by Harold “Bud” Cothern, Ed.D., Retired Superintendent, Goochland County Public Schools
As a career educator and former K-12 public school superintendent from Virginia’s 7th Congressional district, I am writing to alert you to significant threats to public education from within and without the Commonwealth of Virginia. Certain Virginia legislators, U.S. Congressmen, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the President of the United States are all scamming us. It is said that all politics is local, so I want to start right here in Virginia, in Dave Brat’s 7th district (parts of Henrico, Chesterfield, Culpeper, Goochland, Louisa, Amelia, Powhatan, Nottaway, parts of Spotsylvania and Orange County).
*However, don’t stop reading if you are in Rob Wittman’s 1st, Scott Taylor’s 2nd, Thomas Garrett, Jr.’s 5th, Bob Goodlatte’s 6th, Morgan Griffith’s 9th, or Barbara Comstock’s 10th districts. You also should worry greatly about the future of public K-12 education in your school division! Read on!
Henrico County Resists Additional “Choice” Agenda
Henrico Public Schools, where I live, recently took a heroic stand on public education and against so-called “educational choice” programs. The question for us is whether the President, 7th Congressional district representative Dave Brat, and members of the Virginia General Assembly are getting the message.
According to Henrico Schools’ stated 2017 Virginia General Assembly legislative program agenda, they “Oppose any additional legislation that establishes tuition tax credits, tax deductions, or vouchers as a means of reimbursing parents for their children’s K-12 educational expenses.” They also “Oppose further legislation that would remove or limit local school board authority over the formation and operation of charter schools within their division.” Although this was aimed at lobbying efforts for the Virginia Assembly, I’m sure the same sentiment applies to similar federal legislation.
Henrico operates the 6th largest and 8th most diverse school division in Virginia. It is the 7th district’s second largest school system (50,971 students), coming in at a close second to another 7th district school division, Chesterfield County (59,725 students). Henrico has a 40% participation in the federal free or reduced lunch program.
A Little History Regarding Charter Schools in Virginia
Charter schools are a big part of the choice agenda, so let’s look at what Virginia is currently doing. Charter schools are currently very limited in Virginia and those that exist are public, unlike those in Michigan, a hotbed of for-profit charter schools under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ 20-year wrecking ball influence. Those Michigan schools rank near the bottom in national fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading scores. (Washington Post, December 8, 2016). It seems rather illogical to take her advice and replicate such programs in Virginia.
According to Virginia state law, a “public charter school shall be administered and managed by a management committee, composed of parents of students enrolled in the school, teachers and administrators working in the school, and representatives of any community sponsors, in a manner agreed to by the public charter school applicant and the local school board. Pursuant to a charter contract, a public charter school may operate free from specified school division policies and state regulations, and, as public schools, shall be subject to the requirements of the Standards of Quality, including the Standards of Learning and the Standards of Accreditation.” (Virginia Department of Education)
Currently there are no charter schools in Henrico, Chesterfield, or any other school division in the 7th Congressional district. In fact, Virginia operates only nine public charter schools, with a total estimated population of 1200, representing not even 1% of the total public school enrollment (Ballotpedia, “School Choice in Virginia”). Richmond City operates the only one in Central Virginia, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, a K-5 school of 340 students that opened in 2010 (Virginia Department of Education). Most educators, like those in Henrico, and indeed in Virginia, are not opposed to well run public charter schools. What they are opposed to is the siphoning of public education funds to enable untested “choice” programs.
Virginia’s Tuition Tax Credits Program
Virginia state law also currently provides for tuition tax credit provisions. The Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits Program “provides state tax credits for persons or businesses making monetary or marketable securities donations to approved scholarship foundations that provide scholarships to eligible students for qualified educational expenses incurred in attending eligible nonpublic schools.”
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released a report (2016) ranking school choice programs across the U.S. Virginia’s Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits Program, with 2,419 scholarships awarded, averaging $2,564 for 138 schools. The program, according to VDOE guidelines, “provides scholarships for qualified educational expenses only to students whose family’s annual household income is not in excess of 300 percent of the current poverty guidelines or to eligible students with a disability.” (Virginia Department of Education).
Choice Inroads in Virginia by the General Assembly
The inroads to choice programs in Virginia are limited now for sure, but certain delegates continue to press for the intrusion into public education coffers. For example, except for the sure veto of the Governor, the Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts (HB1605) bill, sponsored by Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun), with support from co-patron Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), would be law, passing the Senate 21-19 with all Republicans voting yes. The proposed law would permit “the parent of a public preschool, elementary, or secondary school student to apply to the school division in which the student resides for a one-year, renewable Parental Choice Education Savings Account that consists of an amount that is equivalent to a certain percentage of all applicable annual Standards of Quality per pupil state funds appropriated for public school purposes and apportioned to the resident school division in which the student resides, including the per pupil share of state sales tax funding in basic aid and any state per pupil share of special education funding to which the student is eligible. The bill permits the parent to use the moneys in such account for certain education-related expenses of the student, including tuition, deposits, fees, and required textbooks at a private sectarian, or nonsectarian elementary or secondary school or preschool that is located in the Commonwealth and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The bill also contains provisions relating to auditing, rescinding, and reviewing expenses made from such accounts.” (Richmond Sunlight).
I read an argument by a constituent who supported the legislation and who said the law would not touch federal or local funding of a school division as if that was a great thing. That person was truly ignorant about how school funds are really allocated (it is based on an arcane composite index of a locality’s ability-to-pay formula) for school divisions in Virginia. The most severely disadvantaged and poor systems may receive as much as 80% of a state-to-local funding match. Lee County, for example, has a composite index of .1701, meaning that most of its non-federal funding comes from the state, not the locality. So it would be a huge raid on state funds.
Poor SOQ Support for Public Education by Virginia General Assembly
Rather than monkeying with school choice programs, this writer believes the General Assembly should be providing K-12 public education with sufficient funding under the Standards of Quality (SOQ). According to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study released on September 14, 2015, state spending on K-12 public education since 2005 has declined by 7% per pupil. After adjusting for inflation and increased enrollment, Virginia spent 9% less on K-12 instruction than it did in 2005. According to the VA Dept. of Education, Inflation Adjusted State Per Pupil Funding declined from $4,275 in 2009 to $3,647 in 2016 or by $628 per pupil (Richmond Times Dispatch).
How badly is the General Assembly really shorting school divisions of money for public schools? According to Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Even before lawmakers arrived in Richmond in January, one of their own estimates showed that spending cuts had eliminated about $800 million a year in state aid to public education.”
As far back as the 1970’s the Virginia Constitution reads, “The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” The operative words here are “shall seek to.” This has given legislators the wiggle room to cheat on real funding to localities for their schools. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
The Federal Side: Trump, DeVos and Dave Brat’s Plan To Wreck Public Education
President Donald Trump, along with Education Secretary DeVos, toured one of Florida’s private religious schools, St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, this week, and applauded it as an ideal learning environment for “disadvantaged children” and underscored his commitment to school choice. The President described the school as “one of the many parochial schools dedicated to educating disadvantaged children.” (Darlene Superville and Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press, March 3, 2017) The three amigos are preparing us for the elimination of public education, as we have known it and pushing private, especially religious education funding.
DeVos has never taught in a public school, administered one, nor have her children ever attended one. Neither has President Trump nor any of his children or many of his advisers. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s right hand man, for example, although hailing from Richmond, attended parochial schools. Dave Brat has never taught or administered any public K-12 program, although he touts his experience as an educator in a small, private college as well as his training in a seminary. Yet these inexperienced politicians are committed to pushing a massive, disruptive education agenda without support from mainstream K-12 public institutions like our own 7th district school boards who run quality public schools. The hidden agenda is to funnel public K-12 funds to private schools, especially to religious ones. Those of us in public education are watching, and we have long voting memories for those who betray the fundamental good that public education has provided this nation.
Here you go; watch the pea under the walnut shell, especially if you live in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district. You see, the Three Musketeers of disruption: President Trump, Betsy Devos, and Dave Brat, have teamed up in support of Congressional “choice” legislation (HB 610, the School Choice Act of 2017) that will destroy public education as we know it. This $20 billion bill eliminates the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, replacing it with vouchers to be distributed to the states through block grants (Congress.gov). Federal funds that now go to public schools will be given to parents who choose to put their children in private schools or to homeschool them. States will not be allowed to opt out without losing federal funds. Moreover, the programs so funded (private schools and home schooling) will not be required to provide equal opportunity to disadvantaged students by way of transportation, meals, and so forth. The legislation, moreover, will give money to parents to send their children to religious schools. DeVos, after all, has noted that education reform is a way to “advance God’s purpose.” (NPR, January 31, 2017) In addition, the legislation repeals ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), a program that encompasses aid to programs for Native Americans, ESL students, the homeless, struggling learners, advanced learners, and a host of other special learning situations. Moreover, in another heartless act, the bill abolishes nutritional standards for school breakfast and lunch (No Hungry Kids Act).
An Untested, Flawed Economics Plan With No Data To Support Outcomes
The Trump/Brat/DeVos team advances an agenda for public schools based on a flawed idea that economic theory can be applied to public school children as if they were rugs being sold in a bazaar. DeVos has lobbied since the 1990’s for for-profit charter schools, voucher programs, tax credit initiatives and virtual universities, plans that drain funds from traditional public schools. DeVos’ record of applying choice to schools in Michigan is dreadful. “We’re a laughingstock in national circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators.” (Stephen Henderson in the Detroit Free Press, quoted in the Washington Post, December 8, 2016). In a yearlong investigation by the paper it found that 20 years after Detroit’s charter schools began their test scores are nearly identical to those of public schools.
Indeed, these politicians should take note that no national research study has ever found that, on average, charter schools or choice programs have provided any more significant achievement differences than traditional public schools. In fact, in some of the latest research, including three statewide studies, researchers have concluded that they find “huge declines of academic achievement among students in voucher programs.” According to Kevin Carey of the New America Think Tank, “In DeVos’s advocacy, she seems to favor the least restrictive and most market-oriented policies” about which schools can participate in voucher programs. In her rhetoric, it’s the creation of market mechanisms that are the important thing to promote. This research does not support that view. In fact, it may support the idea that that approach is harmful to student learning.” (LA Times, March 3, 2017)
Furthermore, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute concludes, “The lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement (test scores), coupled with the evidence of a modest, at best, impact on educational attainment (graduation rates), suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs. Ideology is not a compelling enough reason to switch to vouchers, given the risks. These risks include increased school segregation; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear.” (Economic Policy Institute, Feb. 28, 2017)
The Big Lie From Brat
7th district Congressman Dave Brat is a recipient of DeVos campaign contributions (about $15,000) and one of her early endorsers: “Betsy DeVos is a well-respected person with strong roots in, and contributions to, her Western Michigan community.” (letter from Brat to Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions). According to Brat, a former economics professor, “She’s a champion of school choice…in economic theory a monopoly provides the worst outcomes in both quantity and quality.” (Facebook Town Hall, 1/31/17)
Brat tries to calm his constituents in the 7th district by saying the bill, “does not mean every school is going to move toward choice,” and indicates that all the “counties I have do a wonderful job with public education.” (Facebook Town Hall, 1/31/17) That does not comport with what we see in HR 610. That is a total lie. Is Brat trying to do a number on us in the 7th district? How does he exempt the 7th district from losing federal funds passed on or not by the Virginia Department of Education? Again, Federal funds that now go to public schools will be given to parents who choose to put their children in private schools or to homeschool them. States will not be allowed to opt out without losing federal funds. What he also fails to talk about in his endorsement of such proposals is that such plans are a back door way to violate the intent of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment by giving tax credits to send kids to religious schools. But that is really what Brat and DeVos are trying to accomplish. How many times does he need to mention in his town halls he went to seminary?
“In terms of business, “ Brat says, “ we want to lighten the load of government regulation, in terms of education the same thing.” (Facebook Town Hall, 1/31/17) Brat is correct that education leaders, like those in Henrico and others in his district don’t want more useless federal regulations. We do, however, want to shelter public schools funds siphoned from its coffers and from over zealous ideologues fooling around with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA), a law that has guaranteed rights to students with disabilities for over 30 years. DeVos constantly touts Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship fund. There, public funds are available to students who have IEPs to attend private schools. The voucher program, like comparable ones across the nation, however, requires students to give up their due process rights guaranteed under IDEA. (Washington Post, December 8, 2016)
The Bottom Line
Virginia citizens (and I am especially talking to my fellow 7th Congressional district parents, teachers, school board members, and loyal patriots) step up and be counted. Resist the assault on K-12 public education. Some of it is due to simple neglect in providing sufficient funding by our state’s public servants, but much is a result of purposeful acts to route public education funds to private and religious schools. Resist the intent behind Virginia House Bill 1605. Fight for your public schools. Call your General Assembly representatives. Resist U.S. House of Representatives Bill 610. Sign a petition to Dave Brat asking him to vote NO on this reprehensible bill. Repost this article to as many of your associates as you can, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. Future K-12 public school students and parents will thank you, and so will I.