Texas minister rallies Tennessee pastors against private school vouchers


A Texas pastor who has fought private school vouchers in his home state is bringing his call of support for traditional public education to Tennessee.

“Vouchers are corrupt. It’s a failed idea,” said the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of government programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private or religious schools.

The Baptist minister from Fort Worth is founder of Pastors for Texas Children, and on Tuesday launched a four-day, five-stop statewide speaking tour in Chattanooga. Since its founding in 2013, his nonprofit group has mobilized more than 2,000 Texas pastors and faith leaders to help stall voucher bills in that state’s legislature. He hopes to do the same in Tennessee.

Johnson’s mission is starkly different from church leaders who want public funding available for religious and private schools. He is a fierce advocate of separation of church and state, as well as local control of schools and education funding.

“We want full funding of our public schools, and we are against privatization that diverts God’s common good money to underwrite private schools,” he said. “The public should stay public, and the private should stay private.”

His advocacy model is being replicated in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mississippi, and now Tennessee, where Johnson is rallying local pastors this week during stops in Knoxville, Nashville, and Pleasant Hill. He’ll close out his tour on Friday at First Baptist Church of Memphis, the city where some Tennessee lawmakers sought last year to create a pilot voucher program. That effort failed, but groups on both sides expect some type of voucher legislation will be introduced next January, when a newly elected General Assembly convenes under a new administration replacing outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Just as in previous years, these bills will come straight out of the chute,” said Travis Donoho, a public school advocate in Knoxville who recruited Johnson to speak across Tennessee. “We plan to bring pastors to the State Capitol to oppose vouchers and related legislation.”

Voucher supporters are mobilizing faith leaders, too. “Just last week, I met with a group of Latino pastors in Nashville who are very fired up about giving parents more school options,” said Shaka Mitchell, state director of American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group. “Pastors want their people to have their children in schools that work for them.”

American Federation for Children was led by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to defeat voucher opponents in the Tennessee Legislature.

Johnson says his group isn’t flush with cash. He is appealing to pastors to speak out against vouchers out of a “moral duty” to advocate for children, especially poor children, who don’t have a voice in today’s power structure. This week, he’s speaking mostly in churches where his supporters have invited congregational leaders to sign up with the newly formed Pastors for Tennessee Children.

The group organized in January when Johnson was invited to Knoxville by local faith leaders and education groups.

“Tennessee and Texas are very similar in terms of the importance of religion and also the fact that rural Republicans have blocked vouchers for years in both legislatures,” said Donoho, a retired labor union organizer. “We want to help our rural pastors strengthen the spines of their rural legislators, both Republican and Democrat. This is not strictly a partisan issue.”

Pastors for Tennessee Children started this week’s tour with about 60 members who already partner with neighborhood schools as part of their local ministries — donating school supplies, maintaining school grounds, mentoring and tutoring students, and supporting teachers with gestures of appreciation.

Advocacy on public education policy is the next step, organizers say.

“Public education is to be cherished and supported,” said Donoho. “We don’t need to be giving public money to private and religious schools. Doing that undermines our public schools, which is a possession of every American and every Tennessean.”

Johnson is networking with faith leaders in 10 other states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina, where vouchers already have a foothold.

“We come into an area and bring people to the table and brainstorm about how we can help our schools,” he said. “As ministers and clergy, we’re natural connectors. We’re able to convene people to unify around our neighborhood schools. It’s powerful.”

Public school advocacy vital to Christians’ public witness

-November 19, 2018-Baptist Standard

DALLAS—Progressive Christians should acknowledge every child’s right to quality education as a justice issue, and conservative Christians should recognize neighborhood public schools as the third pillar—alongside the church and the home—for building responsible citizens with moral vision, Charles Foster Johnson told a Dallas audience.

“Public schools are the place where we create a public consciousness,” Johnson, founding executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, told workshop participants at the Red Letter Revival, a movement of Christians who say they want to apply the teachings of Jesus in society. “We need quality, fully funded public schools where every child is accepted.”

Public education for all is a moral duty, and public schoolteachers work in a “holy sanctuary” of learning, said Johnson, former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio and Second Baptist Church in Lubbock.

“They work long hours at low pay, often serving the poorest children,” he said.

Serious followers of Christ need to recognize public school advocacy as a vital part of their public witness, he asserted. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” Likewise, public schools invite all children to receive an education and attain their God-given potential, Johnson insisted, adding, “All means all.”

Threat of privatization

In contrast, privatized approaches to education serve only those who can afford it, he said. At the same time they serve a select constituency, proponents of vouchers for private schools divert tax dollars—funds intended for the common good—away from underfunded public schools, he asserted.

Charter schools are “a little trickier,” he acknowledged, particularly when they offer educational alternatives to underserved neighborhoods. However, even the best non-profit charter schools typically are governed by self-perpetuating boards in distant locations, and the people they serve have no voice in decision-making, he said.

For-profit schools simply are out to make money for wealthy investors, he emphasized.

“They are making commodities out of our children and markets out of our classrooms,” Johnson said.

In an increasingly polarized society, public schools offer a unique place that can bring together children of varied races and religions—children of privilege and children in need—to learn together and create life-changing relationships, he asserted.

Johnson urged concerned Christians to develop friendships with school superintendents to learn about local needs and nurture relationships with elected representatives, particularly in the Texas House of Representatives, to advocate for public education.

A renewed commitment to public education “can solve a lot of other issues in society,” he insisted.

Churches can make a difference by adopting public schools—providing school supplies, praying for educators, sponsoring teacher appreciation events and inviting members to become mentors and tutors for students, he said.

“If you want to change the world, read to a kid—particularly a child in the third grade or younger—for two hours a week,” Johnson said. “It’s the most Jesus-led, Spirit-filled act you can do.”

Hundreds attend hunger and poverty summit at Baylor University


Hundreds of people attended a three-day hunger and poverty summit at Baylor University.

The Texas Hunger Initiative hosted the “Together at the Table” Hunger and Poverty summit and 60 percent of the 300 people in attendance are from Texas.

In the past two days, they have learned about programs that aim to provide food for children on weekends and combat hunger among a growing population of senior citizens.

“Our goal is that people would leave really learning new innovative ways of addressing food insecurity or hunger in their local community. Identifying ways that we can work with individuals who are experiencing poverty and helping them move toward financial independence and then develop some new connections,” said Texas Hunger Initiative Executive Director Jeremy Everett.

The Texas Hunger Initiative has held seven hunger and poverty summits in the past 10 years.

Copyright 2018 KXXV. All rights reserved.

What do elections mean for the future of school finance in Texas?

By Eva-Marie Ayala and Nanette Light   -March 19, 2018 – THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Tired of waiting for a state fix, voters this month approved the Dallas, Richardson and Frisco districts’ pleas to funnel millions more a year into their local schools.

But now school leaders are worried about what’s next. They’re out of financial maneuvers after successful elections put them at the maximum property tax rate for operations.

The increase will only sustain them for so long, as costs continue to rise and the state’s share shrinks. So they’re counting on lawmakers to do something about it.

And the shift in the Legislature after last week’s elections could significantly affect the direction of school finance as Democrats flipped key seats held by Republicans.

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa noted that many candidates were discussing public school needs during the election season. He hopes that means lawmakers will be responsive

“I’m more encouraged now after the election, especially because our delegation has shifted a lot,” Hinojosa said. “A lot of races statewide were closer than many thought they would be. … So I’m hoping that this presents more opportunity for dialogue.

But the future of school finance is anyone’s guess. And school leaders say they aren’t getting their hopes up.

The state’s share will drop by about $3.5 billion over the next two years unless funding changes are made. Local property taxes have been shouldering most of the cost and are expected to provide nearly 56 percent compared with the state’s 35 percent.

Monday was the first day to file bills for the session that starts in January, and a handful already filed tackle tweaks to funding. On Tuesday as part of a commission on school finance, a committee met to discuss where more money for schools might come from. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has floated a proposal that includes finding ways to decrease property tax rates while finding more state money for schools.

Lawmakers have long said they want to fix school finance once and for all. But the current system is so complex that major overhauls by the Legislature have happened only after the courts force lawmakers to do so

Legislators came close to a solution in 2017. But a major school finance bill was derailed when the more conservative Senate attached legislation to it that would have allowed families to use taxpayer money to pay for private schools. The House refused to accept such a provision.

But two Dallas-area senators who supported the voucher-like effort lost their re-election bids last week to challengers opposed to funneling taxpayer money away from public schools for private school tuition. Their loss could mean such legislation is a non-starter this time.

And that gives hope to many, including Todd Williams, CEO of education-focused nonprofit Commit Partnership, whom Abbott appointed to the state’s school finance commission, which is charged with studying the issue and presenting options.

“I’d love to have a school finance bill that stands on its own and not tied to anything else,” Williams said. “We need new money put into the system. But what’s going to be the political will to make that number enough given the needs?”

Skeptical about whether changes will come

Area school leaders are making plans to meet with returning and newly elected lawmakers this month and next before the session starts. They want more money for educating children who need additional resources to learn — such as kids living in poverty, those with learning disabilities and those learning English.

And they especially want fixes to the state’s “Robin Hood” provision that recaptures money from property-rich districts — including Frisco, Dallas and Richardson — to equalize funding for use in property-poor districts.

Justin Bono, Richardson ISD’s school board president, said his and other districts’ increased tax rate is only a temporary fix. If lawmakers don’t make changes, the districts eventually will have to make cuts.

But Bono’s skeptical there will be significant changes anytime soon.

“Regardless of the rhetoric in Austin about doing something in school finance, my optimism is tempered based on who’s in the lieutenant governor’s office and the overall makeup of the Senate,” Bono said.

Under the Robin Hood provision, Richardson ISD estimates it will send about $6 million back to the state this school year. Frisco ISD plans to send about $14 million, while Dallas ISD’s recapture payment could be as high as $65 million.

Dax Gonzalez, who works on governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said the state has “taken advantage” of recapture to reduce its contribution to public schools.

“As the state has reduced its investment, we’re relying more and more on local taxpayers to fund the bulk of public education,” he said.

Texas is expected to spend about $20 billion on schools this year. That’s up from a few billion in 2008, but then, the state’s share accounted for 48.5 percent.

Some are optimistic there will be movement on school finance next session, but Gonzalez said any meaningful change will take a significant chunk of money. And he’s uncertain a majority of lawmakers will be willing to take that step.

“I have not seen the willingness to put in that kind of money into the system,” he said. “But you never know.”

While any reform likely would fall short of a “revolutionized” system, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is optimistic that the Legislature will at least make some changes to Robin Hood.

West, who also serves on the school finance commission, said urban districts like Dallas and Houston — whose students largely come from low-income families — were never intended to fall into finance recapture.

For West, at least, the election has little to do with his outlook for this session.

“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you recognize we have to do something about our public school finance system,” West said. “You saw this year we had a lot of [tax ratification elections] too, and that’s because schools need additional dollars to operate.”

Pastors for Texas Children challenges local faith leaders to advocate for public schools

By Cory McCoy Updated October 18, 2018 – Tyler Morning Telegraph

Robert E. Lee Good Vibrations Choir Sings The National Anthem

Robert E. Lee Good Vibrations Choir Sings The National Anthem

A group of faith leaders, public school administrators and community members came together Tuesday morning to make their case for increased advocacy for public schools.

More than 100 people representing a variety of faiths and East Texas communities attended the Celebration of Public Education Breakfast hosted by Pastors for Texas Children at First Christian Church in Tyler.

The Rev. Charles Johnson, executive director, made the case for strengthening the bonds between churches and the public schools that serve their children.

“We want to stir up lots of affirmation, engagement and assistance,” Johnson said.

He said the goal of Pastors for Texas Children is to increase engagement through offering real, tangible assistance such as school supplies, teaching assistance, food security, volunteering and advocacy.

“Public education is a provision for God’s common good for all of our children,” he said. “We can create a place where churches can come together unified for public schools because it is the will of God that all of our children receive a quality education. We are trying to witness and work and act in a way that public education ceases to be a wedge issue in our society.”

Johnson said public schools need more people willing to put aside party lines and rhetoric and focus on simply doing the right thing for students. During the event, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff was honored by the organization for embodying that willingness.

“We are in a moral crisis in this state and we wanted to honor Lt. Gov. Ratliff as a positive example of the moral leadership that can be done,” Johnson said. “It is possible, and it’s up to us.”

Thomas Ratliff, a former State Board of Education member, accepted the honor on his father’s behalf.

Ratliff spoke about his father’s original vision for a voucher plan that would have required true equity. He said that equity is not possible under what the program proposals have become today, with accessibility and accountability not being a requirement of private schools wishing to receive state funds.

He said recent proposals would allow the parent to choose by giving them the funding to put toward private schools, home-school, online learning, tutoring or other educational services.

He discussed his father’s vision for a fair system for all students, that wouldn’t overwhelmingly benefit families who are not economically disadvantaged. He said the current proposals are not truly equitable, with no proposed oversight attached to ensure programs such as transportation, meal options and special education, among others.

“That was a level playing field; it’s not sliding $8,000 under the door and saying, ‘Do your best. We’ll trust you.'” he said.

He pointed out that charter schools in Texas receive the same level of state funding vouchers would provide private schools, yet charter schools have largely failed to catch on outside of large urban areas.

“Let’s think about Tyler, Longview, Mount Pleasant. After 22 years of the charter school program in Texas, how many charters are in Northeast Texas?” Ratliff asked. “If you pass a voucher bill, how many (new schools) are going to come to northeast Texas? None, if they wanted to be here they already would.”

Charter schools are few and far between in the area, with none offering transportation to students. Ratliff said offering vouchers with no accountability attached would only encourage for-profit schools, which aren’t prioritizing all children equally.

Ratliff warned of the risk vouchers could pose in resegregating public schools, because they wouldn’t be required to serve low-income populations or minorities equitably.

Former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses expanded on the damage that shrinking funding has on public education and the children it serves.

“We in this room know we’re teaching a population that is rapidly changing and 65 percent are economically disadvantaged,” Moses said. “We want people to be able to earn their opportunity, it’s education. That’s what made this country great, that’s what made this democracy great.”

Moses said the state is facing a crisis, with only 30 percent of Texans having school-age children and rapidly shifting demographics.

“Will an older, (wealthier) aging population pay to educate a younger, poorer population that doesn’t necessarily look like them?” he asked.

Moses told attendees to start changing minds through positive affirmation, by telling teachers, students and citizens they matter and are valued.

He said throughout his career he often was asked how much it costs to educate a student, and his answer was the cost of education is the value we place on it.

Tyler Council of PTAs Vice President Elicia Eckert said she hopes next month on Election Day that East Texans will vote for the candidates who have the best interests of their children in mind, but she also hopes to see more churches get involved with their local districts.

“It is crucially important we advocate policies, but I believe it’s just as important that we get into those schools,” she said. “This is my prayer today, that we have an outpouring from people of faith asking how they can help.”

Pastors, Superintendents Call for More School Funding

By Alan Scaia October 11, 2018 – KRLD NEWS RADIO 1080

Pastors and Superintendents Supporting Increased School Funding

Pastors and Superintendents Supporting Increased School Funding

DALLAS (KRLD) – Pastors and school superintendents are meeting to present a unified voice to the state legislature for next year’s session. They say the state should increase school funding.

“We’re a state-wide organization, and we go into every Texas community, and we get preachers and teachers together,” says Rev. Charles Johnson, the executive director of Texas Pastors for Children.

Hundreds of pastors have joined the group from across the state. This week, they have met with the superintendents of the Fort Worth and Dallas Independent School Districts.

“This is important, the district has made some significant improvements, and it’s important to keep that momentum going,” says Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Dallas ISD will be considered “property rich,” so the district will have to contribute money to the state fund to be sent to poorer districts. This is the first time Dallas has received the designation, but Hinojosa says 90 percent of students in the district still live in poverty.

Dallas is asking for a property tax increase this fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency released a budget with a $3.5 billion cut in state funding over the next two years because of an increase in local property tax revenue.

The state is still planning an increase in funding for school security, special education and mental health services for students.

Pastors for Children says the state should, instead of focusing on vouchers or school choice, send more money to districts.

“Communities and community leaders are sick and tired of the legislature, particularly the Texas Senate, not supporting public education,” Johnson says.

“So often, strengthening neighborhoods also means strengthening schools, so as a faith leader, I’m always interested in the whole person, not just someone’s spiritual life, but the whole person,” says Andy Stoker, the Senior Minister at First United Methodist Church of Dallas.

Pastors Push for Public Education Support in Tennessee

September 28, 2018


A faith-based advocate for public education will swing through the Volunteer State as part of a broad, national push in support of education as a public trust.

Charles Johnson, founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, will speak at least six times across Tennessee the first week of October.

Johnson founded Pastors for Texas Children in 2013 and has expanded the footprint since then, with groups focused in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Johnson will speak in Chattanooga on Oct. 2, in Knoxville and Pleasant Hill on Oct. 3, in Nashville and Columbia on Oct. 4 and in Memphis on Oct. 5.

Pastors for Tennessee Children is a broad coalition – pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders – that advocates for public education, assists schools and advances legislation, according to its mission statement.

Johnson, an ordained Baptist minister, previously served as pastor in multiple states and as a visiting professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

His religious credentials run deep, as does his group’s opposition to school vouchers, which Johnson and others argue run counter to the idea of public education as a public trust.

Johnson was a featured speaker at the Angela Project 2018, a conference focused on racism held in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier this month.

“The public school is a great equalizer for all children of every ethnicity,” said Johnson in a video interview with EthicsDaily.com at the conference. “And racial equality is advanced by public education in America.”

“People of faith embrace public education as a provision of God’s common good,” Johnson continued, “as a basic, core, fundamental, social-justice expression in society.”

“Even from a secular perspective, people of morality understand that education is a basic human right,” he added. Johnson and Pastors for Children argue that various efforts are afoot to privatize education, thus turning a child’s education into a market commodity.

Pastors for Children, including its Tennessee affiliate, works on countering any such legislation that commodifies the constitutional right to an education.

Article XI, Section 12, of the Tennessee state constitution reads: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

The group also, however, promotes local and direct support of public schools by faith leaders and houses of worship.

When Johnson speaks of this “wrap-around care” – offering support services like tutoring, school supplies and simple encouragement – he speaks quickly of best practices, constitutionally speaking.

“There’s a right way to do that and a wrong way to do it,” said Johnson in the interview with EthicsDaily.com. “We do not believe in violating God’s gift of religious liberty. That’s another social justice provision: religious liberty, church-state separation. We don’t belive in using the public institution, suuported by the government, to advance any religious expression.”

Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids

By Charles Foster Johnson April 2,2018 – ETHICSDAILY.COM

The moral foundation of public education is supported in Scripture in a number of important passages.

In Genesis, God brings all the animals to the human to see what the human would call them. This labeling and naming enterprise is education, and in a very real sense, God is the first educator.

In order to heed God’s first charge to the human in Scripture – “to be fruitful, multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) – one must be properly educated. That is, must “name” God’s world.

In the New Testament, the only episode we have out of the childhood of our Lord Jesus, other than his birth narratives, is the incident of Jesus in the Temple, “sitting at the feet of his teachers, listening to them, asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).

The only event in the boyhood of Jesus that the Holy Spirit saw fit to record in the biblical record is an educational moment.

Drawing on this biblical foundation, Pastors for Texas Children was formed in 2013 to mobilize the faith community for public education support and advocacy.

We now have more than 2,000 faith leaders in our network and have spawned our first state affiliate in Pastors for Oklahoma Kids.

We support and promote healthy public education policy because we believe education is a gift from God for all children – not just children whose status and situation affords them this gift.

So, our pastors give witness to God’s gift of education for all children extended and protected by public education.

Our neighborhood and community public schools receive all children, no questions asked.

The majority of those children are poor. Many are from families who are not engaged in their education. But, they are loved and cared for by public school educators all the same.

That is why it is our moral and spiritual responsibility to help those teachers in this God-given enterprise, leading us to adopt schools and forge one-on-one school partnerships all over the state.

Our schoolteachers are our spouses, family members, church members, fellow believers. Indeed, along with police and firefighters, they are our “first responders.” We must show solidarity with them.

But, we also make our witness known with state legislators who are charged before God with formulating just public policies.

We encourage them to support funding bills that properly resource our community public schools and to oppose voucher bills that divert that money to private schools.

In this way, local school ministry goes hand in hand with state school policy advocacy.

One of the basic responsibilities of faith is to “do justice” (Micah 6:8). Someone has said that justice is figuring out what belongs to whom and giving it to them. It has also been said that justice is love in the public square.

Our Lord requires us “to love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mark 12:30-31). We should have public policy that reflects biblical principles of love, justice and righteousness. There is no better place to work out that justice than in public education policy.

There is an urgency to our mission. Public education in the U.S. is under attack.

First, state governments all over the country are slashing public education budgets.

Here in Texas, we have never recovered from the draconian cuts of 2011 when $5.4 billion was hacked out of public education and only $3.4 billion restored in 2013.

Estimates indicate that we are $6 billion to $8 billion behind what our children need to learn.

Texas is not alone; this story is recounted state by state. It has made national headlines in recent months through teacher-led protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.

We clearly have the means to educate our children. Do we have the will? Or do we wish to sacrifice our children’s future for the sake of our own short-term tax relief?

Second, privatization policies are being promoted by the extraordinarily wealthy private interests of people like the Koch brothers who wish to profiteer off of our public school system through so-called “school choice” – the policy of underwriting private education with public tax dollars through private school vouchers.

Again, Texas has been ground zero for this fight. This past legislative session, the Texas Senate approved bills on multiple occasions calling for a voucher policy.

Thankfully, the Texas House of Representatives defeated those bills each time – influenced largely by our pastors and church leaders.

Our governor even called a special legislative session to get a voucher policy implemented. Still, the House held firm.

Basically, the Texas Senate held additional funding hostage for the ransom payment of a voucher policy.

The Senate said to the House, “If you’re not going to give us vouchers, we’re not going to give you critical funding for schools. We’re going to starve our schools until you cave in and let us privatize them. Let us make money off your children. Let our donors – out-of-state donors – make money off our kids.”

The Texas House said “No,” and that’s the stalemate that ended the special session.

The deceptive term “school choice” is a lie perpetrated on us by the privatizers who are the only ones with the real choice.

And that choice, should vouchers pass, is to make commodities out of our kids and markets out of our classrooms. It is immoral. And must be repudiated.

We already have school choice. Parents choose their neighborhood schools, help those schools, wrap their arms of love and care and involvement around those schools.

Pastors for Texas Children practice school choice every day. We choose our neighborhood and community schools and initiate school assistance programs in them all over the state.

But, we will never agree to any plan that diverts that public money away from those schools to subsidize the private schools operated by folks who can pay for them.

The local church and the local school can and should be in partnership with each other while always honoring God’s gift of religious liberty and church/state separation.

They are the two institutions protecting and preserving God’s common good for every community.

Pastors for Texas Children founder Charles Foster Johnson named TSPRA’s 2018 Key Communicator

z818The Texas School Public Relations Association (TSPRA) has named Reverend Charles Foster Johnson, founder of Pastors for Texas Children, as the recipient of the association’s 2018 Key Communicator Award. Johnson receives the award in recognition of his work as a champion for public schools and adequate school funding.

Johnson will receive his award, sponsored by West (SchoolMessenger solutions), from TSPRA President Kristin Zastoupil at the 2018 Texas Association of School Administrators/Texas Association of School Boards Convention, to be held in Austin September 28-30, 2018.

“Rev. Johnson has worked tirelessly recruiting and leading advocates who know that a strong public education system is a moral imperative,” said Zastoupil. “His unwavering defense of Texas students and educators makes him a deserving recipient of this award.”

Johnson founded Pastors for Texas Children in 2013 with the mission of providing “wrap-around care and ministry to local schools, principals, teachers, staff and schoolchildren; advocating for children by supporting our free public education system to promote social justice for children and advancing legislation that enriches Texas children, families and communities.”

Most prominently, Johnson and his organization have been outspoken opponents of legislative attempts to divert funds from public schools via voucher schemes, believing them to be antithetical to the goal of providing a free publication for all Texas children.

“For years, our schools have been somewhat alone in their advocacy for fair funding and programing,” said Mike Moses, former Texas Commissioner of Education. “Thanks to Reverend Johnson, they have engaged in the debate regarding appropriate support for public schools. Reverend Johnson and the organization have made strong arguments that have been warm and welcomed by Texas educators.”

Johnson has spread that message through his use of social media, speaking appearances at conventions and on university campuses and television appearances. He has also amplified it by recruiting his fellow religious leaders to help spread the message of Pastors for Texas Children in their communities.

Johnson is the founder and co-pastor of Bread, a faith community in Fort Worth, Texas. He has served churches in Mississippi, Kentucky and Texas during his career, including Second Baptist Church of Lubbock and Trinity Baptist Church of San Antonio. He spent two-years as a Visiting Professor of Preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

“Reverend Charles Foster Johnson is one-of-a-kind,” said Barry Haenisch, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools. “He is a most-effective public speaker, he is a man of action, he is generous with is time, and he cares passionately about Texas and the 5.3 million school-aged children who populate it. He is definitely the most-effective communicator for public education in our state today.”

Since 1981, TSPRA has recognized a Key Communicator for outstanding contributions to public education through effective communications. The recipient may be a legislator, educator or a professional in another field who has improved school communications, or a member of TSPRA who has contributed outstanding service to the profession of school communications. Recipients have included leaders from business, media, PTA, politics and education. A complete list of past recipients can be found on TSPRA’s website at www.tspra.org/awards/key-communicator/list-of-key-communicators

West (SchoolMessenger solutions) is the sponsor of the Key Communicator Award. West (SchoolMessenger solutions) is a strong supporter and valuable tool for school districts throughout Texas.

David Hicks of Allen ISD chairs TSPRA’s 2018 Professional Awards Committee, which includes Denise Blanchard, Amarillo ISD; Julie Zwahr, Denton ISD; Tiffany Veno, Garland ISD and Kyndall Jirasek, Pflugerville ISD.

Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Story of Privatizing Public Education in the USA

By Joanne Barkan

This article is dedicated to Paul Booth, 1943-2018

When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities — government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire — what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools” — with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies.

Public funding, private management — these four words sum up American-style privatization whether applied to airports, prisons, or elementary and secondary schools. In the last 20 years, the “ed-reform” movement has assembled a mixed bag of players and policies, complicated by alliances of convenience and half-hidden agendas. Donald Trump’s election and his choice of zealot privatizer Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education bolstered reformers but has also made more Americans wary.

What follows is a survey of the controversial movement — where it came from, how it grew, and what it has delivered so far to a nation deeply divided by race and class.

The backstory in brief

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, consensus grew around an expansive vision of education in which government plays a far-reaching role: schooling should be government funded and administered, universal, and compulsory until a certain age. In a nation that was increasingly industrialized and home to new immigrants, citizens expected public schools to accomplish a great deal, including impart general knowledge and practical skills, prepare young people psychologically and socially for self-sufficient adult lives, educate for democratic citizenship, unify a diverse population, and create opportunity for upward mobility. Over time, many Americans came to regard public education as a mainstay of democracy.

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of education, so the federal government had no specified role to play. Since the earliest days of the republic, local and state authorities shaped elementary and secondary (K-12) public education. Racial segregation in schools, which became the law in 17 states and the norm almost everywhere else, was also a local and state matter. This did not change until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka).

When the federal government stepped in to enforce school desegregation, it met with fierce resistance. After several years of minimal progress, federal authorities resorted to court-ordered desegregation plans, which they imposed on school districts across the country, not only in the South.[1] For the first time, government at the highest level assumed a significant role in K-12 schooling. In the mid-1960s and 1970s, the federal role expanded to include protecting the civil rights of all students and offering financial assistance to public schools with high percentages of low-income students.

In the1980s, the political climate shifted. An international renaissance of laissez-faire economics, updated as “neoliberalism,” challenged the dominant Keynesian model of regulated markets. Governments around the world began to act on a suite of neoliberal principles: competition and choice in the free market are the best organizing principles for most human activity because they produce greater efficiency and higher quality; the role of government is to provide a framework that allows the market to function freely; most other government activity merely clogs the system with bureaucracy and special interests. Ruling elites believed that implementing these principles would solve high inflation, stagnation, unemployment, low productivity, and whatever else was ailing an economy.

Neoliberalism led logically to specific policies such as cut taxes and government spending, deregulate the economy, and transfer as much government activity as possible to the private sector, including education. And when government funding is necessary to get something done, turn management over to the private sector.

The ideological shift to neoliberalism was rapid and widespread. This was the age of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan — two world leaders who aimed to revolutionize economic policy at home and abroad. Governments around the world embraced austerity, deregulation, and privatization. Consider, for example, some major nationalized industries that were privatized in the 1980s: British Telecommunications (1984), Spain’s car manufacturer, SEAT (1986), New Zealand Steel (1987), Japanese National Railways (1987), Air Canada (1988), to name just a few.

An education guru for neoliberalism

One of neoliberalism’s major thinkers and its most successful popularizer was economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who advised Republican candidate Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign and joined his Economic Policy Advisory Board in 1981. On education policy, Friedman never deviated from the model he presented in his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.”

He proposed that government get out of the business of running schools altogether. Instead it should fund a voucher worth the same amount of money for every school-age child to use at his or her choice of private school. For Friedman, the choices would include private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, religious schools, and “some even” run by the government. A democratic society, he reasoned, requires “a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens.” Hence government has a legitimate interest in requiring and paying for what the community decides will be the necessary “minimum amount of education.” But government running schools is not “justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”

In this marketized system, competition would, theoretically, eliminate low-performing schools because they wouldn’t attract enough customers to stay in business. In the real world, the poor buy necessities at a price they can afford even if the quality is inferior. This is why the free market has always failed to meet the real needs of low-income people; they get what they can pay for.

In a school voucher system, wealthy families can (and will) add as much money as they want to their vouchers to pay for their choice of schools; middle-income families will pull together whatever resources they can for the best schools in their price range. Low-income families without additional resources will “choose” schools charging the value of the voucher. Almost no higher-quality schools will be available because they will have no incentive except altruism to offer their products at the minimum price. (For example, the value of a government voucher for high school in Washington, D.C. in 2016-2017 was $12,679 while tuition at Washington’s elite private schools exceeded $40,000 a year. As a last resort, low-income families could choose a “government school.” For free-market ideologues, government schools are always a last resort and available to the poor.

Backtracking for a moment, many Southern states anticipated the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision and prepared policies to evade racial integration. Between 1954 and 1959, eight states adopted what were whites-only versions of Friedman’s voucher system. They used public funds to pay for white students to attend all-white private schools, which were called “freedom of choice schools” or “segregation academies.”

States also leased unused public school property to private schools. Shortly before publication of his 1955 essay, Friedman added a footnote to address the segregationist versions of “essentially this [i.e. his own] proposal.” He argued that both forced segregation and “forced non-segregation” were evil. His solution for the South and everywhere else was publicly funded vouchers used for “exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools. Parents can choose which to send their children to.”

Friedman’s essay prefigured the indifference of today’s pro-market reformers to racial segregation in education as long as the tradeoff is private schools. The essay still functions as a touchstone for them.

Sowing the seeds of market-based reform

Education policy advisors in Reagan’s administration hoped to wean Americans off public schools while also weakening the teachers’ unions, which were a significant source of power for the Democratic Party. Starting the weaning process required convincing Americans that public education was failing. In 1983 the administration released “A Nation at Risk,” a report aimed at generating support for radical reform.

The rhetoric was hyperbolic: “…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Apocalyptic claims were backed up by what one researcher called “a golden treasury of spun statistics.” The media hyped the report to the point of stoking a panic about failing schools. Politicians across the political spectrum called for higher standards, better test results, and greater performance accountability from public schools. Conservatives simultaneously aimed for deep spending cuts.

The sky-is-falling panic about public schools and the “standards and accountability” demands attracted bipartisan support. Neoliberal thinking had influence far beyond ideological devotees. It tinged political moderates, self-identified liberals, media people, and think-tank opinion makers. It permeated what became the dominant wing of the Democratic Party — the “New Democrats.” Their jargon included choice, competition, efficiency, and downsizing government; they often competed with Republicans for pro-market credibility.[2]

In the 1990s, the escalating drive for tougher education standards, better test scores, and more accountability coincided with a declining commitment to racial desegregation. Public school integration, on the rise since the mid-1960s, peaked in 1988 when 43.5 percent of all black students attended schools that were at least 50 percent white. Although research showed that integrated schools narrowed the achievement gap between minority and white students without harming the latter, the dedication of most government officials to proactive desegregation had dissipated. Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, 1992, and 1995 made it easier for school districts to abandon their court-ordered plans. Resegregation began immediately. In just 10 years, the percentage of black students attending schools that were at least 50 percent white dropped to 32.7 percent. By 2011, that figure had fallen to 23.2 percent.

Highly segregated schools attended by low-income minority students were notoriously under-resourced compared to public schools attended by white middle-class and wealthy students. Schools in poor urban neighborhoods needed much greater support. Moreover, although the achievement gap between minority and white students had been narrowing, it still existed. Politicians might profess a commitment to reducing racial inequality, but most acted within neoliberal boundaries and with no interest in pushing integration further.

Glorification of the market along with the vogue for standards and accountability led to a new approach: government could commit to improving education for low-income minority students with market tools while leaving schools segregated. The mainstream political world seemed to slide easily from the ostensible goal of racial integration to aiming for something like “separate but improved” for low-income minority children. Government would hold public schools to high standards, monitor how well they were doing, and help students in inadequate public schools move to better schools of their choice. The primary measure of school quality would be student scores on standardized tests despite the fact that most education scholars agreed the scores reveal little about education success.

Thus the seeds for 21st Century market-based reform were sown.

Building a movement from the top down

Neoliberal innovations in education policy took hold slowly. Reagan proposed several voucher-type programs, but they died in Congress. He did, however, cut the federal government’s portion of total public education spending from 12 percent to 6 percent. The George H. W. Bush administration (1989-1993) produced no major education laws although some policy ideas were picked up by Bill Clinton (1993-2001).

In 1994, Clinton signed the Improving America’s Schools Act, which provided federal funds to states to create a new type of school: publicly funded, privately operated “charter schools.” They would have more autonomy than district (traditional) public schools and, advocates claimed, be more innovative. The first charter school in the United States had opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992 under state law. Clinton’s Improving America’s Schools Act was designed “to increase the number of charter schools nationwide.” In 1999 Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (the former president’s son) signed into law the nation’s first statewide voucher plan. Still in operation, the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program allows students in “failing” public schools to use state funds to pay for private schools, including religious schools.

After the turn of the 21st Century, pro-market education reformers began to attract enough support and funding to build organizations and to operate like — or at least look like — a movement. Charter schools and voucher programs appealed to conservatives and centrists of all stripes but few progressives. By 2010 “reform-think” dominated the national conversation on K-12 education.

Still, market-based reform never became a grassroots movement. It attracted elites: billionaire philanthropists, private mega foundations, finance and high-tech entrepreneurs, politicians at every level of government, business leaders, media figures, and think-tank associates. The players have been overwhelmingly white; their methods consistently top-down. Notably missing have been teachers, school administrators, parents, and students.

With elite support, education reformers collected enough money to build an ed-reform industry of organizations employing same-thinking researchers, program designers, consultants, lobbyists, campaign organizers, and media producers[3]. A cadre of super-wealthy donors regularly gives millions of dollars to pro-ed-reform candidates for state and local offices; they fund ballot initiatives around the country and pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into local school board races. The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model legislation for conservative state lawmakers, has been an important ally of the ed-reform movement. Some states have adopted ALEC model education legislation verbatim.

Help also came from the White House. President George W. Bush (2001-2009) advanced both charter schools and vouchers. His signature education law, No Child Left Behind (signed in 2002), established that students in low-testing, low-income public schools could transfer within their district to another public school or to a charter school. In 2004, Bush signed into law a voucher program that Congress designed for Washington, D.C. (Congress has final jurisdiction over the District of Columbia). The Opportunity Scholarship Program offers every low-income student in District a federally funded voucher to use at a participating private school, secular or religious.

President Barack Obama (2009-2017) opposed school vouchers, but he quickly became charter-advocate-in-chief. In the depths of the “Great Recession” in 2009, his Department of Education (DOE) launched a $4.35 billion competitive grant program called Race to the Top. The rules stipulated that each competing state submit a public school reform plan, taking into account a long list of DOE pet policies. States that scored highest on the DOE’s point system would win millions of dollars to implement their plans. DOE criteria included not limiting the growth of charter schools (some states had capped the number). States were also required to give charter schools free use of public facilities or help charters pay for facilities.

Public school supporters fiercely opposed the measures because they diverted resources from already stretched-to-the-limit education budgets. But state governments were desperate for money from anywhere; all but four eventually entered the contest. Obama’s Race to the Top gave the entire charter school enterprise a substantial boost.

Anatomy of vouchers and charter schools

Both voucher programs and charter schools channel public funding to private entities but in different ways. When students receive a government-funded voucher for a set amount of money, they give the voucher to a private or religious school as payment or partial payment for tuition. All of the taxpayer funds that end up in private and religious schools are funds no longer available for public education.

In the charter school system, the private entities that run the schools receive an allotment of public funds for each student who enrolls. The allotments are transferred directly from district schools to the charter schools, shrinking the district public school budgets. The public schools are left with the same fixed expenses but fewer students and therefore less money coming in. They almost inevitably deteriorate: a school that could previously afford, say, a librarian, art teacher, nurse, or smaller classes can no longer cover costs.

Ed-reformers do not promote vouchers and charter schools to the public as strategies to privatize public education. Instead, they pitch their reforms as ways to create choice in K-12 schooling.

Reformers claim that charter schools and vouchers give low-income students “trapped” in low-performing schools new choices, and thus their parents — just like wealthy parents — have the power to choose the schools they know are best for their children. Who could object? Reformers have successfully made “choice” the subject of the policy debate. A candid description of vouchers and charter schools — for example, these policies drain public funds from district public schools and channel the money to private entities student by student, school by school — would attract little support (see the analysis of public support below).

While conservatives consciously aim to shift control over K-12 education from government to the private sector, moderates in the ed-reform camp do not have privatization as their main goal. Instead, they want to move as many students as possible, as quickly as possible, out of schools with low standardized test scores. They see their 20-year-old alliance with conservatives as tactical.

Yet not only have they ended up buttressing conservatives politically, they practice a kind of triage without thinking through the consequences. By steadily draining resources from district public schools, they undermine the very schools that the overwhelming majority of American children, including low-income children, still attend. Both conservatives and moderates call school choice “the civil right issue of our time.”

Charter schools claim to be public schools because they receive tax-payer money and, in theory, are overseen by state-approved authorities. But private-sector entities — boards of directors and charter management organizations (CMOs) — manage the schools and control finances. Private management, which can be for-profit or non-profit, allows charter schools to avoid the transparency and accountability required of district public schools. When the public or press asks for documentation, managers can claim private status. They regularly refuse access to their financial records, data, and internal communications — information that public entities are required to make available.

In September 2017, for example, investigative reporters requested some emails from Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc., a CMO that runs 46 schools in New York City. The company’s lawyer responded that the CMO “is not itself a charter school or a government agency…it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] or required to have an appeal process.”

Charter school lobbies press state governments for as little supervision as possible. For example, in California, where more than 1,200 charter schools operate, government audits are neither regular nor proactive; they take place only when a county official suspects fraud and requests an audit. Some 90 percent of charter schools nationwide are not unionized, so unions can not provide general oversight. Predictably, inadequate transparency and oversight have led to widespread malfeasance in the sector (more on this below).

Pro-market reformers also champion online (virtual) schools, most of which are privately run, for-profit, and notably lucrative. They use the same funding mechanism as charter schools — the operators get public funds for each child who signs up—but they do not have to maintain buildings, provide transportation, or pay for full staffs. One teacher can follow scores, even hundreds, of students as they tap their way through digital lessons on their own computers.

Charter school performance

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2017), charter enrollment increased from 1.2 million students in 2006-2007 to an estimated 3.1 million in 2016-17. The number is still tiny compared to the overall size of the U.S. K-12 system. For example, the federal government projected that about 50.7 million students would attend public and charter schools in fall 2017; about 5.2 million would attend private schools. In addition, about 1.7 million were homeschooled in 2016.

But charter schools are highly concentrated geographically and wield substantial political clout. About 92 percent of K-12 students in New Orleans attend charter schools; 53 percent in Detroit; and 45 percent in the District of Columbia. Charter networks run well-funded lobbying efforts in most states. As of November 2017, only six states did not allow charter schools.

To justify the existence of charter schools, ed-reformers have always claimed they outperform the district public schools that most low-income and minority students attend. Indeed, unless charters perform better, they serve no purpose other than choice for the sake of choice regardless of quality. To measure performance, both government and ed-reformers still rely on student scores on standardized tests.

Since 2009 a pro-privatization research center located at Stanford University has regularly conducted nationwide studies comparing the test scores of charter school students to the scores of demographically similar students at district public schools. The studies have generated a fairly consistent, albeit very rough, picture of average performance nationwide: about one half of all charters perform at the same level as district schools, about one quarter perform worse, and about one quarter perform better although often by minuscule amounts.

A much clearer picture of performance comes from state and district studies, not national averages. In 2016, for example, a study of charter schools in Texas found that “at the mean, charter schools have no impact on test scores and a negative impact on [future] earnings.” These mediocre results fall far short of reformers’ claims and hardly justify undermining district schools.

As for the higher-performing charter schools, research has shown they often boost test scores by “counseling out” the most challenging students — those with cognitive and physical disabilities, behavior problems, and English language learners. These students remain in district schools, increasing the concentration of at-risk students in precisely the districts that have lost funding to charter schools.

In the 2013-14 school year, the Budget, Facilities, and Audit Committee of the Los Angeles Unified School District reported that 1.2 percent of charter school students were severely disabled; the figure for the district overall was 3.8 percent — more than three times as large.

In December 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona released the results of its investigation of 471 charter schools, which found that 56 percent had enrollment policies that clearly violate the law or discourage at-risk students. For example, Spanish is the most commonly spoken language after English, but only 26 percent of these schools provide enrollment documents in both languages. Attrition rates — that is, how many students drop out of a school or class in a given period — are strikingly high for high-testing charters. In 2006, Moskowitz launched Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc., with 73 first graders. In 2018, this class became the first to graduate from the academy’s high school, but only 17 of the early enrollees remained — an attrition rate of 77 percent.

A closer look at vouchers

The goal of staunch voucher advocates is to replicate the system that Milton Friedman proposed in 1955: a tax-payer funded voucher for every student to use in a free market of secular and religious private schools. Several states now offer vouchers to all families regardless of income, but public support for such “universal” programs is low. To get around this obstacle, ed-reformers promote programs limited to low-income students, students in low-performing schools, or students with special needs.

They have also devised several variations on vouchers, all of which channel public funds to private schools but avoid using the unpopular “v” word. “Private-school tuition tax credits” allow families to subtract the cost of tuition from the taxes they pay; “tax-credit scholarships” give tax credits to donors (corporations included) who fund scholarships for other people’s children to attend private schools. Donors cycle their money through private nonprofit “school tuition organizations (STO).” Rerouting the money this way, reformers argue, prevents any violation of the separation of church and state: the STO “middleman” separates the government funding (the tax credit) from the religious institution (the school).

In reality, the process works like money laundering: funds pass through a private entity and arrive at a religious school scrubbed clean of their taxpayer origin. Another tool — “education savings accounts ”— gives families government-funded debit cards to use for various private education expenses in addition to tuition.

According to the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation (which changed its name in 2016 to the less politically charged EdChoice), there were 64 voucher and voucher-type programs in 30 states and the District of Columbia as of January 2018. Most of the money ends up at religious schools. For example, 82 percent of the nearly 100,000 students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program chose religious schools in 2017.

Republicans, who control a large majority of state governments as well as the White House and Congress, aim to expand voucher programs. Paradoxically, the promised expansion comes after the release of several studies showing that voucher programs actually hurt student performance.

In late 2015, researchers reported that Indiana’s “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in math and no improvement in reading. In June 2016, a study of a large Ohio voucher program, published by the pro-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found: “The students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools….Such impacts also appear to persist over time….”

Voucher supporters (Milton Friedman included) have always assumed that transferring from a public school to a private school would mean transferring to a better school. But in recent years, public schools in the United States have closed the achievement gap with private schools. Since government vouchers never cover the cost of higher-quality private schools, most low-income students end up at schools that are academically no better or even worse than the public schools they leave.

Corruption and segregation

Both charter school management and voucher programs are rife with fraud. It comes with the territory when states hand out millions of dollars to private sector actors without adequate vetting or ongoing oversight.

The pro-public-school Network for Public Education posts a feature on its website called ANOTHERDAYANOTHERCHARTERSCANDAL, which keeps a running account of charter misconduct along with links to source material.

Here are a few typical scandals from a four-week period in fall 2017:

The founder and former administrator of Southwest Learning Centers, which ran four charter schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico, pleaded guilty to pocketing over $2 million by having his schools pay fake invoices to a fake company he set up in Las Vegas. He also billed parents for online credits that their children never earned and charged his schools double the actual rent for a building he leased.

The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission fined the former chief executive officer of the defunct Pocono Mountain Charter School in Coolbaugh Township for four years of deficient financial statements. The commission also cited him for asking the charter board to raise his wife’s salary at the school and hire his children for school positions. The former principal of a Delaware charter school — the Academy of Dover — pleaded guilty to embezzling $145,480. The case went to federal court “due to the significant [federal] funding received by the Academy of Dover.”

The case of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) — once Ohio’s largest online charter school — epitomizes the corruption in the virtual charter sector. ECOT was notorious for its low graduation rate (under 39 percent in 2014) and its dropout numbers (the highest in the nation, according to federal data).

But despite the school’s abysmal performance, Ohio’s Republican establishment gave it unwavering support. According to an exposé in Mother Jones magazine, ECOT’s founder and the CEO of its management company, William Lager, took home about $153 million from the school between 2000 and 2017. In the same period, he contributed $1.9 million to political candidates, mostly Republicans.

In 2016 and 2017, the state’s Department of Education found that ECOT had overcharged taxpayers about $80 million in just two years for “truant” students — students who had not logged into the online instruction system for even the required minimum of once every thirty days. On January 18, 2018, the board overseeing ECOT voted to close the school immediately because it could not repay its $80 million debt. ECOT’s 12,000 students were left scrambling to find places at other schools — a problem created whenever a charter school suddenly shuts down.

Then there was this flow of voucher money: The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) is one of the state’s largest groups giving out vouchers, called tax credit scholarships, for private schools. From 2010 to 2014, private donors contributed $72.9 million to ACSTO. Arizona law allows families of all income levels to use these vouchers; it also allows voucher granting groups to keep 10 percent of all donations to cover overhead.

ACSTO’s founder and executive director, Steve Yarbrough, is also president of the Arizona State Senate and a longtime voucher promoter. ACSTO outsources much of its work — from data entry to customer service — to HY Processing, a private for-profit company owned by Yarbrough, his wife, and another couple. ACSTO also pays $52,000 a year in rent to its landlord, who is Yarbrough. When Yarbrough bought a $16,000 car in 2012, ACSTO reimbursed him for the full amount.

Vouchers and charter schools create still another problem: they increase racial and socioeconomic segregation. A March 2017 report by the Century Foundation, which analyzed longitudinal data from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, found that 68.4 percent of voucher-participating private schools had enrollments that were either 90 percent white or 90 percent black. Overall, 90 percent of voucher transfers “increased segregation in private schools, public schools, or both sectors.”

According to a 2016 comprehensive report by the Brookings Institution, “charter schools enroll more black and poor students than traditional public schools in the same areas and are more likely to be at one extreme or the other of the racial and economic demographic spectrum than traditional public schools.” In the 2016-17 school year, charter students comprised about 6 percent of the combined enrollment of all district and charter schools nationwide; the figure for black students was over 12 percent.

Conclusion: The shifting landscape

Given disappointing academic results, endemic corruption, and growing segregation, why does anyone interested in equal and excellent education for all still support vouchers and charter schools? One reason is money. Entrepreneurs recognized early on that market-based ed-reforms could be a source of substantial profits. Private operators quickly found ways to tap into the vast public resources — now more than $600 billion a year — spent on K-12 education.

Equally important, ideology trumps evidence for free-market boosters, and ed reformers have developed a culture of true-believers. In January, 2018, a government-solicited audit revealed that school officials in Washington, D.C.. had knowingly allowed 34 percent of high school seniors to graduate in 2017 without fulfilling all requirements. The news triggered an uproar because reformers, private funders, and the media had been touting Washington D.C. — with its voucher program and high penetration rate of charters — as education reform’s great success story.

Reflecting on the gulf between triumphalism and facts, Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and one of the few reformers who confront problems publicly, wrote:

[S]o many in the world of school reform tend to clamber aboard the bandwagon of the moment while parking their skepticism.…”[R]eformers” have tended to circle their wagons, fueling a “with-us-or-against-us” dynamic. That leaves little ground for friends to offer tough-minded public appraisal without being labeled an enemy of the movement…. [I]t’s time for the reformers, funders, and pundits to ask ourselves how we’ve contributed to a culture that’s heavy on cheerleading and light on skepticism—and how to find a better balance going forward.

In another case of ideology über alles, pro-reform members of Congress went so far as to ban rigorous evaluation of Washington D.C.’s voucher program. In spring 2017, the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the independent research arm of the U.S. Education Department, released a study showing that on math standardized tests, D.C. students who used vouchers to attend private schools fell behind their peers who remained in public schools. The research was a randomized controlled trial considered the “gold standard” experimental design. A week later, the Republican-led Congress approved a budget that included “a prohibition on the use of the experimental design evaluation method in any future federally funded studies of the D.C. voucher program.”

Given the overall record of charter schools, support in the general public and among minorities has been slipping. According to the most recent survey conducted by the pro-reform journal Education Next, support among all respondents dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent from 2016 to 2017. Among African Americans, support for charter schools dropped from 46 percent to 37 percent; among Hispanics, from 44 percent to 39 percent.

Education reformers also suffered a major defeat when they tried to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts using a ballot initiative. The state has the strongest oversight system in the country and a relatively small number of charters. The ballot initiative drew national attention because of the outsized campaign spending — $25 million on the “yes” side, $17 million on the “no” side. On November 8, 2016, voters rejected the charter increase by an overwhelming margin, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Many African-American advocacy organizations have taken a stand against market-based reforms. In a 2014 resolution, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pledged to “continue to advocate against any state or Federal legislation which commits or diverts public funding, allows tax breaks, or establishes preferential advantages to for-profit, private and/or charter schools.”

The 2016 NAACP national convention passed a resolution supporting “a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.” Shortly after the NAACP vote, the Movement for Black Lives — a network of more than 50 organizations representing African Americans— released a platform that included a moratorium on new charter schools. In 2017, the largest and best known African American ed-reform organization — the Black Alliance for Educational Options — closed down after it had “struggled to remain financially viable and relevant over the last several years.”

Unfortunately, not all Americans know enough about market-based ed-reform to evaluate it. Despite two decades of heated public debate, many do not understand how charter schools and vouchers are funded. According to a 2017 poll by the independent research company SSRS, a little more than half of Americans supported charter schools until they learned that the funding is taken from district public schools. Then support plummeted to 30 percent.

For participants in the 2017 Education Next survey, support for vouchers hinged on whether the survey questions contained the phrase “wider choice” or “use government funds.” A proposal to “give all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” received 45 percent support. But a proposal to “use government funds to pay the tuition of all students who choose to attend private schools” received only 27 percent support. Neither question contained the word “voucher.”

It turns out that when Americans know that market-based reforms drain funds from public schools, most oppose the policies. The success of the ed-reform movement so far has depended on their not knowing.

The survival of public education in the United States is a political choice. Opposition to market-based reform is growing stronger, but it needs to be transformed quickly into electoral activism. Privatizers now control the Trump administration, Congress, and most state governments.

Running for president, Donald Trump promised sweeping privatization policies for K-12 education, but so far his program has stalled in Congress. Some Republicans object to expanding federal influence and squelched the administration’s proposals in the 2018 budget.

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has not been a strong asset. She quickly made herself the most publicly reviled member of Trump’s controversial cabinet with her combined ignorance of and scorn for public education. But effective power over public education still belongs to the state governments. As of April 2018, Republicans held a near-record 34 governorships and 32 state legislatures; they continue to approve new voucher programs and more charters.

Draining resources from public schools has already undermined districts around the country, especially those serving low-income and minority students. Time is short for rescuing and improving public education. Destroying it will not require privatizing the entire system or anything near that. We are watching death by a thousand cuts.

[1] Patterson, J. T. (2001) Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[2] Palley, T. I. (2012). From Financial Crisis to Stagnation: The Destruction of Shared Prosperity and the Role of Economics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Welner, K. (2013). Free Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy. In M. B. Katz & M. Rose (Eds.), Public Education Under Siege (pp. 67-74). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Alvarez & Marsal. (2018, January 26). Final Report: District of Columbia Public Schools, Audit and Investigation. Report prepared for Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Washington, D.C., Contract Number #CW57247. Retrieved from https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/release_content/attachments/Report on DCPS Graduation and Attendance Outcomes – Alvarez%26Marsal.pdf

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