When he took office a few years ago, Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin House member, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study taxpayer-funded voucher programs because he sensed that the programs were ripping off taxpayers in his home state where roughly 75% of the 32,000 students receiving taxpayer funds for vouchers to attend private schools were already enrolled in those schools. He reported his findings in an article in The Progressive and they were unsurprisingly negative. Among the findings:
…some taxpayer-funded voucher schools do not require the same teaching credentials as public schools. The report confirmed that many taxpayer-funded voucher programs do not require teachers to meet minimum standards for teacher preparation, further calling into question the legitimacy of these programs.
….many voucher schools, according to the report, are able to cherry-pick which students they prefer. They could refuse to take in a child who might cost more to educate, such as a child with disabilities.
…taxpayer-funded voucher schools can mandate religious requirements for students as a part of admissions criteria.
…a majority of the programs GAO studied do not cap the amount schools can charge for tuition—a hefty price for schools that remain largely untested.
After elaborating on these deficiencies Pocan concludes his op ed piece with this:
Given this new verified information from a nonpartisan resource like the GAO, where do we go from here? In its report, the GAO recommends additional federal Department of Education “incorporate information about providing equitable services in the context of private school choice.” I agree. The Department of Education should provide additional guidance.
But I also think taxpayers must demand greater accountability from private voucher schools. At a minimum, they should be held to the same level of accountability—and the same standards—as our public schools.
It is unconscionable for taxpayers to continue funding two duplicative education systems, particularly when the one can cherry-pick students and ignore educational standards and dodge showing proof they are working.
We need to have the federal Department of Education clarify the necessary steps to ensure proper oversight of this program, which appears to be a wasteful, failing experiment. After all, this should be about quality education for our kids.
If anything, Mr. Pocan is soft on the USDOE and the GAO. Giving parents more information about the equitable services is a weak recommendation based on the findings he highlighted in their report. It is not only“unconscionable for taxpayers to continue funding two duplicative education systems” it is unconscionable for the USDOE to allow one of those “systems” to “cherry-pick students and ignore educational standards and dodge showing proof they are working” and even MORE unconscionable for the GAO to allow such a thing to occur once it found it happening. In the end the federal Department of Education needs to do more than “clarify the necessary steps to ensure proper oversight of this program”. It should take steps to ensure that programs that “cherry-pick students and ignore educational standards and dodge showing proof they are working” are summarily closed and compelled to refund their funds to the taxpayers who were bilked.
As noted in earlier blogs, the potential curse of ESSA is that many states are currently controlled by pro-“reform” Governors who will use the “flexibility” built into the new federal law to continue and— ins some cases– exacerbate the current test-and-punish system. But Fairtest, an organization that “...advances quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools” and “…works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals” released a report late last week that recommends State’s replace standardized multiple choice tests with performance assessments. In the report they offer this description of “performance assessments” and a subsequent paragraph that described the most important reason for giving assessments:
Performance assessments are intended to improve learning in ways that may not show up on standardized tests. Ideally, they can narrow gaps in achievement in areas that really matter for students’ future success, such as designing an extended project and persevering to completion. The danger is that discrepancies with results from current tests could lead to dismissing other forms of learning gains that are more meaningful. This may be particularly harmful in schools that had most heavily focused on test scores, and thus for low-income children, children of color, English language learners and students with disabilities.
Comparability has value, but the great value of assessment is to enrich student learning. The dangers from comparability requirements could be lessened if districts are not forced to alter their local assessment scores to be comparable to state test results. However, as long as current standardized exams are falsely presented as the “gold standard,” the problem will remain.
Testing WILL happen under ESSA and unless educational organizations can get behind an alternative to the “gold standard” advocated by “reformers” with deep pockets States will continue to use the cheap, easy, and seemingly exact multiple choice tests that have been in place since the passage of NCLB. I REALLY hope the NEA, AFT, NSBA and AASA unite behind the kind of testing Monty Neill advocates and actively discourage the kinds of testing we’ve witnessed under NCLB and RTTT. If they can do so there is a possibility of undercutting the corporations and foundations who DO have a united front on precisely the kinds of testing NCLB and RTTT were built on and who continue to crank out variations in the name of achieving a “gold standard” that is irreversible.
National organizations face several challenges in their fight to replace the current testing with the kind Mr. Neill recommends. One problem is that the corporate reformers have momentum now after more than a decade of the test-and-punish region imposed by NCLB and the public has become accustomed to the simple “grading” systems States use to rank schools and the VAM methods they’ve sold to politicians. Another is the desire for each of the national organizations to devise their own unique perspective on issues and represent their constituencies on issues like student assessment. And the biggest impediment is that while national education associations represent thousands of adults they cannot begin to raise the kinds of funds that hedge funders and billionaires have and are willing to throw at the issue of school reform. Consequently, a small group of pro-privatization and pro-technology investors have an outsized influence in determining the future direction of schooling. The kinds of assessments Fairtest advocates, based on practitioner-designed performance tasks and “…student-focused assessments that emerge from ongoing schoolwork” are difficult to design and complicated to implement but they DO result in the development of agency on the part of the student and promote opportunities for students and teachers to work together in learning activities.
The Fairtest report illustrates how one State, New Hampshire, has developed a State-wide performance assessment that could be replicated in other states and DOES meet the standards set forth in ESSA. Unless national organizations unify behind performance assessments the “gold standard” of computerized testing will continue.
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.
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.
Roughly 35 years ago I developed my first budget as a school superintendent in SAD #44 in Maine… and shortly thereafter read the first letter criticizing my budget proposal. The letter, from an irascible resident of the smallest town in the district, complained that the budget included way too much “administrative fat” for the “bloated bureaucracy” that managed the 7 schools housing 1400 students. Upon reading the letter, I turned to my administrative assistant and half-time bookkeeper and asked rhetorically how we could get any thinner. During the budget process I had presented the Board with an Education Research Service (ERS) analysis of our cost/pupil for administration, which was among the smallest in the State and nationally, and provided as many analytics as possible supporting the additional funding needed to move the district forward— a practice I continued for 29 years thereafter. But that year I learned that facts don’t matter to some voters: the only thing that counts to them is the fact that there taxes are going up and there only means of controlling it is to vote NO for anything that adds to the bottom line.
Based on a recent article in the Portland Press Herald, had Paul LePage resided in one of the five towns that comprised SAD #44 he would have undoubtedly sided with the cantankerous anti-spending faction in town and, facts notwithstanding, sought a cut of the “bloated bureaucracy”. Mr. LePage, who never once supported spending on public schools, is calling for a reduction in administrative spending in the State and seeking a reduction in the number of school districts through a top-down consolidation in order to accomplish that end. The Press Herald outlines Mr. LePage’s “case” in its introductory paragraphs:
Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that Maine has too many school superintendents and he plans to pressure school districts to consolidate administrations in the two-year state budget he will propose to the Legislature in early 2017.
“The issue is not the money in education, the issue is how the money in education is being spent,” LePage said during a talk show on WVOM radio in Bangor. LePage reiterated his dissatisfaction with the number of public school superintendents in Maine, comparing the state with Florida.
“We have 127 superintendents for 177,000 kids,” LePage said. “The state of Florida, who ranks number seventh in the best education system in America, has 3 million kids and 64 superintendents. That’s where the problem is. We are spending the money on the administration of our schools and not in the classrooms.”
The governor went on to say he believed teachers and students in Maine “are the two victims of our school system.” He said the state’s teachers union and the superintendents association “are the two winners.”
It’s not clear how LePage could force school systems to combine administrative functions. He did not offer any details of the plan. His staff did not respond to a question about the source of his information on Maine’s or Florida’s educational performance and ranking.
Mr. LePage, whose voting base is analogous to that of Donald Trump, is clearly disinterested in the facts. The Maine School Board Association and Maine Superintendent’s Association both noted that administrative costs have declined over the past few years and constitute less than 1% of the educational spending in the state. And his assertion that Maine ranked poorly in “educational performance” as compared to Florida defies all rankings issued over the past several years. When you believe any government spending is bad and any spending on administrative fat cats is wasteful the facts can often be an inconvenient truth. That was true 35 years ago and it is true today….