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Supreme Court Could Open the Door for Expansion of Vouchers

April 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Politico post led with an overview of Trinity Lutheran Church’s appeal to receive state funding for it’s sectarian schools, a case that could open the door to vouchers. Here are the the opening paragraphs:

SUPREME COURT COULD CLEAR ROADBLOCKS TO SCHOOL VOUCHERS: The Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a case that could have huge implications for school voucher programs. At issue is an 1875 provision of Missouri’s Constitution banning public money from going “directly or indirectly” to religious groups, including schools. Similar provisions, called Blaine Amendments, exist in roughly three dozen states and have been a major barrier to school vouchers. They’ve also proved resilient, surviving numerous state ballot repeal efforts – including an unsuccessful Michigan initiative pushed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos nearly two decades ago.

– Religious groups see this and a related Colorado case as their best shots at scrapping the amendments – and they believe Neil Gorsuch, who just took his seat on the high court, will take their side. They point to Gorsuch’s deference to religious rights in other cases. Most notably, while on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, he backed a religious challenge to the Affordable Care Act – joining the panel’s majority in the Hobby Lobby case to rule that the Obama administration could not require a closely-held business to offer contraceptive coverage if that interfered with the owners’ religious beliefs – a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court. In another case, he ruled that a Wyoming prison had to provide a sweat lodge to a Native American for his religious practices.

– Court watchers believe Gorsuch might cast a tie-breaking vote since the court had apparently delayed arguments in the Missouri case until they had a ninth justice. “The justices have likely seen this as a case on which they would have been divided four to four,” said Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University. “They must expect that Gorsuch will be the deciding fifth vote.” Benjamin Wermund has more on that here.

Prior to the GOP’s decision to “go nuclear” to get Mr. Gorsuch appointed, there was some speculation that the hearing scheduled for this case was the driving force behind that decision. With 35 states under GOP control and a President and Secretary of Education who are willing to promote vouchers for religious schools the time is ripe to get a case like this before the Supreme Court. There is, however, one possible fly in the ointment, as noted in the Politico piece:

– There is a chance the case could get tossed out . The case hinges on the state’s denial of Trinity Lutheran Church’s request for a grant to reimburse the cost of resurfacing its preschool playground with recycled tires. State officials said the Blaine Amendment prevented it from aiding the church in any way. But late last week, Missouri’s newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, announced that he has directed the state agency to consider religious organizations for such grants. The parties on both sides must submit their views by noon today on whether the the announcement makes the legal dispute moot. Even if the justices dismiss this case, they could soon hear the same issues in a pending Colorado case in which the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State claim a school voucher program violates the state’s no-aid clause.

Should vouchers be allowed for religious schools a huge shift of funding will occur, draining money for public education that serves all children into the pockets of religious schools who currently serve generally affluent parents who can afford the tuition. Not only will such a decision have an economically unjust impact on our nation, but it will further erode the wall between church and state. Should the case be heard and decided, the battle for equity and separation of church and state will devolve to the states. Here’s hoping that voters will not support the repeal of Blaine amendments and the economic injustice that results.

President Trump’s Plan for Destroying “Failed” Programs and Departments

March 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Most presidents want to build things to leave a legacy. But from what I’ve witnessed thus far, it is evident that Donald Trump wants to destroy the government as we’ve known it and, in it’s wake, destroy democracy as well. A post published by Diance Ravtich on the vacancies in the US Department of Education positions reinforced this notion. In the post, she draws from fellow blogger Laura Chapman’s post enumerating the positions filled thus far, which are far down on the organization chart, and those that remain vacant, which are key assignments that require an ethics review. Dianne Ravitch summarize the filled vacancies in one blistering sentence: “All of the appointments to date are political cronies of Trump or DeVos.” And Ms. Chapman offers this list of positions that are unfilled:

Deputy Secretary
Under Secretary
General Counsel, Office of the General Counsel

Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director, Office of English Language Acquisition
Assistant Deputy Secretary, Office of Innovation and Improvement

Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights
Assistant Secretary, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs
Assistant Secretary, Office of Management
Assistant Secretary, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development
Assistant Secretary, Office of Postsecondary Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Director, Educational Technology
Director, Institute of Education Sciences
Director, International Affairs Office

Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education

Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Performance Improvement Officer

Ms. Chapman concludes this list with this observation:

On April 3, 2014 about twenty states will be submitting to USDE their ESSA compliance plans. I think these will probably be unopened and just sit “somewhere” because nobody seems to be in charge of Elementary and Secondary Education. These plans run 150 pages or more and are supposed to be “approved” by someone at USDE after they are thoroughly reviewed.

This slow filling of vacancies in the USDOE is a feature, not a bug…. and it is happening in every department Mr. Trump wants to eliminate or make small enough to drown in a bathtub. When State Department of Education officials are forced to wait for months to determine if their plans are approved the complaints about the ineffectiveness of the USDOE will mount and Mr. Trump will have “proof” that the Department of Education should be eliminated and education should be returned to the states where it belongs. He will also have “proof” that the need for regulations regarding the spending of block grants is unimportant which, in turn, makes any number of jobs in USDOE superfluous.

Moreover, Mr. Trump seems to be completely indifferent to public education, so USDOE seems like a good place to stick people who are wholly unqualified to lead. And as an added bonus, many of those appointees have a deep seated antipathy for public schools that will help them sabotage the efforts of a department supposedly committed to the improvement of public education. And if they do a terrible job they will help him “prove” that the USDOE is worthless!

BUT… at the same time, like every politician he spoke of disdainfully, Mr. Trump needs to reward those who did legwork to get him in office by giving them a job…. and like every CEO with an over-large ego he needs to reward sycophants as well….

Finally, this is not the only program that will suffer at the hands of intentionally incompetent leadership or understaffing. Watch what happens in the next few months with Obamacare… Mr. Trump will be making sure that it crashes and burns by underfunding HHS and keeping scores of positions open or filled with people who are opposed to programs they are “overseeing”. The same will be true in Energy, in Interior, and State Departments. In Mr. Trump’s administration, in every department except Defense and Homeland Security, “Small is Beautiful”.

More on Frank Edelblut’s Appointment

March 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the weekend I was out of town and unable to offer an extended reaction to Rob Wolfe’s excellent Valley News article on Frank Edelblut. Let me begin with a recap of the facts to date:

  • Last year, after two full years of disputes over the issue of their tuition practices, the Croydon School Board was sued by the State Department of Education for violating state laws that prohibit the use of public funds to send children to private schools. As a result of their “heroic” efforts to institute school choice in the face of State Departments, Croydon became the darling of conservative publications and “reform” publications like The 74.
  • To fund the costs of their suit, Croydon Board members raised funds on line, and one of their donors was a wealthy but relatively unknown conservative State legislator, Frank Edelblut.
  • In response to this suit, the NH Legislature passed a bill enabling districts like Croydon, that do not have public schools that serve children at all grade levels, to tuition their children to private schools. Relatively unknown conservative State legislator Frank Edelblut was one the legislators who offered full support for the bill.
  • Then Governor Maggie Hassan vetoed the bill and it died.
  • Relatively unknown conservative State legislator Frank Edelblut ran for governor against the establishment candidate, Chris Sununu, and was narrowly defeated in the primary.
  • Once elected as Governor, Chris Sununu nominated Frank Edelblut to become Commissioner of Education, an appointment that required approval by the five-member Executive Council.
  • The five-member council approved of Mr. Edelblut’s appointment by a 3-2 vote along party lines.
  • During the course of the approval process, the Valley News in Lebanon, NH, sought information on the donors to the Croydon Board, who initially pushed back on the basis that the names of the donors to a public school was not public. When that assertion was contested, Mr. Edelblut confirmed to the Valley News and to one of the Democratic Party members protesting his appointment that he donated $1,000 to support Croydon’s suit against the State Department of Education.
  • Following the appointment of Mr. Edelblut last week, the Valley News received copies of email correspondence between Croydon School Board members and Mr. Edelblut.

Which brings us to the content to those emails, which was the focal point of Saturday’s Valley News article. Two sections of the article regarding the exchange of emails between Croydon School Board members and Mr. Edelblut were particularly noteworthy:

Emails obtained this week by the Valley News through records requests for contacts between Edelblut and members of the Croydon School Board indicate that he and Jody Underwood corresponded frequently in the past year or so, including when Edelblut was running for governor.

Jody Underwood in late 2016 emailed back and forth with Edelblut, discussing amendments to the proposed legislation, which eventually passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

Sununu, who was elected in November and also supported the Croydon bill last year, said he looks forward to signing the latest iteration, which already has passed both chambers but requires reconciliation before reaching his desk.

Last March, Underwood invited Edelblut to a public forum in Croydon to discuss a judge’s decision to block the School Board from sending students to the private Newport Montessori School using public money.

Three of those children are related to the sitting chairwoman, Angi Beaulieu.

WAIT! The Chairman of a local school board has adopted a budget that effectively pays her children’s tuition to a private school and this is fully supported by the “choice” movement. In effect, the taxpayers in the small town of Croydon are paying roughly $21,000 (@ $7,000/year) for the children of the board chairman to attend a private school.

The other section of the article that I found problematic was this:

Early last month, when Edelblut had been nominated but not yet confirmed as commissioner, Underwood emailed him to ask whether she should respond to a Valley News request for comment for a story about him and Betsy DeVos.

At the time, the nomination of Edelblut, a business executive who had home-schooled his children, spurred comparisons to that of DeVos, a conservative megadonor chosen as secretary of education by President Donald Trump.

The correspondence continued after Edelblut was confirmed, with Underwood reaching out to schedule meetings, suggest regulatory changes and, in one instance, submit a proposal for an “accountability” policy that questions the value of tenure for teachers.

“In all of this, there need to be consequences for failure,” the six-page treatise written by Jody Underwood reads. “If there are not, then there is no accountability. As far as I can tell, tenure has no accountability.

“Perhaps after teachers have proven themselves consistently effective over a course of years they can have some level of job security (which they would, just by being effective). But to gain tenure after three years of teaching with no further requirements just seems too easy. Why does tenure exist in the first place? Is it a solution to a problem that no longer exists? Or does it still solve an existing problem? If so, are there other solutions that would give what we want (job security for good teachers) without also giving what we don’t want (job security for poor teachers)?”

This section was of particular interest to me since I sent a copy of the Open Letter to Mr. Edelblut, which was published in the Valley News, directly to his State Department e-mail and have heard nothing from him. It IS possible that my earlier correspondence to the Executive Council questioning his qualifications was a factor in his reluctance to correspond with me… but it may be that the advice I offered contradicted his views on public education.

NH Commissioner Frank Edelblut and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: Peas in a Pod

March 16, 2017 1 comment

Earlier this week Valley News reporter Rob Wolfe wrote an article describing his fruitless efforts to get the names of the anonymous donors to the Croydon School Board’s legal fund, in large measure because he believed that former gubernatorial candidate and current Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut might have donated to that cause. Andre Volinsky, one of five Executive Council members who pass judgement on appointments by the Governor and one of two who opposed Mr. Edleblut’s appointment, was also interested in determining if Mr. Edelblut made a contribution, particularly since his predecessor and the State School Board were the ones who initiated the suit against the Croydon’s School Board’s decision to use public funds to send students to a private Montessori School instead of a nearby public school.

Today, the Valley News’ Rob Wolfe reported that Mr. Edleblut sent an email to Mr. Volinsky acknowledging that he had made a $1,000 anonymous contribution to the GoFundMe campaign launched by the Croydon School Board to help pay their legal expenses. He wrote:

Volinsky, a sharp critic of Edelblut’s during the confirmation process for education commissioner, emailed Edelblut on Wednesday morning to ask that he make public whether he had contributed to Croydon and, if he had, explain why he had not disclosed the donation previously.

“I contributed $1,000 to the Croydon legal defense fund,” Edelblut said in reply. “The contribution was made anonymously. I prefer the focus to stay on the cause and not draw attention to myself.”

Edelblut could not immediately be reached on Wednesday night.

“It’s taken far too long to disclose this,” Volinsky said in an interview on Wednesday evening, “and it’s only happened upon my demand. And that’s not how we do government in New Hampshire.”

Volinsky said as education commissioner, Edelblut could be in position to influence the lawsuit, which is overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The public has a right to know that he was one of Croydon’s financial benefactors in the Croydon lawsuit,” Volinsky said, “and it would have been good of him and the Underwoods” — Ian Underwood and Jody Underwood, the latter being a Croydon School Board member — “who testified on his behalf on Jan. 31, to have revealed his financial relationship to them at that hearing.”

Although Edelblut did not specify to Volinsky when he contributed the money to Croydon’s online fundraising campaign, all anonymous $1,000 donations listed on the School Board’s GoFundMe page are dated at least seven months ago, before Edelblut’s nomination as commissioner. During the same period, Edelblut was mounting an unsuccessful bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

As I noted in my earlier post on this issue, based on what has transpired at the federal level, I felt that if Mr. Edelblut was a donor to the “Croydon” cause he might as well acknowledge it. After all, his donations to a lawsuit defending a district trying to issue de facto vouchers would be no different than Betsy DeVos’ generous donations to various voucher plans and, like DeVos, he would have the full support of his boss– who eagerly awaits the chance to sign off on the “Croydon bill” which will loosen the use of local taxes for private schools. Furthermore, in all probability, Edelblut would still have the support of the three executive counselors who voted in favor of his appointment since the vote fell along partisan lines and Mr. Edelblut’s lack of qualifications and full support of vouchers was never an issue during his hearings. By avoiding the question he appeared to be acknowledging some degree of shame or embarrassment relative to his support for the Croydon case or might have been fearful that some might see the donation as unethical given that he was, at that time, trying to get legislation passed on behalf of the district. In the end, even though Mr. Edelblut did not want his evasiveness on this question to be the issue, his lack of forthrightness did not help him establish credibility among public school leaders and board members who are wary of his intentions.

In the meantime, it is now clearer than ever that Mr. Edelblut is a small bore version of Betsy DeVos: a privatizing proselytizing wolf in charge of the public school henhouse…. and the students, especially those who do not have the resources to “choose” where they want to attend school, will eventually pay the price.

Who Paid for Legal Expenses in NH Tuition Lawsuit? Privatizing Profiteers? Voucher Advocates? or the New Commissioner?

March 14, 2017 Leave a comment

One piece of legislation wending its way through the State legislature in New Hampshire is getting the attention of our local newspaper, the Valley News, and media outlets across the state, including the Manchester Union Leader The background on HB 557, the so-called “Croydon Bill”, was summarized as follows in the Union Leader when it was filed in January:

Croydon School Board member Jim Peschke has been fighting since 2006 to expand educational choices in the Sullivan County town north of Newport with a population around 700.

The town’s ongoing struggle with the state Department of Education and in the courts over its attempt to send five local children to a nearby Montessori school at taxpayer expense has become a rallying point for school choice advocates throughout the state and beyond.

On Wednesday, Peschke continued the battle as he testified before the House Education Committee on a bill that would essentially allow Croydon and any other town in similar circumstances to do what the courts and Department of Education have said they cannot do.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate last year passed an identical school choice bill only to have it vetoed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

House Bill 557, if signed into law, would allow a school district to assign a child within the district to any state-approved private school, even a religious school, if there is no public school for the child’s grade in the district.

Many of the smaller communities in the state, like Croydon, do not have a local K-12 school district. They contract with larger nearby districts to educate their students, usually through a per-student tuition contract paid for by the sending town.

The Croydon School District has maintained there is nothing in state law that prohibits it from using private schools if that is the best educational option for a student.

As noted above, the battle lines have been drawn on this district for several years, with Croydon’s battle over de facto vouchers gathering financial and political support from those who want unfettered school choice and strong opposition from those who do not want public funds being used for sectarian or any non-public schools.

While the political battle is getting the most attention inside and outside the state, it is the financial support that is getting the attention of the Valley News. In an article in today’s paper, Rob Wolfe provides some background on when the financial issues came into play:

In autumn 2015, the Croydon School Board launched a campaign to finance its legal defense through the online crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Thousands of dollars poured in over the following months, according to a list of donations on the page, and the still-running total stands at around $23,000.

Most of the largest gifts are anonymous, including two donations listed at $14,020 and $3,300 about a year and a half ago.

Jody Underwood, a board member who serves as the panel’s school-choice liaison, said the $14,000 contribution was actually three separate checks that the board received physically, not online, and then added to the campaign.

Underwood last month rejected a Valley News records request under N.H. RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law, for documents such as those checks that would reveal the identities of the major donors.

Ms. Underwood’s contention that the donors would be shielded from the right-to-know law didn’t wash with Andru Volinsky, one of the five Executive Council members who pass judgement on the Governor’s appointees and a staunch advocate for equitable school funding:

Andru Volinsky, a Democratic executive councilor,… said the exemptions Underwood cited did not appear to apply to this case.

“Neither one flies,” he said.

The exemption for “confidential, commercial, or financial information,” he said, “is for something that you might think of as a trade secret. I’m on the Executive Council; if a company submitted a bid and had to submit all of their backup financial data to establish their financial viability until they’re approved, this is the kind of protected financial information that this applies to — not the fact that somebody contributed a certain amount of money.”

Volinsky said the second exemption cited, for invasion of privacy, was a “balancing test” between “what kind of ridicule or invasiveness” a disclosure could create for a person and the pertinence of a disclosure to the activities of a public body.

“This is directly about how the Croydon School District funds itself,” he said. “You can’t get a better description of learning about how Croydon funds itself as a public enterprise.”

Mr. Volinsky might be interested in learning about the donors because there is a suspicion that one of them might have been Frank Edelblut, the recently appointed Commissioner of Education who Mr. Volinsky voted against. The Valley News seems to share this suspicion, and gives some background to explain why Mr. Edelblut might have been a contributor:

New Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, who as a state representative sponsored an earlier version of the bill, refused to answer numerous inquiries by email and phone over the past two weeks about whether he was one of Croydon’s anonymous benefactors.

A visit on Monday morning to the state Department of Education office in Concord did not yield a response, either.

An aide there said Edelblut was busy throughout the day, but promised to convey a request for comment to him.

A short while later, a man who identified himself as “Skip,” and said he handled security for the commissioner, told a reporter to leave the public waiting room and the building — “or,” he said, “I’ll have to call security to remove you.”

Edelblut appeared at a New Hampshire commissioners forum later that day at Concord’s downtown Holiday Inn. He declined to respond to questions in person outside the event.

Volinsky, who sharply questioned Edelblut about his experience and educational beliefs during Executive Council confirmation hearings, urged the new commissioner to address the question.

Edelblut, a consultant and venture capitalist who homeschooled his seven children, has never worked professionally in public education and faced opposition to his appointment from Democrats on the Executive Council and from the state Board of Education.

He was nominated education commissioner after posting strong results as runner-up in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

Given his refusal to deny that he was a donor to the lawsuit, it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that he DID make a sizable contribution to the Croydon case. Based on what has transpired at the federal level, if Mr. Edelblut was a donor to the “Croydon” cause he might as well acknowledge it. His donations to a lawsuit defending a district trying to issue de facto vouchers would be no different than Betsy DeVos’ generous donations to various voucher plans and, like DeVos, he would have the full support of his boss and, in all probability, the continuing support of the three executive counselors who voted in favor of his appointment. By avoiding the question he is, in effect, acknowledging some degree of shame or embarrassment relative to his support for the Croydon case or fearful that some might see the donation as unethical given that he was at that time trying to get legislation passed on behalf of the district. Either way, Mr. Edelblut’s evasiveness is not helping his establish credibility among public school leaders and board members who are wary of his intentions.

I salute the Valley News and other newspapers for pursuing the question of who made the donations to the Croydon “go fund me” campaign. If it was a group of small donors from the town who want to act on New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” by sending their children to whatever non-sectarian school they wish, that seems acceptable. But if the largest donors are privatizers who would profit from the this scheme or wealthy politicians looking to promote legislation they’ve introduced, it is a different story. And like the Valley News and Mr. Volinsky, I believe the public should learn who is footing the bill for a public lawsuit.

Sue Legg: The Origins of Florida’s Tax Credits for Constitutionally Banned Vouchers

March 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch invited Sue Legg, education director of the Florida League of Women Voters, to write a post explaining the history of the “Florida Tax Credit” plan, the template used by ALEC to provide de facto vouchers to “needy” students. As Ms. Legg’s post illustrates, most of the “scholarship” money goes to students attending sectarian schools… and into the pockets of those who “administer” the scholarships.

The beauty of this scheme is that it is so complicated the the adverse impact on public education cannot be easily explained in an “elevator speech” or a tweet… but the presumably positive aspects of it— namely “choice”— lend themselves to glib slogans.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Sue Legg, education director of the Florida League of Women Voters, wrote this history of the state’s tax credit program at my request. Thank you, Sue.


Not all Choices are Good Choices

Following Jeb Bush’s 1994 defeat in his run for governor, he dented his image. According to a Tampa Bay Times report, in a televised debate Bush responded ‘not much’ when asked what he would do for black voters. Faced with criticism, he launched a charter school in Miami, and the school choice movement in Florida began.

In 1998, John Kirtley, a venture capitalist, personally funded private school scholarships to low income children.

He took the idea to then Representative Joe Negron, who is now the President of the Florida Senate.

Jeb Bush was governor, and the state’s voucher and corporate tax credit scholarship programs began.

Florida’s constitution, however, prohibited the direct or indirect transfer of money from the…

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Choice Proponents at University of Arkansas Study Vouchers in Louisiana and Find They Fail

March 6, 2017 Leave a comment

It appears that NO ONE can find ANY evidence that vouchers help low performing students improve, even a pro-school-choice team of researchers whose positions at University of Arkansas are endowed by the Waltons! Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday describing the study of a Louisiana voucher program conducted by a team that consisted of the following:

Patrick Wolf, who has conducted numerous voucher evaluations, is part of the Department of Educational Reform at the University of Arkansas, where he is “Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.” He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard where his mentor was Paul Peterson, the nation’s leading academic proponent of school choice. Jonathan Mills received his Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas in 2015. Anna Egalite received her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and postdoctoral work at Paul Peterson’s program at Harvard.

One would expect such a team to dig deeply to find something positive about vouchers, which are the ultimate goal of all market-based ideologues… but the researchers couldn’t find anything positive to report except this: the schools the low performing minority students left to attend the private schools became relatively more integrated.

The researchers ultimately proved what true reformers have asserted for decades: schools are not the problem; poverty is the problem… and until we direct funds to address poverty and the ravages poverty creates we will not be able to improve the mobility that makes our democratic capitalists work.