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The Federal Government’s Leap from Charters to Vouchers

February 26, 2015

The reporting on the wrangling going on in Congress relative to the reauthorization of NCLB plays up the Republicans-vs-Obama meme but misses several overarching points, which is unsurprising given the obfuscatory nomenclature being used by the legislators. Two articles, one by Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and another by Emma Brown of the Washington Post are long on the Duncan/Obama vs. House Republicans theme.

The Post article looks at the reauthorization through the national lens, quoting Arne Duncan’s characterization of the cuts to impoverished urban school districts as “devastating” and providing a chart that shows how the reduction in spending would play out in 33 such districts. It focussed on how the passage of the law would provide “Title 1 portability” allowing federal funds to be used wherever a child is enrolled in school and “…strip the federal Education Department of much of its current power, giving states far more latitude to decide how to define and intervene in struggling schools.”

The Journal article covers the portability issue but has less emphasis on Duncan-vs-the-House and more on how the cuts would impact Milwaukee schools, who stand to lose $159 million over six years if the new legislation passes. It also included more detailed description of the latitude that States would get as a result of the shift of power away from Washington:

Measuring student performance in schools would be left up to the states, the Common Core State Standards would be explicitly voluntary, (though they already are in Wisconsin and many other states) and the education secretary would not be able to encourage states to adopt educational standards by offering grant money or friendly agreements on other matters.

The House bill would continue annual, statewide testing requirements but states would have more authority to decide how to intervene in struggling schools and how to assess teachers. The federal government’s authority would be more limited.

As noted in the opening paragraph of this post, these article missed several overarching points:

  • Duncan’s pro-charter policies laid the groundwork for the notion of “portability”. By encouraging the expansion of private-for-profit charters within districts he effectively encouraged intra-district portability undercutting the notion of community schools and complicating a means of providing coordinated social services based on the students’ residence.
  • The Duncan/Obama “power grab” was a consequence of Congress’ inability to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, whose problems could have been solved legislatively since 2007 but didn’t because of the Republicans’ desire to move in the direction this bill will take them.
  • The term “Title I Portability” is Newspeak for Vouchers. Both articles use caveats to describe the term. The Journal writes: “Critics say Republicans are trying to open the door for federal funding to eventually follow low-income children into private, religious schools” and the Post writes: “…many Democrats see it as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment.” As noted above, the door was opened and the first step taken when Duncan encouraged the spread of charter schools that allow intra-district portability. The obvious next step that is intended by this new wording is to allow the funds to go wherever the student enrolls.
  • Giving STATES the authority to decide how to intervene in failing schools, set standards, design assessments, and determine how teachers are evaluated is a giant step backward. One way States will “intervene” in failing districts is to provide them with vouchers. Indeed, as the Journal article notes, the concept of portability is already in place in many states and with 31 Republican Governors the notion will spread quickly across the country. When States set standards expect to see a de-emphasis on “controversial issues” like global warming, wars, evolution, and AP History and an emphasis on American Exceptionalism and junk science. And when States are allowed to develop assessments and evaluate teachers expect an expansion of VAM and a decline in the number of unionized teachers.
  • Giving STATES more authority to determine how to allocate funds to disadvantaged students is irresponsible given the fact that all but five states have been sued at one time or another for having unfair funding formulas.
  • The Journal quotes Duncan as characterizing the House bill as being “..like reverse Robin Hood. You’re stealing from the poor to give to the rich” and later adding “When you’re moving scarce resources from poor districts to wealthy districts, what problem is that trying to solve?“. Reporters need to point out to Mr. Duncan that by enabling the expansion of for-profit deregulated charters he was doing the same thing! “Robin Hood in Reverse” is when “CEOs” of low performing charter schools and their shareholders make more money than urban superintendents and the teachers in those schools.

These overarching consequences are overlooked because they don’t fit neatly into a “Obama-vs-Republican” context… which is too bad because this oversight will lead to more inequality and less opportunity for children raised in poverty. Here’s hoping a voice outside of the Obama/Duncan sphere will speak up and point out the flaws in both the current RTTT and the proposed federal legislation.

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