Category Archives: Education / Youth

It’s Only Money…

There have been some truly jaw-dropping revelations coming from recent Congressional hearings–but most have been overshadowed by the continuing dramas of Trump’s refusal to produce documents demanded by Congress and Barr’s evident fabrications about the Mueller Report.

This one is particularly maddening, if only because allowing clueless Betsy DeVos to run anything–let alone the Department of Education–is infuriating.

In this article in Common Dreams, Jeff Bryant offers one particular example of DeVos’ overwhelming incapacity:

During a series of recent congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had to respond to a recent report finding the U.S. Department of Education has been scammed for hundreds of millions of dollars by fraudulent or mismanaged charter schools. Her responses reveal not only her inability to counter legitimate concerns over the spread of charter schools but also the charter school industry’s resistance to honestly address a chronic problem with its schools.

The report, which I co-authored with Network for Public Education Executive Director Carol Burris, found that up to $1 billion awarded by the federal government’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) went to charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, and fraud. Our calculation was that a least a third of the $4.1 billion spent by the CSP was wasted.

Members of Congress repeatedly referred to these findings when questioning the secretary’s management of charter school grants and her proposal to increase funding for the program to $500 million annually. In response, DeVos first attempted to deny the problem, saying, “You are always going to have schools that don’t make it.”

When her “some schools won’t make it” excuse didn’t seem to convince those doing the questioning, DeVos insisted that the country needs “more charter schools, not less.” And when she was unable to explain her department’s obvious inability to properly monitor the charter grant program, she attacked the authors of the report, claiming that they had a “political agenda.” (She was also unable to provide any evidence that their conclusions were inaccurate.)

Following the hearing at which the monetary losses were explored, the Network for Public Education wrote an open letter to DeVos, in which they pointed out that 250 charter schools in DeVos home state of Michigan had received grant money between 2006 and 2014, and that 109 of those–or 42%–had either closed or never opened, wasting more than $20 million dollars. Despite this abysmal result,  DeVos’ DOE gave Michigan $47,222,222 in 2018 for the express purpose of starting up or expanding charters.

It isn’t only Michigan.

In Ohio, of the roughly 290 charter schools that received federal grants from the CSP during the same time period, 117 schools, 40 percent, also never opened or are now closed. The amount of waste to taxpayers totals $35,926,693.

In Louisiana, 51 of the 110 charter schools, 46 percent, that received funding through the CSP failed.

In California, of the more than 780 charter schools that received grant funds, 297 schools, 38 percent, closed or never opened, resulting in $103,467,332 in wasted education funds.

In Florida, of the some 500 schools getting federal grants, 184 schools, 36 percent, never opened or closed, representing a loss of $34,781,736 in lost federal tax dollars.

It is only fair to point out that this is not evidence that charter schools are all substandard or fraudulent. There are plenty of perfectly good charters, just as there are (propaganda to the contrary) plenty of perfectly good public schools. The data tends to show that overall, charters (which are public schools) perform pretty much the way traditional public schools perform.

Private schools that accept vouchers are another matter.

What this situation does unequivocally demonstrate is that, under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has abandoned oversight, thanks largely to her cozy relationship with for-profit “educators” and her fixation on privatizing  public education.

Under DeVos, DOE is wasting billions of dollars that could be used to actually improve public education.

Her protector and fellow ideologue, Mike Pence, must be so proud…..

 

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

“Elite” Colleges And Rich Delusions

When the news broke about rich parents buying their children’s admittance to “elite” colleges–falsifying credentials, paying smart kids to take the SATs, and bribing admissions personnel–it reminded me of my mother’s most abiding regret.

My mother was extremely bright, and made excellent grades in high school. She desperately wanted to go to college–but her parents were poor, and could only manage tuition at a local college if she lived at home. Room and board elsewhere were out of reach. My mother wanted a traditional campus social experience (as she said later, she was young and misguided), so she just didn’t go to college. She read voraciously and educated herself, but the local college was very good and she would have benefitted from going.

The lesson–which I never forgot–is that If a good education is really what you want, it is widely available.

There are an estimated 5,300 colleges in the U.S. They vary widely in the breadth and quality of their offerings, but you can get a very good education–I will go so far as to say an excellent education–in the top 500 or so. (Probably more.)

Of course, you need to want an education–not merely a social life, an impressive credential, connections to wealthy classmates, or bragging rights for making it into the most selective institutions.

I’m not knocking the benefits of going to a school with the offspring of the rich and famous; I still remember being a first-year associate in a law firm with a number of Harvard and Yale graduates. If a client needed local counsel in another state, the lawyer involved would frequently pull out his alumni register and hire a classmate practicing in that state. I’m sure that those school ties are equally valuable in a number of other professions.

As the news media has delved into the scandal, what they have discovered is something that most of us who are in academia have always known: the “elite” schools are certainly very good, but they are also selective about their selectivity, routinely favoring the offspring of alumni, especially generous alumni. (Jared Kushner’s father endowed a building at Harvard, and presto! despite mediocre grades, Jared was admitted) They also have special “quotas” for certain kinds of athletes.

You can find plenty of intellectual deadwood in those “groves of academe.”

The parents involved in this particular scandal apparently fall into the “bragging rights” category, but whatever their motivations, ensuring that their children received a superior education was pretty clearly not among them.

What this sordid episode revealed was the utter superficiality of so much of American culture, where appearances are more important than substance, where a college education is seen as a credential rather than an opportunity to explore the store of knowledge that humans have amassed, or an effort to confront the existential questions that loom so large when we are young.

Approaching a college education as if it is a more “elite” form of job training is why many middle-tier struggling institutions are jettisoning courses in the humanities in favor of technical skills and STEM, and why parents try to talk their children out of majoring in “impractical” subjects like philosophy or anthropology or English literature.

People who view all of life as a game of one-upmanship want their children to attend “prestige” universities, whether or not those institutions are the best fit for that child.

People who view life as an adventure to be illuminated by knowledge, who view learning as a life-long task and college as a place where you learn how to engage in that task, are satisfied if their children attend any of the many, many institutions able to nourish their intellectual curiosity and introduce them to the great minds and achievements of human civilization.

If I was still helping my children search for those places, however, I think I’d look askance at the schools that (legally or illegally) traded admissions for money…

 

 

What Is Civic Literacy?

Those of us who have spent years warning about the consequences of Americans’ low levels of civic literacy can take some comfort in the fact that Trump’s election not only proved our point, but seems to have generated an awakening among people who were previously unimpressed with the importance of the issue.

Here in Indiana, former Governor Mitch Daniels, who is now the President of Purdue University, has called for a campus-wide, mandatory civics test.

The faculty has been debating the proper approach to testing students’ civic literacy; in the meantime, they have

promised to let the president ask for a straight up-or-down vote on his baseline assumption that students should at least be able to pass the same test given to newly naturalized citizens.

Ah yes–the naturalization test.

As concerns about levels of civic ignorance have grown, a number of states have passed laws mandating the use of the naturalization test in order to graduate from high school. It’s so typical of American lawmakers, who tend to favor what I call “bumper-sticker” solutions. Civics instruction inadequate? Well, here’s a test. Give that. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the questions on the naturalization test tend to be “civic trivia.” How many stripes on the flag? Name one branch of government? What are the first three words of the Constitution? How many U.S. Senators are there?

Now, knowing the answers to the questions on the civics test is fine. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the responder understands the way American government works. Knowing the length of a Senator’s term (another question on the test) tells you nothing about the operation of the federal government, or federalism’s division of jurisdiction–the relationships among local, state and federal levels of government.

It’s certainly nice if the test-taker can name ONE right protected by the First Amendment (another question), but that ability doesn’t translate into understanding the interaction of the religion clauses, or the purpose of free speech or a free press. Knowing that the first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights doesn’t translate into understanding the “negative liberty” premise of the Bill of Rights– the reason that the provisions of the Bill of Rights only restrict government. (I wish I had a dollar for every student who has come into my classroom utterly unaware of that essential fact.)

What’s the difference between civil rights and civil liberties?

What is probable cause and why does it matter?

What do we mean by due process of law? The equal protection of the law?

If we really care about an informed electorate, a citizenry capable of debating the application of the actual constitution rather than a fanciful Fox-ified document, a citizenry with at least a superficial understanding of America’s history,  that isn’t going to be accomplished by a requirement that students correctly answer six questions from the citizenship test.

If I had a magic wand, I’d make every high school in the country require We the People–a curriculum that actually produces civically-literate citizens.

But that’s a solution that wouldn’t fit on a bumper-sticker.

The Unremitting Attacks On Public Education

The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.

Last September, The Guardian reported on an Arizona effort spearheaded by DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.

Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.

For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.

Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.

The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.

One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.

One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Save our Schools won. 

A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.

The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.

This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.

If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.