Our Schools

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 two lawsuits 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 news reports 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-rated schools, 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 attended public 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 local newspapers, to nationwide campaigns, to mainstream media.

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

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

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

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

A False Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom-Up Rather Than Top-Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'What Excites Parents and Teachers'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Functioning Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Building the Right Systems'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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