Now that we have a federal secretary of education on record as expecting a little education play for all her political donation pay, and now that we have had a well-funded education reform PAC phone bank its way to DC’s new (and test-heavy) public education accountability standards, what’s next with our city’s Public Schools, Inc.?
After all, public education in DC is big business.
(Oh, you thought public education was a civic institution at the heart of American democracy committed to the guarantee of equitable public education for all? How 20th century of you.)
Using the FY17 DC budget, DC education advocate Sarah Livingston estimated that DC public education expenditures for FY17 total about $3 billion. That counts staffing and capital expenditures across both DCPS and charter schools as well as our public library system–although not expenditures from some other agencies, such as school nurses and police for school security needs. That $3 billion figure also includes a large chunk of change—more than $300 million–from the federal government, going to DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE).
A few years ago, a friend involved in charter schools noted to me that anytime a public education system consumes more than $1 billion of public funds annually, investors sit up and take notice.
Now, less than a year after both DC Prep and KIPP DC dropped more than $7 million on DC real estate without any approval in the pipeline of the schools they intended for that real estate, I think it’s safe to say investors have been taking lots of notice of our DC public education scene.
And they’re not alone.
In a 2012 press release advertising an application for “experienced” charter operators, the executive director of DC’s charter board noted that “with its high per-pupil reimbursement, strong charter law, robust system of choice, and national spotlight, DC offers the best environment for charter schools in the nation.”
Note what came first in that list of enticements for investors: money.
Money is important for edu-investors in other ways as well. Many education reform advocates have donated heavily to local politicians (see here and here)—and the recent letter from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), advocating for a test-heavy accountability standard, was signed by 50 charter school parents and education reform advocates who together had donated more than $6000 to DC politicians in 2016 alone.
Moreover, as a political organization that focuses on education reform, DFER raised more than $300,000 in 2016–and spent most of that ($264,000) on candidates in DC, both on the council as well as the state board of education.
Seems Betsy DeVos is not alone in worrying about a healthy return on donor investments in education policymaking.
For its part, DFER has advocated for school choice, charter schools, and test-heavy accountability standards. A few weeks before the state board of education’s vote on the ESSA plan, DFER tweeted about how the test-heavy incarnation favored by OSSE was all about “getting meaningful information about school quality into hands of parents so they can select the right-fit school.”
Ignore for a moment the incredible assumption in this statement that children (yours, mine, tens of thousands of others) take those tests not to help their teachers or their parents to understand how better to help them—but in service to every parent’s ability to exercise school choice.
The problem with this money flow–from donors to politicians and privatized charter schools and education reform interests–is that none of the efforts behind it have anything to do with the actual desires of the actual public who pays the actual taxes that make all our public schools actually possible. And none of this money flow has anything to do with what our city’s actual schools and their actual students and their actual staff need.
Think of it as school choice—without any choice on the part of the public.
We have seen plenty of this recently, as new DC charter schools have been proposed without public input and, in some cases, even against public will. I am still waiting on getting a response on my FOIA request with OSSE to find out more about that agency’s 50 meetings with 100 groups on its ESSA policy–as none of the parents and teachers I spoke with wanted anything as test-heavy as what OSSE created and the state board just approved (with the help of DFER’s phone banking, naturally).
To mitigate this power of special interest money and increase that of taxpayers, ten DC council members recently introduced legislation to provide public financing for elections of state board members, council members, the DC attorney general, and the mayor. Called the Fair Elections Act, the bill calls for reductions in the amounts that candidates can accept from individuals who live in DC as well as elimination of donations from corporate donors and political action committees in exchange for matching funds from the public.
Here is a handy legislative cheat sheet.
Similar legislation was proposed several years ago but did not get far. One reason may be, well, money.
There is nothing in the bill, for instance, to penalize a politician who chooses lucrative donors over public funds. Not surprisingly, three council members with large corporate campaign chests (Evans, Gray, and Todd) have not signed on as sponsors. Even the bill’s own sponsors do not have to follow it.
The only penalty incurred, it appears, is when politicians who abide by these rules accept donations from donors outside DC (who must follow the same rules as DC residents). Those donations receive no matching funds.
So, for politicians accepting public money, the playing field is kinda sorta leveled.
But DC politicians who forgo those public funds could now receive relatively weighty contributions from people living outside DC–like, say, DFER’s political action committee as well as recent campaigns for two state board of education members. This ensures an unabated flow of money for education reform policy from outside DC for schools whose actual parents (and taxpayers!) remain relatively unheard.
So, maybe instead of Public Schools, Inc., we should just think of DC’s public education system as Schools, Inc.—a $3 billion annual adventure without the public except for the public’s money and children to fill seats.