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Betsy DeVos Throws Education Department in Reverse

DeVos takes an ax to student-loan forgiveness. A charter school folds in Los Angeles, while striking Banning teachers walk the line.

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Bill Raden

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Closure: Misspelled notice on Celerity website.

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

DeVos Watch: For shareholders in unscrupulous for-profit colleges, July brought the best kind of tidings from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — a reversal of key Obama curbs on industry practices that a 2012 Senate report described as “exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation.”

To defrauded, debt-saddled students and their families, however, DeVos’ draft regulation rescinding Gainful Employment rules, and her rollback of loan forgiveness for victims of predatory colleges, come as the latest confirmation that the department has left the business of improving access to high-quality postsecondary education. And she’s only warming up.

Next on the chopping block are baseline student protections — whose “hollowing out,” advocates warn, will open up Title IV federal student aid dollars to sketchy programs by virtually eliminating oversight. DeVos’ negotiated rulemaking committee is expected to dismantle regulations on:

  • The credit hour, academia’s longstanding measure of student progress and a safeguard against course inflation and degree fraud;
  • State authorization and its guarantee that online programs satisfy state licensing requirements;
  • Accreditation, and assurance that colleges offer a quality education;
  • Regular and substantive interaction by online instructors with their students.

“It’s an undoing from the inside out so there are no rules at play,” Antoinette Flores of the Center for American Progress told the education news site Inside Higher Ed.

Say goodbye to Celerity Rolas Charter School, one of seven schools operated in Los Angeles by the corruptiontainted Celerity Educational Group. The charter organization announced last month that the Eagle Rock K-8 elementary and middle school didn’t have the enrollment to open its doors for the new term. In a bizarre parody of local control, Rolas had been one of two new Celerity schools authorized by the State Board of Education to open July 1 of last year — one day after, and with the same principals in the same locations as two other Celerity charters that were closed after being denied renewal by SBE. Schools that were meant to be shut down by three different education agencies effectively got away with simply changing their names.

Though the closure hardly makes a dent in California’s 1,275 charter school inventory, it’s hard not to see it as yet another indicator that mass school privatization may be losing its appeal among California parents, along with a good deal of its political welcome. Since California passed its first charter law in 1992, charters have failed to meaningfully outperform public schools — a fact which may have contributed to voters’ overwhelming primary rejection of Antonio Villaraigosa, the movement’s $23 million-backed candidate for governor. And last week, Ed Source reported that California charter growth has slowed dramatically in recent years — a rate that could grind to a halt should a Governor Gavin Newsom sign anticipated charter reforms into law.

With schools starting next week amid tense face-offs between teacher unions and school districts up and down California, a looming question is whether this bluest of blue states could see an outbreak like last spring’s red-state teachers rebellion.

In California, teacher exasperation at being asked to do more with less is never far from the boiling point. It comes after a 40-year, statewide schools disinvestment that a pre-Great Recession adequate funding study by the Public Policy Institute of California conservatively pegged at $17 billion.

In May, Oakland’s teachers union, angry over the district’s poor pay, immense turnover, large class sizes and dilapidated facilities, declared an impasse in contract negotiations and told teachers to prepare for a strike when school resumes in August. Ditto for teachers in San Jose’s Evergreen School District, which ended the last school year in stalled contract talks and the possibility of a strike in the fall. And in Los Angeles, where a deadlock between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles has moved to state mediation, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl announced a strike authorization vote for the week of August 23.

But it was tiny Banning Unified in Riverside County, where teachers, furious over the district’s uncompensated, unilateral lengthening of the work day, became the first on Wednesday to actually call a three-day walkout. Whether or not strike fever spreads may lie more with the sympathies of parents than in the spirit of compromise.


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L.A. School Board in Limbo After Member’s Felony Plea

A troubled charter-school advocate calls it quits — but not before participating in a string of key policy votes.

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Ref Rodriguez photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

The three-year scandal that has embroiled the Los Angeles Unified school board concluded anticlimactically this week when besieged District 5 board member Ref Rodriguez tendered his resignation. The bow-out followed a Monday court appearance in which Ref pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and three misdemeanors connected to his laundering $24,000 of his own cash during his successful 2015 election campaign.

It ended an ethically challenged 10 months in which Ref’s legal bills were paid by his lone legal-defense fund donor – billionaire charter school enthusiast and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. The patronage had kept alive LAUSD’s slim, 4-3 pro-charter school board majority as it doggedly ticked off a dream list of California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) wins. Gut “district required language” for charter petitions? Check. Deny CCSA bête noire Ken Bramlett a contract renewal as inspector general? Check. Hire non-educator venture capitalist Austin Beutner as a disruption-prone superintendent? Check.

The suddenly even-split LAUSD board now has 60 days to either appoint a successor or to follow recent board precedent by letting District 5 voters decide in a special election.

One group paying close attention will be L.A. teachers, whose union on Tuesday submitted its “last, best and final offer” in contract talks that it says have again ground to a deadlock. “Anti-union, pro-privatization ideologues are currently running the school district but are setting us up for failure,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl charged in a statement. The district has 48 hours to respond to the LBFO.

One of California’s most notorious charter corruption cases reemerged last week with the announcement of a court settlement stemming from 2017’s catastrophic failure of Tri-Valley Learning Corporation (TVLC). The undisclosed payment to bond trustee UMB Bank, by municipal bond law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, was for its part in brokering a 2012 bond issue for the Livermore-based charter management organization.

This latest fallout covers only a fraction of the $67 million in tax-exempt, facilities-funding bonds at the center of a bankruptcy that affected over 1,200 students and shuttered four TVLC schools.

The closures led to a devastating June, 2017 audit by the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, which forwarded multiple allegations of possible fraud and misappropriation of assets against Tri-Valley and its former CEO, Bill Batchelor, to the Alameda County DA. It also resulted in state Assembly calls for closing regulatory loopholes that have allowed millions of dollars to be converted into the private real estate holdings of limited liability companies and charter management organizations.

“There is no authority, body [or] entity that I know of that [a charter management organization] has to answer other than to a self-selected board of directors,” testified Livermore Unified superintendent Kelly Bowers at 2017 Education Committee hearings.

Outraged California public school and community college teachers converged on a CalSTRS Teachers’ Retirement Board meeting in West Sacramento last week to demand that the $224 billion pension fund divest itself of about $13 million of investments in for-profit prison operators CoreCivic Inc. and the GEO Group.

The Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy has meant booming business for both companies, which together operate around 50 facilities of various types in California, including a CoreCivic ICE prison in San Diego and a GEO Group detention center in Adelanto that are being sued by detainees over the alleged use of forced labor and other practices.

“We’ve collectively put decades [of our lives] into California, into raising up diverse communities,” declared De Anza College professor Miriam Martín of the activist group Together We Will-San Jose, “and we didn’t do that to profit off of the criminalization of migration and the locking up of kids of color.”

CalSTRS Chief Investment Officer Christopher Ailman told the CalSTRS Investment Committee that he would order a review.


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A Topsy-Turvy Week for Charter Schools and School-Choice Tax Credits

A teachers’ pension fund is in the money . . . Is a Kevin De León bill in the IRS’s crosshairs? . . . The State Board of Education greenlights yet another Oakland charter school.

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Could the Republican tax law turn neovouchers, favored by Betsy DeVos and others, into road kill? (Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

California’s public school and community college teachers got good news Friday when the now-$223.8 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) posted a nine percent return for the 2017-18 fiscal year, beating its official seven percent discount rate for the second year running. Coming on the heels of the robust 8.6 percent return announced last week by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the twin earnings reports should buy some political breathing space for public sector pensions in California, where retirement security for public employees continues to top neoliberal hit lists.

“When public sector pension funds hit their mark or do better than the market, [the anti-union media] downplay it, and every time they go below the mark, it’s ‘the sky is falling and [we] have to take everybody’s pensions away,'” chairman of Californians for Retirement Security Dave Low quipped to Learning Curves. (Disclosure: Low sits on this website’s board of directors.)

On the other hand, the L.A. Times reported this week that so-called neovouchers, which have been embraced by Betsy DeVos and are popular with school-choice proponents, are among more than 100 charitable tax-credit programs now endangered by IRS blowback to dueling tax measures from DC Republicans and resistance states like California.

Proposed IRS rules that target blue state legislative workarounds to the $10,000 cap for state and local income taxes (SALT) in last year’s $1.5 trillion, Republican tax bill would almost certainly also eliminate deductions for neovouchers. In the crosshairs is SB 227, the public education charity proposed by state Senator and U.S. Senate candidate Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) that Californians could use to make up the pre-SALT write-offs.

“Even before the tax rule, there were things in this gray area between charity and public services,” explained Kim Rueben, a Public Policy Institute of California adjunct fellow and Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center senior fellow. “If they’re going to try and put a bright line in and say that people can’t take this as a charitable deduction because of the value in terms of savings from their state taxes, that same value is already accruing to people across this country from these existing tax credits.”

Charter school politics don’t get more topsy-turvy than in Sacramento, where the State Board of Education (SBE) is charged with doing good for California’s 6.2 million-student system of public schools, but which last week nudged Oakland’s financially stricken school district closer to the brink by saddling it with another new charter school that parents, students, the historically pro-charter OUSD board and an Alameda County Grand Jury say it neither needs nor can afford.

“It shows how disconnected they are from what’s going on in our cities … or what’s happening with underfunded public schools in California,” said activist Mona Treviño of the green light given at SBE’s July 12 meeting for Latitude charter high school to open its doors in the fall.

The unexpected at the board’s otherwise business-as-usual session came with a mea culpa offered by the state’s chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, Glen Price, who also called for “modernizing” 1998’s dated AB 544, the Reed Hastings-lobbied law that transformed California’s formerly benign Charter School Act into a poison pill for districts, by making it illegal for authorizers such as local school boards to consider the financial damage charters inflict on their hosts.

“At some point we have to consider the whole ecosystem — the whole community that we’re operating in when making these decisions,” Price reasoned. “There’s no other area of local or community planning where we would not consider the financial impact of a decision.”


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Learning Curves: New Column Reports on the Education Wars

If privatization is making American education the Wild West for those wishing to profit off children using public dollars, then Los Angeles Unified is its Tombstone.

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L.A. School Board Photo: Bill Raden

Editor’s Note: Today Capital & Main’s education reporter, Bill Raden, begins a new weekly column covering the contentious, ever-changing landscape of California’s education system. A staccato-paced selection of news items, profiles and dish, “Learning Curves” will report on everything from charter school controversies in K-12 schools to the skyrocketing costs of attending college. Other issues will include school funding, equity, and the intersection of education and inequality.

Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

We wanted the launch of Learning Curves, Capital & Main’s new weekly roundup of education inequality headlines, to be a Golden State affair. But the week’s leading education story turned out to be national: The unusually copious ideological paper trail left by D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s hard-right choice to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony “Swing Vote” Kennedy. Politico reported that Kavanaugh favors —

One measure of the cost to California from privatization came out in May. Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts compared the current school budgets in Oakland, San Diego and San Jose — three of the state’s most chartered-up and financially stressed school districts — with a hypothetical alternative in which all students remained enrolled in traditional public schools. The difference, parsed by the state’s Local Control Funding Formulas, became the privatization price tag. The $57.3 million calculated for Oakland Unified, which claims the state’s highest percentage of charter enrollment, made up both its 2017 shortfall and paid off the $40 million still owed to California from its $100 million bailout and state takeover in 2003.

That kind of policy math has earned California a D+ in last month’s Grading the States report card, released by the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

“[California] is near the bottom of the country when it comes to accountability and transparency,” researcher Carol Burris explained to Learning Curves. “California is one of only four states that allow for-profit charters, and even its non-profit charters can be run by for-profit corporations. … It is the Wild West for those who wish to make a profit off kids using public dollars.”

If so, the Tombstone in that Wild West is Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s largest charter school district in sheer enrollment, presided over by a pro-charter school board majority and its newly handpicked, no-experience-required superintendent, the Wall Street financier Austin Beutner. One vote taken at Tuesday’s board meeting turned into an OK Corral moment.

The Los Angeles global law firm Latham & Watkins won a conflict-of-interest waiver vote to do “realignment” work for the superintendent, thanks in part to an ethics nod by pro-charter District 5 board member Ref Rodriguez. The firm has frequently sued the district for millions on behalf of the California Charter School Association (CCSA), while Rodriguez has been under the cloud of three felony charges and 25 misdemeanor counts related to alleged money laundering from his 2015 election.

Ref also helped shoot down a CCSA-opposed local parcel tax measure proposal on Tuesday. Aimed for the November ballot and designed to take a significant bite — and much of the anticipated classroom sting — out of a $482.2 million shortfall projected for 2020-2021, the tax had already polled at an extraordinary 68 percent approval rating with voters.

“This is urgent now. If you wait, it may never happen,” former board president Jackie Goldberg exhorted after Beutner argued for putting it on the 2020 ballot instead.

The no vote may have had less to do with election timing than it did with “Hard Choices,” the financial restructuring blueprint released in June by a blue-ribbon task force chaired by none other than Austin Beutner. That report targeted district employees’ compensation, pensions and health care for “realignment,” but its presumptive sense of urgency would definitely not be served by a parcel tax rescue.

Meanwhile, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has been without a contract for over a year, last week singled out the task force report when it formally filed an impasse with the California Public Employment Relations Board. (The union later agreed to return to the bargaining table July 24.) Stay tuned.


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