How higher education can win the war against neoliberalism — and white supremacy

The exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all. — Mark Fisher

Since the 1980s, higher education has been subject to devastating attacks as a result of punishing neoliberal austerity policies and ongoing attempts by conservatives to both privatize and defund public institutions. Right-wing attacks on the public good, the corporatization and militarization of higher education and a growing authoritarianism in the culture have led, as Christopher Newfield observes, "to the abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses."

The effects are visible in the gutting of tenure-track positions, increases in tuition, an onslaught of administrative positions, and the redefinition of higher education as a competitive and profit-making institution. The attacks on tenure have been especially effective in transforming higher education into an adjunct of corporate interests. Writing in the College Post, Marianne Besas reports that "in 2018, 23.7 percent of faculty members at institutions across the country were tenured, and 10.2 percent were on a tenure track." Tenure, along with the power of faculty, is in absolute decline. Only about one in five of the overworked and beaten-down faculty members in the academic labor force have tenure.

At the same time, students are relegated to the status of clients. No longer viewed as a democratic public sphere, post-secondary education has forfeited its willingness, if not its responsibility, to instill in its students and the wider public the shared values, ideals and social practices crucial to developing democratic institutions and an informed and critically engaged public. Instead, it has become complicit with a cultural and political crisis — characterized by lies and bungling political leadership — which on the one hand has turned lethal with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and on the other hand has been mostly silent regarding the threat to democracy posed by the growing racism and authoritarianism in the wider society.

Under such circumstances, higher education has failed to create on a mass scale not only a shared national civic purpose, but also a wider formative culture promoting the habits, sensibilities, dispositions and values crucial to democracy's survival. It has detached itself from the obligations of citizenship and social responsibility, while harnessing itself to economic interests. Defined by neoliberal values, higher education has surrendered its purpose and mission to a culture of commercialism and exchange. The new normal in higher education is based on the brutalizing assumption that knowledge, ideas and visions are only valuable if they can be measured and aligned with the culture of business and the market. Everything is rated according to its monetary value and turned into an object of consumption — nothing appears to escape its regressive spiral of commodification, social atomization, and reification.

Neoliberalism freezes the scope, range and depth of education in the culture of market fluctuations and investor interests. This is especially detrimental to the role of higher education as a public good, considering that the fate of democracy's future is linked to the domain of culture — a domain in which people have to be educated critically in order to fight for securing freedom, equality, social justice, equal protection and human dignity. Agency is not being eliminated; it is being reconfigured in the image of an instrumental rationality, a market-driven model that conceals its own aggression in the name of choice, meritocracy and individual interests.

The signs of higher education's failure to define itself as a public good are everywhere, but such signs are particularly resonant in its indifference to the dark and menacing forces of a racist and totalitarian cultural politics that now engulfs American society. The collapse of conscience is widespread in a system of higher education that defines itself as a satellite of corporations. One consequence is a growing indifference to addressing larger political and social problems such as the rise of right-wing extremist movements, the spreading racial hatred and the increasing resort by the state to violence against Black people, undocumented immigrants, public health workers, school board members and women arguing for reproductive rights.

Without apology and most distinctively, the legacy of Jim Crow, with its layered racist rage and propensity for violence, has returned, asphyxiating the United States in a toxic cloud of voter suppression laws, the resurgence of police assaults against Black people and the emergence of a right-wing cultural politics. Cultural politics has become a powerful medium for social and civic death, endorsing white nationalism, pseudo-appeals to patriotic education and ongoing attempts by right-wing politicians to implement a form of apartheid pedagogy at all levels of schooling.

Rethinking cultural politics as an educational force

Education has always been a compelling element of politics yet is rarely understood as a crucial site of struggle over culture, agency, identities, values and the future itself. As Stuart Hall once noted, what has been lacking is a sense of politics being educative in order to change the way people see things and understand the larger world. The latter is an especially important insight given how the right-wing has weaponized social media as a pedagogical medium in order to spread its racist and anti-democratic ideas and values. Driving such a politics is a counterrevolutionary political and educational movement whose methods and goals are to destroy civic literacy and freedom and undermine the values and institutions necessary for sustaining human development, the planet and a thriving democracy.

What is new in the current historical moment is that right-wing cultural politics have influenced higher education and the larger society with unprecedented success. That is, as Paul Gilroy says, "the weaponization of culture and information has been much more successfully exploited by the neofascists than their disorientated opponents."

The culture wars waged against "critical race theory" have a broader political function, in that they are part of a larger battle waged by right-wing white nationalists to control and destroy education as a critical site of power, especially in its capacity to foster the common good and equip young people to hold power accountable. In the current historical moment, educating a critically literate citizenry has become dangerous. In the age of Trumpism, culture has become a battlefield, and the war is being won by extremists in the political and corporate worlds.

The current wave of Republican Party extremists understand a fundamental lesson about the power of culture, one that was brilliantly articulated by the great Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci. He noted that culture deploys power and that such power is always pedagogical. Moreover, in the current age culture is a crucial site and weapon of power and has assumed an unparalleled significance in the structure and organization of agency, identities, knowledge, social relations and the question of who inhabits the public sphere and who doesn't.

Unfortunately, resistance on the part of universities to the cultural assault waged by the current wave of white supremacist politicians has been timid. Nobel-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee is right in arguing that resistance has been "weak and ill organised; routed, the professors [have] beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire."

Repressive forms of education no longer exist on the margins of society, nor are they present in only public and higher education. They are now being enabled from the centers of power. Education infused with a neoliberal racist orthodoxy now permeates a range of corporate-controlled sites that extend from newspapers to the new digital platforms, which inundate the public with massive amounts of information defined mostly by the script of cost-benefit analysis and the need for ever-increasing profits. At the core of these repressive educational practices is a resurgence of white nationalism, a culture of fear and contempt for the truth. One result is not only the deterioration of political culture but also, as Gilroy observes, "The archive of ineffable horror [has drifted] into an indeterminate space where information is untrusted."

White nationalist educational practices, infused with neoliberal racist orthodoxy and the politics of disposability, operate increasingly through state repression, the passing of racist and sexist policies, and sanctioned police violence. They are also present in the colonization of identities, the production of manufactured ignorance and the power of a cultural politics that creates zones of abandonment where those marginalized by race, class, and religion become voiceless and unknowable. This widespread assault on rationality and truth is part of an image-based and ocular pedagogy engaged in a politics of falsehoods and erasure. In its most extreme pedagogical forms, a politics of racial hatred and exclusion cloaks itself in the false claims of "patriotism" and the right-wing call for "patriotic education," functioning largely as a form of trickery, deceit, and organized irresponsibility.

Historical amnesia coupled with a culture of lies runs amok in American society, assuming the force of a national disease, corrupting the public imagination and civic culture. Education as a vehicle for white supremacy now moves between the reactionary policies of Republican legislators who use the law to turn their states into white nationalist factories and a right-wing social media machine that uses the internet, Facebook and other online services to spread racial hatred and undermine the necessity to be reminded of the horrors of history that are resurfacing once again. White supremacy has once again turned deadly and has put democracy on trial.

The spectacle of Trumpism and its brew of white supremacist ideology and disdain for the truth undergirds the further collapse of democratic visions in higher education and broader public spheres. This is reinforced by a pandemic-generated obsession in higher education with methodologies, the growing dominance of instrumental reason and, as Peter Fleming observes, the return of "unforgiving management hierarchies that have replaced academic judgment, collegiality and professional common sense."

Universities increasingly define themselves as part of a business culture and education industry, which "incentivize students to envision themselves not as citizens of a republic but as self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers." This shift away from its civic mission makes it all the easier for higher education to become obsessed with technocratic methods focusing on delivery platforms such as Zoom and Teams. The robotic language of instrumental rationality is everywhere in higher education. The English critic Marina Warner sums it up well:

As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, so language is suborned to its ends. We have all heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated a digitally generated voice. Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through 'targets', 'benchmarks', time-charts, league tables, 'vision statements', 'content providers' [terms] that accumulate like dental plaque.

The Return of Jim Crow politics and the attack on "critical race theory"

Jim Crow politics are back with a vengeance, worn as a badge of honor. The signs are everywhere. Both during and in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party has dropped any pretense to democracy in its affirmation of authoritarian politics and embrace of white supremacy. Moreover, it has become a party of unhinged cruelty. This has been evident in the weaponizing of identity, support for a range of discriminatory policies of exclusion, construction of a border wall that has become a symbol of resurgent nativism and, under the Trump regime, the internment of children separated from undocumented parents at the southern border.

The rush to construct a homegrown form of authoritarianism is also clear in the passing of a barrage of voter suppression laws introduced in Republican-controlled state legislatures, all based on baseless claims of voter fraud. Voter suppression has become the new currency of a rebranded form of racialized fascist politics. As of Sept. 1, 361 bills had been put into play in 47 states, while 19 states had enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, particularly poor Black people.

Voter suppression laws breathe new life into white supremacy and fit nicely into the racist argument that whites are under siege by people of color who are attempting to dethrone and replace them. In this case, such laws, along with ongoing attacks on equality and social justice, are defended by right-wing extremists as justifiable measures to protect whites from the "contaminating" influence of immigrants, Black people and others considered unworthy of occupying and participating in the public sphere and democratic process. Similarly, voter suppression laws are defended as legitimate attempts to provide proof that votes are cast by "real Americans," code for defining people of color as "counterfeit citizens." In actuality, these laws are not only racist in intent but also meant to enable permanent minority rule for the Republican Party, the endpoint of which is a form of authoritarianism.

The attacks on critical race theory are a barely disguised effort by white supremacists to define who counts as an American, and form part of a long legacy in which those groups deemed unworthy of citizenship disappear. The language of historical and pedagogical erasure extends from the genocide inflicted on Native Americans to the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. It includes the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the current rise of the racialized carceral state. Forgetting has become a convenient adaptive strategy for privileging the eternal present while emptying the past of its contradictions and genocidal horrors. There is more at work here than the whitening of collective identity, the public sphere and American history. There are invocations of whiteness, as Paul Gilroy suggests, that enhance "the allure of [a] rebranded fascism."

The Republican Party's labeling of critical race theory as "ideological or faddish" both denies the history of racism as well as the ways in which it is enforced through policy, laws and institutions. For many Republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persists in American society. For instance, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has stated, "There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money." DeSantis has not only labeled critical race theory as "false history," but has extended the discourse of his unhinged attack on any vestige of critical education and critical race theory to almost unrecognizably repressive lengths. As Eric Lutz points out, DeSantis has taken

the deranged culture war a step farther, signing laws that will require students and staff at public universities to be surveyed on their political beliefs; bar higher education institutions from preventing access to ideas students may find "uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive;" and force-feeding K-12 students "portraits in patriotism" that contrasts America with communist and totalitarian regimes.

In this updated version of apartheid pedagogy and historical cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated with a form of racial hatred, leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn or confront the history and tenacity of racism in American society in the public imagination. Apartheid pedagogy transforms the criticism of racial injustice and structural racism into a breach of law and makes it an object of malignant state oppression and violence. Borrowing from Judith Butler's critique of the criminalization of knowledge in higher education, apartheid pedagogy interprets the call for democracy as sedition, and the call for freedom as a call to violence.

The attack on critical race theory restricts what educators can say and teach in the classroom and does so by invoking the language of fear and retaliation. Many teachers are not just confused about what they can and cannot say in the classroom about social justice issues but also live in daily fear over the consequences they may face "for even broaching nuanced conversations about racism and sexism." Such fears point to more than the curtailing of freedom of expression and the idealizing of history by whitewashing it. They also identify America's slide into a rebranded fascist politics that is difficult to ignore. The threat of white supremacy has even been acknowledged by President Joe Biden in a speech he delivered marking the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre. Biden warned that U.S. democracy was not only in danger but that Americans had to recognize and challenge the "deep roots of racial terror."

Legalizing racial oppression and apartheid pedagogy

The racialized climate of fear, intimidation and censorship is spreading in the United States. This is evident in the fact that anti-CRT bills have become law in eight states, while 15 state legislatures across the country have introduced bills to prevent or limit teachers from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in American society. These reactionary attacks on critical thought and emancipatory forms of pedagogy echo an earlier period in American history. Such attacks are reminiscent of the McCarthy and Red Scare period of the 1950s when heightened paranoia over the threat of communism resulted in a slew of laws that banned the teaching of material deemed unpatriotic "and required professors to swear loyalty oaths."

Such repression is never far from an abyss of ignorance. Right-wing attacks on critical race theory also ignore work by prominent Black scholars ranging from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to Angela Y. Davis and Audre Lorde. There is no mention of Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory in the 1980s. Nor is there room for complexity, evidence or facts, just as there is no room for either a critique of structural racism or the actual assumptions and influence that make up CRT's body of work. Such attacks raise fundamental questions about the goal of higher education and the role of academics in a time of mounting authoritarianism.

This is especially true at a time when higher education has become a site of derision, an object of censorship and a way of demonizing faculty and students who critically address matters of racial inequality, social injustice and other crucial social problems. Let's be clear. For the Republican Party, higher education has become a battleground for conducting a race war waged in the spirit of the Confederacy, conducted through the twin registers of censorship and indoctrination.

Right-wing politicians now use education and the power of persuasion as weapons to discredit any critical approach to grappling with the history of racial injustice and white supremacy. In doing so, they undermine and discredit the critical faculties necessary for students and others to examine history as a resource in order to "investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion." Novelist Francine Prose observes that educating young people through the indoctrinating policies and practices of "patriotic education" will further America's slide into

a nation of con artists and their hapless marks, a country of liars and of people who have never been taught how to tell when they are being lied to…. Children who are prohibited from discussing the most critical issues of the day will gravitate into progressively more atomized and irreconcilable factions, unable to participate in the free and open exchange of ideas on which our democracy depends.

Apartheid pedagogy is about denial and disappearance. It promotes a manufactured ignorance in the service of civic death and a flight from ethical and social responsibility. The right-wing attempt to impose "patriotic education" on educators is part of a longstanding counterrevolution that conservatives have waged since the student revolts of the 1960s. The calls in that decade to democratize the university and open it up to minorities of race and color were considered by many liberals and conservatives as dangerous expressions of dissent. In one famous instance, this was duly noted by ruling-class elites such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the Trilateral Commission of 1973, who complained about what was called an "excess of democracy" in the United States.

This counterrevolution also fueled the ongoing corporatization of the university, in which business models defined how the university is governed, models that viewed faculty as part-time workers and students merely as customers and consumer-spectators. Another register of this ongoing counterrevolution with its embrace of apartheid pedagogy includes an attempt by university trustees to remove faculty from making decisions regarding matters of administrative governance, faculty appointments and control of tenure.

In addition, right-wing legislators have introduced laws to limit funding for higher education institutions that teach critical race theory. For instance, Ohio state Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, a Republican, introduced a bill titled the "Promoting Education Not Indoctrination Act," which threatens to cut state funding by 25% to any Ohio public university that allows the teaching of critical race theory. Arthur's disdain for democracy was also evident in her attempts to erase from state-mandated curriculum guidelines any mention of the notion of the common good, a view in sympathy with her repugnant views of racism, environmentalism and critical thinking itself.

Such attacks are being funded by foundations such as the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, which often rely on the endorsement of conservative scholars such as Thomas Sowell. Some of the most powerful enablers of the attack on "anti-racist programs" in higher education and elsewhere include organizations such as the Koch brothers' foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The latter is particularly pernicious given that it increasingly provides the template for anti-critical race theory bills, which are then used by many state legislators. This is apartheid pedagogy parading as educational reform.

Rethinking higher education as a democratic public sphere

The U.S. slide into the chasm of white supremacy demands a revitalized understanding and rethinking of the relationship between democracy and higher education. One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students and others is the need to address the role and mission of higher education in a time of tyranny. Central to such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy. What will it take for higher education not to abandon its role as a democratic public sphere? What work must educators do to create the economic, political and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the general public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? What kind of language is necessary for higher education to redefine its mission, one that enables faculty and students to work toward a different future than one that echoes the authoritarian present, to confront the unspeakable, to recognize themselves as agents, not victims, and to muster up the courage to act in the service of a substantive and inclusive democracy? In a world where there is an increasing neglect of democratic and egalitarian principles, what will it take to educate young people and the broader public to be critically engaged citizens?

Addressing this challenge means recognizing that over the last 40 years, under the reign of neoliberalism, the role of education in cultivating a critical citizenry capable of participating in and shaping a democratic society has been undermined, if not lost. Lost also is an educational vision that takes people beyond the world of common sense, functions as a form of provocation, teaches them to be creative, exposes individuals to a variety of great traditions, embraces the arts and creates the pedagogical conditions for individuals to expand the range of human possibilities.

Under the rule of a market-based society, higher education is largely defined as a financial investment whose goal is to ensure that young people are trained to compete in a global economy. In this logic, colleges and universities are reduced to sites for training students for the workforce — a reductive vision now being imposed on higher education by Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Netflix and Google that advocate what they call the entrepreneurial goal of education.

Increasingly aligned with neoliberal interests, higher education is mostly primed for teaching business principles and corporate values, while university administrators are prized as CEOs or bureaucrats in an audit culture. Many colleges and universities have been McDonaldized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, This results in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu while devaluing knowledge that stresses humanistic values.

In the age of precarity and flexibility, the majority of faculty have been reduced to part-time positions, have been subjected to low wages, have lost control over the conditions of their labor, and have seen their benefits slashed or eliminated. Many of these academics are barely able to make ends meet because of their impoverished salaries, and some even receive food stamps.

If faculty are treated like service workers, students fare no better, and are relegated to the status of customers and clients. They are not only inundated with the competitive, privatized and market-driven values of neoliberalism, but are also punished by those values in the form of exorbitant tuition rates, astronomical debts owed to banks and other financial institutions and, in too many cases, a lack of meaningful future opportunities once they graduate.

What might it mean to make pedagogy meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative? What might it mean to defend education as a bulwark of a democratic society and use higher education as a protective space where young people can articulate their needs and learn how to write themselves back into the script of democracy?

Given the crisis of education, agency and memory that haunts the current historical conjuncture, educators need a new political and pedagogical language. Such a language needs to be self-reflective and directive without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that education is always political because it presupposes a vision of the future, legitimizes specific forms of knowledge, values and social relationships and, in doing so, produces particular forms of agency.

Educators also need to connect the rigor of their scholarship with the clarity necessary to address a wider public. They must be attentive to the everyday conditions that shape people's lives, and be willing and able to speak to them. In this case, academics need to use a language in which people can recognize themselves and the problems they face. They need to merge theoretical rigor with the language of accessibility, without compromising either. At stake here is a pedagogical principle that recognizes that for a successful mode of communication to take place, there has to be a moment of identification on the part of the reader. To put it differently, such interventions must engage in a form of pedagogical recognition that sheds light on the everyday problems under which most people labor in the public domain.

There can be no authentic politics without a pedagogy of identification. Lacking this understanding, pedagogy all too easily either becomes irrelevant or is reduced to a form of academic jargon, one that assaults and shames, in one instance, and obfuscates and confuses in the other. At the same time, if academics are going to function as public intellectuals, they need to combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen while developing a language that connects everyday troubles to wider structures and presses the claim for economic and social justice. Such a language must offer a comprehensive politics capable of connecting diverse issues, move beyond a regressive notion of self-interest, reject a notion of freedom tied exclusively to consumerism and individualized responsibility, and develop a form of pedagogical citizenship that, when practiced thoughtfully, embraces a solidarity grounded in mutual responsibilities. In addition, such intellectuals can develop modes of pedagogy, along with a broader comprehensive vision of education and schooling, that are capable of winning struggles against those who would deny education its critical function — and this must apply to all forms of dogmatism and political purity across the ideological spectrum.

One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students and others is the need to address the question of what higher education should accomplish in a democracy. How can educational and pedagogical practices be connected to the resurrection of historical memory, new modes of solidarity, a resurgence of the radical imagination and broad-based struggles for an insurrectional democracy? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism's most brutal weapon: "the slow cancellation of the future"?

Such a vision suggests resurrecting a democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, and which elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes and market values, and an unreflective immersion in the crude empiricism of a data-obsessed market-driven society. Education and pedagogy should provide the conditions for young people to think about keeping democracy alive and vibrant, not simply training students to be workers. Yes, we must educate young people with the skills they need to get jobs. But as educators we must also teach them to learn, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2001, "to live with less or no misery [and] to fight against those social sources" that cause war, destruction of the environment, "inequality, unhappiness, and needless human suffering."

As Christopher Newfield argues, "democracy needs a public," and higher education has a crucial role to play in this regard as a democratic public good rather than defining itself through the market-based values of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, if such a role is to emerge, the conditions of labor for faculty have to change. Educators must be given the opportunity to speak the truth to the dominated, and bring ideas to the public realm that bear on society as a whole. This is especially important at a time when neoliberalism, through the dictates of a finance-obsessed managerial elite, overwhelms faculty and students with what Terry Eagleton has called "commodity breeding." The heads of universities are expected to govern as if they were running Goldman Sachs, the value of research is determined by its ability to secure grant funding, and faculty are expected to occupy academic silos from which they preach market values and disciplinary irrelevance.

Instead of students being provided with opportunities for civic responsibility and cultural literacy, they are offered high tuition rates, student centers that mimic the mall and crushing debts that close off the dreams of a dignified future. What gets lost here are not only radical ideas, socially engaged students and socially responsible academics, but also, in Eagleton's words, "the very notion that there could be a serious alternative to the present." As universities are turned into training centers, no longer invested in the life of the mind and its crucial connection to the common good, the toxic cloud of fascism and white supremacy expands, engulfing the nation in a fog of anti-intellectualism, manufactured ignorance, hate and a growing propensity for violence.

One of the most serious challenges facing administrators, faculty and students in colleges and universities is the task of developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect classroom knowledge, values and social problems with the larger society, and do so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people to translate private troubles into wider systemic issues while transforming their hidden despair and private grievances into critical narratives and public transcripts. At best such transcripts can be transformed into forms of public dissent, or what might be called moments of rupture or empowering transgressions. Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging, curious, reflective and independent — qualities that are indispensable for students if they are to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy.

Resistance in this sense begins with the refusal to accept a crudely functional view of education that only values those modes of research, knowledge and teaching that can turn a profit. It rejects educational views that consign administrators, faculty and students to the prison-house of common sense and cynicism. In this instance, education becomes a terrain of struggle, which refuses one's erasure or voicelessness and resists the dictates of an audit culture. It is a type of resistance that speaks out against the power of bean counters to align educational research with the idolatry of data, which attempts to define the unmeasurable, promotes a deadening instrumental rationality that suffocates consciousness and rewards empirical frenzies that turn courageous ideas into ashes, all the while degrading civic virtue and ignoring the dark shadow of a fascist politics engulfing the globe.

Elements of an alternative vision for higher education

I want to offer several recommendations, however incomplete, that provide an alternative to some of the oppressive conditions now shaping higher education in the age of multiple pandemics and the rise of fascist politics.

First, higher education needs to reclaim and expand its democratic vocation and, in doing so, align itself with a vision that embraces its mission as a public good. Educators need to promote a national conversation in which higher education is defended as a democratic public sphere, and the classroom as a site of deliberative inquiry, dialogue and critical thinking. The project of defining higher education as a democratic public sphere should also provide the platform for a more expressive commitment to reaching across national boundaries in order to develop an international social movement in defense of public goods. This is a vision driven not by profits, instrumental rationality, and military interests but by the battle over democracy itself.

Second, educators need to acknowledge and make good on the claim that there is no democracy without informed and knowledgeable citizens. This suggests placing ethics, civic literacy, social responsibility and compassion at the forefront of our pedagogical practices. This necessitates taking seriously those modes of knowledge, ideas, values, traditions and histories that promote a sense of dignity, self-reflection and compassion. In addition, students need to learn to understand how power works across social, cultural and political institutions. This is crucial if they are to learn how to govern rather than merely be governed. Education should be a place where students realize themselves primarily as critically engaged and informed citizens contributing not simply to their own self-interest or self-development but to the well-being of society as a whole.

Third, higher education needs to be viewed as a right and needs to be free, as it is in many countries such as Germany, France, Norway and Finland. When education is not free, it not only limits access to those who lack the wealth and resources to get into higher education, but also allows higher education to function as a sorting machine that largely reproduces social, racial and class hierarchies. Moreover, free access to higher education enriches a student body, through its diversity and the richness of its possibilities, to promote dialogue across a range of identities, backgrounds, religions, gender, class and ideological positions. Such diversity keeps alive the critical function of higher education at the level of everyday classroom and social interactions. In addition, by not saddling young people with crippling debt — a form of colonial control — it gives them the opportunity to choose careers dedicated to public service.

Fourth, educators need to enable students to engage in multiple literacies extending from print and visual culture to digital culture. They need to become border-crossers, who can think dialectically and learn not only how to consume culture but also how to produce it. This presupposes learning how to situate ideas, facts and knowledge historically and relationally. Not only does historical memory become a consequential resource for thinking and acting, it also enables students to connect isolated issues to a comprehensive vision of society that does not rely on banking modes of education, insular disciplinary narratives and deadening forms of instrumental learning. A critical pedagogy needs to incorporate practices that enable students to become cultural producers both to expand their sense of agency and politics and their ability to shape the world in which they live.

Fifth, critical education is about more than the search for truth, appropriating work skills and developing a broad and comprehensive form of literacy; it is also about the practice of freedom. Such a task suggests that critical pedagogy should shift not only the way people think but also encourage them to shape the world in which they find themselves for the better. As the practice of freedom, critical pedagogy arises from the conviction that educators and other cultural workers have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense. This is a view of pedagogy that should disturb, inspire and energize a vast array of individuals and publics.

Such pedagogical practices should enable students to interrogate common-sense understandings of the world, take risks in their thinking, however difficult, and be willing to take a stand for free inquiry in the pursuit of truth, multiple ways of knowing, mutual respect and civic values in the pursuit of social justice. Students need to learn how to think dangerously, push at the frontiers of knowledge, and support the notion that the search for justice is never finished and that no society is ever just enough. These are not merely methodical considerations but also moral and political practices, because they presuppose the creation of students who can imagine a future in which justice, equality, freedom and democracy matter and are attainable.

Sixth, in opposition to increasingly dominant instrumental views of education, I want to argue for a notion of education that is inherently political — one that relentlessly questions the kinds of labor, practices and forms of teaching, research and modes of evaluation that are enacted in higher education. While such a pedagogy does not offer guarantees, it defines itself as a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations, because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, our physical and social environment and the future itself. What it rejects is a form of politicizing education that imposes dogmatic certainties, refuses critical dialogue and engages in what might be called a form of pedagogical terrorism. In opposition to politicizing education, political education is directive and opens up the possibilities for students to learn how power works, engage in critical analysis, think beyond common-sense assumptions, learn how to be self-reflective and engage the conditions that bear down on their lives.

Neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. It does not exist outside relations of power, values and politics. Educators need to cast a critical eye on those forms of knowledge and social relations that define themselves through a conceptual purity and political innocence, clouding the fact that the alleged neutrality on which they stand is already grounded in ethico-political choices and never removed from relations of power. Higher education is a crucial space for creating knowledgeable, critical and engaged citizens.

Seventh, another serious challenge facing educators is the need to make despair unconvincing and social change a possibility. Despair does more than undercut social change; it also isolates, alienates and ultimately depoliticizes people often paralyzed by cynicism. Without a mutually informing language of critique and what I call educated hope, educators become complicit with a culture of ignorance and repression now being reproduced at the highest levels of power, one that has become a signature feature of the current Republican Party. The effects of such ignorance are on full display when school board members are threatened for implementing rules to save children's lives, COVID-19 testing centers are attacked, adults who wear masks are bullied while accompanying their children to school and science is undermined through the proliferation of conspiracy theories. This suggests not only a failure of politics and the collapse of conscience, but also the failure of education.

A radical shift in consciousness on the part of the public is needed in order for matters of truth, justice and science to offer the resources necessary to protect human life and sustain an informed public. Learned ignorance is never innocent. In the face of a tsunami of lies, hope becomes senseless, and ignorance combines with rage and conspiracy theories as the first resort of the powerless. When shaping a mass movement, ignorance does more than expand the disintegration of political culture; it also makes possible the reproduction of the horrors of racial cleansing and violence as tools of governance.


If higher education defaults on its role as a critical institution, it becomes either irrelevant or complicit with totalitarian politics. In the face of the rise of white supremacy and a fascist politics, students need to stretch their imagination to be able to think beyond the limits of their own experience. They also need to reject the disparaging notion that the future is nothing more than a mirror image of the present. In this instance, I am not referring to a romanticized and empty notion of making the impossible possible. I am suggesting an education that refuses an obsession with self-interest, expands the imagination, teaches students to live without illusions and embraces the practical difficulties and risks involved in meaningful struggles for real change, while at the same time being radically optimistic.

The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman insisted that the bleakness and dystopian politics of our times necessitates the ability to dream otherwise, to imagine a society "which thinks it is not just enough, which questions the sufficiency of any achieved level of justice and considers justice always to be a step or more ahead. Above all, it is a society which reacts angrily to any case of injustice and promptly sets about correcting it." While hope has fallen on hard times under the dark shadow of the resurgence of white supremacy, a sense of collective passion and struggle is far from a historical relic.

As educators, we have a responsibility — as Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, once warned — to recognize that "Every age has its own fascism." In a society in which democracy is under siege, it is crucial to remember that alternative futures are possible and that acting on these beliefs is a precondition for making radical change possible. At stake here is the courage to take on the challenge of what kind of world we want. What kind of future do we want to build for our children? How might we reassert a notion of the social that reclaims through the radical imagination the terms through which we are connected to each other and the planet? What is the role of hope in an age of racialized visceral terror? Philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted that "hope taps into our deepest experiences and that without it reason and justice cannot blossom."

In his "Talk to Teachers," James Baldwin went a step further, adding a sense of urgency and a call for resistance to this notion of hope. He wrote: "The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible has to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change."

Baldwin's words are more resonant today than ever before. Democracy is in free fall and has reached a dangerous turning point. The horrors of a past committed to racial cleansing and a fascist politics are with us once again. But the tactics used in the past to fight fascism must be rethought and updated. The power to change consciousness by making education central to politics has to be married to the need to change material relations of power. There is more at stake here than the repudiation of manufactured ignorance, the scourge of white supremacy and a corrupt political system. In the shadows of this escalating crisis, it is crucial to mobilize a mass movement to uncover and fight on multiple levels this rebranded notion of fascism and its mounting wreckage before hope becomes an empty slogan and democracy a relic of the past.

How Liberty University discourages and dismisses students’ reports of sexual assaults

by Hannah Dreyfus, photography by Sarah Blesener for ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

When Elizabeth Axley first told Liberty University officials she had been raped, she was confident they'd do the right thing. After all, the evangelical Christian school invoked scripture to encourage students to report abuse.

“Speak up for those who can't speak for themselves, for the rights of all who need an advocate. —Proverbs 31:8." It was quoted in large type across an information sheet from the school's office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse.

Axley was a first-year student at Liberty in the fall of 2017. She had been at the school less than three months. One Saturday night, she went to a Halloween party at an off-campus apartment and drank eight shots of vodka, along with a couple of mixed drinks. She doesn't remember much after that, until, she recalls, waking up with a fellow student on top of her and his hand pressed over her mouth. (The student denies Axley's allegations.)

After Axley returned to her dorm, she called the campus police department. One of the officers drove her to the local hospital, where, records show, a nurse documented 15 bruises, welts and lacerations on her arm, face and torso.

Axley wasn't sure what to do next, but she did know that she wanted the man to “stay away from her," as she recalled. So when Axley got back to her dorm that Sunday morning, she again told someone at Liberty, her resident adviser.

The RA, Axley said, told her not to report it, saying Axley could be found to have violated the school's prohibition against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex.

Instead, the RA offered to pray with Axley.

“I was really confused," recalled Axley. “They were making it seem like I had done something wrong."

Axley didn't want to pray. She wanted the school to do something about what had happened. “I didn't want to get fined or punished, but I wasn't going to let this keep me from reporting my assault."

The next day, Axley went to the school's federally mandated office for investigating sexual harassment and violence.

She had prepared. Axley saved texts from that weekend. “He was all over you," one concerned friend had written to her. It was “pretty damn weird."

“I fucking remember making noise and him covering my mouth oh my god," Axley texted another friend in the early morning hours. She also took photos of the welts across her chest, multiple lacerations on her right upper arm and a bruised lip.

“When I went into that office," Axley said, “I was ready."

But Elysa Bucci, the official who took the complaint, didn't seem interested, Axley recalled. Bucci was a lead investigator with Liberty University's equity office, which is responsible for looking into potential violations of Title IX, the civil rights law that bans sexual discrimination on campuses that receive federal funding. Liberty students receive almost $800 million a year in federal aid.

Instead of considering her evidence, Axley said, Bucci started throwing questions at her: Why had Axley gone to the party? What had she had to drink? How much? “I immediately felt judged," remembered Axley. (Bucci, who is now a Title IX investigator at Baylor University, declined to comment.)

Then Axley waited. She received email updates saying the school was still looking into her case. After five months, Axley heard from Bucci that Liberty had completed its investigation and a committee was now going to consider the case. Bucci invited Axley to first come to the office and review the file.

Axley went in and looked through the materials. The photos with her injuries, she recalled, were no longer there. Axley said that when she asked what had happened, Bucci told her the photos had been removed because they were too “explicit."

“I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach," Axley recalled. “I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn't even in my file."

A few days later, Axley received another email from the university. It said that as the case was moving ahead for a final decision, Axley needed to sign a document acknowledging that she could be found to have violated the university's code of conduct. The Liberty Way covers nearly all aspects of a student's life and includes bans on drinking and “being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex."

As the document that Axley received phrased it, by moving ahead with the case, Axley was acknowledging that she herself could face “possible disciplinary actions."

Universities across the country have long faced scrutiny for their handling, and mishandling, of sexual assault cases. But Liberty University's responses to such cases stand out. Interviews with more than 50 former Liberty students and staffers, as well as records from more than a dozen cases, show how an ethos of sexual purity, as embodied by the Liberty Way, has led to school officials discouraging, dismissing and even blaming female students who have tried to come forward with claims of sexual assault.

Three students, including Axley, recalled being made to sign forms acknowledging possible violations of the Liberty Way after they sought to file complaints about sexual assaults. Others say they were also warned against reporting what had happened to them. Students say that even Liberty University police officers discouraged victims from pursuing charges after reporting assaults.

Some students still confided in school staff — who at times did not report the cases to the Title IX office, despite being legally required to do so. When students filed complaints themselves, they were often not given legally required notice that they had the option of going to the police.

In the fall of 2013, Diane Stargel sought the help of the university's mental health counselors, telling the counselor she met with that she'd been raped by another student at a party off-campus. Stargel recalled that the counselor listened and then asked her to sign a “victim notice" that warned she could be found to have broken the Liberty Way if she chose to move forward. Terrified of losing her scholarship, Stargel signed the paper and did not formally report being assaulted.

“I feel like Liberty bullied me into silence after what happened to me," said Stargel. “I've always regretted that I never got my day in court. But at least now I can stand up and say, 'Yeah, that happened to me.'"

Amanda Stevens also remembers being warned she could be fined for having violated the Liberty Way. After she reported being raped to the school's Title IX office in April 2015, Stevens recalled that a school official listed her potential infractions: drinking (though she had not been drinking at the time of the assault), having premarital sex and being alone with a man on campus.

“I remember thinking, 'What? Are you kidding me?'" said Stevens. “'I could get in trouble for coming forward and reporting?'" After an investigation, Stevens recalled receiving a letter saying the student she had reported for assault had been found “not responsible."

Liberty officials did not respond to detailed questions sent weeks ago. But one person who received them did ultimately reply: Scott Lamb, who was Liberty University's senior vice president of communications until earlier this month. Lamb worked at Liberty until Oct. 6, when, he said, he was fired for internally blowing the whistle on the university's repeated failures to respond to concerns about sexual assault.

“The emails from ProPublica were definitely ignored," said Lamb. He recalled himself and one colleague trying to make a case for the school to respond. “We said, 'Listen, the optics of this are killing us. Is there anything we can message — something? A message about empathy? Or that we're at least working to get to the bottom of this?' And then it dawned on us: They're not working to get to the bottom of this."

Lamb was the point person who had fielded questions from journalists since he took up his post at Liberty in January 2018. He was one of the people to whom I sent a detailed request for comment this month.

Liberty's lack of response was typical, Lamb explained. “Concerns about sexual assault would go up the chain and then die," he said. It was “a conspiracy of silence."

Lamb is filing a federal lawsuit alleging he was fired for raising concerns about Liberty's conduct. Liberty did not respond to detailed questions about Lamb's claims.

In the end, Stevens, Stargel and Axley were not fined. But two former students did recall being punished after they reported being sexually assaulted. One said that after she reported being raped to school authorities, she was fined $500 for drinking alcohol and told she had to attend counseling. The former student, who declined to be named, said she was told her transcript would not be released until she paid.

Another student recalled being punished after reporting the potential sexual assault of someone else: Axley.

Logan Pratt, the friend who had texted Axley saying he was concerned by what he saw, told the Title IX office he'd seen Axley being mistreated at the party. He said the university misrepresented what he told investigators, giving the false impression that his testimony undercut Axley's recollections rather than buttressing them. Then, a few months after the incident, Pratt said Liberty kicked him out of school for drinking and other Liberty Way infractions. One other student also said Liberty misrepresented what she described seeing in Axley's case.

Ten more former students told me they chose not to report their rapes to campus officials amid fear of being punished. “I knew I would face the blame for putting myself in that situation," said Chelsea Andrews, a Liberty alum who said she was assaulted by a Liberty graduate student.

A lawsuit filed in July against Liberty recounted similar patterns. The suit, brought by a dozen unnamed former students, asserts that the school failed to help victims of sexual assault and that the school's student honor code made assault more likely by making it “difficult or impossible" for students to report sexual violence. The suit also claims that the “public and repeated retaliation against women who did report their victimization" created a dangerous campus environment. (Liberty has declined to comment on the pending litigation.)

“Historically, and based on the cases you presented to me, I do not believe Liberty has a conception of sexual assault that is consistent with criminal law, and certainly not with federal civil rights and campus safety," said S. Daniel Carter, who helped write a law governing how universities that receive federal funding handle sexual assault cases.

Liberty's handling of cases has often added to the pain of the women I spoke with. As Axley waited for Liberty to decide on her case, she began missing classes. She didn't want to risk bumping into her alleged assailant. Her grades plummeted. She skipped meals and started sleeping during the day.

“She would have panic attacks constantly — like full body shaking, laying on the floor, no matter where we were, in class or in the library," said Shannon Gage, a friend of Axley's and a fellow Liberty student.

Axley's memories of that time are scattered. She was knocked even further off-balance when the student who she says attacked her filed a lawsuit alleging that Axley had defamed him by recounting her story to others. The sides reached a nonmonetary settlement a few months later. The parties agreed not to disparage each other over “doubtful and disputed claims." Asked about Axley's accusations, the former student told me that “I didn't rape her" and that he also thought that Liberty didn't investigate the case properly.

Axley has no doubts about what happened. In the months afterward, she scrolled again and again through the photos she had taken of her injuries. They gave her a small measure of calm.

“I would remind myself that I had evidence, and that I had done everything I could to document and report what happened," she said. “I told myself, 'How could the school not take action?' All someone had to do was look at the photos."

Founded in 1971 by the Baptist televangelist and conservative activist Jerry Falwell Sr., Liberty University remains one of the largest private evangelical institutions in the world. It has a large online operation as well as 15,000 students enrolled at its central campus east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Liberty has faced sex and financial scandals in recent years involving former university president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki Falwell. But the school continues to appeal to many families and students drawn to Liberty's strict moral code.

“The goal of The Liberty Way (Student Honor Code) is to encourage and instruct our students how to love God through a life of service to others," the code says. “The way we treat each other in our community is a direct reflection of our love of God."

Central to the Liberty Way is a focus on abstinence prior to marriage, what's known in evangelical communities as purity culture. As the Liberty Way puts it, “Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University."

Breaking that ban and engaging in any “inappropriate personal contact," is punishable by a $300 fine, 30 hours of community service, or possible expulsion.

Mark Tinsley saw how that can play out. Tinsley, who was first a police officer at Liberty University and later an associate dean until he left in 2017, said the school had a tendency to dissuade students from reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement.

Tinsley, who is now a pastor, said he still remembers one case from 20 years ago. Tinsley was first told to check out an alleged rape on the northern end of the campus, but then was instructed to back off because the administration had gotten involved. “I got word that there had been an assault, but that the dean of women had convinced the girl not to press charges," Tinsley recalled. (The dean in question died in 2015.)

“That was par for the course at Liberty," Tinsley said.

Erin McAvoy, who worked at a local nonprofit assisting individuals who'd survived sexual assaults, said she often aided Liberty students who were afraid of reporting assaults to the school. “Most of the Liberty students I met with had a friend or a friend of a friend who had ended up in a worse situation after reporting," she said.

McAvoy said she was also surprised that Liberty students who sought her help frequently did not have information about “their basic options for reporting to law enforcement or even seeking medical help."

“By and large, the students I worked with from Liberty had been given little to no information about their options," she recalled.

Former Liberty student Adrianna Rice first contacted the school's Title IX office in October 2016 to report she'd been raped by a fellow student.

Rice said it happened when the two drove off campus together to hike a local nature trail. Within hours, Rice called her mom. “I don't think I'm OK," she told her mom. “I had sex with a guy and I didn't want to."

“I asked her, 'Did you want that?'And she started sobbing and said, 'No,'" her mother, Kristine Rice, recalled. “And I said, 'Honey, that sounds like rape.'"

Kristine Rice traveled to Liberty's campus about a week after the phone call to accompany her daughter to the campus counseling office. Adrianna Rice recalled writing on her intake form that it was an “emergency" and that she had been experiencing “suicidal ideation." But both she and her mother recalled the counseling center turning her away because they didn't have any appointments available.

“They referred me to other Christian counselors in the area," Adrianna Rice recalled.

Liberty's counseling center also referred Rice to the campus Title IX office, which she contacted. Elysa Bucci, who then worked at the office, emailed Rice a list of resources. The list included the campus spiritual guidance center, a local hospital and the student counseling center.

Law enforcement was not on the list, despite a federal law requiring that students reporting sexual violence be told about that option.

“I was never informed that filing a police report was even an option," said Rice. Figuring Title IX was her only path to justice, Rice decided to open a formal investigation. During the investigation and appeals process, Rice recalled, Bucci repeatedly told her not to speak to anyone else about the case — including law enforcement — because it could compromise the Title IX investigation.

“I felt like a gag order had been placed on me after I had already experienced a trauma," said Rice, who described avoiding the subject of her assault even with friends and family while the Title IX investigation was underway.

Amanda Stevens, one of the women who was told to sign a form acknowledging her potential violation of the Liberty Way, said she also was not informed of the option to file a rape report with law enforcement after she reported to the Title IX office in April 2015. “They didn't mention anything like this to me at all," she said.

And when Diane Stargel met with a Liberty University mental health counselor and told her she'd been sexually assaulted, the counselor not only had Stargel sign a victim notice about her own potential violation of the Liberty Way, but, Stargel recalled, also told her to initial language in the document promising she wouldn't report the case to police.

Experts said the pattern appears to be a violation of the Clery Act, which requires schools to inform students reporting sexual assaults about the option to go to law enforcement and to assist in that reporting if necessary.

“Hearing that a university official was unlawfully and improperly advising a survivor about her rights and options strikes at the core of my ire," said Laura Dunn, a lawyer and expert on campus sexual assault who reviewed the facts of Rice's case.

Other aspects of Liberty's handling of Rice's case also stuck out. Rice said she had given the school a copy of a text her alleged assailant had sent admitting what he did. Liberty's letter summarizing its decision on the case did not cite it. The letter concluded that the man was not responsible.

Rice appealed the decision and attended a hearing about it along with McAvoy, the advocate. They were stunned by the appeal committee's repeated questions about “how and why I had put myself in a situation where this could have happened," remembered Rice. In her handwritten notes from the day, Rice jotted down questions she wanted to ask the committee members: “What definition of rape are you going off of?" and “What is counted as valid evidence?"

Shortly after the appeal hearing, Rice was informed that the committee had decided to uphold the Title IX office's original decision by a “preponderance of the evidence."

Rice then turned to university police for help. Rice provided me with a copy of the intake form she had filled out. But Rice said that when she spoke to Liberty's campus police chief, Col. Richard Hinkley, he discouraged her from taking the case further.

“He told me all the details I had written down in my personal statement could be turned against me, and that a jury would likely kill my case," she said. “He essentially discouraged me from continuing."

Hinkley and the department did not respond to requests for comment.

Title IX requires university officials to report any accusations of sexual violence to a designated Title IX coordinator. That didn't happen after Liberty student Mary Kate McElroy told her track coaches that she had been pressured by other students to have sex during her first year at the school. McElroy said the men were several years older and much larger than she was. She said she eventually said yes out of fear of “what they might do or say if I said no," and because she was afraid of being penalized for breaking the Liberty Way.

“I had already let a guy drive me to his apartment, and I knew I wasn't supposed to be there in the first place," McElroy said. “I felt like I had no way out."

“I turned to them for help," said McElroy about telling her coaches in the spring of 2018. “I didn't yet understand that what had happened to me was assault, but I knew something was wrong."

Rebekah Ricksecker, one of the two coaches McElroy spoke to about the incidents, said she regrets not “pushing Mary Kate further" for details about what had happened.

“Had I thought it was assault, I would have filed a report," Ricksecker said. “At the time I assumed that her discomfort and embarrassment came from breaking the Liberty Way — now I think maybe there was more to it."

The second coach did not return requests for comment.

Around the same time, McElroy told her resident adviser both about being coerced into sex and her coaches' lack of follow-up. “I remember Mary Kate telling me she had talked to her coaches about what had happened, and they hadn't reported it up the chain," said the RA, Liz Howe. “That broke my heart."

Howe reported McElroy's case to the school's Title IX office, which got in touch with McElroy and encouraged her to file a formal complaint. But by then McElroy had already decided to drop out of Liberty and was planning to leave campus in a few days.

She declined to pursue her case further. “I didn't have it in me," McElroy explained. “I was leaving Liberty, and I thought I could leave what happened to me behind."

Like many universities, Liberty has an amnesty policy to protect students who self-report dangerous or illegal activities, such as underage drinking, in the course of reporting sexual violence or other abuse. In Liberty's case, the policy has been expanded in recent years to protect students who self-report violations of the Liberty Way, including premarital sex.

Internal email shows how the policy can work. When Amanda Stevens told her RA that she had been raped, the adviser immediately emailed her boss and recounted what Stevens had told her.

“I then asked her if she had sex with him and she said that she had," the RA, a graduate student named JaQuayla Hodge, wrote to her resident director, a full-time Liberty staffer. “However, she mentioned that the first time he basically forced himself on her. She would tell him over and over to stop and he wouldn't."

The question of whether Stevens could be penalized for potential violations of the Liberty Way immediately came up. Hodge wrote that she was worried about it.

“In the case of her self-reporting, what would be the end result?" Hodge asked her boss in a follow-up email. “At this point I am more concerned about her well-being and do believe a consequence could pose a little more harm."

Bethany Holt, the school official who ended up handling Stevens' case, responded that Stevens' disclosure would be treated as a “self-report," indicating that she would not be penalized for breaking the Liberty Way.

“At this point, it sounds like anything she confessed to that was a violation of the LU Way would be considered as a self report because we had no prior knowledge of these activities," Holt wrote. “The allegations of assault we do want to take seriously and would take precedence over the other possible violations."

Still, Stevens recalled, it was Holt who instructed her to sign a form acknowledging that she may have broken the Liberty Way and warned her she could face fines. Holt, who remains on staff at Liberty, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hodge, who served as an RA between 2012 and 2015 and then as a supervising resident director until 2017, described being troubled by what she saw as a pattern of the school not properly handling cases she brought to them. As a resident director, Hodge began following up with the complainants she referred to the Title IX office because, she said, she “didn't trust my girls were fully getting what they needed."

Hodge was shocked to learn that Stevens had been required to sign a form acknowledging that she had potentially violated the Liberty Way.

“If I had heard that, I would have said something," said Hodge. “I made it clear that it would not be fair for her to be punished if she came forward."

Six weeks after Elizabeth Axley told Liberty University officials she had been raped, she sat on the floor of her college dorm room with her laptop and typed out a brief note:

“He did this to me/Crushed my spirit/stole those I care about/stole something from me. … I can no longer go on like this."

Two days later, she woke up in the hospital. She stayed for a few days, then went back to campus to resume her freshman year. (If you are considering hurting yourself, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to

“I tried to keep functioning but I felt so disconnected from everything going on around me," Axley recalled. Sometimes, she would forget what she was doing midaction. Sometimes she would just stare straight ahead, unresponsive to the cues around her. She felt “so far away" from her fellow students, who continued going to class and attending social events as though nothing had changed.

In her email correspondence with the Title IX office during this time, Axley requested several notes to excuse her repeated absences from classes.

It was in March that Axley got the email from the school saying the investigation into her complaint was “completed" and that she could review it before the school came to a decision on the case. That email, from Bucci, also noted that Axley's case had been moved over to the Office of Community Life, which handles Liberty Way infractions.

And it was when Axley went to review the report that she discovered that the photographs she had submitted as evidence had been removed from her file without her knowledge.

Axley was dumbstruck and resubmitted the photos. “At that point, it honestly felt like they were trying to sabotage my case," she said.

Soon after Axley resubmitted her photo evidence, she received another email from the school. It said the committee reviewing her case — which Axley recalled was composed mostly of men — had reached a decision: By a “preponderance of the evidence," her alleged assailant was found “not responsible" for rape.

In its accompanying explanation of the decision, the committee focused on the account of one student who recalled that Axley was on top of the man she said assaulted her, and that the man had told Axley to get off.

But that student, who requested anonymity, told me that the Title IX office misrepresented her testimony. Liberty quoted her saying it was “obvious" that Axley was trying to initiate sexual contact, but she said she doesn't recall saying that.

Prior to our conversation, the witness had not seen the decision letter in which she was quoted. She was shocked that her name was used in the letter, despite her repeated requests to the Title IX investigator that she remain anonymous. “They made me sound like a casual, coldhearted individual with this statement," she said. “I was very scared and very traumatized from this situation and it affects my life even today."

Neither Aaron Sparkman, the university official who signed Axley's decision letter, nor Bucci, who interviewed the two witnesses, responded to requests for comment.

The letter also did not detail the recollections of Logan Pratt, the friend of Axley's who was so concerned about the man being overly physical that he texted Axley the morning of the incident to see if she was OK.

Instead, Liberty referenced Pratt's observation that Axley was drunk.

“The way they wrote it down makes it seem that I went to the Title IX office not to help her but to get her in trouble," said Pratt, who was shocked when I showed him the letter. “This reads very backwards to me. It is honestly scary that they twisted my testimony like this. It makes me wonder how many other people's words they tweaked the way they did to my testimony."

Pratt said that he went to the Title IX office of his own volition because he was “concerned for Lizzie's safety" after what he saw at the party. But when he was interviewed, he said, he thought “they didn't seem to care much about Lizzie," and instead he felt like he was “interrogated for what I had been doing at the party."

He said, “It all felt so backwards and strange, like they were trying to find me guilty by association."

Pratt, who entered Liberty in the fall of 2017 on a full scholarship, said that five months after reporting Axley's case, he was expelled from the school for violations of the Liberty Way, including drinking and partying.

“It sounds like the university was crafting their own narrative that had less to do with finding the respondent responsible or not, but rather with framing the complainant as someone who was 'not worthy,'" said S. Daniel Carter, who helped author the Clery Act that covers how schools should handle and disclose sexual assaults.

Liberty's letter with its decision on the investigation also did not mention the other evidence submitted by Axley — not the text messages from friends that weekend expressing concern about what had taken place, and not the photographs of her bruises and cuts.

Experts who reviewed the facts of Axley's case and the committee's subsequent letter explaining its decision were shocked that the Title IX office seemed to have removed evidence from Axley's file and were confused as to why the decision made no mention of it.

“That's outrageous," said Rebecca Leitman Veidlinger, an attorney who specializes in Title IX. “The complainant herself offered the photos. There are ways to safeguard evidence of a sensitive nature. But to disregard key evidence? I can't imagine the justification."

After Axley learned that Liberty had dismissed her complaint, she thought there was still a chance the school might reconsider. “Yesterday my rapist was found not guilty. I would like to appeal this decision," she wrote in a May 2018 email to the university.

Less than two weeks later, the appeal committee reaffirmed it had found the man not responsible for the alleged rape.

This past summer, Liberty University's handling of sexual assault came under closer scrutiny. The lawsuit filed in July by 12 women was followed by an outpouring of concern, frustration and calls for action on social media. A petition demanding that Liberty change how it handles sexual assaults gained hundreds of signatures in a few days.

Scott Lamb, then Liberty's communications chief, watched it all with increasing concern, but with little surprise. He had been warning top Liberty leadership about the growing wave of concern and frustration.

“There seems to be the notion that there are many (not few) skeletons in LU's closet when it comes to 'mishandling sexual assault allegations,'" Lamb wrote to top Liberty leadership in a May 7 email. “Culturally, this seems to be a pattern: 1 person makes an accusation about Bill Cosby/Harvey Weinstein/Matt Lauer etc.... And overnight there are a dozen people who say the same thing. True, LU is not Bill Cosby...But I'm talking about the Court of Public Opinion. And I fear that we are about to enter into a season of being found guilty in that court."

Lamb said his email received no response.

As summer slipped into fall and Lamb watched tensions on campus and beyond deepen, he encouraged university higher-ups to at least acknowledge the problem.

Instead, he said Liberty decided to do what it could to silence the criticism.

A Sept. 22 email from the school's marketing department to top Liberty officials, including the school's president, briefed them on the “uptick" in “people commenting about the sexual assault cases at Liberty" on the school's various social media platforms. “We have disabled comments on the main university, resident and online Instagram accounts," the marketing executive wrote.

“Comments are disabled on Instagram and we are monitoring both Facebook and Twitter. Facebook we have the ability to hide overly negative or explosive comments. Twitter, we are unable to do anything," the executive wrote. “If there is anything that you feel we should be doing differently, let me know," the email concluded in bold.

The scramble over how to respond continued. Liberty's Jerry Prevo, who replaced Jerry Falwell Jr. as president last year, planned to give a speech early this month directly addressing the concerns, and in particular the lawsuit filed by the dozen women.

“I have asked a law firm to look into the facts on all these cases," said a draft of Prevo's speech. “Nothing is going to be swept under the rug."

“If our policies and procedures should be changed, I'll change 'em," Prevo's proposed speech continued. “Not just because Title IX, but because we need [to honor] God in all we do at Liberty and we need to do so standing on Biblical truth. That's The Liberty Way."

Lamb saw the proposed language and immediately wrote to his colleagues that it “will make things far worse." Lamb pointed out, for example, that the law firm the school brought in hadn't been hired to investigate the allegations. It was hired to defend the school against the suit.

One of the lawyers was on the email chain and agreed with Lamb's concerns. “We're here to represent the University in a lawsuit," she wrote. “It's an important distinction."

The speech was canceled.

Instead, president Prevo briefly discussed the issue at a school prayer meeting. “We want you to feel safe," Prevo said. “We don't want any sexual harassment or sexual abuse."

Lamb said he was fired less than a week later.

“The problem isn't the PR; the problem is the problem," said Lamb. “And until Liberty addresses the problem — first by telling the people who got hurt here that they are seen and heard — the healing can't begin."

The federal government gave billions to schools for COVID relief — where did the money go?

This was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

After the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the federal government provided about $190 billion in aid to help them reopen and respond to the effects of the pandemic. In the year and a half since millions of children were sent home, the Education Department has done only limited tracking of how the money has been spent. That has left officials in Washington largely in the dark about how effective the aid has been in helping students, especially those whose schools and communities were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We've been in the pandemic now for nearly a year and a half," said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at the education advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education. “There is a responsibility to the public to make sure the funds are spent responsibly, but also make sure that the funding that is spent is accountable to supporting students and educators."

Provisional annual reports submitted to the federal government by state education agencies underscored the dearth of clear, detailed data. Agencies classified how the funds were spent using six very broad categories, including technology and sanitization. According to a ProPublica analysis of more than 16,000 of the reports covering March 2020 to September 2020, just over half of the $3 billion in aid was categorized as “other," providing no insight into how the funds were allocated.

In the absence of a centralized and detailed federal tracking system, the monitoring of relief funds flowing to the nation's more than 13,000 school districts has largely been left to states. Some districts have been found to be spending their federal funds on projects seemingly at odds with the spirit of the aid program, such as track and field facilities and bleachers.

While such spending is not prohibited by the federal government, the stated goals of the relief program were to open schools safely to maximize in-person learning and, more broadly, to address the impact of the pandemic.

The Biden administration wants to collect more data. But its efforts have come more than a year after the previous administration began disbursing the relief funds, and some school districts have bristled at the belated push for more detailed data collection.

Hyslop said that while this may place an added burden on districts, the information is essential. “We need this data to make sure the needs are met, to make sure high-needs schools are not being shortchanged. … We have to make sure this is actually supporting students."

The majority of the school aid was allocated from March 2020 to March 2021 and funneled through state education departments into K-12 school districts, which have until 2024 to budget the last of the funds.

Under the terms laid out by the federal government, states are responsible for developing tracking systems to ensure districts are spending the money on countering the effects of the pandemic.

The federal government has long given states considerable latitude in setting standards and curriculum. Christine Pitts, a fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said responsibility for tracking COVID-19 relief funds has similarly been delegated to the states, creating a patchwork of oversight practices. “There's 50 states, and oftentimes in education that means there's 50 different ways of doing the business," said Pitts.

The federal government has started to request limited information from states on how districts have spent their funds. The department also requires spending plans from states, and those plans must be approved before the last round of funds is released.

These limited reporting requirements reflect the early, urgent days of the pandemic, when officials wanted to get money to school districts as quickly as possible.

In June 2020, as the first federal relief dollars were beginning to flow to districts, the office of inspector general of the Education Department warned in a report that the department must improve its oversight, monitoring and data collection to reduce potential fraud and waste. The OIG noted that after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Education Department was responsible for allocating $98 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which led to numerous investigations into abuse and waste.

When the OIG raised concerns last year to then-Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, Zais said the pandemic aid legislation itself had created “enormous pressure" to distribute funds quickly, according to an OIG report.

A spokesperson for the OIG, Catherine Grant, said that while distributing pandemic aid presented its own challenges, oversight and monitoring were “longstanding" issues for the department.

Luke Jackson, a spokesperson for the Education Department, said in an emailed statement that the department was working with states and districts to collect preliminary data to “to ensure federal funds are being spent to best serve the needs of students, educators, and school communities."

The law places few restrictions on how districts can spend the federal aid, as long as the investments are loosely connected to the effects of the pandemic. This wide latitude has enabled districts to fund projects that some education experts have deemed questionable.

In Iowa, the Creston Community School District allocated about $231,000 of its pandemic relief funds to upgrade its outdoor stadium, including an expansion of its bleachers. According to district documents, the construction is intended to provide increased space for social distancing and to make the bleachers wheelchair accessible.

Creston's superintendent, Deron Stender, did not respond to ProPublica's requests for comment.

Last month in Pulaski County, Kentucky, the school board approved the reconstruction of its track and field facilities, allocating about $1 million in federal pandemic funding for the track replacement.

“We want to have facilities that are great for our students," the district superintendent, Patrick Richardson, told a local paper after the project was approved. Richardson did not respond to ProPublica's requests for comment.

“There is certainly a lot of flexibility on how the money can be used," said Hyslop of the Alliance for Excellent Education, but said athletic investments are “not in the spirit of the law."

The statement from Jackson, the Education Department spokesman, did not address a question from ProPublica about using relief funds for athletic projects.

In other cases, the spending priorities of school districts have drawn complaints from some parents. In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools spent more than $45 million of its early pandemic funding on ventilation systems and personal protective equipment. But some parents said that more federal aid should have been directed to services for students with special needs, who represent about 14.4% of the 178,000 students enrolled in the district.

Debra Tisler, a former special education teacher, said that her 15-year-old son, who has dyslexia, saw the 20 hours a month of specialized instruction that he received before the pandemic cut in half over the course of more than a year of virtual learning.

In January 2021, the federal education department opened up an investigation into Fairfax schools because of “disturbing reports involving the district's provision of educational services to children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic." Asked on Tuesday about the status of the Fairfax investigation, the Education Department's press office did not have that information readily available.

“They have the ability to do it and they are choosing not to. It's heartbreaking," said Tisler, who has had a contentious relationship with the district. In August, her son went back to school in person.

In the first two waves of pandemic aid from the county, state and federal governments, Fairfax schools received at least $157.5 million, of which it spent $9.6 million on direct services for students with disabilities to help them catch up, according to budget documents. Helen Lloyd, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools, said that much of the initial coronavirus relief funds paid for “systemwide technology, school safety mitigation measures and equipment and PPE costs." She said it is not possible to calculate the proportion of the funding that paid only for services for students with disabilities.

Lloyd did not specifically address Tisler's concerns, citing privacy protections, but the spokesperson said that the district's spending plan was based on extensive community input and that learning loss was found to be a priority. She added that from the third wave of pandemic aid, which passed this year, the district has allocated $46.2 million, which is being used to extend the contracts of special education teachers by 30 minutes a day, and $500,000 to counter learning loss of students with disabilities.

In Texas, the McAllen Independent School District decided to spend $4 million of its education pandemic relief funds to construct a 5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center owned by the city. Tory Guerra, whose children attend McAllen's schools, expressed concerns that the project, which will not be completed until December 2024, is not prioritizing the urgent learning needs of children who have been directly impacted by the pandemic.

“There are so many other programs that we could invest in that we could use immediately and see benefits immediately rather than years down the road," Guerra said. She believes that the federal aid should directly address the pressing emotional and academic wellbeing of students, many of whom have struggled to keep up in the classroom. “Half the kids won't even get to reap the benefit because the nature center isn't even built."

Mark May, a spokesperson for the McAllen independent district, said the cost of the project is a small fraction of the district's $139.5 million in aid. He said the outdoor space will provide students with resources and experiences that will bolster children's scientific knowledge.

Some states and districts have developed their own public reporting platforms. In Georgia, the education department built a dashboard that shows how much money each district has received and the programs they have spent it on. But other states have not offered as much visibility into districts' spending. Indiana, for example, has so far made little information public, but it is currently developing an online portal.

In the provisional federal reports that categorize how aid money is spent, some of the largest districts in the nation marked all of their aid as going to the “other" category, including Los Angeles Unified, which spent $49.5 million, and New York City's schools, which spent $111.5 million.

Instead of spending the aid on summer school or technology, New York City's district, the largest in the country, used its federal funds to plug a gap in its budget, which had been cut by the state. Katie O'Hanlon, a spokesperson for the district, told ProPublica that the district used the funds to cover the wages and operations of custodial workers. O'Hanlon said the district had followed state reporting requirements. J.P. O'Hare, a spokesperson for the New York State Education Department, said the state is using the “other" category until the federal government provides more direction on reporting requirements.

Shannon Haber, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Unified, said the district's reporting was submitted based on the state's requirements. Many districts categorized their spending as “other" initially, but as the school year progressed, the spending categories diversified, said Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education.

Even if the information is publicly available on a local level, the lack of standardization from state to state makes it impossible to get a national picture of how the funds are being directed.

Some experts said it may be too soon to get a larger view of how the aid was spent. “There's going to be a natural lag between a district receiving the money, spending the money and reporting up to the state," said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president for the education advocacy group Data Quality Campaign.

But other experts say that without real-time insight into district spending, schools will not be able to shift priorities if they find certain programs are working better than others.

“There can be an opportunity to do mid-course corrections, if we find something working well or not well," said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. “We will be in a bad place if we don't have much evidence that $200 billion didn't move the needle."

This past July, the federal Education Department announced plans to increase its data collection from districts in 2022, but dozens of districts and state education agencies said that more oversight could leave them overburdened.

“It will take another block of time," said Brenda Turner, the business manager of Haskell Consolidated Independent School District in central Texas, adding that her district already filed detailed plans to the state's education department explaining how Haskell planned to spend its aid. “They need to figure out how to pull it out of their own system to report to the federal government instead of putting it on us."

Why are teachers in our country paid less? Because we devalue what they do

Our most precious resource is our children. Their development is what ensures the health of our nation. Next to parents, K-12 teachers are the most instrumental in cultivating that resource. They are the primary means of transferring knowledge from old to young.

This most important of jobs can't attract and retain people to fill them. A report published by the National Education Association details an alarming number of teachers deciding not to return to classrooms this fall. And we may be about to face a long-term teaching shortage. According to the Center for American Progress, enrollment in teacher training programs dropped by a third from 2010 to 2018.


When I began working on this piece, I was sure that I would focus on the low pay of teachers. I saw that a starting teacher in the school district where I graduated from makes $36,000 per year. This kind of compensation is untenable for such an emotionally taxing profession that requires four or five years of training.

But I shifted gears rather quickly. Something comes before pay — our belief that the job is of value. Teachers in our country are paid less because we devalue what they do.

"Women's work"
Standard views by economists as to what determines wages will include worker productivity or supply and demand. Meanwhile, many economic sociologists claim that our societal assumptions about the value of a job influence the wages it can command. If a job is seen as "women's work," the wages for that job decline.

One version of this claim links the five c's — cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work — to lower pay, because these jobs are predominantly female. One can see this without any complex analysis.

But when complex statistical models are used to tease out precise changes in pay, it gets worse. A study in 2009 showed the changes in the average wages of a profession as women move into it.

The study looked at changes from 1950 to 2000, and the findings were eye-opening. As highlighted in the Times, the pay for jobs in recreation declined by 57 percent over that period, as women entered the profession. As women became designers, wages fell by 34 percent. For biologists, 18 percent.

"It's not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance … it's just that the employers are deciding to pay it less," said Paula England, one of the authors of the study. In other words, wages are not simply about productivity or the demand for a job. It is also about how much we value what that person does.

Since the advent of mass public education in the mid-19th century, teaching has been a female-dominated profession. By the late 1880s, women were 63 percent of the nation's teachers. The percentage of women in teaching has only increased, even as other professions opened to women in the late 20th century. By 2015-2016, there were 3.8 million public K-12 teachers in the US, of which about 77 percent were female.

The long association of teaching to femininity is partly to blame for the devaluing of the teaching profession. But there is another reason.

Draining the pool
One of the best books I have read over the past year was Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, describes the consequences of the racial hierarchy in the US.

Many white Americans view public policy, as it relates to race, as a zero-sum game. They interpret policies that disproportionately benefit Black Americans as them losing something.

McGhee uses the example of public swimming pools closing across the country in the 1960s after civil rights legislation made separate swimming facilities unconstitutional. McGhee argues that white communities saw a sharing of privileges with Black Americans as a lessening of theirs. They voted to close public swimming facilities. As McGhee puts it, they preferred to "drain the pool" rather than share it with Black Americans. McGhee, clearly linking this to the policies of the Republic Party post-1960, sees this dynamic in other public goods as well, from social programs to public infrastructure to health care.

And so it is with teaching.

Republicans have been attacking public schools since at least Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. Most liberal commentators will center their discussion on school choice and vouchers — something Reagan indeed brought up during his campaign. School choice, some may argue, is a way of starving a public school system. A more cynical view is that school choice would reduce the power of teachers' unions that almost universally support liberal policies.

But there is something deeper here, and this is why I like McGhee's analysis. Our public school system is supposed to be a great leveler — a dismantler of racial and class hierarchy. Our schools are supposed to be places where young people from different backgrounds can meet, mingle and learn together. It is … a kind of pool.

Teachers are caretakers of that pool. As such, there is little mystery as to why what they do is devalued. Why would Republicans support a pay raise or better working conditions for people who are a part of a system they despise?

They want that pool drained and cemented over permanently.

Valuing value
Two factors work together to suppress the wages of teachers. There is the historical association of teaching as "women's work." And then there is the disdain by white conservatives for public goods that threaten to level a racial hierarchy.

Knowing the cause gives us some clues as to the cure. Until we address the undervaluing of teachers, an increase in teacher salaries or investments that improve their working conditions is a non-starter. The organizations that support K-12 teachers need to value value. Our expectations about what teachers deserve, their worth, and their social esteem are important in of themselves. Without public perceptions of teachers as valuable, lawmakers are simply not going to make teacher raises or smaller classroom sizes a major priority.

I am calling out our two most prominent K-12 organizations – The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These organizations need to make a concerted effort to improve the public perception of teachers. They need to shift some time and energy away from partisan politics and invest it in demonstrating to the American public — and yes, this includes conservatives — the value public school teachers have in our society.

Mini-insurrections: Right wingers cynically declare war on teachers and nurses after one big failed coup

This week, Attorney General Merrick Garland convened a task force to combat the recent spike in violence and intimidation against school board members, school administrators and teachers. Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced a structurally similar initiative to investigate violence against election officials. These task forces are desperately needed as the Republican Party's strategy to retake power shifts from one big insurrection to many mini-insurrections.

But what's really needed is a holistic approach. Threats against school board members, election workers and public health officials are the same threat in different guises: The right-wing assault on democracy.

School board meetings are being systematically and sometimes violently disrupted by right-wing activists with shifting grievances, from critical race theory to trans bathrooms to mask mandates.

A school board in Vail, Arizona, was forced to call the police and flee its meeting room after an unmasked mob forced its way into the building. Having forced the elected officials to depart for their own safety, in a move that echoed the January 6 insurrection, the mob proceeded to hold its own fake "election" of school board candidates.

Last month, men with military-grade zip ties burst into an Arizona elementary school principal's office and threatened to kidnap her over the school's mask and quarantine policies. A few days earlier, a Florida man attacked a student who criticized him for not wearing a mask.

In late September, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden begging for help with what it called the "immediate threat" posed to the nation's public education system.

The violence against school board members is reminiscent of the intimidation campaigns that are being waged against election overseers and public health officials. Reuters uncovered hundreds of incidents of threats and harassment against election workers and officials nationwide. Since the start of the pandemic, public health officials have been subjected to a range of tactics, from death threats to armed protests at their homes, prompting a wave of resignations.

The chaos is the point. The Republican Party is hoping to sweep back into power by stoking and exploiting grassroots rage. They are trying to replicate the model of the Tea Party where local cells propelled the Republicans to big wins in the midterm elections.

This strategy is being implemented by big names in GOP politics. According to its website, Charlie Kirk's Turning Point USA "is helping parents and students engage the American Culture War head-on at their local school boards." The Koch-funded Independent Women's Network is organizing parents to resist mask mandates in schools.

Right-wing pundits are freaking and accusing Garland of attacking their entire movement. Which says a lot about how they conceive their movement. They are afraid the Justice Department will expose the links between violent protests and national Republican groups. The probe is threatening their most valuable asset: plausible deniability.

The National Review denounced the probe as "an appalling crackdown" and accused the AG of trying to send a message to "one side of the debate." It's funny how only one side of the debate needs reminding not to threaten local officials. Debates over covid safety, election integrity, anti-racism and trans rights are all hugely contentious. Passions run high on the left and the right, but only the right is engaged in a concerted bid to intimidate and threaten local officials. Having failed at one big coup on January 6, the Republicans have regrouped to launch countless mini-insurrections on softer targets.

The local officials who run our schools, our elections and our health departments are doing the hard work of administering a functional democracy. They don't have bodyguards and they open their own mail. They are easy targets, because they are our neighbors. The right wing has cynically declared war on them in the hopes that they will quit out of fear or frustration. The Attorney General is right to muster the power of the federal government to defend them, because these harassment campaigns are an attack on democracy itself.

Why charter schools are not as ‘public’ as they claim to be

by Kevin Welner, University of Colorado Boulder

Proponents of charter schools insist that they are public schools “open to all students." But the truth is more nuanced. As an education policy researcher – and as author of a new book about charter schools I wrote with fellow researcher Wagma Mommandi – I have discovered that charter schools are not as accessible to the public as they are often made out to be.

This finding is particularly relevant in light of the fact that charter school enrollment reportedly grew at a rapid rate during the pandemic. Specifically, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, enrollment increased 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21. The organization says that is the biggest enrollment jump in a half-decade.

In our book, we identify and describe 13 different approaches that charters use to bring certain types of students in and push other kinds of students out.

Here are four examples from our book.

1. Targeted marketing and advertising

By using specific types of language in their promotional materials and by targeting those materials to specific audiences, charter schools often send a message that they are looking for a certain type of student. This is a way for charter schools to reach or appeal to a certain audience but not others, which in turn shapes who ends up applying to a given school.

For instance, Mueller Charter Leadership Academy in San Diego told prospective families that “All eligible students are welcome to apply. However, it should be noted that because this is a highly advanced, demanding program, it may not be appropriate for everyone."

Targeted advertising can also carry a message. LISA Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2016 sent out targeted recruitment mailers to area neighborhoods – skipping over the three zip codes for the heavily Black and Latino parts of town.

“They're sending a message they don't want the kids on the east side of town," Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, remarked after his newspaper exposed the practice. The school later apologized and explained that its plan was to subsequently reach out to those populations through digital advertising.

2. Conditional applications

Charter schools sometimes require multiple essays or a minimum GPA as a condition for initial or continuing enrollment.

Roseland Accelerated Middle School in Santa Rosa, California, for instance, required applicants to submit five short essays plus an autobiography using “well constructed and varied structure."

Minimum GPA requirements can be imposed at the application stage or once admitted. At Lushor Charter School in New Orleans, parents and students are asked to sign a contract that requires students to maintain a 2.0 GPA in core subject areas for continued enrollment.

3. Parents required to 'volunteer'

Some charter schools require parents to volunteer a certain amount of time at the school, or pay money in lieu of volunteering. Pembroke Pines Charter High School in Florida, for example, required each family to complete 30 such “volunteer hours" per year, but allowed 20 of those hours to be “purchased" – US$100 total to buy out the first 10 hours and $200 more for the next 10 hours. These requirements place an additional burden, in terms of time and money, on families that are already struggling economically.

4. Aggressive use of discipline.

At so-called “no excuses" charters that “sweat the small stuff", students have – at least historically – been subjected to harsh discipline for minor infractions, such as chewing gum or failing to constantly keep their eyes on the teacher during class.

Some of these schools repeatedly suspend students and call parents to leave work to pick up a suspended child. The most high-profile example is Success Academy charter school in Fort Greene, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, where school leaders created a “Got to Go" list of 16 students who were then subjected to harassing discipline. In one case, a school official threatened to call 911 on a 6-year-old because the child was having a “bad day." Nine of the 16 students did in fact withdraw from the school.

Functioning like private schools

Cumulatively, these and the other approaches we detail in our book – titled “School's Choice" – make charter schools more like private schools than the public schools they claim to be.

These practices influence which students are admitted to charter schools and then stay in those schools. Charter school choice therefore affects schools' demographics, including the degree to which they are segregated.

They affect funding equity as well, since state school-finance formulas often don't adequately account for the actual costs of educating different students. In Pennsylvania, for example, charter schools are funded through a system that creates problematic incentives related to access for students with special needs. As explained in a report by the state's bipartisan legislative Special Education Funding Commission, the current funding system provides charter schools “the same funding for each student with a disability, regardless of the severity of that student's disability."

“This creates a strong incentive to overidentify students with less costly disabilities and to under-identify (or under-enroll) students with more severe (or more costly) disabilities," the report states. A speech impediment, for example, is an example of a mild disability, versus a student with, say, a traumatic brain injury, which is a more severe disability. As the report explains, “A student with a mild disability can be a financial boon to a charter school, given that the funding the charter receives will exceed the charter's cost to educate a child."

Notably, Pennsylvania's funding system does not create these incentives for district-run public schools.

These practices also can play a decisive role for comparisons of academic outcomes between charters and traditional public schools run by a school district. Overall, research consistently shows little if any difference in the average test-score outcomes for the two types of schools. But the comparisons may not be fair and accurate. If charter schools can improve their test scores by screening out students they don't think will do well, it can give them an unfair advantage in comparisons with public schools that accept all students.

Policy incentives revisited

So what can be done to make charter schools more accessible? One way is to change policy incentives such as the Pennsylvania funding system mentioned earlier. States can also change the way they reward schools for how well their students do on tests. Arizona, for instance, has policies that give extra funding to charters and other schools with higher achieving students.

In the final two chapters of our book, “School's Choice," Mommandi and I point to a future with charter schools that don't screen or push out students who are lower achieving or more expensive to educate. First, we hold up examples of charter schools that have resisted the incentives to limit access by, for example, working to support their communities' most marginalized students. We then offer a design for a healthier charter school system that doesn't put these exemplary schools at a disadvantage when it comes to accountability and funding systems.

Even in a post-pandemic world, charter school enrollment may continue to grow. But until the public has more access, charters will not be truly public.

[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]The Conversation

Kevin Welner, Professor, Education Policy & Law; Director, National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The truth about political bias on college campuses

A common point in centrist and conservative spaces is that academia has a liberal bias. This charge is levied most often at the social sciences. The logic is easy to follow. There is universal agreement that professors in the social sciences are liberal and vote Democratic. Moreover, it is in social science departments (sociology, anthropology, gender studies and the like) where ideas that challenge inequality are produced. You rarely see a sociologist or someone from African-American studies making claims conservatives find agreeable.

So this must mean their activities are biased. It must mean their research confirms liberal ideas about society, and their teaching will be about indoctrinating students into a liberal worldview. Right? No.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of research and teaching.

It's the questions, stupid
There is a link between social scientists being progressive and the research they conduct. But the conservative narrative is wrong.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. I'd love for my research (whenever I get to do any) to support progressive policies. But I can't make up data or draw conclusions too far afield from what evidence suggests. I have my professional ethics in place. I could face severe repercussions for fabricating or grossly misinterpreting data.

Even if I could get away with such a thing, would I want to? If I'm researching a social issue, I want answers that work. I gain little from drawing faulty conclusions. What if my "progressive goggles" tricked me into seeing something that wasn't there? Social sciences work on the principle of "the preponderance of information." A faulty study would get swamped by other sociologists who found evidence to the contrary. For my biased conclusions to lead to a consensus — consensus is something scholars hope to achieve over time — other sociologists would need to misinterpret data the same way I did.

Conservatives want research that supports their conclusions. Unfortunately for them, conclusions are grounded in evidence even for the most value-laden forms of research (think critical scholarship).

This does not mean, though, that the liberal orientation of academics has no effect. I can tell you it does — just not in the way conservatives want the public to believe. Imagine 10 conservative scholars recruited to study racism in the United States. Do you know what this collection of conservatives will find? Well, racism in the United States.

The bias is in the questions asked, not the conclusions.

Conservatives want the public to believe conclusions are biased so they dismiss them without going through the trouble of thinking about them. Racism in policing? The research is biased. Transphobia in society? The research is biased. Dismiss it and read this opinion piece by a writer who, oh-by-the-way, works at a conservative think tank.

Dislike college climates? Blame your kids
The notion that campuses are hostile to conservatives has some degree of validity. But, again, not for reasons conservatives give.

You see, I am teaching in a hostile climate. My 1990-early 2000s references are met with dumbfounded looks from students. If I listen carefully, I can hear muffled snickers. In the face of this social pressure, I have officially retired any references to "Friends" and Beyonce. I am being silly here. Student opinion has minimal impact on me, and in turn, they care little about what I think of them. My influence is restricted to the grades I give.

The point here is that students are the enforcers of cultural norms on college campuses, not professors. Students are the ones who draw moral lines of right and wrong. A student brave enough to say "men are naturally better at math" will get whispers and looks from other students. That is what creates the so-called "hostile climate."

Conservatives have done an excellent job of indoctrinating folks into believing that academia indoctrinates folks. The story they tell is that the social norms that dominate college campuses are imposed from above by leftist professors who stifle conservative thought. This false narrative benefits them. They don't have to reckon with the idea that at a fundamental level, their focus on traditional family values, religion, raw capitalism and the maintenance of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy are simply antithetical to most young people.

Toward a progressive narrative of bias
The purpose of this essay was to urge readers to think differently about the damaging narrative of bias on college campuses. It starts with the fact that academics, especially in social sciences, are liberal. There is no disputing this. Unfortunately, the claims of bias in teaching and research — narrated in such a way as to benefit conservative political ideology — don't necessarily follow. The conclusions from academic research are still valid and reliable, and whatever hostility conservative students feel on campus comes from their peers, not their professors.

This conservative narrative of bias on campus is self-serving and it's used to support the status quo. It encourages dismissal of academic scholarship and young people who embrace progressive causes.

This is unfortunate.

It's time for progressives to take control of this narrative. Admit that most of the questions asked by social scientists are of primary interest to people on the left. It's just a fact. We can admit that most young people are not interested in conservative values on college campuses.

Let's acknowledge these trends. Then put the onus on conservatives. They have to articulate what they want to be answered by social scientists and integrate that into what's already known. They will also have to realize they must discard their antiquated notions about class, race, sex and economic inequality to appeal to younger voters.

They probably won't want to do those things.

That's why they stick to a false narrative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Packard and K12 Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Charter School Shopping Spree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bahamdan Connection

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

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

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

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

Abdullah Bahamdan also spent more than 50 years as the chairman of "Saudi Arabia's National Commercial Bank, the largest lender in the Arab world," according to Institutional Investor. National Commercial Bank (NCB), which merged with Samba Financial Group in 2021 to form Saudi National Bank (SNB), was established in 1953 by royal decree, according to the SNB website, with the Saudi government as its major shareholder.

Despite its close relationship to the Saudi government, NCB was one among 16 financial institutions that were fined by the Saudi Monetary Authority in 2019 "for violating principles of responsible finance," according to Reuters. "[T]he violations were related to exceeding debt burdens imposed on people in proportion to their monthly income."

In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department settled a lawsuit with NCB accusing the bank of violating U.S. sanctions against Syria and Sudan between November 2011 to August 2014.

The bank and Abdullah Bahamdan have been the subjects of at least two lawsuits accusing them of financing terrorist groups, which may have been part of what prompted the Saudi government to, in 2017, "crack down on corruption" in its banking industry, Reuters reported.

Perhaps as a result of the crackdown, SNB claims on its website that it "has developed a Bank-wide Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing Policy."

Mixing Charter School Investments With Subpar Senior Care

Aside from its investments in Pansophic Learning, Safanad has made some of its biggest commercial real estate deals in the health care sector, principally in senior care facilities, including assisted living, independent living, memory care, and nursing homes, frequently called skilled nursing facilities.

Senior Housing News reported that Safanad teamed up with investment firm Formation Capital, an Atlanta-based health-care-focused private investment company, to purchase 36 senior care facilities in 2011, and, in 2012, the partners spent $750 million to acquire 68 more nursing homes located in East Coast states. The acquisitions made the two investment firms "one of the United States' largest standalone skilled nursing portfolios," according to Senior Housing News, with "more than $1 billion worth of senior care assets in the U.S."

In 2013, the same two investment firms purchased a "36-property senior housing portfolio for approximately $400 million," reported Senior Housing News, and in 2014, the two firms struck another deal to buy "14 skilled nursing facilities in the mid-Atlantic for about $150 million," according to Senior Housing News.

The deals Safanad and Formation Capital struck to acquire senior care facilities are strikingly similar to the business transactions Safanad conducted with Pansophic Learning in the charter school sector, principally, buying up financially struggling service businesses that receive large amounts of public funding—in the case of the senior care sector, from Medicare and Medicaid—and that also happen to include significant holdings of real estate.

The nursing home and senior living facilities industry was struggling financially before the pandemic, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. Facilities had been cutting corners for years, skating by with too few staff, due to stagnating wages, and sometimes hiring unskilled workers instead of highly trained personnel.

COVID-19 simply revealed an industry that was already "broken," reported NBC News, citing "low pay, high turnover, and tough working conditions" as chronic problems in the senior care facilities industry.

Yet the growing presence of private equity investors in the senior care industry has done little to help the industry and appears to have done mostly harm.

A 2020 study found that private equity ownership of nursing homes and other kinds of senior living facilities increased costs to the public by 19 percent while shortening the lifespans of patients.

Patients in facilities with substantial private equity backing tended to have less access to nurses, declining mobility, and greater use of antipsychotic medications, the study found. Consequently, "private equity ownership increases short-term mortality by 10 percent," the authors claimed, "which implies about 21,000 lives lost due to private equity ownership over our sample period."

As with the for-profit prison industry, many of the problems posed by private investment firms in the senior care industry, according to the study, can be sourced to "high-powered for-profit incentives… [being] misaligned with the social goals of quality care at a reasonable cost."

The study distinguished private equity for-profit ownership from "generic" for-profit ownership because "private equity ownership confers distinct incentives to quickly and substantially increase the value of their portfolio firms." It is this form of intense, high-powered profit-maximizing incentives, the authors asserted, "that characterize[s] private equity… [and could lead to] detrimental implications for consumer welfare."

Investor-driven senior care facilities were especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2020 article in the New York Times reported.

"Decades of ownership by private equity and other private investment firms left many nursing homes with staggering bills and razor-thin margins," according to the article.

"The toll of putting profits first started to show when the outbreak began," the article continued. "[S]ome for-profit homes were particularly ill equipped and understaffed, which undercut their ability to contain the spread of the coronavirus."

Among the for-profit operators that appear to have fared poorly in the pandemic is Consulate Health Care, one of the providers that were snapped up by Safanad and Formation Capital in 2014, according to Senior Housing News. In a 2021 report, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project lists Formation Capital as the owner of Consulate Health Care.

Nursing homes operated by Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, according to numerous news reports from Florida and Virginia. The high incidence of outbreaks has, in part, prompted a U.S. House committee to launch an investigation into the country's five largest for-profit nursing home companies, including Consulate Health Care, Politico reported in 2020.

Creative Ways to Wring Profits

As the New York Times reported in 2020, while senior care facilities often struggle financially, their private equity-backed owners have "found creative ways to wring profits out of them."

Some of these creative ways include charging their operators "hefty management and consulting fees"; buying the real estate from the operators and then leasing the buildings back to the operators, while upping the rents; and pushing their operators to buy products and services from companies that are controlled by the investors.

The real estate plays these firms pull off are particularly lucrative, the New York Times noted, because the buildings are often "more valuable than the businesses themselves."

A 2018 article in the Naples Daily News described how these arrangements work in Consulate Health Care facilities owned by Formation Capital, the state's largest provider.

Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital both operate a network of other related businesses—including "real estate, management, rehabilitation and other companies"—that they use as subcontractors for the nursing homes they own.

So when "[t]axpayer money flows to Consulate nursing homes," the article explained, some of the money also goes to subcontractors that are related to the owners, Consulate Health Care and its controlling company, Formation Capital. "[A]nd profits earned go to the chain's owner, the Atlanta-based private equity firm Formation Capital," the article stated.

One of the Consulate Health Care nursing homes highlighted in the article pays its owner and management fees to two Consulate companies and also pays its lease payments and rehabilitation service fees to providers that are both related to Formation Capital.

"In each case," the article said, "the money flows back to Formation Capital and its wealthy investors," which include Safanad.

Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools operate similar business arrangements that help their organizations maximize their profits, according to a 2021 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE).

Much in the same way Consulate Health Care facilities and Formation Capital push their nursing homes into contracts with their other related businesses, Accel and Pansophic use "a complex web of corporations," according to NPE, to "control the operations of the school and in doing so, steer business to their related services."

The report highlighted Accel-managed Broadway Academy, in Cleveland, a charter school previously owned by White Hat Management, according to the Accel Schools contract with the school.

Under the "fees" section in the terms of that contract—originally with for-profit management company Chippewa Community School, LLC, which is now a subsidiary of Accel Schools Ohio LLC—the school, referred to in the contract as the corporation, pays the operator (Accel, by way of its subsidiary Chippewa Community School, LLC) 96 percent of the school's monthly qualified gross revenue, which is the per-pupil revenue the school receives from the state. In return, Accel is the sole source to provide the school with school staffing and professional development, school management and consulting, textbooks, equipment, technology, student recruitment, building payments, maintenance, custodial service, security, and capital improvements.

In other words, there's nothing that stops Accel or Pansophic from creating yet more subsidiaries and other related companies that can do business with Broadway Academy. According to the contract, Accel can subcontract services "without the [Broadway Academy] Board's approval," and property purchased by Accel "shall remain… [Accel's] sole property."

According to NPE, these kinds of contracts, known as "sweeps," are commonplace in the for-profit charter school industry.

"Sweeps contracts give for-profits the authority to run all school services in exchange for all or nearly all of the school's revenue," said the NPE report.

Taxpayer funding for the Broadway Academy that isn't swept up by Accel's continuing fee must be deposited into a "Student Enrichment Fund" for "educational services in the areas of student cultural activities[,] … supplemental tutoring services, and other programs." Accel has sole authority to "propose uses for such funds," and "85 percent of all Student Enrichment Funds not spent during the fiscal year in which they are received shall be paid over to [Accel]."

While Accel's contract with Broadway Academy doesn't include real estate, the authors of the NPE report searched the database of Ohio charter school contracts, called "community schools documents," and found that "Global School Properties Ohio, LLC holds the leases for many Accel charter schools. The… [landlord] is at the same 1650 Tysons Blvd. address in McLean, Virginia, as Pansophic [Learning]."

Profiting From D- and F-Rated Schools

School choice and charter school advocates are often quick to defend for-profit charter companies and their private investors, arguing that they are "sector agnostic" about who owns and operates a school and care only about the school's "results."

But what constitutes good results in education is a much-debated topic, and studies about the results of for-profit charter schools have found mixed results at best.

A 2017 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students who attend for-profit charter schools have weaker growth in math than they would have in a district public school and similar growth in reading. Students in nonprofit charter schools experienced stronger academic growth in both subjects than their peers enrolled in for-profit charters. The differences were "significant," according to the study.

Also in 2017, Chalkbeat reported, "studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don't find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores."

None of these studies examined the performance of Accel Schools or the impact of private equity in the for-profit charter industry.

But based on Ohio's A-F grading system, Accel Schools in the Cleveland area, where the management company has its highest density of schools, has no schools with A or B ratings from the 2018-2019 school year, the last one measured due to the pandemic. There are three C-rated schools, including Broadway Academy. Eleven others are D- and F-rated schools. Among the F-rated schools is the school Trump visited in 2016, the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy.

The problems posed by the charter school industry and its for-profit sector have not gone unnoticed by Democratic Party elected officials and their voters.

A 2021 survey found that public support for charter schools is waning, especially in the Democratic Party where favorability has fallen to an all-time low of only 33 percent. Our Schools has previously noted that Democratic Party politicians are steadily drifting away from their once-avid support of the industry, especially the ones operated for profit.

Nevertheless, out of seven charter schools that have applied to open in West Virginia, where charter schools had not been allowed to open until 2021, five of the proposed schools would be operated as for-profit entities, and of those five, three would be operated by Accel.

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

How the increasingly popular community schools model is boosting rural America

The often hidden reality of rural schools in America is that a higher percentage of students in rural areas live in poverty compared to metro school districts, according to a 2021 profile of rural schools done by Ohio teacher Daniel Bailey for Edutopia. These students also tend to face unique challenges, including limited access to medical care and ongoing fallout from the opioid crisis that has significantly impacted rural communities across the country.

"Rural districts are an often-overlooked part of the complex American education system," Bailey noted, which is a point that was also echoed in a 2020 article by New York Times education reporter Erica Green, who wrote that despite the fact that one in seven U.S. students attends school in a rural district, these often geographically large school systems have "long been considered the most underfunded and ignored in the country."

These revelations about rural schools aren't news to Deanna Hron, a longtime employee of the Deer River, Minnesota, school system, who is well aware of the challenges facing rural students. When she began her career in Deer River in the 1980s, working as an elementary school teacher, she observed that many of her young students showed up to school without their basic needs being met, including essentials such as dental care, food, and reliable transportation.

She soon realized that it wouldn't be possible to meet all those needs solely within the classroom and did what she could to help students and families access resources within the town of Deer River and Itasca County, its home base.

These days, Hron is largely credited by colleagues with being the life force behind the district's 2016 adoption of a full-service community schools model. Since then, Deer River students and staffers have had more tools in place through this community schools approach, which prioritizes not only the academic needs of kids but also the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the whole community.

Adoptions of the community schools model are often associated with urban school systems such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati, but this approach offers substantial benefits for rural districts whose needs are often overlooked by politicians and policymakers.

A quick glance at demographic data for the Deer River school district indicates that the need for such comprehensive support clearly exists.

Deer River Public Schools is a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota. The town of Deer River has an equal number of residents—around 900—but the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles, boosting both its enrollment numbers and the complexity of issues the school district has to tackle.

Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and is anchored by the breathtaking expanse of Leech Lake, which boasts nearly 200 miles of picturesque shoreline.

Approximately one-third of Deer River's student population is Native American, and therefore these students belong to a demographic group that is known to be consistently underserved by Minnesota's public schools.

More than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless. On top of that, almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.

It's numbers like these, along with the faces and names behind them, that prompted Hron and her fellow Deer River staffers to seek access to more resources through the community schools approach, an effort that was already showing promise in the nearby Duluth public school system.

'Fishing Poles, Beds, and Bikes'

"The momentum for the full-service model started five or six years ago," Hron says, right after district employees successfully lobbied the community for a $10.5 million referendum.

The injection of taxpayer dollars was needed to upgrade the town's elementary school, and, in order to sweeten the pot, Hron and her colleagues decided to pitch the referendum as a way to add more services to the school building.

"We included a senior center and an early childhood wing in our plans," she says, noting that these additions made the project "easier to sell to the public."

It also helped lay the groundwork for what came next: a grant to bring the full-service community schools model to Deer River. In 2015, the Minnesota state legislature authorized $500,000 in one-time startup funds for school districts interested in exploring the community schools approach, and Hron and other Deer River employees jumped at the chance to bring even more services to area students and their families.

The district's longtime superintendent, Matt Grose, was supportive of the idea, Hron recalls, and had already helped bring mental health services to the area's schools. The statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota, also pitched in with programmatic support and startup resources.

Although there was support for the full-service model in Deer River, thanks in large part to Grose's leadership, it wasn't always easy to get it off the ground. For one thing, while money from the initial implementation grant lasted eight months in Deer River and helped put the full-service community schools model in place, it wasn't enough to sustain it.

District personnel then used some general education fund dollars to cover costs associated with the program's implementation until a federal grant opportunity arose in 2019. The Department of Education authorized grants worth millions of dollars for full-service community schools throughout the U.S. that year, and, while Deer River applied but wasn't selected then, in 2020 the district did receive a five-year grant worth $2.2 million.

The money was a "pie in the sky" dream, says Hron's colleague, Betsy Johnson, and was made all the more substantial thanks to an additional $2.4 million from area organizations such as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Johnson has worked in the Deer River area since 2007, mostly through a public health program operated by the University of Minnesota Extension. With a background in health and nutrition, Johnson was already serving on the board of Deer River's full-service community schools, when she laughingly says she "failed at retirement" and started working as a grant project manager for the district.

In her role, Johnson also serves as the family resource coordinator, connecting families to the various services available to them through the full-service community schools model.

These services have included access to essential resources during the pandemic, when Deer River staff members delivered groceries to families in need and conducted home visits to make sure students—especially those who were not regularly attending online learning classes—were okay.

An article in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review highlighted Deer River's full-service model, noting how staff provided other specific items requested by families during the COVID-19 shutdown, including "fishing poles, beds, and bikes."

'I Was One of Those Kids'

Positions like the one Johnson holds are possible thanks to the 2020 federal grant Deer River won, and the money also allowed the district to expand this model to the high school level.

There, 2015 Deer River High School graduate Kole Schultz acts as the site coordinator, working directly with students to keep them connected and on track. There is an Anishinaabe education room in the school that is geared toward the needs of the school's Native American students, who may want a place of their own where they can find a friendly face or perhaps an afterschool snack or two.

"I was one of those kids, and I know how delicate things can be," Schultz says, when thinking of the issues faced by these kids, including generational trauma and limited access to modern-day essentials such as consistent broadband services. Schultz left Deer River after graduation but came back when he saw an opportunity, through the site coordinator position, to "help and give back."

The pandemic is making his on-site support more necessary than ever.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit Deer River hard, exacerbating longstanding challenges to the area's health care system—thanks, in part, to the ongoing opioid epidemic—and disrupting the vital cashflow brought to the area through its tourism industry.

The school district has also been grappling with fallout from the shutdown of in-person learning, which Johnson says led to a rise in chronic absenteeism among students. Although the district was able to implement hybrid instruction for most of the 2020-2021 school year, meaning students were not required to be online full time, she estimates that around 30 percent of kids did not consistently show up to school throughout the year.

This happened across the country, too, with Education Week reporting that student absenteeism rates doubled during the pandemic. These disruptions are likely to continue into the 2021 school year in Deer River and elsewhere, as the spread of the Delta variant casts an uncertain light on back-to-school plans.

'Heading Into a Challenging New Year'

"We are heading into a challenging new year," Johnson acknowledges. It will be important to reestablish routines and expectations, she notes, while also stating that many area families are dealing with not only the pandemic but also an uptick in drug overdoses and suicides.

What she wants most for her community is for them to know that the full-service community schools model is intended to be a source of support for everyone in the area, no matter what they might need. Hron remembers a kindergartner whose academic work soared after she received much-needed on-site dental care. Johnson recalls helping an elderly woman access Depend undergarments when she couldn't get to the store on her own.

These seemingly small services are actually essential, both women note, especially in a far-reaching rural community like Deer River. The nearest store might be a 10 or 15-minute drive away, and that store is likely to be a convenience store—not a cheaper, more robustly stocked grocery outlet. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that many area residents do not have a reliable car at their disposal.

"My hope is that our vision for this full-service community school includes all people in [the] Deer River [district] who might need something," Johnson states.

She and her fellow staff members appear to be off to a good start, and the model they've implemented could serve as an example of the community-changing potential of the full-service community schools in both urban and rural districts.

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

North Carolina governor shoots down GOP anti-Critical Race Theory bill as 'conspiracy-laden politics'

All around the United States, far-right Republicans in state legislatures have been pushing bills that propose outlawing the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. But in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed such a bill.

The GOP-sponsored bill that Cooper vetoed was North Carolina House Bill 324, a.k.a. the Ensuring Dignity and Nondiscrimination/Schools Act, which according to News & Observer reporter Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, passed in both houses of the North Carolina Legislature "completely along party lines."

CRT studies argue that racism of the past continues to affect institutions in the present. GOP-sponsored bills forbidding CRT studies in public schools are an example of a solution in search of a problem, as CRT is a type of academic study that is taught in some colleges and universities — not in middle school or high school. Moreover, far-right Republicans often mischaracterize CRT studies as anti-white, which they aren't. CRT studies will argue, for example, that Jim Crow laws, although abolished in the 1960s, continue to affect U.S. institutions in 2021, but they aren't claiming that all whites are inherently racist. Such nuances fall by the wayside, however, when pundits at Fox News or Newsmax TV use fear-mongering over CRT to drive ratings and terrify their audiences.

Cooper, in an official statement explaining his veto of HB 324, said, "The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools. Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education."

One of the arguments against the anti-CRT bills Republicans have been pushing in state legislatures is that they discourage teachers from even talking about the history of racism in the U.S.

HB 324 said that teachers in North Carolina public schools could not "promote" claims that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex" or that "an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive." But CRT does not claim that Whites are inherently racist, only that systemic racism persists in U.S. institutions. Moreover, CRT isn't being taught in public schools to begin with, only at some colleges and universities.

Cooper also voted another GOP-sponsored bill: North Carolina House Bill 805, a.k.a. the Prevent Rioting and Civil Disorder Act, which called for stricter penalties for rioters.

In an official statement on September 10, Cooper said, "People who commit crimes during riots and at other times should be prosecuted, and our laws provide for that. But this legislation is unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest."

'A device to enslave children': Anti-mask Florida father rants to school board about the ‘deep state'

The Seminole County, Florida school board has been holding a marathon meeting on masks, which started Thursday at 8:30 AM, and is still going on after nearly nine hours. While there were many anti-science extremists, one parent's speech stood out.

A man who identified himself as Jeff James declared "there are more variants planned," the vaccine is "not a vaccine it's an experimental drug," called mask mandates "charades," and falsely claimed that "masks don't work."

"Masks are pretty much a device to enslave children, make them obedient, so they just learn to obey and not think for themselves. We need critical thinking. We don't need children that are going to be little puppets that don't say anything to speak out for themselves. We need leaders not followers."

But James did not stop there.

"The deep state medical establishment wants all of us to be depopulated," he declared, before announcing his support for far right wing doctors whose anti-vaxx and science denialism have been repeatedly debunked. "I know you guys think that's a conspiracy theory but it's not. It's a conspiracy fact, they're all in cahoots with each other, to depopulate us, they want us divided. They want all of us to fight each other so they can win," he said, without actually explaining who "they" are.

"This is good versus evil, evil is not going to prevail. All you've done is awaken the sleeping giant here, every parent here wants freedom except maybe some of them that are brainwashed by the deep state media. I used to watch Fox News deliberately I'm a conservative I won't even watch that now," he said, adding what sounded through the applause like, "Hannity, all the rest of them are compromised."

He went on to say the people he does "listen to" include Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, and Dr. Scott Atlas.

Dr. Tenpenny, who falsely claims the coronavirus vaccine magnetizes people, and has suggested that vaccines "interface" with 5G cellular towers, according to The Washington Post. Scott Atlas was Donald Trump's discredited coronavirus advisor.

His speech won applause from many in the audience.


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