Senate To Take Up ESSA Next Week
The House did not listen to the grassroots who tried to educate them on the bill they were about to pass. Their education staffers kept focusing on the positive language in the bill and ignoring the aspects that teachers and parents told them would be problematic, often saying, “It doesn’t say that,” which was a strong indication that these staffers have no real experience in public education to understand the terms and how they play out at the implementation point. Given that there was little agreement between the grassroots and the staffers it can be assumed that the 1061 pages of legalistic obfuscation will provide lawyers in all fifty states plenty of opportunity to rake in the fees arguing over what the terms actually mean for many years to come. Those the staffers/Congressmen did listen to include the teachers union representatives, who many teachers feel sold them out with this bill. ESSA does appear sever the link between student test scores and teacher evaluations, at least at the federal level, but there are many other requirements in the bill that the rank and file are not happy about. The other ear was held by big Wall Street investors who see the large potential for profit in the ESSA. The question now will be, do those money movers have similar influence in the Senate?
There is a clear focus on privatization and computer aided teaching in ESSA. Both are already being pushed into schools, so in some ways they are not new, but they will now officially be endorsed by the federal government. More importantly they will be endorsed by our elected officials, not unelected political appointees which makes them much harder to oppose. Whether such education reforms are effective or not is not the concern of this Congress or this bill, though there is evidence that casts doubt on the effectiveness of either mechanism. But why worry about that? Being effective can be such a subjective and lucrative thing.
Take the Social Impact Bonds, defined on page 797 of ESSA as “Pay for Success.” These SIBs are a way for big banks and private investors to pull public money out of the education system using low risk high yield financial instruments designed to incentivize certain social goals. The result is government sanctioned removal of money allocated to serve the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable, and frequently expensive, to educate from the school system. Peter Greene did a decent job of explaining the SIBs.
“In the classic… social impact bond, a government agency sets a specific, measurable social outcome they want to see achieved within a well-defined population over a period of time. …The government then contracts with an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—that is in charge of achieving that outcome. … The intermediary hires and manages service providers who perform the interventions intended to achieve the desired outcome. Because the government does not pay until and unless the outcome is achieved, the intermediary raises money from outside investors. These investors will be repaid and receive a return on their investment for taking on the performance risk of the interventions if and only if the outcome is achieved.”
On the surface it may sound good because it gives districts money to provide services and only pays out if the gamble is successful. The services are generally meant to reduce anticipated future costs to the district thus saving them money. The problem is those savings go to the investor, not the district to use in other necessary programs. The end result is that such investment is steered toward programs that have easily measured results with a high expectation of success, exactly the kinds of programs districts are already likely to invest in themselves. Money then moves away from innovation or outside the box thinking that could address the really tough problems that might have the greater need.
Let’s give you an example to understand where these investments can go wrong. This year Goldman Sachs put up $4.6 million and Pritzker Family Foundation another $2.4 million to expand an existing preschool program in Salt Lake County Utah. The goal of the program was to help more children avoid special education services in Kindergarten. When the program funding period ended it claimed to have kept 110 children out of special education the following year. Goldman and Pritzker were paid for every child who did not receive special education services in kindergarten.
The problem is that this number of children “saved” by the SIB is unusually high. While the best preschool programs have reduced the need for special ed services in kindergarten by 50%, most only see a 10-20% reduction in services. The Goldman investment was able to achieve an unprecedented 99% reduction in services. Nine early-education experts reviewed the program for The New York Times. They found several irregularities in how the program’s success was measured, which seem to have led Goldman and the state to significantly overstate the effectiveness of the preschool program. SIBs allow private investors to take money from schools for special education by incentivizing a redefinition of sped qualification to boost their ROI. Do you see now how Wall Street and private corporations have an interest in ESSA with the Pay For Success program in it passing?
DC staffers did not question why their Congressman should be supporting investment instruments with high rates of return (e.g. 22% for Goldman Sachs in their Rikers Island Prison recidivism SIB program in NY) and thus costs to districts, when governments can sell tax-exempt bonds for significantly less cost to the taxpayer? Why not let those investors continue to use low-income tax credits and New Market Tax Credits, which have long demonstrated the willingness of private capital to invest in social programs, so that money is not taken out of the school districts that could be used on other necessary programs? With SIBs private investors, without public debate, determine which programs are expanded which in fact further erodes local control and distorts the functioning of the local school program. Even if the SIB does not achieve its intended social goal, the investors can still take undue advantage of the public dollars by claiming a charitable tax deduction for its expenditure in support of the nonprofit venture. Its a Stephen Covey win-win for Wall Street.
Once the bill is passed, control for implementing its various features will be turned over the the new “acting” Secretary of Education, John King. Let’s not forget who this is.
King had never taught or served in the public schools until his appointment as Education Commissioner of the New York public schools. He came in to implement the school reforms chosen by the New York Board of Regents which included: a teacher evaluation system using student standardized test scores, the Common Core standards, and aligned Pearson-designed standardized tests. He came up with a nonsensical method for evaluating all teachers with test scores for example, substituting math scores for art teachers’ evaluations. The Engage New York curriculum he chose to implement Common Core was a confusing mess for most teachers and the failure of the Pearson assessments became well known. The implementation was a disaster that had parents and teachers showing up in huge numbers to speak out against these reforms at hearings scheduled around the state.
During those hearings, King was an unresponsive observer. He cancelled them after a couple sessions. In a Lohud editorial he was described as someone who “speaks softly, repeats the same messages over and over, and doesn’t let himself appear to be ruffled by outside forces. He forges ahead with an air of certainty about his mission to force schools to get better against their will.”
King, as a former charter school executive, is known for his support of choice and privatization which abound in ESSA. When in charge of Uncommon Charter Schools, his schools were known for their exceptionally high suspension rates. Some had 20% suspension rates, and these were for elementary students who were just at the beginning of the learning process, not sassy teenagers. This has been a much criticized tool of charters who use it to “help troublesome students find a school with a better fit for their needs.” He has no problem cooking the books to make it look like his programs are successful.
King’s oversight of the implementation of common core, the tests and teacher evaluations was considered such a disaster that Governor Cuomo last year wrote in a letter to top state education officials that “Common Core’s implementation in New York has been flawed and mismanaged from the start.” His appointment was considered so controversial that the President did not even seek confirmation, hence his position as acting Secretary. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, which is expected, we will put interpretation and implementation of ESSA into the hands of an unofficial official who blew the implementation of the program handed him in New York. He will likely be tone deaf to his critics, much like Duncan was. And since the bill does not contain any enforcement mechanism, he will likely push his vision of education onto the states regardless of the prohibitions in the bill. That will have to be sorted out by the lawyers many years and dollars later.
He will have plenty of money to work with to move his agenda forward. The omnibus bill, working its way to the President’s desk, includes $75 billion in mandatory funding over 10 years for Preschool for All to reach all low- and moderate-income students; system-building through a $500 million expansion of Preschool Development Grants, and $70.7 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Education in 2016, an increase of $3.6 billion, or 5.4 percent, over the 2015 level.
ESSA is seen by some as a rebranding/reset of the provisions of NCLB that exchanges some of the old poisons while adding new ones and gives the poorly informed more work to do to catch up. It allows our representatives to say “We finally fixed that no good NCLB” while not answering for the bad provisions in the bill. This is the DC mentality of “It is better to do something, even if it is not a good thing, than to do nothing.” Even though states could have limped along for another year on NCLB even without a waiver and probably have improved, there has been an unexplained push to get a bill passed NOW. If the bill goes forward, as it is expected to, the public will have to remind these staffers, and their Congressman if they can get an actual audience with them, when those portions of the bill they warned them about play out as expected, to the detriment of local education efforts.
We will note here that Missouri Senator Roy Blunt voted against S1177 when it first came up in the Senate in July this year. As head of the HELP committee this was a bold move on his part. He should be encouraged to stay strong in his opposition on this next vote also. Senator McCaskill voted for S1177.