Girding for the education fight ahead

“If progressive education … is to be effective over the next several years, it will have to focus strategically on statehouses, school boards, city councils, and mayoral races.”

SOURCECampaign for America's Future

If you want to get an idea of what kind of education policies to expect from a Donald Trump administration, Wall St. has a clue for you.

A report from BuzzFeed explains, online charter schools are “gearing up for a boom during the Trump administration, judging by where investors are placing their bets.”

The article points to K12 Inc., which is the country’s largest operator of online charters, whose stock price has risen in value by more than 50 percent since Election Day – hitting a 2-year high at one point.

The article quotes K12 executives who’ve “told investors the company was one of the ‘best positioned under Trump,” especially due to the “‘personal’ experiences that high-level Trump administration members have with the company.”

Among Trump personnel who’ve had these “experiences” with K12 is his pick for U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

As the article notes, Betsy DeVos’ husband Dick is “an early investor in K12.” Another in the Trump entourage who is close to online charters is his Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence advocated for more “school choice” in the state, including online charters.

Online charter schools operated by K12 have a particularly poor track record for academic achievement, as the BuzzFeed story notes.

A recent article in the Washington Post reports on a study that finds these schools are so bad that students enrolled in them “lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of an 180-day school year … In other words, when it comes to math, it’s as if the students did not attend school at all.”

A recent assessment of the academic performance of online charter schools in Indiana found that nearly half of them are doing poorly or failing.

Trump’s “school choice” agenda will also likely include a way to give parents school vouchers they can use to pull their children out of public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense.

Vouchers are another idea that makes a difference on the money side of education but does little to advance the wellbeing of children. Recent studies of voucher programs in Ohio and Louisiana showed they actually harmed students’ academic performance.

And of course, we can expect to see more growth of charter schools under Trump. Even if his pledge to accelerate charters with a $20 billion federal block grant doesn’t become reality, there are many strings Trump and DeVos can pull to incentivize states to expand charters or fund these schools directly.

“Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York City Mayor and a key advisor to Trump Rudy Giuliani assures us. And DeVos, who has spent millions to advance charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere, will be Trump’s diligent collaborator on this. Her husband Dick founded a charter school in their state.

A recent analysis by Bruce Baker for the Economic Policy Institute maps out what the consequences of continued charter expansions will be for major metropolitan school districts around the country. Baker finds that as these districts continue to experience losses of enrollments and revenues to charter schools, they inevitably experience budget deficits and degradation of services, while the system as a whole becomes more inequitable for students.

In other words, we’re going to get more school systems that look like Detroit, where, as Michigan-based freelance journalist Allie Gross describes in her vivid account from there, “Choice has come largely at the expense of the traditional public school district … As students joined new charters, public school enrollment and funding fell. Unregulated competition pushed these schools into near-unrecoverable insolvency and allowed dubious for-profit charter operators to prosper without establishing a track record of better outcomes for students.”

Elsewhere in the country, under Trump, many more places are going to look like North Carolina, where I document how states that don’t adequately fund their existing public school systems will continue to add competitive new charter systems, often composed of private institutions that make a profit off tax-payer funded education.

A burning question is, “Where are the Democrats?”

As for the outgoing U.S. Secretary John King, according to Education Week, he’d like all “supporters of public education” to “set aside the policy differences that we have let divide us and move forward together courageously to defend and extend this fundamental American institution.”

While we should appreciate the Secretary’s respect for decorum, what needs to be made clear is who are the real “supporters of education” and what “differences” are appropriate for setting aside and which are worth fighting for.

Education marketers have rebranded “public schools” to mean any institution that gets tax dollars. And the phrase “doing what’s best for kids” has been turned into an empty PR slogan.

The operative political term of the day is “what parents choose for their children,” which has become a de facto argument to justify any kind of education option – even if parents are being suckered into bad choices or are being forced into situations where high-quality education options are practically unobtainable. We can expect to hear conservative media outlets use King’s previous proposal to “welcome good public charter schools” to admonish any objections, no matter how reasonably stated, to expanding these schools.

Some Democratic Senators, in their vetting of DeVos, believe they’ve found a “difference” that warrants further scrutiny. As Education Week reports, five of them have issued a letter registering their concerns over a political group DeVos founded which has a $5.3 million overdue bill for a campaign fine it has owed to Ohio for several years. The senators’ concerns are warranted, but unfortunately, they have nothing to do with education.

As Casey Quinlan observes for Think Progress, Democratic advocates for charter schools, like King, are “stuck” in a difficult space between those who are increasingly alarmed with school choice run amok across the nation and “a new administration that’s hostile to public education.”

Exhibit An in Quinlan’s argument is U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who “has been a staunch advocate for the expansion of charter schools and of school choice,” but has now felt pressured to publicly declare he has “healthy skepticism” and “serious early concerns” about DeVos.

Quinlan points to national teachers’ unions as the force driving Democrats into these difficult spaces, but the opposition to the oncoming Trump education doctrinaire goes well beyond the national unions.

Signs of that widespread opposition were evident in states around the country, specifically in Massachusetts, Washington, and Georgia (a decidedly non-union state), where strong, diverse, and grassroots coalitions of voters defeated efforts to expand charters.

One such coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, has called for a National Day of Action on January 19, 2017, to express opposition to “Donald Trump and his billionaire nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, [who] plan to dismantle our public schools by putting them on the market.”

“What our children don’t need is the federal government trying to divert any amount of that funding to private and religious schools,” writes David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. His recommendations include “start[ing] state-level conversations about rejecting offers of federal funding that come at the price of defunding public education and causing, even more, inequity and disparity of opportunity for students” and “legislative campaigns for charter school reform.”

The Nation’s Dana Goldstein has good advice too. “If progressive education … is to be effective over the next several years, it will have to focus strategically on statehouses, school boards, city councils, and mayoral races.”

We know what’s at stake. Let’s get to it!

[Republished from the Education Opportunity Network.To keep up with education news and views with a progressive bent, subscribe to the EON newsletter here.]


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Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.