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Will Trump’s education agenda gain traction here?

Checkered record of education privatization in Massachusetts

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Will Trump’s education agenda gain traction here?

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election, opponents of Ballot Question 2 swayed Massachusetts voters to reject charter school expansion with arguments that the proposed law would drain funding from local school districts while opening the door to privatization of public education resources.

While 62 percent of voters said no to Question 2, squashing the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign by a 22 percent margin, the battle over privatization in Massachusetts is by no means over. Both President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, are firmly committed to charter schools and school vouchers that would allow parents to use district funding to send their children to private and parochial schools. Trump has proposed funding vouchers to the tune of $20 billion at the expense of federal Title I funding for low-income students and Title III funding for special education.

DeVos is widely credited as the architect of the charter expansion plan that has pushed school systems in Detroit and other Michigan cities to the brink of disaster.

“Betsy DeVos has been an advocate of private corporate profiteering on the backs of our children, masked as education reform,” said District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, a vocal opponent of Question 2. “Devos has promoted the unlimited, unchecked expansion for for-profit and privately-run charters in Michigan and has severely harmed Detroit schools with her tactics. She is not prepared to lead education policy nationally.”

Although conservatives have advocated school voucher programs for decades, the idea has met stiff resistance in most states. Currently, 15 states have some form of voucher program in place. Massachusetts does not. If the administration goes forward with voucher plans, which Trump has outlined with little detail, the U.S. Department of Education could withhold education funding from states that don’t comply. In Massachusetts, that funding accounts for $791 million, just 4.8 percent of total state education dollars. But in Boston, the portion is higher — about $114 million in the city’s $1.3 billion 2017 BPS budget.

Battle lines

The debate over charter school expansion in Massachusetts fits within a wider conflict over school reform efforts on display in cities and states around the U.S. On one side are charter school proponents, advocates of school vouchers and a collection of nonprofit and for-profit companies that contract with cities and states to provide services to school districts and operate schools. In Massachusetts those organizations have been countered by a growing movement of parent and student activists, teachers, union activists, school committee members and other local officials arguing for local control over education policy decisions.

Locally, private foundations, education entrepreneurs and charter school advocates who favor private sector solutions to education challenges have been picking up steam over the last ten years. One such firm, the nonprofit school management company UP Education Network, drew fire from parent activists after WBUR reported it suspended 233 of its 755 students, including 68 kindergarteners — more than any other Massachusetts school. (WBUR cited school discipline records provided by an anonymous Up Academy teacher. A spokeswoman for UpAcademy Holland disputes WBUR’s numbers, maintaining the school suspended only 92 out of 822 students in the 2015-2016 school year.) In February, Up Education Network announced that it will no longer suspend its youngest students.) Higher-than-average suspension rates are not uncommon among charter schools and other privately-run, publicly-funded schools.

Parent activists also vociferously opposed many of the objectives of the Boston Compact, a Gates Foundation-funded effort aimed at encouraging greater coordination between district, charter and Catholic schools. That organization’s push for unified enrollment — a plan that would combine the waiting lists for district ant charter schools — sparked ire from parent activists who attended a series of outreach meetings last year.

Unified enrollment is one of the school reform strategies being advanced by the Seattle-based Center for the Reinvention of Public Education’s Portfolio School District program, which Boston joined in 2011. CRPE has cited charter school expansion as one of its major reform efforts.

Vouchers draw fire

While parent activists and teachers unions have focused much of their attention on charter expansion in recent years, the idea of school vouchers never gained much traction in Massachusetts. In fact, the nascent Trump administration’s voucher plan is so controversial, it continues to draw fire from charter advocates and opponents. Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter expansion group with an active Massachusetts chapter, issued a sharply-worded repudiation of the president-elect.

“DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration,” DFER President Shaver Jeffries was quoted in The 74, a pro-charter news site. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.”

CRPE Director Robin Lake told The 74 she would not work in the Trump administration, but said she would offer education advice, if given the opportunity.

School reform

In Massachusetts, the debate over privatization — to the extent it’s been debated at all — revolves around competing views of school reform. Those pushing privatization argue that public education is failing and that students should be given public funding for alternatives to the schools in their local districts. Those pushing back against it believe that public education, which began in Massachusetts in 1644, is a sacred value, helping to cultivate an educated citizenry — a cornerstone of democracy, as Thomas Jefferson used to say.

In many poorer districts across the United States, voters and policy makers have found the privatization argument compelling. In some cities with long-struggling school districts, like New Orleans and Detroit, charter school networks have expanded with few limits and no appreciable increase in student performance.

Arguments for privatization in Massachusetts run up against strong support for school districts that are among the most competitive in the country. The state consistently is ranked number one in school performance in the U.S. Although Boston schools are not ranked as high in student performance as many of its surrounding suburbs — one of the stumbling blocks in the Boston school desegregation case — Boston is widely regarded as having the best school system of any large U.S. city.

The organization pushing Question 2, Great Schools Massachusetts, repeatedly used “failing public schools” as a blanket term to describe district schools. Yet the resounding defeat of the pro-charter expansion campaign suggests that a majority of the state’s residents have faith in the public school systems here, even as they differ on how to make things better.

The “system is broken” argument didn’t fly with voters, but it’s clear that there are schools in Boston that are failing, if you compare them to the state’s performance metrics. Level 5 schools like the Dever Elementary School and Up Academy Holland are where privatization efforts have gained a foothold, yet with little appreciable benefit to the students. Scores on standardized tests at both schools have remained low. At the Dever — now managed by Blueprint Schools Network, a firm that never before has run a school — a $1.3 million management contract and an additional $585,000 in state grants have failed to effect any appreciable change in student performance. The school has cycled through five principals in a two-year period, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Given Boston’s checkered history with privatization schemes, it’s unlikely parents will support any plans hatched in Washington — or Trump Tower — to promote vouchers here.

“It’s about public control and transparency,” said Megan Wolf, a member of the Boston group Quality Education for Every Student. “Parents value a system that’s publicly accountable and publicly controlled, not just publicly funded.”