Education

How the federal government’s charter school program went wrong

From the outset, charter schools were somewhat of a blind man's elephant—people saw in them whatever they wanted—but two competing theories that helped propel the charter movement were that the schools would serve as laboratories for experimenting with new education approaches that could be shared with public school districts, or that charters were created to disrupt the public school system by giving parents an alternative to district-run schools.

When the federal government got involved in creating new charter schools, beginning formally in 1994, it leaned into the former of those theories rather than the latter. The bill that led to the forming of the Charter School Program (CSP) under the Department of Education described charters as "a mechanism for testing a variety of educational approaches," and to this day, part of the mission of the CSP, as defined by the education department's Office of Innovation and Improvement that oversees it, is to "increase public understanding of what charter schools can contribute to American education."

Since its inception, the CSP has given out more than $4.1 billion to create and expand charter schools, according to a December 2019 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE).

Yet somewhere along the way, the CSP forgot its duty to create and oversee a charter sector that benefited the public system and instead has chosen to reward schools that give narrow slices of children and families a publicly funded alternative to their local schools. NPE has called on members of Congress to "defund" the CSP, saying it's "a program that has lost its mission."

Indeed, the CSP seems generally to have abandoned its original commitment to a cooperative model of charter schools and has instead tended to award charters that disrupt school districts by creating competitive schools that serve only the interests of specific populations of students rather than developing innovations that all students could benefit from.

Grants Award Discrimination

In compiling a March 2019 NPE report that I coauthored with NPE executive director Carol Burris, we found numerous examples of CSP grants that were awarded to schools that tailored their policies and programs to attract specific populations of students and discourage others.

In one example we found, an Idaho charter school that received a five-year $1,250,000 grant in 2018 to expand its enrollment emphasized a military theme in its recruitment, enforced a strict dress code, and emphasized "patriotism" in its curriculum. Therefore, it was unsurprising that the school enrolled a student population that had a disproportionately lower percent of English language learners and a higher percent of white students compared to schools in the surrounding community.

Another CSP grantee received $1,115,137 in 2018 for expanding its "diverse" student body even though the school had achieved that "diversity" by enrolling 100 percent of the small number of white students in the community and the population of Black students who were least apt to be from households with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

In another alarming case, a recipient of multiple federal grants totaling about $7 million between 2006 and 2015, the Great Hearts chain of schools, was cited four times in a 2017 report from the ACLU of Arizona for operating schools that practiced "illegal or exclusionary" policies and practices—including turning away transgender and special needs students and enrolling students who were disproportionally white and wealthy, compared to the communities where the schools were located.

An Egregious Example of Exclusion

The most egregious example we found was the multiple grants awarded to charters operated by BASIS Educational Group. From 2006 to 2014, the CSP awarded grants of $5,605,000 to several charter schools operated by the education management company, with most of the funding ($4,140,000) passed through a grant to the state of Arizona.

Our report pointed to an analysis of the student demographics of BASIS schools in Arizona that Burris had published in the Washington Post in 2017, which found those schools' enrollment demographics comprised a racial makeup that was dissimilar to the rest of the state.

Specifically, Burris found that although the student population of Arizona public schools was 5 percent Black and 45 percent Latinx, students in BASIS schools were only 3 percent Black and 10 percent Latinx. BASIS overwhelmingly enrolled students who were Asian, 32 percent, and white, 51 percent, compared to Arizona public schools, where Asian students comprised only 3 percent of students, and white students were 39 percent of school enrollments.

Burris observed a number of tactics BASIS charter schools employed to skew their student enrollment to students who are more socioeconomically advantaged, including limiting its schools' enrollment of students with learning disabilities and students struggling with the English language; eschewing the federal government's free or reduced-price lunch program that low-income families rely on to feed their children during the day; and opting not to provide free bus transportation to its schools.

When I looked for a source to update Burris' findings, I consulted Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, whose book on charter schools issues is due out in the fall.

"In BASIS Arizona, only 1 percent of all students are English language learners," he said, "and only 1 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL). This is in a state with 52 percent FRPL students in public schools. We see similar under-enrollment of students with special needs. In BASIS Arizona, only 3 percent of students have [a disability requiring special needs], compared to 13 percent in the state's public schools. Similarly, in 2018, we found that less than 2 percent of BASIS students in Texas received any type of special education services."

Where CSP Went Wrong

But to be clear, schools like those operated by BASIS, and the other charter grantees exposed in our report, were never created to serve all students. They were created to be a specific type of school to serve a specific type of student.

So, if the purpose of the federal government's CSP is to "increase public understanding of what charter schools can contribute to American education," then what we've learned is that these schools, at least how they are currently conceived and replicated, are adding to divisions and inequities in the public system rather than lifting up the common good.

No one argues that schools should not serve the interests of a specific racial student population or the needs of students who have high ability levels. But to make those aims the sole rationale for funding a vast charter entity that competes with local schools, at the expense of other types of students in the community, is antithetical to the whole concept of a public education system. Yet that is what the CSP has been funding. And unless the political will becomes evident, it has no reason to stop doing so.

The program gives millions to schools that disrupt rather than improve a system of public education that needs to serve all students.

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

Why the Christian right has been on a crusade against children's rights

Republicans, having lost their decade-long fight to prevent same-sex couples from getting married, are now targeting an even more vulnerable population for the next round of culture war hysterics: Trans children.

The GOP is clearly convinced that the way to win the 2022 elections is by stirring people up with lurid, false tales of predatory trans people. They've recently passed a slew of state-level bills attacking trans rights, especially in public schools. The victims are some of the people least able to protect themselves: Minor children, many who are already struggling with difficulties stemming from being trans, queer, or otherwise gender nonconforming — a category so broad that it could capture most kids, depending on the interpretation.

Last week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed two executive orders meant to bar trans kids from playing sports. On Tuesday, the Arkansas state legislature overrode a veto from Gov. Asa Hutchinson to pass a bill banning people under 18 from receiving any gender-affirming medical treatments, even though minors often do little more than take puberty blockers to give them time to make more permanent decisions. Now the North Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would not only do all of the above, but would also require schools to immediately report to parents if a student "has 17 exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor's sex." As many commentators pointed out, "incongruent" with someone's sex is an extremely subjective standard.

Especially in the eyes of rigidly sexist conservatives, most Americans have some behaviors that are incongruent with their assigned gender. Boys who like sports like basketball or soccer more than football? Girls who like books more than boys? Boys who exhibit discomfort at misogynist jokes? Girls who talk back when sexually harassed? Boys who cook breakfast for younger siblings? Girls who don't like makeup or like it more than Christians deem "modest"? Anyone could be targeted for behaving in a way a sexist school official feels is "incongruent" to their assigned gender. As Sarah Jones at New York's Intelligencer wrote, "co-sponsoring legislators have in essence devised a way to punish gender thoughtcrime."

The primary targets of this onslaught of legislation are trans kids, of course, who are in serious danger of being denied medical care and being bullied by institutions in ways that can be severely detrimental to their mental health. Trans kids are at alarmingly high risk for suicide, but medical treatment and accepting environments can do a lot to save their lives. By trying to deny kids these things, Republicans are sending a strong message that they would rather these kids die than live as their true selves.

The broad language in the North Carolina bill also points to a secondary purpose behind these bills: It's part of the long-standing GOP war on children's rights.

It doesn't get a lot of media attention, but for decades now, conservatives — especially the Christian right — have been on a crusade against any kind of children's rights or children's welfare policies they see as a threat to patriarchal authority or white conservative cultural dominance. Children exist, in this mentality, to be shaped into little right-wing automatons and certainly have no rights to be protected from abuse, to think for themselves, or to be educated about the larger world outside of the right-wing bubble.

The U.S. is the only member state of the United Nations, for instance, to not have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, as Karen Attiah reports for the Washington Post, "supports protections for children from forced labor, child marriage, deprivation of a legal identity, and grants both able-bodied and disabled children the right to health care, education, and freedom of expression." The reason the U.S. refuses to adopt the treaty is simply that American conservatives flat out do not believe children should have these protections. Groups like the Family Research Council tend to forefront fears that ratification will mean parents can no longer spank children, but the larger concerns are about children having freedom of thought and expression. Religious conservatives strongly believe that parents should be able to force children to adhere to their religious beliefs or to prevent children from learning about American history, science, or other topics where the facts might interfere with right-wing narratives.

Indeed, a major way that the GOP war on children has manifested in the past decades is in the fights over school curricula. When Barack Obama's administration embraced a set of national education guidelines known as Common Core, the American right lost their minds, claiming that coastal elites were trying to indoctrinate children.

"We don't ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children," then-governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley said in 2014. In response, a report from the Brookings Institute argued, "No employer or educator claims that algebra, computer science, or chemistry is different in California than in South Carolina (or in South Korea). Employers today hire based on what you know and what you can do, not on where you grew up."

Setting aside the technocratic framing of education as simply a matter of job training, the reason this argument falls on deaf ears for conservatives is precisely because they fear that education will free up children to grow up and move to California or South Korea. While conservatives would never say it in those words, "ignorant" is the kind of quality they're interested in cultivating in young Americans, because it makes youth easier to control. It's why 6 out of 10 Republican voters have a negative view of higher education, compared to 67% of Democrats who believe college education is a good thing.

Sex and gender issues have long provided conservatives an opportunity to stir up hysteria and drum up support for their hostile approach towards children's rights. For instance, Republicans have been able to pass laws in most states requiring parental notification or even permission for girls under 18 to get abortions. Under the George W. Bush administration, the federal government strong-armed the majority of school districts to replace sex education with "abstinence-only" programs that demonized contraception use, spread misinformation and shamed people who have premarital sex — a category that includes 95% of Americans.

These kinds of policies get passed because a lot of Americans, even ones who are more moderate or even liberal, have lingering hang-ups about adolescent sexuality and are easily persuaded by arguments that teenagers are "too young" to handle information about or access to reproductive health care. But these policies also create a backdoor way for conservatives to chip away at the very concept of minors having rights to education and autonomy. The results are horrific: higher teen pregnancy and STI rates and the sexual abuse of minors who are too ignorant of biology and disempowered to report on adults who hurt them.

The war on trans kids is more of the same.

A lot of Americans are ignorant about the realities of trans lives, and so are easily duped with lies about kids being "recruited." Conservatives then pass laws that allow them to both terrorize trans kids and use the power of schools to force their rigid notions of gender performance on everyone. It's a classic right-wing twofer, promoting both transphobia and the idea that minor children have no rights whatsoever, not even to their own private thoughts.

Why activists are urging the Biden administration to tear down part of Betsy DeVos' legacy

On March 2, Miguel Cardona was sworn in as secretary of education in the Biden Administration — and activists have been pressuring Cardona to revise the Title IX policies of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the way they address students who have suffered sexual assaults.

NBC News' Tyler Kingkade notes that Cardona has faced a "growing clamor from victims' advocates, civil rights groups and Democratic members of Congress demanding a quick overhaul of the Trump Administration's Title IX regulation." Title IX, which is part of the Education Amendments of 1972, is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination on the part of any school or education program that receives federal funds.

Kingkade points out that President Joe Biden has "signed an executive order directing Cardona to review the Title IX regulation and explore rewriting it." Under DeVos' watch, Kingkade notes, Title IX gave "accused students more avenues to defend themselves" and restricts "how a school can investigate sexual assault allegations."

The Trump Administration had a great deal of turnover during former President Donald Trump's four years in the White House, but DeVos was around for most of those four years — although she resigned as education secretary following the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol Building. DeVos favored hard-right policies during her time in the Trump Administration, but now that Cardona is education secretary, activists are pushing for new education policies — including a different Title IX approach.

Activist Sage Carson, manager of the group Know Your IX, told NBC News, "Student survivors need immediate action on Title IX. What seems like just a few months to non-students is an entire semester for a student. Survivors can't spend another semester, let alone another four years, with the current status of the Title IX regulation."

Biden Justice Department reverses Trump's order on LGBTQ students

In a major reversal of Trump-era legal policies the U.S. Dept. of Justice has issued a memo declaring that LGBTQ students are protected from discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools.

It is a major win for some of the nation's most vulnerable people, and an interesting twist for the history books.

The memo, dated March 26 but just reported today by The Hill and Law & Crime, was authored by the same attorney who argued part of a major LGBTQ case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. That case paved the way for this new memo.

Pamela Karlan (photo) in 2019 argued in the landmark Bostock case, telling the Court in no uncertain terms: "When a employer fires a male employee for dating men but does not fire female employees who date men, he violates Title VII. The employer has…discriminated against the man because he treats that man worse than women who want to do the same thing. And that discrimination is because of sex."

The Court ruled 6-3 that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is sex discrimination and therefore illegal.

"After considering the text of Title IX, Supreme Court caselaw, and developing jurisprudence in this area, the Division has determined that the best reading of Title IX's prohibition on discrimination 'on the basis of sex' is that it includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation," wrote Karlan, who now serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.

Karlan's memo, along with a broader Biden executive order, reverses a Trump executive order specifically stating that the Bostock ruling was to be narrowly applied only to employment.

Karlan is also the same attorney who testified during Trump's first impeachment, explaining why his actions constitute bribery.

As Slate's Joseph Michael Stern notes, "Pam Karlan is one of very few people to win a civil rights case at the Supreme Court then implement that decision as a federal civil rights official. That's gotta feel good."

For her, and for millions of LGBTQ students.

New video exposes Maryland police berating, insulting 5-year-old child: 'I'd beat him so bad'

In suburban Montgomery County, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., the mother of a five-year-old child who was publicly berated by two police officers in January has filed a lawsuit. And newly released video of the incident, according to Washington Post reporter Dan Morse, shows some of the things the officers said to the child that day.

The incident, Morse notes, occurred after a male child walked away from the school — and in the body-cam video, one of the officers called him a "little beast" and said, "I hope your momma let me beat you."

A female police officer, in the video, said of the child, "Oh, my God, I'd beat him so bad" — and then told him, "You do not embarrass me like this at school."

Morse explains, "The video of the January 2020 interaction aligns with many of the allegations in a lawsuit filed this year by the child's mother. That matter is pending."

Will Jawando, a member of the Montgomery County Council, pushed for the video's release — and Jawando is highly critical of the way the officers acted during that incident.

Morse quotes Jawando as saying, "It made me sick. We all saw a little boy be mocked, degraded, put in the seat of a police car, screamed at from the top of an adult police officer's lungs, inches from his face. This is violence."

In an official statement, the Montgomery County school system described the video as "extremely difficult" to watch and said, "There is no excuse for adults to ever speak to or threaten a child in this way. As parents and grandparents, we know that when families send their children to school, they expect that the staff will care for them, keep them safe and use appropriate intervention processes when needed."

Biden and the backlash to standardized testing

Barely a month after President Biden was inaugurated, educators and public school advocates reeled in dismay when his administration announced it would enforce the federal government's mandate for annual standardized testing in public schools. During the Democratic Party's presidential primary, Biden had expressed strong opposition to the tests. In a video taken at a December 2019 forum for public school teachers, Biden, when asked, "Will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools," replied, "Yes… You're preaching to the choir."

Although the decision was made before he took office, Miguel Cardona, Biden's secretary of education, confirmed the Biden administration would not allow states to skip the exams.

So what happened to "the choir"?

It's not like there was a groundswell from across the country to resume the tests.

Prior to the Biden administration's announcement, Chalkbeat's national correspondent Matt Barnum reported, "Several states, including California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, [had] already asked for or said they planned to request a waiver from this year's testing requirements entirely." As of March 29, three states—Georgia, Oregon, and South Carolina—that had requested to offer alternatives to a statewide standardized test were denied, according to a later report by Barnum, but Colorado will be allowed to cut the number of tests it administers by half.

"The two national teachers' unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—have urged that waivers be given," Valerie Strauss reported for the Washington Post. "At least [11,000] people have signed a petition by the Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization known as FairTest, calling for waivers to be granted."

A Backlash to the Biden Decision

The announcement on testing triggered an immediate backlash. "Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations," Strauss reported for the Washington Post. A notable critic, she pointed out, was New York City's outgoing school chancellor Richard Carranza, who "urged parents to refuse to let their children take the tests."

In surveys and widespread commentaries, teachers have long said the tests are of little to no use for their own teaching.

As education historian Diane Ravitch explains in the Washington Post, teachers see the scores months after the students have moved on to another grade, they're not allowed to see the questions on the tests or how their students answered questions, and the tests don't tell them which students need extra help, how their students compare to their classmates, or how they should change their teaching methods.

The tests are of little use to parents too, Ravitch states, because, other than ranking their children, the tests don't inform parents about more urgent concerns for their children's progress in school, such as how they're keeping up with and understanding the work, participating in class, and engaging with other students and with the school community as a whole.

The tests have their detractors among state and local policymakers too, reports Barnum. Although "many states" had already been planning to go forward with the tests, Barnum reports, numerous state and local education officials signaled they may ask the federal government for "additional flexibility, or appear to have disregarded the department's clear language entirely."

More than 500 education researchers have asked Cardona to reconsider the mandate. Cardona has claimed that test results will "ensure that we're providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic," even though plans for distributing the funds have already been determined.

Members of Congress have also spoken out against the tests. Several Democrats led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York have urged Cardona to reconsider the decision, Politico reports: "Bowman said that requiring testing this year would add stress to kids who are already traumatized and divert school administrators' resources and attention away from reopening safely."

This 'Mentality' Isn't Going to Work

So who believes we need the tests?

One of the congressional Democrats who signed Bowman's letter to Cardona, Rep. Mark Takano of California, previously gave me an interesting explanation for that.

In 2015, when President Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was such a huge proponent of testing he insisted test scores be used to evaluate teachers, I interviewed Takano, who, like Bowman, had been a public school teacher before being elected to Congress.

When I asked Takano about what he called the federal government's "test and punish" approach to education policy, he stated that the testing mandate, which began when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 but still dominates today, wasn't "designed for the types of realities in [his] school."

What do colleagues in Congress say when he tells them this? He told me the problem in Congress is that there are two types of people who tend to dominate Beltway ideology and the philosophy that drives problem-solving.

Most people, he explained, are either from the worlds of business and finance or they're attorneys. The former, due to their work experiences, tend to be driven by numbers and production outputs, while the latter, due to their advocacy interests, want to remedy societal problems, including those that are obvious in the education system, by "putting into place a law with all these hammers" to make someone accountable for any statistical evidence of injustice and inequality.

Neither "mentality [is] going to work in education," he told me, because at the heart of the education process is teachers being able to build trusting relationships with students and strategizing with other teachers on how to engage students. Having to hit a mark on the annual test or worry about an accountability measure closing your school or ending your employment just gets in the way.

A Pressure Campaign

Someone who fits the mold of those wanting to drop a hammer on educators is acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, who signed the letter informing state education departments of the decision to carry on the testing mandate.

Rosenblum came to his position having previously served as executive director of Education Trust–New York. Prior to that, he had worked in the administrations of two governors who pushed standardized testing in their states, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania.

Rosenblum's previous organization is part of the national Education Trust, which is currently led by John King, who was secretary of education in the Obama administration after Duncan.

In the run-up to Rosenblum's announcement, the Education Trust organized a pressure campaign with a coalition of other like-minded organizations to advocate for the tests. As the campaign rolled out, the coalition expanded from a dozen civil rights and disability advocates to more than 40 groups with a broad spectrum of interests, including business, civil rights, charter schools, politics, and so-called education reform policies.

In a series of three letters sent to education department officials—in November 2020 and on February 3 and February 23, 2021—the argument the Education Trust and its allies put forth was that the "data" generated by the tests were "imperative" to determine how "scarce resources can be directed to the students, schools and districts that need them most" and "to address systemic inequities in our education system."

In his letter upholding the testing mandate, Rosenblum repeated the identical theme: "we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic."

There are three reasons this argument is mistaken, at best, or, at worst, purposefully deceptive.

First, throughout the pandemic, it has been well understood that students who chronically struggle the most in schools—students of color, Indigenous students, English learners, immigrant students, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students experiencing homelessness—are the ones who have been further disadvantaged by the crisis. No one needs test scores to inform them of this harsh reality.

Similarly, the assertion that test data are needed to reveal the inequities of the nation's education system is absurd. The inequities of the nation's education system were stark and apparent to all before the pandemic. Obviously, a historic health and economic crisis will only worsen inequities.

Finally, the belief that standardized testing will lead to allocating education resources more effectively is simply not borne out in the history of standardized testing.

As New York City art teacher Jake Jacobs states in the Progressive magazine, "Not only have achievement gaps persisted or widened throughout the standardized testing experiment, so-called 'help' has never come, year after year. In fact, the original No Child Left Behind Act meted out escalating punishments, defunding and closing low-scoring schools, or placing them on closure lists to the delight of charter school developers and investors."

The Biden administration has said that the test score data will not be used to discipline or punish low-performing schools, states, or districts. But does anyone really believe predictably low scores won't become fodder in the ongoing campaign to dismantle public schools?

Follow the Money

Because of these flawed arguments behind the demand for testing, public school advocates are suspicious that federal officials are simply doing the bidding of private foundations and political groups that tend to influence education policy.

As evidence of that, Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, posted on Ravitch's personal blog the names of all the organizations that signed on to the Education Trust's pressure campaign and included the amounts of funding each has received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, two of the most influential philanthropies that have spent billions in an effort to transform K-12 education to conform to market-based policy ideas. Most of the organizations have taken donations from Gates and Walton foundations, and some have gotten tens of millions of dollars.

Another source of financial pressure could be coming from the testing industry itself.

Assessment companies have been estimated to rake in over $1.7 billion annually, according to findings from a 2012 Brookings Institution assessment, as reported by Education Week. A 2015 article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post reported that testing companies spent more than $20 million on lobbying state and federal government officials from 2009 to 2014 and frequently hired them to do their lobbying.

When former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, under Trump, allowed states to cancel tests in 2020, one of the larger test companies, Cambium Assessment, took a revenue "hit," the company's president told a reporter for Education Week's Market Brief.

That article also notes that testing companies may take on additional "cost burdens" in 2021 because the Biden administration's requirements allow states to make some modifications to the length of tests and when they can be given.

Regardless of the money trail and its influence, it's not clear why the Biden administration made the decision to continue enforcing the testing mandate, and the effects of this perplexing call to continue testing during such an unprecedented school year could have far-reaching impacts, most of which, on balance, seem negative, while few seem positive.

One thing that appears to be certain though, is that, as Takano also told me, "If you liken education to bean counting, that's not going to work." And so far, the bean counters still seem to be in charge.

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

I believed the charter school myth — until I learned about the reality and who was behind it

I fell for the charter school hype. I agreed with former President Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan who advocated for "school choice." I trusted the research that said charters "close [the] achievement gap" for Black and Latino students. When I saw "Waiting for 'Superman,'" I rooted for the kids in the documentary to escape their failing public schools by snagging spots at charter schools. And though I encountered very few bad teachers in my four years teaching and 12 years learning at public schools, I never questioned why Time published stories about "Rotten Apple" teachers being swept out of classrooms by wealthy education "reformers."

I believed the hype so much that in 2012, knowing almost nothing about charter schools and having no administrative experience, I joined a friend in submitting a half-baked petition to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with the intention of starting our own charter school. When LAUSD denied it, we presented it to the Culver City Unified School District, which also, rightfully, rejected it.

Still intrigued by charters, in 2016 I interviewed for an English teacher position with a woman I'll call Ellen Peters, the principal and co-founder of Savior Academy, a charter school serving grades six through 12. (The names of the school, administrators and students have been changed for this story.) Her assertion that the close bond between students and staff made it feel "like a family" inspired me to sign a non-union contract on the spot, though the school had recently lost its co-founder Cathy Reynolds (name changed), who stepped down from the board, and several teachers, who resigned.

But the chasm between the hype and reality became evident to me immediately upon starting work. There were high attrition rates of students and teachers. Over the summer, more than half the faculty resigned and were replaced by new teachers. About three-quarters of the students hadn't returned either, and though new kids had registered, the enrollment wasn't anywhere near what was needed in order to be fiscally stable, because funding was tied to enrollment. There were legal violations: The special education teacher had 43 students, though the law capped class sizes at 28. The overage made him fall behind on students' individualized education plans (IEPs), making the school noncompliant on special education requirements.

It was clear to the new teachers, who were carrying heavy course loads and referred to getting through the workweek as "surviving," that this was unacceptable. But what kept the indefatigable old-timers going was an upcoming election of the LAUSD Board of Education in 2017, in which charter school advocate Nick Melvoin was running to unseat charter school skeptic Steve Zimmer in District 4, which stretched from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley. The election made headlines in the Los Angeles Times and HuffPost.

Board president Zimmer wasn't Principal Peters' favorite person. He'd rejected her petition for authorization of Savior Academy, which was later approved by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). He also refused to give her space in her desired upscale Westside town, so the school was now in its third home, co-located with a public school in South Los Angeles. Peters and her loyal teachers were hoping that if Melvoin won, the pro-charter board majority would help them get permanent space on the Westside. Their bumper stickers and T-shirts were splashed with the campaign slogan "Kids First," which referred to Melvoin's promise to put the interests of children before those of the teachers' union.

They weren't the only ones flacking for Melvoin. Co-founder Cathy Reynolds' son Matt, who was in my senior English class, was working on Melvoin's campaign and writing about it in his college applications. Matt's connection to Melvoin likely helped to distinguish him from other applicants, such as Indian immigrant Priyanka, who was his rival for valedictorian and also in my senior English class (the students' names have been changed to protect their identity). It is possible that this gave him a leg up in the admissions process.

Growing suspicious, I started investigating Melvoin and uncovered a dark side behind the benevolent narrative of "Kids First" that was spun by his campaign and echoed by the leadership of our school.

Who Controls the Charter School Narrative?

I learned that billionaires fund local school board elections across America in order to accelerate charter school growth. In District 4 in Los Angeles, Steve Zimmer was financed by teachers' unions while Nick Melvoin was reportedly bankrolled by California billionaires Eli Broad, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, and Gap clothing company co-founder Doris Fisher, as well as out-of-towners like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Walmart heirs and siblings Jim and Alice Walton, and others in an expensive race.

The political arm of the California Charter Schools Association, CCSA Advocates, was active in trying to get Melvoin elected. As Capital and Main reported, "In a low-turnout election that set a new record as the most expensive school board contest in U.S. history, CCSA and charter philanthropists… outspent Zimmer on Melvoin's behalf" by almost $4 million. While CCSA Advocates spent much of its billionaire-donated money directly, it also "funneled dollars" to astroturf groups like the Parent Teacher Alliance, a pro-charter organization that is not the Parent Teacher Association.

Furthermore, CCSA Advocates donated to an organization called Speak UP, which was a "strong opponent" of Zimmer, according to the Los Angeles Times, and whose co-founder and CEO Katie Braude resides in the Pacific Palisades, where the median home price is about $3.4 million. Braude helped launch the Palisades Charter School Complex, which sought to serve "all students in an ethnically and economically diverse student body," according to her bio on the Speak UP website. But at Palisades Charter High School, "[w]hite students are 2.8 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Black students," while "Black students are 7 times as likely to be suspended as [w]hite students," according to ProPublica. In 2016 and 2017, Black students were victims of hate crimes at Palisades Charter High School, and in 2020, a Black teacher sued the school for racial discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." According to the Pacific Palisades Patch, Pamela Magee, the school's executive director and principal, responded to the teacher's allegations via email, "PCHS is an equal opportunity employer, and we take allegations of discrimination seriously."

Among Speak UP's volunteers was our co-founder Cathy Reynolds, mom of my student Matt who worked on Melvoin's campaign. Speak UP gave her a platform on its blog to criticize Steve Zimmer's alleged animosity toward our school. But as I learned more about him, I realized that Zimmer, a 16-year-veteran teacher who had attended public schools and was the son of educators, probably understood how to put "kids first" better than did Melvoin, who taught for two years, graduated from the exclusive Harvard-Westlake (alma mater of Jake Gyllenhaal and Lily Collins) and was the son of a TV writer/producer and a photojournalist.

Melvoin's list of individual donations, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, is filled with some of the same moguls who donated to CCSA Advocates, such as Eli Broad and Reed Hastings. It also includes then-co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios Alan F. Horn, president of the Emerson Collective Laurene Powell Jobs, and Martha L. Karsh and her husband Bruce Karsh, who at the time of the election was the chair of the Tribune Media Company, which then owned the Los Angeles Times. (Bruce Karsh stepped down from the Tribune in October 2017, five months after the school board election.)

The billionaires who fund school board races across the country also finance education reporting. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which was partly behind a $490 million plan reported in 2015 to enroll half of LAUSD's students in charters by 2023, funded the Los Angeles Times' reporting initiative Education Matters with the Baxter Family Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation, which also support charters. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amazon (whose founder and former CEO—now executive chairman—Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post) fund the Seattle Times' Education Lab. The Bezos Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, fund Chalkbeat. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation fund Education Week and The 74, which owns the LA School Report. The Gates Foundation finances the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), whose "Fixes" column in the New York Times covers education and other issues. And Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective owns the Atlantic, which has a robust education section.

Both news stories and opinion pieces in the aforementioned outlets are slanted toward the interests of funders. As Tim Schwab wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, SJN co-founders David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg "have favorably profiled Gates-funded education, agriculture, and global health programs over the years" in their "Fixes" column in the New York Times "without disclosing that they work for an organization that receives millions of dollars from Gates." Furthermore, the Seattle Times' Education Lab, which is partnered with SJN, has published positive reporting on Gates' charter school initiatives. The Atlantic published largely uncritical pieces about Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and former education secretary Arne Duncan when he was promoting his book. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, published editorials calling for charter school expansion, and it endorsed Nick Melvoin not once but twice.

When it comes to honest reporting on charter schools, the mainstream media is set up to be an unreliable narrator.

Unhealthy Competition Between Schools Leads to Under-Enrollment

A month into the academic year at Savior Academy, we received an infusion of kids from City High School, a charter that closed abruptly because of under-enrollment. Although the Los Angeles Times reported the story, it didn't mention the bigger issue: Most charters were under-enrolled, making it difficult for even the promising ones to stay open. Some charters had less than 20 percent of what was projected in their petitions, according to a 2016 article in Education Week. Eighty-two percent of "charter schools operating within LAUSD" were under-enrolled in 2019, according to LAUSD board member Scott Schmerelson, who posted this information on Facebook, and in 2020 the number rose to 85 percent. (Claims of waitlists in the billionaire-funded "Waiting for 'Superman'" should be met with skepticism.)

In 2017, then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that picking a school should be as easy as choosing to ride with Lyft, Uber or a taxi. In Los Angeles, it is that easy, which creates chaos for students and teachers who bounce around from school to school. California, which the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss once described as "the Wild West" of the charter sector, has more charters than any other state while LAUSD has more charters than any other district in the country. Charters drain about 12,000 students and nearly $600 million a year from LAUSD, so public schools are also under-enrolled.

Charter school activists have created two competing school systems battling for an advantage, and kids are the pawns. This was evident in our co-location with a public school in South Los Angeles. Because we were still under-enrolled, Principal Peters pressured teachers to recruit students. I declined, but a few others went along with it, enlisting some kids from neighboring schools. They also poached a couple of students from our co-located school, which was under-enrolled as well, along with the funding that followed them.

Charter Schools and Propaganda

While I found incisive reporting on charter school co-locations in the Huffington Post, I was disappointed to discover many more opinion pieces that were supportive of co-location, such as one in The 74 by its co-founder Campbell Brown, who accused New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio of engaging in "a bizarrely personal and destructive death match" because he denied co-locations to Success Academy Charter Schools. (Brown served on Success Academy's board and called herself a "soldier in Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz's army." She now works for Facebook, which some consider a political propaganda machine because of its failure to vet political ads.)

In his 2015 book How Propaganda Works, Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley writes that propaganda deceives by appealing to emotions over reason, encouraging an "us" versus "them" mentality through negative stereotypes, and destroying "reasonableness" that depends on "norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability." Because propaganda relies on false claims, distorted facts, and simplistic narratives, it thrives in a polarized environment, which education certainly is. Furthermore, public relations and propaganda are intimately linked.

Melvoin's campaign slogan "Kids First," the type of phrase that's popular in "education reform" circles, implies that charter schools put children first while public schools put teachers first. But you can't put kids first while putting teachers last and expect kids to be okay. According to a 2016 Pennsylvania State University research brief, "When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance." At our charter school, the sixth-grade humanities teacher was laid off because the grade was under-enrolled, according to an email Principal Peters sent to families, and the overworked physics teacher missed many days of work due to the stress. It was clear to me that this affected some of our students, who were acting out and getting rampantly suspended. Even Priyanka, who had been tied for valedictorian with Matt, was now falling behind in her classes.

While "school choice" claims to "close [the] achievement gap," charters serving a majority-minority population "are among the nation's most segregated," according to the Associated Press, and high levels of segregation are connected to wide gaps in educational achievement. As Howard University assistant professor Natalie Hopkinson wrote in HuffPost, school choice has led to white flight from public schools, threatening their survival, a problem at LAUSD and across the United States.

Learning more about Steve Zimmer, I realized he wasn't the evil person a pro-charter political action committee called "LA Students 4 Change" portrayed him to be when they sent out mailers that were similar to the "iconic imagery from advertising for the Netflix series 'Making a Murderer.'" Zimmer had actually done a lot for kids by increasing arts funding and authoring "the school board resolution in support of the Dream Act." Conversely, Melvoin had participated in Vergara v. California and Reed v. California, which aimed to dismantle teacher tenure. While the lawsuits were initially successful, both were overturned on appeal.

But support for Melvoin was growing. Not only was he endorsed by former education secretary Arne Duncan and former California Senator Barbara Boxer, but even our teachers' spouses were canvassing for him.

Principal Peters, meanwhile, continued placing demands on us that seemed to us absurd, and there was little recourse since we weren't protected by a union. An old-timer confessed to me that teachers had tried unionizing, but Peters had shut them down. Some quit, while the ones who stayed appeared to have Stockholm Syndrome. The special education teacher told me that the stress caused by his illegal class size was making him sick. He soon quit. And Peters asked me to upload an AP syllabus to the College Board for a class I taught that was not AP. I was so worried about the situation at work that I suffered from panic attacks and eventually felt compelled to become a whistleblower.

When I spoke to Indra Ciccarelli and Dina Wilson at LACOE, they promised to investigate my claims. They also told me they'd received complaints from parents, including some of the same things in my whistleblower complaint to them, such as special education violations and rampant suspensions. One parent even filed a violation with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging discrimination against their child on the basis of disability and race, they told me. Ciccarelli and Wilson also said that they were in the process of deciding whether or not to renew the school's charter for another five years and encouraged me to stay in touch with them.

They became my lifeline, as working at the school became unbearable. When I investigated the assistant principal's son, who was in my seventh-grade English class, for bullying a classmate who had autism, the assistant principal filed a grievance against me. After she excoriated the new biology teacher for also butting heads with her son, he quit. The new calculus teacher also resigned, and a senior dropped out just short of graduating.

Melvoin seemed unaware of (or indifferent to) all of this when he visited us and smiled for pictures that he posted on Instagram. LACOE, on the other hand, proved to be an ally of the kids when it denied our school's renewal petition, citing high suspension rates, failure to meet academic benchmarks, attrition rates and other problems. When the Los Angeles Times and LA School Report covered the impending closure, the reporters didn't speak to teachers who may have revealed the climate of terror at the school. But they did allow Peters to publicly blame Steve Zimmer for the school's failure.

Nick Melvoin snagged the school board seat in May 2017, and Reynolds' son Matt attended his induction ceremony. Matt also beat Priyanka for valedictorian and got accepted into more selective colleges than she did, which was heartbreaking to witness. The Reynolds family reaped the greatest benefits from the school without being held accountable for the carnage. While they may not have set out to do that, it's how privilege works.

Will Charter Schools Become Demystified?

Teachers' voices are largely missing from the media's narrative on charter schools because they fear retribution by vengeful employers and condescending politicians and reporters. Because teachers are likely to expose the corruption and threaten the status quo, they are silenced.

Cambridge College education professor James Horn found only two teachers out of more than two dozen who agreed to use their names when he interviewed them for his book about KIPP charters, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through 'No Excuses' Teaching. One of them was Jessica Marks, who described the abuse of teachers who didn't show total compliance to KIPP's "family," leading her to have a nervous breakdown (she wasn't the only one at the school where she worked to whom this happened). Instead of praising her courage in speaking out, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews doubted the veracity of her story.

(Mathews wrote the KIPP-exalting bestseller Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America. Perhaps that's why he maligned Horn's book, which challenges harsh discipline policies that include making kids "earn" their desks by sitting on the floor to do their work.)

Unable to remain silent about my experiences at Savior Academy, I wrote an exposé and pitched it to outlets for eight months before mega-producer Shonda Rhimes' Shondaland bought and published "The Truth About Charter Schools." It went viral. Soon after, two major publishers released the charter-lauding books How the Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio and Charter Schools and Their Enemies by Thomas Sowell. But major publishers have yet to publish a charter school exposé that I know of. Horn's book was released by the independent Rowman & Littlefield, which doesn't have a lot of marketing dollars. Maybe that's why the book didn't get the attention it deserved, though Jay Mathews' attack probably didn't help.

The good news is that stories that are critical of charter schools are seeping into mainstream media. The New York Daily News covered former students, teachers and parents at Success Academy using social media to expose stories of racism in the wake of George Floyd's killing last year, including a white assistant principal erecting a bulletin board of effigies of Black bodies hanging upside down from a tree. The New York Times revealed that charter schools tapped pandemic relief funds meant for small businesses (after the Network for Public Education reported it first). And, when the funding for Education Matters at the Los Angeles Times ran out in 2017, the Times published a series on charter school fraud, including how a couple made millions by working loose laws.

Though billionaires keep pouring money into local school board elections, including last year's in Los Angeles, charter school expansion is slowing down, according to a 2019 report by the Broad and Walton-funded Bellwether Education Partners. While the report cited facility challenges and waning public support among the reasons, it didn't mention the recent Red for Ed teacher strikes, which called for a moratorium on new charters. Accompanying the strikes was a more positive depiction of teachers in the media: Time did an empathetic cover story on educators working multiple jobs to make ends meet, a departure from its previous stories about bad teachers.

A lasting change in the media's depiction of teachers would signal a turning tide in how it reports on charter schools. Perhaps now that Joe Biden, who during his campaign promised to increase charter school "accountability," has become president; public school supporter Dr. Jill Biden has become first lady; and Dr. Miguel Cardona has replaced Betsy DeVos as education secretary, the propaganda machine will lose steam. Maybe we'll even see books and movies that expose charter school corruption, which could help enact policies to preserve the vital democratic institution of public school.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Florina Rodov is a former public and charter school teacher and writer whose work has been published at CNN, the Atlantic, Shondaland, Yes! Magazine and others. She holds an MS in education from Fordham University. Her website is florinarodov.org. Follow her on Twitter @florinarodov.

The for-profit charter school industry is completely out of control

A new report by the Network for Public Education (NPE) explains why charter schools are often nonprofit in name only when they are associated with a for-profit management group.

NPE's report, titled "Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain," reveals that many charter schools have contracts with for-profit management groups, commonly called education management organizations (EMOs), which use the nonprofit status of charter schools to hide their business dealings. (Charter schools are defined as nonprofit entities in all states except Arizona.)

The Network for Public Education—an organization co-founded by education historian Diane Ravitch that advocates for public schools—states in the report that between September 2020 and February 2021, NPE identified more than 1,000 charter schools contracted with for-profit EMOs, including "directing schools to their related real estate and service corporations" more often than not.

Charters Run for Profit

The NPE report covers an astonishing range of enterprises that make up the for-profit charter school industry, and their array of profit-yielding business methods.

When Florida couple Dwight and Connie Cenac were losing too many students from the Christian private school they ran, they converted the school to a charter, made their for-profit management company the school's operator, and made their real estate firm the school's landlord, according to the NPE report. Now their financial situation is bolstered by the 10 percent fee the management firm earns from taxpayer revenue sent to the charter school, and by the ever-expanding rental income from the school, also courtesy of taxpayers, because of a 3 percent annual increase they wrote into the contract.

What the Cenacs pulled off by getting into the charter school business, when writ large, can lead to considerable private fortunes funded with taxpayer dollars.

In 1997, Fernando Zulueta, a Florida real estate developer, opened his first charter school as part of a housing development, NPE reports. Shortly after, he and his brother Ignacio created a for-profit management company, Academica, and added more charter schools to their operations. Each charter school the Zuluetas created became its own nonprofit sub-chain, with each holding its own charters to other schools and with each school making lease payments and other business transactions to Academica, or companies associated with Academica, for payroll, construction, equipment leasing, and other services.

By 2010, the Zulueta brothers controlled more than $115 million in Florida tax-exempt real estate, with the companies collecting about $19 million in annual lease payments.

Today, Academica is the largest for-profit charter school chain in the United States, with 189 charter schools in six states and with at least 56 active corporations listed at its Miami headquarters' address and another 70 entities at another Miami address where its real estate corporations, holding companies, and finance corporations are housed, according to the NPE report.

The report found numerous examples of EMOs that lock nonprofit charters into agreements called "sweeps contracts" in which virtually all of the charter's finances are passed to the for-profit management corporation, which then outsources the schools' services to its own related companies that provide leasing, personnel services, or curriculum.

Charter School Profiting Is Not a 'Myth'

The issue of for-profit charter schools became particularly contentious in the 2020 presidential election when Democratic candidate Joe Biden told a crowd of teachers and public school advocates at an event organized by a national teachers' union, "I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period."

The remark was then "distorted" by the Trump campaign as a call to end school choice and "abolish all charter schools," reported FactCheck.org, which corrected the record.

Biden's declaration also created considerable consternation in the charter school industry and among its advocates. Charter school lobbyists at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called the whole notion of charter schools that operate for profit a "myth." Operatives in the so-called "education reform" movement took to websites like Education Next, which advocates for charters, to declare that profit-earning charter operators are merely "partnering" with their nonprofit boards and serving as "vendors," much in the same way that private companies, such as textbook publishers and tech businesses, serve public schools.

The NPE report soundly refutes the former argument and seriously calls into question the latter.

Hardly a myth, charters that operate for a profit are a huge part of the industry. The report "identified more than 1,100 charter schools that have contracts with one of 138 for-profit organizations" that control the schools' operations. The presence of for-profit operators in the charter industry constitutes over 15 percent of all charter schools, educating over 600,000 students, about 18 percent of all students enrolled in charters.

The charter businesses range in size from nationwide chains of schools to smaller operations that are just a few schools. And rather than partnering with nonprofit boards, these charter operations handpick their boards, who then enter into a contract with the for-profit to run the school.

Sometimes the very same people, or members of their family, who are employed by the charter management company also serve on the nonprofit board. And sometimes board members will serve on multiple boards for schools that are run by the same company.

"Opportunities are plentiful," the report states. "And because the schools are publicly funded, the risk is low. Every student who walks through the door brings ample public funds."

These types of business arrangements are very different from the typical contracts that public schools enter when they purchase products and services from private vendors. For instance, when school districts purchase textbooks from a publisher, the contracts are subject to approval by an elected board that is required to conduct open meetings with transparent documentation. And the districts own the books.

Charter operations, on the other hand, generally have minimal oversight and are rarely transparent in their business dealings. And when ownership of school purchases passes from public institutions to private organizations, the difference represents a huge impact to the public's purse, especially when private companies end up owning real estate and school buildings that were purchased with public tax dollars.

Will Biden Keep His Promise to Crack Down?

Further, when for-profit firms control where to place schools, they can choose to configure their businesses to disproportionately serve fewer disadvantaged students—the students who cost the most to educate.

Looking at the five cities with the most for-profit charter schools by the proportion of students attending these schools, the NPE report found that "in all but one city—Detroit—for-profit run charters served far fewer students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch [a common measurement of poverty]. In all cities, for-profit-run schools serve fewer students who receive services under IDEA," the federal program for students with special needs.

Some of the largest for-profit charter chains—such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, and BASIS—were found to have greater disparities of disadvantaged students, something that clearly seems by design rather than happenstance given how large their student populations are.

The report concludes that because of the creative workarounds that profit-seeking charter operators have developed to evade state and federal laws, public officials must toughen regulations that govern how charter schools operate.

At the federal level, that means the Biden administration and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona must make good on Biden's campaign promise to crack down on charter schools that operate for profit by enforcing existing regulations governing how federal funds are distributed to charters and by placing new requirements that make charter schools more transparent about their businesses and their relationships with for-profit companies.

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

Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer hit back at George Will's attack on student loans plan

In a column published on Feb. 10, conservative Washington Post opinion writer George Will was highly critical of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's proposal for canceling $50,000 per person of student loan debt — arguing that the more affluent graduates would be the ones benefitting the most. And in a letter to the Post, Warren and Schumer lay out some reasons why they vehemently disagree with him.

Will, a Never Trump conservative who left the GOP after many years because of his total disdain for former President Donald Trump, was happy to see Joe Biden win the 2020 presidential election. But he also made it clear that he was still a conservative and would likely have some strong policy differences with Democrats in 2021. And in his Feb. 11 column, Will argued that the students seeing the greatest benefits from a cancelation of their debt would be high wage earners.

Will wrote, "Activist government usually serves those who know how to activate it: relatively affluent and articulate complainers…. The five degrees responsible for most debt are: medical and law, bachelor's and master's in business, and bachelor of science for nursing. The typical college graduate with debt, $28,500, can retire it in 20 years with $181 monthly payments."

The Never Trump journalist went on to say, "43 million people have, cumulatively, more than $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt. But only one-third of adults over age 25 have four-year college degrees. They have substantially higher average incomes than the non-college-graduate majority: $1 million more than a high school graduate in lifetime earnings. So, the Warren-Schumer loan forgiveness would be an upward redistribution of wealth; 65% of the Warren-Schumer benefits would go to households in the top two income quintiles, and only 14% to the bottom two quintiles."

In their letter to the Post, Warren and Schumer respond that Will "misrepresented the facts about our proposal to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt."

"Mr. Will might be surprised to learn that student loan debt isn't just a problem for college graduates," the Democratic senators explain. "About 40% of the people with student loan debt do not have a college degree. Borrowers who did not finish their degree have a much harder time paying off their debt — they are three times as likely to default. Our proposal would forgive 90% of debt for people with some college but no degree, 87% of debt for people with associate degrees and 72% for those with bachelor's degrees."

Warren and Schumer explain why student debt is both a racial issue and a class issue.

"This is also a matter of racial equity," they write. "Students of color are also far more likely to take on student loans than White students, in higher amounts — and upon graduation, they frequently earn less than White graduates do. A study from Brandeis University found that after 20 years of student loan payments, the median Black borrower had $18,500 left in debt; the median White borrower had $1,000. For those Black students who entered college in 2003 to 2004, nearly half of borrowers defaulted on their loans within 12 years. Canceling student debt would significantly advance racial justice by immediately increasing Black and Latino wealth and disproportionately helping students of color."

New study 'demolishes' myth pushed by Joe Biden about student debt

The latest annual student debt report from the social science research group Jain Family Institute, published Thursday, belies claims by President Joe Biden—who earlier this week said he would not cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower—that such a move would disproportionately benefit people who attend elite private universities.

The 2021 Student Debt and Young America report, authored by JFI's Laura Beamer and Eduard Nilaj, begins by noting that young people are "overrun with student debt."

"This crisis is the culmination of waning government funding for higher education, wage stagnation, wealth inequality, and a misleading emphasis on obtaining high credentials—all leading to the financial gap between college prices and later earnings," they write.

"In 2020, aggregate balances reached $1.66 trillion in 2019 dollars, 122% higher in real dollars than in 2010," the authors continue. "Not surprisingly, the number of borrowers, the amount they owe, and the number of loans each borrower acquires, have all increased over the time period. In 2019, 18-35 year-olds with student loan debt owed nearly $35,000 on average compared to just over $28,000... in 2009. Back in 2009 there were only 32 million federal borrowers; in 2019, that number swelled to 43 million."

The study notes marked racial disparities in student debt, with Black people suffering both the largest increase over time and the highest median amount owed in 2019, at $20,236. Asian students experienced the worst debt inequality in 2019. Although their median debt was $18,548 that year, their average debt balance was $38,860.

Critically, the study finds:

Because low- and lower-middle income communities see the worst debt-to-income ratios, they would see the largest portion of their income freed up through student debt forgiveness. Young adult borrowers in low- and lower-middle income communities would receive an outsized share of forgiveness in aggregate dollars compared to middle- and upper-income communities.

This flies in the face of the implications of Biden's remarks at a CNN town hall Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, where the president said he doesn't want to forgive "billions of dollars of debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn" instead of using "that money to provide money for early education for young children who... come from disadvantaged circumstances."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), an outspoken proponent of student debt forgiveness, rebutted Biden's assertion by asking "who cares what school someone went to?"

"Entire generations of working-class kids were encouraged to go into more debt under the guise of elitism. This is wrong," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted late Tuesday. "The case against student loan forgiveness is looking shakier by the day... We can and should do it. Keep pushing!"

Speaking of the freshly published JFI study, Beamer on Thursday tweeted that she was "waiting until this report came out to address the ridiculous 'Harvard, Yale, and Penn' comment" from Biden, calling it "a myth" that borrowers attending elite schools "would overwhelmingly benefit from forgiveness compared to their peers elsewhere."

Other progressive politicians and advocates also pushed back on Biden's remarks. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) affirmed that the president could cancel student debt "with the stroke of a pen." Americans for Financial Reform, which has led demands for Biden to cancel $50,000 of student debt per borrower through executive action, on Wednesday decried Biden's proposed $10,000 per person debt relief as inadequate.

"Far more than $10,000 in cancellation is required," the group said, "to provide aid that 44 million families and the economy need."

Here's how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Biden's refusal to forgive $50k of student debt

After President Joe Biden told the nation during a CNN town hall Tuesday night that he "will not" cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among the many progressives who pushed back against the president's false narrative about who would benefit from the move and urged advocates to keep up the pressure.

When a town hall attendee said during Tuesday's event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin student loan debt is "crushing" her family, friends, and millions of Americans and urged Biden to unilaterally forgive a minimum of $50,000 per borrower, Biden responded, "I will not make that happen."

The president went on to say that he doesn't want to forgive "billions of dollars of debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn" instead of using "that money to provide money for early education for young children who... come from disadvantaged circumstances."

But Ocasio-Cortez and others argued there is no reason the wealthiest nation on the planet can't both fund early childhood education and forgive some of the combined $1.8 trillion in student loan debt saddling more than 40 million Americans.

"Nowhere does it say we must trade-off early childhood education for student loan forgiveness," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted late Tuesday. "We can have both."

The New York Democrat also rejected the notion that attendees of Harvard, Yale, and other elite universities should categorically be denied student loan relief, noting that many people from working-class families attended such prestigious schools and are now saddled with debt due to their inability to afford the sky-high costs.

"Who cares what school someone went to? Entire generations of working-class kids were encouraged to go into more debt under the guise of elitism. This is wrong," Ocasio-Cortez said. "The case against student loan forgiveness is looking shakier by the day... Biden's holding back, but many of the arguments against it just don't hold water on close inspection. We can and should do it. Keep pushing!"

In lieu of canceling $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower—a proposal backed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and other prominent Democratic lawmakers—Biden said he is "prepared to write off" $10,000 a person, make community college free, and eliminate state school tuition for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year.

While Biden presented his higher-education proposals as sensible and pragmatic alternatives to unilateral debt cancellation—which he falsely insisted he doesn't have the authority to carry out—racial justice activist Bree Newsome argued that "there's nothing practical about Biden's stance on student loan forgiveness."

"It's just an ideological stance on being moderate that isn't informed by what makes sense from either an economic, gender, or racial justice standpoint," Newsome wrote. "That's why he's out of step with other Dems on this."

"Why do we have to choose between student loan debt forgiveness and funding childhood education?" Newsome asked. "What does the $10K cap have to do with borrowers from elite schools? Why are we excluding elite schools? There are a bunch of first generation students of color at elite schools."

Vanessa A. Bee, an editor at Current Affairs, offered a similar—albeit more sharply worded—critique on Twitter:

Biden's opposition to cancelling $50,000 in student loan debt via executive order is not new. In December, as Common Dreams reported, Biden sparked backlash by saying he'd "be unlikely" to take such a step and questioned whether he could do so legally.

But legal experts have said the president clearly has the authority to direct the secretary of education to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt without congressional approval, a move that a majority of Americans support.

In an analysis (pdf) released last September, Eileen Connor, Deanne Loonin, and Toby Merrill of the Project on Predatory Student Lending wrote that "broad or categorical debt cancellation would be a lawful and permissible exercise of the secretary's authority under existing law."

"Yes, POTUS does have the authority to cancel student debt with the stroke of a pen," Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), the lead House sponsor of a resolution urging Biden to forgive $50,000 in student debt, tweeted late Tuesday. "He can and must use it. The people deserve nothing less."

In a joint statement Wednesday morning, Warren and Schumer said that "an ocean of student loan debt is holding back 43 million borrowers and disproportionately weighing down Black and Brown Americans."

"Presidents Obama and Trump used their executive authority to cancel student loan debt," the senators noted. "Cancelling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40% of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy. It's time to act. We will keep fighting."

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