Janresseger: Drilling Down into the “Grading the States” Report on School Privatization

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I have been posting  reflections about what I learned at this important meeting.

One of the most fascinating workshops at the conference explored the complexity of researching the groundbreaking, June 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, and the importance of the report, the first comprehensive effort to track and compare the growth of privatization and the characteristics of state vouchers and charters. The report, a collaboration of the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, defines its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers.  This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state—rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

The primary assumption of a report about the privatization of education but whose title incorporates these words, “a report card on our nation’s commitment to public schools,” is that the growth of several privatized education sectors at public expense—charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts—reflects diminishing commitment to the inclusive mission of public education.  Sure enough, the report confirms that assumption, most clearly in the diversion of tax funds away from public schools: “Vouchers and charters do not decrease education costs, but instead divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate the remaining students.”

Last weekend’s workshop featured three speakers: the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), Dr. Carol Burris, who was one of the report’s researchers; Tanya Clay House, the report’s primary author and researcher—also an attorney and consultant who has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Public Policy Director at People for the American Way; and Derek Black, an attorney and professor of school finance law at the University of South Carolina.

At last weekend’s workshop, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris recounted the story of their plan nearly a year ago for a two or three months’ research project that grew and grew until more than half a year had passed.  Both are sophisticated researchers, and Clay House has connections within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. They discovered, however, as they explored the enabling legislation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, that even in instances when requirements for transparency and record-keeping were clear in the laws states had passed, a number of states had not complied with their own rules requiring documentation. They also discovered that much of the state-by-state legislation enabling charters and vouchers does not require transparent, longitudinal record-keeping.

After looking at data kept by the National Conference of State Legislators and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, Clay House and Burris found some of the most comprehensive records kept by organizations whose mission is the expansion and promotion of school privatization, for example: the Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter Law Database; the (libertarian) Institute for Justice; the EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for School Choice) School Choice Constitutionality Database; EdChoice’s School Choice in America Dashboard; and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) School Choice in America: Interactive Map.  Take a look at the Appendix of the Grading the States report. When the report was released in June, I looked at its conclusions, but until I was directed there by Burris and Clay House, I had had not explored the implications of the extensive Appendix that describes the sources for the data.

As a participant in last weekend’s workshop, I was fascinated, as Burris and Clay House described the difficulties they faced as they tried to collect the most basic data about what is now nearly 20 years of expanding school privatization. The two women told of one data set they had assumed the report would cover only to be forced to omit that issue from the report because the the records had not been kept by enough states to make it possible to draw any comprehensive or meaningful conclusion.  What became clear to me as I listened is that the promoters of school privatization trusted their own ideological belief that the marketplace would provide its own accountability. They assumed that as parents voted with their feet, parents themselves would identify high quality schools and seek them out; then schools of poor quality would not be marketable. Of course we know from research in Chicago and New Orleans  and elsewhere that parents choose schools for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with school quality—a site near home or work, the presence of a childcare or after-school program, the reputation of the football team, the advertising on the side of the bus, the incentive of the gift of a computer upon enrollment.  Several years ago, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO),  shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The third presenter in the NPE workshop was Derek Black, a civil rights attorney and school finance professor who explored what he believes is the overall significance of the Grading the States report. I was unable to capture verbatim Derek Black’s comments at the workshop, but in a blog post when the Grading the States report was published in June, Black made the same points in eloquent detail: “The report is, in many respects, the one I have been waiting for.  It fills in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction.  In my forthcoming article, Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, I also attempt to reframe the analysis of charter schools and vouchers, arguing that there are a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education… My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states. This new report drills down into the facts in a way I have never seen before.  It systematically examines charter and voucher laws in each state with a standardized methodology aimed at identifying the extent to which each state’s laws represent a de-commitment to public education.”

Black continues: “Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have laws that promote the expansion of charters. The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad… Because there hasn’t been any systemic response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation.  This new report brings balance.”

When the Grading the States report was released in June, this blog summarizedits conclusions. Needless to say, I came home from last weekend’s conference in Indianapolis and explored the report in more depth.  Here is what jumps out at me as an Ohio citizen this fall, after I’ve been watching the fallout across Ohio all year since the state’s final closure of the giant online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after it ripped off Ohio taxpayers and students for 17 years. The report examines charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to permit charter schools. Of those 38, including my state, earned F grades. The report explains they are “states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.” “Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools… Thirty-eight of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers… Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”  The details on the various voucher programs are equally alarming.

Thank you to the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris for digging up and reporting the alarming realities of school privatization. We must hope Derek Black and other legal scholars and litigators will be able to frame winning legal strategies to bring it all under control.

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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...