Archives for category: Virtual Charter Schools

Cyber charters in Pennsylvania are a money pit because they are not subject to the same rules as public schools. Charter lobbyists must have written the charter laws as they have in other states. And they protect their freedom from scrutiny despite the fact that the founder of the first and biggest cyber charter operator in the state was sentenced to prison in 2018 for his failure to pay taxes on $8 million that he skimmed from the school’s funds. (Note that he was not jailed for embezzling funds but for not paying taxes on the money.)

Peter Greene discovered another way that the state’s cyber charters get favored treatment. Public schools are not allowed to sit on millions of dollars of rainy day funds. Cyber charters are.

I remember what charter advocates promised back in the late 1980s when the idea of charters was first being sold. Charters would be more “accountable” than regular public schools.

But now we know:

Accountability is for public schools, not for charter schools.

Perhaps you recall when Betsy DeVos testified at her Senate hearing about her worthiness to be Secretary of Education. Among her most memorable lines was her fulsome praise of virtual charter schools. This was both sad and hilarious, coming as it did more than a year after the Walton-funded CREDO at Stanford released a report finding that a year at a virtual charter school was akin to not going to school at all (students in these schools lost the equivalent of 72 days in reading and a full year in math).

Over the past few years, there have been several major virtual charter school scandals involving the loss of many millions of dollars (the EPIC scandal in Oklahoma, the Pennsylvania CyberCharter School scandal, the A3 scandal in California, the ECOT scandal in Ohio).

Now Steve Hinnefeld writes about a virtual charter school scandal in Ohio.

He writes:

A Hamilton County court hearing this week may determine whether Indiana taxpayers have a chance to recover $154 million from two virtual charter schools and their leaders and business partners.

The hearing, set for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before Hamilton Superior Court Judge Michael Casati, concerns motions to dismiss a lawsuit to recover charter school funds that were allegedly obtained by fraud or improperly spent.

Attorney General Todd Rokita filed the suit in July 2021 on behalf of the state. Defendants include the schools — Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy — and several of their officers and employees. Also named are businesses that were affiliated with the schools.

The lawsuit relies on an investigation by the State Board of Accounts, the findings of which were released in early 2020. Auditors found that the online schools inflated their enrollment or failed to ensure students were being taught, resulting in overpayment of more than $68 million by the state. Auditors also identified more than $85 million in improper payments to vendors and businesses.

The schools closed in 2019 after their authorizer, Daleville School Corp. revoked their charter. The previous year, their claimed enrollment peaked at more than 7,000 students.

Problems with the schools came to light in 2017, when Chalkbeat Indiana revealed poor test scores, abysmal graduation rates and hefty payments to businesses connected to the school’s founder. Indiana Virtual School employed only one teacher per 200 students and spent just 10% of its funds on instruction, Chalkbeat found.

But the schools enjoyed political connections. They employed a state legislator as a consultant and had a retired state appeals court judge on the school board. Businesses affiliated with the schools gave $140,000 to Indiana Republican election campaigns. The schools paid a lobbying firm $300,000.

When will state legislators stop pumping money into these money pits?

A reader called “Retired Teacher” read Peter Greene’s reflections on Amazon as a model of schooling and posted this comment:

Devious DeVos had the nerve to call public schools a factory model of education. It seems to me that rows of zombie students staring at screens and fed content from an algorithm on a screen much more easily qualifies as a “factory model.” Public education is a model whose goal is mostly about being “through and efficient.” It aspires to bring young people access, opportunity and civics preparation in order to become responsible citizens. It is a pubic institution with noble goals, not an Amazon Warehouse.

The so-called “free market” is a scammer’s delight where the strong feed on the weak and the predators hunt for prey. Believing that the free market will solve education’s problems is as naive as it is reckless. Our young people should be valued, protected and taught well to prepare them for the future as they are the future of this country. They must be ready to address our future needs, and they deserve so much more than being considered a monetized line item in some rich person’s portfolio.

A new virtual reality charter school will open in Florida in the fall of 2022. It is called Optima Domi, and it presents itself as the most innovative step forward in homeschooling/virtual learning.

Unlike old-fashioned virtual charter schools, Optima Domi will immerse students in “virtual reality.” Each student and their teacher will dons headgear that immerses them in the sounds and sights of an actual classroom, even though their classmates are avatars, not humans. The curriculum, says the promotional material, will be classical, based on the Great Books.

The Governing Board of Optima Domi is heavy with financial executives and two medical doctors. The Optima Foundation is deep into school choice. Many of the leaders have experience in the charter school sector. Several are graduates of Hillsdale College, a small, ultra-conservative college in Michigan that refuses any form of federal aid for students or for any other purpose. The CEO of the Optima Foundation is a CPA and wife of a very conservative Florida Republican member of Congress, who was endorsed by Trump.

One may safely assume there will be no teaching about “divisive concepts” here. It seems to be the perfect site for programming students, although I can’t imagine many teenagers who would enjoy getting their “schooling” in complete isolation, with a headset turned on for most of the day. Most schools have teachers who come from different backgrounds and bring different perspectives to their work; students too come from different worlds and enrich class discussions by offering their views. In the virtual reality world, the lessons will be carefully designed to enforce the school’s perspective, without the intervention of teachers or students.

The following article by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Netwotk for Public Education appeared this morning at Valerie Strauss’s “The Answer Sheet” blog at the Washington Post:

Mike Bloomberg recently announced his plan to revive American public education, which he says is “broken.” His fix for a system that enrolls more than 50 million students? He will spend $750 million to expand charter schools to 150,000 students in 20 cities over the next five years.

The former New York mayor is a smart businessman. He must know that moving 150,000 students into charter schools won’t transform the public schools that enroll the overwhelming majority of students. The likeliest effect of his gift will be to drain resources and students from the public schools still struggling to recover from covid-19. This would make matters worse for the 50 million students who don’t receive his beneficence, and it’s unlikely to help most of the 150,000 who do.

Bloomberg tells us that he will not fund just any charter school. He announced that his donation would fund only high-quality charters — the same promise made by the federal Charter Schools Program that has wasted about $1 billion on charters that never opened or failed.

New York’s Success Academy is his example of a charter chain that “works.” Citing the chain’s high test scores, he ignores the dozens of news reports that have exposed Success Academy’s practices that include violations of students’ civil rights and privacy; complaints of racist and abusive practices by present and former staff; push-out practices that include dropping misbehaving students off at police stations; “got to go” lists that discriminate against students with disabilities; and repeated suspensions of students for minor infractions.

Success’s “success” rests on harsh discipline codes that push noncompliant children out the door. But remember that Bloomberg once bragged about his police policy of throwing minority youth against the wall and frisking them.

Bloomberg’s own school reforms included sort-and-select policies, such as screened middle schools and test-in gifted programs that dramatically reduced access for students of color. When the NAACP — the oldest civil rights group in the country — filed a discrimination complaint against the city and its eight specialized high schools, Bloomberg’s response was “life isn’t always fair.

Bloomberg has claimed that students of color made great equity gains under his mayoral leadership. He boasted to Congress that the achievement gaps between White and Asian students on one hand, and Black and Hispanic students on the other had been cut in half.Story continues below advertisementnull

But data from the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) disproved those claims. And what about state test scores? According to the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO), the gaps widened.

Bloomberg’s legacy was one of chaos by design, as he imposed one reform after another in an attempt to disrupt his way to success. The New York City school system was reorganized four times during the mayor’s 12 years in office, depending on which adviser from the corporate world had the ear of the mayor or the chancellor.

Bloomberg applied the same philosophy of “weed them out” (championed by GE CEO Jack Welch, who was a frequent adviser to the city’s Department of Education) to the system as a whole. He shut down scores of struggling schools and large high schools that enrolled the students with the greatest needs. He replaced the closed schools with hundreds of new small schools and charter schools. As large high schools were shuttered, programs for advanced students, bilingual students, and students in need of special education were often cast aside.

The mayor and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, applied corporate thinking, surrounding themselves with management consultants and business school graduates who knew as little about education as they did. Their efforts demoralized educators in the system, who felt disrespected by Klein and Bloomberg.

Now, eight years after his last term as mayor ended, Bloomberg again has inserted himself into the education reform debate to fund one of his favorite ideas — charter schools.

The unaudited “wait lists” he uses as justification for his charter ardor have been debunked repeatedly. Some of those lists have duplicate or triplicate names; others have students who have moved away or enrolled already in another school. In 2020-21, Texas charter schools had over 100,000 more empty charter seats than filled seats. Eighty-five percent of the charter schools in Los Angeles have open spots. According to charter advocate Robert Pondiscio, only about half of the families accepted by Success Academy enroll their child.

And the recent uptick in enrollment Bloomberg cites? Much of the pandemic increases were in the for-profit online sector he says he will not support — increases that are already disappearing.

Nor has Bloomberg been swayed by the preponderance of research studies (not a few cherry-picked) that shows charter schools do no better than public schools, Even though, as scholarly studies demonstrate, charter policies attract and retain more motivated and better-supported students. NAEP tests show there is no difference in the academic performance of students in public schools and charter schools. In fact, as NAEP shows, when students reach grade 12, public schools significantly outperform charter schools.Story continues below advertisementnull

Even as Bloomberg promises to pour money in charters, the federal government continues to spend nearly a half-billion dollars a year to start and expand charters. More than one in four charter schools fails by year five, and halfare gone by year 15, according to research by our Network for Public Education. The hundreds of charter scandals that occur each year have not modified his rhetoric of school accountability.

If charter schools do no better on the whole than public schools; if many of them fail for financial or academic reasons only a few years after opening; if their lack of oversight and accountability makes them targets for grifters; perhaps it is the charter idea that is “broken,” not America’s public schools, which have been central instruments in advancing our nation’s unfulfilled dreams of equal opportunity and a well-informed citizenry.

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By Valerie StraussValerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.  Twitter

West Virginia recently passed a charter school law, breaking its promise to the state’s teachers. A new board was created to authorize charters. That board just approved two for-profit online charter schools. One is run by K12 Inc., which changed its name to Stride. The other will be run by Ron Packard’s Accel, which operates low-performing charters in Ohio. Packard was the first CEO of K12 Inc., where he was paid $5 million a year.

Online charters are known for low academic performance, low graduation rates, and high attrition. A study by CREDO found that students in online charter schools learn almost nothing.

While findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers. To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year. This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

On September 22, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools put out a press release boasting of unprecedented enrollment growth during the pandemic. The report asserted that charter school enrollment increased during the pandemic in at least 39 states, with a 7 percent overall increase. The charter lobby said that this growth “is likely” to be “the largest rate of increase in student enrollment increase in half a decade,” as charter schools added nearly a quarter million students.

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, conducted a state-by-state analysis of their claim and discovered that it was a half-truth at best. Maybe a quarter truth. Maybe less.

What she discovered was that most of the enrollment gains occurred at the worst-performing segment of the charter industry: virtual charter schools. Many brick-and-mortar charter schools actually lost enrollment.

Writing on Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” blog at the Washington Post, Burris documented the hollowness of the charter lobby claim.

She began:

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has been broadcasting a 7 percent surge in charter school enrollment during the 2020-2021 pandemic school year. Parents are “voting with their feet,” according to its new report, preferring charters to their local public schools. What the authors of the report avoid telling readers is that much of the increase — and likely most of it — was in virtual charter schools, the worst-performing in the charter sector. This occurred even at the expense of brick-and-mortar charters.

The report says this:

“Although a school-level analysis was not conducted as a part of this paper, in some states (e.g., Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Utah), charter school enrollment increases were primarily driven by enrollment in virtual charter schools. This explains some but not all of the enrollment increases experienced by the charter school sector nationwide last year.

What exactly does “primarily” mean? How bad is the problem? To find out, the Network for Public Education did a school-by-school analysis of virtual charter growth in the states with the largest proportional enrollment increases.

We began with the three mentioned states. In Oklahoma, the virtual charter-school sector more than doubled enrollment. Ninety-seven percent of the more than 35,000 new students in charters enrolled in virtual schools — most in the for-profit EPIC, which has been repeatedly under investigation for misreporting costs to state officials, improper financial transfers and more.

In Pennsylvania, 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment in the Commonwealth’s traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools increased by a mere 78 students.

Cyber charters accounted for over 131 percent of the growth in Utah, with enrollment in traditional charters declining.

We expanded our analysis to see if this trend occurred in other states. We began with Michigan, a state whose auditor general had recently released an audit finding that cyber charters could not document participation in at least a single course in more than half of the inspected student records.
The enrollment surge in that state’s cyber charters accounted for 237 percent of the increase. Cyber charters enrollment increased by 5,071 students, while traditional charter enrollment dropped by nearly 3,000.

We then looked at Arizona, a state where families have been bombarded with cyber charter ads and billboards. Over 94 percent of the charter enrollment growth in that state was in the cyber charter sector.

Burris then includes a graph of every state that experienced at least a 10% increase in charter enrollments; there were 13. The graph shows how many students switched to online charters and how many to brick-and-mortar charters. In sum, 95.5% of the enrollment growth was virtual charters. Some brick-and-mortar charters lost enrollments.

Why does this matter? The virtual charter schools have a record of low academic achievement, high attrition, and low graduation rates. In addition, the sector has experienced massive scandals, like the A3 chain in California, whose founders pleaded guilty to phantom enrollments and are repaying the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Like ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) in Ohio, which collected $1 billion over 20 years, gave generously to politicians, then declared bankruptcy rather than comply with a court order to repay $67 million to the state for padded enrollments.

Seeing this increase in schools with abysmal performance is cause for alarm. A study of virtual schools by CREDO in 2015 concluded that students who attend these schools lose ground. While findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers. To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year. This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

Students may have”voted with their feet” to enroll in virtual schools during the pandemic, but we have to wait for the evidence to find out if they stayed or returned to public schools. If they decide to stay in virtual schools, we should be alarmed.

Nora de la Cour is a high school teacher and writer. This article about the sham of for-profit remote instruction appeared in Jacobin. Study after study has demonstrated the poor results of virtual instruction, but the research does not deter the greedy entrepreneurs who see the profit in virtual charter schools. You may recall the recent press release from the National Alliance for Charter Schools about how charter schools increased enrollment by 250,000 during the pandemic; what the press release didn’t admit was that the “increase” was due entirely to growth in virtual charter enrollments, which may turn out to be a temporary response to the pandemic.

De la Cour sees the push for for-profit remote learning as another front in the privatization movement.

She begins:

In spring of 2020, we saw signs that billionaires and neoliberal politicians were looking to use the COVID-19 lockdown to finally eliminate one of the last remaining venues where Americans convene in the practice of democratic self-governance: the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse.

Plutocrat-funded techno-optimists giddily suggested we use the temporary requirement of virtual learning to test-drive modelsthat give families more “flexibility” and “freedom.” Then-governor Andrew Cuomo formed a partnership between New York state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore a post-pandemic future without “all these physical classrooms.” Betsy DeVos announced $180 million in grants for states to “rethink” K–12 learning, and her cohort of privatization pushers began licking their chops.

Advocates of public education were rightly horrified, recognizing that this would amount to a further hollowing out of one of our last remaining public goods. Fortunately, a combination of factors turned the discourse emphatically back in favor of preserving in-person K–12 learning as the American standard — for now.

The nearly universal problems with remote instruction last year made it politically impossible for the privatization crew to continue arguing that e-learning is the glittery new frontier of educational progress. In fact, survey data shows that a majority of parents disapprove of any kind of change to traditional schooling. This is despite a relentless onslaught of rhetorical attacks on public schools — from the bipartisan vilification of teachers’ unions to right-wing attempts to use mask mandates and critical race theory to breed ill will among parents. The term “school choice” has apparently become so distasteful that school choice conservatives are looking to rebrand their body blows to public education as a “school freedom” and “parents’ rights” movement. They’re winning legislative battles in diverse states, but they’re losing the war for public opinion.

It’s widely accepted that in-person schools meet critical developmental needs and are necessary for most students. Nevertheless, the pandemic has swiftly accelerated the expansion of digital instruction. Public education advocates are now at a crossroads. We can either proactively define the relationship between remote and in-person schooling, or we can watch from the sidelines as private companies claim a monopoly over distance learning and use it to undermine public education.

Open the link and read the whole article.

Denis Smith worked for many years in the Ohio State Department of Education, finishing his career in the Office of Charter Schools. He writes in the Ohio Capital Journal about the existential threat posed to our democracy and our society by the privatization of public schools. His advice: Be careful what you wish for.

In the last few months, Americans have witnessed a series of assaults by the political right on key parts of the bedrock principles of democracy. Those attacks include new restrictions on voting rights in more than half of the states, the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by thousands of insurrectionists, and most recently, clear evidence that the former president pressured the top leadership of the Justice Department to help him overturn the 2020 election results.

Certainly these scary developments are newsworthy and have garnered banner headlines and filled airtime on the evening news. But these high-profile assaults on our democracy have served to obscure another, perhaps even more serious threat, an added variant and supplement to the seditious behavior of insurrectionists and a twice-impeached president who encouraged their assault on democracy.

In the midst of the chaos caused by angry militia types working to keep in power a rogue administration, and being mindful of the distraction these events have caused, it’s past time to get educated about the future viability of public education.

While the U.S. Capitol was placed under assault some months ago, public education has been targeted for forty years, when Ronald Reagan signaled his followers that the public sector was undesirable and that private enterprise was always preferable in the nation. His attitude was immortalized in his remark that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

This observation has been interpreted by the right as a command from Reagan himself to privatize about everything in the public sector — except the military — as part on an ideology which holds that a private enterprise is always preferable to a public function. That thinking has morphed into a crusade to destroy perhaps the most recognized and common artifact in any community: the public school.

Individual liberty v. community responsibility

For those who know this institution’s place in American history, the terms public school and common school are used interchangeably, and the leading proponent who believed that every community should offer a program of education was Horace Mann, considered the father of American public education. In his role as the first commissioner of education in Massachusetts, Mann believed that “education should be free and universal, nonsectarian, democratic in method, and reliant on well-trained professional teachers.”

As Mann’s nineteenth-century idea of the common school spread across the new American Republic, in villages, small towns and cities where a community’s shared and accepted values were honored and embraced, the little red schoolhouse became an icon, the force that helped to mold the very idea of community.

That was the America we recognized until several decades ago.

Today, attacks by insurrectionists attired in their cammies and state legislators dressed in business suits are hard at work to undermine that very sense of community, of place. Instead of embracing the idea of place, the community and its schools which educated generation after generation, those same legislators mumble vaguely about something they call “socialism” or “government schools” and instead espouse something else called “educational choice.”

That word choice, used often in the same sentence with freedom, serves as the anti-government elixir peddled by legislators to further encourage insurrectionists and religious zealots who do not accept the idea of community – and its public or common schools.

And with the frequent use by the right of such terms as choice, freedom, and liberty, that tattered social fabric we should be concerned about is worn down even more.

Indeed, words – particularly those three – have consequences.

Several years ago, the New York Times columnist David Brooks critiqued the work of author Marcia Pally, who observed that Americans project a prominent duality – a need to explore as well as be “situated” – i.e., having a sense of community. But today, our very sense of community is under stress, a weakened social fabric fueled by politicians who in their continuing mischief and purposeful vandalism promote divisive policies that result in the transfer of public funds away from our common schools to support private, religious, and charter schools.

In spite of these destructive policies adopted by state legislatures that are antithetical to societal cohesion, the need for community comes at the very time, in Pally’s analysis, when the forces of global migration, globalization, and the internet are proving to be transformative and thus challenge the very idea of community, of being situated.

But it was Brooks’ added observation that a fourth force, in the form of individual choice, gained my attention then and now, particularly in the current and growing national atmosphere that proclaims it’s all about me and my freedom to choose, regardless of compelling community needs, including health, safety, and the transmission of a common cultural heritage, as Horace Mann, John Dewey, and other visionaries labored to establish in another, more unified time in our history.

The byproduct of this thinking — that it’s all about me — centered as it is on the individual and not the community, is seen in both the Capitol insurrectionists and the anti-vaxxers. These protesters are seemingly also armed with the idea that personal freedom and individual choice trump any responsibility in caring for the well-being of others, whether by wearing a mask or being vaccinated against COVID.

To hell with elections. It’s all about me and what I believe, we are being told by those who protest the warnings of scientists and public health experts. And to hell with masks and vaccinations. We don’t need tyranny, they tell us.

And while we’re at it, to hell with the idea of community. When it’s all about me and what I believe, there is no room for what you value.

It doesn’t take many dots to connect this thinking with the deterioration of the idea of community, of being situated, and of having common values like the public schools that were created to serve all the youth in a particular community. We hold that truth (or should we use the past tense now?) to be self-evident. Not.

But in all of this, of slogans like freedom and choice, be careful what you wish for.

In my reaction to Brooks and his review, I wrote this in April 2016:

“…how we preserve freedom serves to illustrate the certainty of unintended consequences for conservatives, viz., how can you promote the concept of choice, particularly educational choice, as a desired public policy outcome, while also warning about weakened community cohesion and a frayed, tattered, strained social fabric”?

Five years later, I stand by those words. In light of recent events, that strained social fabric is even more fragile, and approaching an irreparable state of repair. It follows that with such disrepair, the idea of community in this country may soon be on a ventilator.

Cookie-cutter legislation

The enemy, it seems, is within. We witnessed this bashing of democracy with the images of militia-types beating police with flagpoles. Another version of that assault is the introduction of cookie-cutter legislation, some of which was crafted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Council, which exists to destroy education by taking the word public out of it, and replacing elected local school boards with charter schools whose boards are hand-picked by for-profit chains rather than being elected by voters in a community.

When state legislators vote to create educational vouchers that subsidize private and religious school tuition with public funds, they are making a decision to support schools that often teach content that has not been subject to a thorough review process, as public schools are. By contrast, vouchers mean that students can now be attending schools, free from state regulation, that may not even teach science or other subjects, or use instructional materials that do not support appropriate knowledge about our world.

The image of a caveman and a dinosaur, coexisting in an earlier time, as displayed in a Kentucky museum, comes to mind. It’s not too hard to imagine that under a voucher scheme, if a church affiliated with the museum operated a school and offered a curriculum in line with such a view, it could be eligible for state educational choice dollars.

Yes. Your tax dollars. And mine.

But where is the proper public purpose for taxpayer support of such an imagined school? Right now, for example, the proposed expansion in some states including Ohio of so-called educational choice vouchers to religious schools could make such situations possible in the future. One wonders what would happen if private and religious schools would first be required to agree to a set of very detailed assurances, including the teaching of specific courses of study consistent with the curricular offerings of local public schools, before receiving any state funding in the form of educational vouchers.

I think we know the answer to that. It’s called having it both ways – getting public money with no accountability and no strings attached.

The purpose of public schools

And then there is the subject of citizenship and our common heritage. Besides its purpose to produce skilled and literate individuals, public schools have also been charged to prepare young people to be caring and ethical citizens. By contrast, it can be argued that with private and religious schools, their own unique missions may not place civic-related ideals in the top rank, but instead subordinate civic education and awareness to a more narrow or sectarian purpose that mirrors the defining purpose of the school.

But if in the name of freedom and educational choice there is already enough concern about the use of public tax dollars to help fund private, religious and charter schools and thus undermine public education, weaken our democracy, and further damage our social fabric, there is yet another problem created by the actions of state legislatures to fund religious schools through vouchers.

It’s the Establishment Clause.

A product of The Enlightenment, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was crafted by the nation’s founders, who knew that religious wars had consumed Europe in the centuries preceding the American Revolution. Currently, in my home state of Ohio, a coalition of school districts is preparing a court challenge to check the legislature’s intent to expand the state’s voucher program as not only a violation of the constitutional prohibitions against supporting sectarian schools but also a violation of the Ohio Constitution’s purpose to establish a “system of common schools.”

I trust that this language from the Ohio Constitution is illustrative of how other states establish a system of public education.

[Article VI, Sec. 2 Education] The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State; but, no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this State.

Certainly, private and religious schools do not meet the definition of a common school that must be supported by public funds, yet in the name of educational choice there is a nationwide movement to expand voucher programs that will support private and religious schools, in spite of any Establishment Clause violation and other legal prohibitions.

So we return to the purpose of the common school as a unifying force to build community and not be a dividing force, as private and religious schools will be, if they are put on an equal footing with public education through support with public funds.

If all of these issues might seem to be troublesome, there is one which will likely prove to cause the most damage: How can you maintain the concept of E Pluribus Unum when public policy seems poised to support all types of schools and thus erode the idea of the common school, in this case the Unum in our national motto, as the essential driver to ensure that children who come from many backgrounds form a single nation through our common schools?

Indeed, we know that the mission of public education is to prepare young people to be skilled, literate, and ethical citizens. But that’s only part of it.

Let’s take a look at the Unum part of the equation. In an essay about the role of public education written two decade ago, Kenneth Conklin, a Hawai’i philosophy professor, raised some concerns about how a fragmented educational system can itself cause a fragmented society.

“If an educational system is altered, its transmission of culture will be distorted,” Conklin wrote. “The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart.”

Public tax dollar support of private, religious, and charter schools clearly represent the establishment of separate educational systems. Such tax support violates the very idea of Horace Mann’s common school, the very image of democracy in every community.

Conklin provides some additional advice for us to consider:

“A society’s culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system.” (Emphasis mine)

What’s next?

We’re in trouble. A community thrives on consensus, of shared values. The actions of agents of disinformation spreading lies about vaccines have undermined confidence in science and public health. And if we lose a consensus about public education and the shared values it represents, we have lost our democracy.

But there is hope.

In reaction to this assault on public education in Ohio, a group of 85 school districts have joined to challenge the intent of the Ohio General Assembly to greatly expand the Educational Voucher program and put private and religious schools on an equal footing to receive tax dollars siphoned away from constitutionally established common schools. Their position is that Article VI of the Ohio Constitution makes no provision for publicly supported but parallel and competing forms of education supported by public funds.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which was itself established twenty-five years ago to ensure fair state funding for school districts irrespective of wealth, is facilitating the legal efforts of districts in challenging the constitutionality of educational vouchers and the blatant violation of the Establishment Clause in establishing funding for religious schools. With so much at stake for future state funding of public school districts, more districts are expected to join this lawsuit in the coming weeks

So what is the lesson to be learned from public support of private and religious schools, along with the privatization of what is left of public education?

Be careful what you wish for.

If you think freedom and choice are the purest ideals to possess and not a sense of community to hold us together, most prominently seen in our public schools, think again. Every vote in every state legislature to offer or expand choice in the end represents a choice for disunion, for a fragmentation of our cultural heritage, a basis for community – and our very nationhood.

We are on the brink. If there is not a counter-movement to roll back this destruction of our communities by the Ohio General Assembly through the planned destruction of the common school, we will get what we deserve.

Yes, be careful what you wish for.

Accurate link: https://ohiocapitaljournal.com/2021/09/16/public-schools-vouchers-privatization-and-educational-choice-be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

Bill Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding is a champion of public schools in a state with many charters and vouchers.

He writes:

A primary purpose for the creation of the common school system for all the children of all the people was to maintain a republican form of government. Knowledgeable people in unity with one another will ward off tyranny, in favor of liberty and equality. A virtuous government operating for the common good is the goal.

Common is a term of art that has universally-accepted meaning. As applied to school, it indicates a place or institution that serves all children free of charge, paid for by taxation. It relates to the community at large, in a symbiotic relationship.

Common means “belonging to all, used jointly, shared by all.” The “common” system is required by the Ohio constitution, and the “system” must be thorough and efficient.

Tax-supported vouchers and charters are foreign to the common school system required by the constitution. They are not only foreign to the system, but are parasitical in taking funds away from the common system. These schemes divide, rather than unite. They serve not all, but selected students. Their goal does not necessarily match the goal of the common system—to maintain the republican form of government. Their relationship to the community is often strained or non-existent, as opposed to symbiotic.

The No Child Left Behind Act Has Put The Nation At Risk

Vouchers Hurt Ohio

William L. Phillis | Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding | 614.228.6540 |ohioeanda@sbcglobal.net| http://ohiocoalition.org