Leave no child’s behind: No Child Left Behind and the implications and impacts for and on charter Schools

There is no national or federal charter school policy, although No Child Left Behind arguably advances the goals of charter school advocates.  Now that the California Senate is poised to give its approval to apply for Race for the Top monies made available through the Department of Education (some $700 million dollars), the issue of charter schools and state mandated testing loom.   For access to the Race to the Top funds require an adherence if not an actual outright tethering of both teachers and students to inauthentic testing.  Ironically or by design, the testing regime under NCLB now serves as a ‘rating agency’ for the “new private providers”, as the EMO’s and charter school entrepeneurs scramble to point at their increasing or decreasing mandated test scores on state mandated tests tied to NCLB.  They do this to gain bids for running the new wave — charter schools and Charter Management Organizations.  So, we see NCLB guiding and shepherding the new privatized managerial class in their takeover of public education.

     Not too distant changes in federal and state policy have served to paint a clear, yellow line for-charter schools and for-profit management of these school services that often enables the privatization of education under the auspices of ‘reform’.  Perhaps the biggest impetus to school privatization and the conceptual affirmation for the development of charter schools, of which the private management of charter schools comprises a large and growing segment, was the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.  The federal bill requires that:

Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, if a school does not make its adequate yearly progress targets after four previous years of being “in need of improvement,” it must implement a fundamental restructuring plan. The restructuring options are as follows: (1) turn the school operations over to the state, (2) turn the operations over to a private company, (3) reopen as a charter school, or (4) reconstitute the school by replacing some or all of the teachers, staff and administrators. There is a fifth alternative of applying “any other” fundamental school restructuring, an option now receiving new attention (Mathis).

     This is important to the charter school movement, especially the charter school chains that seem to be emerging around the country for it calls specifically for all schools, charter or traditional public schools, state-wide, to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) as measured by scores on yearly state sponsored standardized exams given to students.  Never mind the argument that the tests themselves are flawed, do not test reasoning nor critical thinking and are simply rote reflections of faceless numerical statistics that test memorization and little else, these standardized exams are mandatorily given to public school students in each state on a regular basis and the results used for a host of public policies.  Students are currently tested in third through eighth grades, although some states take their own initiatives and offer standardized exams as early as kindergarten or require the passing of an exam for promotion to the next grade level.

     Under NCLB, schools failing to make AYP and labeled “In Need of Improvement” suffer various penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act — penalties that range from having to pay for vouchers to send students to schools deemed more successful, to the dismissal of principals and staff, and/or to the wholesale surrender of individual schools to be run by private educational management organizations (EMOs).   Both Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, fellows at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, clarify the legal interpretation of the NCLB act in favor of EMOs:

The federal law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires states to “restructure” any school that fails for six years running to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward full proficiency on the part of all students by the year 2014. The law provides a number of restructuring options, including turning over the school’s management to a private for-profit or nonprofit entity (italics mine). Only a few school districts nationwide have sought help from either type of organization in the management of low-performing schools. (http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/For-Profit_and_Nonprofit_Management_in_Philadelphia_Schools.html For-Profit and Nonprofit Management in Philadelphia School By Paul E. Peterson and Matthew M. Chingos.

And Mathis continues:

an ever-increasing number of schools are being identified as “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and of these, many are reaching the final stages of sanctions under that law. Education Week reports that the number of schools identified as needing improvement increased 28% between 2007 and 2008. The designation is applied when a school misses test score targets for two consecutive years, either for the total student population or for any sub-group (economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English language proficiency, for example). While state rules vary, the sanctions are fundamentally based on reading and math tests in grades three through eight and in one grade in high school (ibid).

     The law even goes further mandating that under NCLB, as school districts receive federal funding they are required by law to hold 20 percent of those funds aside, anticipating that their school will fail to meet its Annual Yearly Progress formula.  Once that “failure” is certified by test scores, the district is then required to use those set-aside federal funds to pay supplemental education service (SES) providers or for-profit EMOs.  And this is where the privatization of education gains a further foothold and specifically effects the charter school movement.  From the point of view of Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, with the passage of the act:

Millions of dollars are being spent and nobody knows what’s happening (Diatribune and Daily Kos, March, 30, 2007
Title: “Bush Profiteers Collect Billions From NCLB”
Author: Mandevilla  http://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/12-bush-profiteers-collect-billions-from-no-child-left-behind/

     So the Education and Secondary Education Act, that once promised equal access to public education to millions of American children, now amended and known as No Child Left Behind, instead now promises billions of dollars in profits to corporate clients, EMOs, privatized supplemental services and other for-profit entities through a dubious process of measuring student and school progress through standardized testing and assessment; a ‘lack of achievement’ is now a ‘source of profits’ for the educational industry.

According to Mandevilla:

NCLB—the Business Roundtable’s revision of Lyndon Johnson’s Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—has created a “high stakes testing” system through which the private sector now finds a gigantic source of public funds they can siphon off into profitable business ventures, and it is not surprising that the result has been windfall profit for corporations eager for entry into the ‘new business’ of education. What was once a cottage industry has now, thanks to government policies and deregulation, has become a corporate giant (ibid).

     To serve as some examples, one private profit company, Ignite! Learning (owned by Neil Bush the brother of the former president George W. Bush), has placed products in forty US school districts, and K12 Inc., another for-profit company (the brain child of William Bennett, former Education Secretary under the senior Bush), offers a menu of services “as an option to traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” including computer-based “virtual academies”, some chartered, that have qualified for over $4 million in federal grants. Under NCLB, ‘supplemental educational services’ reap $2 billion annually.  

     So as we can see, the intent contained in the language of the bill actually serves to open the door for privatization and we see this especially as it pertains to the development and management of charter schools, as well as the EMOs that manage many of them.  We also see how the Act allows for private supplemental educational products and services (SES), which many companies provide charter schools by allowing states and districts to contract out the management of ‘low performing schools’ to EMOs —  a form of direct privatization while at the same time purchasing their ‘educational products’ from the same management companies.  And as the act iterates, this applies to “any school that fails for six years running to make AYP”; so this is construed to mean all charter schools as well. 

     In fact, to clarify the fact that NCLB applies specifically to charter schools and not only to traditional public education or district schools, in July 2004, the Department of Education in a governmental report entitled ‘The Impact of the New Title I Requirements on Charter Schools,’ specifically noted in section D-1 of its non-regulatory guidance document:

          D-1.  Does NCLB give either States or authorizers the authority to reorganize a charter school’s management and enforce other corrective actions?  As with other public schools, charter schools that are unable to make AYP by the end of the second full school year after identification are placed under corrective action according to Section 1116(b)(7)(C) of ESEA. NCLB gives the appropriate entity under state law (see A-2) the responsibility to reorganize a charter school’s management or take other corrective actions, consistent with State charter law and the State’s accountability plan for its charter schools. State charter law would determine if this requires the charter school to modify its charter contract (http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/charterguidance03.pdf. July 2004, the Department of Education in a governmental report entitled ‘The Impact of the New Title I Requirements on Charter Schools’ stated in section D-1

     The Act is very clear and as pointed out by educational reporter and public policy advocate, Stan Karp: 

NCLB is part of a larger political and ideological effort to privatize social programs, reduce the public sector, and ultimately replace local control of institutions like schools with marketplace reforms that substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens (ReThinking Schools, The No Child Left Behind Hoax http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/bushplan/hoax.shtml

     Karp’s fear is shared among with many other progressive educators: this  is the fear that the public will equate test scores with progress and then when consistently told that test scores simply are not high enough, public education will become further vilified to the point where the private sector, poised as it is to increase an already multi-billion dollar industry, will simply converge and cannibalize on the skeletal remains of what is left of public education, throwing charter school and district school management to EMOs and privatizing supplemental educational materials (SEM), a movement which is already well on the way (Weil, Vouchers).  One cannot help but see an analogy between the interest shown on the part of the private sector with their concentration on the for-profit management businesses as an antidote to ‘low performing schools’ and ‘low achievement students’ and the sub-prime loan market, where people’s economic situation and incomes were also deemed ‘low performing’ and their activities ‘less than achieving’.  Both business models offer and offered tremendous profits to private entrepreneurs by capitalizing on the needs of low performing segments of the population through  encouraging and profiting from new innovations such as charter schools; this is true be they low performing schools in one case and low performing credit scores and incomes in the other.  Karp also goes on to note that it is ironic that in the atmosphere of ‘anti-government and pro-privatization voices:

One of the more amazing things about NCLB is how the most intrusive education law in the history of federal policy, which now has Washington mandating test score targets for every school in the country, could be passed by an Administration that regularly presents itself as a deregulating enemy of big government. NCLB represents a virtual nationalization of control over local schools, and its highly prescriptive and punitive sanctions are the kind of wrongheaded social engineering by Washington that political leaders like the President have supposedly railed against for years (ibid). 

Jonathan Kozol captures the progressive educational feeling well:

In both these areas-testing services and the management of schools-the encroachment of the private sector on public education has been mightily assisted by provisions that the Bush Administration managed to insert into the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the various “sanctions” that this highly controversial law imposes upon low performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States.

The first of these provisions stipulates that if a school receiving federal funds under what is known as “Title I,” the nation’s largest program of assistance for low-income students, fails to raise its test scores by a fixed percentage within three years, it must then use a portion of its funds to purchase what the government describes as “supplemental services.” These services must be provided outside of the normal school day and, among other options, by a so called third-party provider. Although such “services” are defined somewhat ambiguously, most low-income districts have interpreted the term to mean that they must force these schools to institute test-preparation regimens geared explicitly toward raising scores on state exams. Increasingly, too, schools have been pressured into contracts with private corporations that provide these services. Meanwhile, the test-prep companies are actively promoting their success in raising scores to principals who live in terror of the more alarming second stage of federal sanctions they will otherwise incur.

If, despite their expensive test-prep programs, low-performing schools fail to pump up test scores fast enough to meet specific goals within five years, school boards are obliged to shut them down and dismiss their faculties and principals. Such schools will then be either operated directly by the state or reconstituted under an “alternative governance arrangement.” Although the provider of such “governance” might be a nonprofit corporation (one that operates a chain of semi-private charter schools, for instance), it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts (Kozol, J. August 25, 2007 The Big Enchilada

by Jonathan Kozol Harper’s Magazine Notebook http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/08/page/0009?redirect=321247325 (August 2007)

     In fact it does seem ironic if not a bit hypocritical that so-called proponents of the ‘free market’ seem to be able to pass government legislation that allows for public subsidies for their business plans; the irony, or perhaps the tragedy, depending on how it is framed, lies in the use of the government for the institutionalization of private  gain. Speaking of specific provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been shown lends itself to school privatization, Karp is keenly aware of the implications of such a law:

The privatization agenda in NCLB is reflected most clearly in the provisions for school transfers and supplemental services. A straightforward voucher program was taken out of the original proposal as part of the legislative compromise that got it passed. Instead we have provisions that require a district to spend up to 20% of its federal funds to support transfers from failing schools to schools that meet their AYP targets or that don’t receive Title I funds. And each state is supposed to prepare a list of approved supplemental tutorial providers for students who remain in schools needing improvement. Both the transfer and the tutorial provisions have lots of complications, but there will be three overall effects:

1. The 20% figure will come nowhere near to covering the costs of providing transportation and tutorial services to all those eligible for them.

2. There are nowhere near enough alternative school placements for the growing numbers of students eligible to transfer.

3. The funds used to support individual tutorial services and transfers will reduce the funds available for whole school improvement in those same schools.

     What preoccupies Karp and what worries many educational public policy analysts is the fact that NCLB does not contain any provisions to invest in building new schools, be they charter or traditional public schools, in what are deemed failing districts, neither does the Act provide for constructing any new capacity in the receiving schools; nor does it provide any support for the schools that must receive students under NCLB and it is not drafted to provide for the influx of such students, especially ones with a history at risk difficulties or past educational struggles.  Doesn’t this seems odd, for certainly it can’t be argued that No Child Left Behind is designed to create ‘multi-income’ schools whereby the wealthier schools or districts are asked to open their doors to those less fortunate?  So although arguably a handful of parents may get some additional school choices under No Child Left Behind, such as sending their children to charter schools where and if open seats are available, there is no guarantee these children will profit at all since most charter schools have long waiting lists and admission is limited by yearly lotteries.  Perhaps the other irony lost is that many of our nation’s schools are funded by a state lottery while admission to charter schools is also governed by a similar lottery.

     With all this in mind, the main impact of NCLB, argue its critics, is to artificially manufacture a demand for school transfers that cannot be met by widely touted charter schools, nor by providing the for the for-profit management of district schools.  However, the Act does give the impetus to more charter school developments by promoting the creation of future charter school student populations by promoting standardized testing.  One of the ways proponents of these ideas concretize their pro-choice agenda, the argument goes, is by vilifying schools in the public conversation , think tanks and corporate media circles while making compliance with the Act a near impossibility through inadequate funding; this then has the desultory effect of creating transfers and management schemes that are simply not available to most parents and their children but that instead can be channeled into new private voucher schemes, charter schools or specifically for further impetus towards the for-profit managed charter school idea.

Kozol, again is salient on this point:

All of these schools, under the stipulations of No Child Left Behind, will soon  be ripe for picking by private corporations. Progressive citizens who say they believe in public education, as well as the erstwhile liberal Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, have failed to recognize and confront this looming crisis.

Meanwhile, the richly funded and well-oiled juggernaut of privatization continues to move forward, carving out increasingly large pieces of the public system. If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of Me- Donald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart.

Some $490 billion (4 percent of GNP) is spent on education yearly in the United States. It will be an act of social suicide if liberals blithely continue to dismiss the opportunities this vast amount of money represents for corporate predation (Ibid).

     Karp, Kozol and similar educational policy critics could be right.  In an interview with Time Magazine, Susan Neuman, professor of education at the University of Michigan and former Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush Administration Secretary Rod Paige, gave creedence to what Karp amd others have said all along when she publicly and mournfully regretted the Bush Administration’s use of humiliation and shame as a lever for school reform under No Child Left Behind.  Commenting in the Time article Neuman stated:

 Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach ((http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1812758,00.html No Child Left Behind:  Doomed to fail? June 8th, 2008 Claudia Wallis  Time Magazine online)

     Furthermore, according to Neuman, there were actually many personnel in the Bush Department of Education at the time who saw and supported NCLB as a Trojan horse for private choice, for-profit management of schools as well as the for-profit charter school agenda — a policy evidently designed to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit,’ says Neuman. “There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.” (ibid)  The way the act is applied, failure to meet NCLB’s inflexible goals meant schools would be publicly labeled as failures, she noted.  Labeling public schools as failures and then humiliating their staff and management ‘seems to soften them up’ and fits nicely with preparing them for outright privatization or management takeover by EMOs.  Neuman now says she sees this vilification strategy as a mistake. 
But was it a mistake or an ill-conceived and selfish business plan?

     Neuman is not the only one who regretted the No Child Left Behind Act and the movement it mobilized.  U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords echoed similar concerns about the bill and the vilification of public schools noting that NCLB “will let the private sector take over public education, something the Republicans have wanted for years.”  (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/advocate/NOV05ISSUE/html/review_nochild.htmuny Graduate Center Advocate Tony Monchinski No Child Left Behind or the Privatization of Education?) 

Suffice it to say that private interests are circling public education like hawks for an opportunity for the next big financial bubble; the takeover of public education by market forces and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which opened the door to privatization efforts, served as an impetus for the development and growth of the charter school movement, much of it spurred on by philanthro-capitalists not subjected to public scrutiny.  Now, with the Race to the Top policy by the Obama administration we are promised something even George Bush could not give us:  the institutionalization of a rigid, inauthentic testing regime designed to induce boredom and lethargy on behalf of students and teachers, and profits and scaled up opportunities for well heeled entrepeneurs and tycoons.  The Race to the Top will assure they never get left behind.