Our Schools

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.

Joe Biden has a golden opportunity to strengthen public education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where's the opposition to these ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Are the 'Outsiders'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Big Business-Right-Wing Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Selected Not Elected'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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