Federal money for charter schools is unconstitutional (except in D.C.)

I have read the outcry over the suggested new rules to three components of the United States Department of Education’s Charter School Program. I have seen the protests over them by parents and students at the DOE headquarters and the White House organized by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The language contained in this proposal will almost certainly cut off $440 million annually for charter school openings and expansion. While there is no greater charter school proponent then me, I’m not sad to see the money go.

The charter school movement prides itself in advancing the academic achievement of students, many of whom were failing in traditional public schools. To be consistent with this mission our sector must be sure that is teaching civics in a highly accurate fashion. Here’s where the problem comes in. The United States Constitution’s Article 1 Section 8 delineates the powers of Congress. Support in the way of revenue for public education is no where mentioned.

I know what you are saying: “Mark, Congress has for decades exceeded its authority under the Constitution.” This statement is true, however, it does not make appropriating funds to charter schools the allowable thing to do. Through our pedagogy we impart values to our students. The difference between right and wrong is one of the best lessons that we can teach.

I am also concerned that taking money from the federal government introduces politics into the authorization process. This is exactly what we have seen take place here. The New York Times last Friday ran an exceptionally balanced piece about the new rules written by Erica Green. To understand the motives behind the teachers’ unions anti-charter efforts all you have to know, as Ms. Green points out in her article, is that Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, started a tweet on the subject of these rules with the hashtag #CharterSchoolsFalling. President Joe Biden is a tremendous union supporter.

Yes, it is still a war out there between charter and traditional school supportors. As charter advocates we should never let down our guard. The best way to see our model flourish and grow is to seek support from outside the federal government. I’m sure Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos have incentives to see the United States produce well-educated children. As I pointed out in a previous column, Michael Bloomberg has already set a strong example in this regard.

Finally, just to be perfectly accurate, it is fine for the federal government to authorize revenue for charter schools in the District. That is because our Constitution gives Congress power “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District.” It is stated right there in Section 8. 

$2.75 billion included in pandemic relief bill for private schools added by Democrats

Now that the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has passed Congress and has been signed into law by President Biden we are learning what it contains. Tucked inside is $2.75 billion in aid for private schools. The most shocking part of the inclusion of this funding, which is something former U.S. Education Betsy DeVos would have advocated for if she was still in office, is who added this money to the legislation. The New York Time’s Erica Green reported yesterday that the effort was led by New York’s Democratic Senator Charles Schumer. As if this wasn’t remarkable in its own right, apparently the move was seconded by Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers union.

Perhaps this pandemic has turned the world inside out.

Ms. Green revealed that Mr. Schumer fought for these dollars as a result of lobbying by New York City’s Orthodox Jewish community and made it into the act right before final approval by the House of Representatives. Catholic groups also got behind the idea.

In the past, the only revenue going directly to private schools from Congress has been to provide low-income parents with school vouchers for their children in Washington, D.C. as part of the Opportunity Scholarship Program included in the the SOAR Act. The Times seems to understand the magnitude of the change. From the article:

“We never anticipated Senate Democrats would proactively choose to push us down the slippery slope of funding private schools directly,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, one of the groups that wrote letters to Congress protesting the carve-out. “The floodgates are open and now with bipartisan support, why would private schools not ask for more federal money?”

Ms. Green indicated that the National Education Association put up some resistance to the inclusion of this cash. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not a supporter. In addition, Ms. Green pointed out that “Senator Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was said to have been so unhappy that she fought to secure last-minute language that stipulated the money be used for ‘nonpublic schools that enroll a significant percentage of low‐​income students and are most impacted by the qualifying emergency.’”

Mr. Schumer was glad to take credit for his accomplishment. Ms. Green added, “In a statement to Jewish Insider, Mr. Schumer said, ‘This fund, without taking any money away from public schools, will enable private schools, like yeshivas and more, to receive assistance and services that will cover Covid-related expenses they incur as they deliver quality education for their students.'”

But what Mr. Schumer claimed about not taking dollars away from public schools is not true. The New York Times found that the original aid contained in this legislation contained about $3 billion more for public schools. However, you don’t need to worry that they were shortchanged. The Times piece said that the bill contains $125 billion in Kindergarten through twelfth grade funding for public school with an additional $3 billion for special education and another $800 million in support for homeless students. The magnitude of the taxpayer funding for public schools is the reason that Ms. Weingarten was all right with the private school money. The Times article claimed that Ms. Weingarten said it “was the right thing to do.”

Now, there is no reason that a private school education cannot be offered to children nationwide by the federal government.

D.C. State Superintendent of Education to begin ranking charter schools

Last Wednesday evening, the State Board of Education approved D.C.’s education plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015 and under the new law this year each state and the District of Columbia must report to the U.S. Department of Education accountability measures for public schools.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has been working on this plan for 15 months.  According to the organization:

“OSSE participated in more than 70 meetings and gatherings on DC’s plan and received feedback and comments from more than 110 local education agencies (LEAs), government agencies, consortia, and other organizations in the District of Columbia. During the public comment period, which lasted from Jan. 30 to March 3, OSSE received more than 250 written comments on the state plan and shared the plan with families, educators and community groups during a series of community engagement sessions co-hosted with SBOE in each of DC’s eight wards. OSSE consolidated stakeholder feedback and incorporated it in the revised plan, which the State Board of Education approved Wednesday.”

Schools will be ranked on a five star system, similar to what the federal government currently does with hospitals, with a five being best.  It is a move emulating that of Denver, Colorado under its Denver District-Charter School Collaboration Compact in which both the charter and traditional school sectors are evaluated utilizing the same data.  Support for the evaluation system comes from Mayor Muriel Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board Scott Pearson.

The Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos explains how schools will be judged:

“The bulk of the proposed D.C. rating formula is based on results from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career exams, or PARCC, which are linked to Common Core standards. For elementary and middle schools, the plan takes into account how many students met or exceeded academic standards as well as how much progress students made compared with the previous school year.

For high schools, the rating system will consider only proficiency on PARCC exams. The OSSE said it is working on getting baseline data for academic growth for high schools and will eventually include it in the rating system.”

State Superintendent of Education Kang fills in some of the details:

“The approved plan reduces the weight on testing for elementary and middle schools while prioritizing student growth. The final plan reduces the weight on academic achievement in the elementary and middle school frameworks from 40 percent to 30 percent, keeping the growth weight at 40 percent. Also in the elementary and middle school frameworks, OSSE increased the school environment domain by 10 percentage points from 15 percent of a school’s total score to 25 percent. The accountability system will also include a new measure for access and opportunities for the first time in the 2019-20 school year. The final plan commits to piloting school climate surveys and developing a high school growth measure for possible inclusion in the accountability system.”

Not known at this point is the future of the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework.  Since 2012, charters have been evaluated on a tiered system of one through three.  Mr. Pearson and deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux when asked did not provide an answer.

Ashley Carter, At-Large Representative to the State Board of Education, had this to say about the scorecard:

“Today, I vote to approve the proposed DC state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act put forth by the DC Office of State Superintendent of Education.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed with bipartisan support in 2015, aimed at getting accountability right, especially in areas where No Child Left Behind failed.

I have spent the first three months of my term on the board working tirelessly learning the plan, engaging in public discussion around the city, and submitting questions regarding specific areas of the plan related to ratings, testing weight, and climate.

After listening to public, school, and expert input and testimony over the past several months the original draft plan was revised in several areas. This revised plan, put forth today, effectively combines views of the entire city. Our city is diverse, so are our schools and collaboration is essential to move forward with one plan for the various schools in our city. I believe this plan does that.”

School rankings under the new system will come out in the fall of 2018 utilizing information from the 2017 to 2018 school year.

The first action U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should take

Ms. DeVos began her first day on the job yesterday explaining to about 200 education department staffers, according to the Washington Post’s Emma Brown, that her confirmation process “had been  a ‘bit of a bear.'”  In addition to bringing humor to the new position she also had this to say about how she views her organization’s work:

“Let us set aside any preconceived notions and let’s recognize that while we may have disagreements, we can — and must — come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first.”

So where should she begin?  Since Congress has a unique constitutional role in its oversight of the District the answer is simple.  We need a five year re-authorization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan in the nation’s capital that provides private school tuition for low-income students in elementary and high school.  The Education Department under President Obama, bowing to pressure from teachers’ unions, attempted for eight years to shutter this life preserver for kids living in poverty.  It was protected in each and every budget cycle by past Speaker Boehner.  Now that we have a Republican House of Representatives, Senate, and President it is time to bring stability and growth to the OSP through the SOAR Act.  There are apparently sufficient unspent dollars to go from helping 1,200 scholars a year to an estimated 5,000.  We are extremely fortunate in that we have a new administrative body in Serving Our Children, a group that is more than capable to take up this task.  February 24th would have been Joseph E. Robert, Jr.’s sixty-fifth birthday if a brain tumor had not  tragically taken his life at the end of 2011, and I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to this local hero than the explosive expansion of his Three-Sector Approach that provides federal money to both traditional and charter schools and funds the private school vouchers.

After this is accomplished, it it time to fix a couple of seemingly intractable problems when it comes to our local charters that now educate almost 42,000 children or 47 percent of all of those who attend public school.  Congress has been absent from this movement since passing the School Reform Act over 20 years ago that first created charters here, and due to inaction from the D.C. Council it should get involved once more.  First, a permanent facility needs to be provided to any charter school that needs one.  I’m not partial to how this is accomplished.  Either the city can compelled to provide the buildings or the per pupil facility fund must be increased from $3,193 a student that Mayor Bowser recently proposed to $3,500, the approximate number it would be if the allotment had been tied to inflation.  Next, although the SRA stated that all public school funding needs to go through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, this has proved insufficient to stop the Council over the years from augmenting revenue to DCPS to which charters do not have access. Therefore, legislation needs to be approved that prevents the traditional schools from taking advantage of cash and services unless the other sector is provided the identical offerings.

This is a truly unique period in public policy when it comes to the public education of our children.  Please, let’s not let it go to waste.

U.S. Department of Education grants $245 million for charter school expansion

The United States Department of Education announced yesterday the awarding of $245 million in fiscal year 2016 toward the expansion and startup of charter schools across the country through its Charter Schools Program.

The grants total $177 million to eight states through their state education agencies.  Unfortunately, not on the list is Washington, D.C.  There are also monetary awards to 15 high performing charter management organizations.  Included in this group are some that operate here in the nation’s capital such as Democracy Prep PCS and KIPP PCS.  Also receiving a grant is the Denver School of Science and Technology that I visited this past summer.  The total amount provided in this category will be $67,683.

In a direct refutation of the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People’s call for a moratorium on additional charters, U.S. Secretary of Education John King commented about the awards that “Innovative charter schools are continuously developing new and impactful practices to close achievement gaps and provide all students with the skills and abilities they need to thrive.  We are proud to support these efforts along with strong charter school authorizing and accountability, particularly given these grantees’ commitment to communities facing steep academic challenges.”

The press release announcing the grants details that since 1995 the CSP program has provided over $3 billion to charter school management organizations and the states.  The funds have resulted in the addition of over 2,500 charter schools enrolling approximately 1 million students.

The CMO grants are targeted toward those bodies that serve low income students.  It is estimated that 180 new or expanded charters will result from this investment.

The dollars are dependent upon Congressional authorization.

Federal law replacing No Child Left Behind appears to be a mess

Today, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reports on the U.S. Department of Education’s draft regulations implementing the Every Students Succeeds Act, the law that replaced No Child Left Behind.  It appears that these rules are the best most recent example of why the federal government should not have a role in public education.

The legislation still requires that schools test children in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school.  But educational institutions can also include other measures that would impact the one letter grade that the school receives.  For instance, the ranking can be impacted by, according to Ms. Brown, whether advanced course work is available and how many students are chronically absent.  The report card would also have to reveal “data on per-pupil expenditures; the percentage of students enrolled in preschool programs; the rate at which high school graduates go on to enroll in higher education; and the percentage of English learners who become proficient in the language.”  Look for other factors to gradually seep in including parental and student satisfaction scores and the availability of after school clubs.

The problem here is that so much of the information that is going to be required to be shared can easily be manipulated by local school districts.  For example,  the CATO Institute’s Adam Schaeffer demonstrated years ago that public school systems uniformly underestimate the amount of money it costs them to educate a child, often by a factor of 50 percent.   In other words we have now gone from a system in which schools are assessed on objective data to one in which subjective judgements will be made.  How much of the letter grade that is left up to interpretation will most likely not be revealed to parents.

It is obvious that in an effort to junk a law that no one really liked we have replaced it with a tremendous mush created by committee.  No wonder the Founders excluded Congress from having a part in regulating public education in the U.S. Constitution.  It appears that they knew exactly what they were doing.