Walton’s Acknowledge Failure of On-Line For-Profit Charters… But STILL Believe in the Business Model
The Walton Foundation, major investors in for-profit charter schools, recently commissioned three reports on cyber-charters each of which concluded that on-line learning was a failure. As reported by Alternate blogger Steve Rosenfield and cross-posted on Naked Capitalism the findings were summarized in a recent op-ed article in Education Week:
“If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth largest in the country and among the worst performing,” co-wrote Walton’s Marc Sternberg and Marc Holley, respectively the foundation’s director of educational giving and its evaluation unit director, in a recent Education Weekcommentary. “Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.”
As Rosenfield notes, “re-imagining” is not the same as “eliminating” and Walton the Walton Foundation operatives call for regulation of on-line charters falls short of calling for regulating for-profit charters, a distinction that is not accidental.
One could spend hours speculating why this might be, but the most clear-cut answers relate to money: as in, too many important people are making money from what can only be described as one of the biggest education scams pushed upon taxpayers in recent years by Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
I see a place for technology in schools. As one who sat through hours of movies in high school history and science classes in the 1960s an one who sat in huge lecture halls in college and graduate school I can see the promise of flipped instruction once all homes and dormitories have broadband. As one who taught middle school mathematics to urban students in the early 1970s I can see the potential for having on-line supplementary learning in class rooms in order to match the curriculum to the wildly diverse skill levels of students and to differentiate the lessons to match students learning styles. I can even see a place for asynchronous on-line instruction for students who have the capability to work independently… just as many people in the private sector participate in webinars when the time is right for them. But I am not at all surprised the wholesale use of on-line instruction is a dismal failure for, as Rosenfield notes, most teenagers are incapable of applying themselves and many have parents who will not oversee the learning at home:
Go back to the teenagers you know. If you put them in front of computers, told them to read a bunch of stuff and absorb it, gave them assignments with future deadlines, and mostly left them alone to do all of this, how soon do you think it would be before they were texting friends, watching videos and doing everything teens do instead of doing their homework?
…(these) findings are saying cyber charter schools mostly abandon kids, have far-off teachers, have trouble keeping students focused, and end up relying on parents—all of which it suggests might be “reason for concern.”
Despite these obvious drawbacks, on-line learning is especially appealing to those who seek profits because the overhead is incredibly low and the profit margins incredibly high… and some of those profits can be channelled into campaign contributions that help State legislators make up their minds. Moreover, since the costs to operate charters ARE low, they can operate at discounted rates which means that legislators can limit spending on schools and point to the efficient charters as examples of public education’s profligacy. It’s a vicious circle that feeds the shareholders and “starves the east” of public funding.
So don’t be surprised if ALEC starts introducing legislation to lightly regulate on-line charters and for-profit charters start taking steps to limiting enrollees so that they can boost their pass rates… and the vicious circle will continue rolling…
Today’s NYTimes editorializes against the emergency manager legislation in Michigan noting the anti-demotic nature of the law and also noting that similar laws are on the books in several other states. But they miss one huge point: it’s no accident that laws establishing an emergency manager function were passed in several states: the oligarchs wrote the law and passed it along to governors they helped elect on the platform of being “open for business” and fighting “waste fraud and abuse”.
This law came right out of the ALEC playbook… and the ultimate purpose was to eviscerate public employee unions and privatize public functions like schools, police protection, fire fighting, and—yes— water. This kind of legislation takes money out of the pockets of middle class and transfers it to the shareholders of the private corporations and it does so through the totalitarian rule of an emergency manager who does not have to pay any attention to those affected by his or her desire to run cities and schools like a business. And here’s what’s even worse: the financial problems in the cities and schools where emergency managers are in place were often the result of cuts in State funds…. cuts made to fund the private sector. Alas, I do not expect Congress to do much about this: they, like their brethren in Michigan, are beholden to their donors who, in turn, are raking in profits thanks to tax cuts. It’s a vicious circle that is hard to break.
And here’s the VERY bad news for public education. As I am writing this the ALEC think tank is writing laws to help states introduce “reforms” in public education… reforms that will work in tandem with budget cuts to drive more and more districts into financial crises and into the oversight of the states where “innovations” like vouchers will be introduced to “help those in poverty” have choices outside the “public school monopoly” that feeds teachers at the expense of students.
An Occupy Democrats blog post by Omar Rivero reveals that emails from the publicly operate Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to MI Governor Rick Snyder indicate they could provide water to Flint residents for 80% of the costs Snyder was paying for another provider. Why? Rivero reports that fellow journalist Steve Neavling of the independent newspaper, Motor City Muckraker, believes that the water pipes were switched “…to break up and privatize the DWSD by starving it of a crucial customer base.” You see if DWSD’s efforts to cost-effectively expand its customer base succeeded the Governor would not be able to take it over and privatize it as he had taken over cities and school districts across the state. Rivera expands on this later in the post, describing in the last sentence how the starvation of revenues makes it possible for the State to take over the operation of public schools:
It just goes to show how dangerous the Republican Party’s crusade to dismantle all public institutions and replace them with privatized alternatives that put profits over the well-being of their customers truly presents to our nation. Governor Snyder, who was propelled into office with over $12 million in corporate campaign cash, has spent his entire governorship implementing all the trademark pieces of the Koch Brothers’ plan for America – an Americans For Prosperity-spearheaded union killing right-to-work law (even though he promised he wouldn’t during the election); the appointment of rule-by-decree”emergency managers” for major cities; slashing corporate taxes and instituting a budget-crippling flat tax; crippling public schools with budget cuts and replacing them with charter schools.
In his concluding paragraph Rivero calls out other Republican governors who have pulled the same stunt as Snyder, citing Brownback and Jindal as examples. Unfortunately his list is incomplete when it comes to starving schools and gutting unions… and with States getting more power over schools as a result of ESSA it is not difficult to imagine a poisoning of minds equal to the poisoning of water that took place in Flint, MI.
The Washington Post wrote yesterday about a recent study completed by researchers at the Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based think tank, which concluded that “...Virginia schools are being shortchanged $800 million a year because of formulas that underestimate what it actually costs to educate children.” How did this happen? As reported by Moriah Balingit it is the result of an adjustment to the ending formulas to Virginia schools made during the height of recession. Instead of cutting the budget during the recession, the legislature changed the funding formulas and, in doing so, increased the inequity in school funding by shortchanging the schools serving poor children in that state.
Poor districts that rely more on state funding felt the brunt of the cuts. The study said Lee County lost nearly $2,500 per student between 2009 and 2014, accounting for inflation, the most of any district in the state. Lee County is among the poorest counties in Virginia and spent approximately $12,000 per student in the 2013-2014 school year, so the losses had a sizable impact on the district’s budget.
Some of Virginia’s poor counties struggled to make up for the losses in state funds. The cut in state education funding blunted the ability of the state to act as an equalizer… and was felt disproportionately by poor districts.
After reading this article about the work of a left-leaning think tank in a state led by a Democrat I wondered how changes in funding played out in states like, say, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Texas, and Illinois where conservatives were in the State house and dominated the legislature? I don’t think it takes an advanced degree in political science to know the answer.
I get a feed every day from Google that provides links to stories about education and today’s feed included links to articles about Detroit Public Schools pondering ways to get the President to intervene in the financial crisis they are facing, two additional articles on the sick out in those schools because of the fiscal problems, an article about the Illinois legislature pondering a law turning over Chicago public schools to “an independent authority”, and articles about budget cuts Denver CO and Boston MA schools are facing. Earlier this month there were articles on the unravelling of funding for Milwaukee and WI schools— a topic I’ve blogged about frequently in the past. I’m not clicking on any of the articles because I’ve read enough about the downfall of urban schools and the combination of voter apathy and magical thinking to know what the articles will say and what happened…. and hopefully voters and taxpayers in CO and MA will look at MI, IL, and WI and decide to take a different path.
Michigan and Illinois are poster children for the worst case scenario in “reducing government spending and regulation”. The financial crisis in those states, like others across the country, began when the Federal government reduced funding to states in an effort to reduce the taxes they’d need to raise. When the States found themselves unable to reduce their tax burdens without reducing spending, they went after urban school districts and large municipalities who had employee unions that provided middle class wages, and benefits and pensions that formerly matched but now far exceeded those offered in the private sector. And if the municipalities could not make the cuts to reduce the wages, benefits, and pensions of these “greedy” public employees, the legislature gave them the tools needed to eliminate them altogether… and if THAT didn’t close the budget, each of these states came up with the gambit of turning the management of the municipality and/or school district and/or public utility over to an executive appointed by the governor or to private enterprise.
But as voters and residents of MI, IL and WI are learning, privatization cannot close the financial gap or, in the case of schools, the “performance” gap. Indeed, when these states cut taxes to attract businesses they ended up cutting services that ultimately repelled businesses from relocating and diminished the quality of life for all except those who reside in pristine suburban enclaves. But no matter, thus far the austerity minded legislators have convinced those who formerly worked for unions in Rust Belt industries that the “greedy public employee unions” and the “takers” seeking “free stuff” are the reason the budget gaps exist. But anyone with facility with a spread sheet and a rational mind could see that the projected trickle down revenues were improbable and the loss in taxes would only make the gaps wider.
So here’s my advice to voters everywhere, when a legislator claims that regulations are stifling the economy in your state, think of the “deregulated water” in Flint, MI and West Virginia… and when a legislator claims that choice will result in school improvement think of the “bold initiative” of vouchers that was implemented nearly two decades ago in Milwaukee and see how that’s worked out…. and when a legislator claims that money can’t be provided for schools but can be provided for stadiums, corporate “incentive packages”, and tax cuts for corporations see how that’s working in IL, MI, and WI.