, Stinton reports.

In a video Billings posted on his blog on April 14, 2020—the same day New York City added 3,778 probable COVID-19 fatalities, the city's highest daily total—Billings called the "garden-variety flu… so much worse than this COVID virus, so far," and he mocked mask-wearing by fashioning his own, clearly inadequate, strapless version.

Controversy and dropped contracts have dogged Edgenuity too.

The Fort Worth, Texas, school district that had contracted with Edgenuity when schools had to pivot to online learning in the spring due to the virus outbreak reversed that decision for the new school year, Star-Telegram reporter Silas Allen wrote. The district made the switch to give teachers more control of the curriculum. Allen reported that according to a local teacher, "not many teachers or students liked [Edgenuity]," and the "biggest problem was that the platform didn't give teachers much flexibility."

An adoption of Edgenuity in Auburn, Alabama, has drawn numerous complaints from students and parents, including technical problems and a lack of communication from the company. The contract is shrouded in controversy over the recent conviction of the state's former Speaker of the House for a $210,000 payout Edgenuity made to him while he was in office.

The Edgenuity platform has long been accused of allowing students to cheat, especially in high school credit recovery programs that allow students to retake courses they failed but need for graduation.

A 2017 report from Voice of San Diego found that online courses provided by Edgenuity for the district's high school credit recovery program were "shockingly easy to cheat." The reporter wrote that one student he spoke to said that "finding answers to test and quiz questions is as simple as opening a second computer browser and looking up answers."

Problems with cheating and gaming online courses emerged in Douglas County during Edgenuity's first month of use. A teacher who said that the district has asked teachers not to talk to the media and was willing to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity said that at least one student was caught cheating in an Edgenuity course, and teachers had resorted to using programs created to detect plagiarism for reviewing student work on the platform.

In an eight-part series for Slate in 2017, reporters Zoe Kirsch, Sarah Carr, Francesca Berardi, and Stephen Smiley found that virtual courses used for high school credit recovery, including Edgenuity, "are subpar substitutes for traditional classroom instruction." A report by Smiley on problems with cheating found that online quizzes and tests on Edgenuity and other platforms would repeat questions, making them easier to Google or game in some other way. Berardi and Kirsch examined the Odysseyware Calabro later said was easy for students to game and found test questions "remain identical each time students take the tests—making them easy to memorize and pass on subsequent tries."

Slate reporters blamed the flaws of online learning programs on "the push to rank schools based on measures like graduation rates—codified by the No Child Left Behind Act," but experts warn problems with virtual learning programs go far beyond cheating on tests and gaming graduation numbers.

'Every Student Is a Widget'

Miron has written numerous research studies critical of online learning providers, particularly companies, such as K12 Inc., that operate as education management organizations and contract with states and school districts to operate virtual charter schools, license their platforms to schools, or deliver individual courses.

Other online learning providers, such as Edgenuity, don't operate virtual charter schools but instead offer a platform, with preloaded curricula and assessments, that requires the district to support and manage it.

In both business models, Miron argues, online providers follow a "corporate model designed for profit, not learning."

A significant source of profit, Miron explained, is that when online providers assume students learn at their own pace and parents (or another adult in the household) take on the role of learning coach, the parents are essentially providing a volunteer labor force from their homes.

"The models these companies use is glorified, publicly funded homeschooling," said Michael Barbour in a phone call. Barbour, a professor at the College of Education and Health Sciences in Touro University California, is an expert on design and support of K-12 online learning, particularly for students in rural schools.

In a research brief he contributed to for the National Education Policy Center in 2019, Barbour noted "the role of the parent, or learning coach, is critical to the instructional model used by these virtual schools," and he cited examples of online learning programs in which parents were required to spend four to five hours a day assisting students.

There's also profit when teachers employed in this model are more like monitors and the number of students per teacher can balloon to 100 or more, according to Miron.

In Providence, for instance, the class size for students getting face-to-face instruction in the school is capped at 26, according to Calabro, but the class size for teachers overseeing a virtual classroom is 52.

In his research brief, Barbour cited a study finding that some teachers in online programs "had nearly three times as many students per teacher than the national average."

"In the corporate model," Barbour explained over the phone, "every student is a widget, and if I'm a corporate operator, I know my job is to maximize profit per widget."

Bad for Students, Teachers, and Taxpayers

Also key to the corporate model is removing teachers from the education process.

In the corporate model, at every essential step of schooling—from selecting learning content, designing curricula, delivering instruction, and assessing results—teachers are relegated to spectator status and expected to simply carry out what others up the line have determined.

Distancing teachers from the day-to-day functions of schools will quite likely have negative consequences for students, Miron and Barbour maintain.

"The corporate model narrowly assumes curriculum can be uploaded to modules, and students will learn the content through self-study," Miron explained, "but curriculum is much more than knowledge content that can be uploaded."

Miron's concern is also that relegating the teaching process to a computer neglects "very important 21st-century skills"—such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity—that teachers convey through face-to-face classroom learning.

"District teachers have advantages because they know the students, the families, and the communities," he explained. Letting a computer algorithm make instructional decisions and relegating students to work solely on their own eliminates teachers' abilities to meaningfully interact with students through teaching activities and skills-building.

A more complicated problem is the corporate model's tendency to limit transparency, Barbour said.

Because these companies are private, they can more easily shroud their business deals with the district and their vendor networks. And because students using the platforms often stay officially enrolled in their home schools, academic results are masked when test scores, course completions, and graduation numbers of the online students are mixed in with the students who received in-person instruction.

The lack of transparency has serious consequences not only because taxpayers may be sequestered from seeing how public funds are being spent and the results of those expenditures, but also because it poses risks to democratic governance.

As Slate's Kirsch and Smiley reported in 2017, online learning companies benefit from lax regulation partially as a result of intense lobbying efforts. Kirsch and Smiley found online learning companies, including Edgenuity and K12, "collectively spent millions of dollars donating to state-level officials" in the 10 years prior to their report.

The bottom-line analysis of the corporate model for online learning is that, according to Barbour, "What's good for business and what's good for education will always be at odds."

There Are Alternatives

The problems and consequences of moving students to online platforms operated by for-profit companies are "not a pandemic thing," Barbour said. "It's how they've always operated."

But there are alternatives, even under the current constraints.

Barbour pointed to ambitious alternatives created not by private businesses but by the government.

In Ontario, Canada, the Ministry of Education provides providence-wide access to teacher-created courses that help students learn from home and give teachers a base upon which they can build their own online lessons, according to Barbour. In South Korea, the government has developed a cyber home learning system that provides students studying at home with access to every course in the national curriculum with online tutor support.

In both examples, the desired goal is to supplement teachers, not supplant them, said Barbour.

Miron noted there are established platforms that are not preloaded with curriculum but instead allow teachers to upload course materials and use the various tools to teach, including discussion boards, drop boxes, and video conferencing.

In his own teaching, Miron uses a learning platform to conduct weekly synchronous classes with small discussion activities. He uploads his own content, and the university provides assistance from a course designer from the tech unit.

It's noteworthy, he says, that his university caps the maximum number of students for fully online classes at the graduate level lower than the face-to-face classes—18 students versus 25.

"Although I am seen as a critic of virtual schooling, I am actually a believer," he said. "I am only a critic of the corporate model."

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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