Could Weighted Education Funding Campaigns Be Advancing An ALEC-Backed Agenda?

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.

PA Schools Work

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.

Nellie Mae New Narrative Grant

CT Education Policy Changes

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.

CT Education Funding

VT Education Funding

MA Budget

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.

Student-Centered Funding

Student Centered Funding Portability

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.

Heritage Fin-Tech Wallet

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.


2 thoughts on “Could Weighted Education Funding Campaigns Be Advancing An ALEC-Backed Agenda?

  1. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Thank You. This is wonderful summary and expansion on the weighted student funding promotions.
    My probes trace this scheme back to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, best viewed as an operating arm of the Gates Foundation, the migration of those ideas into the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, headed by Marguerite Rosa, and the success of various promoters in making per-pupil expenditure data a state-level reporting requirement in ESSA. The ESSA requirements are summarized here
    “For the rest time, states are required by the federal government to publish online the per-pupil spending for each school and district in the state. State and local report cards must disaggregate expenditures by federal, state and local sources.
    Additionally, reported expenditures must include actual teacher salaries rather than average salaries. This is important because teacher salaries make up roughly 60 percent of an average district budget. Under the new reporting structure, actual teacher salaries may reveal inequitable distributions of more experienced teachers across a district, as these teachers often earn higher salaries.
    Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires that state and local report cards are presented in an understandable and uniform format. New in ESSA, though, is the requirement that report cards are developed in consultation with parents. ESSA also requires that these report cards are accessible, which includes making them available online where possible.
    Each year, SEAs and LEAs are required under ESSA to report on multiple, disaggregated measures about schools across districts and the state, including on the accountability measures approved in states’ ESSA plans (see ESSA §1111(h)), and district- and school-level per-pupil expenditures (beginning in 2017-18) per ESSA’s new fiscal transparency requirements (see ESSA section 1111(h)(1)(C)(x) and (2)(C)). Accountability and other student-related data must be separated (i.e. disaggregated) by student characteristics, including major racial and ethnic groups, family income, disability status, and language status. Some data must also be disaggregated by gender, foster care status, homeless status, military connected status, and migrant status
    In a related matter, the following from Politico today illustrates the hoopla related to tax deductions for the four or five flavors of vouchers By Caitlin Emma | 09/07/2018 10:00 AM EDT With help from Kimberly Hefling ( edited for length by LHC)
    A new Treasury Department rule is drawing strong objections from advocates who support private school vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs — and it could backfire on Republicans, Pro Tax’s Brian Faler reports. The Treasury Department published the rule just over a week ago and the public feedback period closes Oct. 11. But dozens of comments have already been filed by backers of state tax credit scholarship programs, which award individuals or businesses a full or partial tax credit when they donate to organizations that grant private school scholarships. Read the comments here.— Many of the comments follow a common template, with individuals from states like Indiana posting the same language asking the IRS to reconsider the rule and “preserve federal charitable tax deductions for state-based tax credits given for student scholarships.” It’s unclear where the template is coming from — but much of it overlaps with a letter sent last month to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin from the Association of Christian Schools International, an organization that promotes Christian education and educational choice. ACSI didn’t respond to a request for comment. About a dozen states with tax credit scholarship programs (not including Indiana) issue full tax credits to donors and combined with the federal deduction, the tax benefits can exceed the size of the donation. The proposed rule, aimed at preventing efforts by some blue states to get around a new limit on state and local tax deductions, would prevent donors who contribute to state tax credit scholarship programs from reaping such a benefit.— School choice advocates told Morning Education they’re still digesting a clarification issued by Mnuchin on Wednesday that reminded businesses there are circumstances in which their charitable contributions can be deducted as business expenses. It was welcome news to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who noted in a statement that Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program provides private school scholarships to disadvantaged students and is “largely funded through corporate giving. Treasury took a step in the right direction today by clarifying that these types of donations to the EITC can still be deducted as a trade or business expense.” In addition, a coalition of advocates known as EdTaxCredit50 urged Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady in a recent letter to consider folding a new federal education tax credit into a second round of tax cuts, or the so-called tax reform 2.0 plan. The groups asked that House GOP leaders consider H.R. 5153 (115), a bill introduced by Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) in March that would provide individuals with a federal tax credit in exchange for donations to apprenticeship organizations or organizations that award private school scholarships.. Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy said of the clarification that “under the right circumstances, some business owners are going to keep getting more back in tax cuts than they ever contributed to these tax credit programs. They’ll be stacking state tax credits and federal write-offs for business expenses on top of each other, and ultimately coming out ahead.”

    Ff from
    Marguerite Roza, Ph.D., is the Director of the Edunomics Lab and a Research Professor at Georgetown University. Dr. Roza’s research focuses on quantitative policy analysis, particularly in the area of education finance. Recent research traces the effects of fiscal policies at the federal, state, and district levels for their implications on resources at school and classroom levels. Her calculations of dollar implications and cost equivalent tradeoffs have prompted changes in education finance policy at all levels in the education system. She’s led projects including the Finance and Productivity Initiative at CRPE and the Schools in Crisis Rapid response Paper Series. More recently she served as Senior Economic Advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Her work has been published by Education Sector, the Brookings Institution, Public Budgeting and Finance, Education Next, and the Peabody Journal of Education. Dr. Roza is author of the highly regarded education finance book, Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?
    Dr. Roza earned a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Washington. Prior to that, she served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy teaching thermodynamics at the Naval Nuclear Power School. She has a B.S. from Duke University and has studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Amsterdam.
    The Edunomics Lab is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. A related Building State Capacity & Productivity Center (also listed as a go-to source for guidance on per-pupil funding) is funded by CASEL (Center for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), Center on Reinventing Public Education (Source of several other staff the Edunomics Lab), Council of Chief State School Officers, New America Foundation, Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, Smith Richardson Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation
    At the Edunomics Lab, key staff (4) and affiliate researchers (9) have been drawn from charter-friendly foundations and agencies. Among these are personnel with leadership training from Education Pioneers (5), prior work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (3), and the charter friendly Center for Reinventing Public Education (3). Other background experiences include work with Bridge International (for-profit schools in Africa, India for poorest of poor), Bellwether Education Partners (charter promoter), and Teach for America. The Edunomics lab is also one of only two agencies to which USDE has outsourced support services to states seeking help on per-pupil accountability measures required in ESSA.
    Here are publications from the CRPE and Edunomics library, dating back to 2004. One of these shows a schem where a basic package of studies would be paid for by the state (voucher or otherwise) with added costs for expensive courses (e.g., foreign language, AP courses), and a referral to other sources for a more comprehensive education (e.g., lessons in any of the arts, on-line foreign language tutors). There are two articles with actual cost breakouts (burried in my files).
    This 2017 paper is also relevant to the effort to link per-pupil funding to “equity” issues and and recent rhetoric that money for education”belongs to the child” not to a district–a tactic intended to shame workers and supporters of public eduction.

  2. Steve Whetstone says:

    I generally distrust ALEC because of their history and since I worked for them in the late 1990’s and they had me doing mail mergers to secretly fund politicians who voted for corporate profits aver public good. I share your skepticism of ALEC and your interest in a better funding model for education. Good luck to you. thanks for doing the research and writing.

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