An essay by Mike Jackson in the Daily Beast has me re-thinking my stance on private donations to public schools. He opens his essay with a startling statistic: 963,000 millionaires reside in New York City! Mr. Jackson contends that asking these millionaires to pay higher taxes to underwrite public education is a bad idea because there is no way public schools could ever raise enough taxes to match the amount spent in private schools. He writes:
…Some activists and educators believe that private support for public schools isn’t “progressive.” They believe that the mere mention of the words “external” or “private” are threats to teachers and insults their understanding of the role that poverty plays in the existence of the achievement gap. In their view, the only ideologically pure way to improve public education is by demanding more public funds.
I believe there’s a practical problem with this approach. This year, the New York City Department of Education will spend $23 billion to serve just over one million students, translating to $23,000 per student. That’s roughly 25 percent of the entire New York City budget, and it’s unrealistic to think there will be the political will to raise taxes enough or cut other areas sufficiently to allow for a doubling of the education funding.
That’s likely what it would take to achieve something close to parity with private schools. At many private boarding schools, tuition now regularly exceeds $58,000 per year. Their boards then direct additional funds annually from multimillion-dollar endowments to offer scholarships to low income students.
Instead, he suggests that some of these millionaires become engaged with a particular public school by committing TIME in addition to MONEY and, in doing so, gain a better understanding of the challenges urban youngsters encounter day-in-and-day-out. That engagement, in turn, might lead the engaged millionaire to make contributions to their adopted public school in the same way an affluent parent makes donations to their child’s PTO. As Mr. Jackson notes:
The difference isn’t just money—it’s the culture of support surrounding the students. Most urban, lower-income parents don’t have the means, the time, or in some cases the education to advocate for their children in the same way a private school’s PTA can. And public schools don’t have individual boards of trustees to advocate for them.
As one of those “ideological purists” who sees the need for moe funding for schools across the board, I am opposed to funding schemes that allocate equal (and and often low) funding levels to all schools in the name of equity and then allow affluent schools to raise millions from their parents. This model DOES undercut funding equity and DOES undercut the notion of equitable opportunity for all students. But as a pragmatist, I find Mr. Jackson’s ideas appealing. In his concluding paragraphs, he notes that there are “…500 millionaires in NYC for each of its 1,856 public schools” and imagines what it would be like for children at those schools if 500 volunteers showed up at an urban school in an under-served neighborhood to help kids write better college essays. He concludes with this heartening idea:
Education reform has barely been a topic of conversation in the general election, let alone the presidential debates. But it’s one of the few areas where there is a proven path for transcending the divisiveness that characterizes contemporary politics while making measurable progress in closing the income gap and achievement gap, one person at a time.
Mr. Jackson, unlike some of his wealthy counterparts, acknowledges that money DOES matter, and also understands that the “culture of support” matters even more. His form of reform makes sense… there must be a way some imaginative and creative politician in NYS or NYC could help Mr. Jackson spread this idea around.
I read two posts this morning on funding decisions by state Supreme Courts: one from the Tacoma News Tribune explaining the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision to continue levying a $100,000 dollar per day fine against the legislature until it passes legislation that provides equitable funding for students; and one from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency praising the Michigan Supreme Court determination that the $2,500,000 the legislature passed to help meet state mandates could go to religiously affiliated private schools, which comprise 76% of the private schools in the state.
From 3000 miles away it seems that the Washington State Supreme Court rendered the right decision in an appeal from the plaintiffs in the case who “…asked the court to either pledge to shut down the state’s school system next fall or invalidate all tax breaks in the state budget next year should lawmakers not fix the salary issue and other remaining parts of (their) ruling by then.” Instead of taking that forceful action, which would arguably be just, the Court decided to keep fining the legislature $100,000 per day until it passes legislation that meets the Court’s standard for equity. Given the foot dragging I’ve witnessed in other states where legislatures effectively ignore equity decisions with no penalties imposed whatsoever, the courts decisions seems eminently reasonable.
The Michigan Supreme Court, though, seems to have lost its way in deciding that non-public schools can receive a portion of the $2.5 million it raised to meet mandates they passed, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is missing what I believe is a crucial flaw in this ruling: it will apply to for-profit private schools as well as religiously affiliated schools and could result in state funds being diverted to religious schools that indoctrinate children in a fundamentalist perspective as opposed to an inclusive one. It was that point and their relatively recent experiences with governments in Europe that led the Founders to erect a wall between the church and the state, and whenever that wall is eroded it creates the possibility for government funds to be used to impose religious beliefs on children. Parents who choose to enroll their children in such a school should be welcome to do so, but at their own expense or at the expense of their church. As for state funds being directed to for-profit institutions, such a diversion amounts to taxpayers subsidizing shareholders… and there is already enough of that going on in government spending. Governors and legislators should do everything possible to make certain the practice of privatizing public services stops at the schoolhouse door.
Last month, Elizabeth Harris wrote an article in the NYTimes on a far reaching decision rendered by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher, who issued a 200+ page ruling on that state’s funding formula. Mr. Harris’ article focussed on the primary issue that faced the judge, the fairness of funding, and noted in passing some of the other issues the judge touched on in his lengthy decision.
Last weekend, Wendy Lecker, a Hearst Connecticut Media Group columnist and senior attorney at the Education Law Center, wrote an op ed piece decrying some of the remedies embedded in the judge’s decision, remedies that are based on the popular misconception that exit examinations will ensure uniform success for all learners and VAM will ensure quality teaching. When groups filing lawsuits seeking equitable funding get a decision that affirms their assertion that the existing funding mechanisms are inherently inequitable, they don’t expect to receive decisions that call for practices that are destructive to the students who are raised in poverty or to the teachers who are willing to devote their careers to working with those students. But, as Ms. Lecker notes, that is exactly what Mr. Moukawsher did in his rambling decision.
On the issue of exit examinations, where the judge cited Massachusetts’ successes, Ms. Lecker writes:
The judge decided that because Connecticut does not have “rational” and “verifiable” high school standards, meaning standards measured by a high school exit exam, Connecticut diplomas for students in poor districts are “patronizing and illusory.” He concluded that the cure for this problem is standardized, “objective” exams that students must pass to graduate…
(H)ad the judge examined the evidence, he would have also learned that the actual major factor in Massachusetts’ improvement was the very measure he refused to order Connecticut to implement: school finance reform that dramatically increased the amount of school funding statewide. No fewer than three studies have shown that increasing school funding significantly improved student achievement in Massachusetts. Recent major studies confirmed those findings nationwide, demonstrating that school finance reform has the most profound positive impact among poor students.
When it came to teacher evaluations, which fall well outside the purview of a ruling on funding equity, the judge advocated VAM as a method. In response to that decision Ms. Lecker writes:
Courts that have actually examined the evidence on systems that rate teachers on student test scores have rejected these systems. Last year, a court in New Mexico issued a temporary injunction barring the use of test scores in that state’s teacher evaluation system. And in April, a court in New York ruled that a teacher’s rating based on her students’ “growth” scores — the foundation of New York’s teacher evaluation system — was “arbitrary and capricious;” the opposite of “rational” and “verifiable.”
Yet despite the reams of evidence debunking the use of student growth scores in evaluating teachers, and despite these two court rulings, Judge Moukawsher insisted that rating teachers on student “growth” scores would satisfy his demand that Connecticut’s system for hiring, firing, evaluating and compensating teachers be “rational” and “verifiable.” His ruling defies the evidence and logic.
A month ago when I wrote a post on the Connecticut ruling I surmised that, based on what’s happened in other states where the courts fond the funding inequitable, nothing would happen as a result the judges decision. I was wrong. In this case, as a result of the judge’s overreach, both sides on this issue are appealing the decision to a higher court… and as the case goes forward I share Ms. Lecker’s hopes:
One can only hope that that our highest court will steer this case back on course, away from these ill-advised educational policy rulings and toward a proper finding that the state is failing to provide our poorest schools with adequate funding and is consequently failing to safeguard the educational rights of our most vulnerable children.
Stay tuned… it will be another school year at best before anything happens… and likely another generation before change occurs in Connecticut… if it happens at all.
Brookings Institute Fellow Vanessa Williamson has an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes titled “Tax Me. Please”. The article provides an overview of data she collected over the past several decades indicating that voters see the payment of personal taxes in our country as a civic duty and are intolerant of those who fail to pay their fair share. Here are a couple of paragraphs that summarize her findings:
Pollsters have been asking Americans whether “it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes.” Every year, about nine in 10 Americans agree with that sentiment. In 2009, 3 percent of respondents disagreed. That level of accord is very rare. To give you a point of reference: About 6 percent of Americans think the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. On the civic responsibility of taxpaying, Americans are about as close to consensus as they ever get.
This sentiment has been stable for as long as questions like this one have been asked, even at the height of the Reagan revolution. In 1983, in an era when popular estimates of government waste were at a record high, tax cuts were at the top of the political agenda, and politicians competed to hate “big government” the most, Time magazine asked respondents if they agreed with the statement “Government spending is out of control, so there’s nothing wrong with holding back a little bit on taxes.” Such a leading question should have pushed Americans to express any unwillingness they felt about footing the bill for government. But given every opportunity to sign off on tax avoidance, 80 percent of Americans still said no, it was not O.K. to hold back on your taxes.
Given this attitude, why do taxpayers yawn or even applaud when local, State and federal politicians enact deep tax cuts for corporations in the name of “Economic Development”? Has a corporation ever remained loyal to a small town or city after these tax cuts were provided? It’s possible that one reason the pubic is not outraged over this treatment is that voters do not see these “incentives” for what they really are: a form of extortion. When a politician at any level of government “negotiates” a tax benefit package in the name of “economic development”, they are doing so because if they fail to agree to a lower tax package they know that the corporation will relocate and if they do so the tax base will collapse completely. But by diminishing the tax base through “incentives” like reduced property taxes the politicians compromise local revenues for schools, police, and infrastructure and by paying de facto ransoms to corporations they set themselves up for future bargaining or— as is often the case— abandonment by the corporation. In the final analysis, the corporations are rarely loyal to a town. A trip through any part of this country will illustrate how corporations abandon communities seeking lower taxes, employees who will accept lower wages, and towns with looser regulations. And if the low taxes, low wages, and loose regulations can’t be found in our country? We know the answer.
The week’s US News and World Report reports on a recently released audit from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that found that 2/3 of the charter schools they examined in a random study wasted money, failed to meet standards, and failed children. Lauren Camera writes:
Specifically, the report found instances of financial risk, including waste, fraud and abuse, lack of accountability over federal funds and lack of assurances that the schools were implementing federal programs in accordance with federal requirements at 22 of the 33 schools they looked at, all of which were run by management organizations.
Why did this happen? Clearly one problem is the underfunding of regulators in the USDOE. But another problem may be that the USDOE is not all that interested in enforcing the regulations as they apply to the profiteers who operate these cash machines that ultimately help underwrite political campaigns that get their Secretary appointed.
Deregulated for-profit charter schools nevertheless continue to receive federal funds.
The report comes just a week after the Education Department announced its newest round of federal funding – $245 million in total – for the expansion of charter schools under the federal charter school program. The funding goes directly to state education departments and charter management organizations.
“We take seriously any concerns about the stewardship of federal funds, especially those targeted to disadvantaged students and underserved communities,” a spokeswoman for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said in a statement in response to the report. “Financial mismanagement should not be tolerated in district or charter public schools.”
The “spokeswoman” then repeated studies that show charter schools make a positive difference for children and the US News and World Report, a reliable cheerleader for charters, offered this:
Indeed, the oft-cited study from Stanford University’s Center for Research and Education Outcomes found that students who attend schools overseen by charter management organizations that were funded by the federal Charter School Growth Fund experience gains in math and reading that trump those of students enrolled in district public schools.
But in the end, the legislators and advocates need to face the fact that deregulation and/or self-regulation leads to the kinds of outcomes the OIG found in its audits. I doubt that either candidate running for President will do anything to slow the growth of charters, but I hope that in their purported efforts to root out waste fraud and abuse they will make certain this is never written about the USDOE in the future:
Moreover, the inspector general’s report found that the Education Department did not have effective internal controls to monitor, evaluate and mitigate those risks, nor did it ensure that state departments of education were overseeing charter schools and their management organizations.
If more or better personnel are needed to establish effective internal controls and oversee State Departments of Education then funds need to be provided for those functions… because if they aren’t more and more taxpayer money will be wasted and fewer and fewer children will have an equitable opportunity to learn.