Our Schools

How community schools can fix growing absentee rates

Experts call for cultivating better student relationships and providing families with more supports—exactly what the community schools approach is all about.

School absentee rates that increased dramatically during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic have not declined. In fact, they’re getting worse, according to a September 2022 research analysis posted on the blog site of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that advocates for reducing “chronic absenteeism” in schools. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

“[C]hronic absence has at least doubled to an estimated 16 million, or one out of three students nationwide,” according to the blog post, authored by Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works; Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University; and Vaughan Byrnes, an affiliated researcher at the Everyone Graduates Center.

The authors back up their estimate using national data as well as 2021-22 school year reports from Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, and California.

The authors’ findings were echoed in a March 2023 research study of how unexcused absentee rates are significantly higher for students who already tend to struggle the most in schools. “Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are much more likely to have their absences labeled unexcused,” the study’s summary page highlighted. “This is also true for Black, Native American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students relative to White, Asian American, and Filipino students. Black students experience the largest disparity.”

The data also appeared in an article by ABC News in April 2023, which added that “nearly half” of students in Washington, D.C., were chronically absent from school in 2022, an increase of 17 percentage points from the previous year.

The causes for the worsening absentee numbers seem complicated and wide-ranging. ABC News pointed to multiple origins, including “behavioral problems,” caused by the loss of socialization skills that occurred during pandemic-induced remote learning, and “family struggles.”

Attendance Works lists more than two dozen “root causes” of chronic absenteeism on its website. And COVID-19, which of course has not gone away, has had a lingering influence, causing reinfections, quarantines, and parent hesitancy to return to in-person schooling, according to a December 2021 Chalkbeat article.

But regardless of what is causing this wave of absenteeism, and whether its origins are different from past surges, there’s a widespread consensus that students are likely to experience negative consequences from so many missed days of school.

These negative consequences include, according to an analysis of 2015-2016 school year research studies by the U.S. Department of Education that was updated in 2019, a failure to reach academic “milestones” in the early grades, a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, and “poor outcomes later in life, from poverty and diminished health to involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Little Consensus on What to Do

While the spike in chronic absentee rates would seem to call for urgent solutions, there seems to be little consensus on what those solutions should be.

“There are hundreds of studies on programs designed to increase school attendance,” wrote researchers Brian A. Jacob and Kelly Lovett in a 2017 report for the Brookings Institution. “Unfortunately, very few meet even a minimum standard of rigor.”

Of the few analyses that met the researchers’ standards, “[the] interventions studied were small, locally developed programs, so it is not known whether these approaches can be replicated at scale.” Larger-scale interventions that were more commonly implemented across multiple school systems had results that were “mixed,” according to Jacob and Lovett.

ABC News, in its reporting, pointed to recent initiatives that seem to share an emphasis on more “hands-on involvement” with families and communities. The examples described include an ambitious program in the Los Angeles school district that includes “knocking on doors” and other personal interventions. Another approach in Jefferson County, Kentucky, includes in-person family meetings, adding nurses and counselors to school support staff, and home visits.

But it’s not clear whether these initiatives are based on a coherent strategy that has evidence of having worked elsewhere.

“The relationship building is the most essential component,” Hedy Chang said in the ABC News article. “The question is, how do you organize schools so they ensure meaningful relationship-building between school staff or… community partners and other folks who can support that relationship-building?”

Fortunately, schools are answering Chang’s question by implementing an approach commonly called community schools.

“Community Schools are public schools that provide services and support that fit each neighborhood’s needs,” according to the National Education Association. The approach relies on creating partnerships with community organizations and local businesses, which broadens the educational experiences and family and student services available from the school.

The approach lends itself to the kind of relationship-building Chang says is essential to addressing the problem of high absentee rates.

A Walking School Bus

Even before the pandemic broke out, public schools in Erie, Pennsylvania, were severely under stress. As Our Schools reported in 2021, factory closures over the course of the preceding twodecades had wrecked the local economy, and the loss of good-paying jobs caused many families to leave the local schools. (Family income strongly correlates with education achievement.) These hardships delivered a withering blow to school funding, and by 2016, the combination of the cratering local economy with declining school revenues had resulted in the district accumulating a debt load of $9.5 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News.

Adding to the challenges was the fact that the remaining student populations in the district were much more apt to live in households contending with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and health-related issues. For years, numerousstudieshavefound that concentrated poverty, and the problems that often come along with it, severely complicate student learning.

Faced with these challenges, educators in Erie formed a partnership in 2016 with the local United Way in a homegrown effort to address the many challenges their students faced.

One issue that immediately rose to the top was the worsening absentee rates in many of the district schools. One school in the Erie City School District, McKinley Elementary School, had only 73.5 percent of students attending regularly in the 2018-2019 school year, which was well below the statewide average of 85.7 percent, according to Mike Jaruszewicz, the senior vice president of community impact for United Way of Erie County.

Due to the district’s budget cuts in 2017, getting to and from school was made much more difficult because the district had limited school bus service to only those families living outside a 1 mile radius of the school. Later, that limitation was raised to 1.5 miles.

“At McKinley [Elementary School], that excludes most of our families,” Amy Grande, the school’s community school director, told Our Schools in 2021. “So, you’re talking about children as young as kindergarten having to cross dangerous roads, including highways, to get to school. That’s an incredible impediment to attendance.”

Working with Jaruszewicz and his United Way colleagues, McKinley educators secured a grant to conduct a safe routes assessment to note where students live, the intersections they had to traverse, and the stoplights and sidewalk conditions students encountered along the way.

Using the results of their assessment, McKinley educators and their United Way partners created a walking school bus with adult volunteers to escort students in their daily treks walking to and from the school.

When the first walking school bus started in February 2021, only four students enrolled, but by the end of the school year, 30 students were enrolled, according to Jaruszewicz, and of the 30 students enrolled, 26 increased their attendance, and the average attendance at McKinley jumped to 86 percent by the end of the school year in 2021, besting the state average.

Other Erie schools, working with the United Way and other partners, had similar success with raising student attendance rates. Strong Vincent Middle School saw chronic absenteeism decrease by 20 percentage points, according to Jaruszewicz, and Edison Elementary School saw its chronic absenteeism rate drop from 22 percent to 11 percent between 2017 and 2020.

Laundry Facilities and Street Lights

Schools in Gibsonton, Florida, had similar success at raising student attendance rates, but their solution was somewhat different, as Our Schools reported in 2021.

Gibsonton is an unincorporated, semi-rural community south of Tampa Bay that has its roots in agriculture, light manufacturing, maritime-related businesses, and the carnival industry.

Like Erie, the Gibsonton community struggles with poverty. In 2023, the average household income in Gibsonton is $64,757 with a poverty rate of 24.62 percent, according to World Population Review, and 71.85 percent of adults over 25 have attained an education of less than an associate or college degree. In the 2017-2018 school year, Gibsonton received a grade of “D” on the state’s annual report card that assesses elementary schools on the basis of their scores on standardized achievement tests.

Furthering the community’s marginalization is a lack of supports and resources that families need, including grocery stores, recreation facilities, dental and health clinics, and mental health services.

One school in the district that was struggling was Gibsonton Elementary School. Gibsonton Elementary also has a student population that often struggles in the public school system. Most of the students (57.34 percent) are Hispanic, according to 2022-2023 state data, and 100 percent are economically disadvantaged, with 25.1 percent being English language learners, and 22.50 percent having some sort of disability.

Poor student attendance at Gibsonton Elementary was chronic, Catherine Gilmore, the school’s community school coordinator, told Our Schools in an article published in 2021.

“We asked parents why,” she recalled, and one of the most frequent responses was that not having clean clothes was an impediment to coming to school.

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

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

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

Decreasing absentee rates at Gibsonton Elementary had a positive impact on student achievement. The school’s 2017-2018 “D” rating on the state’s annual report card increased to a “C” in 2018-2019, which it maintained in 2021-2022.

A Collaborative Approach

Another school that achieved gains in attendance rates was Lynn Community Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

As Our Schools reported in 2020, Las Cruces is a school district in one of the poorest states in America. According to 2016-2020 data, 24.6 percent of families in Las Cruces schools had an income below the poverty level, which is significantly above state and national averages.

In 2016, a partnership that included the local teachers union, leaders of community and youth-focused nonprofit organizations, and representatives of the business sector spearheaded an effort to pilot a new program at Lynn Community Middle School that aimed to address the multiple challenges the district’s students and families faced.

Under the state’s former school assessment system, the school had been graded “F” as recently as 2016 according to New Mexico in Depth.

But beginning in 2017, the collaborative new program brought to Lynn Community Middle School a wide range of new resources and supports for students and families, including “healthy snacks” and “warm clothes” for students, New Mexico in Depth reported. “Parents [gained] access to computers, Wi-Fi, and office supplies to apply for jobs. Families and neighbors [could] stop in for staples at a monthly food pantry[, and]… a mobile Boys and Girls Club… [was] set up in the school’s cafeteria.”

One of the near-immediate positive impacts of these extra resources and supports was an improved student absentee rate “from around 15 percent each day to about 8 to 10 percent,” according to the school’s then-principal, Toni Hull, in 2018. By 2018, Lynn had raised its school rating to “D,” New Mexico in Depth reported.

In 2019, Lynn Community Middle School added to its wide range of student and family services an on-campus dental clinic, mental health services, a food bank, summer programs, horticulture classes, service learning projects, money management and nutritional education, a garden and cooking club, and a family center, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Drawing from this success, Las Cruces city officials and the school district worked together to expand the collaborative approach that worked at Lynn districtwide, according to local television station KTSM, starting with three more schools.

What Works

A walking school bus, laundry facilities, streetlights, a food pantry, and youth clubs? The tools these schools employed to lower absentee rates seem piecemeal. But what these efforts all had in common was their implementation of the community schools strategy.

Community schools look different from state to state, and even from school to school, but at the heart of the strategy is an emphasis on meeting the multiple needs of not only students but also the community. The basic idea is that schools should serve as hubs in the community and partner with local organizations that serve the many needs of families and students. Schools are the delivery source because that’s where children and families are.

Also, the school’s curriculum and program offerings should reflect the local culture and interests of the community, and the governance should be shared among the various stakeholders the school actually serves.

In each of these districts, what started the ball rolling toward better outcomes, like lower absentee rates, was a conscious and deliberate effort to take up the community schools approach by organizing from the ground up.

“We’ve been very intentional about the schools we’ve picked to adopt the approach,” Rob Kriete, president of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, told Our Schools in 2021. (The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association represents teachers in Gibsonton schools.) The district has not taken a “top-down approach,” he said, and has instead only proposed to pilot the effort in schools that welcome the approach and have leadership and faculty who are agreeable to the demands of it.

In March 2018, Gibsonton Elementary leadership, faculty, and support staff agreed the school should adopt the community schools approach. “The entire school had to be behind the idea,” said Gibsonton Elementary community school coordinator Catherine Gilmore in 2021, “and we were.”

The next step was to hire a community school coordinator in each school receiving the community schools designation. Having a dedicated community school coordinator is key to taking on the role of assessing the school community’s assets and needs and developing partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, and family service providers in the community.

When Gilmore stepped into her new role, she had assumptions about what the school needed, but the first year of implementing the community schools approach requires the school to conduct a needs assessment, including an audit of program strengths and weaknesses and assets in the surrounding community, and an outreach, via surveys and interviews, to students, parents, business leaders, local nonprofits, and others.

What she got back from this outreach didn’t always match what her assumptions were, but that process is what led to implementing ideas like streetlights and a laundromat that ultimately made the difference in absentee rates.

And while schools in Erie and Las Cruces may have found different ways to address the urgent needs of their students and families, each of these districts used the very same process Gilmore and her colleagues employed in Gibsonton.

Researchers may assume that because the results of community schools implementations look different in different schools, then this is not something that can be “replicated at scale.” But there are empirical studies showing the effectiveness of the community schools approach, especially when it comes to addressing the problem of high absentee rates.

A 2020 research study released by the Rand Corporation looked at the results of community schools implementations in New York City and found that schools using the approach were able to increase attendance and graduation rates, improve school climate and culture, raise math scores, and ensure higher percentages of students advanced to the next grade.

Cincinnati schools that had taken up the community schools approach “had better attendance and showed significant improvements on state graduation tests,” according to a 2017 joint report by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center.

Older studies of the community schools approach’s impact have found similar results in terms of improving attendance, quality of school life, and graduation rates.

Politicians and policymakers may also be reluctant to adopt the community schools strategy because it’s a departure from top-down, seemingly easy solutions to lower student absentee rates like suspending students for skipping school or cracking down on parents whose children are truant.

But there’s scant evidence these ideas actually work. The community schools approach, on the other hand, is the very thing that answers the question Hedy Chang and other experts asked about how to “organize schools” to address the current crisis in absentee rates.

Author Bio: 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 defeat of a school voucher program reveals the truth within the 'school choice' debate

The momentum for education savings accounts is increasing across the country, and public education advocates say they will endanger neighborhood schools.

When Republicans in the Virginia State Legislature renewed their proposal to enact legislation to create a new school voucher program in the state—previous attempts were vetoed by Democratic governors in 2016 and 2017—they said their effort was to “push to strengthen parental rights and expand educational opportunities,” according to the Virginia Mercury. But when it came time to vote on these proposals in February 2023, a majority of Virginia lawmakers thought otherwise and voted the school choice proposals down.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

A bill that Republican lawmakers were especially keen on, House Bill 1508, would have created the Virginia Education Success Account Program, which “would allow parents to set up a savings account funded with state dollars that could be used to cover educational expenses at private schools in Virginia,” the Virginia Mercury reported.

The proposal is an example of a new breed of school choice laws that have been enacted in 10 states so far. The so-called education savings accounts (ESAs) essentially work like school vouchers that have long been a priority for right-wing conservatives and libertarians, according to Our Schools reporter Peter Greene.

Despite the proposals for the new voucher program going down in both the Virginia House and Senate, proponents of the bill are far from discouraged, according to a February 2023 article in the Virginia Mercury. “I think people are still learning and getting their minds around what ESAs are and how they work and making sure that they don’t harm public schools,” said Rachel Adams, director of external affairs for Americans for Prosperity Virginia, a libertarian conservative advocacy group that advocated for the bill. “We’ll be back next year doing the same thing,” she said.

But the reluctance of Virginia lawmakers to go forward with this idea shows where opposition to this form of school choice is coming from and calls into question just who these proposals would create “opportunities” for, and how they would impact local schools that the vast majority of parents choose to send their children to.

A ‘Test-and-Punish System’

For Kathy Beery, a retired educator with Harrisonburg City Public Schools, bringing education savings accounts to Virginia meant the exact opposite of what proponents of the new law said it would result in. “It means that children will not receive the educational opportunities that others will receive in other parts of the state,” she told Our Schools. The “other parts of the state” that Beery referred to are metropolitan areas like Richmond, where education choices are abundant, versus rural communities where education advocates believe that efforts to enact more school choice will harm the local schools they value.

Beery is a member of Virginia Educators United and a strong advocate for public education, especially for parents and kids in rural districts. “For rural communities,” she said, “the schools are the center of community connections. To lose their schools means losing sports, bands, [school] plays, and friendships that support the community.”

Beery, who has been on the front lines in the fight against public school privatization, believes that these proposals could have a detrimental impact on rural schools that are already experiencing financial stress.

“Without the needed resources, students [left in the public school system] will do poorly on state standardized tests [which makes the schools more vulnerable to] takeovers and privatization,” Beery said. She described this as a “test-and-punish system.”

Miles away in the largely rural county of Roanoke, Laura Bowman shares a similar sentiment. “This is a horrifying attempt to undermine not only public schools but [also] the entire teaching profession,” she said. Bowman described supporters of the Virginia Education Success Account Program as “monied interests [who] never let a crisis go to waste, and the recent pandemic is no exception.”

Bowman, who has served as president of the Roanoke County Council of PTAs and chairman of the Roanoke County Public Schools Parent Advisory Council, has spent more than a decade advocating for the health, safety, education, and well-being of children.

She too described Virginia’s school assessment policies as a “test-and-punish” system and added, “The results of those corporate-provided tests—not local assessments, report cards, and graduation rates—are used to give weight to the school choice argument. By focusing on the standardized test scores of students who live in under-resourced communities, the privatizers assert that public schools are the problem, not the circumstances the children in those communities live in.”

Bowman also questioned how widely applicable the new voucher program’s opportunities would be. “I live in a more rural part of Virginia,” she said. “Whether [the voucher is] $5,000 or $6,300, it isn’t going to get a student in the door of my local private schools,” for a variety of reasons (there are fewer local private schools, the cost per student is higher than in a metropolitan area with more existing school options and resources, etc.).

Bowman noted that voucher advocates who acknowledge the cost differences between tuition at high-quality private schools compared to what a voucher would cover are advocating for so-called “microschools” that allow families to pool their voucher money to form a small school with other parents. She countered, “This assumes there are adults who are able to be at home with the kids and who can, one, effectively teach kids essential ideas and skills and, two, ensure that the content is going to be centered on factual information and will help the student succeed post high school.”

While advocates for the voucher program might argue that not all private schools do a disservice to students and their communities, consider the potential harms of scaling up the known worst cases that so far have resulted from a lack of regulatory oversight that guides public schools. In January 2023, Vice broke a shocking story about an Ohio homeschool Telegram channel with “thousands of members” that “openly embraced Nazi ideology and promoted white supremacy, while proudly discouraging parents from letting their white children play with or have any contact with people of any other race. Admins and members use racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slurs without shame, and quote Hitler and other Nazi leaders daily in a channel open to the public.”

If the bill creating the Virginia Education Success Account Program had been successfully passed, would Virginia parents using this neo-Nazi homeschool network be able to have their expenses covered with public tax dollars? It’s not clear.

A Priority for Republican Governors

“Vouchers don’t provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas who have little, if any, access to private schools,” according to the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a nationwide advocacy group that champions public schools and explicitly opposes school vouchers.

“If students are able to use a voucher, they are generally required to endure long, costly commutes,” NCPE’s website said. “And, vouchers are especially harmful to the public school systems serving large rural areas because the schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream.”

The potential negative impacts that new voucher programs may impose on rural schools have significant consequences for the nation’s public education system at large, NCPE’s website noted, because “[m]ore than one in four schools in America are rural and nearly one in five students attend a rural school, which is approximately 8.9 million students.”

Despite warnings from advocates about the dire consequences new voucher programs would have on rural schools, there is a growing “resurgence” in state legislatures for “school choice action,” Education Week reported, especially for enacting new ESAs.

In a January 2023 Education Week article highlighting new ESAs that are expected to roll out in Iowa and Utah, Douglas Harris, director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University, said that the programs are enjoying greater popularity because “[t]he term ‘vouchers’ doesn’t poll very well… So they’re just changing the name to make it sound better.”

School voucher programs have become an especially high policy priority for Republican governors, according to the analysis done by FutureEd and The 74, a media outlet that is generally supportive of school choice. An article based on the analysis noted, “the school choice proposals in 15 State of the State addresses nearly all came from Republican governors. The only Democratic governor to broach the subject, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, pledged to provide more accountability for a broad expansion of education savings accounts that her predecessor pushed through the legislature.”

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said in February 2023 that he “will be ‘heavily involved’ in the push for an education savings account program this legislative session,” according to the Texas Tribune. The article noted, “Similar proposals have typically met resistance from a coalition of Democrats and rural GOP lawmakers.” Abbott, however, opted to cherry-pick his constituents’ opinions, saying, “Among Republican rural voters, about 80 percent support this.”

There has been no shortage of controversies surrounding the school choice debate, and the controversies surrounding these proposals are not going away.

One firefight that recently flared came from Utah where a prominent lobbyist, Allison Sorensen, executive director of Kaysville-based Education Opportunity for Every Child, who is helping to lead the effort to enact a new ESA program in that state, “was recorded saying she wants to ‘destroy public education,’” according to KUTV. She later apologized for her remarks, but public education proponents, including education historian Diane Ravitch, called the comment an example of voucher proponents saying “the quiet part out loud.”

‘Communities With No Schools’

School choice proponents have confidence that their calls for ESAs will win over lawmakers, but opposition to these programs is not withering—even among Republicans. In Idaho, a Freedom in Education Savings Accounts bill that was under consideration in the legislature was ultimately defeated in the Senate. “Most Senate Republicans opposed the bill,” the Idaho Statesman reported.

Proponents of public education continue to warn that with more resources going to ESAs and other kinds of voucher programs, there will be fewer dollars to fund community public schools, especially in rural and under-resourced communities that constantly struggle to maintain service.

“If the school choice movement has its way, and the marketplace is the only driver of schooling, there may be communities with no schools because no one is interested in operating a school in that community,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “Or, it may be that the only school is a religious school, so if you want a secular school for your child, you will be out of luck.”

“Remember, private schools choose students,” Burris added. “Many of these schools do not enroll students who are LGBTQ+ or who have special needs. Parents may find they have no school options at all other than homeschooling or online schools. We can see how this story ends. Unfortunately, too few are paying attention,” she said.

Back in Virginia, Bowman is not alone in her fight for public schools.

“Vouchers take money out of the budget [meant] for public schools and route it to various recipients that include private schools and homeschooling businesses,” the Virginia Public Education Partners, a grassroots group that opposes school privatization, said in a statement sent to Our Schools. “So, public schools have less opportunity to address teacher and bus driver shortages, school maintenance, overcrowding, mental health, and safe buildings.”

“Public schools are meant to create intelligent, responsible, civically engaged citizens,” said Bowman. “They’re often the hearts of our communities, especially in rural areas of the nation. Families, faculty members, and the community regularly come together for school sporting events and school concerts,” she added. “I’d hate to see the positive community spirit surrounding my neighborhood public schools erode under misguided school voucher laws.”

Author Bio: Sandra Jones served as an investigative reporter for nearly two decades. She has received numerous awards for her broadcast reporting.

How LA's teachers are making good on their promise to support community schools

In 2019, LA teachers went on a successful strike. Four years later, they can point to the evidence of what went right with a little district support—and help realize an even better future.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

"We should have been miserable," said Emily Grijalva, recalling the first days of the 2019 strike by Los Angeles teachers. Grijalva, who is currently the community school and restorative justice coordinator at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School, joined her colleagues on the picket line in 2019 despite the biting cold and an unusual, prolonged rainstorm that flooded city streets and sidewalks and drenched picketers. Many of them did not wear, much less own, suitable rain gear for their normally sunny, mild Southern California climate.

"But even through the rain and cold, we felt togetherness and support from the community. Families dropped off food for the teachers, students and parents joined us on the front lines, and people opened their homes to let us dry off or use the bathroom," she said.

Grijalva's experience in 2019 might get a replay in 2023 as, once again, teachers in Los Angeles joined in a three-day strike in support of the 30,000 school service workers who are leading the labor action. One factor that may figure prominently in the teachers’ corner is their success in 2019 at convincing the district to provide funding for converting 30 campuses to what's become known as community schools.

The community schools approach seeks to strengthen the relationships between public schools and their surrounding communities by addressing the broader needs and interests of children and families and giving students, parents, and community members more of a voice in guiding school policies and programs.

In its account of the 2019 strike, Reclaim Our Schools LA (ROSLA)—a coalition of community groups and the teachers' union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—noted that one of the demands the teachers won in their contract negotiations was nearly $12 million in funding from the district for the development of community schools.

The demand grew out of an agreement among the groups that formed ROSLA in 2016 to make community schools a key part of the coalition’s organizing strategy. The strategy would include educating the general public on the concept of community schools and forcing district leadership "to take sides: were they for—or against—this research-supported school design?" as ROSLA's case study of the 2019 strike explained. The strategy appears to have worked.

The 2019 contract hammered out between UTLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) called for funding of community schools implementations in 30 campuses, Capital and Main reported in 2021, with allocations of $150,000 in the first year of transition and $250,000 in the second year. It also established the Community Schools Steering Committee, which oversees the transition process. In 2021, the district added funding for transitioning 40 more community schools over the next three years.

"We knew the community schools idea would better address what our students need," Grijalva said. Even though implementations of the approach are still very much in their early phases, the schools, and the families who attend them, are already seeing tangible benefits.

'The Way Every School Should Be Run'

"I knew nothing about community schools when we went on strike [in 2019]," said David George, the community school coordinator at Marina del Rey Middle School and Performing Arts Magnet. But the approach's appearance on the union's platform prompted him to read more about it. "I'm now a big believer that this is the way every school should be run," he said.

Much of George's conversion to the community schools approach is due to what it's done for his school, where he taught history for 16 years until transitioning into his current role in January 2020.

The school—a combination of a performing arts magnet drawing students from outside its South Los Angeles community and a marine science academy drawing students mostly from the surrounding community—has long struggled. Enrollment has declined over the past two decades, George said, from 1,400 when he started with the school in 2004 to the current 450 students. He noted, though, that there has been a recent uptick in enrollment in the past two years.

The school's student population is 45 percent Hispanic and 50 percent Black, two demographics the district is least successful at educating. According to George, virtually all the students qualify for the federal government's free and reduced-price meal program, a common identifier for poverty. "The school has had low test scores for as long as I've worked here," he said.

George's first few months as a community school coordinator were a bit of a baptism by fire. A mere 60 days after he started, the pandemic closed his school and sent students and teachers into a hastily contrived online learning mode. But he quickly learned how the philosophy of the approach helped the school address some of the pandemic's most difficult challenges.

First, because one of the supporting pillars of the community schools strategy is "active family and community engagement," George and his colleagues were already attuned to the need to reach out to families, and they had developed the beginnings of a system for doing that.

"We quickly found out which families had become disconnected from the school, which had become unhoused, and which needed to be told about the weekly food bank that the school had set up with the help of a local partner," he said. "When we found out we had two students whose parents had been shot and killed, we had the capacity to find out what kind of mental health support they needed and how they could get it."

George and his colleagues also rallied around another pillar of the community school's approach: to develop partnerships in the community for integrating health care, nutrition, and other student supports with the academic program.

"We had success with a mobile dental clinic that came to the school. Now it's going to come twice a year," he said. "We had a vision company come and examine our students. Thirty percent had issues related to glasses. Half of the students who got new glasses had never worn glasses before. One student was legally blind in one eye, and his parents didn’t even know it."

Since a return to in-person schooling, Marina del Rey's implementation of the community schools approach has also focused on expanding learning opportunities for students, another pillar of the community schools approach.

The school has added a girls' empowerment group that meets twice a week to learn about entrepreneurship and other life skills. It also offers a robotics program, and it's about to start a program for teaching computer coding. The school has introduced students to local Hispanic and Black artists and had local artists come in to teach students how to paint and draw.

Using a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the school started a culinary justice program that has students growing and harvesting their own food. "When I took a photo of one of the students working in the garden and emailed it to the parent," George recalled, "I got the nicest note in reply, saying 'You don't know how happy this made me feel. My kid couldn't wait to come to school because of this project.'"

Another new addition is an adult education program, beginning with students learning English as a second language. Half of the adults enrolled aren't even parents of students in the school, but they live in the local neighborhood and will help with improving the reputation of the school.

'Our Lighthouses'

Other community school coordinators in LAUSD report similar benefits from using this approach.

"I had absolutely zero awareness of the community schools strategy until my principal asked me to help with the application," said Julie Chun who is the community school coordinator at John H. Francis Polytechnic Senior High School in the Sun Valley area. "When I learned what [community schools] entailed," she recalled, "I realized it aligned with my vision of what school should be. The reason I went into education to begin with was to promote equity, and the community schools' strategy does that."

The school, located in the San Fernando Valley area, is quite large with an enrollment of 2,200 students, a large majority of whom identify as Hispanic. Ninety-four percent have been identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to Chun. Many of the students are also designated as English language learners, and virtually all qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced-price meals program.

"The four pillars have been our lighthouses," Chun said, but, so far, most of her energy has gone into assessing assets and needs, a key early step in the community schools implementation process.

"In our assessment, we got lots of confirmation of assumptions," Chun said, "but a few surprises stood out." For instance, students had an intense interest in learning job training skills for the here and now and not for future employment. Also, there was a lot of interest in learning Korean language and culture.

So, the school now has a full Korean program of learning, and it offers a full week of instruction in job readiness skills, including job search and interviewing skills.

The school staged weekend job fairs, the last one of which brought in 25 vendors, Chun said. "I don't have numbers, but I know of students who were able to find employment as a result of that."

'The Only Way You Get Better Test Scores'

Not all current LAUSD staff implementing the community schools learned about it because of the strike. Martha Gonzalez, the community school coordinator at Lucille Roybal-Allard Elementary School, first learned about the approach in 2012 when she was helping to organize with parents and other teachers on a plan to pilot an idea for a small school in the district. The group researched schools in Chicago, where the district operated on a site-based management idea with some similarities to the community schools' approach.

"Our idea was for the school to act as a hub for the local community," she recalled, "and to address the social-emotional and health needs of the students, not just academics." So, she was excited when, as a result of the 2019 strike, the district agreed to fund a rollout of a districtwide community schools effort. "Even before the strike, we had the vision and values of the community schools approach, only now we were going to get the support and funding we need," she said.

Like other LAUSD schools implementing the community school approach, Gonzalez's school is still deeply involved in the assessment phase. But some new initiatives are already underway.

The school has been able to partner with outside agencies to bring in mental health counselors. It opened a wellness center with an outside entrance so parents can access the center without having to go through the school.

With funding from the district, the school has added instructional support time after the school day and on Saturdays. It has brought in intervention teachers to address learning problems of struggling students who can’t come to the added support time.

The school has also worked with a partner to start computer classes for parents, and it’s working with the county's department of parks and recreation to hold outside events at a nearby park.

As current contract negotiations between the district and UTLA continue, Gonzalez is concerned the district will go back on its support for community schools. She fears that, instead, student testing and school accountability, to the exclusion of community schools, will return as the emphasis.

Gonzalez believes that change wouldn't make sense. "If what you value are test scores and numbers," she said, "then you have to emphasize community schools first, because that's the only way you get better test scores."

'Not About Quick Successes and Hitting the Numbers'

"Already, there are so many success stories from becoming community schools," said Grijalva, "but people need to realize this takes time. It's not about quick successes and hitting the numbers. Hopefully, people will understand that adopting this approach must be for the long haul."

Nevertheless, community school coordinators Our Schools spoke with are working on getting data to show the approach is moving the needle.

"My school has had tremendous teacher turnover, which has been a huge problem," said George. "But we're hoping the community schools approach starts to turn that around. Also, we're hoping to see enrollment declines have at least bottomed out and that they are starting to tick back up."

Other community school coordinators are hoping to see improved student attendance as a result of the new programs and supports they've put into place. They believe that if they can make improvements on quantitative measures like family engagement, teacher retention, and student absenteeism, then test scores will eventually follow.

If there has been a difficult sticking point so far, it's been in relation to the fourth pillar of the community schools approach, which calls for "collaborative leadership practices." (An email from Our Schools to a district representative agreeing to an interview did not get a follow-up by press time.)

"For one thing," George said, "some people see anything coming from the union as a tough sell. If the idea had come from the district administration, more people would have been quicker to embrace it."

Further, community school coordinators Our Schools interviewed are wary that the administration would support the more popular student support services—due to their public relations value—rather than embrace the entire range of principles the community schools approach is grounded in.

Also, district leaders that are used to centralizing services, programs, and decision-making may have a tough time handling a more democratic system of governing. "When a school commits to the community schools approach," said George, "administrators suddenly become more vulnerable. [They] have to be ready to hear bad things about [their] schools and [their] leadership and be willing to listen to other people and change."

"The hardest part of being a community school is realizing that everything is a process," said Grijalva, "and that you have to ask students and families for their opinions of everything."

Despite these concerns, Los Angeles teachers are upbeat about the prospects for continuing their success with the community schools approach.

"I'm hoping eventually the approach will be more fully embraced, and the district will help with more money," said George. "Every school in this district needs help. And the community schools approach can turn the whole district around."

Author Bio: 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 the right wing is 'whitewashing' public school history curricula

A fight over new history curriculum standards in Virginia is part of a nationwide campaign to undermine public schools and prevent educators from teaching the truth about America's inequality.

"People still want to hide the truth about Black history," Dione Archer, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, said in an interview with Our Schools. Her response came after being reminded about Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin's November 2022 unveiling of a draft revision of the state's curriculum standards for teaching history in K-12 schools. The revision was roundly criticized for 'whitewashing' American history, as education historian Diane Ravitch put it in her blog, because of its treatment of African American content (all references to Martin Luther King Jr. were deleted), its description of Native American and Indigenous peoples as "the first immigrants" to the country, and other white, Eurocentric guidelines followed by it. "I was very upset," said Archer, whose 15-year-old African American grandson attends Henrico High School in Richmond. "Politicians want to deny the truth, good or bad, about this country," she said. "I didn’t learn about Katherine Johnson [a pioneering African American mathematician who worked for NASA and was a Virginia native] until I was 67 years old. That’s horrifying to me."

This article was produced by Our Schools.

Youngkin's proposed changes to the state's history and social sciences Standards of Learning (SOL) set off an immediate firestorm among public school students, educators, and parents, according to the Washington Informer. In addition to objecting to the emphasis on promoting "white conservative ideology," critics of the proposed new guidelines also opposed them because they would eliminate mention of LGBTQ+ history from K-5 standards and "delay instruction about lynching until the 6th grade and Christopher Columbus' role in the slave trade by the 11th grade. By kindergarten, students would learn to equate citizenship to following rules," the article stated.

State lawmakers and community activists were just as appalled.

"It is important that students and educators learn and teach the truth about the many contributions of African Americans and not attempt to revise history to make others feel good," Virginia House Delegate Reverend Delores McQuinn told Our Schools. McQuinn, who’s a member of the Virginia Black Caucus and co-chair of Virginians for Reconciliation, said she was offended by the governor’s effort, stating that future generations will be the losers if these changes are implemented. "The lack of knowledge about our history is a contributing factor to the racial divisiveness in this country," she said. "We must all begin to think about racial reconciliation and how to get there. The dismissal of our history and culture will not help."

"It's been shown, especially via various in-depth examinations of textbooks used in Virginia, that many Virginia public school students have been miseducated over the years," said Rachel Levy, a teacher, parent, community leader, and 2023 candidate for the newly drawn 59th district seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. "It has created a vicious cycle of ignorance," said Levy, which a previous and highly praised standards revision—conducted by the administration of former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in 2021—"was trying to begin to break."

The backlash over Youngkin’s proposed curriculum changes persuaded the Virginia State Board of Education "not to move forward" with his proposed draft, WRIC reported in November 2022, and in January 2023, the Youngkin administration issued a revised, shorter draft that they said "fixes errors," WRIC reported, but it still contains language that experts find concerning.

On February 2, 2023, the state Board of Education voted to advance the latest revision, but final adoption isn't expected until June 2023. Educators and public school activists continue to try to thwart Youngkin's whitewashed history curriculum from being taught in Virginia's K-12 schools. Should their efforts ultimately be successful, it may cause a brief setback for a national campaign conducted by shadowy right-wing groups and led by Republican politicians to turn public schools into political battlegrounds and undermine how teachers engage students in thinking critically about important and sometimes controversial topics.

The campaign began as a strategy to falsely target schools for teaching students about critical race theory—a concept taught in higher education that has been turned into a grab bag of complaints about efforts in schools to become more welcoming and provide more inclusive learning environments that embrace teaching diverse points of view about subjects, including the history of race, gender, and religious discrimination in the U.S. Then, the campaign swiftly moved on to efforts to ban books and limit teachers' speech in schools.

Now, this movement is trying to make an end run around the democratic process and alter school curricula that have been formally created by education experts and passed by deliberative bodies and elected officials.

'Imbued With Christian and Conservative Tenets'

"[A]t least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism," according to a February 2022 article in Chalkbeat.

In 2021, Oklahoma lawmakers considered a new bill that "would limit how slavery is taught in schools and ban teaching that 'one race is the unique oppressor' or 'victim' in slavery's history," NBC News reported. In Texas, new laws considered in the state legislature "[tried] to reframe Texas history lessons and play down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that are part of the state’s founding," stated a New York Times article in May 2021. That article referred to similar efforts underway in "Republican-led states [that] seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught."

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis revamped the state's approach to civics "in a new direction," Education Week reported, "[toward] an overtly patriotic approach that some educators say is imbued with Christian and conservative tenets. And all of that is occurring as Florida's law limiting classroom discussions on race—a key theme in social studies—takes effect" in the 2023-2024 school year.

In some of these efforts, state lawmakers have solicited the influence of right-wing pressure groups that seek to diminish the voices of educators and limit what schools can teach. Among those pressure groups, Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college that led former President Donald Trump's 1776 Commission, is especially influential.

Hillsdale College, according to a three-part investigation by Salon, "has inconspicuously been building a network of 'classical education' charter schools, which use public tax dollars to teach that systemic racism was effectively vanquished in the 1960s, that America was founded on 'Judeo-Christian' principles, and that progressivism is fundamentally anti-American."

In 2022, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, announced a partnership with Hillsdale College to "open upward of 50 new charters with Hillsdale's '1776 Curriculum,'" according to WPLN News.

In Florida, where Hillsdale is rapidly expanding its network of affiliated charter schools, the Michigan-based college was an influential force in revising the state's civics curriculum and rejecting math textbooks that included "what DeSantis called 'indoctrinating concepts,'" the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In Virginia, among the outside institutions Youngkin enlisted to assist in his effort to rewrite the state's history standards was Hillsdale College, VPM News reported. The college was asked by the Virginia Department of Education "to review a working draft of its social studies standards."

A 'Cycle of Miseducation'

By law, the Virginia Board of Education is required to review the standards in all subjects at least once every seven years. The board's last revision for history and social science was in 2015.

A previous version of the history and social science SOL was created during the administration of former Governor Ralph Northam. But the state Board of Education's vote on whether or not to adopt those standards was delayed when Youngkin appointed five new members to the board and tipped the board to a "conservative majority," according to WSET. The Northam draft included lessons on racism and on the LGBTQ+ community.

Defenders of Youngkin's version of the standards are saying that those criticizing it are distorting the revisions' intentions. "Are we mandating that our teachers tell our students that we're a racist country? No. We aren't mandating that," Republican Delegate Glenn Davis, who chairs the House Education Committee, told WTOP. "Davis said that Youngkin's version requires students to learn about the KKK, and Supreme Court cases that enshrined white supremacy, including Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott—which were not required in the Northam version," WTOP reported. "All students will learn about the KKK and the inherent racism during one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history," he told WTOP. "So how is that not ensuring that our students are taught about racism and those time periods of our nation's history?"

But Levy contended, "Replacing the intended, legitimately revised standards with Youngkin's deeply flawed standards will continue that cycle of miseducation."

The revised draft of the SOL introduced in November 2022 also received pushback from the Virginia Education Association. The group’s statement on the standards read, "The standards are full of overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians, highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals, coded racist overtures throughout, requirements for teachers to present histories of discrimination and racism as 'balanced' 'without personal or political bias,' and restrictions on allowance of 'teacher-created curriculum,' which is allowed in all other subject areas."

'Turning Back the Clock'

But, as an article in USA Today reported, the debate over Virginia's history standards is even more relevant, as it comes at a time when the nation's system of public education has become increasingly more racially segregated. "Education policy experts warn that efforts to keep certain books out of the classroom or ban the teaching of sensitive topics such as race and gender risk turning back the clock to a time when segregated schools meant separate—and vastly unequal—forums for learning," the article noted.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case that made racial segregation in schools unconstitutional and "marked a major turning point in America's attitudes about racial equality," USA Today noted that "experts [now] see the dawning of a new era of school segregation—one in which certain topics will be verboten in some districts and how and what students learn will be determined by what their schools are allowed to teach."

The USA Today article quoted Sarah Hill, a political science professor and education policy expert at California State University in Fullerton, who warned that states and school boards that refuse to teach certain kinds of topics and books they deem to be divisive will effectively segregate school experiences.

"Students will have very different educational experiences, different kinds of conversations in the classroom," Hill said. "As a result, many American children may wind up at the end of high school without a complete picture of the country's history. Many will lack, under the guise of keeping them from feeling discomfort in school, exposure to aspects of the American story that undeniably define the country. They may be denied a chance to reconcile modern events and the past and be denied the opportunity to build empathy and compassion for people they are sure to face for the rest of their lives," the USA Today article stated.

Levy's take was somewhat similar. "I don't necessarily see a direct link between school segregation and Youngkin's new history and social science standards," she said, "but I could foresee if Virginia students don't learn an accurate and full version of our shared history—they wouldn't learn, for example, about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation—that they wouldn't understand where racial and other disparities in access to power and resources come from in our society and institutions, or why and how they should be remedied."

Author Bio: Sandra Jones served as an investigative reporter for nearly two decades. She has received numerous awards for her broadcast reporting.

School choice nightmare: Vouchers are endangering the rights of families

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

“I am the type of parent who always made sure my kids had the good teachers and always took the right classes,” said Esther Kempthorne in an interview with Our Schools. So, in 2014, when she moved with her husband and two daughters to their new home in Washington County, Maine, in a bucolic corner of the state, near the Canadian border, she made it a top priority to find a school that would be the right educational fit for their children.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

“We settled in Washington County hoping to give our children the experience of attending one high school, making lasting friendships, and finally putting down some roots,” said Esther’s husband, Nathan, whose career in the military had sent the Kempthorne family traveling the world, changing schools more than 20 times in 17 years. “Both of our children were born on military bases while I was on active duty with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force,” said Nathan, whose role in military intelligence often meant that he was deployed to high-risk assignments in war zones.

“We said that when we got to Maine, we weren’t going to keep bouncing from school to school,” said Esther.

But after some firsthand experience with the education programs provided by the local public schools, the Kempthornes decided to investigate other options the state offers. One of those options was the state’s provision that allows parents who live in a district that doesn’t have a school matching their child’s grade level the choice to leave the public system and transfer their children to private schools, with the “home” public school district picking up the cost of tuition and transportation, subject to state allowance.

Because the rural district the Kempthornes lived in did not have a high school, they took advantage of that option to enroll their daughters—at taxpayer expense—in Washington Academy, an elite private school founded in 1792 that offers a college track curriculum and access to classes taught by faculty members from a nearby university.

Their decision to leave the public school system for Washington Academy seemed all the better when Esther, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, got a full-time job teaching Spanish at the school.

Thinking back on how the Kempthorne family negotiated the school choice landscape in Maine, Nathan recalled, “I thought we were finally going to be okay.”

But the Kempthornes weren’t okay. Far from it, in 2021, the Kempthornes found themselves in the front seat of their car while they were traveling in another state, using Nathan’s iPhone to call in via Zoom and provide testimony to a Maine legislative committee on why Washington Academy, and other schools like it, pose significant threats to families like theirs and how the state needs to more heavily regulate privately operated schools that get taxpayer funding.

Fighting through tears, they spoke of “racism” and “bullying” at Washington Academy and the school administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address the school’s culture.

In his written testimony, Nathan wrote of “a disturbing pattern of systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, harassment, and bullying behavior based on race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, and sexual orientation that has occurred for years at [Washington Academy].”

In her letter of resignation from the school, presented to the committee, Esther wrote of a school environment where she and her daughters, who identify as Hispanic, experienced “racist, anti-immigrant sentiments.” She wrote, “As the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric became more mainstream, we had to teach our daughters how to defend themselves without our intervention, and they did. However, such self-defense has been exhausting and stressful for my children, and it should not be their responsibility to constantly deflect harassment; rather they should be guaranteed a safe educational environment by school leaders.”

Although their daughters eventually graduated from Washington Academy and went on to college, the family became totally uprooted because of their experience at the school. Nine years after building their dream home in rural Maine, they now find themselves living in an apartment in New York City, embroiled in a years-long battle with Washington Academy and Maine officials, which has absorbed countless hours of their time and thousands of dollars of their life savings.

Esther has been unable to reenter the classroom as a full-time teacher due to the lingering effects of the traumatic experiences she had from teaching at Washington Academy, and both parents and daughters speak of long-term adverse mental health effects stemming from the years they spent at the school.

“We sold everything,” Nathan said in his spoken testimony to the committee. “We lost everything in your state and we left for our safety. Our children are completely traumatized. They lost all their friends.”

The Kempthornes’ story about the consequences of leaving the public education system for a private school is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a system designed to provide parents with taxpayer-supported private school options fails to consider the potential risks when students and parents transfer to these schools that are less subject to government oversight.

Their story is even more significant given the current trend across the country where states have increasingly been adopting charter schools, voucher programs, education savings accounts, “backpack funding,” and other so-called school choice options that use taxpayer money to fund alternatives to the public system.

These options are favored by politicians on the right and left, and, at least one state, Arizona, has a voucher program called the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, which every student in the state is eligible to tap.

This rapid expansion of school choice options is taking place even though there is ample anecdotal evidence and a growing body of research showing that parents in a school choice marketplace often make questionable choices they sometimes come to regret.

As the Kempthornes came to learn, private education providers that are not governed within the public domain pose legal problems that parents often either don’t know about or don’t understand, and local and state government officials often either have no authority to intercede on parents’ behalf or are reluctant to assert what little authority they do have.

The Kempthorne family’s saga, which is still enduring, is a sharp counterpoint to advocates who promote school choice as a simplistic solution for families without acknowledging that transferring taxpayer-funded education services from the public to the private realm will actually complicate parents’ and students’ lives.

‘Kids Just Being Kids’

The first time Esther became fully aware of the racist culture simmering below the privileged veneer at Washington Academy was when, a week after Donald Trump had won the 2016 presidential election, a student stood up in her class and asked when she would be “going home,” which she took to mean as being a reference to her Mexican heritage.

When she described the incident to her family, her story seemed to trigger her daughters to recount how frequently their peers had told them to “go back to where you came from” and to make references to “build the wall” and other anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump campaign.

“It got really weird really fast after Trump got elected,” Nathan told Our Schools. “What had been less overt got more direct.”

“Because I am from Mexico and was the only Hispanic and [adult] of color in the school, I knew why this was happening,” Esther said. While she understood that “impressionable” teenagers might “parrot” what powerful influencers like Trump say, she felt adults in the school had a responsibility to address the situation. But when she started talking to her colleagues about it, her fellow teachers and school staff members dismissed her concerns with comments about “kids just being kids” and saying that the behaviors were just the “latest fad” that would end soon. Some chided her for being “political.”

“This was painful for me because I was, after all, the only person of color [on the staff] and the only one bringing up the issue,” Esther said.

In 2019, after a shooting in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, in which victims were targeted for their Hispanic heritage, the Kempthornes asked to talk to Washington Academy administrators and faculty about the treatment of nonwhite students in the school.

Esther suggested that there should be a schoolwide buildup to national events related to race, such as National Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month, but it became apparent to her that if that were to happen, she would have to lead it, and that made her feel vulnerable.

While administrators pledged to address the issue of racism in the school, it became apparent to the Kempthornes that some school staff were reluctant to admit there was a problem. Ultimately, the Kempthornes maintain little was done other than to mention the issue during a student assembly.

“I felt very alone,” Esther said.

Noose in the Classroom

Matters took a decidedly scarier turn in March 2020, when Esther found a noose hanging from a window shade in her classroom. Initially, she didn’t know what it meant.

“In Mexico, a noose is a confession of suicidal thoughts,” she said, so she wondered if its presence was related to the mental health of one of her students. But her school was about to go remote due to COVID, and she didn’t mention the incident to school administrators or anyone else.

It was only after she heard about a news story from Deer Isle, Maine, about a noose discovered hanging from a utility line, that she mentioned the incident to her husband who told her about the racist threat the symbol was meant to convey. That made her recall recent incidents in which students brought Confederate flags to school, and she put the two things together.

The Kempthornes’ youngest daughter, Natalia (now Natalia Kempthorne-Curiel), asked current and former Washington Academy students to send her their stories about incidents of discrimination occurring at the school, which she compiled and sent in a letter to the school’s administration.

Several anecdotes mentioned in Natalia’s letter stem from a Black Lives Matter rally that students helped organize in which, “Students and former students at the rally lined up their trucks with big American flags waving in the back and drove past the Black Lives Matter protest multiple times yelling ‘go home,’ flipping them off, and playing ‘Dixie’ loudly over their truck horn[s].”

“Multiple students reported that white students routinely flew Confederate flags on school grounds,” read another entry in the letter, “with no repercussions.”

International students at the academy seem to have been a particular target for abuse, according to several comments included in the letter, and “were afraid to report acts of racism or xenophobia because they feared retaliation, and because the perpetrators would not be held accountable for their actions.”

In addition to her letter, Natalia also posted an online petition accusing Washington Academy and its board of trustees of creating “a systemic and institutionalized culture of discrimination within our school” and calling for the school administration to take several steps to address “harassment and discrimination” in the school.

Feeling disappointed in the school’s response to their grievances, the Kempthornes embarked on an extensive campaign to contact a broad range of officials and organizations outside of the school.

Local officials, many of whom had business and professional relationships with Washington Academy board members and administrators, were slow to respond to the family’s complaints or took no action at all. The Maine Education Association, the statewide union Esther had joined, claimed it was prevented from interceding on her behalf because the school is private.

Written appeals the family made to 19 members of state government—including a U.S. senator, a U.S. House representative, committee chairs in the Maine House and Senate, the Maine Department of Education commissioner, the Maine attorney general, and the governor—to request support received responses that ranged from merely officious to sympathetic, but failed to result in any concrete actions.

The state legislative hearing that the Kempthornes provided testimony to was so hastily thrown together that Nathan and Esther weren’t able to schedule their appearances in advance, so they had to call from the front seat of their car, while they were traveling out-of-state.

Even though Maine has a statutory provision that prohibits discrimination, the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC), which is responsible for enforcing it, proved to be reluctant to apply its regulatory authority to a prestigious private academy. (In an apparent conflict of interest, at the time the Kempthornes were making their appeals, Arnold Clark was chair of the MHRC and an attorney working out of an office from the same address as attorney Dennis Mahar, who serves on the Washington Academy board of trustees and once served as the board’s president, according to Nathan.)

The Kempthornes hired an attorney for their case, but the legal fees eventually exceeded their wherewithal.

Even their closest friends in the community demurred from speaking out on their behalf.

‘He Really Didn’t Want to Talk With Us’

With their oldest daughter already having moved away from home and attending college, and Natalia eligible for early graduation from Washington Academy, the Kempthornes began to think about moving away. When close acquaintances advised them to leave for safety reasons it seemed to solidify their decision and in August 2020, they put their house up for sale and left Maine.

But their contempt for Washington Academy remains. “Neither as a parent or a teacher did I ever get a [written communication] from Washington Academy’s Head of School Judson McBrine or Assistant Headmaster Tim Reynolds [now retired] that they were aware of the open discrimination and were taking steps to address it,” said Esther. It wasn’t until after her resignation, in July 2020, and more than a month after her daughter Natalia had reported intense discrimination, that Esther received a short email from McBrine to discuss her resignation letter.

In September 2020, a local television station reported that at least one of Nathan’s letters about the noose incident had prompted Washington County lawmakers to request the state attorney general to conduct an inquiry into the matter. McBrine is quoted as saying, “We will not tolerate racism at Washington Academy.”

In January 2021, local news outlet WGME reported that Washington Academy had hired an outside investigator to conduct an investigation about the noose incident. The investigation “could not substantiate the allegation, according to an attorney representing the school,” WGME reported.

The lawyer the school chose to conduct the investigation worked for Eaton Peabody in Bangor, which specializes in representing employers, not employees, according to its description of the firm’s experience in handling labor and employment cases. The investigating attorney, Sarah Newell, also represents employers, according to her legal profile, which spotlights her successful litigations, including that she “[s]uccessfully defended a disability discrimination case before the Maine Human Rights Commission,” and, “[s]uccessfully defended a nursing home in labor arbitration.”

Also, after the Kempthornes left Maine, in August 2020, Washington Academy announced in November 2020 that it had hired a firm to conduct an “equity audit” of the school, the results of which were posted on the school’s website in May 2021. To conduct the audit, the school hired Boston-based Carney Sandoe and Associates, a firm that, according to its website, works exclusively with “independent, private, boarding, and charter schools,” mostly on faculty recruitment and leadership searches.

According to the Kempthornes, no one from Carney Sandoe and Associates reached out for their input for the audit, but when Nathan heard of the audit, he contacted the firm’s diversity consultant at the time, Lawrence Alexander, who spoke briefly with Nathan, but never contacted Esther or Natalia.

“He really didn’t want to talk with us,” said Nathan.

‘I Was Not Surprised’

Elizabeth Sprague first met Esther Kempthorne when a local advocacy group Sprague participated in invited Natalia to speak to the group about her environmental advocacy work at Washington Academy.

A few months after Natalia spoke to the group, Sprague came across an unsettling message on her social media feed from a follower who expressed feelings of being personally unsafe at work. In an exchange of messages that ensued, Sprague learned the follower was Esther, and the unsafe place was Washington Academy.

“When I found out it was Washington Academy, I was not surprised,” said Sprague. Other parents she knew had complained to her about the culture in the school. Two teachers at the school had spoken to her about feeling the need to self-censor their comments about the school’s culture because of religious fervor that was rife in the school, even though the school is officially nonsectarian.

Sprague, who grew up in the Washington County area and has family members who’ve lived there since the 1600s, said Washington Academy has long been regarded as an “aspiring” school. Sprague attended the school in her freshman year of high school, and she had a family member who taught there. “He was very evangelical,” she said, and “proselytized” students in the classroom, with, apparently, no interference from the school administration.

Washington Academy is one of several Maine “town academies” that benefit from what’s known as “town tuitioning,” in which private schools receive public funding from districts that “tuition out” students to the schools rather than paying to educate them in their “home” district. These Maine academies had from 80.4 to 99.3 percent of their student enrollments funded with public dollars in the fiscal year 2020-2021. Most of them also obtain additional income by operating expensive residential programs that enroll students, often from countries outside the U.S.

The practice of using town tuitioning programs as alternatives to providing public schools started in Vermont, according to Education Week, but has since spread to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, as well as Maine.

Supporters of these programs call them a “model of educational choice,” according to Education Week, and although supporters of vouchers haven’t always held up town academies as their ideal, they’ve more recently been describing them as the “oldest school choice program in the nation” and calling for expanding them so that all students are eligible to attend the town academies.

But the rationale for having town academies and funding them with public money seems to no longer hold, if it ever did.

‘A Common Myth’

“A common myth is that town academies in New England exist in rural areas which have a scarcity of public schools due to the relatively low population density of families with school-aged children and a lack of funding to support district schools,” according to Bruce Baker, an education professor at the University of Miami in Florida. “But that’s not the reality.”

According to Baker, many of these schools started in the early 1800s, or earlier, as private secondary schools for their communities prior to the existence of public high schools “and in many cases,” prior to the creation of the nation’s system of public common schools. “Some, like Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, were originally funded by local businessmen,” he noted.

Given that origin, town academies that are in operation today are “holdovers,” according to Baker, “of what were once proxy public schools that never converted to district public schools,” although a few have, such as Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vermont, which converted from private to public in 2008.

Contrary to the town academy narrative, some of the schools are in communities that have sufficient populations to educate school-aged children. For instance, New Bedford Academy in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is located in a city with a population exceeding 100,000, according to the 2021 U.S. census. Norwich Free Academy is located in Norwich, Connecticut, a community with a population of more than 40,000.

Also, the notion that town academies are needed in Maine because public schools are few and far between seems hardly the case. “The distances between publicly funded town academies and competing public high schools in Maine is often negligible,” Nathan Kempthorne wrote in an email, pointing out that the distance between Washington Academy and Machias Memorial High School in Machias is only 4.2 miles, and John Bapst Memorial High School, a town academy in Bangor, is only 2.5 miles from Bangor High School and 2.1 miles from Brewer High School.

Public schools in rural communities are quite commonplace. “More than 9.3 million—or nearly one in five students in the U.S.—attend a rural school,” according to a 2019 report by the Rural School and Community Trust. “This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined.”

Whereas rural public schools are subject to the same government oversight that all public schools are subject to, that oversight does not extend to private schools, even when they get a substantial portion of their funding from the public.

“In private schools, students end up losing basic constitutional rights and essentially don’t have due process rights,” Todd DeMitchell told Our Schools. DeMitchell is a professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester who studies laws governing school policies and the impact of court cases on these policies.

According to him, if the Kempthornes had their children enrolled in public schools they would have had access to certain rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, including Title 6, which addresses race, and Title 9, which addresses discrimination on the basis of sex. Washington Academy, being a private school, is exempt from these protections.

DeMitchell pointed to a 1987 decision by a federal court that ruled a private academy in New Hampshire had the right to fire a teacher who, contrary to school policy, grew a beard, because the school argued successfully that it was “not a state actor,” according to DeMitchell. That ruling’s logic has been extended to a potential 2023 U.S. Supreme Court case in which a North Carolina charter school is arguing that it has the right to require girl students to wear skirts at school because it also is not a state actor. (Charter schools are also privately operated schools that are funded almost exclusively with public money.)

Along with their problematic funding rationale, town academies also have issues with being truly diverse and inclusive schools. For instance, they’ve “long struggled” to serve students with disabilities, according to Baker. And the student populations of these town academies tend to be more white and affluent than their surrounding communities, with any purported claims of student diversity being largely due to their enrollments of international students in residential programs.

According to a 2017 report on Vermont’s town academies by ProPublica, “Of the almost 2,800 Vermonters who use publicly funded vouchers to go to private schools in state, 22.5 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to state education data. (The data excludes out-of-state private schools.) By contrast, 38.3 percent of public school students in Vermont have family incomes low enough to qualify them for the lunch discount.”

These tendencies toward serving select populations of students likely lead to problems with creating an inclusive school culture, as is noted in a letter from “community members” of the John Bapst Memorial High School town academy in Maine.

Much like Natalia’s letter to Washington Academy, the letter from the John Bapst community members provides numerous testimonials of incidents and school conditions that reflect racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogyny, and economic discrimination.

“Many of the issues being brought to light within this letter are rooted in the demographics of John Bapst,” the document states.

‘Did Not Do Enough Research’

“In hindsight, I clearly did not do enough research,” Nathan now admits. But is it really that simple?

Like most families, the Kempthornes feel they know what’s best for their children, including their education, but the couple perhaps seems especially amply prepared for that role.

Although Nathan had dropped out of high school, he joined the military and earned his GED, getting 96 percent of his credits while on active duty on base. He completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees using the GI Bill. “There was no way I was going to have a child and not have a college degree,” he said.

Esther received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from a university in Mexico and had frequently worked for the state department during their deployments. When she got part-time work in Maine, teaching Spanish in nearby Machias Memorial High School and Milbridge Elementary School, she seemed especially well positioned to research potential new schools for their children.

But after the Kempthornes enrolled their daughters in the local public school, it didn’t take long for them to realize their children were academically far ahead of their peers (Natalia skipped a grade in her elementary school). While the elementary school was “tolerable,” they were concerned their daughters would flounder in the local secondary schools.

Also, Esther and Nathan felt their daughters, who identified as Hispanic, would benefit from schools with a more racially diverse student population.

The reputations of the local secondary schools were not particularly sterling. Machias Memorial High School, where Esther taught, did not impress her, and a closer secondary school, Narraguagus Junior-Senior High School, was generally considered low performing among parents. Certainly, the reputations of those schools were not helped by the poorratings they get on the popular school rating site Great Schools.

Also, the Kempthornes could not help but notice how under-resourced their local schools were.

According to an annual analysis of education funding compiled by the Education Law Center for the year 2022, Maine has an uneven track record in funding education. While the analysis gives the state a grade of “A” for the level of per-pupil revenue it provides to schools, compared to other states, it grades Maine an “F” for how the state distributes education funding to school districts with high levels of student poverty.

A similar school finance profile for 2019-2020 gives Maine’s financial commitment to schools 62 points out of a 100-point scale, but notes that while the state is “a high effort state” compared to other states, its current effort level is below its pre-recession (2006) level, and, “Educational opportunity in [Maine] is severely unequal.”

In addition to the funding disparities, the Kempthornes also noticed how much Maine’s public education policy emphasized career and technical education (CTE), a term recently coined to replace what’s traditionally been called vocational education. That emphasis is reflected in the state’s recent commitment of $25 million to a two-year initiative to fund students to get paid work experiences with employers. On the website of Machias Memorial High, the school’s CTE program is the only content area described under the heading of “academics.”

“We kind of panicked when we thought we’d have to move again because of subpar education,” Nathan recalled. Their commitment to move to Maine and build their dream home near a picturesque seashore had been years in the making. To finance the move, Nathan had taken more dangerous assignments for the higher pay, and the family had scrimped on expenses to save up for the construction of their new home.

Given their situation, it’s understandable why the Kempthornes would be attracted to a school like Washington Academy. According to Private School Review, “85 percent of graduates [of the school] go on to post-secondary programs, college, or university.” The school’s academic program ranges from “hands-on courses in marine technology and computer-aided design to AP classes in advanced math and literature to college courses taught by [Washington Academy] faculty and online through our university partners,” according to the school website.

Further, the school offered the more ethnically and racially diverse student body the Kempthornes wanted. Of its population of roughly 90-some boarding students—nearly a quarter of the roughly 400 student enrollment—most come from outside the U.S., according to the Kempthornes, primarily from China.

“When we toured Washington Academy,” Nathan recalled, “the differences in resources and course offerings between it and the local public schools were stark.”

And with the tuition being funded by the public, what families would turn that down?

‘Who Really Has the Choice?’

In describing the reality of the school choice landscape the Kempthornes confronted in Maine, Nathan could be speaking for an increasing number of American families when he said, “Either you accept a system in which you have zero recourse to discrimination or you accept subpar education in a system in which you have at least some rights.”

What kind of choice is that?

Advocates for school choice prefer to ignore that question. “Their idea of an education free market is predicated on caveat emptor,” as Todd DeMitchell put it, “even if parents often don’t have the information at hand to make those kinds of decisions.”

While it’s hard to believe the Kempthornes should have known the situation they were walking into, it’s even harder to argue that they should have just accepted it.

But in a school choice playing field that so unevenly advantages the education provider over the parent, the question becomes, “Who really has the choice, the parent or the school?” according to DeMitchell. “When a school has a particular kind of culture, who really has the choice? The school is effectively saying, We choose to allow you to be discriminated against. And that’s your choice?”

Author Bio: 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.

School vouchers have been a disaster. Advocates want to rename them

Although a sizable number of Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections who were counting on school vouchers to be a winning issue—including Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Kari Lake in Arizona, and Tim Michels in Wisconsin—went down to defeat, school vouchers are not about to go away. Voucher advocates are instead changing the name and pushing for education savings accounts (ESAs).

This article was produced by Our Schools.

ESAs are legal in around 10 states so far, but if this new idea for promoting school choice hasn’t already been proposed in your state, it may be appearing there soon. Here’s what education savings accounts are, how they work, and what policymakers and families in your state should consider before rushing headlong into adopting this idea.

What Are ESAs?

Education savings accounts are a kind of super-voucher. While traditional vouchers give parents a chunk of taxpayer money that they could use for tuition at the school of their choice, an ESA gives parents a chunk of taxpayer money that they can spend on private school tuition or a variety of other educational expenses.

Tennessee’s ESA law offers a typical list of eligible expenses that not only include private school tuition and fees but also textbooks, school uniforms, tutoring, transportation to and from school, computer software, tech devices, summer school tuition, and tuition and fees at a postsecondary school.

ESAs provide a wider range of choices—and a wider range of ways for vendors to get their hands on education tax dollars without having to open a whole school to get voucher money.

ESAs also provide political cover. Vouchers have frequently been rejected by voters, so voucher proponents, on Twitter and in legislative discussions, have opted not to use the label of “voucher” for ESAs. They may further try to sweeten the rebranding by using terms such as “education scholarship accounts” and “education freedom accounts.”

The money comes to parents by way of a company hired to handle these funds. Step Up for Students and ClassWallet are two examples of these “scholarship management” companies. These companies handle the actual disbursement of the monies, often through debit cards; they also take a cut of the funding.

Where Does ESA Money Come From?

Funding for an ESA program can come from several different paths.

One pathway is via tax credit programs that allow corporations and individuals to contribute directly to “scholarship” funding while getting a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed this on a national scale with her failed Education Freedom Scholarships.

Proponents like to say that tax credit funding does not involve any government spending, which is technically correct because the money never touches government hands. But because it is a tax credit, it does cost the taxpayers. A million dollars in tax credit scholarships means $1 million of revenue the government does not get, leaving a hole that must be made up either by raising taxes or cutting other state and federal programs. Kentucky set up tax credit scholarships to fund its ESA program; the tax credit scholarship program was thrown out in December 2022 by the state’s supreme court for being “unconstitutional.

Another pathway to ESA funding comes from new laws enacting “backpack funding,” where per-pupil funding that would have gone to the student’s home school district goes to the student’s ESA instead. This can be particularly damaging in states like Arizona, where the money is pulled from the student’s assigned district even if the student has always attended private school. In other words, the school’s operating revenue is reduced by the per-pupil funding, but its operating costs are reduced by zero dollars.

ESAs can also be funded by taking the money off the top of the state’s education budget, meaning the costs of the vouchers hit all school districts, whether they have students choosing vouchers or not.

In addition, a suggestion was made that pandemic relief funds be distributed via ESA-style programs (Oklahoma was one state that tried it).

GOP legislators have also tried to propose that federal funding intended for poor students or students with special needs, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), be turned into school voucher programs, a particularly ironic proposal, as students usually give up their rights under IDEA when they move out of the public education system. This repurposing of federal funding for education will no doubt become part of the rhetoric used for ESA funding.

How Are Tax Dollars in ESA Spent?

Tracking how tax dollars are spent in ESA programs is difficult if not impossible because these programs have hardly any accountability.

ESAs, like vouchers, have proven to be a way to use public tax dollars to fund private religious schools. In fact, in states where voucher programs exist, vouchers primarily fund religious schools (particularly Catholic ones). While the separation of church and state, when it comes to education, is already being increasingly whittled away, ESAs, like vouchers, allow states to circumvent that wall entirely.

Further, there are few checks in place to ensure that ESA money is spent on legitimate education expenses. In Arizona, parents spent $700,000 of their ESA money on beauty supplies, clothes, and other questionable expenses. In Oklahoma, pandemic relief funds were disbursed ESA-style, and when news broke that about half a million dollars in funds had been used to buy things like Christmas trees, gaming consoles, and outdoor grills, the state passed the buck.

Ryan Walters, who was just elected as Oklahoma’s education chief, bragged that the private sector would be a “more efficient way” to handle the funds, and he gave ClassWallet freedom to administer the state’s ESA program. But ClassWallet has admitted that it has “neither responsibility for, nor authority to exercise programmatic decision making with respect to the program or its associated federal funds and did not have responsibility for grant compliance.” In other words, nobody is checking to see how the money is really spent.

In most ESA programs, parents can select from an official list of vendors. One might assume that such a list would include vendors that have been screened to make sure that they are qualified providers of high-quality materials and instruction, but one would be wrong. In many states, a vendor is included in the list after simply meeting some very basic requirements. Tennessee’s ESA program leaves oversight of education vendors✎ EditSign largely up to the management of its private contractor. Arizona’s ESA program doesn’t even have✎ EditSign a list of approved schools, vendors, or providers, leaving the destination of taxpayer funding up to the “discretion” of the account holder.

The argument is that free market forces will keep vendors in line and that parents’ ability to make choices will work better than government regulations. One might also argue that the Food and Drug Administration should be shut down and the market should be allowed to regulate food manufacturing behavior. If a company gets sloppy or cheap and starts producing poisoned food, the market will correct it. All we have to do is let some consumers be poisoned in the process.

Not only are taxpayers’ interests unguarded in ESA systems, but parent and student interests are unguarded as well. Parents have to navigate an unregulated marketplace, an asymmetrical market where sellers have far more information than buyers, and where marketing materials take the place of useful information.

What Risks Do ESAs Pose to Students and Families?

Whether school choice advocates are pushing vouchers or ESAs, they frequently fail to mention the most fundamental issue for students and their families—private schools do not have to admit anyone they don’t wish to admit, either by placing various barriers in the way (not offering transportation or meals) or by simply putting restrictions in place.

That was one of the takeaways from Carson v. Makin, a Supreme Court decision that declared that Maine must allow voucher money to go to religious private schools, even if they are clearly discriminatory. Many ESA laws include a sort of non-interference clause that declares that accepting voucher money does not make the school a state actor, and the state may in no way dictate to the school how it will operate. In other words, they may teach what they want and discriminate as they like, even if they accept taxpayer dollars. Students with special needs, as well as LGBTQIA+ students, find they may have far fewer “choice” options than others.

ESA programs fail to protect students in other important ways. Should a family run out of ESA money, or find that they’ve been bilked by a bad vendor, or even be dumped by a vendor that goes out of business midyear, there are no real protections for families of students. Some school choice advocates have suggested that this risk would be minimized by providing third-party consumer reviews via a service like Yelp. But generally, it’s assumed that the invisible hand of the market, wearing its caveat emptor ring, is supposed to do the job of quality oversight.

In one striking example, an ESA bill proposed in Utah in 2022 included a requirement that parents sign a statement that they “assume full financial responsibility for the education” of their child. That means if they run out of voucher money or get left high and dry by a bad vendor or find the vendor incompetent, they are on their own. Presumably, in such a situation, a student would have no recourse but to return to a public school, though that school might get zero funding for that student.

Do ESAs Improve Education Results?

Most importantly, study after study shows that voucher programs in all their forms do not foster excellence in education. ESAs are a newer creation and so have been studied less, but given that the ESA system has even fewer guardrails than traditional vouchers, there’s no reason to think that the educational results would be any better.

In any case, under ESA, poor educational outcomes would be the parents’ problem, and the solutions we’ve seen for this problem are grim.

For instance, some voucher proponents (including DeVos) suggest a low-cost use for vouchers would be microschools, in which a handful of students gather in someone’s home around a computer with some online lessons while an adult “coach” keeps an eye on things. It’s not anyone’s first choice for a great education, but if that’s what you can afford—well, enjoy your choice.

That is the heart of voucher programs, whether you call them vouchers or education savings accounts or freedom scholarship accounts; they get the government out of the school business and turn education into a commodity that is the responsibility of parents alone. In voucher world, the state hands you your debit card and washes its hands of you. “Enjoy your freedom, and good luck.” And if an excellent education is not readily available because the ESA money is inadequate or your child has special needs, and your local public school is struggling with reduced funding, well, that’s your problem.

It’s all about the three D’s—disrupt, defund, and dismantle. Call the voucher system whatever you would like, but it is about reducing education from a public good and shared societal responsibility to a simple consumer good.

Author Bio: Peter Greene was a classroom secondary English teacher in Pennsylvania for more than 39 years and is a senior contributor at Forbes. Follow him on Twitter @palan57.

An unlikely city in the South could be home to a public education renaissance

Before it got national headlines about its severe water crisis, Jackson, Mississippi, was much renowned for its potholes. “The amount [sic] of potholes in the city is crazy,” exclaims the narrator of “Jackson, Mississippi: The Second Most Dangerous City in America,” a video posted to a popular travel YouTube channel in December 2021. The vlogger continues, “It’s just amazing to me there is a city in America that looks like this. … It’s hard to believe that this is the United States.”

This article was produced by Our Schools.

“It is not uncommon to walk through west Jackson and see water flowing out of pipes for weeks,” observed Yoknyam Dabale, a Nigerian immigrant who moved to Jackson, in an op-ed in the Jackson Free Press. “Roads are overrun with potholes and uncleaned gutters.”

“The city says 90 percent of its roads are in poor shape,” television news outlet WLBT reported in 2021. “A Google search pulls up endless complaints, dangerous accidents, and hazardous barricades,” reporter Sharie Nicole wrote. “Local comedians write songs about the potholes; out-of-towners rant about it.”

The steady decay of Jackson’s public infrastructure goes beyond potholes and the water supply.

In 2018, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported that Jackson libraries faced a crisis that included “black mold, leaking buildings,” and “chronic flooding issues at two of its main branches.” Jackson libraries have been “suffering from needed repairs,” and some libraries were even facing temporary closure due to lack of money for repairs, according to an August 2022 report in the Northside Sun.

In 2017, the Clarion Ledger, in reporting on the “deteriorating” conditions in the city’s parks and recreation facilities, found a “$1.2 million hole” in the Department of Parks and Recreation budget.

The lack of government investment in Jackson’s public infrastructure, and across the state in general, extends to public schools as well.

Using the state’s school funding formula as a guideline, the Clarion Ledger calculated that since passing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in 1997, Mississippi lawmakers fully funded public education only twice—“both during election years”—shorting schools of $2.3 billion over the past decade, according to a 2019 article in the Clarion Ledger.

Were Jackson schools funded according to state law, the district would receive $11,447,922 more in state funding for the 2022-2023 school year alone, according to the Parents’ Campaign, a parent advocacy group in the state.

Funding for Mississippi students is even worse if they happen to be Black. “Between 1954 and 1960, the state gave Black students more than $297 million less (in 2017 dollars) than white students,” the Sun Herald reported while referring to government data. “And if that number is extended back to 1890, Black students were shortchanged more than $25 billion.”

Jackson Public Schools (JPS) are 95 percent Black, according to the 2019 Better Together Commission (BTC) Findings Report by the nonprofit One Voice. The Better Together Commission is a public-private partnership that included city and state officials, Jackson citizens, and representatives from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a private foundation based in Michigan.

As I reported for the Progressive magazine in 2018, BTC was formed as an alternative to a takeover of the district by the state after an audit by the Mississippi Department of Education found a significant number of state regulatory violations by the district. Fearing state takeover would lead to schools being handed over to charter school management groups—which is what happened in New Orleans, Newark, and other majority-Black school districts—a coalition called Our JPS quickly formed to oppose the takeover and demand an alternative approach to improving the public school system.

One such alternative was to remake schools into community-based centers for providing student- and family-oriented supports and programs designed to address the high levels of poverty, homelessness, and mental and economic trauma in the district.

“We need schools that serve as hubs of the community,” Pam Shaw, a leading spokesperson for Our JPS at the time of writing the article for the Progressive, told me. “Communities should own that space and use it as a launching pad for everything children need.”

Our JPS has since refined that idea into a campaign for the district to adopt what’s become loosely known as community schools. Our JPS defines community schools as “neighborhood schools that partner with families and community organizations to provide well-rounded educational experiences and supports for students’ school success.”

Through the community schools approach, schools partner with local organizations to step in when there is a lack of public infrastructure so that these organizations can help by, for example, providing access to health care and counseling where clinics are lacking, opening pantries in food deserts, or interceding on behalf of families experiencing homelessness or unemployment. Schools using the community schools approach can also become catalysts for addressing chronic infrastructure problems in the surrounding community, such as lack of streetlights, parks, or safe sidewalks.

‘Community Schools Are a Strategy’

While BTC was promoted as a compromise between Jackson Public Schools and the state, it’s difficult to see what Jackson got out of the deal, other than staving off the takeover.

Both in BTC’s own work in Jackson and the work of its associated consulting group, little of the output seems to reflect the Jackson community’s desire for a community schools approach.

For instance, in its first report, which drew from “community conversations,” BTC found, “Among the most pressing concerns regarding the Jackson Public School District were teacher quality, district leadership, and test scores.”

The report mentioned “the theme of a holistic approach surfaced several times,” which is a possible reference to community schools, but nothing resembling the actual policy and practice of community schools is recommended in the report.

Meanwhile, the idea of community schools has caught on with progressive think tanks, teachers’ unions, public education advocates, and philanthropic groups across the nation. California has provided $3 billion in new state funding for transitioning schools to the approach in 2022, and Maryland has pledged to convert at least one-third of the state’s public schools to community schools.

One philanthropic group advocating for the community schools approach in Jackson is the NEA Foundation, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit founded by educators.

“We entered this work in Jackson at the invitation of Mississippi educators,” NEA Foundation president and CEO Sara Sneed told Our Schools. “There is enormous community pressure for positive change but also expectations that any effort to include community voice in the process will come with a fight.”

The NEA Foundation’s effort also targets two other communities in school districts in the South—Little Rock, Arkansas, and East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. But Sneed expects their work in Jackson to lead the initiative for spreading the community schools approach throughout the South.

“We want to make community schools a signature issue in Mississippi and believe the effort in Jackson is an opportunity to transform the education experiences of children in the South,” Sneed said.

“Legislators in Arkansas have shown support for the community schools approach,” she said. “In Louisiana, unfortunately, there are battles at the local level because of the charter school industry’s interests in taking their model for reform in New Orleans to East Baton Rouge.”

When asked whether the work her organization is engaged in presents any tension with the work done by BTC, Sneed said, “While the BTC may have fostered a much-needed collaboration, it didn’t come up with a strategy. Community schools are a strategy.”

‘What Our Community Wants’

The interest in the community schools approach first caught on in Jackson in 2018 as an alternative to a state takeover, according to Treshika Melvin.

Melvin works as the advocacy, training, and power building director for Springboard to Opportunities, a Jackson-based nonprofit that helps families with housing, employment, child care, and other essential needs. She and her organization are part of the Our JPS coalition helping to implement the community schools approach in the district.

“We’ve moved toward this space because it’s what our community wants,” Melvin told Our Schools. A planning grant from the NEA Foundation provided a catalyst for Our JPS to engage its coalition members in learning about the approach and funding community outreach efforts that included surveys, interviews, and in-person meetings across the city, according to Melvin.

“It quickly became evident to us,” Melvin said, “even without using the term ‘community schools’ in our outreach, that what people were describing they wanted was the community schools approach.”

In contrast to the “pressing concerns” BTC had found through its outreach, according to Melvin, Our JPS found widespread desires for schools to provide access to new programs and services that were otherwise difficult for families to obtain in Jackson. Access to programs for reading improvement, mental health services, and training in conflict resolution and restorative justice were the most popular requests.

Reading programs were by far the most in demand, according to Melvin, with 75 percent of respondents wanting their children to have more access to after-school and summer programs that provide instruction and support in reading. Even among community members without school-aged kids, reading programs were the top priority. Another priority that stood out was for schools to provide more mental health supports to ensure schools are providing safe and supportive environments, physically and emotionally, for all students and parents.

‘It Would Be a Shame’

“The community schools approach makes sense because schools are such important anchors for families and their surrounding communities,” Julian Miller told Our Schools. Miller is a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), another organization advocating for public schools in Jackson.

In 2016, the SPLC filed a lawsuit against Mississippi on behalf of a group of Jackson Public Schools parents who contended that the state’s method of funding charter schools harms their local schools. In 2018, a county judge denied the suit’s claims. When the SPLC appealed the ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision in 2019.

Despite the high court’s ruling, Miller believes that the community schools approach has the potential to address problems of inequity in Mississippi’s public education system, while charter schools tend to make inequities worse, he said.

Community schools—when implemented with fidelity to the original design and “done holistically, with adequate resources”—are part of the public system, according to Miller, with input from the community, unlike charter schools, which he believes have been imposed on Jackson as a separate and autonomous system.

“It would be a shame if community schools are implemented the same way that charter schools have,” he said, “and never actually increase funding for the [public school] system overall but instead pull away resources.”

In 2017, during the presidential administration of Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos awarded Mississippi with a $15 million grant to subsidize the startup of new charters over the next five years. Most of the new charters are in Jackson, according to Mississippi Today.

Again, in 2022, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Mississippi First, a pro-charter advocacy organization, a $19.3 million, five-year Charter Schools Program grant to grow charter schools in Mississippi.

Despite the flood of outside funding, Mississippi has been slow to ramp up its charter school sector. In 2021, of the five charter schools whose applications were submitted and completed initial screenings, none were ultimately approved. In 2022, out of 10 new charter school applications, only one made it through the full approval process.

Some of the reluctance to open new charters in the state is due to the state being primarily rural, according to Miller. Rural lawmakers often hesitate to open new charters in their communities where resources for schools are already stretched thin, he said. Also, powerful, nationwide charter chains haven’t flocked to the state “because it’s hard for charter schools to make money in rural communities with chronically low performance.”

But perhaps part of the reluctance to quickly expand the charter industry in Mississippi may come from concerns about the schools that are already operational.

Charter schools that were approved in the early years of opening the market, and have since come up for renewal, have drawn scrutiny for their low performance. On Mississippi’s school performance rankings, charter schools, including those in Jackson, perform mostly “on par” with their home districts, according to Mississippi Today.

This runs counter to the charter school industry’s claim that more charters, and other forms of school choice, will improve the overall quality of Mississippi’s troubled education system.

Another concern related to charter schools, according to Mississippi Today, has to do with whether their boards are subject to laws that prohibit conflicts of interest and other ethics violations that the state imposes on taxpayer-funded organizations. While state officials maintain they are, charter operators and advocates say they aren’t.

Despite the sluggish uptake of charters in the state, and concerns with individual schools already operational, nine proposed charters hope to open in Mississippi in 2023.

“Mississippi has the worst school system in the country because of what’s been happening for centuries,” said Miller, especially for Black students. “The problems are systemic, and white students suffer too. My hope is that schools that use the community schools approach eventually improve and serve as models to help other schools improve.”

‘What Sets the Stage for Better Academic Outcomes’

Yet community schools advocates in Jackson concede that evidence linking the approach to improved academic performance is likely to be slow in coming.

Part of the problem in measuring the success of the community schools approach has to do with the relatively short history of the approach’s implementation in schools, especially in Jackson where it is barely underway.

Another problem has to do with how education improvement is generally assessed in the U.S.

For instance, the strategic plan that JPS recently completed, with the guidance of BTC, reads like a typical consultant-driven education reform document, with lots of statistical metrics for measuring the district’s improvement “milestones” and very few qualitative measures that come from parents, community members, and other stakeholders.

“School improvement efforts are often hyperfocused on specific outcomes,” according to Sneed, “but you can’t achieve desirable outcomes without addressing children’s education experiences and the experiences parents and communities have with schools.”

Any effort to evaluate the results of a community schools implementation requires those results to be looked at over time, she contended. Initially, there may be only changes in school climate and culture. Then change shows up in nonacademic areas of the school, such as discipline and attendance. “These changes are what sets the stage for better academic outcomes,” she said.

Similarly, Melvin likens Jackson’s implementation of community schools to the city’s needs for infrastructure improvements—an investment that may not get results right away but will eventually pay off.

“It’s not at all hard to connect the dots between the state of our schools to the city’s overall lack of infrastructure,” she said. This connection became much more apparent during the city’s water crisis.

“Schools are affected by the infrastructure crisis in Jackson but are also part of the infrastructure,” Melvin noted, pointing out how schools were profoundly affected by the lack of water—sometimes resorting to remote learning or merging students with other school campuses—while they also served as distribution points for drinking water, helped students and families get access to food, and enabled parents to go to work during the school day.

“Ideally, infrastructure serves as a shared foundation for economic, environmental, and public health between different neighborhoods and municipalities,” wrote Andre M. Perry, Joseph W. Kane, and Carl Romer in an analysis of Jackson’s water crisis for the Brookings Institution. “[H]owever, infrastructure is often poorly maintained or intentionally overlooked in particular places, leading to a lack of access, affordability, and safety for many communities of color,” the authors contend. “In the case of Jackson, legacy infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with a legacy of racism. The costs of legacy infrastructure parallel long-standing economic and racial disparities in the region.”

Jackson schools have also experienced the very same long-standing economic and racial disparities that have been inflicted on the city’s infrastructure in general. However, while poorly maintained and overlooked public infrastructure would seem to call for new investments into that infrastructure, Mississippi lawmakers have instead tended to resort to privatizing public systems.

Governor Tate Reeves has not only said that privatizing Jackson’s water system is “on the table,” according to the Mississippi Free Press, but he’s also called charter schools “a positive pathway for students.”

Advocates for the community schools approach in Jackson see things otherwise.

“We see the community schools approach as a way to build up the city’s infrastructure,” Melvin said, “to be something that truly serves community needs and the success of our students and families.”

Author Bio: 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.

Foot soldiers for Ron DeSantis: The right-wing money and influence behind Moms for Liberty

The group, which claims to be about “parent rights,” has ties to the January 6 insurrection and is expected to provide “foot soldiers” for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Moms for Liberty (M4L) claims the organization was started by moms.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

But it is hard to believe that three mothers in Florida could start up a grassroots group on January 1, 2021, and then, within a matter of weeks and months, wind up on Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson’s show, Glenn Beck, and Fox News. However, there is a shadowy network of money and influence in right-wing political circles that could arrange that easily.

Among M4L’s financial supporters and profile boosters are some of the most influential organizations, media operations, and wealthy donors in the vast theater of the right-wing propaganda machine.

And it would be a mistake to believe M4L’s agenda is exclusively about maternal concerns over what children learn in schools. Instead, most of the organization’s purported success seems to be in helping to advance a much broader right-wing political agenda through electoral politics. In its short history, M4L has already been credited with helping to engineer a “massive victory,” according to Salon, and ensuring a string of wins for a number of Republican candidates in school board elections across Florida.

Looking ahead at the upcoming elections, M4L is expected to provide the “foot soldiers” for the reelection bid of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and many also expect to see the M4L soldiering for DeSantis in the 2024 presidential race.

The Rise of Moms for Liberty

Moms for Liberty was inaugurated on January 1, 2021, and filed as an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation—a “social welfare” group structure that allows it substantial leeway to participate in politics, including taking unlimited sums of dark money and dispensing those dollars in support of favored candidates.

M4L was born into a full-scale right-wing media rollout. As Olivia Little of Media Matters reported in July 2022, M4L debuted on The Rush Limbaugh Show in January 2021—right out of the cradle. M4L representatives have since appeared “on Fox News at least 16 times and Steve Bannon’s War Room at least 14 times,” according to Little. As her reporting and my own investigation in April 2021 indicated, M4L initially had practically no members or state infrastructure. But appearances on Fox and fawning treatment in right-wing outlets like Breitbart News and Glenn Beck propelled its growth.

By June 11, 2021, M4L threw a fundraiser called “Fearless: An Evening with Megyn Kelly,” the former Fox News celebrity. The highest-priced ticket of $20,000 for the “presenting sponsor” included 20 tickets to a meet-and-greet along with a photo with Megyn Kelly and came with many other benefits. There were other offers that included lesser benefits for donors making contributions of $15,000 or $10,000 and the general admission was $50.

On January 14 and 15, 2022, M4L co-hosted the “American Dream Conference” in Franklin, Tennessee, featuring musicians like Larry Gatlin and John Rich. Weekend tickets went for $100. The keynote speaker was former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretary Ben Carson.

M4L’s grandest event thus far has been its national summit, which took place between July 14 and 17, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. The national summit featured speeches by DeSantis, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, Carson, former Florida Governor and current U.S. Senator Rick Scott, and Trump’s former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who advocated for the abolition of the department she had led, according to Florida Phoenix.

The highest-priced sponsorship for the national summit was a presenting sponsor that had a $50,000 price tag. That sold out, but eager moms could purchase and become sponsors by paying anything between $2,500 and $30,000.

M4L isn’t just in the conference business. It has an actively managed social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. M4L has registered three federal political action committees, one of them is a Super PAC, and also has a registered Florida political action committee. According to an IRS search, 79 501(c)(4) nonprofits have registered across the country as Moms for Liberty affiliates.

‘We Do Sell a Lot of T-Shirts’

Operating such sophisticated undertakings takes a lot of money, contacts, organizational capacity, resources, and expertise. Yet when a reporter for the 74 asked who is funding M4L, co-founder of the organization Tina Descovich said, “We do sell a lot of T-shirts,” adding that money received from these sales was the “biggest funding source” for the organization.

In a July 20, 2022 C-Span appearance, Descovich added that the organization received some additional funding for the national summit in the $2,500-$5,000 range from conservative organizations, but stuck with the narrative about most of the funding coming from T-shirt sales.

During the interview, she also suggested that M4L was working on its Form 990; these charitable tax returns that eventually become public, are expected to help provide financial information about the organization. But the forms eventually submitted convey little information and provide almost no details about donors.

In April 2022, Newsweek reported co-founders Descovich and Tiffany Justice admitting, “They recently got some bigger donations from more prominent sources, though they’re happy to keep them a secret for as long as they’re legally able to [do] so.”

Nonetheless, some information about the funders has emerged. In June 2022, Moms for Liberty Florida’s political action committee took a $50,000 contribution from Publix heiress Julie Fancelli, Politico reported. Fancelli provided $300,000 in funding to the January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally, according to Daily Mail, a contribution brokered by Infowars radio host Alex Jones.

Moms for Liberty and the Council for National Policy

In Descovich’s C-Span appearance, a caller asked her whether M4L was getting funding from the Council for National Policy (CNP) or from Charles Koch. Koch and CNP are two of the most prominent funding networks behind various right-wing causes. Descovich denied receiving any direct Koch money and professed to be unfamiliar with CNP. But there is substantial evidence that CNP has been vital to M4L’s rise.

“The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by a group of televangelists, Western oligarchs, and Republican strategists to capitalize on Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory the previous year,” wrote journalist and author Anne Nelson, for the Washington Spectator. “Operating from the shadows, its members, who would number some 400, spent the next four decades courting, buying, and bullying fellow Republicans, gradually achieving what was in effect a leveraged buyout of the GOP.”

In her 2019 book, Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Nelson exposed the CNP as combining vast sums of conservative money, Christian nationalists and their communications networks, and activist groups like the National Rifle Association into a powerful organization. Among the CNP’s wish list of policy preferences, according to Nelson, is taking down public education and replacing it with privatized schools that practice religious-based indoctrination.

M4L’s connections to the CNP and its many network nodes are numerous. Betsy DeVos, who spoke at the M4L’s national summit, and members of her family, have “supported” CNP, according to Rolling Stone. A 2014 CNP membership directory that the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained and posted online in 2016 does not list Betsy DeVos but does include her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, as a member of the CNP board of governors and among its “Gold Circle Members.”

The other co-host of the American Dream conference M4L helped throw, the Be the People Project, was founded by Carol Swain, a CNP member, according to a recent CNP membership directory Documented posted in 2022.

Other connections between M4L and CNP run through the Leadership Institute (LI), an educational foundation. LI is an affiliate of CNP, and LI president Morton Blackwell is a member and founder of CNP, according to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). According to the institute website, LI “prepares conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media,” and it “has trained more than 250,000 students.”

LI was the largest donor for M4L’s 2022 national summit and the sole known $50,000 presenting sponsor, and attendees of the summit could join LI campaign trainings, WUSF Public Media reported.

Other connections M4L has to CNP have come through the organization’s many associations with other organizations and individuals in the conservative movement.

The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America were sponsors of M4L’s national summit. The Heritage Foundation was also a “meeting sponsor” of CNP’s 2022 annual conference, according to an agenda obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy. A description of a session led by the Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts stated that the foundation has been “a core partner of the Council for National Policy from the start, and Heritage president Kevin Roberts is on the CNP board of governors.”

In 2022 the Heritage Foundation awarded its annual Henry Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship to M4L. M4L leaders presented at Heritage forums in 2021 and 2022. The organization also features materials from both Heritage and LI on its website in addition to recommending the book, The Making of America by the late W. Cleon Skousen, a former CNP member, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Another thread on the web linking M4L to CNP connects to Turning Point USA (TPUSA), according to the CMD’s Sourcewatch website. Turning Point USA, according to Sourcewatch, is a conservative youth and student group funded by right-wing donors that “has faced numerous allegations of racial discrimination.” It has operated the Professor Watchlist to expose what it considers to be radically left college and university professors and now operates a School Board Watchlist to do the same for local school boards. TPUSA was an M4L National Summit participant, NBC News reported, and its president Charlie Kirk is a CNP member, according to Wikipedia.

M4L’s frequent ally Parents Defending Education, a $5,000 bronze sponsor of the national summit, is headed by veteran Koch operative Nicole Neily. Charles Koch, while not a CNP member, has had plenty of cross-influence with CNP and recently increased his clout within the group, according to Anne Nelson.

It is not clear when the ties between M4L and CNP and LI started, but in July 2022, still early in M4L’s formation, Dylan Craig, digital marketing coordinator for LI, wrote on the institute’s website that “[M4L] got advice from my boss, Morton Blackwell, and used Leadership Institute trainings and sheer determination to quickly become a national force.”

Craig also boasted about the role LI had in running the M4L national summit: “I’m proud to say Leadership Institute partnered with Moms for Liberty and supported the Summit as the top sponsor, official photographers/videographers, trainers, and all-around support. LI held training for attendees on Candidate Vetting, Grassroots Lobbying, Communications, Running for Office, Strategic Research, Vote Goals, and four hours of Media Training. Now, 150 more conservatives are trained to advance their principles in their local communities.”

Marie Rogerson, who serves on the M4L executive board and is M4L’s director of program development, is a graduate of LI, according to an interview with her on the institute’s website.

M4L’s Connections to January 6

Perhaps unsurprisingly, M4L’s many connections in the right-wing cosmos lead to white nationalists, election denialists, and those who took part in the January 6 insurrection. First, there is the $50,000 gift M4L got from Julie Fancelli, who funded the rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol. But there are other ties.

Alexis Spiegelman, who is, according to her LinkedIn page, M4L’s Florida legislative chair and Sarasota County chapter chair, entered into an arrangement with conservative political consultant Roger Stone, one of the organizers of the “Stop the Steal” event that preceded the riot at the Capitol, to pressure Senator Rick Scott to challenge Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, according to Florida Politics.

CNP member Charlie Kirk bragged on Twitter about sending 80 buses to the January 6 rally, according to Daily Dot. He later deleted the tweet.

“As early as February 2020, the CNP and its advisers were already anticipating various strategies to overturn the results of the election in the event of the loss of either the popular vote or the Electoral College, or both,” Anne Nelson reported for the Washington Spectator.

A chief organizer of the “Stop the Steal” campaign that brought Trump proponents to the Capitol on January 6, Ali Alexander, was “sometimes known as ‘Ali Akbar,’ the name he was listed under as a member of the CNP [in] 2017 and 2018 rosters,” according to Nelson.

After the election results confirmed a Biden win, CNP operatives gathered at a special meeting from November 12 to 14 to organize how to overturn the results in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, according to Nelson. “On December 10, CNP’s Conservative Action Project published a letter stating, ‘There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election,’” Nelson reported, and “CNP affiliates took action on a local level,” to call on Trump supporters to descend on Washington, D.C.

“The CNP’s affiliates were by no means acting alone in attempting to overturn the results of the election,” Nelson conceded, but, “What is irrefutable is that members of the CNP and their circle exerted their influence and manipulated their followers to support Trump’s lies about the stolen election and his effort to derail the electoral process.”

Foot Soldiers for DeSantis

An even closer connection between M4L and January 6 runs through Christian Ziegler, husband of M4L co-founder Bridget Ziegler and vice chair of the Florida Republican Party.

Christian Ziegler was at the Capitol on January 6, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, although he said he watched the scene from afar and, “didn’t see anyone breaking stuff.”

The Zieglers also provide a primary conduit of influence linking to Florida Governor DeSantis and his strong-arming of the state’s education policies.

Bridget Ziegler, who was the third co-founder of M4L, stepped down from her leadership position in the organization in February 2021, but spoke at the national summit and remains active. She also helped write, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Florida’s Parents’ Bills of Rights, aka the Don’t Say Gay law, that bans instruction of LGBTQ topics in grades K-3 in schools, gives parents more leeway in filing lawsuits against public school curriculum, and requires schools to divulge to parents when their children use mental health services, according to the Washington Post.

Bridget Ziegler won reelection to the Sarasota County School Board in 2022. Vice News reported that she and another M4L-supported candidate were photographed at an election night celebration with two members of the extremist Proud Boys, “one of whom posed flashing the OK sign, a known white-power dog whistle.”

Her political action committee received a $10,000 donation from Caroline Wetherington, who is a CNP member and co-founder of Women for Trump, according to CMD. Wetherington attended the January 6 rally in Washington, according to CBS Los Angeles, and heads a group called Defend Florida “which helped coordinate an April rally featuring Michael Flynn and Roger Stone that attracted white nationalists, [and] claims to have 5,571 affidavits alleging ‘voting irregularities’ across Florida,” according to Axios Tampa Bay.

Shortly after her school board election victory, Bridget Ziegler was hired by the Leadership Institute to be the director of the organization’s school board programs, SRQ20 reported. She will retain her position on the Sarasota board, according to that source.

Christian Ziegler gave away the politics of M4L to the Washington Post suggesting, as the Post put it, that he expected M4L to “become foot soldiers” for DeSantis’s reelection campaign. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party,” he said, “and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. … But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”

Governor DeSantis has made “clear” that M4L—an operation that was not even in existence until he was halfway through his first term—“is a key part of [his] strategy” to replace nonpartisan local school board members with advocates of a decidedly right-wing political agenda, reported TCPalm.

Making endorsements in local school board races is unusual for a traditionally nonpartisan office, but at M4L’s national summit, his wife Casey DeSantis told the audience that the governor’s endorsement could elevate the name recognition critical to an electoral success of M4L-backed candidates “and [open] up potential resources to help that candidate run a successful campaign,” according to Florida Politics.

In turn, DeSantis has made a concerted effort to advance prominent members of M4L and promote the interests of the organization. He appointed to the Florida Board of Education Esther Byrd, a “Moms for Liberty member known for making social media posts supportive of the Capitol insurrection and being photographed on a boat flying the QAnon flag,” according to the 74.

Politico reported, DeSantis “handpicked to amplify his criticism of critical race theory” M4L Miami chapter chair Eulalia Maria Jimenez who has “espoused views aligned with QAnon conspiracy theories and appears to support those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.”

When PayPal suspended M4L from its services, Florida’s Voice reported that DeSantis came to the organization’s rescue, threatening to punish “‘woke’ banking.” PayPal unfroze M4L’s account.

When M4L presented DeSantis with an award at its national summit, co-founder Justice remarked that she had spoken to mothers across the country who “cannot wait to vote for him for president,” Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Given the M4L’s 501(c)(4) dark money operations have already been established across the nation, including in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s reasonable to believe these operations will be part of DeSantis’s plan to run for president.

One of CNP’s ‘Obedient Franchises’

The Council for National Policy, and much of the conservative movement it has so successfully commandeered, has made it unmistakable that it wants to destroy public education and privatize schooling. CNP has designs to educate children outside of public schools in order to reorient education toward Christian nationalism and transform the culture of the nation. To do this, CNP knows it must break the teachers’ unions.

Moms for Liberty may prove to be a useful agent for furthering that goal. Following an article by the conservative National Review blaming teachers for falling test scores during the COVID-19 crisis, M4L blasted an email, which Our Schools has a copy of, to media organizations amplifying the message, and M4L leaders Justice and Descovich have adopted right-wing bumper stickers for “parents to fire the unions,” according to the email, and have taken to calling teachers and their unions “the K-12 cartel,” a term straight out of the conservative lexicon authored by the movement’s most prominent advocacy organizations.

The “moms” who founded and lead M4L have a mission, but they aren’t really founders of anything new. Instead, like many other right-wing conservative operations, they are agents of those at CNP with money, religious fervor, and political connections. To borrow a term from Anne Nelson’s book, Moms for Liberty appears to be one of CNP’s “obedient franchises.”

Author Bio: Maurice Cunningham PhD, JD, retired in 2021 as an associate professor of political science at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

Parents like their public schools, no matter how much the charter school movement tells them not to

Branding public schools as “failed” institutions is more about politics than education.

Who would have imagined that after the past two tumultuous years, when so much was written and said about how the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had convinced American parents that public schools were “failing” institutions, that as the 2022-2023 school year begins, “Americans’ ratings of their community’s public schools reached a new high dating back 48 years.” That’s the stunning finding in the highly respected annual survey conducted by PDK.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

The finding aligns with a history of survey results showing parents are generally pleased with the public schools their children attend. Even during the height of the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, Gallup reported that parent satisfaction with local schools declined only slightly, and “more than seven in 10 parents” still expressed satisfaction.

Puzzling over this phenomenon, Chalkbeat national reporter Matt Barnum judged the widespread assumption of parent dissatisfaction with local public schools to be one among a number of “common, fear-inducing claims about the state of American schooling [that] are inaccurate or unproven.” He concluded, “It’s not entirely clear what’s going on.”

In an attempt to explain what’s going on, education historian Jack Schneider noted that while most parents rate the schools their own children attend highly, with 70 percent assigning their schools a grade of A or B, a similar percentage grade schools in general C or D.

In considering what might be causing this “perception gap,” Schnider argued, “One obvious factor is the rise of a national politics of education.”

Indeed, as Schneider explained, prominent Republicans have long made public education a whipping post going back to at least the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Anti-public education rhetoric coming from the right has only grown more intense in recent years.

Betsy DeVos, former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, became infamous, in part, for making disparaging comments about public schools and for having once called public schools “a dead end.”

Since DeVos’s tenure, Republican criticism of public education has escalated from cryptic commentary to shrill calls for ending the public system altogether.

As Amanda Marcotte reported for Salon, the conservative Fox News network has for years engaged in a campaign to convince viewers that public schools are “a scary place turning their grandkids into self-loathing sexual perverts,” all for the purpose of rolling out its ultimate message that, “It’s time to end public education entirely.”

While “conservatives have long sought to undermine public education” and “strip the public treasury bare with private school vouchers,” wrote Matt Gertz at Media Matters for America, “Fox News hosts have begun calling for the wholesale destruction of the K-12 public school system.”

“Republicans don’t want to reform public education. They want to end it,” read the headline of an article by Kathryn Joyce on how recent education policies enacted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, including crackdowns on public school social studies curriculum and expansions of the state’s voucher program, are “a naked attack on the very existence of public schools” that is “piloting a new education ideology for Republicans.”

So, obviously, when one of two major political parties conducts a decades-long, scorched earth campaign to disparage, and even call for the destruction of public schools, it’s little wonder that a fairly large percentage of parents might have widespread negative perceptions of schools, regardless of what their own experiences have been.

But Schneider went on to explain that, “The biggest factor shaping the perception divide, however, may be data.” By “data,” what Schneider meant was the readily available and widely publicized standardized achievement test scores that come from annual tests that are mandated by the federal government since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. The scores, which are widely reported, can leave those with little training in how to interpret them a perception of school performance “that is incomplete and inaccurate,” according to Schneider.

Another form of “data” Schneider didn’t mention that likely plays an outsize role in shaping public perceptions of schools are the various school accountability systems that states now employ to rank and grade schools and districts. These school rating systems draw heavily from the test scores Schneider spotlighted and often combine them with other data, such as graduation and student suspension rates, into a single score or letter grade.

Critics of these accountability systems say they are “misleading,”“confusing,” or that they mostly reflect student demographics rather than genuine school performance.

Although it’s not yet clear how these ratings will be affected by the impact of COVID, at least one state, North Carolina, has reported that since the state resumed its ratings, after suspending them during the height of COVID-19 infections, an additional 543 schools slid into D- or F-rated status.

Because school ratings are highly visible, they can exert a strong influence on public perceptions of schools, whether or not they represent accurate assessments of school performance. And a closer look at these systems shows how they work to discredit public schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students, and often help to further political agendas rather than guide good policy decisions.

More Than a Score

Although No Child Left Behind was rewritten in 2015, its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires that each state establish a school accountability rating system that differentiates schools based on a number of performance indicators and use this information to identify schools that need improvement.

While each state can design its own report card, these rating systems share a common feature: They collapse multiple school performance measures into a summative rating.

Some rating systems employ five-scale schemes, such as A-F grades or 5 stars. Others use a composite index scale (such as, 1-100 ratings) or “descriptive” rankings that, for example, range from “exemplary school” to “lowest performing.” California’s rating system, which is unique because it displays multiple indicators on a “dashboard,” does not include an overall summative rating for each school, but it does include summative ratings for each of the indicators it tracks.

On the surface, summative ratings are attractive as a policy instrument because they appear to provide concise and easily understood measures of school quality.

However, collapsing various indicators into a composite score may act to obscure a great deal of information about variations in school performance. It can also hide a political agenda.

Revise the System to Make It Even Tougher

Within the federal accountability framework, states are allowed to design their rating systems and make changes to accountability formulas that affect school ratings while not necessarily reflecting changes in school performance. This leeway given to the states provides state policymakers huge loopholes to manipulate their ratings in ways that radically alter results.

For example, after Oklahoma initiated its first A-F school report card system in 2011, it tweaked the accountability formula in 2013. The tweak led to a drastic change in school performance grades. As a result of the formula change, according to a 2016 analysis, the number of C schools in 2011-2012 dropped from 21 percent to 5 percent in 2012-2013, and the number of F schools in 2011-2012 increased from 8 percent to 53 percent in 2012-2013, even though school demographics remained similar, and average math and reading achievement were stable.

Why would Oklahoma lawmakers want to change the state’s school accountability rating to create more F-rated schools?

An answer to that question perhaps emerged in 2016 after the state made yet another change to its school rating formula that again drastically changed the schools’ A-F letter grades. As the Norman Transcript reported, the formula change resulted in 40 percent of public schools receiving an A or B grade, down from 57 percent in 2012, and nearly 30 percent getting a D or F grade, compared to 8 percent in 2012, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE).

When asked why the sudden change occurred, FEE policy analyst Christy Hovanetz, said, “The flip-flop from top performers to under-performers reflects a ‘fairly rigorous’ grading system.” “[L]awmakers,” she said, “have continued to revise the system to make it even tougher.”

Making school accountability systems “tougher” can have negative consequences for schools, especially in Oklahoma, where schools with grades of D or F are subject to mandatory interventions that may include having their staffs reconfigured, having their management transferred to a charter school organization, or being shut down outright.

It’s telling that the policy analyst hailing the “tougher” rating system in Oklahoma works for FEE. That organization, which has since changed its name to Excel in Ed, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch project, was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2008, shortly after he finished his tenure in office, and subsequently led by him for a number of years.

Excel in Ed’s philosophy on accountability is perhaps best summed up in a PowerPoint presentation that Hovenetz gave to North Carolina state lawmakers in 2019 in which she said, “Accountability itself does not improve student outcomes, but the data it produces should inspire action that will improve student outcomes.”

While Bush was governor, Florida was the first state to enact a grade A-F school rating system, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and during his tenure, his administration made a series of changes to the rating formula that caused vast differences in outcomes.

During the early years of Florida’s new school grading system, according to Matt Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute, the percentage of schools receiving A’s rose from 12 percent of schools in 1999 to 60 percent in 2008, and there was a significant drop in the percentage of schools receiving grades of D or F.

However, Di Carlo found, “The grades changed in part because the [rating] criteria changed.”

Specifically, according to Di Carlo’s analysis, “The vast majority of these shifts occurred either between 1999 and 2000, or between 2001 and 2003. … This pattern is mostly a direct result of changes to the [rating] system in those years.”

While there may be many plausible explanations for why state officials in Oklahoma and Florida would change their states’ rating systems, it’s undeniable that the changes could have fed into political agendas.

When rating formulas were being rejiggered in Oklahoma, the governor at the time, Mary Fallin, was pushing for the state to enact education savings accounts, a form of school vouchers, and likely understood that toughening the state’s school rating system would make public schools look like worse choices for parents.

In Florida, it’s not hard to imagine that Bush had some motivation to tweak the state’s school ratings system to create more A-rated schools as he prepared, both in his ensuing consulting business with Excel in Ed and his eventual run for president, that it would be advantageous to tout Florida’s school reform effort, which he led, as “a model for the nation.”

Politics Versus Performance

There’s other evidence that state school rating systems often reflect personal and ideological preferences of state leaders.

In Indiana, in 2012, the Washington Post reported, State Superintendent Tony Bennett instructed staffers to take advantage of a loophole in the state’s system to alter the rating of a charter school, founded by a campaign donor, by eliminating the scores of some student groups. The change raised the school’s original rating from a C to an A. Bennett, who had moved on to become the state school superintendent in Florida, subsequently resigned.

States with a more liberal orientation, one study has shown, are more likely to incorporate indicators related to school quality and indicators of student success, such as growth measures, while states with a more conservative-leaning maintain a focus on student test scores.

Another study examining the role of historical and political context in shaping assessment policy in Nebraska and Virginia found that the political culture in both states strongly influenced their assessment systems.

In Nebraska, a historical culture rooted in local action and collaboration influenced the design process, resulting in more local support for its implementation and delaying a shift to a state standardized assessment system in favor of local assessments.

In contrast, Virginia, with a tradition of centralization and top-down accountability, implemented a top-down policy model that emphasized standardized testing and constrained resources and opportunities for policy transformation at lower policy levels.

Questionable Educational Value

While school rating systems may be a practical means to a political end, their educational value is questionable.

Despite the proliferation of school rating systems, there is very little peer-reviewed, empirical research on their effects on student performance and school and teacher practices.

Among the studies that have been done, however, there’s evidence that collapsing multiple school performance measures into a summative rating or score is an especially poor indicator of school quality and does not sort out schools with high and equitable achievement from schools with high average achievement and large achievement gaps.

For example, yet another study of Oklahoma’s A-F rating system examined whether the system had an impact on the state’s policy agenda to close the wide gap in test scores between students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program (a measurement of poverty) and students with a minority status compared to their better-off, white peers. The study found that “gaps moved in a direction opposite from what would be desired of an accountability system that measured achievement equity.” The report concluded, “A composite letter grade provides very little meaningful information about achievement differences.”

Summative ratings also tend to obscure the well-documented relationship between student achievement scores and demographic variables, most notably race and socioeconomic status.

An analysis of the Maryland five-star rating system, for instance, examined why no high-poverty schools earned a five-star rating, but when the researchers adjusted ratings to account for economic disadvantage, the number of five-star schools increased.

An analysis of California’s school dashboard rating system found that, despite all its nuance, “schools can earn strong overall ratings even if subgroup performance is poor”—subgroup being a catchall phrase for specific populations of students, such as low-income, Black, and Hispanic students or students who have a learning disability or don’t speak English well.

This inability of summative school ratings to distinguish school performance from student demographic variances disproportionally harms schools serving marginalized children and inflates the quality of schools serving wealthy and white students.

If scores cannot sort out schools with high and equitable achievement from schools with high average achievement and large achievement gaps, they create inaccurate judgments about school quality and unfairly sanction some schools while not holding other schools accountable.

Where Are the Democrats?

Because state school rating systems that use summative scores drawn from student test scores are unlikely to take into account the variability in student learning experiences, policymakers need to design an accountability system that does a better job of taking into account differences in schools.

For instance, an important aspect of school performance that is missing from state accountability systems are the various inputs that are critical to students’ learning experiences, including access to curriculum, diversity of textbooks, adequate staffing, and the availability of high-quality materials, equipment, technology, and facilities.

The expansion of rating systems to include inputs, often referred to as opportunity to learn standards, could provide a more nuanced appraisal of school performance.

However, since accountability is in part a political process, it is not clear that technical fixes can lead to systems that are more reliable, fairer, or more valid.

Which begs the question of where Democrats are on this issue.

While Republicans’ education messaging has been on a slippery slope from disparagement to destruction, Democrats have generally remained stuck in a compromise—forged with Republicans during the enactment of No Child Left Behind, and renewed with ESSA—that support and funding for public education needs to be balanced with “accountability.”

Democrats’ calls for schools to be accountable for “results,” based exclusively on student test scores and state report card ratings, have to a great extent contributed to the Republican campaign to continually disparage public schools. Even in the bluest states, public schools that are labeled failure, with whatever the preferred moniker happens to be, convey to parents that the education system isn’t working, and alternative education providers, such as charter and private schools, need to be accelerated.

But it’s not too late for Democrats to turn that dynamic around. A good start would be to call out Republicans for manipulating state school rating systems in order to advance their political agendas. Democrats could also propose adequate fixes to these systems so they’re more useful to their policy purposes. Or they could propose getting rid of them altogether. But the status quo on state school ratings has to go.

Author Bio: Gail Sunderman, PhD, is co-founder and former director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland, a research and policy center focused on access to educational opportunities in Maryland.

How community schools can revitalize the neighborhoods around them

The transformative approach to school improvement is a catalyst for community revival.

When Darlene Kamine tells the story about Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio, she also likes to tell the story about the house across the street from the school.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

Kamine and the group she leads, the Community Learning Center Institute (CLCI), have played leading roles in the startling comeback of Oyler School, which is a pre-K through grade 12 school that sits at the center of Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill (LPH) neighborhood. The historic district west of downtown became a destination for Appalachian families looking for factory work, “[w]hen coal mining jobs in Kentucky and West Virginia declined after World War II,” reported Amy Scott for Contexts, a peer-reviewed academic journal. But since the 1980s, the district “has seen a severe decline in population, businesses, and investment,” according to the LPH Resurgency Plan, a civic planning document approved by the Cincinnati City Council in 2019. “[S]uburban sprawl and economic decline had devastating effects on the neighborhood,” making LPH “one of the poorest neighborhoods in the City of Cincinnati,” noted the plan.

When Kamine and her organization began working with Oyler in 2009, 85 percent of the students weren’t making it through 10th grade, she said. Today, the school has a 92.7 percent graduation rate, and 70 percent of graduates go to college, despite the district’s continued high poverty rate.

Kamine credits much of the success to two things: a $21 million investment into refurbishing the aged, well-worn school building and the implementation of a school improvement approach called community schools.

Transforming Public Schools Into Community Hubs

The community schools approach, according to Kamine, relies on transforming public schools into community hubs of educational, recreational, cultural, health, and civic partnerships, which work in unison to improve the conditions for student learning and family and community well-being. The approach requires local school decision-making committees to assess the needs of the school, select the appropriate partnerships, and ensure that the desired outcomes are financially self-sustaining.

At Oyler, implementing the community schools approach resulted in the school providing “a health clinic staffed by a nurse practitioner, a vision center where children can get free eye exams and glasses, a dental clinic, and mental health counselors,” Scott stated in her 2015 article. “Kids can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school, and bring home food for the weekends. Enrichment programs include college advising, after-school activities, and a large network of volunteer tutors and mentors. All these partnerships are self-sustaining. The school provides the space; the organizations tap their own budgets or bill Medicaid for their services.”

Due to the success of Oyler and other schools like it, more Cincinnati schools have caught on to the community schools approach. CLCI now works with six schools, and the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) district, whose community schools effort dates back to 2002, says 44 of its 65 total schools are “community learning centers,” the district’s preferred term for schools using this approach.

Since its adoption of the community school’s approach, CPS has become Ohio’s “highest-ranked urban school district,” according to Greg Anrig, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. In a 2015 article in Educational Leadership, Anrig wrote, “Cincinnati’s test scores went from being on a par with those of other struggling school districts… to breaking away from the pack. In 2009-10, Cincinnati became the first city to receive effective ratings on the Ohio District Report Card… even as poverty rates increased in the city.”

“CPS consistently ranks No. 1 among Ohio’s eight large urban school districts,” WCPO 9 reported in 2016. “That means when compared to Ohio’s other seven large urban districts—Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown—CPS is actually the best of the bunch.”

But Kamine wants people to know the community schools approach’s success story in Cincinnati is not just about what goes on in schools. “Schools can create the conditions for learning within their schools,” she said, “but they can’t be islands in their neighborhoods.”

‘Where Community Revitalization Starts’

Even as positive change started to take root at Oyler, students and parents wanted to do something about the dilapidated, abandoned house across the street from the school. “The house had become a constant reminder to the Oyler community that, ‘You are not yet worthy,’” Kamine said, and teachers and school staff realized something had to be done about it.

Their first step was to get a grant to purchase and renovate the house. Then, based on conversations with the Oyler community and nearby homeowners, a decision was made to make the house into an extension of the school’s campus to provide a meeting space, a food pantry, and classes in home ownership and maintenance and other educational topics.

Now known as Oyler House, the renovated structure, which “had once been a symbol of the blight that has plagued the neighborhood for decades,” instead “conveys hope” about where the community is heading, according to the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation, a landbank that returns vacant properties to productive use.

In addition to renovating Oyler House, CLCI has helped start housing initiatives in Lower Price Hill and elsewhere, including urban homesteading, affordable rental housing, and renovations of old historic homes that had been abandoned or poorly maintained. According to Kamine, these initiatives have eliminated homelessness in all CLCI-assisted schools, and 30 families are currently in the pipeline to buy new homes.

“The progress at these schools has attracted three companies to move into these communities, which has brought 350 new jobs,” Kamine said, and school improvements have catalyzed other neighborhood improvements, including new streetscapes with sidewalks and lighting.

“Schools are good places for where community revitalization starts,” she said, “because they have buildings that [are in] close proximity to families, and schools are already where the kids are.”

New Academic Pathways for Student Learning

Grant Schuster tells a similar story about a school in Anaheim, California, whose success with the community schools approach became the catalyst for revitalizing the surrounding community.

According to Schuster, who is president of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association, the Anaheim Union High School District officially adopted the community schools approach in 2020 when it announced the hiring of a community school coordinator for two of its schools, Anaheim Union High School and Sycamore Junior High School.

But the idea had taken hold in the district years earlier when the district was awarded grant money to recruit a steering committee to explore the adoption of the approach and rewrite school policies and job descriptions to encompass the community schools philosophy, including providing students with wraparound services and an inclusive curriculum that allowed for potential new academic pathways for student learning.

In Magnolia High School, one such pathway opened when students, nearly all of whom qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, started asking teachers why the neighborhood surrounding the school had so many liquor stores but no grocery stores.

Those discussions led to learning about food deserts, why they are so often a feature of low-income communities, and how the issue connects to social justice, environmental science, and sustainable agricultural practices.

Then, teachers and students worked with school leaders to expand their inquiries into creating the school’s own agriscience community center. Working with local officials and nonprofits, the school acquired a 2.5-acre plot of land for the students to learn how to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables, not only for their own school meals but also for distributing to the surrounding community.

‘A Ripple Effect’

“When a school is successful, it has a ripple effect on the surrounding community,” said Allen Weeks. Weeks, who is the executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, helped spearhead successful community schools reform at Webb Middle School and Reagan High School in Austin, Texas.

Reagan High School is now called Northeast Early College High School after a name change taking place during the 2019-2020 school year, but in 2008, the once-proud school built in the 1960s had become gradually surrounded by Austin’s most drug-infested neighborhood, according to Weeks. “Every system at [the school] had broken down,” he said, and the school was being threatened with closure.

“Saving Reagan [now Northeast] became a community focus,” according to Weeks, and educators at the school began looking into the community schools approach as a strategy for turning the school around.

Their first step was to get funding from the district to attend a community schools conference in Portland, Oregon, where they learned how to implement the approach at their school. Also, Northeast school leaders worked with district leaders to form committees consisting of a wide range of stakeholders in the community to determine major areas to address.

Those committees identified 11 major areas to work on, including the school’s high mobility rate—with high proportions of the students coming and going from the school, often in midyear—and the need to start a family resource center at the school. The center quickly developed 30 partnerships with local nonprofits to provide access to services such as mobile health clinics, mental health services, parenting classes, and after-school programs for students.

A year after opening the resource center, mobility rates at Northeast Early College High School dropped by a third, according to Weeks, the school doubled enrollment, and graduation rates improved from 48 percent to 98 percent in five years. More recently, the school partnered with a local community college to offer courses that enable the students at Northeast to earn credits toward an associate’s degree before they graduate high school.

With Northeast showing signs of a turnaround, Weeks and the educators at the school worked with the city to develop a comprehensive plan for the surrounding community, which spurred the city to create a new park for the neighborhood and build more affordable housing near the school.

“[Northeast Early College High School] and Webb Middle School are still Austin’s poorest schools with the highest [population of students who have English as a second language],” said Weeks, “but these schools now have a foundation to build on. … [Both the schools’] services touch 25,000 families every year, with 7,000 people receiving direct assistance with a range of services, including assistance with housing, utilities, rent, and employment.”

‘Very Slow Work’

None of this is to say that these schools’ continued success with the community schools approach is virtually assured.

“Solving the problems of impoverished communities is very slow work,” said Weeks, “and too often school leaders put three years into a change effort only to abandon it for something different. But the community schools approach makes school leaders increase their attention spans and create a stronger foundation for change that is more sustainable.”

“The community schools strategy demonstrates how schools serve as a foundation to the community,” Schuster said, “because, through the strategy, students, parents, educators, and community members tell district and community leaders what they want to see in their school and the surrounding community. It’s an alternative to the old, patriarchal model for delivering education.”

“Our schools still don’t have all the resources affluent schools in the suburbs have,” said Kamine, “and we know that not all of our graduating seniors are yet able to hold their own in college. But improving the schools shows that people care about a community and helps people in the community see that progress is possible.”

Author Bio: 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.

Community schools could be the ultimate tool for addressing education inequity

A district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs may foretell whether a transformative approach to school improvement can address longstanding opportunity gaps in education.

When Tiffany Allen and her husband first moved to a house in Montgomery County, Maryland, their plan was not to stay in the neighborhood for very long because the school their two young children would eventually be assigned to attend was Wheaton Woods Elementary. The school had a mixed reputation among parents in the neighborhood, she told Our Schools. It was designated a Title I status by the federal government, meaning its enrollment was mostly for students who struggle the most in schools—namely, children from low-income households. The school’s students were mostly Hispanic, and many of the children come from homes where the parents don’t speak English, according to Allen. The school had a middling summary rating of 6 out of 10 stars on Great Schools, the school rating site many parents rely on for choosing schools, and the test scores of Wheaton Woods were no better than the state average, according to the site. Even her husband, a school teacher in neighboring Howard County, was skeptical about the quality of education that would be provided by the school.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

“Especially because my kids are African American,” Allen said, “I wanted them to have the best education opportunities they can have and give them access to whatever they need to neutralize the systemic effects of being Black children in a society that often discriminates against those children.”

Allen had attended a private school in the elementary grades, but had attended a Montgomery County high school, which she eventually graduated from, that was known as “the worst” high school in the county, according to her. That education experience left her “feeling segregated from most of the families in the county,” she said.

Montgomery County, which consists of a sprawl of suburbs to the north of Washington, D.C., is majority white, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 59 percent of its adults aged 25 or older completed a bachelor’s degree or higher between 2016 and 2020. Median household income is almost six figures, making Montgomery County “one of the wealthiest counties in the United States,” according to the county government website.

But Allen, who works as a social worker for the county, knew all too well there were pockets of poverty in the district, and she was leery about having her children educated in one of them. So when her oldest daughter became old enough to attend kindergarten, Allen somewhat reluctantly enrolled her at Wheaton Woods, with the reassurance that she would be there “only for a few years.”

As the 2022-2023 school year approaches, both her daughters are enrolled in Wheaton Woods, and Allen has had a change of heart about the school.

“I’m grateful now that we gave Wheaton Woods a try. I now feel we have our kids in the best school for them, and I always advocate for the school,” she said.

What helped turn around Allen’s attitude toward Wheaton Woods had much to do with a recent state-mandated Blueprint in Montgomery County and across Maryland to implement an education approach called community schools.

The Blueprint calls for designating schools that serve highly concentrated populations of impoverished families as “community schools” and providing these schools with extra funding and support.

The extra funding is supposed to be used to hire a health practitioner and a school-based staff person who conducts a needs assessment of the school, and based on that assessment, coordinates and manages a wide range of services—including academic, health, mental, and other services—to help address the negative impact that concentrated poverty often has on children and families.

Nineteen schools in Montgomery County, including Wheaton Woods, have been designated as community schools, according to the district’s website.

Now in its third year of implementing the approach, Wheaton Woods has poured new energy and resources to engage families more deeply in the operations of the school and respond to their needs by providing them with access to new programs and services.

According to Allen, the school is constantly reaching out to parents with surveys, volunteer opportunities, and invitations to participate in committees. There is an active Parent Teacher Association and a parent engagement committee. She serves on the NAACP Parents’ Council. Meetings and communications are carried out in multiple languages to accommodate the high proportion of Hispanic families.

“The school has given our kids so many opportunities,” Allen said.

During the school year, many families participate in a popular after-school program called Excel Beyond the Bell, which is free for qualifying students, and for a modest fee of $5, provides additional learning opportunities to students, including classes in art, Spanish language, and soccer.

During the summer months, students can attend a summer camp that provides sports and recreational activities. The program requires an affordable fee to participate in the camp and includes free bus transportation for children to their homes in the afternoons.

After-school activities are important to Allen’s family because both she and her husband work full time. “Our daily schedules are tight,” she said.

A great deal of the school’s outreach effort is due to the work of Daysi Castro, who serves as the school’s community school coordinator called “liaisons” in Montgomery County.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to offer the services we can now give our families because we are a community school,” Castro told Our Schools.

Many of the services offered by Wheaton Woods are the result of Castro and the school forming partnerships with local nonprofits and county agencies. The Excel Beyond the Bell after-school program Allen mentioned is the result of a partnership with a local community organization Action in Montgomery. The school also collaborates with a local charity, the Children’s Opportunity Fund, to bring soccer, art, and Spanish language classes to students, along with the opportunity to participate in school clubs for homework and cooking classes. Other partnerships offer parents driving classes, English language classes, and food safety classes. The Montgomery County Recreation collaborates with Wheaton Woods to offer after-school activities as well.

“All these programs expose students to experiences they might not [otherwise] have,” Castro said.

While the Allens are just one family, and Wheaton Woods is just one elementary school, others who Our Schools spoke with in Montgomery County believe that the community schools approach may be a solution to a much bigger education issue in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the U.S. public education system.

Addressing the Systemic Issues

Wheaton Woods’ Principal Daman Harris is one of those who believe in the advantages of the community schools approach.

When he was being courted to, initially, take a job as the school’s vice principal, he was aware Wheaton Woods was a school with “greater needs,” he said, because of its performance levels on state tests and its student demographics.

According to Harris, 83 percent of the school’s students qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common measure of poverty, and 55 percent are English language learners. The student population is largely made up of first- and second-generation immigrants from Central and South America along with a significant population from northeast Africa.

In addition to the learning challenges posed by his students, Harris believes there’s a greater challenge posed by a prevailing “belief system” in education, which is the tendency to believe that certain families, like those enrolled in Wheaton Woods, have deficits rather than believe that there’s something wrong with the system.

In trying to “fix” the educational deficiencies of these students, he said that educators and policymakers continue to change the “keywords” they use for the supposed remedies they recommend—promoting, for instance, that schools cultivate their students’ “grit” or “growth mindset”—but they aren’t addressing the systemic issues, like racism and poverty, that thwart some students’ education attainment.

In Montgomery County, a systemic issue that dogs the district’s otherwise highly touted reputation is the yawning gap between how white and Asian students perform on achievement tests compared to their Black and Hispanic peers.

As far back as 2008, the district was divided “into two distinct areas,” one with high-performing schools and the other with low-performing schools, according to Education Week.

In 2019, a report by the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies found that although Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) outperform other Maryland districts with similar levels of students receiving free and reduced meals (FARMs), “not all student groups in MCPS experience this outperformance. Performance gaps still exist both across and within schools, particularly for FARMs students and students of color.”

High-poverty schools in MCPS not only have lower performance levels than low-poverty schools but also the “African American and Hispanic FARMs students who live in poverty but attend more affluent schools do not perform significantly better than their peers in schools with higher concentrations of poverty,” according to the report. “African American and Hispanic FARMs students do not perform substantially better in low-poverty schools.”

When the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) looked at the achievement gap in Montgomery County in 2019, it found the district’s attempts to address those gaps had made virtually no progress since 2015, “the last time the oversight office published a study on achievement gaps,” the Washington Post reported.

“For 50 years, the achievement gap in Montgomery County has grown in the shadows while many of our county’s schools and students garnered well-deserved praise and earned awards,” former MCPS superintendent Jack R. Smith wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post in May 2019. “Despite efforts by county leaders, the gap continued to grow,” he said.

The district administration’s attempts to address these inequities “have been of questionable value,” according to Jennifer Martin, current president of Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), an organization that represents teachers in collective bargaining and contract negotiations. Reforms that adhere to a philosophy of “data-driven” outcomes have been especially harmful, she believes.

“No teacher goes into their position with the intention of being driven by data. We’re not here to fill out spreadsheets. Being data-informed is important. But being student-centered and child-centered is more important,” she said.

Martin, Principal Harris, and others that Our School spoke to about the expansion of the community schools approach agree that it is a viable way to recenter schools on the real needs of students and families that struggle the most with schooling and address the deep inequities that are rife in the public education system.

‘We Weren’t Listening to Our Families’

If the community schools approach is going to have any impact on addressing these long-standing inequities it will only be because of the highly structured process it entails, according to MCPS educators.

Every implementation of the approach starts with conducting an assessment consisting of an internal scan of the school’s needs and resources, an external scan of neighborhood assets, and outreach efforts, through surveys and interviews, to students, parents, and community members.

Early on in implementing the approach, Harris felt families at Wheaton Woods held a level of mistrust for the school. They had a hesitancy to challenge authorities and a tendency to think of themselves as, “not being school people,” he said.

The reason for the lack of trust became clear as he worked through the community schools process.

Harris discovered, “We weren’t listening to our families. We started off thinking our families needed things like food assistance and English classes—providing what we assumed families in poverty need. When we started listening to our families, we found out that what we didn’t have was enough out-of-school time and activities for their kids, not enough athletics. We found out that rather than English classes for adults, parents wanted their children to learn Spanish to retain their culture. They wanted employment training for adults and more help with child care.”

‘A Learning Curve’

Jenny Mendez-Guerrero had a similar experience at Oak View Elementary School, another community school in Montgomery County, where she is the community schools liaison.

“This job has posed a learning curve [for] me,” she told Our Schools. “I came into this job with a lot of ideas and expectations but realized very quickly that I had to take a step back and get to know the students, build relationships with the families, and make connections with the community.”

Oak View Elementary, which includes grade three to five students as well as a Pre-K program, has a unique aspect to it. While its general education program is composed of mostly Hispanic students from low-income households, the school also has a center for enrichment studies geared toward students who have advanced abilities in English language, arts, and math.

This makes for “an interesting dynamic,” according to Mendez-Guerrero, because the “center students,” as she calls them, tend to be from more affluent families whose parents often have more time to be engaged with the school and their children’s learning. More than 90 percent of center students come from English-speaking families, she said, while the majority of students in the general education track do not.

“As the community schools liaison, I have to conduct outreach to both sets of families,” she explained, which has led to some interesting observations.

In face-to-face meetings with the separate groups of families, Mendez-Guerrero asked students and parents to make a list of services they felt their family needed from the school. Parents and children in the general education track were more disposed to ask the school to provide programs for family needs, such as child care and English classes for adults, while parents and students in the enrichment center frequently requested the school to provide more avenues for parent involvement and opportunities for leadership.

However, both sets of families requested that the school provide student mental health services. Also, students in both tracks expressed a need for a more “interesting” and culturally relevant curriculum. Both the Hispanic and a small minority of African American students said they didn’t see themselves represented in the current curriculum.

“Conversations between the two sets of families can be very different,” Mendez-Guerrero said, with parents of children in the enrichment center being more eager to offer their time and resources, while parents with children in the general education program tend to be more guarded in expressing their families’ needs.

Also, some parents of students in the general education program may be undocumented and therefore scared to tell the school staff much about themselves.

Mendez-Guerrero came to realize she had to reassure families who may be struggling with food, housing, or multiple jobs that, “I’m not here to judge you,” she said. “I’m here to help.”

‘Missing a Sense of Community’

At Wheaton Woods, Castro and her colleagues conducted listening sessions that involved having “authentic conversations,” in her words, with parents and other family members.

One family need that quickly came to the fore was child care. Many parents also said they were “missing a sense of community” in the school, and they expressed the desire to meet other families and participate in school activities.

Another top concern was for the school curriculum to be more multilingual and reflective of the children’s cultural origins. Parents wanted their children to see themselves reflected in lessons and readings and didn’t want their children to completely lose their cultural identities.

Using this feedback, both Oak View and Wheaton Woods have created new partnerships with local nonprofits and county agencies to address a wide range of student and family needs.

“Since we started on the community schools approach, we’ve developed more than 30 partnerships,” Harris said. Among the partners are local nonprofit organizations that provide dental care, vision screening, child care, assistance with housing, and a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library that provides Wheaton Woods families with free books for early readers, “so families have their home libraries even before their children come to school,” Harris said.

A Revelation

None of this is to say that adopting the community schools approach has not come with some uncomfortable change and ambiguity.

Montgomery County educators caution that listening to parents and responding with relevant programs and services is not enough—that along with adopting this way of addressing family needs, there also needs to be a change in leadership philosophy that departs from the traditional ways that policymakers and educators have chosen to address the impact of poverty in education.

A revelation Harris had early on in his school’s implementation of the community schools approach was that he realized his leadership style was “ill-suited to the approach,” he said. “I had this blind spot that I thought I alone knew what’s best, and what I realize now is that it’s impossible for me to always know how to lead.”

He also realized that he had to work hard to ensure all the school’s staff, including teachers, understood and were committed to family involvement in all aspects of the school.

“We want families in meetings to actually determine priorities and make decisions. That takes getting used to.”

In her union’s most recent contract negotiations with the district, Martin noted that MCEA had called for the creation of school-based councils made up of teachers and parents that would have some decision-making authority on school policies and programs. The idea was “shot down,” by the district, according to Martin. “Central leadership has a tendency to say, ‘We know what’s best,’” she said.

Also, because the district is so early in its implementation of the community schools approach, and because of interruptions posed by the COVID pandemic, none of the sources Our Schools spoke with in Montgomery County could point to any data indicating whether or not the approach is having a positive impact on narrowing the district’s deep education inequities.

Nevertheless, Castro feels confident the evidence will eventually be there. “I can’t wait to see the result of our efforts on the data side,” she said.

Although Harris is leaving his position at Wheaton Woods to write a book and build up his nonprofit work, he expects that the programs and services he helped put in place at the school will continue, and the school will turn more of its attention to measuring and evaluating the impact of its community schools approach. He is confident that after three to five years of using the approach, better results will be there.

In the short term, though, if Montgomery County schools have any real prospect of narrowing its chronic achievement inequities, the district has to retain parents like Tiffany Allen and her husband—parents of African American children who are full-time professionals, relatively affluent, and highly engaged with their children’s education. So far, it seems that using the community schools approach is helping these schools do that.

Author Bio: 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 can community schools rescue a ‘troubled’ district?

“Why are we still fighting for basic needs?” asked Karen Guzman, a parent and community organizer for the local teachers’ union in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburban sprawl of communities that lie just to the east of Washington D.C., Guzman’s union, the Prince George’s County Educators Association (PGCEA), is currently embroiled in contract negotiations with the district administration, and the negotiations are not going particularly well, according to her assessment. “Almost everything we’re asking for is being rejected,” she said.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

Her union president, Donna Christy, agreed. “We’ve submitted more than 100 proposals,” she told Our Schools, “and [district leaders] haven’t given much acknowledgment to most of our points.”

In June, PGCEA announced that negotiations with district administration over the current labor contract, which expired on June 30, had reached an “impasse,” WTOP reported, and the union took “the next step” to request mediation from the state’s Public School Labor Relations Board.

According to contract proposals PGCEA provided to Our Schools, much of what the union is asking for are common requests from teachers and school employees, such as beefed-up support staff for addressing widely-acknowledged student needs, adequate planning time and space for teachers, mutually agreed-upon limits to class sizes, and upgrades to well-worn school facilities and technology. In other words, things that tend to cost money.

But not all of the union’s requests include monetary items. Many have more to do with how decisions in the district are made and who gets to make them.

For example, one proposal calls for instructional improvements to be determined by “collaborative planning” that involves “teams” working collegially. Another proposal calls for a review of mandatory state and local assessments by a “committee” made up of “stakeholders impacted by such tests.”

Yet another proposal, labeled “community schools,” calls for schools to have “a joint governance structure” at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. The joint decision-making body in each school will consist of administrators, teachers and other staff, parents and community members of the school, and for high schools, the governing boards will include students as well.

These proposals seem to align with Maryland’s new effort to scale up an approach to school improvement, which is generally defined as “community schools.” The term community schools is interpreted differently in different places that have adopted it, but there is a general understanding that the approach includes forming partnerships in schools, in the district, and across the surrounding community to address the root causes of student learning problems.

According to experts, collaboration and team problem-solving involving multiple stakeholders are essential facets of the community schools strategy, because that’s the only realistic means that schools have for identifying actual problems, rather than the assumed ones, and then forming appropriate partnerships to address them.

Maryland’s community schools effort is the result of a law, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act (House Bill 1300)—passed in 2020 and enacted in 2021 by an override of the governor’s veto. According to the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), which PGCEA is an affiliate of, the Blueprint, among many things, “convert[s] nearly one-third of Maryland schools into community schools, where a school-based coordinator will help determine a school’s specific needs, such as academic and language supports, nutrition and medical, dental and mental health care.”

In the Blueprint, “community schools,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), are defined as “a public school that identifies a set of strategic partnerships between the school and other community resources that promote student achievement, positive learning outcomes, and the well-being of students by providing wraparound services.” Wraparound services are generally understood to be programs and supports that address students’ social, emotional and physical needs, and not just their academic needs.

The Maryland Blueprint has also made community schools that have “concentrations of poverty” eligible for grants to pay for personnel and wraparound services that have been identified by “require[ed] needs assessments and implementation plans,” according to MSDE.

The state’s definition of “concentration of poverty,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education, is “schools with 80 percent or more of students receiving free or reduced meals.” Based on that definition, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), which had already started their own effort to create community schools, suddenly went from being “in its infancy,” according to Christy, to having 78 schools with that designation.

The state’s effort to roll out community schools joins a nationwide trend to implement the approach—California has launched a $3 billion transition to community schools. But only two other school districts in the U.S. have more schools designated as “community schools” than PGCPS—New York City, with 317 and Baltimore City, with 128. (Los Angeles is close behind with 70 community schools.)

“Prince George’s County is at the forefront of the community schools movement which is the best alternative for neighborhoods that are facing challenges with their school systems,” said Gary Brennan in a phone conversation with Our Schools.

Brennan, a retired educator who spent 32 years in the Maryland public education system, is currently working for the MSEA as a negotiator for PGCEA. (He stressed that he is not an official spokesperson for the union.)

Brennan sees the union’s contract negotiations as “the perfect frame to bring the community schools model into labor actions. It offers a way to get at solutions to chronic issues and bring students, families and educators together.”

But despite the state’s enacted Blueprint, it’s not clear if PGCPS district leaders are completely sold on the notion of community schools, at least in the way that the approach is represented in the union’s contract proposals.

While multiple sources told Our Schools that the district has hired community schools coordinators and expanded wraparound services for students, these same sources also stated that the district is not embracing the full array of principles that are in the approach, especially the principles related to collaboration and shared leadership.

Also, research conducted by Our Schools found that the district’s approach to creating “strategic partnerships” is misaligned with both the spirit and the principles of the community schools strategy.

Thus, the struggle for the union is not only to use its collective bargaining power to deliver on the community schools’ promises of better outcomes for students and families but also to establish whether this transformational strategy for school improvement can overcome a school district’s old ways of doing business.

‘A Tendency to Make Decisions Unilaterally’

One of those “old ways” is district leaders’ tendency to make decisions from the top-down, according to multiple sources Our Schools spoke with.

“Distributed leadership is pretty much nonexistent,” said Amity Pope, using a term that is synonymous to shared or collective leadership promoted by the community schools approach. Pope is a 20-year veteran educator, having worked as a teacher and a teacher mentor, and she serves as the governmental relations chair for PGCEA.

She recalled that when the idea of community schools first came to Prince George’s County, in 2015, it didn’t come from the district or the state; rather, the idea was introduced by a “self-created” cadre of educators, advocates, business leaders, and other community members. The approach the group chose to follow was based on a six-pillar framework promoted by the National Education Association (NEA), the national teachers’ union, which PGCEA is affiliated to.

Pope and others were trained in the strategy so that they could help train others in the district, and she and her colleagues worked with the NEA and the Center for Popular Democracy to craft language for the Prince George’s County Board of Education to adopt the strategy in its policies, which included the provision for having a community schools coordinator in every school.

In the original language drafted by the cadre, she explained, community schools coordinators were to be members of the PGCEA. However, in adopting the community schools policy, the board changed the language to make coordinators members of the union that represents school administrators.

However, administrators, particularly school principals, according to Pope, have a hard time with the distributed leadership tenet of community schools. “They automatically see themselves as leaders in the traditional sense,” she said, “when what they really need to do is to have their ears to the ground—asking questions, admitting mistakes, and collaborating.”

“We don’t have these kinds of leaders,” she said, “because of administrative bullying that has become a behavioral norm.”

Christy, president of PGCEA, agreed. “Under the current leadership mindset, school leaders are not asking the schools and the communities they serve what their needs are,” she said. “They’re deciding what they think the community’s needs are.”

As a parent advocate, Guzman often sees principals in the district bristle at the idea of engaging in shared leadership practices. She has encountered “principals who are more comfortable with micromanaging their schools,” she said, “and many of them are afraid of what issues will come up if teachers and parents have more of a voice in [governance].”

A ‘Troubled’ District

Many see the district’s top-down leadership style emanating from state legislation, passed in 2013, which undermined democratic governance of the schools and concentrated decision-making power with fewer individuals.

The school district was regarded as “troubled” at the time, Voxitatis reported, due to “revolving” school leadership, and low scores on student standardized tests, and then-County Executive Rushern Baker was mostly successful in pushing a bill in the state legislature that reconfigured the district’s governance structure.

The new state law changed the name of the district’s top official from “superintendent” to “CEO” and gave that person the power to close and consolidate schools, hire and set the salaries of executive staff, and fill vacant seats of elected members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education. The law also required the board to muster a two-thirds majority to overturn any action or decision taken by the CEO.

The law also changed the composition of the board from nine elected officials and an appointed student member to a “hybrid” board of nine elected officials and four officials appointed by the elected county executive along with a student member named by the Prince George’s Regional Association of Student Governments. The county executive was given the power to name the district’s CEO, appoint three of the four appointed members of the board, and pick the board’s chair and vice chair. The fourth board member was appointed by the county council.

According to Christy, some of the measures in the 2013 law may soon be rescinded, including giving board members the power to choose their own chair and moving from the hybrid model to a fully elected board. “But the CEO will still have all the same power,” she said.

After Maryland enacted the 2013 law, Baker “tapped Kevin Maxwell, a former principal, to run the district,” according to a 2018 article in Governing.

Maxwell’s tenure, from 2013 to 2018, did little to improve the reputation of the district’s leadership, as he was dogged by multiple scandals, including the loss of a $6.5 million federal grant for a Head Start program, an alleged failure to investigate a case of sexual misconduct involving a child, and a state audit of the district’s high schools that found instances of students graduating without required credits and courses between 2016 and 2017.

The litany of troubles culminated in 2019, after Maxwell had resigned in 2018, when a whistleblower sent an anonymous letter to the members of the school board that top officials in the administration had been giving unauthorized pay raises to “some central office staff,” and a state audit found the district violated state laws by spending millions on contracts that were unauthorized and sole-scoured.

Current district CEO Monica Goldson has been credited with cleaning up the district’s scandals, but that doesn’t appear to have resolved how district leaders are perceived by front-line educators and the community.

Union negotiator Brennan credits Goldson with “[making] a lot of the right decisions,” but, he said, “she has a tendency to make decisions unilaterally when it would be more appropriate to draw up a memorandum of understanding and engage with school staff over priorities.”

Further, the previous scandal over the outsourcing of district programs and services through contracts, with little to no scrutiny by the public, foretold current problems about how the district is carrying out its requirement, mandated by the state, to create “strategic partnerships” that are part of the community schools approach.

‘Issues of Accountability and Transparency’

Partnerships in the community schools approach are commonly understood to mean that schools will provide wraparound services to students and their families by developing a network of service providers with local nonprofit organizations and municipal and community agencies. But that doesn’t appear to be the way district administrators in PGCPS are forming partnerships.

First, there are questions about the district’s budget priorities that seem to indicate a tendency for school leaders to outsource services to contractors rather than developing collaborative networks with local nonprofits and government agencies.

In March 2022, when the district proposed a budget of $2.6 billion—a $100 million cut from what was proposed for 2022—PGCEA spoke to budget analyst Chris Schwartz to break down the figures for the PGCPS proposed operating budget for the fiscal year 2023.

In a video posted on the union’s Facebook page, Schwartz details a number of curious findings, including that the district frequently doesn’t spend all of the money from its approved budget and that what’s most likely to get shorted are instructional salaries and fixed charges like employee benefits, while, at the same time, costs for administrative services have seen a spike in the projected budget allocation for 2022 and the proposed allocation for 2023.

One resource that is especially on the short end of the budget stick is the special education services where there are stagnating numbers of employees, even though the special education services funding has been going up “at a modest pace,” from 2006 to 2023. That finding prompted Schwartz to question what those special education funds are being spent on.

Another finding from Schwartz’s analysis is the district’s ever-increasing amount of money spent on outside contractors—up 142 percent, or $227 million, from 2006 to 2023—and how often (14 of the past 16 years) the district has overspent its budget for contracted services. The finding prompted Schwarz to remark that this “raises questions about accountability and transparency.”

A Spate of Contracts

In her interview with Our Schools, PGCEA President Christy also expressed concerns about the rising costs of contract services and pointed to a recent spate of contracts the district signed with outside mental health service providers.

Maryland’s Blueprint law provides districts with significant new funds for hiring additional behavioral health professionals and “grants to increase attention to behavioral health,” according to MSEA. Christy questioned whether that money was being outsourced to contractors rather than being used to hire new district staff.

Further, “district leaders didn’t consult with schools in deciding who should provide the services and what would be the nature of the services provided,” she said.

Christy wasn’t able to point to any particular contracts that concerned her, but Our Schools found numerous contracts that have gone to private, for-profit operators rather than local nonprofits.

One contract in 2021 went to Advanced Behavioral Health, Inc., which also received a year-long contract✎ EditSign for “therapists” in 2020. According to Dun and Bradstreet, which provides data and analytics for businesses, Advanced Behavioral Health earns $10.74 million annually and is a “corporation” based in Frederick, Maryland, which is located in Frederick County.

Another contract was awarded to Interdynamics, Inc. a private company whose website says the company provides “nationwide services.” The firm started “in 2000 as a management consulting service,” according to its website, “but grew later into a mental and behavioral health firm.” While it’s not clear what criteria district leaders used to select the contractors, Interdynamics has received 11 scathing reviews and only one positive one on Yelp.

Another contract went to Thrive Behavioral Health, which is listed as a “private” company at Crunchbase. Yet another contract✎ EditSign was given to Innovative Therapeutic Services. Dun and Bradstreet lists the company as a corporation earning more than a quarter-million dollars annually.

Almost all contracts were completed and sent to contractors on the same day, July 6, 2021, with Angela Queen indicated as district contact in the contracts for that year. The terms of each contract for 2021 were nearly identical, with service periods indicated as July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2023, and fees for “mental health services” ranging from $105 to $119 per hour.

None of the contracts appear to include spending caps that would prevent contractors from running up billable hours.

‘Substantial Risk for Behavioral Health Services’

A significant risk with outsourcing mental health services to private, for-profit contractors is that service providers can change ownership and reengineer their profit-making, which can drastically affect the quality of services. Also, there is a greater risk of nontransparency, as public funds are sent to private firms that do not have to fully disclose how the money is being spent.

These risks are especially pervasive in the senior care industry where acquisitions of nursing homes and other kinds of senior living facilities by private equity investors have become rampant. According to a 2020 study, private investor-backed takeovers of senior care have resulted in increased costs by 19 percent to the public, while short-term mortality of patients has jumped by 10 percent due to cost-cutting measures that investors put into place to increase their profits.

The mental health service industry has also landed in the crosshairs of private equity investors, according to the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PESP), a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors the impact of the private investor sector.

In a September 2020 brief, PESP reported, “The behavioral health industry has seen substantial investment by private equity firms in recent years, particularly in firms specializing in autism, eating disorders, and addiction treatment,” which are growingmental healthissues in schools.

The brief warned, “Private equity investment carries substantial risk for behavioral health services, including the potential for inadequate staffing or reliance on untrained and unlicensed staff, pressure on physicians to provide unnecessary and costly services, or abuse of federal funding programs at the expense of patient care.”

A January 2021 report in Behavioral Health Business bolstered PESP’s findings, predicting that merger and acquisition activity among “behavioral health dealmakers” would “reach a new peak in 2021,” especially in the sectors devoted to autism services, “with private equity (PE) investors fueling the fire.”

It’s not clear how many of the firms that PGCPS has contracted with are owned by or are considering being acquired by private investment firms, but the district has contracted with private equity-backed providers in the past.

In 2019, the district made payments of $139,800 to the Center for Autism and Related Disorders LLC (CARD), which provided autism services to the district.

CARD Founder Doreen Granpeesheh formerly worked at Thoughtful House, an Austin, Texas-based center for autism education and treatment that was formerly guided by Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who, in 1997, originated—according to Public Health, Vox, and other sources—the idea that vaccines cause autism. The study was retracted by the Lancet in 1998, and its findings have been debunked in subsequent research.

Yet Granpeesheh appears to still uphold this discredited claim. In an undated article in Quantumrun Granpeesheh is quoted as observing “families who were reporting that their child had a regressive type of behavior occur[ing] right after their vaccinations,” including “incredible regression,” “no longer responding to their own name,” and an inability to remember words.

Granpeesheh is also founder and president of Autism Care Today, an organization that states, on its webpage titled “autism facts,” that “concerns about vaccines and infections have led researchers to consider risk factors before and after birth.”

CARD, which is based in Plano, Texas, claims on its website to be “the world’s largest autism treatment provider.”

Perhaps for that reason, CARD was acquired by Blackstone Group LP, a private equity investment firm, in 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Blackstone Group is often described as one of many prominent investment firms, according to a report by Vox Media—along with the Carlyle Group, Bain Capital and KKR—that practice an investment strategy in which the investor buys up a company with growth potential, expands it dramatically, by accruing enormous amounts of debt, and then sells the business, as a whole or in parts, for a profit.

These investment firms are often blamed when their acquired companies eventually collapse due to their enormous amounts of debt or because of the consequences of being dismantled and sold off piece by piece.

Should PGCPS be using money coming to the district for mental health services to pay for-profit contractors backed by private equity it’s likely taking a risky gamble.

‘What Does That Mean in Practice’

This is not to say PGCPS hasn’t added to its own capacity to address mental health issues.

In 2021, the district used grant money it received from the state to retain a mental health coordinator position and to issue a Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Prince George’s County Public Schools plan for Behavioral Health Supports July 2021-June 2022 with a budget of $4,506,214.

The district’s blueprint plan claims to offer students “free access to school-based mental health professionals” in 93 schools, which it pledges to roll out to “all 207 of its schools and centers by the 2023-2024 school year.”

However, the only reference the blueprint makes to the district’s implementation of the community schools strategy is on page eight where it states, “Parents will be able to refer students in need of counseling support by contacting their community school coordinator or professional school counselor.”

Also, while the blueprint describes activities the district will undertake to “engage” students, families, and communities, those activities are devoted to outbound engagements—“messaging” and “training”—rather than activities devoted to gathering inputs from teachers and parents or assessing community needs.

There’s also evidence that the district has reached out to local nonprofits to form partnerships.

In 2019-2020, the district announced it had partnered with United Way of the National Capital Area (United Way NCA) “to bring the strongest community programming” to “community schools.”

As part of that effort, the district and United Way NCA issued a directory of providers for a range of wraparound services that included both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The Center for Autism and Related Disorders is not on the list while Advanced Behavioral Health can be found repeatedly, in multiple sections. The directory was reissued in 2021 with Advanced Behavioral Health again listed as a preferred provider.

For its part, the teachers’ union has made community collaboration not only a key feature of its community schools implementation but also a basis for its contract negotiations.

In her work as a parent organizer, Guzman described how union outreach to families had to start from scratch because few schools had active parent teacher associations. So she and her colleagues created “community schools circles”—consisting of teachers, parents, and community advocates—in seven community schools. The number of circles has expanded to 15, and the union has amassed an email list of more than 1,000 parents.

To scale up the community engagement to a districtwide effort, the union collaborated with volunteers from the Prince George’s County chapter of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS-PG), a national alliance of teachers’ unions and community and public education organizers, to conduct a Pandemic to Promise campaign.

Included in the campaign was a survey that asked respondents to “vote your dreams” and choose their priorities from a list of 10 that were gleaned from the feedback from community schools circles. AROS-PG and PGCEA also conducted a Pickup Truck Tour that went to schools, parks, bus lots, and other high-traffic locations to encourage survey responses.

Based on nearly 800 survey responses, the community’s top four priorities were:

  1. Healthy food and eating environments.
  2. Fully resourced classes and after-school programs.
  3. Improvements to special education and English language learning services.
  4. A publicly available transparency mechanism to explain where school/program funding is going.

Christy maintained that these priorities are reflected in the union’s contract proposals. Guzman said, “All this community input went directly into language that the union is now bargaining with during their negotiations with the district administration.”

But whether community input matters to the district may depend on how strongly district leaders embrace the principles of the community schools approach.

As Guzman asked, “So, our district has the [third] most community schools, but what does that mean in practice?”

That could be the toughest negotiation point of all.

Author Bio: 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 and her school privatization agenda are no match for Michigan parents

Parents in DeVos’s backyard tell right-wing radicals, “No thank you to divisive, partisan agendas in schools.”

Culture war issues dressed as serious K-12 classroom concerns, such as trumped-up battles over critical race theory and gender identity, have become useful campaign fodder for the GOP in several key states.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

In Georgia, Republican lawmakers snuck last-minute language about transgender high school athletes into a more comprehensive education bill as their state’s legislative session was ending on April 5.

Democratic legislators immediately cried foul, noting that they were not even informed that the language had been added, and were only given 15 minutes to figure it out for themselves. There was no time to debate whether or not the provision, which could potentially result in transgender student-athletes being banned from participating on girls’ sports teams in public schools, was worth supporting in the first place.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who pushed for the legislation, has conveyed to state lawmakers that “ensuring fair play in girls’ sports” by excluding transgender athletes is a top priority for him this session, according to a local news report.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has become famous for signing a bill known as “Don’t Say Gay” into law that seeks to restrict when and how public school teachers can discuss gender and sexual identity issues with students from kindergarten to third grade. Predictably, this bill has become a headline grabber for DeSantis, who is running for reelection as governor this year and is often discussed as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

While these attacks on public education may generate endless PR for aspiring political candidates, parents in local school districts are often left to deal with the fallout. In the face of everything from tense and hyper-politicized school board meetings to attacks on teachers, some parents are getting organized and fighting back.

A perhaps unlikely place where parents have organized to defend their public schools and keep them inclusive and welcoming places for all children is in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan, the backyard of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos, whose hometown is Grand Rapids, is a billionaire with a penchant for funding pro-privatization school choice schemes, which she has pursued both personally and during her time in the Trump administration. As a member of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos continually drew flack for her often flagrant disregard for public schools and the teachers who staff them.

These days, she is busily reasserting her role as a key player in Michigan politics, particularly when it comes to the dismantling of the state’s public education system. But although DeVos says she is a staunch supporter of “parent rights,” some parents affected by her agenda think she is dead wrong.

Culture Clash: Newcomers Bringing Liberal Viewpoints to Conservative Christian Community

When Becky Olson and her husband first became parents nearly a decade ago, they were living in Chicago. As their two children neared kindergarten age, they found themselves at a crossroads.

“We wondered if we should stay in the city or move to the suburbs,” she told Our Schools, as she and her husband contemplated the kind of school community they wanted for their young family. Eventually, they decided to move to a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the cost of living is lower than it is in Chicago, and the public schools are well-regarded.

Olson is now the parent of a second grader and a soon-to-be kindergartner in the Forest Hills Public Schools District, which pulls in kids from several surrounding communities in the greater Grand Rapids area. Forest Hills is considered a “destination district,” Olson said, thanks to its strong reputation and ability to attract young professionals and their families.

Therein lies a problem, perhaps. Olson acknowledged that new residents like herself—who may bring more liberal viewpoints with them—are moving to Grand Rapids in search of affordable homes and stable public schools, leading to something of a culture clash.

“This area has always been very conservative,” she noted, thanks in large part to the longstanding presence of the Christian Reformed Church. Betsy DeVos and her family are members of the church, like many other Western Michigan residents with Dutch roots, and it seems impossible to imagine Grand Rapids not being under the influence of either the DeVoses or their church.

This topic has been given a close examination by journalists Kristina Rizga and Emily DeRuy. Writing for the Atlantic in 2017, DeRuy explored the way DeVos’s religious and cultural roots inform her belief that public funding for education should be extended to private schools, including those that adhere to nonsecular teachings.

Rizga’s piece for Mother Jones in 2017 offered a deeper dive into the way DeVos has used her significant financial resources as a means to push against the separation of church and state in the public education system, mainly by continuously supporting attempts to make school voucher policies a reality.

What is currently happening in Grand Rapids and Forest Hills Public Schools is, however, bigger than just the DeVos family and their religious leanings, although such factors are a potent ingredient in what Olson and her fellow public school advocates have been fighting against.

Republican/Far-Right Attacks on Public Education

Olson said she first noticed trouble brewing in Forest Hills Public Schools at a March 2021 school board meeting. Such meetings are “normally sleepy,” she said, although she quickly learned what others around the country have also come to realize lately—school board meetings have reemerged as a key battleground in the current right-wing assault on public education and democratic governance.

Public education in the United States has frequently been a target of right-wing grievance, and flare-ups over what should be taught and who should do the teaching have always taken place. In the early 1990s, for example, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led a push to take over school boards and usher in a new era of conservative Republican candidacies centered around so-called family values.

At the March 2021 meeting, Olson recalled conflict bubbling up around recent attempts by some community members to bring more racial equity and diversity to Forest Hills Public Schools. In response, a group of “concerned, Christian parents” signed in to the online meeting, she said, to protest the district’s support for an optional, diversity-focused program known as the Global Learners Initiative.

Local media coverage of the meeting documented the controversy surrounding the Global Learners Initiative and noted that some parents consider it evidence of the school district’s “drastic critical race theory and transgender policies.”

The program, however, didn’t arise out of thin air. Olson said it was created in response to recent troubling incidents, including the time in 2016 when a handful of students brought Trump and Betsy Ross flags—both have been linked to racism and white nationalism—to a school football game that was hosted by a predominantly Black team. Still, the initiative included the kind of buzzwords, such as equity and inclusion, that have inflamed conservative activists across the country.

It didn’t take long for the dust-up over the Global Learners Initiative to snowball into a full-fledged attack on Forest Hills and its school board, complete with a recall campaign aimed at board members that was led by Stefanie Boone—a local parent with her own designs on becoming an elected official.

Critical Race Theory Fever

Boone is currently vying to become a commissioner in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids. Her public Facebook page lists her as a Republican/conservative candidate running for office and includes frequent posts attacking “wokeism,” as well as a slew of issues ranging from mask mandates to abortion rights policies.

She is also an outspoken critic of Forest Hills Public Schools, where several of her children are students.

In a Facebook post from March 22, Boone said she had attended more than 50 school board meetings in and around Forest Hills since 2020, in alignment with other parents who are “tired of the liberal narrative of CRT/DEI/SEL being pushed on our children and in our workplaces.” She is also affiliated with a political action committee called Forest Hills for JUST Education, which filed a very expensive public information request against the local school district.

The acronyms stand for a grab bag of policies that are perceived as part of a liberal agenda and are supposedly running amok in public schools, according to right-wing political candidates and think tanks. The list of these liberal policies includes critical race theory (CRT); diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEL); and social-emotional learning (SEL).

All three are red meat for Republican activists who perhaps need little convincing that public schools are a threat to be managed with vigilance, before another generation of students supposedly falls under the spell of liberal indoctrination.

Boone is not the only would-be Michigan politician using such terms these days. The state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is up for reelection this year. One of her potential opponents running in the Republican primary, Ryan D. Kelley, has made battling critical race theory and other polarizing school-based issues a central tenet of his campaign.

He even showed up at a Forest Hills Public Schools board meeting in February, as outlined in a Michigan Advance article. Some parents in attendance objected to Kelley’s presence, noting that the meeting felt like a campaign event that had nothing to do with actual Forest Hills concerns. (Kelley does not have children in the Forest Hills Public Schools District.)

Reporter Allison Donahue’s article in the Michigan Advance described Kelley as railing against the same red herrings, from critical race theory to diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, that Boone has vociferously objected to.

The frequent use of these terms by people like Boone and Kelley caught Olson’s eye and helped lead her down her own path of resistance.

Parents Fight Back to Protect the Public School System

After the March 2021 school board meeting, Olson began to notice a common thread among those who were speaking out against Forest Hills Public Schools.

In a matter of weeks, she said, attacks against the school district and its board members began ramping up—alongside a new, DeVos-backed push for school vouchers in Michigan.

The new campaign is called Let Michigan Kids Learn, and it aims to gather 500,000 signatures on a petition designed to allow public education dollars to go toward “student opportunity scholarships” (a less offensive term used to refer to school vouchers) in the state. If it gets passed, K-12 education in Michigan would turn into a choice-based marketplace that includes religious schools.

DeVos donated $400,000 to this petition drive and has participated publicly in the organization’s events. Although students’ needs are supposedly the group’s main concern, the Let Michigan Kids Learn website prominently states an intention to “take the power away from the unions, away from the governor, and put it in the hands of parents.”

If Olson and her fellow Forest Hills defenders are any indication, though, not all Michigan parents are falling for this latest effort to pit them against teachers, unions, and public schools in general.

In the face of persistent attacks on their local school districts, Olson and a network of other parents came together to create their own grassroots groups to defend the public education system. There is the Support Forest Hills Public Schools group spearheaded by Olson and others, and another one for a nearby district called Support Lowell Area Schools.

“We have had to learn on the fly,” Olson said, about how to set up their own political action committee or track campaign finance reports to find out who is funding groups like Let Michigan Kids Learn.

So far, they appear to have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. The Support Forest Hills Public Schools group is focused on combating “partisan and manufactured attacks” on public education, according to the group’s website, and is working on disseminating information about this through blog posts and other forms of information sharing.

In doing so, members of this group helped successfully thwart Boone’s attempt to recall five school board members—a move Olson said would have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Additionally, in the absence of any deep-pocketed donors like the DeVos family, the Support Forest Hills Public Schools group has set up an online store selling yard signs and car decals in order to fund their efforts. Each item for sale includes a brightly colored declaration of love for the local school district and its staff members.

Maintain Hope

Erin Foltz is a parent in the Lowell Area Schools district near Grand Rapids. She is also a key force behind the grassroots group that has sprouted up to support this district, which has faced its own school board recall attempt recently. In Foltz’s view, the attacks being levied against the Lowell school district are not unique.

“Many school districts across the nation are currently experiencing the emergence of extremely politicized groups,” she told Our Schools. And these groups are bent on sowing “doubt in the minds of community members and parents” about their kids’ teachers and school administrators, Foltz said.

She said that she has witnessed protesters from outside of Lowell come to the town’s school board meetings and hurl allegations at board members, including now-familiar accusations about all the “liberal agendas” that are supposedly at play in the district. Every time there is a meeting, Foltz said, there is a new round of fearmongering from agitators.

“These attacks seem orchestrated to maintain a steady stream of shock value,” in Foltz’s estimation, as a means to “keep their side engaged and enraged, and to keep the opposition (other parents like us, the board of education, teachers, and administrators) exhausted and weary,” she said. (Republican senators deployed similar tactics during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings.)

Still, Foltz is not ready to give up. Getting organized, informed, and engaged has proven to be a strong line of defense for her, Olson, and their fellow pro-public school activists. “If other parents are faced with these divisive, contradictory attacks in their school districts, I would say not to give up hope,” Foltz said.

It is important to remember, she added, that there are typically many more people who support public education and want to hold schools accountable without destroying them. Find them, Foltz advised, and then join forces to “collectively say no thank you to divisive, partisan agendas in schools.”

Author Bio: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

Why a state known for charter schools may be turning in a different direction

Minnesota is widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes—actually, there are more than 10,000. But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the nation's first comprehensive open enrollment law, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided there is space in the host district.

While the abundance of lakes covering the state was the result of a natural process, it would be hard to describe the rapid growth of charter schools and school choice in the North Star State as some sort of natural occurrence, driven solely by parents and teachers hungry for alternative learning environments. But Minnesota—as well as many other states and the federal government—is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the full-service community schools model.

In contrast to charter schools and other market-based approaches to school improvement, full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about lifting up students and the communities they live in, rather than pitting schools against one another in the interest of greater choice and competition.

Why Charters and Choice?

An overview of Minnesota's groundbreaking charter school legislation refers to it as an attempt to fund "results-oriented, student-centered public schools." This is an optimistic assessment of the Minnesota law that touches on the educational aspirations that the charter schools system carries, but it entirely sidesteps another important aspect of the system: the connection between charter schools and the privatization of public education.

This push to privatize the nation's public school system has been made possible in large part by the federal government. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration readily embraced the concept of school choice by promising to close the "worst performing schools," among other things, while seeking millions in expansion funds for the growing charter school sector. These efforts snowballed under former President George W. Bush, who funneled more than $1 billion toward supporting charter schools, often at the expense of public school districts.

Former President Barack Obama's administration then continued along this path by pumping billions of additional taxpayer dollars into the hands of charter school operators around the country, thanks to the pro-school choice efforts by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Wealthy philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also jumped aboard the school choice train, directing millions of dollars toward the privatization of public education in the United States. The interests of both philanthropists and the federal government were most clearly united under former President Donald Trump's leadership, when billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos became the secretary of education.

Minnesota's "first in the nation" charter school law also opened the door to charter school legislation in other states. Since the 2005-2006 school year, charter school enrollment has more than tripled; today, more than 3 million students attend such schools across the country. Only a handful of small, less-populated states, such as Nebraska, Vermont, and North and South Dakota, do not allow charter schools.

In Minnesota, there are currently 180 privately run, publicly funded charter schools, enrolling more than 60,000 students in grades K-12.

Similarly, open enrollment policies have exploded since Minnesota pioneered that option, and now nearly all states offer some sort of intra- and inter-district transfer option.

School reform models built around competition and choice have led to greater disruption in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the shuttering of dozens of neighborhood schools amid a boom in the local charter school market.

In Minnesota, the Saint Paul Public Schools district has been left gasping for air as school choice schemes continue to wreak havoc on the district's enrollment numbers and, subsequently, its finances.

This district is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, if not the nation, with approximately 35,000 students representing a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the district's students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and almost 300 students in the district are listed as being homeless.

As a result of more school choice, in 2017, 14,000 school-age children living in the city were not enrolled in the Saint Paul Public Schools district. Instead, they either attended a charter school in or near the city or chose to open-enroll into a neighboring school district.

Just two years later, in 2019, the exodus of families had risen to more than 16,000. Today, more than one-third of all students living in Saint Paul do not attend Saint Paul Public Schools, leaving the district in a constant state of contraction.

The district's lagging enrollment numbers can be attributed to shrinking birthrates and "a rise in school choice options," according to a recent article by Star Tribune reporter Anthony Lonetree.

As a consequence of shrinking enrollments, district officials recently outlined a reorganization proposal that calls for the closure of eight schools by the fall of 2022 "under a consolidation plan," in an attempt to offload expensive infrastructure costs and improve academic options for students.

Charter school options abound in and around Saint Paul, and many represent the worst effects that come with applying unregulated, market-based reforms to public education.

There's the handful of white flight charter schools within the city limits, for example, that have long waiting lists and offer exclusive programming options, such as Great River School (a Montessori school), Nova Classical Academy, and the Twin Cities German Immersion School. On the flip side of this are racially and economically isolated Saint Paul charter schools such as Hmong College Prep Academy, where according to state data 98 percent of the students enrolled are Asian and nearly 80 percent live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines.

Hmong College Prep Academy has been in the news recently, thanks to a scandal that was dubbed a "hedge fund fiasco" by the Pioneer Press. The school is run by a husband-and-wife administrative team who invested $5 million of taxpayer money in a hedge fund, hoping it would provide a return that would help pay for the school's expansion plans. Instead, the hedge fund investment apparently lost $4.3 million, leading to calls for the school's superintendent, Christianna Hang, to be fired—something school officials refused to do. Hang finally submitted her resignation in late October.

In short, the market-based approach to education reform that Minnesota helped pioneer has caused a great deal of disruption, segregation and chaos. In a Hunger Games-type setting, districts and charter schools have been forced to compete for students with white, middle and upper class students and families largely coming out on top.

The end result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost in student outcomes to show for it.

An Alternative to Choice and Competition

Thirty years after Minnesota's charter school and open enrollment laws ushered in a mostly unregulated era of school choice, many states—including Minnesota—and federal officials may be turning their attention to the reform model offered by full-service community schools.

Full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about much more than students' standardized test scores or the number of AP classes a school offers. Instead, this model seeks to reposition schools as community resource centers that also provide academic instruction to K-12, or even Pre-K-12, students.

In Minnesota, a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive results.

The state's longest running full-service community schools implementation is in Brooklyn Center, a very diverse suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the city's public school district has operated under the full-service model, providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system.

In recent months, Brooklyn Center's community schools approach has been put to the test, due to both the ongoing pandemic and the unrest that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In April 2021, as Chauvin's murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.

This layering of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community apart, as large protests soon took place outside the city's police headquarters and caused disruption among residents—many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. During this turmoil, school district staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were able to quickly mobilize resources on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the existing full-service community schools model.

It's not just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from this approach. In rural Deer River, Minnesota—where more than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless—the school district adopted the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from state and federal funding sources.

Staff in Deer River are reportedly very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot during the pandemic and provide food, transportation services and other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted that the community schools approach enabled school district employees to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get through this challenging time.

Several other districts across the United States, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Durham, North Carolina, have also adopted the full-service community schools approach, which is built around sharing power and uplifting communities rather than closing failing schools and shuttling students out of their neighborhoods through open-enrollment or charter school options.

Community Schools Approach Is on the Rise

Disrupting public education through the proliferation of school choice schemes, including charter schools, has long been the preferred education reform model for politicians and wealthy philanthropists in the United States, and while the charter school industry has been able to score billions in federal funding, the full-service community schools model has instead been relegated to the sidelines.

That's starting to change.

In February 2021, a coalition of education advocacy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be spent on full-service community schools. Most recently, the letter notes, Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the "need and demand for this strategy."

Now, the Biden administration has proposed dramatically bumping this funding up to $443 million, based on the support this model has received from people such as the current U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. While giving input to Congress on behalf of Biden's proposed budget for the Department of Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools honor the "role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods" and are designed to help students achieve academically by making sure their needs—for food, counseling, relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on—are also being met.

If the Biden administration succeeds in directing millions more in funding toward full-service community schools, it might not be too late to save public schools, in Minnesota and across the country.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How for-profit charter schools open the door for private investors to exploit public education

Charter school industry lobbyists, who appear to have lost a fight in the U.S. House of Representatives over an appropriations bill that cuts federal funding to charter schools operated by for-profit businesses, are rolling out a campaign to defend their taxpayer revenues in the U.S. Senate, but federal lawmakers may wish to consider new evidence of how for-profit charter enterprises introduce potential harms into public education.

One such potential harm, according to an in-depth examination conducted by Our Schools, stems from for-profit charter school operators partnering with private investors intent on turning quick profits from public dollars meant for educating children.

Our Schools examined the relationship between Pansophic Learning, owner of the Accel Schools chain of for-profit charter schools, and Safanad Limited, a private equity firm, originating in the Middle East, with extensive investment holdings in K-12 education, senior living, and other public sector-related enterprises.

What Our Schools found was that for-profit businesses like Pansophic Learning are providing entryways for wealthy investors from abroad to flood the U.S. with money to buy up struggling taxpayer-funded enterprises and put into place elaborate business schemes and networks of interrelated companies that hide their profiteering while doing little to improve the quality of services to the public.

A request for comment regarding Pansophic's relationship with Safanad and the partnership's potential for conflicts of interest that was left as a press inquiry at the Pansophic website did not receive a reply.

The combination of for-profit operators backed by private equity has become prevalent in other publicly funded sectors that have traditionally been operated by federal and/or state governments or nonprofit organizations. And the results have not been beneficial to the public or the individuals the publicly funded system was intended to serve.

For example, in the government-funded prison system, "The involvement of private equity firms, which manage large investment portfolios, presents a conflict between the financial and social goals of some investors," reported Prison Legal News in 2019, citing two studies—one from the nonprofit Worth Rises, which advocates for "dismantling the prison industry," and the other from the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers' union.

Another analysis, by the ACLU, found that for-profit prison operators backed by private investors are more apt to create profit for their investors by maintaining high rates of incarceration, which results in significantly higher social and fiscal costs to the public.

Our Schools found that this combination of for-profit entrepreneurs backed by private investors is having a similarly corrosive impact in the charter school industry.

Ron Packard and K12 Inc.

The genesis of Accel Schools goes back to 2014, when Education Week reported that Ron Packard, the former CEO of K12 Inc., had formed a new education enterprise called Pansophic Learning. K12 Inc., which changed its name to Stride Inc. in 2020, was then, and still is, the largest for-profit charter school operator in the U.S.

Packard, a former Goldman Sachs executive who specialized in mergers and acquisitions, departed K12 Inc., which he founded, at a time when the company was besieged with negative publicity.

In 2011, K12 Inc. was the subject of a scathing story in the New York Times revealing that "only a third" of the students enrolled in its online charter schools "achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation," while the company employed multiple ways to "squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards."

The withering critique, which ran on the newspaper's front page, "caused" the publicly traded company's stock price "to drop precipitously," Education Week reported in 2012, and prompted a shareholder to file a federal lawsuit accusing K12 Inc. executives, including Packard, of "misleading investors with false student-performance claims."

More negative publicity came in 2013 when Politico reported K12 Inc. was one among many online charter schools that "posts dismal scores on math, writing, and science tests and mediocre scores on reading." Another blow came that year when influential hedge fund manager and charter school proponent Whitney Tilson announced he was shorting K12 Inc. stock, betting the company would fail.

In 2014, K12 Inc. became the target of yet another lawsuit accusing the company of "misleading investors by putting forward overly positive public statements… only later to reveal that it had missed key operational and financial targets," Education Week reported. The lawsuit also charged Packard, whose relationship to the company had become unclear, of selling off his own stock before revealing the negative financials, and, thus, earning a windfall of $6.4 million before the stock price plunged.

But as Packard disengaged from one troubled education enterprise, he started another with a financial partner that would provide the capital to quickly scale up.

As Education Week reported in 2014, Packard's new company, Pansophic Learning, included a partnership with a holding company, Safanad Education, a subsidiary of Safanad Limited, a New York- and Dubai-based real estate and investment firm. Packard and Safanad spent an unknown sum to purchase part of K12 Inc.'s assets, mostly in higher education, and acquire an international brick-and-mortar private school. The two entrepreneurs were "on the hunt for acquisitions," according to Education Week.

A Charter School Shopping Spree

Initially, Packard and Pansophic Learning kept a low profile until, in 2016, a visit by then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump drew attention to a Cleveland, Ohio, brick-and-mortar charter school "that usually escapes notice," reported the Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper.

According to the Plain Dealer, the school, the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, was one of 27 schools in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio that had been recently acquired by Accel Schools, a new for-profit network of charter schools owned and operated by Pansophic Learning.

Packard is listed as the CEO of both Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools. Two other C-suite executives of both Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools are COO Maria Szalay and CTO Eric Waller. Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools also have an identical street address in McLean, Virginia.

Prior to the news about Trump visiting its school, Accel Schools had been "amassing an education empire" in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal reported.

Among its acquisitions were, in 2014, the "troubled K-8 schools" of White Hat Management, which had previously been, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio's largest charter school chain. In 2019, Accel Schools purchased White Hat's last remaining online charter school as well.

In 2015, Accel Schools also acquired the assets of another financially struggling charter management firm, Mosaica Education, and bought Cleveland-based I Can Schools, which, Packard told the Plain Dealer, were also "struggling financially."

The charter school shopping spree Accel Schools went on undoubtedly benefited from the financial support of Safanad.

"We are fortunate to partner with Safanad," Packard is quoted saying in Safanad's official announcement of its partnership with Pansophic Learning in 2014. "Safanad's extensive resources will allow us to pursue opportunities of all sizes," he said.

The Bahamdan Connection

According to the firm's website, Safanad's founder and CEO is Kamal Bahamdan, a Saudi national. "Mr. Bahamdan has also been the CEO of the Bahamdan [investment] Group," according to his profile.

Kamal Bahamdan's current relationship with the Bahamdan Investment Group is unclear, but the Bahamdan firm maintains a controlling interest in Safanad. According to its SEC filings brochure, Safanad is "controlled by Bahamdan Investment Group and KB Group Holdings Ltd." KB Group Holdings Ltd., according to Safanad's SEC filing form, is owned by the Bahamdan Investment Group.

The Bahamdan Investment Group is a Saudi-based investment firm founded by Sheikh Abdullah Salem Bahamdan, Kamal Bahamdan's father, according to Rocket Reach, a corporate sales, recruiting, and marketing website that published a Bahamdan company history calling Kamal Bahamdan the "third generation" of financial leadership of the Bahamdan Investment Group and "[Abdullah] Bahamdan's son."

In numerous online profiles, Abdullah Salem Bahamdan (also Abdullah S. Bahamdan, Abdullah Salim Bahamdan, and Abdullah Bahamdan) is described as a "seasoned banker" and one of "the Middle East's most prominent and influential financiers."

Abdullah Bahamdan also spent more than 50 years as the chairman of "Saudi Arabia's National Commercial Bank, the largest lender in the Arab world," according to Institutional Investor. National Commercial Bank (NCB), which merged with Samba Financial Group in 2021 to form Saudi National Bank (SNB), was established in 1953 by royal decree, according to the SNB website, with the Saudi government as its major shareholder.

Despite its close relationship to the Saudi government, NCB was one among 16 financial institutions that were fined by the Saudi Monetary Authority in 2019 "for violating principles of responsible finance," according to Reuters. "[T]he violations were related to exceeding debt burdens imposed on people in proportion to their monthly income."

In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department settled a lawsuit with NCB accusing the bank of violating U.S. sanctions against Syria and Sudan between November 2011 to August 2014.

The bank and Abdullah Bahamdan have been the subjects of at least twolawsuits accusing them of financing terrorist groups, which may have been part of what prompted the Saudi government to, in 2017, "crack down on corruption" in its banking industry, Reuters reported.

Perhaps as a result of the crackdown, SNB claims on its website that it "has developed a Bank-wide Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing Policy."

Mixing Charter School Investments With Subpar Senior Care

Aside from its investments in Pansophic Learning, Safanad has made some of its biggest commercial real estate deals in the health care sector, principally in senior care facilities, including assisted living, independent living, memory care, and nursing homes, frequently called skilled nursing facilities.

Senior Housing News reported that Safanad teamed up with investment firm Formation Capital, an Atlanta-based health-care-focused private investment company, to purchase 36 senior care facilities in 2011, and, in 2012, the partners spent $750 million to acquire 68 more nursing homes located in East Coast states. The acquisitions made the two investment firms "one of the United States' largest standalone skilled nursing portfolios," according to Senior Housing News, with "more than $1 billion worth of senior care assets in the U.S."

In 2013, the same two investment firms purchased a "36-property senior housing portfolio for approximately $400 million," reported Senior Housing News, and in 2014, the two firms struck another deal to buy "14 skilled nursing facilities in the mid-Atlantic for about $150 million," according to Senior Housing News.

The deals Safanad and Formation Capital struck to acquire senior care facilities are strikingly similar to the business transactions Safanad conducted with Pansophic Learning in the charter school sector, principally, buying up financially struggling service businesses that receive large amounts of public funding—in the case of the senior care sector, from Medicare and Medicaid—and that also happen to include significant holdings of real estate.

The nursing home and senior living facilities industry was struggling financially before the pandemic, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. Facilities had been cutting corners for years, skating by with too few staff, due to stagnating wages, and sometimes hiring unskilled workers instead of highly trained personnel.

COVID-19 simply revealed an industry that was already "broken," reported NBC News, citing "low pay, high turnover, and tough working conditions" as chronic problems in the senior care facilities industry.

Yet the growing presence of private equity investors in the senior care industry has done little to help the industry and appears to have done mostly harm.

A 2020 study found that private equity ownership of nursing homes and other kinds of senior living facilities increased costs to the public by 19 percent while shortening the lifespans of patients.

Patients in facilities with substantial private equity backing tended to have less access to nurses, declining mobility, and greater use of antipsychotic medications, the study found. Consequently, "private equity ownership increases short-term mortality by 10 percent," the authors claimed, "which implies about 21,000 lives lost due to private equity ownership over our sample period."

As with the for-profit prison industry, many of the problems posed by private investment firms in the senior care industry, according to the study, can be sourced to "high-powered for-profit incentives… [being] misaligned with the social goals of quality care at a reasonable cost."

The study distinguished private equity for-profit ownership from "generic" for-profit ownership because "private equity ownership confers distinct incentives to quickly and substantially increase the value of their portfolio firms." It is this form of intense, high-powered profit-maximizing incentives, the authors asserted, "that characterize[s] private equity… [and could lead to] detrimental implications for consumer welfare."

Investor-driven senior care facilities were especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2020 article in the New York Times reported.

"Decades of ownership by private equity and other private investment firms left many nursing homes with staggering bills and razor-thin margins," according to the article.

"The toll of putting profits first started to show when the outbreak began," the article continued. "[S]ome for-profit homes were particularly ill equipped and understaffed, which undercut their ability to contain the spread of the coronavirus."

Among the for-profit operators that appear to have fared poorly in the pandemic is Consulate Health Care, one of the providers that were snapped up by Safanad and Formation Capital in 2014, according to Senior Housing News. In a 2021 report, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project lists Formation Capital as the owner of Consulate Health Care.

Nursing homes operated by Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, according to numerous newsreports from Florida and Virginia. The high incidence of outbreaks has, in part, prompted a U.S. House committee to launch an investigation into the country's five largest for-profit nursing home companies, including Consulate Health Care, Politico reported in 2020.

Creative Ways to Wring Profits

As the New York Times reported in 2020, while senior care facilities often struggle financially, their private equity-backed owners have "found creative ways to wring profits out of them."

Some of these creative ways include charging their operators "hefty management and consulting fees"; buying the real estate from the operators and then leasing the buildings back to the operators, while upping the rents; and pushing their operators to buy products and services from companies that are controlled by the investors.

The real estate plays these firms pull off are particularly lucrative, the New York Times noted, because the buildings are often "more valuable than the businesses themselves."

A 2018 article in the Naples Daily News described how these arrangements work in Consulate Health Care facilities owned by Formation Capital, the state's largest provider.

Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital both operate a network of other related businesses—including "real estate, management, rehabilitation and other companies"—that they use as subcontractors for the nursing homes they own.

So when "[t]axpayer money flows to Consulate nursing homes," the article explained, some of the money also goes to subcontractors that are related to the owners, Consulate Health Care and its controlling company, Formation Capital. "[A]nd profits earned go to the chain's owner, the Atlanta-based private equity firm Formation Capital," the article stated.

One of the Consulate Health Care nursing homes highlighted in the article pays its owner and management fees to two Consulate companies and also pays its lease payments and rehabilitation service fees to providers that are both related to Formation Capital.

"In each case," the article said, "the money flows back to Formation Capital and its wealthy investors," which include Safanad.

Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools operate similar business arrangements that help their organizations maximize their profits, according to a 2021 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE).

Much in the same way Consulate Health Care facilities and Formation Capital push their nursing homes into contracts with their other related businesses, Accel and Pansophic use "a complex web of corporations," according to NPE, to "control the operations of the school and in doing so, steer business to their related services."

The report highlighted Accel-managed Broadway Academy, in Cleveland, a charter school previously owned by White Hat Management, according to the Accel Schools contract with the school.

Under the "fees" section in the terms of that contract—originally with for-profit management company Chippewa Community School, LLC, which is now a subsidiary of Accel Schools Ohio LLC—the school, referred to in the contract as the corporation, pays the operator (Accel, by way of its subsidiary Chippewa Community School, LLC) 96 percent of the school's monthly qualified gross revenue, which is the per-pupil revenue the school receives from the state. In return, Accel is the sole source to provide the school with school staffing and professional development, school management and consulting, textbooks, equipment, technology, student recruitment, building payments, maintenance, custodial service, security, and capital improvements.

In other words, there's nothing that stops Accel or Pansophic from creating yet more subsidiaries and other related companies that can do business with Broadway Academy. According to the contract, Accel can subcontract services "without the [Broadway Academy] Board's approval," and property purchased by Accel "shall remain… [Accel's] sole property."

According to NPE, these kinds of contracts, known as "sweeps," are commonplace in the for-profit charter school industry.

"Sweeps contracts give for-profits the authority to run all school services in exchange for all or nearly all of the school's revenue," said the NPE report.

Taxpayer funding for the Broadway Academy that isn't swept up by Accel's continuing fee must be deposited into a "Student Enrichment Fund" for "educational services in the areas of student cultural activities[,] … supplemental tutoring services, and other programs." Accel has sole authority to "propose uses for such funds," and "85 percent of all Student Enrichment Funds not spent during the fiscal year in which they are received shall be paid over to [Accel]."

While Accel's contract with Broadway Academy doesn't include real estate, the authors of the NPE report searched the database of Ohio charter school contracts, called "community schools documents," and found that "Global School Properties Ohio, LLC holds the leases for many Accel charter schools. The… [landlord] is at the same 1650 Tysons Blvd. address in McLean, Virginia, as Pansophic [Learning]."

Profiting From D- and F-Rated Schools

School choice and charter school advocates are often quick to defend for-profit charter companies and their private investors, arguing that they are "sector agnostic" about who owns and operates a school and care only about the school's "results."

But what constitutes good results in education is a much-debated topic, and studies about the results of for-profit charter schools have found mixed results at best.

A 2017 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students who attend for-profit charter schools have weaker growth in math than they would have in a district public school and similar growth in reading. Students in nonprofit charter schools experienced stronger academic growth in both subjects than their peers enrolled in for-profit charters. The differences were "significant," according to the study.

Also in 2017, Chalkbeat reported, "studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don't find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores."

None of these studies examined the performance of Accel Schools or the impact of private equity in the for-profit charter industry.

But based on Ohio's A-F grading system, Accel Schools in the Cleveland area, where the management company has its highest density of schools, has no schools with A or B ratings from the 2018-2019 school year, the last one measured due to the pandemic. There are three C-ratedschools, including Broadway Academy. Eleven others are D- and F-rated schools. Among the F-rated schools is the school Trump visited in 2016, the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy.

The problems posed by the charter school industry and its for-profit sector have not gone unnoticed by Democratic Party elected officials and their voters.

A 2021 survey found that public support for charter schools is waning, especially in the Democratic Party where favorability has fallen to an all-time low of only 33 percent. Our Schools has previously noted that Democratic Party politicians are steadily drifting away from their once-avid support of the industry, especially the ones operated for profit.

Nevertheless, out of seven charter schools that have applied to open in West Virginia, where charter schools had not been allowed to open until 2021, five of the proposed schools would be operated as for-profit entities, and of those five, three would be operated by Accel.

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 the increasingly popular community schools model is boosting rural America

The often hidden reality of rural schools in America is that a higher percentage of students in rural areas live in poverty compared to metro school districts, according to a 2021 profile of rural schools done by Ohio teacher Daniel Bailey for Edutopia. These students also tend to face unique challenges, including limited access to medical care and ongoing fallout from the opioid crisis that has significantly impacted rural communities across the country.

"Rural districts are an often-overlooked part of the complex American education system," Bailey noted, which is a point that was also echoed in a 2020 article by New York Times education reporter Erica Green, who wrote that despite the fact that one in seven U.S. students attends school in a rural district, these often geographically large school systems have "long been considered the most underfunded and ignored in the country."

These revelations about rural schools aren't news to Deanna Hron, a longtime employee of the Deer River, Minnesota, school system, who is well aware of the challenges facing rural students. When she began her career in Deer River in the 1980s, working as an elementary school teacher, she observed that many of her young students showed up to school without their basic needs being met, including essentials such as dental care, food, and reliable transportation.

She soon realized that it wouldn't be possible to meet all those needs solely within the classroom and did what she could to help students and families access resources within the town of Deer River and Itasca County, its home base.

These days, Hron is largely credited by colleagues with being the life force behind the district's 2016 adoption of a full-service community schools model. Since then, Deer River students and staffers have had more tools in place through this community schools approach, which prioritizes not only the academic needs of kids but also the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the whole community.

Adoptions of the community schools model are often associated with urban school systems such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati, but this approach offers substantial benefits for rural districts whose needs are often overlooked by politicians and policymakers.

A quick glance at demographic data for the Deer River school district indicates that the need for such comprehensive support clearly exists.

Deer River Public Schools is a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota. The town of Deer River has an equal number of residents—around 900—but the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles, boosting both its enrollment numbers and the complexity of issues the school district has to tackle.

Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and is anchored by the breathtaking expanse of Leech Lake, which boasts nearly 200 miles of picturesque shoreline.

Approximately one-third of Deer River's student population is Native American, and therefore these students belong to a demographic group that is known to be consistently underserved by Minnesota's public schools.

More than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless. On top of that, almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.

It's numbers like these, along with the faces and names behind them, that prompted Hron and her fellow Deer River staffers to seek access to more resources through the community schools approach, an effort that was already showing promise in the nearby Duluth public school system.

'Fishing Poles, Beds, and Bikes'

"The momentum for the full-service model started five or six years ago," Hron says, right after district employees successfully lobbied the community for a $10.5 million referendum.

The injection of taxpayer dollars was needed to upgrade the town's elementary school, and, in order to sweeten the pot, Hron and her colleagues decided to pitch the referendum as a way to add more services to the school building.

"We included a senior center and an early childhood wing in our plans," she says, noting that these additions made the project "easier to sell to the public."

It also helped lay the groundwork for what came next: a grant to bring the full-service community schools model to Deer River. In 2015, the Minnesota state legislature authorized $500,000 in one-time startup funds for school districts interested in exploring the community schools approach, and Hron and other Deer River employees jumped at the chance to bring even more services to area students and their families.

The district's longtime superintendent, Matt Grose, was supportive of the idea, Hron recalls, and had already helped bring mental health services to the area's schools. The statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota, also pitched in with programmatic support and startup resources.

Although there was support for the full-service model in Deer River, thanks in large part to Grose's leadership, it wasn't always easy to get it off the ground. For one thing, while money from the initial implementation grant lasted eight months in Deer River and helped put the full-service community schools model in place, it wasn't enough to sustain it.

District personnel then used some general education fund dollars to cover costs associated with the program's implementation until a federal grant opportunity arose in 2019. The Department of Education authorized grants worth millions of dollars for full-service community schools throughout the U.S. that year, and, while Deer River applied but wasn't selected then, in 2020 the district did receive a five-year grant worth $2.2 million.

The money was a "pie in the sky" dream, says Hron's colleague, Betsy Johnson, and was made all the more substantial thanks to an additional $2.4 million from area organizations such as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Johnson has worked in the Deer River area since 2007, mostly through a public health program operated by the University of Minnesota Extension. With a background in health and nutrition, Johnson was already serving on the board of Deer River's full-service community schools, when she laughingly says she "failed at retirement" and started working as a grant project manager for the district.

In her role, Johnson also serves as the family resource coordinator, connecting families to the various services available to them through the full-service community schools model.

These services have included access to essential resources during the pandemic, when Deer River staff members delivered groceries to families in need and conducted home visits to make sure students—especially those who were not regularly attending online learning classes—were okay.

An article in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review highlighted Deer River's full-service model, noting how staff provided other specific items requested by families during the COVID-19 shutdown, including "fishing poles, beds, and bikes."

'I Was One of Those Kids'

Positions like the one Johnson holds are possible thanks to the 2020 federal grant Deer River won, and the money also allowed the district to expand this model to the high school level.

There, 2015 Deer River High School graduate Kole Schultz acts as the site coordinator, working directly with students to keep them connected and on track. There is an Anishinaabe education room in the school that is geared toward the needs of the school's Native American students, who may want a place of their own where they can find a friendly face or perhaps an afterschool snack or two.

"I was one of those kids, and I know how delicate things can be," Schultz says, when thinking of the issues faced by these kids, including generational trauma and limited access to modern-day essentials such as consistent broadband services. Schultz left Deer River after graduation but came back when he saw an opportunity, through the site coordinator position, to "help and give back."

The pandemic is making his on-site support more necessary than ever.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit Deer River hard, exacerbating longstanding challenges to the area's health care system—thanks, in part, to the ongoing opioid epidemic—and disrupting the vital cashflow brought to the area through its tourism industry.

The school district has also been grappling with fallout from the shutdown of in-person learning, which Johnson says led to a rise in chronic absenteeism among students. Although the district was able to implement hybrid instruction for most of the 2020-2021 school year, meaning students were not required to be online full time, she estimates that around 30 percent of kids did not consistently show up to school throughout the year.

This happened across the country, too, with Education Week reporting that student absenteeism rates doubled during the pandemic. These disruptions are likely to continue into the 2021 school year in Deer River and elsewhere, as the spread of the Delta variant casts an uncertain light on back-to-school plans.

'Heading Into a Challenging New Year'

"We are heading into a challenging new year," Johnson acknowledges. It will be important to reestablish routines and expectations, she notes, while also stating that many area families are dealing with not only the pandemic but also an uptick in drug overdoses and suicides.

What she wants most for her community is for them to know that the full-service community schools model is intended to be a source of support for everyone in the area, no matter what they might need. Hron remembers a kindergartner whose academic work soared after she received much-needed on-site dental care. Johnson recalls helping an elderly woman access Depend undergarments when she couldn't get to the store on her own.

These seemingly small services are actually essential, both women note, especially in a far-reaching rural community like Deer River. The nearest store might be a 10 or 15-minute drive away, and that store is likely to be a convenience store—not a cheaper, more robustly stocked grocery outlet. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that many area residents do not have a reliable car at their disposal.

"My hope is that our vision for this full-service community school includes all people in [the] Deer River [district] who might need something," Johnson states.

She and her fellow staff members appear to be off to a good start, and the model they've implemented could serve as an example of the community-changing potential of the full-service community schools in both urban and rural districts.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How schools can address their community’s deep trauma

Sizi Goyah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is overflowing with enthusiasm these days.

It's summer, and students from Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where he teaches, have been spending their days outside, learning about drones and other hands-on science and technology topics.

"They are seeing engineering coming to life," Goyah says happily, noting that the summer program he's part of is a way to help students re-engage in learning after the disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns.

The summer school option has been brought to life with help from local partners that work alongside Brooklyn Center Community Schools, an approach that is standard practice for this suburban school district.

That's because the district operates under a full-service community school model and is structured around close collaboration between the school system and area resources. This includes not only support for summer school courses but also a whole range of on-site and community-based initiatives.

For Goyah, who says he is "absolutely looking forward" to returning to school in person this fall, the community school model in Brooklyn Center has been an enduring source of stability.

"As a teacher, I see the value in being a community school, and that's why I've stayed in Brooklyn Center for so long," he noted, as he embarks on his 10th year in the district.

The benefit of having a community-centered school dedicated to addressing more than just students' academic needs came into sharp focus in April 2021.

That's when a young Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center. Wright's death brought more trauma to a community that was already reeling from racial strife, particularly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in nearby Minneapolis.

Thanks to the existing full-service model, Goyah recalls, Brooklyn Center school staff members and supporters were able to swiftly jump into action on behalf of community members who were struggling with Wright's killing and the unrest that followed.

What Full-Service Community Schools Are Especially Equipped to Do

Offering assistance in a time of crisis is something full-service community schools may be especially equipped to do. That's because they are intended to exist as a hub for the community, with a mission to serve students, staff, and families in a comprehensive manner.

This means districts such as Brooklyn Center, which adopted the model in 2009, provide much more than academic instruction to students.

Instead, Brooklyn Center schools partner with local providers in order to ensure students' needs, as well as those of the wider community, are being met as conveniently and quickly as possible.

In Goyah's view, the benefits of this model are numerous. It delivers a variety of services to students, staff, families, and the broader community, including appointments for mental health counseling, a physical, or an eye exam, for example, that can be scheduled during the school day.

Such access "removes barriers," he states, while pointing out that students in need of eyeglasses can get both the exam and the prescription filled at school, for free.

This expanded view of education is especially important considering the demographics of Brooklyn Center and its public school district. Nearly 75 percent of the 2,300 K-12 students who attend the schools in the district live in poverty, according to the federal criteria.

An 'Educational Equity-Focused Model'

When Wright was killed in April, his death brought renewed attention to the challenges Brooklyn Center is facing, particularly in racial and economic terms. As National Public Radio reporter Becky Sullivan noted, it is Minnesota's "most diverse city," thanks in part to a steep and recent decline in the number of white residents.

While white and middle-class residents have moved away from Brooklyn Center—partially because decent-paying jobs have also left the area—immigrants and people living in poverty have moved in.

Sullivan's piece for NPR contains two stark data points: As the median income "dropped more than 16 percent from 2000 to 2018," the poverty rate "more than doubled since 2000."

This makes Brooklyn Center an ideal place for the kind of wraparound support that a full-service community school can provide, according to a 2019 report from the statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota.

The report describes full-service community schools as an "educational equity-focused model that places the needs of students at the center of analysis and decision-making in school improvement."

The goal is to tackle the underlying causes of the disparities that show up in the classroom rather than focus more narrowly on students' academic needs, while also empowering community members to solve problems that are relevant to them.

An Alternative to Competition-Based School Reform

Such an approach bears little resemblance to the choice and competition-based school reform plans that have received extensive bipartisan support in recent decades.

Billions in federal taxpayer dollars have in fact been directed to the mostly unregulated charter school industry over the past 20 years, according to watchdog groups such as the Center for Media and Democracy, with the supposed goal of leveling the playing field for students from marginalized communities.

This flood of cash has led to numerous scandals in states such as Ohio and Arizona, where charter school operators have absconded with the public's money, leaving desperate communities in their wake.

Minnesota, where the nation's first charter school opened in 1991, has had its share of such scandals as well. Recently, it was revealed that a Saint Paul charter school called Hmong College Prep Academy lost nearly $5 million in taxpayer money after illegally investing millions in a New Jersey-based hedge fund.

Along the way, students and families have not been better served by the growing charter school industry, from the perspective of groups such as the NAACP and the Network for Public Education. Chicago-based education justice activist Jitu Brown addressed this issue at a forum on public education held in Pittsburgh during the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

With a list of Democratic presidential hopefuls in attendance, Brown referred to school choice as an "illusion" and instead advocated for "sustainable community schools" that provide a comprehensive, quality education for all children.

Serving the Community in a Time of Crisis

The idea that a school could function more as a community hub and less like an isolated outpost was put to the test shortly after Wright was killed on a Brooklyn Center street earlier this year.

Wright's death at the hands of a police officer occurred as the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin was wrapping up just a few miles away, in downtown Minneapolis, for the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Chauvin was eventually found guilty of murdering Floyd, and his trial, along with Wright's killing, put the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area on edge.

It also led to nightly protests at Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters, which sits across the street from the city's high school campus. The clashes between police and protesters escalated quickly, thanks to an aggressive, militarized response from National Guard soldiers tasked with quashing unrest.

When the officers began firing flash-bangs and tear gas at the crowd, many Brooklyn Center families who live in the area suddenly found themselves in need of food, shelter, and comfort.

This crisis heightened both the ongoing challenges that area residents have been facing, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the healing potential present in full-service community schools.

"Brooklyn Center is already a food desert," Goyah says, and so the community knew families would have an even harder time accessing groceries amid the ongoing protests.

Donations soon rolled in, allowing Goyah and his colleagues to distribute items such as diapers, Gatorade, food, and COVID-safe masks. Soon, a GoFundMe account that was started on behalf of the community had garnered more than $100,000 in cash donations.

Rhonda Johnson Marn works alongside Goyah at Brooklyn Center High School, where she will soon begin her 10th year as an English teacher. She agrees with Goyah that the district's full-service model made it much easier to serve the community in a time of crisis.

Getting resources to people in need wouldn't have happened "as quickly and efficiently had we not been a community school with existing relationships with organizations and businesses that could donate supplies, money, and time," she said.

One issue full-service community schools often face is a lack of sustainable funding, which Johnson Marn called a hindrance.

Recently, the Biden administration threw its weight behind this model by proposing more than $400 million in new funding to expand these schools. This represents a sharp turn away from the federal government's long-standing investment in school choice schemes that often pull students out of their community.

Now, with examples like that of Brooklyn Center, it is possible to see community schools as a source of support and strength, especially in times of crisis.

Not every school community is facing the kinds of challenges linked to systemic racism and poverty that Brooklyn Center has, of course. But it's certainly possible to see from the past year, when the pandemic forced many school districts to quickly pivot to distance learning, that no community really knows exactly when they'll need more support.

As a new school year begins,⁠ with ample evidence that teachers will need to address pandemic-caused trauma that has affected children and communities, the full-service community school model might just be worth a closer look.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

The for-profit charter school problem

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

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

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

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

The For-Profit Charter Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'A Well-Funded Misinformation Campaign'

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

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

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

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

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

Misleading to Say the Least

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

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

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

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

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

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

How That Game Is Played

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'None of This Is Really About Critical Race Theory'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlawing 'Divisiveness' in Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Choice's 'Best Year Ever'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How 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.

I believed the charter school myth — until I learned about the reality and who was behind it

I fell for the charter school hype. I agreed with former President Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan who advocated for "school choice." I trusted the research that said charters "close [the] achievement gap" for Black and Latino students. When I saw "Waiting for 'Superman,'" I rooted for the kids in the documentary to escape their failing public schools by snagging spots at charter schools. And though I encountered very few bad teachers in my four years teaching and 12 years learning at public schools, I never questioned why Time published stories about "Rotten Apple" teachers being swept out of classrooms by wealthy education "reformers."

I believed the hype so much that in 2012, knowing almost nothing about charter schools and having no administrative experience, I joined a friend in submitting a half-baked petition to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with the intention of starting our own charter school. When LAUSD denied it, we presented it to the Culver City Unified School District, which also, rightfully, rejected it.

Still intrigued by charters, in 2016 I interviewed for an English teacher position with a woman I'll call Ellen Peters, the principal and co-founder of Savior Academy, a charter school serving grades six through 12. (The names of the school, administrators and students have been changed for this story.) Her assertion that the close bond between students and staff made it feel "like a family" inspired me to sign a non-union contract on the spot, though the school had recently lost its co-founder Cathy Reynolds (name changed), who stepped down from the board, and several teachers, who resigned.

But the chasm between the hype and reality became evident to me immediately upon starting work. There were high attrition rates of students and teachers. Over the summer, more than half the faculty resigned and were replaced by new teachers. About three-quarters of the students hadn't returned either, and though new kids had registered, the enrollment wasn't anywhere near what was needed in order to be fiscally stable, because funding was tied to enrollment. There were legal violations: The special education teacher had 43 students, though the law capped class sizes at 28. The overage made him fall behind on students' individualized education plans (IEPs), making the school noncompliant on special education requirements.

It was clear to the new teachers, who were carrying heavy course loads and referred to getting through the workweek as "surviving," that this was unacceptable. But what kept the indefatigable old-timers going was an upcoming election of the LAUSD Board of Education in 2017, in which charter school advocate Nick Melvoin was running to unseat charter school skeptic Steve Zimmer in District 4, which stretched from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley. The election made headlines in the Los Angeles Times and HuffPost.

Board president Zimmer wasn't Principal Peters' favorite person. He'd rejected her petition for authorization of Savior Academy, which was later approved by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). He also refused to give her space in her desired upscale Westside town, so the school was now in its third home, co-located with a public school in South Los Angeles. Peters and her loyal teachers were hoping that if Melvoin won, the pro-charter board majority would help them get permanent space on the Westside. Their bumper stickers and T-shirts were splashed with the campaign slogan "Kids First," which referred to Melvoin's promise to put the interests of children before those of the teachers' union.

They weren't the only ones flacking for Melvoin. Co-founder Cathy Reynolds' son Matt, who was in my senior English class, was working on Melvoin's campaign and writing about it in his college applications. Matt's connection to Melvoin likely helped to distinguish him from other applicants, such as Indian immigrant Priyanka, who was his rival for valedictorian and also in my senior English class (the students' names have been changed to protect their identity). It is possible that this gave him a leg up in the admissions process.

Growing suspicious, I started investigating Melvoin and uncovered a dark side behind the benevolent narrative of "Kids First" that was spun by his campaign and echoed by the leadership of our school.

Who Controls the Charter School Narrative?

I learned that billionaires fund local school board elections across America in order to accelerate charter school growth. In District 4 in Los Angeles, Steve Zimmer was financed by teachers' unions while Nick Melvoin was reportedly bankrolled by California billionaires Eli Broad, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, and Gap clothing company co-founder Doris Fisher, as well as out-of-towners like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Walmart heirs and siblings Jim and Alice Walton, and others in an expensive race.

The political arm of the California Charter Schools Association, CCSA Advocates, was active in trying to get Melvoin elected. As Capital and Main reported, "In a low-turnout election that set a new record as the most expensive school board contest in U.S. history, CCSA and charter philanthropists… outspent Zimmer on Melvoin's behalf" by almost $4 million. While CCSA Advocates spent much of its billionaire-donated money directly, it also "funneled dollars" to astroturf groups like the Parent Teacher Alliance, a pro-charter organization that is not the Parent Teacher Association.

Furthermore, CCSA Advocates donated to an organization called Speak UP, which was a "strong opponent" of Zimmer, according to the Los Angeles Times, and whose co-founder and CEO Katie Braude resides in the Pacific Palisades, where the median home price is about $3.4 million. Braude helped launch the Palisades Charter School Complex, which sought to serve "all students in an ethnically and economically diverse student body," according to her bio on the Speak UP website. But at Palisades Charter High School, "[w]hite students are 2.8 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Black students," while "Black students are 7 times as likely to be suspended as [w]hite students," according to ProPublica. In 2016 and 2017, Black students were victims of hate crimes at Palisades Charter High School, and in 2020, a Black teacher sued the school for racial discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." According to the Pacific Palisades Patch, Pamela Magee, the school's executive director and principal, responded to the teacher's allegations via email, "PCHS is an equal opportunity employer, and we take allegations of discrimination seriously."

Among Speak UP's volunteers was our co-founder Cathy Reynolds, mom of my student Matt who worked on Melvoin's campaign. Speak UP gave her a platform on its blog to criticize Steve Zimmer's alleged animosity toward our school. But as I learned more about him, I realized that Zimmer, a 16-year-veteran teacher who had attendedpublic schools and was the son of educators, probably understood how to put "kids first" better than did Melvoin, who taught for two years, graduated from the exclusive Harvard-Westlake (alma mater of Jake Gyllenhaal and Lily Collins) and was the son of a TV writer/producer and a photojournalist.

Melvoin's list of individual donations, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, is filled with some of the same moguls who donated to CCSA Advocates, such as Eli Broad and Reed Hastings. It also includes then-co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios Alan F. Horn, president of the Emerson Collective Laurene Powell Jobs, and Martha L. Karsh and her husband Bruce Karsh, who at the time of the election was the chair of the Tribune Media Company, which then owned the Los Angeles Times. (Bruce Karsh stepped down from the Tribune in October 2017, five months after the school board election.)

The billionaires who fund school board races across the country also finance education reporting. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which was partly behind a $490 million plan reported in 2015 to enroll half of LAUSD's students in charters by 2023, funded the Los Angeles Times' reporting initiative Education Matters with the Baxter Family Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation, which also support charters. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amazon (whose founder and former CEO—now executive chairman—Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post) fund the Seattle Times' Education Lab. The Bezos Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, fund Chalkbeat. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation fund Education Week and The 74, which owns the LA School Report. The Gates Foundation finances the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), whose "Fixes" column in the New York Times covers education and other issues. And Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective owns the Atlantic, which has a robust education section.

Both news stories and opinion pieces in the aforementioned outlets are slanted toward the interests of funders. As Tim Schwab wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, SJN co-founders David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg "have favorably profiled Gates-funded education, agriculture, and global health programs over the years" in their "Fixes" column in the New York Times "without disclosing that they work for an organization that receives millions of dollars from Gates." Furthermore, the Seattle Times' Education Lab, which is partnered with SJN, has published positive reporting on Gates' charter school initiatives. The Atlantic published largely uncritical pieces about Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and former education secretary Arne Duncan when he was promoting his book. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, published editorials calling for charter school expansion, and it endorsed Nick Melvoin not once but twice.

When it comes to honest reporting on charter schools, the mainstream media is set up to be an unreliable narrator.

Unhealthy Competition Between Schools Leads to Under-Enrollment

A month into the academic year at Savior Academy, we received an infusion of kids from City High School, a charter that closed abruptly because of under-enrollment. Although the Los Angeles Times reported the story, it didn't mention the bigger issue: Most charters were under-enrolled, making it difficult for even the promising ones to stay open. Some charters had less than 20 percent of what was projected in their petitions, according to a 2016 article in Education Week. Eighty-two percent of "charter schools operating within LAUSD" were under-enrolled in 2019, according to LAUSD board member Scott Schmerelson, who posted this information on Facebook, and in 2020 the number rose to 85 percent. (Claims of waitlists in the billionaire-funded "Waiting for 'Superman'" should be met with skepticism.)

In 2017, then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that picking a school should be as easy as choosing to ride with Lyft, Uber or a taxi. In Los Angeles, it is that easy, which creates chaos for students and teachers who bounce around from school to school. California, which the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss once described as "the Wild West" of the charter sector, has more charters than any other state while LAUSD has more charters than any other district in the country. Charters drain about 12,000 students and nearly $600 million a year from LAUSD, so public schools are also under-enrolled.

Charter school activists have created two competing school systems battling for an advantage, and kids are the pawns. This was evident in our co-location with a public school in South Los Angeles. Because we were still under-enrolled, Principal Peters pressured teachers to recruit students. I declined, but a few others went along with it, enlisting some kids from neighboring schools. They also poached a couple of students from our co-located school, which was under-enrolled as well, along with the funding that followed them.

Charter Schools and Propaganda

While I found incisive reporting on charter school co-locations in the Huffington Post, I was disappointed to discover many more opinion pieces that were supportive of co-location, such as one in The 74 by its co-founder Campbell Brown, who accused New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio of engaging in "a bizarrely personal and destructive death match" because he denied co-locations to Success Academy Charter Schools. (Brown served on Success Academy's board and called herself a "soldier in Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz's army." She now works for Facebook, which some consider a political propaganda machine because of its failure to vet political ads.)

In his 2015 book How Propaganda Works, Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley writes that propaganda deceives by appealing to emotions over reason, encouraging an "us" versus "them" mentality through negative stereotypes, and destroying "reasonableness" that depends on "norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability." Because propaganda relies on false claims, distorted facts, and simplistic narratives, it thrives in a polarized environment, which education certainly is. Furthermore, public relations and propaganda are intimately linked.

Melvoin's campaign slogan "Kids First," the type of phrase that's popular in "education reform" circles, implies that charter schools put children first while public schools put teachers first. But you can't put kids first while putting teachers last and expect kids to be okay. According to a 2016 Pennsylvania State University research brief, "When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance." At our charter school, the sixth-grade humanities teacher was laid off because the grade was under-enrolled, according to an email Principal Peters sent to families, and the overworked physics teacher missed many days of work due to the stress. It was clear to me that this affected some of our students, who were acting out and getting rampantly suspended. Even Priyanka, who had been tied for valedictorian with Matt, was now falling behind in her classes.

While "school choice" claims to "close [the] achievement gap," charters serving a majority-minority population "are among the nation's most segregated," according to the Associated Press, and high levels of segregation are connected to wide gaps in educational achievement. As Howard University assistant professor Natalie Hopkinson wrote in HuffPost, school choice has led to white flight from public schools, threatening their survival, a problem at LAUSD and across the United States.

Learning more about Steve Zimmer, I realized he wasn't the evil person a pro-charter political action committee called "LA Students 4 Change" portrayed him to be when they sent out mailers that were similar to the "iconic imagery from advertising for the Netflix series 'Making a Murderer.'" Zimmer had actually done a lot for kids by increasing arts funding and authoring "the school board resolution in support of the Dream Act." Conversely, Melvoin had participated in Vergara v. California and Reed v. California, which aimed to dismantle teacher tenure. While the lawsuits were initially successful, both were overturned on appeal.

But support for Melvoin was growing. Not only was he endorsed by former education secretary Arne Duncan and former California Senator Barbara Boxer, but even our teachers' spouses were canvassing for him.

Principal Peters, meanwhile, continued placing demands on us that seemed to us absurd, and there was little recourse since we weren't protected by a union. An old-timer confessed to me that teachers had tried unionizing, but Peters had shut them down. Some quit, while the ones who stayed appeared to have Stockholm Syndrome. The special education teacher told me that the stress caused by his illegal class size was making him sick. He soon quit. And Peters asked me to upload an AP syllabus to the College Board for a class I taught that was not AP. I was so worried about the situation at work that I suffered from panic attacks and eventually felt compelled to become a whistleblower.

When I spoke to Indra Ciccarelli and Dina Wilson at LACOE, they promised to investigate my claims. They also told me they'd received complaints from parents, including some of the same things in my whistleblower complaint to them, such as special education violations and rampant suspensions. One parent even filed a violation with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging discrimination against their child on the basis of disability and race, they told me. Ciccarelli and Wilson also said that they were in the process of deciding whether or not to renew the school's charter for another five years and encouraged me to stay in touch with them.

They became my lifeline, as working at the school became unbearable. When I investigated the assistant principal's son, who was in my seventh-grade English class, for bullying a classmate who had autism, the assistant principal filed a grievance against me. After she excoriated the new biology teacher for also butting heads with her son, he quit. The new calculus teacher also resigned, and a senior dropped out just short of graduating.

Melvoin seemed unaware of (or indifferent to) all of this when he visited us and smiled for pictures that he posted on Instagram. LACOE, on the other hand, proved to be an ally of the kids when it denied our school's renewal petition, citing high suspension rates, failure to meet academic benchmarks, attrition rates and other problems. When the Los Angeles Times and LA School Report covered the impending closure, the reporters didn't speak to teachers who may have revealed the climate of terror at the school. But they did allow Peters to publicly blame Steve Zimmer for the school's failure.

Nick Melvoin snagged the school board seat in May 2017, and Reynolds' son Matt attended his induction ceremony. Matt also beat Priyanka for valedictorian and got accepted into more selective colleges than she did, which was heartbreaking to witness. The Reynolds family reaped the greatest benefits from the school without being held accountable for the carnage. While they may not have set out to do that, it's how privilege works.

Will Charter Schools Become Demystified?

Teachers' voices are largely missing from the media's narrative on charter schools because they fear retribution by vengeful employers and condescending politicians and reporters. Because teachers are likely to expose the corruption and threaten the status quo, they are silenced.

Cambridge College education professor James Horn found only two teachers out of more than two dozen who agreed to use their names when he interviewed them for his book about KIPP charters, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through 'No Excuses' Teaching. One of them was Jessica Marks, who described the abuse of teachers who didn't show total compliance to KIPP's "family," leading her to have a nervous breakdown (she wasn't the only one at the school where she worked to whom this happened). Instead of praising her courage in speaking out, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews doubted the veracity of her story.

(Mathews wrote the KIPP-exalting bestseller Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America. Perhaps that's why he maligned Horn's book, which challenges harsh discipline policies that include making kids "earn" their desks by sitting on the floor to do their work.)

Unable to remain silent about my experiences at Savior Academy, I wrote an exposé and pitched it to outlets for eight months before mega-producer Shonda Rhimes' Shondaland bought and published "The Truth About Charter Schools." It went viral. Soon after, two major publishers released the charter-lauding books How the Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio and Charter Schools and Their Enemies by Thomas Sowell. But major publishers have yet to publish a charter school exposé that I know of. Horn's book was released by the independent Rowman & Littlefield, which doesn't have a lot of marketing dollars. Maybe that's why the book didn't get the attention it deserved, though Jay Mathews' attack probably didn't help.

The good news is that stories that are critical of charter schools are seeping into mainstream media. The New York Daily News covered former students, teachers and parents at Success Academy using social media to expose stories of racism in the wake of George Floyd's killing last year, including a white assistant principal erecting a bulletin board of effigies of Black bodies hanging upside down from a tree. The New York Times revealed that charter schools tapped pandemic relief funds meant for small businesses (after the Network for Public Education reported it first). And, when the funding for Education Matters at the Los Angeles Times ran out in 2017, the Times published a series on charter school fraud, including how a couple made millions by working loose laws.

Though billionaires keep pouring money into local school board elections, including last year's in Los Angeles, charter school expansion is slowing down, according to a 2019 report by the Broad and Walton-funded Bellwether Education Partners. While the report cited facility challenges and waning public support among the reasons, it didn't mention the recent Red for Ed teacher strikes, which called for a moratorium on new charters. Accompanying the strikes was a more positive depiction of teachers in the media: Time did an empathetic cover story on educators working multiple jobs to make ends meet, a departure from its previous stories about bad teachers.

A lasting change in the media's depiction of teachers would signal a turning tide in how it reports on charter schools. Perhaps now that Joe Biden, who during his campaign promised to increase charter school "accountability," has become president; public school supporter Dr. Jill Biden has become first lady; and Dr. Miguel Cardona has replaced Betsy DeVos as education secretary, the propaganda machine will lose steam. Maybe we'll even see books and movies that expose charter school corruption, which could help enact policies to preserve the vital democratic institution of public school.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Florina Rodov is a former public and charter school teacher and writer whose work has been published at CNN, the Atlantic, Shondaland, Yes! Magazine and others. She holds an MS in education from Fordham University. Her website is florinarodov.org. Follow her on Twitter @florinarodov.

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 localnewspapers, 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 rescindedmany of those guidelines, but Biden has vowed to restore them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 bookOutside 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.

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