Michigan Ballot Drive Seeks to Block Governor Whitmer’s Voucher Veto (Nov. 2)

A ballot drive was launched in Michigan to sidestep Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s planned veto of a proposed tax-credit scholarship voucher program, the Associated Press reported. If the ballot committee, dubbed “Let MI Kids Learn,” collects 340,000 signatures from valid voters, the state Legislature can vote to make the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship Accounts law despite Whitmer’s veto, according to the AP.

The program would provide vouchers to families making up to 200 percent of the free-and-reduced-price lunch program threshold, according to Michigan Live. The vouchers are funded by taxpayer donations, and the legislation allows up to $500 million in tax credits in the program’s first year, reported The Wall Street Journal. The program—outlined in two bills each in the Republican-controlled state House and Senate—was approved by both houses in late October with no votes from Democrats, according to the Journal.

Conservative ballot drives have worked in the past to oppose Michigan’s Democratic governor: Unlock Michigan used the same process in July to repeal the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which Whitmer used at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to extend her emergency orders past their 28-day limit without the state Legislature’s approval, according to Michigan Public Radio.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said that “creating a ballot question committee on this issue would be straight out of the Republican playbook of convincing voters to vote against their own best interests with clever messaging,” quoted The Michigan AdvanceThe Michigan Republic Party has yet to comment on the ballot drive, but did support all forms of the legislation.

Let MI Kids Learn will begin to circulate petitions after their form and wording receive approval form the Board of State Canvassers, Michigan Live reported.

- A. Thomas

Arizona Governor Defies Treasury Department, Will Continue to Offer Anti-Mask Vouchers (Nov. 4)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey will defy a Treasury Department directive and continue to use federal COVID-19 relief money to fund two grant programs that disincentivize school mask mandates, the Associated Press reported.

Ducey used federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to create a $10 million program that provides up to $7,000 per student to families who wish to transfer out of a school that requires masks, and a separate $163 million grant program that provides additional per-pupil funding for schools that do not require their students to wear masks, according to Education Week.

In October, Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo penned a letter to the governor warning him that he violated the “permissible use” of relief by creating programs that “undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.” He gave the governor 30 days to remedy the issues with the programs or face further action, including the repayment of funds to the federal government, Education Week reported.

In response, Ducey aide Jason Mistlebauer wrote the Treasury Secretary and said that the funds were being used appropriately, since “disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of overbearing measures and the state wants to ensure that low-income students are not disproportionately affected by mask mandates rules and school closures,” quoted the AP.

As of October, at least $109 million in additional per-pupil funding was already distributed to schools that meet Governor Ducey’s requirements, AZCentral reported, and it is unknown how much of the $10 million set aside for transfer students has been allocated.

- A. Thomas

DeVos Celebrates Youngkin Win as Victory for School Choice (Nov. 5)

Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reflected on Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election on Fox News, crediting his success to “the parent groundswell” and predicting that it will fuel the school choice movement as the country heads toward the 2022 midterm elections.

School choice and public schools were an issue that both candidates relied upon to court suburban voters. In a debate on September 29th, Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, declared, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” igniting a backlash from Republicans.

Youngkin’s campaign was propelled by appealing to parents’ frustrations with public schools and frequent discussion of parental rights over their child’s education. In an op-ed he penned for Fox News days before the election, Youngkin criticized pandemic-related school closures, crumbling school infrastructure, and low teacher salaries, while adding that “parent empowerment around choice is simply paramount.”

DeVos told Fox that the Virginia election is a sign that “parents are revolting against a system that has been totally self-serving,” citing the lockdowns, mask mandates, and alluding to the conservative belief that students are being indoctrinated with left-wing politics in the classroom. DeVos also cited as groundless and inflammatory a letter from the National School Boards Association that said some protests over COVID-19 policies and critical race theory may be “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.”

DeVos told Fox News that after 35 years of advocating for “parental empowerment” and school choice, “this last year and a half, the momentum has built in ways that nobody could have predicted pre-pandemic.”

- A. Thomas

Ohio Report Cards Reveal Poorer Performance Among Charters (Nov. 8)

Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association, penned a commentary published in the Ohio Capital Journal comparing Ohio charter school report card results to those of public schools during the pandemic. DiMauro urged voters to oppose House Bill 290, which would establish universal vouchers in the state.

The state of Ohio releases report cards for school buildings and districts every year in order to track their performance, and the COVID-19 pandemic had an obvious impact on student performance, as reflected in the report cards released this year, DiMauro wrote.

Ohio’s public schools saw a 10 percent drop in Performance Index (PI) scores from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year while chronic absenteeism rose from 7.5 percent to 17 percent. Over the same period, however, charter schools saw a 25 percent drop in PI scores while chronic absenteeism rose from 22 percent to 45 percent. The KIPP charter school in Columbus, part of the nation’s leading charter network, saw a 66 percent decrease in its PI scores, DiMauro wrote, more than double the drop of Columbus public schools.

DiMauro also pointed out that there are no data available on “private, mostly religious schools,” since they “are not subject to any of the same accountability standards as public districts.” The report cards that were released “should be seriously alarming to Ohio’s taxpayers,” DiMauro wrote.

The bill is a vague piece of legislation introduced in June which consists of a single paragraph committing the state to revising current laws so as to allow “families to choose the option for all computed funding amounts associated with students’ education to follow them to the schools they attend.”

- A. Thomas

Battle for Vouchers Continues in Kentucky (Nov. 11)

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian think tank with a successful record defending school choice programs, have filed appeals challenging an October ruling that struck down Kentucky’s new tax-credit scholarship program, WFPL reported.

The hotly contested Education Opportunity Account program, which provides $25 million in annual tax credits to fund scholarships for families who send their children to private schools, passed in March only after the Republican state legislature overrode a veto from Democratic Governor Andy Beshear. A circuit court judge ruled that the program violates provisions of the state constitution that prevent public funding from going to private schools, as well as anti-favoritism laws, according to WFPL.

Both parties filing appeals are requesting that the case be expedited to the state supreme court, reported WFPL, and the Institute for Justice is asking the court to stay the circuit court order to allow the program to move forward throughout the appeals process.

- A. Thomas

Pell Grant Increase to Be Denied to Students at For-Profit Colleges (Nov. 13)

While House Democrats have proposed increasing federal Pell Grants by $550, students attending for-profit colleges will not be eligible to benefit from this change, reported The New York Times.

Pell Grants, established in 1972, are for college students from low-income households. The current maximum annual award for two semesters of study is $6,495, according to the Department of Education. For students who enroll in a third semester (i.e., summer as well as fall and spring), the maximum annual award is $9,743.

According to the Times, about 900,000 students attending for-profit colleges receive Pell Grants and accordingly stand to lose out on this $550 annual benefit.

“The exception tracks with Democrats’ longstanding efforts to limit the tax dollars flowing to the scandal-scarred for-profit college industry,” reported the Times. “The sector became notorious when two massive chains, ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges, collapsed [in 2017] and left hundreds of thousands of students saddled with debt, worthless degrees and bleak job prospects. Since then, a series of school closures, and multiple investigations that found the schools employed fraudulent and predatory practices, have cost the government billions in loan forgiveness and other remedies.”

Speaking for the Democrats, Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia was blunt in his justification for denying this benefit to students attending for-profit colleges: “Fraudulent and deceptive practices at certain for-profit institutions have already cost taxpayers more than $2.5 billion in this year alone.”

Leaders of for-profit colleges and their allies in the House contended this exclusion will hurt vulnerable students more than education companies. According to the Times, Jason Altmire, the president and CEO of a trade group representing for-profit tertiary institutions, said this exception not only targets the students Democrats claim to represent but also undermines the effort to train workers to make President Biden’s massive infrastructure plan happen.

- S.E. Abrams

De Blasio Walks Back Promise to Remove Geographic Screens for High School Admissions (Nov. 15)

At a press conference last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that “decisions have not been made” as to whether he will remove geographic screens from high school admissions, Chalkbeat reported. The decision walks back a promise made last winter to eliminate the preferences given in high school admissions to students who live in the same borough or neighborhood as the school, a practice which has exacerbated segregation in th city’s schools.

A spokesperson for the education department told Chalkbeat that the department is “evaluating the policy to remove high school borough and zone priorities this admission cycle based on feedback we’ve received from school communities.”

A press release from the winter cited the “longstanding inequities in our City’s public schools” that were further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and said that removing geographic barriers would “build on existing steps the administration has taken to advance diversity and equity in admissions decisions and expand opportunity for all students.”Priorities given to students living within a school district were removed from 48 schools last year, in what was supposed to kick off a two-year phase out of the practice.

According to Chalkbeat, 235 high schools prioritize students from their borough, 27 high schools give priorities for some seats to students in a certain geographic zone, and one school prioritizes all seats to students within a certain zone.

Eric Adams will be sworn in as mayor this January, and it is unclear how he plans to treat geographic screens for high school admissions.

- A. Thomas

David Banks, Advocate of Internal Reform, Favored to be NYC’s Next Schools Chancellor (Nov. 17)

Chalkbeat ran a profile on David Banks, the lawyer, longtime school administrator, and advisor to Eric Adams who is favored to be the mayor-elect’s pick for schools chancellor. Banks served as a key advisor to Adams during the campaign, and advised Mayor Bill de Blasio on how to reopen schools for the 2020 school year.

In 2004, Banks helped launch and then led the Eagle Academy for Young Men, which grew into a network of six public schools that are dedicated to educating historically underserved students. These six schools serve middle and high school students in each of the five boroughs and Newark. Banks first served as principal at the first location in the Bronx, and then as the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, according to New York One. The success of the schools is mixed: two of them (located in Brooklyn and Queens) boast graduation rates of 90 percent—13 percent above the city average—while the network’s Bronx school has a low graduation rate of 71 percent, according to Chalkbeat.

The Eagle Academy was opened during the school choice reform era of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Along with Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor from 2002 to 2011, Bloomberg sang the praises of Banks, Chalkbeat reported. None of Eagle Academy’s schools are charters and, according to Chalkbeat, Banks advocates reforming schools in accordance with union contracts rather than outsourcing management to charter operators.

Adams has yet to announce who will lead America’s largest public school district. If tapped, Banks will have to navigate enlivened debates over the gifted program, high school admissions, COVID-19 restrictions, and equity in the city’s schools.

- A. Thomas

West Virginia Approves First Virtual Charter Schools (Nov. 20)

The West Virginia Professional Charter School Board approved the state’s first two statewide virtual charter schools in a 3-0 vote, The West Virginia Gazette reported. Starting next year, the West Virginia Virtual Academy will enroll up to 2,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade while the Virtual Preparatory Academy of West Virginia will enroll up to 2,000. The board did not approve a third virtual charter, the West Virginia Connections Academy, which would have enrolled an additional 3,500 students, the Gazette reported.

The West Virginia Virtual Academy will be operated by Stride, Inc.—formerly K12, Inc.—the nation’s largest for-profit educational management organization by total enrollment, according to a report from the National Education Policy Center. The Virtual Preparatory Academy of West Virginia will be operated by Accel Schools, a division of Pansophic Learning, the Gazette reported. According to the same NEPC report, Accel operates 36 other schools in six states other than West Virginia. Both Pansophic Learning and K12, Inc. were founded by Ron Packard.

In March, West Virginia authorized the nation’s broadest voucher program. Beginning in September 2022, this program will provide $4,600 scholarships to all K-12 students whose families choose to send to private schools, even if they already don’t use public schools, according to the Gazette.

According to the West Virginia charter school law, the state is limited to two statewide online charter schools. The board stated that it “regrets” that cap in its official statement on their decision, reported the Gazette. The law allows for 10 additional brick-and-mortar charters, three of which were also approved by the board. Two of those schools will be administered by Accel.

- A. Thomas

Catholic Schools See Turnaround in Enrollment (Nov. 22)

Enrollment in Catholic schools has been steadily declining since a peak of 5.2 million students in the early 1960s. By the 2019-20 school year, enrollment was down to 1.7 million, reported The New York Times in September 2020, following a summer when about 150 schools, or 2 percent of the nation’s total, had closed. But this trend has recently reversed, according to The Economist.

The explanation for the substantial decline in enrollment appears multifaceted: tuition, though modest by private school standards, had climbed substantially on account of the substitution of lay teachers for the dwindling number of nuns and priests who had earned subsistence wages in keeping with their religious vows; along with church attendance, commitment to religious education had slid; charter schools with strict dress codes and disciplinary rules provided the order for which Catholic schools have been noted and at no cost; and the sex-abuse scandals of the early aughts had not only undermined confidence in the Catholic Church but also led to massive financial settlements that crippled dioceses across the country and thus precluded continued support of needy schools.

“But this autumn dioceses all over the country are seeing increases in enrolments,” reported The Economist. “The National Catholic Educational Association is still collecting and analysing the latest pupil data, but its preliminary numbers show increases in most dioceses.”

The explanation for this turnaround appears to be the reluctance of public school administrators to open schools amid the pandemic. Leaders of Catholic schools, by contrast, opened their doors. And the extra space in their buildings due to the steady dissipation in enrollment allowed for appropriate social distancing.

“The Brooklyn-Queens diocese in New York, one of the biggest in the country, saw increases for the first time in a decade or more,” reported The Economist. “Nearly 60% of its schools are growing, with many increasing by 10%. Partnership Schools, a network of Catholic schools in New York City and in Cleveland, saw a 16% increase. The diocese of Springfield, in Massachusetts, is up by 13%. Arlington's diocese, which takes in the suburbs of Washington, DC, increased by 6%. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, the county's oldest, saw a similar increase. Chicago's archdiocese, which includes some suburbs, saw a 5% increase. Enrolment increased by nearly 4% in Catholic elementary schools in Philadelphia's archdiocese.”

- S.E. Abrams

Arizona Anti-Mask Vouchers Experience Slow Rollout (Nov. 25)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s contested $10 million anti-mask school voucher program is off to a slow start, funding less than 100 vouchers despite receiving over 2,000 applications, the Associated Press reported.

The program uses federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to fund $7,000 vouchers for students whose families wish to transfer out of public schools that require masks or vaccinations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and withholds $163 million in aid from schools with restrictions, according to the AP. Though the governor said that his goal was to get students back into classrooms, over a third of the children receiving the new vouchers are enrolled in online schools, the AP reported.

The slow pace of the voucher awards was defended by a Ducey spokesman, according to the AP, and attributed it to the “rigorous” vetting process set up by the Governor’s Office. After touting in early September that the program had attracted 2,600 applicants in its first 13 days with 69 approvals, only 24 additional vouchers were approved in October, and less than $50,000 of the $10 million allocated to the program had been spent.

In October, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo sent a letter to Governor Ducey warning him that he violated “permissible use” of the relief money by creating programs that “undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” and gave him 30 days to remedy the issues with the programs or face further action. Ducey’s office openly defied the Treasury Department’s directive, writing that the funds were serving “disadvantaged communities” who “bear the brunt of overbearing measures.”

According to the AP, parents who applied for vouchers “complained about a lack of communication and being left without the money they were promised,” and said that “the Governor’s Office often just doesn’t respond to their emails.” Ducey, who said he was not aware of any such trouble, told the AP that “there may be a gap we need to close there.”

- A. Thomas

Cyber Charter Enrollment in Philadelphia Jumps 16 Percent (Nov. 29)

While the School District of Philadelphia saw enrollment drop 2 percent from last year, falling from 202,944 to 198,645 students, reported Chalkbeat, cyber charter enrollment climbed 16 percent, from 12,132 to 14,087 students.

For the district as a whole, reported Chalkbeat, “enrollment in district-run schools declined by 4%, from 119,492 to 114,902; in charter schools by 2%, from 68,364 to 66,890; and in alternative schools, which mostly enroll those in danger of not finishing high school, by 6% — from 2,925 to 2,750.”

The surge in cyber charter enrollment in Philadelphia comports with national trends brought on by the pandemic. According to a report one year ago by National Public Radio, K12, Inc. (now Stride, Inc.) reported a 57 percent jump in enrollment while Connections Academy, its major competitor, reported a 41 percent increase. How many of those students remained with these two companies has yet to be reported, however.

- S.E. Abrams

Should France Establish Charter Schools? (Nov. 30)

In an op-ed in Le Monde, Samuel E. Abrams, NCSPE director, and Philippe Bongrand, associate professor in Educational Studies at CY Cergy Paris University, assess a proposal by Valérie Pécresse, a candidate for president of France, to transform 10 percent of the nation’s public schools into charter schools by 2027. An English translation of the op-ed along with some prefatory material for additional context is on the NCSPE site.