Campaigns have been launched across the nation to document and address chronic deficits in state-level education funding. Undoubtedly, the intentional underfunding of our public schools is a serious concern. One such campaign was recently announced in my home state, PA Schools Work. According to their website, the coalition, which includes a number of union and child and education advocacy groups, builds upon previous work done around Pennsylvania’s 2016 Campaign for Fair Education Funding.
What immediately jumped out at me when I received the August 8 email inviting me to join was the use the word “Work” in the campaign name. What I’ve come to realize is that the ed-reform landscape can often be deciphered if you understand the language they’re using. Once you unravel that code, you can figure out where things are headed.
There is tremendous pressure now to align curriculum to the needs of industry, and the research I have been conducting around outcomes-based contracting indicates that “Work” often equates to data-driven metrics tied to outsourced public services. See Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “What Works Cities” for example. In education this is increasingly manifested in the adoption of ed-tech “solutions.” So, for me at least, “Work” in this context becomes an extremely loaded term. As a parent, I can think of many other words I’d prefer to see used to describe an optimally funded K12 education. Pennsylvania schools could just as easily empower, nurture, sustain, excite, imagine, or create. Work? There’s plenty of time in post-secondary education, once children are old enough to make informed decisions about their futures, before that word needs to take center stage.
It’s also important to note that since last fall Pennsylvania has been battling legislation aimed at creating Education Savings Accounts. Senate Bill 2, not yet passed, would establish a program run through Pennsylvania’s Department of the Treasury that would award quarterly payments to families of children enrolled in (or in the catchment of if a kindergarten student or first grader) schools documented as “low-achieving.” Schools that score in the bottom 15% on annual achievement tests fall into this category.
If passed, families that chose to participate in the program could use state funds to purchase “qualified” educational services like private school tuition, tutoring or “teaching services,” curriculum, books, uniforms, testing fees, and a big loophole “other valid educational expenses approved by the department (of the Treasury).” This would be in lieu of enrolling their child in a local public school or participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (voucher lite) program. Thus far the legislation has not progressed, but continued vigilance is required.
When I received the email about the campaign, I inquired if organized opposition to ESAs and voucher programs would be part of the PA Schools Work action plan. I was told that it would not and that the focus was exclusively on securing funding. Given the direction things are headed, I find this to be of grave concern.
Many statewide campaign programs are pushing “student-centered” funding, which hews closely to the concept of “weighted-funding,” which Pennsylvania adopted in 2016. The latter is a program whereby students that meet certain criteria receive additional education funding. This makes sense. Students who live in poverty, for whom English is not their first language, or who have special learning needs will require additional resources if the goal is an equitable funding stream that allows each child to reach their full potential. I support that premise wholeheartedly.
But here is an interesting wrinkle. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-corporate bill mill, ALSO supports “student-centered” and “weighted” education funding. In fact, they developed model legislation for it way back in 2010: The Student-Centered Funding Act. Jeb Bush’s reform entity Excelined funded by Gates, Walton and Bloomberg (all impact investing backers) put out a policy brief in June 2017 on Student Centered funding, too.
Additionally, the Nellie Mae Foundation has been issuing grants to New England states to investigate education finance models that would support “student-centered learning,” in other words Ed Reform 2.0. They are using their considerable financial resources to push systems change that will preference competency based education over traditional seat-time models. They aim to normalize “innovative” learning that takes place “anytime, anywhere,” NOT in a school. For this model to work, state funding must follow the student (as with a voucher or ESA) rather than the school or district. The images below are two grants funded by Nellie Mae that indicate their intent to shift existing narratives around public education.
These three images feature grants made to entities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont to explore new models of education finance that would support such a shift.
At first glance it might seen somewhat contradictory for ALEC, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Nellie Mae and their partners in crime to be promoting student-centered, weighted education funding. But I invite you to take a step back and consider that the future of public education that ALEC members and philanthro-capitalists envision is a free market, “hackable” network where there are no more neighborhood school buildings with age-based grade cohorts and report cards. That “old” system would be supplanted by an open ecosystem of educational “opportunities” offered online and via complicit non-profit partners who will accept digital Education Savings Account payments.
They need to create a system that ultimately funds students NOT school districts or schools in order to operationalize the model. They need for each child to be linked to their own “personalized” pot of money for a Pay for Success, human capital ROI directed model to emerge. An interim step will be to have weighted student funding flow to districts. That will ease the transition and allow people to gradually adjust their mental framework. Meanwhile hybrid learning, badging, out of school time learning and other aspects of Ed Reform 2.0 will move forward, slowly becoming routine and expected.
The screenshots below are footnotes from the ALEC “Student-Centered Funding” model legislation. They clearly show ALEC sees “student-centered funding” as a tool advancing school “choice” where funding “portability” is a key feature.
Within a decade, students may be issued digital identities tied to e-wallets (perhaps on Blockchain if they are able to bring it to scale) that would hold BOTH virtual education currency AND demonstrated credentials or competencies. In December 2017 the Heritage Foundation issued a report (viewable as a PDF here) that examines the state of fin-tech digital payment systems in education. The screenshot below describes Class Wallet, a programmable digital payment service offered to teachers and students as a means of purchasing a limited number of classroom supplies and as a behavior management reward system. The last line references Class Wallet’s entry into the Education Savings Account arena.
Through analysis of such e-wallets, returns on human capital investments could be more readily tracked, comparing public and private expenditures to student “results” as identified by industry expectations. Within a social impact investing context, students who demonstrate extra need will also present more room to demonstrate “growth.” The greater the potential of a student to move the numbers on the data dashboards, the more profit impact investors could make. Therefore motivated, high-need students will become attractive portfolio additions IF they have the proper mindset are agreeable to being molded to the vision of “success” industry demands.
I suspect most participants in these statewide funding campaigns are not looking the ten steps ahead required to understand how weighted funding programs will groom vulnerable students to be pawns in a predatory impact investing game. This is unfortunate, because I would really like to fight for fair funding while ALSO putting up guardrails to prevent any victories from inadvertently advancing the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. I welcome advice from the PA Schools Work folks on how to go about that. Public school advocates and ALEC are not on the same side. We cannot simply ignore the fact that a campaign like PA Schools Work, if the above factors are not taken into account, could ultimately advance a terribly destructive privatization agenda.