August 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

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August 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

Network for Public Education Condemns Lack of Charter School Oversight (August 2)

In an interview with Jacobin, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), detailed the ways that nonprofit charter schools are used to generate income for for-profit management companies. Burris faulted, in particular, the lack of oversight in the charter sector that allows such chicanery.

The NPE published a report in March about this issue titled Chartered For Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, which inspired House Democrats to include a provision in next year’s budget that bars charter schools that contract out to for-profit entities from receiving federal funds.

Burris’s interview was published at the same time school choice advocates and the charter school lobby waged a campaign to oppose the provision.

According to Burris, though every state but Arizona mandates that charter schools operate as non-profits, many charter schools in other states generate profits by contracting out to educational management organizations (EMOs) or by simple self-dealing in renting property from real-estate investment trusts owned by the same people operating the charter schools.

“The original charter is secured by the nonprofit,” explained Burris, “which gets federal, local, and state funds—and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school.” In states where it is not illegal, board members of the nonprofit school often own the EMO, and “often nonprofit board members will get an allowance from the for-profit company,” allowing parties to double-dip with taxpayer funds.

Burris paid particular attention to what are known as “sweeps” contracts, where the EMO “sweeps every penny of public money that a charter school gets” into its coffers to run the school. The for-profit entity then either provides services directly or contracts out to other for-profit companies to run many of the school’s services. Regardless, Burris continued, “the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

The owners of EMOs, in turn, often contract out with other companies that they own, Burris said, citing the nation’s largest EMO chain, Academica, “which has fifty-six different corporations registered at one single address, and seventy corporations registered at another.”

Another lucrative way for nonprofit charters to churn a profit is through real estate. According to Burris, EMOs use tax-advantages and low-interest loans to purchase property and lease it to nonprofit charter schools. “Public money goes into the charter nonprofit and goes out to the for-profit real estate company,” she said, “and then after the mortgage is paid off, they’ll sell it to the charter school at an inflated price.”

Money-making loopholes are not the domain alone of brick-and-mortar charter schools, Burris told Jacobin. Many online charter schools function in a similar way: contracting out to for-profit companies for discrete services at inflated prices. In addition, online charter schools have been notorious for billing districts for students who don’t enroll or merely log on and off. Burris cited the A3 and ECOT scandals in California and Ohio as prominent illustrations of this malfeasance.

In mid-July, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita filed suit against three virtual charter schools that defrauded the stated of over $150 million, according to The Indianapolis Star. Investigators found that two of the schools “funneled more than $85 million to related parties,” including a company whose CFO is the father of the schools’ CFO and another company which was founded by the schools’ founder.

Burris blamed this rampant abuse on the lack of oversight of charter schools. Whereas public schools must follow strict reporting standards and ensure all contracts are transparent through a bidding process, charter schools have been allowed to go their own way.

- Andrew Thomas

Ohio Voucher Program to Be Challenged in Court (August 4)

A coalition of 75 Ohio public school districts plans to file suit with the state to challenge the EdChoice school voucher program, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The lawsuit is headed by the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which successfully sued the state over an unconstitutional school funding system in 1997.

Bill Phillis, the Coalition’s executive director, told The Ohio Capital Journal that the state’s voucher programs violates the legislature’s constitutional responsibility to provide “for a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

In June, Governor Mike DeWine signed a budget that increased the value of the vouchers that students can receive: K-8 students can now receive $5,000 and high school students $7,500, an increase of $350 and $1,500, respectively. The budget was celebrated by The Wall Street Journal editorial board in July as evidence of school choice’s rising momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Phillis, the continuance and expansion of the voucher program in the latest budget makes Ohio’s education system unconstitutional and inaccessible, necessitating a lawsuit, The Ohio Capital Journal reported.

Stephen Dyer, the director of government relations, communications, and marketing at the Ohio Education Association, told The Ohio Capital Journal that the case should be of particular interest to courts because of its potential to address “de facto” racial segregation issues that could come up. Data collected by the OEA found that one Catholic school district, Lima Central Catholic, received over $686,000 in EdChoice vouchers from transfer students while data from the Ohio Department of Education show that the school is 71% white. Similarly, St. Charles Catholic school received more than $653,000 in vouchers, while 82% of its student body is white.

The lawsuit is expected to be filed in the next few weeks, and comes as the legislature debates a bill to create a universal school voucher program, the Dispatch reported. If it passes, Ohio would be the second state in the country to have a universal school vouchers program, following in the path of West Virginia, whose new voucher program passed in March and covers all students, according to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

- Andrew Thomas

Florida's Private Schools Exempt from DeSantis's Ban on Mask Mandates (August 6)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week signed an executive order banning mask mandates in public schools and threatened to cut funding to school districts that refuse to comply.

Private schools, however, are free to make their own decisions on masks, resulting in a push for school vouchers among concerned parents, according to Florida Today. The CDC’s most recent masking guidance “recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

The executive order cites “parents’ freedom to choose” in regards to masking their children, and compels the Florida Department of Health to work with the Board of Education to adopt rules that bar schools from placing mask mandates and to put procedures in place “for exempting children from immunization requirements.” If schools refuse to comply with the governor’s order, the Board of Education has the authority to withhold state funds.

Florida’s skyrocketing COVID-19 case count, driven by low vaccination rates and the super-contagious Delta variant, has created a desire among many parents of school-age children for options that would protect their kids, Florida Today reported, including mask requirements. Children ages 12 and under are not eligible for the vaccine but are still susceptible to infection.

Republican State Representative Randy Fine suggested that parents dissatisfied with the executive order utilize Florida’s voucher program to send their children to private schools with mask requirements. “I believe in choice and if a parent wants to send their child to a private institution that has a mask mandate and there’s a voucher available they should avail themselves,” Fine told worried constituents on Facebook.

Vouchers alone, however, generally do not cover the full cost of private school tuition, Florida Today noted. Parents are still responsible for extra costs such as transportation, books, uniforms, and extracurricular activities. In addition, admission is by no means guaranteed. Even private schools funded with vouchers in Florida have autonomy over admission decisions.

- Andrew Thomas

Pandemic-Related Private School Closures Ebb (August 9)

The Cato Institute –a libertarian think tank and school choice advocate –has published data on permanent private school closures since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic . At its height, Cato recorded 138 closures, with 6 alone in April of 2021. Closures have slowed since then, with eight total closures in the past three months, four of which “were explicitly linked to the pandemic’s effects,” according to the latest report.

The majority of closures came between April and August of 2020, when the “initial shock and uncertainty” of the pandemic forced many financially troubled schools to shut their doors.

The average tuition of schools on the closure list was below the national average, and over half of the closures occurred in areas where the median family income is below the national average, as well, the report continued. Cato noted that just as the economic impact of the pandemic hit low-income families the hardest, it also disproportionately hurt private schools in low-income areas.

The report was optimistic, pointing out that, when it comes to school closures, “no news is good news.” Cato was nevertheless cautious about this upcoming school year and raised concerns about the spread of the Delta variant in the U.S. and the possible confusion arising from state and federal policies. Cato cited the 9th Circuit’s recent ruling in Brach v. Newsom, which concluded that California’s COVID-19 closures infringed upon a constitutional right for parents to choose their children’s schools. The think tank also cited Governor DeSantis’ recent executive order banning mask mandates in schools in illustration of how private schools may navigate around state orders.

- Andrew Thomas

NYC Ordered to Extend Free Covid Testing to Charter Students (August 11)

New York City’s Department of Education will expand a program that offers free COVID-19 tests in public schools to students in charter schools, The New York Daily News reported.

The decision follows months of litigation over a lawsuit filed in December by a group of city charter school leaders who argued that the state is required to extend any health services offered to public school students to kids in private and charter schools. The city originally claimed that the testing did not constitute a health service, instead labeling it as a “surveillance” program. In a February ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo called the city’s argument “beyond incredulous” and ordered the Department of Education to “provide and administer COVID-19 screening tests to students and staff of charter schools upon identical terms as testing provided to public schools.”

State education law demands that nonpublic students have access to “any or all of the health and welfare services … to or for children attending the public schools of the district,” according to the Daily News. Justice Nervo’s decision was upheld by an appeals court in June, but added that the city does not need to include charter school staff and needs only to extend free testing to charter schools listed as plaintiffs in the original suit, the report continued.

Roughly 125 charter school networks representing 70,000 students across 185 schools have asked to join the City’s COVID-19 testing program, according to the New York City Charter Center. In order to avoid further litigation, the Department of Education ultimately agreed to extend the program to all city charter students, reported the Daily News.

While city officials have indicated that there will be some sort of regular testing in place this fall, specifics on who will be subject to tests and how often have yet to be announced.

- Andrew Thomas

California Online Charters Lose Class-Action Suit for More Money (August 12)

A California Superior Court judge ruled against a class-action petition representing more than 300 online charter schools that claimed the state wrongfully deprived the schools of funding during the pandemic, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

California typically funds all public schools–including charters–on a per-student basis, but froze public funding during the height of the pandemic to stabilize school finances. While state officials unfroze the funding and provided increases for K-12 schools that saw enrollment rise, they did not unfreeze the funding for online charter schools, forcing online charters to spread the same amount of state funding across a larger student body.

According to the Union-Tribune, online charters added “about 25,000 new students last school year that weren’t paid for by the state,” expenses that they sought to recuperate through the lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that state school funding is supposed to follow the student, but that under the funding freeze, “students’ education funding remains at the public school that they depart–thus rewarding public school districts for not serving students they have failed to adequately serve.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta justified the funding freeze by writing that “the state determined that (non-classroom based charter schools) raised major concerns for fraud and abuse and inferior education and decided to limit the incentive for expanding that model of education during the pandemic,” the Union-Tribune reported. State attorneys argued that the legislature has the authority to decide how much funding public schools receive, and that there is no contract between the state and charters that prevents the state from changing the amount.

Superior Court Judge James Arguelles wrote in his decision that the “petitioners have not established that their (non-classroom based) students actually or effectively have been deprived of an education for any period during the 2020-21 fiscal year.” Judge Arguelles also agreed with state attorneys that there is no contract between the state and charter schools to fund each of their students at a certain level, the Union-Tribune added.

- Andrew Thomas

Wisconsin Charter School Enrollment Soars, Driven by Online Charters (August 14)

While many school choice advocates predicted that pandemic closures would drive students out of the public school system to private schools, that was not the case in Wisconsin, where public and private school enrollment dropped 3 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively, last school year, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

The decline constituted the largest single-year drop in Wisconsin public school enrollment in at least 25 years and brought the total number of students attending private schools in the state to its lowest point in a decade. The largest loss was in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment, likely because attendance in those grades is not mandatory in Wisconsin and because parents concerned about exposure to COVID-19 decided to wait a year before starting school, WPR continued.

The decline in public and private school enrollment was met with a 47 percent year-over-year increase in homeschooling in the state and a 14 percent rise in enrollment at charter schools, fueled by an 84 percent increase in online charter school enrollment, according to WPR. The dramatic increase in online charter school enrollment was likely due to the schools’ record with distance-learning at a time when traditionally in-person institutions were forced to go virtual with little experience in this domain.

It is unclear how enrollment will fluctuate this fall, as schools attempt to reopen while the Delta variant surges nationwide. A national survey conducted in the fall of 2020 found that 82 percent of parents who moved their kids out of their typical school because of the pandemic said they plan to return once things were safe, WPR reported.

For public schools, last year’s enrollment decline and the possibility of low enrollment this coming fall have possibly dire financial implications. According to WPR, Wisconsin school districts’ funding is set, in part, by a three-year rolling average of their enrollment: “One low year has the potential to drop that funding rate for the next three years–and another year of low enrollment exacerbates the issue.”

- Andrew Thomas

Texas Mask Mandate Ban Meets Resistance from Public and Private Schools (August 16)

Resistance to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates in schools is growing, with some of the state’s largest school districts issuing mandates in spite of it and advocacy groups filing lawsuits to challenge the order, The Texas Tribune reported.

With the Delta variant raging in Texas, the Dallas Independent School District announced that it will require students and teachers to wear masks this fall, and the Superintendent of the Houston ISD said he wants to issue a mandate, as well. Meanwhile, officials in Bexar County and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy both filed suits against the governor challenging his executive order and seeking the power to impose local mask mandates in schools, the Tribune continued.

Many private schools across the state, including Satori Elementary School in Galveston, will require masks in the fall. Claire Wilkins, executive director at Satori, said that “as we are a private school, we do not have to follow Governor Abbott’s executive order,” reported The Daily News of Galveston.

Abbott’s executive order was signed in the spring, when COVID-19 cases were on the decline across the nation. Now, with cases on the rise and children being hospitalized at an alarming rate, concerned parents and districts are desperate for the authority to mandate masks.

The Southern Center for Child Advocacy’s lawsuit claims that the governor is overstepping his authority in banning mask mandates and politicizing a public health emergency, according to the Tribune. “The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

Ovidia Molina, the President of the Texas State Teacher Association, urged other school districts to join the Dallas ISD in requiring masks and called on Abbott to rescind his executive order, the Tribune reported. In a statement, the Dallas ISD said that “Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s right as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students.”

In response, a spokeswoman for the governor said last week that only parents have the right to choose whether or not their children wear masks, and that mask mandates are a violation of their rights, the Tribune reported. This sentiment echoes that of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who in July signed the “Parents Bill of Rights” enacting a similar ban on mask mandates and using the language of bodily autonomy to support it.

Governor Abbott’s spokeswoman also pressed that the best way to combat the virus is to get vaccinated, according to the Tribune. Children 12 and under are not eligible for any COVID-19 vaccine.

Entities that defy the order are subject to a $1,000 fine, but, according to the Tribune, it is unclear how this would apply to school districts.

- Andrew Thomas

Chinese Government Aims at Private School Takeovers (August 17)

The Chinese government published a broad set of reforms in late July to transform for-profit education companies into nonprofits in an attempt to drive down competitiveness and educational expenses and reverse negative demographic trends (SOURCES). While the $100 billion private tutoring industry was the hardest hit victim of Beijing’s ire, it is not alone: increasing numbers of private school owners in China have been forced to hand their institutions over to the state in recent weeks, The Financial Times reported.

In the past three months, at least 13 for-profit primary and middle schools and one high school have been taken over by city authorities in China without compensation, according to The Financial Times. Beijing’s goal is to reduce the proportion of non-high-school students that attend for-profit schools from its current level above 10 percent to less than five percent. Government advisers claim that the private for-profit schooling sector has worsened inequality and made it harder for the Communist Party to control curriculum, The Financial Times continued.

“We must make sure public schools are the main compulsory education provider,” said a circular sent by the central government to lower-level authorities, according to The Financial Times.

China has nearly 190,000 private schools—more than 12,000 of which are primary and middle schools—educating one-fifth of all students. In the past two decades, the number of private primary schools grew tenfold, according to The Financial Times. Now, Beijing is attempting to reverse the liberalizing trend as a part of a broader campaign to rein in private educators and tech companies.

- Andrew Thomas

California Mandates Vaccines for Public and Private School Teachers (August 18)

Following a similar mandate applied to all state employees, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered that all public and private school staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo mandatory weekly testing, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. California’s is the first mandate of its kind in the nation, and more are expected to follow in other Democratic states as the nation’s largest school districts prepare to return to in-person instruction this fall.

“We believe it will be well-received because it’s the right thing to do to keep our most precious resource healthy and safe –our children here in this state,” Governor Newsom said of the vaccinate mandate in a press conference.

Many local school leaders told the San Diego Union Tribune that they don’t yet know how they will implement the new state health order. Many schools don’t have their own COVID-19 testing programs, and creating one to monitor staff and students would be a costly addition.

Still, several local teachers union leaders told the Union-Tribune that the vast majority of their members are already vaccinated. The California Teachers Association estimates that 90 percent of its teachers statewide are vaccinated.

In an effort to limit COVID-19 related disruptions this fall, school staff in California who are vaccinated and don’t show symptoms will not have to quarantine and leave schools if one of their students tests positive for COVID-19. New York has followed suit: vaccinated students and teachers will not be required to quarantine if someone in their class tests positive, Chalkbeat reported.

- Andrew Thomas

Biden Administration Counters State Bans of Universal Masking in Classrooms (August 23)

President Biden last week directed his education secretary, Miguel Cardona, to take action against states that have issued orders banning universal masking in classrooms, The New York Times reported.

In the last month, governors in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Tennessee moved to ban mask mandates or to give parents the authority to decide whether their child wears a mask in school, according to Chalkbeat, threatening to withhold funds from schools that do not comply. Now, Dr. Cardona said that the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm would investigate these orders.

“We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” President Biden told the press from the East Room when announcing the directive.

Although public schools are subject to mask mandate bans from governors, private schools are not, and some governors appear to be using the opportunity to increase public funding of private schools.

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey barred districts from accessing $163 million in COVID-19 relief funds and said parents could receive $7,000 per student for private schooling if their district mandates masks, according to The Associated Press. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to cut funding to districts that impose mask mandates and to even withhold salaries of superintendents—though he lacks the legal authority to do so—while also promoting the state’s private school voucher program as a solution for students feeling “bullied” into wearing masks, the AP reported.

Earlier this summer, the Education Department’s civil rights office released a report that outlined students’ experiences throughout the pandemic, noting that students with disabilities—who rely on in-person education and hands-on assistance for success in the classroom—were particularly affected by the switch to distanced learning. Under federal law, students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) and are protected from discrimination. Without universal masking, many parents of immunocompromised students are afraid to send their children for in-person learning, despite the inadequacy of virtual schooling.

While federal civil rights law supersedes any state executive order, investigations and litigation typically take several months. With the school year quickly approaching or already underway, Dr. Cardona also sent letters to officials in Tennessee, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah, the Times and Chalkbeat reported. In them, he said that states and districts received billions of dollars in COVID relief with the stipulation that schools come up with plans to safely return to in-person learning, and that any actions to block mask mandates prevent schools from fulfilling this legal obligation.

- Andrew Thomas

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Introduces Sweeping School Choice Legislation (August 25)

Pennsylvania Republican Representative Andrew Lewis introduced a multi-faceted education bill both to expand the state’s existing tax credit scholarship programs and to establish education savings accounts (ESAs), Penn Live reported.

The Excellent Education for All Act would establish state-funded ESAs—dubbed “Keystone Hope Scholarships,” after West Virginia’s sweeping Hope Scholarship ESA program—and increase funding to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit and Educational Improvement Tax Credit programs, which reward businesses with tax credits in exchange for funding scholarships for private school students. The legislation also includes a provision that protects learning pods, the small learning groups formed during COVID-19 to help students through virtual learning, from state regulation and monitoring.

The legislation drew immediate opposition from the Pennsylvania State Education Association as a means of depleting public schools of public funds. Under the legislation, according to Penn Live, “the roughly $6,000 per-pupil amount the state pays to a district would be deposited into a student’s scholarship account rather than going to the school district.”

The school choice movement has enjoyed a round of success in legislatures across the country this year, and Pennsylvania is no exception: in July, the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program saw a $40 million infusion that can fund an estimated 13,000 additional scholarships, reported The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rep. Lewis hopes to draw on such support to convince his colleagues and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf to allow the bill to become law, Penn Live reported.

- Andrew Thomas

Arizona Uses Federal Aid to Fund Anti-Mask Vouchers (August 26)

Arizona became the first state to use federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to fund a school choice program, creating a $10 million school voucher program for families whose children are enrolled in districts that are defying the state ban on mask mandates, US News reported.

Dubbed the “COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit,” the voucher program is available to low-income families whose children are enrolled in public school districts requiring masks or returning to virtual learning due to the highly-contagious Delta variant, according to US News. Families can apply for up to $7,000 per student to cover private school tuition, online tutoring, transportation, or child care.

In its latest fiscal spending bill, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature included language prohibiting school districts from mandating masks and vaccines or closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks, US News reported. Large school systems in majority-Democratic counties have openly defied the law, following a trend seen in other states with mask mandate bans like Florida and Texas.

The new voucher program was announced alongside a plan to also withhold an additional $163 million in federal relief from non-compliant school districts, creating a school grant program that is only available to schools adhering to the state masking ban, US News reported.

Arizona’s is the latest move in an attempt by Republicans to elevate the debate over masks, vaccines, and school closures, reinvigorating the school choice debate and making it a central issue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

- Andrew Thomas

Published Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021