Category Archives: Education / Youth

ALEC and Indiana’s Voucher Program

A friend recently sent me a rather eye-opening article by three Ball State University researchers. It appeared in an academic journal aimed at school superintendents: The AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. (No link available.)

The title was provocative: Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy. Few scholarly articles have titles quite that…combative, but the data was compelling (and the four pages of references were impressive).

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, a result the article attributes to the excessive influence of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in the state. ALEC is a corporate lobbying organization, and its educational task forces are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, the Friedman Foundation, Koch Industries, Sylvan Learning and several others; it’s fair to say–as the authors do– that the intensely ideological organization believes “competition is the only legitimate organizing principle for human activity.”

Some 25% of Indiana legislators are members of ALEC, which has been “a legislative force working silently behind the scenes in the Indiana Statehouse.”

The article traces the growth of Indiana’s school voucher program through its abandonment of initial enrollment caps, and the jettisoning of the early rule that children would not be eligible for vouchers unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. Today, 55% of children using vouchers never attended a public school, and children who enroll in private preschools that accept vouchers are “automatically enrolled” in Indiana’s “choice scholarship” program.

The program is no longer limited to poor children, either: 31% of voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies.

State support for vouchers in 2016-2017 totaled 146.1 million dollars. Between 2011 and 2017, Indiana has spent 520 million dollars on vouchers–and those are dollars that would otherwise have supported public schools. (To add insult to injury, the General Assembly has not required financial reporting by voucher schools–although public schools must disclose their finances.)

In the U.S., 80% of children in private schools are in religious schools; in Indiana, that number is 98%.

So much for the law and the money and the overwhelming influence of ALEC and religion: how are voucher schools performing?

Not very well.

Research shows “persistent, statistically-significant negative impacts” in math, and no improvement over public schools in reading. According to the report, almost 25% of these schools earned F grades from the state in 2015-16, compared to 5% of public schools ; every single online school got an F.

Then there’s segregation. Indiana’s voucher program has “become increasingly affluent and white,” which shouldn’t surprise us, since these schools “set their own admission standards and can reject students for any reason.”

There is much more–none of it reassuring.

Indiana’s voucher program is driven by the libertarian ideology of ALEC and the religious zealotry of Mike Pence and (later) Betsy DeVos–not by considered policymaking by school boards elected to make those policies. The program is draining resources from  schools that serve all children, and redirecting those resources to religious institutions that may or may not be teaching real science and accurate American history.

My biggest problem with these programs is in their underlying assumption that education is just another consumer good–a set of skills to make one’s child competitive in the marketplace. Certainly, schools should provide those skills, but in the U.S., public education is also, in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase, “constitutive of a public.” It is an essential element of democracy, especially in a country as diverse as ours.

Our democratic institutions and norms are currently under unprecedented attack from a feckless Congress and a lunatic in the White House–this is no time to shortchange the public schools, no time to abandon e pluribus unum for profit-making ventures offering tribal truths and substandard educations.

What Is WRONG With These People?

I don’t know why I constantly ask that question–I know what’s wrong with them. They are greedy and unethical, none too bright, and they lack both human empathy and any concept of justice. The better question is why are they this way? (There used to be a theory about punitive toilet training…)

Are you wondering what has set me off this time?

The Hill reports that

The GOP bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) on Friday, would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which erases student debt for those who work for qualifying employers after making payments for 10 years.

The qualifying employers include government organizations and nonprofits, according to the federal student aid website. Those who volunteer for the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps are also eligible.

God forbid we should offer people an incentive to enter into (underpaid) public service! No, we should reserve government positions for people who are able to take advantage of the opportunities–people who can use those positions to line their already-overflowing pockets.

People like Betsy Devos.

The Washington Post reports that DeVos recently awarded her department’s debt-collection contracts to two firms, one of which she had invested in shortly before becoming Secretary of Education.

A company that once had financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of two firms selected Thursday by the Education Department to help the agency collect overdue student loans. The deal could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Previously, the Department has used as many as seventeen companies to collect overdue student debt. Suddenly, they need just two.

DeVos presumably divested her stake in the successful bidder as a condition of her appointment, but of course, once she leaves, she will be perfectly free to reinvest or engage in other business dealings with a company that now owes her big time.

What makes this “deal” worth hundreds of millions of dollars–and what makes me so livid–is that DeVos is methodically engaging in a process of overturning Obama-era regulations that were–by any measure–efforts to be fair to the students DOE presumably is there to serve.

It was DeVos who proposed eliminating the Public Service Loan provision. It is DeVos who has reversed the Obama Administration’s decision to forgive loan indebtedness from students who were defrauded by predatory for-profit “universities.”

CNBC took a look at some of the DeVos policy changes, noting that terminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program would “drastically impact public servants who have made significant financial and career decisions based on PSLF provisions.”

CNBC also reported that

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education was incentivized to award Federal Student Aid contracts to debt collection companies with the strongest records of helping borrowers and the lowest rates of loan defaults.

One of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first major moves was to revoke this policy, making it more likely for the government to award Federal Student Aid contracts to companies that sell their services for the lowest price. These low-cost collection companies often offer riskier loans and provide less support to individuals trying to navigate the student loan maze.

Betsy DeVos is a poster child for an administration in which absolutely no one has the slightest concept of “the public good”– or, for that matter, ethical governance.

Normalizing Segregation

George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama,  is most remembered for his defiant opposition to school integration, and his statement “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Reading about his efforts today, we tend to assign him to the wrong side of history and dismiss him, but I’m beginning to worry  that his statement was more predictive than defiant.

A few days ago, I blogged about some illuminating, if troubling, research into the effects of geography on social attitudes. I’m only a few chapters into The Space Between Us, but it has already confirmed what most of thoughtful people realize: the more physically segregated different populations are, the more wary and distrustful of each other they are likely to be.

And let’s face it; America remains segregated. Especially when it comes to blacks and whites, we worship separately, we live in different city neighborhoods, and sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, our children still attend different schools. The institutional arrangements may have changed, but in far too many cases, the results have not.

A recent Brookings Institution report describes how the charter school movement–despite its best intentions–is accommodating itself to racial segregation.

Charter schools didn’t create segregation, but the charter school movement isn’t helping to end it either.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must never adjust ourselves to racial segregation,” he wasn’t suggesting that black kids need white kids and teachers in the classroom with them to learn. King was acutely aware that segregation sustains racial inequality in schools and other institutions. Education reform without an explicit attempt to dismantle the sources of inequality isn’t a moon shot toward justice; it is simply a maladjustment to injustice.

Figures available for the 2014-2015 school year disclose that over a thousand of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

In the all-charter district of New Orleans… virtually no (less than one percent) white students attend schools that have earned a “D” or “F” performance rating. But 77 percent of white students are enrolled in “A-” and “B-” rated schools, according to a new report by non-profit advocacy group Urban League of Louisiana. It is unthinkable that this situation would be tolerated if the students’ races were reversed. It is clear that segregation, and who gets a quality choice, matters.

In all fairness, the charters are simply replicating–rather than remedying–the separate but definitely not equal status of most public systems.

The average public school is 2.6 percent less white, 1.8 percent more black, 0.9 percent more Hispanic, and 0.3 percent more Asian than its surrounding neighborhood,” according to the study. No surprise there.

The segregated state of our schools helps maintain the inequitable funding that determines families’ educational options. When the government-backed Home Owner’s Loan Corporation developed color-coded maps to sort out who could receive mortgage lending, blacks who lived in the red sections of the map were not given loans. And of course, the most well-resourced schools just happen to be located in the most expensive neighborhoods.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they are actually disrupting school districts that were created to be discriminatory, and that their availability improves poor parents’ options. As the Brookings report concedes, providing children who live in segregated neighborhoods a quality education is an excellent goal (although as the research continues to show, it’s a goal as elusive for most charters as it is for too many public schools–charters offer no magic bullet).

Real reform will require us to pay attention to the sources of educational inequity–and that means addressing social ills like poverty and residential segregation. As the Brookings report put it,

In many cases, school district lines are the more potent Confederate monuments that we still need to take down.

 

Easy To Destroy, How Long To Repair?

A friend who lives in Wisconsin occasionally sends me items from newspapers in that state that he thinks will interest me. Most have obvious implications for other states–and since Scott Walker became Governor, those implications have tended to range from worrisome to terrifying.

The most recent news from what I’ve come to call “the frontier of shooting yourself in the foot” was a report about the University of Wisconsin’s loss of thousands of engineering students.

The story began by explaining why engineering is “more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.” The university should have a number of advantages when it comes to attracting engineering students–most recently, it has used private grant funds to create an innovative “maker space” appealing to both in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Accommodating those applicants is a different issue.

There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.

The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition.

As the article delicately puts it, those funding sources “haven’t grown.” That’s a rather massive understatement: the Walker Administration’s cuts to funding for the university can only be characterized as savage. In the wake of those cuts, and other measures inimical to higher education, the once-storied University of Wisconsin has seen faculty depart and rankings slip.

Walker not only engineered (no pun intended) an enormous $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, just when other state universities were finally emerging from the recession. He also proposed to get rid of academic tenure.

As one observer wrote at the time,

With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

An article in Slate a year later considered the consequences of these changes in funding and tenure protections. Several highly-regarded professors had left; others at risk of being “poached” were retained (at least temporarily) at a cost of some $9 million dollars in pay raises and research support. As the Slate article explained:

Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.

Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.

What is happening in Wisconsin is tragic: Scott’s vendetta against intellectual “elitists” is affecting everything from the quality of the state’s workforce  to its reputation and its ability to attract new employers. Last year, the state ranked 33d in job creation–not dead last (Kansas has that distinction) but nothing to brag about.

What is happening in Wisconsin is also where Donald Trump and today’s rabidly anti-intellectual GOP want to take the rest of us. And that is truly terrifying. It’s relatively easy to destroy an asset; rebuilding it, and restoring a sullied reputation is a far dicier proposition.

 

 

 

Stuck In The Swamp

Can you stand one more diatribe about Betsy DeVos?

According to Gail Collins at the New York Times, DeVos isn’t just devoting herself to the destruction of public elementary and high schools. She’s after public universities too.

DeVos is the superrich Republican donor who once led a crusade to reform troubled Michigan public schools by turning them into truly terrible private ones. Now she’s in the Trump cabinet, and she seems to be dedicating a lot of her time to, um, lowering higher education.

When no one was watching she hired a lot of people that come from the for-profit colleges,” complained Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who feels the additions are far more interested in protecting their old associates than in overseeing them. Murray is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, otherwise known as HELP. These days it’s hard to tell whether that’s a promise of assistance or a cry of distress.

To oversee the critical issue of fraud in higher education, DeVos picked Julian Schmoke Jr., whose former job was a dean of — yes! — a for-profit university. Specifically a school named DeVry. Last year, under fire from state prosecutors and the Federal Trade Commission, DeVry agreed to pay $100 million to students who complained that they had been misled by its recruitment pitch.

Over the past several years, we have learned that students attending these for-profit institutions pay far more, and get far less, than they would at a public college. They have huge dropout rates, and even larger rates of default on the government grants that almost all of them take out. (On the other hand, they have very low rates of employment, despite the rosy promises made by these institutions.)

Although there are some legitimate private colleges, the statistics are pretty devastating.

“The outcomes for people who take out loans at for-profits are abysmal,” said Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress. He added that almost all the students borrow, for courses they could sometimes get for one sixth the price at a community college. And about half the people who borrow default.

As the stories about deceitful for-profits mounted, the Obama administration came up with regulations making it easier for students to refuse to pay their loans if a school had misrepresented their chances of graduating and getting a lucrative career. The rules were supposed to go into effect in July, but DeVos has delayed their implementation.

Not only has DeVos “delayed” implementation of the new regulations, under her management the Department of Education has stopped approving new fraud claims against for-profits, leaving a backlog of more than 87,000.

Give her credit for one educational advance, though: Betsy DeVos is giving us all a lesson on what happens when big political contributions buy a cabinet position for a theocratic ignoramus.