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Education Tax Credits Save Taxpayers Money, Destroy Public Education

July 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Late last month a Progressive article by Dora Taylor outlined four things about education tax credits (aka Education Savings Accounts in NH) that Betsy DeVos and her allies at ALEC do not want the public to understand. Marketed as a means of providing low income students with “scholarships” that enable them to enroll in private schools, they actually divert state funds to middle class parents who are already enrolled in parochial schools. Ms. Taylor opens the article with a description of how these tax credits work:

Education tax credits are similar to school vouchers. A voucher is money paid by the state to cover private school tuition for a student. Voucher money comes straight out of public school funds.

Vouchers are unconstitutional in eighteen states and one of the reasons is that the money can go to a religious school, crossing the line between church and state.

In a “scholarship tax credit program,” the money bypasses the state and instead goes through a go-between, a “scholarship granting organization” to a private school to pay a student’s tuition in full or in part. Typically, these organizations keep 10 percent of the money as they pass through funds to private schools.

A scholarship granting organization distributes money to students, who are purportedly “low income”, to attend a private school the organization has selected to include in its portfolio. Granting organizations can select the schools they do business with, whether they are religious schools or schools that are unaccredited.

While these groups have set a standard for “low income” —a family of four with an income of $64,750 or less—family income is not a determining factor for many of the students who receive the scholarships.

This convoluted system effectively replaces locally elected school boards with a state appointed scholarship granting board that determines schools worthy of scholarships and the eligibility of students who can attend those schools…. but this aspect of the law creating “education scholarships” is not part of the marketing campaign…. and that is intentional. After providing an overview of the tax credits, Ms. Taylor identifies four elements of education tax credits that Betsy DeVos and ALEC do NOT want the public to realize:

  1. Education Tax Credits Deplete State Budgets: Instead of providing additional resources to enable “poor” students to choose private schools to attend, ALEC’s boilerplate legislation diverts current education funding to these scholarship funds…. and that’s on top of revenue they lose when billionaires make tax-deductible donations to these scholarship funds, some of which might go to for-profit charter schools the self-same billionaires invest in!
  2. Education Tax Credit Programs Benefit the Wealthy: ALEC’s boilerplate legislation calls for donors to scholarship funds to effectively receive a subsidy for making a contribution. As Ms. Taylor reports, donors receive “a dollar-per-dollar write off on Federal taxes and, in some states, it can be used as an additional write-off on state taxes. With a donation to a scholarship grant-making organization, a person, company or corporation can benefit financially, sometimes doubling the tax write-off.” So a billionaire can “donate” a large sum to a scholarship fund and receive both a federal and a state deduction that offsets the donation… and a corporation that likely gets some kind of local tax-credit to locate or remain in a state similarly receives a tax credit at the federal and state level! And in both cases, the donors can claim they are helping disadvantaged children expand their opportunities. Also, as noted above, states can set a “low income” standard that is relatively high and thus enable middle class parents who are currently sending their children to a private school to qualify for a scholarship… even if that school is a parochial school (see #4). 
  3. Education Tax Credit Programs Pose Significant Risks to Children: Since the schools receiving scholarships are overseen by a non-public entities, they are not subject to federal or state standards. Thus schools receiving scholarships can discriminate, barring special needs students and permitting religious instruction… which leads to the fourth factor.
  4. Education Tax Credit Programs Divert Public Money to Religious Indoctrination: While there is evidence that Betsy DeVos wants to use her position to allow public funds to flow to schools with religious affiliations, I do not believe ALEC’s shares that intent. However I do believe the billionaires who underwrite ALEC appreciate the political clout they can garner if they develop programs that appeal to the evangelical base of the GOP. Thus, an essential element of all legislation is to permit public funds to flow to all private schools, including those operated by churches, synagogues, and mosques.

The marketing of “Education Tax Credits” is artful. What voter wouldn’t want to have more tax credits available to them? What voter could oppose giving parents and children more choices in terms of schooling? What voter could oppose a law that will augment state funds with donations from generous billionaires enabling funding for schools to increase without imposing higher taxes? And what voter would be willing to pay higher taxes to help poor kids in another part of the state when those kids will be able to qualify for scholarships funded by someone else? Advocates of funding equity, of public education governed by locally elected school boards, and of opportunities for all children have a steep uphill fight in the years ahead.

 

 

For Once I Agree with Arne Duncan and John King: Defrauded Students Need Protection

July 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog know that I seldom agreed with the positions taken by Arne Duncan and John King. But I strongly support the position they took yesterday in a post they wrote for The Hill decrying the Trump administration’s decision to throw out the rules they promulgated protecting students who were fleeced by for-profit institutions like ITT, Corinthian College, and— while they didn’t mention it in their post— Trump University. As Mr. King and Duncan note, self-regulation of the marketplace did not work any more effectively in for-profit education than it would work in any sector.

But here’s the irony and the reason I was unalterably opposed to both Mr. King and Mr. Duncan. During their tenures as Secretary of Education they promoted “reforms” that relied heavily on deregulated free-market for profit charter schools… and many of the deregulated free-market for profit schools they promoted proved to be corrupt and of no value to the students they purported to serve. Yet despite these failures, both Mr. King and Mr. Duncan stood by their “reforms”, “reforms” that paved the way for the de-facto vouchers Ms. DeVos is now promoting.

Rahm Emmanuel’s Agreeable Fantasy: A High School Graduation Standard Will Fix Public Schools

July 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post eduction blogger Valerie Strauss wrote a post titled “Really Rahm? The Chicago Mayor’s Newest Far-Fetched Plan for High Schools“. The post describes Chicago mayor Rahm Emaanuel’s latest idea for “reform”:

“Learn. Plan. Succeed initiative” — which requires any student who wants a high school diploma to prove they have a plan for life after high school — they called it, to be exact, “an evidence-based proposal that is the first of its kind in the country.”

The new graduation standard can be achieved by providing written proof  of a plan after high school with one of these options:

  • College acceptance letter
  • Military acceptance/enlistment letter
  • Acceptance at a job program (e.g. coding bootcamp)
  • Acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship
  • Acceptance into a “gap-year” program
  • Current job/job offer letter

At first blush, this appears to be an eminently reasonable means of assuring that every graduate is ready for college or ready for work. But I know from my experience as a public high school administrator and public school superintendent that such a plan requires an immense effort on the part of counselors… and based on my reading about the staffing levels in Chicago was not surprised to find that they are woefully understaffed in guidance. Here’s Ms. Strauss’ description of the district’s woes in this area:

Emanuel wants students to provide proof that they have something to do — within parameters — when they leave high school. But that requires planning, and Chicago public schools aren’t exactly filled with counselors who can help young people plan their futures. A 2016 article published by the 74 found that Chicago is one of the big-city school districts that has more security staff than counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, though in Illinois, there was one counselor for every 701 students in 2013-2014, the latest available data period. 

So how does Mr. Emmanuel intend to expand the responsibility of schools without expanding the number of counselors? Training!

In 2013, CPS began training staff to obtain the Chicago College Advising Credential (CCAC), which will best equip staff to support concrete post-secondary plans, with a goal ensuring every high school has a certified counselor or coach. To date, roughly 40 percent of school counselors have obtained this certification and as part of this initiative, CPS will ensure all counselors have the training. Working with the Mayor, CPS is raising the approximately $1 million in funding from the philanthropic and business communities to accelerate this training.

So instead of providing the funds necessary to increase the counseling staff by 280% (the number needed to meet the American School Counselor Association standard, which does not take into account the expectation that counselors would serve as job placement officers), Mr. Emmanuel intends to offer training to existing counselors. Even Arne Duncan, whose op ed piece on high school “reform” was supposedly the impetus for Mayor Emmanuel’s new initiative recognized the need for more staffing. Here’s an excerpt from his op ed piece that was quoted in Ms. Strauss’ post:

For low-income kids, however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally. That’s where the schools and society have to step up. To give every single student in Chicago a better chance, we need to invest in our schools and our counseling programs. We need to make life-planning as much a part of high school as English, math, sports and the arts.

Maybe the mayor believes that his staff development program addresses Arne Duncan’s call for “the need to invest in… counseling programs”. But the mayor’s failure understand the need to to hire more counselors is only a small if his delusion. The list of options above each require the outlay of government funding at either the federal, state, or local level because there aren’t enough jobs, apprenticeship programs, military openings, or community college seats for the graduates of Chicago high schools. Wishing there were jobs, apprenticeships, “gap year” programs, military openings, and community college seats is insufficient. It will require a united effort on the part of government leaders to provide those kinds of opportunities, and such an effort would require a mayor to look beyond the one time expenditure of “…approximately $1 million in funding from the philanthropic and business communities”. It will require higher taxes and a much stronger safety net.  

In Betsy DeVos’ World Civil Rights Investigations are “Neutral”… In the Real World, OCR Needs to Champion Victims of Racism and Sexism

July 18, 2017 Leave a comment

A recent Politco post by Caitlin Emma detailed one of the most alarming developments in the United States Department of Education: the decision to diminish the so-called activist role of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that is part of their mission. As noted in previous posts, Acting OCR Head, Candice Jackson, who had limited experience in the field of civil rights, has led the department’s efforts to stop ongoing investigations, to limit new investigations, and to rescind many of the guidance documents drafted by her predecessors. In response to this new direction, Senator Patty Murray wrote a letter to Betsy DeVos seeking “a host of information by July 11, including a list of civil rights investigations that have been closed or dismissed since the Trump administration began.” 34 Democratic Senators co-signed the letter. Instead of responding to any of the specific requests, Ms. DeVos responded with a letter outlining the new direction USDOE would be taking under her leadership. As Ms. Emma reports:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she is “returning” the Office for Civil Rights “to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency.”

…DeVos asserted that the department’s civil rights arm under the Obama administration “had descended into a pattern of overreaching, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than work with them to correct civil rights violations and of ignoring public input prior to issuing new rules.”

As part of the changes she is implementing, the civil rights office would no longer issue “new regulations via administrative fiat,” as the Obama administration did, she wrote.

When Ms. DeVos effectively ignored Senator Murray’s request, Ms. Murray wrote another letter asking for the information. In response she got yet another letter full of generalities about the USDOE’s unwavering commitment to student rights and the backlog of OCR cases that resulted from the Obama administration’s “overreach”. In her review of Ms. DeVos’ second letter, Ms. Emma wrote:

“The adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is fitting in this instance; too many students have been forced to wait months, and in some cases years, for adjudication of their complaints while OCR chose to collect years of data about an institution.”

DeVos suggested that some of the changes taking place at OCR come after discussions with “career staff … who had identified material problems impeding their ability to promptly seek justice.”

(The guidance letters issued by the Obama administration) may have been “politically expedient,” DeVos wrote, “but it deprived the public of meaningful opportunities to provide input. At my direction, the department will no longer mask new regulations as Dear Colleague letters and will issue new regulations only after appropriate notice and public comment.”

As is the case in most complicated issues, the GOP strategy seems to favor simplicity over complexity. The OCR’s efforts to clarify divisive hot-button issues like transgender bathrooms are generally welcomed  by schools, colleges, and universities who are seeking clarity on an emerging civil rights issue in order to avoid case-by-case decisions and endless lawsuits. Compelling transgender individuals use the bathroom based on the gender on their birth certificate is a perfect example of the GOP’s desire to make a complicated issue simple. By acknowledging and responding to the complexity, OCR has been accused of issuing “new regulations via administrative fiat”. It appears that instead of having a uniform response to the issue of transgender rights, OCR intends to let each state handle it and, in some cases, states may hand it off to individual school districts. This will result in a crazy-quilt of regulations that will ultimately make life unnecessarily complicated for individuals who are already dealing with a complex issue.

The OCR’s efforts to address institutional racism and sexism on campuses and in schools are inherently complicated. The accusations brought to OCR require institutions to gather data, require the department to analyze and investigate the data, and then issue findings. They necessarily place OCR in an adversarial role. The institutions invariably deny any violations of student’s civil rights, making it impossible for OCR to “...work with them to correct civil rights violations“. And because OCR wants to base their decisions on facts, the accused institution is often required to gather data that consumes time and, thus, “defers justice”. But here’s the conundrum: if the data is not gathered and assessed, OCR would be rightfully accused of drawing shoddy conclusions. So… rather than tackle complicated issues like institutional racism and sexism, the OCR under Ms. DeVos will effectively ignore any cases that are complicated. This will have the effect of allowing the existing practices on campuses to remain in place.

Those who lead colleges and universities and serve on their boards will welcome this change, as will States legislators who want to limit the rights of LBGT’s, minorities, and immigrants. Victims of sexual abuse, discrimination based on their gender identity and race, though, will find the coming years difficult. As the title of this post indicates: In Betsy DeVos’ World Civil Rights Investigations are “Neutral”… In the Real World, OCR Needs to Champion Victims of Racism and Sexism

Differentiated Accountability Sensible for Doctors… and Schools

July 17, 2017 Leave a comment

An article by Kate Taylor in today’s NYTimes called to mind a conversation I had several years ago with a Dartmouth Hitchcock doctor regarding metrics used in the medical field. Titled “New York Schools for Off-Track Students May Face Stricter Rules”, the article describes a proposal to be reviewed by the NY Regents that recommends holding “transfer schools” to the same standards for graduation rates as regular high schools. The problem is that the transfer schools are designed to address the problems failing students encountered in regular high schools and, consequently, the students enter well behind their age cohorts when they enroll. Here’s an overview of the problem these districts face under the proposed regulations:

Under the (proposed) regulations, schools that fall short of a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent would be put on a list to receive “comprehensive support and improvement.” Only four of the city’s 51 transfer schools currently meet, or are on track to meet, that benchmark.

The transfer schools do poorly on this benchmark because by the time a student enrolls in a transfer school they are often three years behind their peers making it mathematically impossible to succeed.

How does this relate to medical metrics? My doctor friend noted that one of the clearly and unarguably objective metrics proposed for measuring the effectiveness of doctors was the death rate of patients… a metric that was quickly rejected since oncologists ended up having a horrific death rate as compared to, say, dermatologists. This kind of inherent disparity led each field of medicine to develop their own metrics that had nuances within them… in effect a form of differentiated accountability.

And in the end, that is what the city schools are seeking, as noted in the closing paragraph of Ms. Taylor’s article:

New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that oversees and supports 69 high schools in the city, including 10 transfer schools, has urged the State Education Department to convene a panel of experts to come up with a customized accountability system for transfer schools.

Ms. Ramirez, from the city’s Education Department, said it was not that the city did not want the schools’ performance to be scrutinized. “It’s all about differentiated accountability,” she said.

Will the Regents “…convene a panel of experts to come up with a customized accountability system for transfer schools”? I hope they will… and in doing so I hope they might examine ALL of their accountability systems to determine if they might tailor them to address the unique needs of students each school serves.

 

Is the Privatization of Poorly Designed and Delivered Public Education in Africa a Harbinger for the US?

July 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote two posts yesterday that linked to two separate NYTimes columns dealing with the Bridge International Academies, a privatized education service offered in several African nations funded by “social impact investments”.  Peg Peg Tyre describes the primary source of these funds in her NYTimes magazine article, “Can a Tech Start Up Successfully Educate Children in Developing World?”, and it is a who’s who of privatization advocates in the US:

The Bridge concept — low-cost private schools for the world’s poorest children — has galvanized many of the Western investors and Silicon Valley moguls who learn about the project. Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank have all invested in the company; Pearson, the multinational textbook-and-assessment company, has done so through a venture-capital fund. Tilson talked about the company to Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund manager of Pershing Square, which ultimately invested $5.8 million through its foundation. By early 2015, Bridge had secured more than $100 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But, as Tyre notes, African nations face daunting governance challenges. Most of the governments are de facto dictatorships that are led by kleptocrats who use public resources to pay off opponents, reward allies, and maintain the status quo, which has very small and extraordinarily well off and well educated upper class and vast numbers of un-educated peasants who can barely make a living. But technological advances are underway in Africa, advances that require a larger number of educated workers, something the existing governments were unable to provide. Here’s Ms. Tyre’s description of the problems Bridge witnessed in Kenya, which incorporates the demographic, socio-economic, and governance realities of African schools:

The founders decided to build their headquarters in Nairobi, and they opened their first school there in 2009. Long known as the Green City in the Sun, Kenya’s capital had begun to reimagine itself as the tech capital of East Africa; newly formed telecommunications companies were placing cheap mobile phones in the hands of millions of farmers, merchants and low-wage workers, and mobile banking quickly followed. The public-education system, though, was not keeping pace. In 2003, the Kenyan government officially abolished fees for public primary education but afterward found itself unable to construct enough schools for the poor children who tried to enroll. Public schools, which receive money from the government for teachers’ salaries and building maintenance, still charge parents small amounts to cover costs like classroom supplies and firewood. The schools’ quality varies, but in some, reading materials, textbooks and even chalk can be in short supply. All public-school teachers are certified. Teacher absenteeism is widespread. According to a 2007 World Bank report, 30 percent of teachers in one region in Kenya fail to show up on any given school day. Learning levels for children are low: 70 percent of third graders cannot do second-grade work. And while some catch up, many don’t. 

Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are taught in English and enjoy lavish resources. The working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools, that take no money from the government but charge fees that are slightly higher than public schools’. Some provide a basic education, but many do not. Sixteen percent of Kenya’s poor school-age children do not attend any school because their parents can’t afford even the smallest school payments. All Kenyan schools are required to teach the precisely prescribed national curriculum, which is taught in Kiswahili and English and mastery of which is measured by an eighth-grade test called the K.C.P.E. Obtaining a high grade on the K.C.P.E., which is seen as a sign of a child’s industriousness, intelligence and moral rectitude, means a student may continue on to high school.

When I read this description of the African status quo, I immediately saw a dystopian scenario for our country’s schools, one that is emerging as I write this. Compare the situation in our country to that described in Kenya, focussing on the highlighted sections:

  • Our telecommunications corporations provide cheap mobile phones in the hands of millions of  farmers, merchants and low-wage workers, and mobile banking  is already in place making it increasingly easy for citizens to roll up large debt while acquiring lots of “things”.
  • Our national and and state governments have not developed a means of providing “enough schools for the poor children”, with infrastructure initiatives stalled at the federal level and state budgets unable to provide funds for renovations or new construction.
  • Our public schools are increasingly underfunded to the point where teachers make out-of-pocket contributions for necessary school supplied and parents in some districts are charged small amounts to cover costs for things like transportation, extra-curricular activities, and textboooks.
  • Disturbingly, in a country that is far and away more affluent that Africa, our schools’ quality varies, and, as noted above, in some reading materials, textbooks and even chalk can be in short supply.
  • Also, based on standardized testing, learning levels for children are low: too large a number of third graders cannot do second-grade work. And while some catch up, many don’t. 
  • Because of the deficiencies that exist in many districts serving children raised in poverty, the working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools…a trend that is likely to be reinforced by our nascent federal and state policies that promote vouchers.
  • Because an increasing number of children in our nation are homeless, we have an increasing number of poor school-age children who do not attend any school, a number that is likely to increase if parents of immigrants become fearful of deportation.
  • Finally, and most distressingly, because standardized testing is the basis for determining the “quality” of our schools, all Kenyan US schools are required to teach the precisely prescribed de facto national curriculum, which is determined by the limited number of corporations who develop and administer standardized tests.

The difference between the direction our schools are headed and the baseline of poor African nations is chillingly similar, And given the trends in our nation— where petroleum lobbyists are writing energy policy, arms lobbyists are writing military policy, and, alas, privatizers are writing education policy— it appears that our governance is moving closer to the model in developing nations.

Should we allow our public services to decline further, we may find ourselves floundering for solutions to public education in the same way developing nations are. But we can rest assured that should that happen, entrepreneurs will bail us out with “social impact investments”. From my perspective, the best “social impact investment” is a system of progressive taxation that supports a robust safety net that results in an opportunity for any child to learn and develop the skills they need to be a citizen in a democracy.

Playing the Long Game in Public Education- Part One

July 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the past couple of days I had the opportunity to hear two great presentations: one by Ken Burns who showed a preview of his forthcoming series on Vietnam to a full house of 900+ at Dartmouth College and one by Shaun King, who gave a challenging and insightful lecture on racism to a group of roughly 100 people at Thetford Academy. Both presentations reinforced the idea that events we are witnessing in real time fit into a flow of events whose import is often overlooked when they are occurring. Burns’ presentation emphasized the policy failures that led to the calamitous decision to ramp up our troops in Vietnam and sustain them despite evidence the war was un-winnable. These failures were the result of our failure to understand the context of the conflict, which was far more complicated than “communism vs. democracy”. King’s presentation was rooted in the notion that while we are making technological progress over time, we are NOT making progress as a human race. In the scheme of history, there is not an upward trajectory: there are ebbs and flows in terms of the well being of humanity. He suggests that we are in a “dip” right now in terms of our treatment of each other, and getting out of this “dip” will require a united and sustained effort.

 

I came away from those presentations convinced that while we are distracted by the flow of relatively trivial news stories, we are overlooking important policy decisions being made by those who control our government, decisions that will impact the future of our country as surely as the decisions made that led to our engagement in Vietnam and decisions that will not help us get out of the “dip” that is causing us to be at each others’ throats.

I was also reminded that our current economic condition is not an accident. It is the consequence of the long game being played by the corporate interests in our country, a long game that resulted in our current notions about the role of government and the primacy of shareholders. As noted in earlier posts on the economy and politics, we are where we are today because of a conscious decision by the business leaders to undo the social framework put in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the Depression.

Reclaim Democracy, a non-profit organization founded in 2001, has a wealth of information on the intentionally invisible efforts by corporations to undercut the effective function of governments. Among the documents they have in their archive is the Powell Memo. Here’s Reclaim Democracy’s overview of this document:

In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”

Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.

Ronald Reagan’s “hand’s off business” philosophy combined with his message that “government is the problem” has led us to the point where the public appears to be softening its stance on vouchers, an idea that was until recently considered extreme.

In future posts I will examine some excerpts from the Powell Memorandum to illustrate how they serve as the basis for the policies that are in place today.

One point that I want to emphasize at the outset: the creation of this “…powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades” occurred during a time when our country was distracted by a scandal that unseated a President whose philosophy matched that of the corporations. If progressives want to restore the safety net for those born into poverty, want to reduce the investments our nation is making to engage in questionable wars abroad, and want to protect the environment instead of protecting and promoting our lifestyle, we need to develop a long game. Making billions was a unifying force for Lewis Powell and his colleagues. Creating a world where billions of people can live in peace should be a unifying force for the 99.9% who are not the beneficiaries of ideology behind the Powell memo.