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Janresseger: Beware: Opponents of Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan Have a Vested Interest in Expanding School Privatization

In October, Elizabeth Warren released an exemplary plan for public education. As she campaigns across the country to be chosen as the Democratic candidate for President in 2020, I hope she will continue to advocate for the important principles in her public education plan.

In the past decade public schools in many places have been beleaguered by dropping state revenue in the 2008 recession and politicians further cutting taxes. And over several decades, a new philosophy of education has been acted into law by ideologues who promote corporate accountability driven by evaluating schools and teachers by students’ standardized test scores and punishing schools that fall behind in a system based on competition. Because aggregate test scores in any school have been shown by a half century of research to correlate with the family income of the students in the school, and because our society has become highly segregated by income, this system has shut down public schools in the poorest neighborhoods, produced state takeover of struggling big city schools and school districts, and prescribed school privatization—more charter schools and vouchers—as though it is a solution.

Warren’s plan turns away from corporate, test-and-punish school reform and calls for strengthening America’s public schools.  The plan demands that Congress quadruple the federal investment in Title I, the 1965 Great Society program to support public schools serving concentrations of children in poverty. Warren’s plan calls on Congress fully to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal program which mandates that schools provide specialized services for disabled students. In 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of IDEA’s cost, but last year Congress continued years of underfunding when it chose to fund only 15 percent of the IDEA’s mandated programming.  Warren calls for adding 25,000 Community Schools, making these public schools into neighborhood centers for families in impoverished neighborhoods—with schools housing wraparound health, social service, and after school and summer programs right in the school building.  Warren calls for strengthening English language education for students whose primary language is not English, and she insists that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights be strengthened after four years of Betsy DeVos’s weakening civil rights enforcement.

Warren also calls for reining in out-of-control diversion of public school funds to privatized charter schools and vouchers.  Warren would not only ban for-profit charter schools but she would also ban the lucrative arrangements by which states now permit nonprofit charter schools to be operated by for-profit management companies, which reap massive profits from our tax dollars.

Finally, Warren advocates ending the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), a stream of federal grant money used by states authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations to start-up new charter schools. In a scathing report, Asleep at the Wheel, released last March, the Network for Public Education found that the federal Charter Schools Program, launched in 1994, has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia.  This program has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of the charter schools across the country, but, as the Network for Public Education has shown, at least a third of the schools receiving CSP dollars either never opened or opened and then quickly shut down due to financial or academic problems. The findings by the Network for Public Education are mirrored in a series of  biennial investigations, beginning in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, which has repeatedly condemned this program for lack of record keeping and the utter absence of oversight of states’ and charter management organizations’ use of the funds.

It shouldn’t be surprising that supporters of the rapid expansion of charter schools have begun condemning Warren’s education plan. Warren makes a solid case for curtailing the publicly funded expansion of privatized alternatives to public schools.  Advocates for  public education, however, strongly endorse Warren’s plan and dispute the arguments of the charter school supporters who are criticizing it.

Three weeks ago, in the Washington PostCarol Burris published a column to refute arguments being made against Warren’s education plan by charter school supporters.  Burris, was one of the authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  In her column, Burris points out that in 2018, under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the federal Charter Schools Program was expanded to include a new funding stream, the National Dissemination Grants Program, under which DeVos began awarding federal grants from the CSP to charter school advocacy organizations themselves. In 2018, for example, under the new National Dissemination Grants Program, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools received a federal grant of $2,385,960.  Burris explains: “The new National Dissemination Grants Program has… been a financial windfall for charter advocacy groups … Grants to private organizations totaled $16 million in 2018, federal records show.  Joining the National Alliance were the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the California Charter Schools Association….”

Burris describes strong condemnation of Warren’s plan, for example, by Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who responded to the release of Warren’s plan in a fundraising letter: “Today Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren called to end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools… Please contribute to the Charter Schools Action PAC today.”

Burris also describes resistance from Tom Torkelson, the leader of one of the nation’s largest chains of charter schools, IDEA Charter Schools. Burris explains: “Torkelson, the CEO of the IDEA charter chain has a… vested interest in the preservation of the Federal Charter Schools Program.  IDEA Charter Schools has received $225,000,000 from the Charter Schools Program since 2010. In 2018, IDEA had nearly $900 million in assets. That year, Torkelson earned over $550,000 from the charter chain and its related organization….” When Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, Torkelson sent this to his allies: “Senator Warren has proposed to cut the entire charter schools federal program. We need your help today.”

Finally Burris quotes Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation and one of the founders of the huge Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school chain.  Barth condemned Warren’s education plan in a fund raising plea from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools PAC. He wrote: “Friends, We can’t let Senator Warren’s plan of cutting charter school funding become reality.”  Burris adds that in 2010, KIPP charters received $218,457,063 from the federal CSP.

In a second column last week, Burris responds once again to charter school advocates’ attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  In her recent column, Burris is joined by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor of education policy.  The Washington Post’Valerie Strauss published the column from Burris and Welner, and she adds that Welner, “was among the researchers consulted by Warren’s policy team as they drew up her education plan—but they (NEPC researchers) had no involvement in, or awareness of, this commentary” by Burris and Welner.

Burris and Welner confront charter school operators who have said they would lose essential dollars if the federal Charter Schools Program were eliminated. Burris and Welner note that because charter schools, like traditional public schools, receive federal Title I dollars and IDEA dollars, charter schools would gain more from Warren’s plan than they would lose from the elimination of the federal CSP: “Consider two… elements of Warren’s education plan.  First, she proposes quadrupling Title I funding so that it rises to levels that have long been pledged by Washington politicians but never actually reached. Secondly, and similarly, she would more than double federal funding for students with special needs served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—again aiming for levels long promised but never fulfilled.”

Burris and Welner criticize charter schools for serving fewer English language learners, fewer students with disabilities, fewer homeless students, and fewer students eligible for subsidized lunch than the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods.

Burris and Welner add that federal Charter Schools Program grants have disproportionately been awarded to the enormous chains of charter schools which enrich their operators with huge salaries: “(A) greatly disproportionate amount of the funding has been funneled to large Charter Management Organizations.  The Success Academy charter chain in New York City, for example, has received $47,540,399 from CSP, even as it paid its CEO nearly $800,000 in 2016.”

Last week, charter advocates gathered in a public demonstration against Warren’s education plan.  As Warren addressed an audience at Clark Atlanta University, a crowd of charter school advocates in matched t-shirts showed up to challenge her proposal to cut support for charter schools.  It turns out that this was not a spontaneous grassroots protest; instead the crowd was recruited by charter school support organizations from across the country and led by Howard Fuller, the charter school advocate who also led organizing for the Milwaukee voucher program twenty years ago.  Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports: “Fuller, former Milwaukee schools chief and advocate for private school vouchers, told Warren that her language is helping anti-charter efforts across the country. A number of states, including California, Illinois, and Michigan, have recently moved to limit charter schools or cut their funding.”

Who were the people at the Clark Atlanta University protest? Barnum reports: “Fuller told Chalkbeat that roughly 200 people from a number of overlapping groups took part in the protest. That included the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, a group that Fuller started with Connecticut charter school leader Steve Perry. They (protest organizers) worked with the Powerful Parent Network—a collection of groups in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and elsewhere… They were funded by an online campaign, which has raised over $16,000 from a mix of small donations and several anonymous $1,000 contributions.”  One of the participating groups, Memphis Lift, “has received $1.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation since 2015.”  Another participating group was the Oakland Reach: “(M)ost of the staff of the Oakland Reach, a parent group, was in Atlanta for the protest.  The Oakland Reach is funded by local and national foundations, including Walton and The City Fund, which is backed by John Arnold and Read Hastings… Bryan Morton, who leads a Camden group supported by The City Fund, was also present.”

Elizabeth Warren’s education plan is radical, ironically, simply because it supports America’s traditional system of public schools. While advocates for charter schools imagine using public tax dollars to create escapes for a small percentage of students from public schools into an unregulated education sector which has, incidentally, become saturated with corruption and academic failure, Warren’s plan aims instead to ensure well funded, high quality public schools in every school district.  Warren is suggesting the kind of adequate funding, for example, that public school teachers, on strike in Chicago, bargained for last month when they won a promise for an additional $35 million every year to restore reasonable class sizes across the district’s schools. The size of that increase alone for class size reduction is the clearest indication I have observed of how totally out-of-kilter funding for education has become in many states. Similarly, a central demand by striking teachers in Los Angeles was for the most basic level of staffing in every public school—including a school nurse, a certified librarian, a social worker, and an adequate number of guidance counselors.

Whatever happens with Warren’s candidacy in the Democratic primary election season, I hope she won’t back off her plan to demand justice for the public schools which serve nearly 50 million children and adolescents across the United States.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...