Transcript: Who owns America’s schools? Professor Janelle Scott on ‘No Jargon’ podcast

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:00:00] Back-to-school season is upon us and back as well are some familiar debates. From charter schools to voucher programs, education in America is becoming more privatized than ever and many communities are pushing back. But why exactly are schools shifting towards privatization and why are these reforms so controversial? Do they address existing inequalities in education or do they sometimes make them worse? And what can be done to ensure that every student gets a quality education? Hi, I’m Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich and this is the Scholar’s Strategy Network’s No Jargon. Each week, we discuss an American policy problem with one of the nation’s top researchers without jargon.

For this week’s episode, I spoke to Dr. Janelle Scott. She’s a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Graduate School of Education and the Department of African American Studies. She’s also part of an ongoing project here at SSN with the support of the William T. Grant Foundation to support the public engagement of scholars focusing on reducing inequality and the understanding of the use of research evidence.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:01:06] Dr. Scott, thanks for coming on No Jargon.

Janelle Scott [00:01:08] Thanks for having me.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:01:09] So, more and more in the past couple decades — you can correct me on on this history — but it feels like in the past 20 to 30 years, we’ve been seeing a ramping up of the type of attention that’s being paid to charter schools, voucher programs, and other privatization efforts. That’s kind of a big umbrella that actually deals with a few different things. Can you start us out by telling me a little bit more about the different types of privatization we’re seeing in the public school system and what those mean? And then maybe also you know if I’m correct about timelines, when did this actually start?

Janelle Scott [00:01:42] Privatization is a big umbrella term for a lot of different kinds of policies and even activities. I think it’s important to note that the private sector itself has always had some involvement in public education. So when people tend to talk about privatization they’re not talking about sort of long-standing arrangements. For example textbooks are produced by the private sector, that that’s not a new phenomenon for example. What we’re seeing more recently in the last several decades is a growth in the kinds of activities and policies that bring private sector companies, operators, consultants into more of the core of public education, more into the core of teacher and teaching and learning, more into the core of even school board electoral politics, and more into the core of actually drafting policies and enacting policies in school districts.

And so, policies like charter schools, which owe their origins to a set of very different policy impulses — for some, they were meant to empower teachers; for others, they were meant to bring the private sector more directly into the management and delivery of schooling. You know, very early on in the charter school movement, some opponents talked about them as if they were a Trojan horse, as sort of coming in this sort of secret way to undermine the operation of public school so the politics have always been quite intense around the introduction of charter schools.

But essentially, charter schools enable a group of interested people to come together a proposal, to start a school, and to have that proposal approved by whoever the authorizing body is. That could be a school district, that could be a state board of education. Sometimes it’s a university who has charter and authority, and we see a big variation. Around that very general framework for charter schools, an entire sector has emerged of for-profit and nonprofit organizations who work to support and sustain the overall sector.

So these are groups that provide, for example, personnel services, payroll and personnel management, online curricula, for example, facilities management and financing. So these are just some of the ways we’re seeing just a flurry of activity where the private sector is involved in one aspect of a reform that’s related to privatization.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:04:22] I have a question, because I want to dig a little bit deeper, and this is somewhat for my own edification I realized as I think about charter schools, it’s always been a little bit fuzzy to me what the whole deal is. You know, what you just described, I was like ‘OK, that makes sense. If you have a privatized school then, yes, it entails that they would need to look to the private sector for their personnel software and facilities maintenance. They can’t just get that from the state like a public school can.’ So now I’m like, ‘OK, wait. What is a charter school? Let’s back all the way up. Because they’re still part of our public system in a way, it’s not the same as a fully private school. Can you just describe it a little bit further?

Janelle Scott [00:05:03] I think the way I like to think about it is that they are hybridized. They’re a hybrid of both public and private. And so much of their funding comes from the state. So that’s public right. They are authorized by the public through the state or school district. But otherwise there are these activities in which they are able to engage that are more private. And, in fact, when we were studying charter schools very early on in the 1990s in California and interviewing people across the state — parents, teachers, founders — about why they wanted to start a charter school what their mission was, we were surprised by how many people said, ‘Well, it’s like having a private school.’ Right.

So, early on people were making those associations. And so, some of those associations include having being able to have admissions criteria for students, provided they don’t violate federal civil rights laws. You can have volunteer requirements for parents in terms of hours that they have to provide to the school. Many people call that sweat equity, right that the parents are earning in the school. Many private foundations have been attracted to supporting and growing a national charter school movement and so there’s a lot of private funding that’s being generated and allocated to those schools on an individual basis and there are some charter networks that operate multiple charter schools that we’re not seeing that same kind of private revenue being donated to traditional public schools for example and so these are asked those are other aspects of the charter school movement that are more private. Right. And in some states for profit companies are allowed to operate charter schools. And so the charter is given over to the company in places like Ohio and Michigan, we’ve seen some of that. And, in many cases, charter schools are essentially their own school district.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:06:55] How does a for-profit company make a profit off of a charter school?

Janelle Scott [00:07:00] So that is a really good question. There are a couple of ways in which companies can eek profits from operating charter schools. One is through a kind of basic economy of scale. So if you have a lot of schools, you’re generating a lot more student revenue. And so, there’s a there’s an emphasis on growth, having lots of schools. One of the primary ways to maximize the possibility of growth is to deliver schools online. So, virtual charter schools have emerged as one of the leaders in the for-profit domain of charter school reform.

But there are other ways that these organizations are able to generate revenue. Some of it is through branding curriculum and then selling that curriculum. Other ways include you know deep reductions in payment for teacher salary. And so teachers are not necessarily making the same money as their public school counterparts. And so you know the most expensive aspects of running a school, we all know from decades and decades of policy research, are the personnel costs — the benefits costs and the capital expenses related to building and maintaining facilities. And so where the for-profit charter school sector has been able to realize profits, it’s been by mitigating those those expenses.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:08:19] Sure. Pay people less and don’t have a facility — that’s true for a lot of industries, public and profit. No matter what they’re selling, those things are true. OK. So that is very useful for me. Thank you. I feel like I have a better understanding of what a charter school actually is. But that’s not the only form of privatization. Tell us about vouchers. What’s that?

Janelle Scott [00:08:39] Vouchers are a policy that essentially enable parents to enroll their children in private schools, and those schools, depending on the regulatory framework, and those regulatory frameworks differ from plan to plan and state to state. But in general, it allows parents to enroll students in private schools whether they are sectarian or not, so religious or nonreligious is immaterial to many of the plans and the enrollment is subsidized through public money. Usually, the amount of the voucher is tied to what the average per pupil allocation is in the public education system. And so it’s essentially allowing parents to have choice over their individual child’s education with the public subsidizing that choice set.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:09:35] Right. And so when people talk about school choice, typically vouchers is what they’re talking about.

Janelle Scott [00:09:40] Well it depends. Yeah, school choice is another big fat policy umbrella. That also includes charters, which we’ve already talked about. It includes private school education, just in general. It includes homeschooling. It includes vouchers. But it also includes tuition tax credits.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:09:57] What’s that?

Janelle Scott [00:09:57] Those are plans where people can actually get tax write-offs. Both companies and individual taxpayers for enrollment in private schools. Right. So there it’s a school choice plan that’s essentially written into the state’s tax code.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:10:13] Got it. That makes sense. How widespread are these different forms? I mean, is this happening kind of equally all across the U.S.?

Janelle Scott [00:10:19] We see it in particular states. It’s not a national phenomenon at all. And even in the domain of more publicly financed voucher programs that we were first talking about, even within that domain, those voucher programs vary significantly. And so, the way researchers talk about them is they’re either universal vouchers, which means anyone is eligible to apply for them or they’re targeted. And so the vouchers, you have to meet a particular, either income threshold tied to the federal poverty rate to be eligible or your parents of students who have disabilities, so that they’re targeted to a specific population. So, in almost every case of school choice policy, it’s very difficult to make broad generalizations about how these work because they actually are so specific from state to state and even city to city.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:11:13] What about geographic areas of proliferation. Is there more privatization in cities, in rural areas? Are there any trends there?

Janelle Scott [00:11:22] We are seeing, I think, some very robust and deep trends in urban school districts around the country, around these particular forms of privatization. This connection between, for example, school closures. Many districts are facing a situation in which both gentrification and growing inequality has meant that they have schools that they have deemed underutilized right. And so they are engaging in closures. And what’s happening is that we’re also seeing a parallel growth in the number of charter schools in those districts. And we’re also seeing heightened activity in terms of contracting with the private sector to provide services that the district had otherwise been providing.

So, those things together we’re seeing quite rapidly in and I’m talking about urban districts specifically like Chicago or New Orleans Oakland Los Angeles where we’re really seeing the share of charter schools growing to rates that are raising some concerns that the growth of charter schools are actually destabilizing the fiscal vitality of the school district. And last year in fact or earlier this year where we saw the teacher strikes in California and Oakland and Los Angeles the growth of charters was a key issue that the unions were striking on.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:12:40] Let’s talk about some of the controversies in these kinds of privatization because I can see the obvious one is simply, “How do you feel about privatization of government services versus public goods like public school.” That’s kind of the blanket one. But now, there’s these other kind of more nuanced issues right there, and I think you alluded to some when you talked about gentrification or you know depopulating areas and how charter schools tend to move in there. And now, also this issue with teacher strikes and financial destabilization. So, can you kind of break down some of the various controversies that are all intertwined in these movements.

Janelle Scott [00:13:15] Sure. I mean I think in terms of these controversies, it’s really important to not take our gaze off the racial politics that have always been, I think, front and center in U.S. public education politics. Certainly we’re seeing that in these spaces that I mention. So you know harkening back to earlier in our conversation when we talked about the foundations of the charter school movement and how it had these different kinds of goals, depending on who was supporting or opposing the idea of charter schools. That one goal was a civil rights goal that that parents of color in particular black and Latinx parents had, for too long, felt disempowered by traditional public schools and were frustrated that their children were not able to achieve the kinds of well-resourced schools that their white and other middle-class counterparts were able to achieve and that charter schools were going to be one way to do that.

And, in fact, in many of the first charter schools that we saw around the country, we we did see a strong presence of grassroots, kind of mission-driven charter schools. What we learned from that first round of schools was that charter schools were incredibly expensive to operate. Particularly ones that were small and grassroots and community-centric. So, many of these schools partnered or turned over management to what we now call charter management organizations. And so and these were organizations that would provide the kinds of management that the school district used to provide for them on a fee basis.

And, in many ways, some of these schools were taken over by those organizations and sort of absorbed into their franchise model. Some of the original schools remain these kind of ethnocentric community-centered schools despite this overall trend in privatization. But, you know, as we’re seeing declining enrollments, largely because of broader urban planning policy that is disinvesting in public housing and affordable housing and has sent families of color families living in poverty out of cities into outer ring suburbs the families that remain, are faced with bearing the brunt of school closures. In Chicago in the last round of school closures, for example, 17 of 18 schools, I believe, were concentrated in African American neighborhoods.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:15:35] Seventeen of the 18 public schools that were closed by the city?

Janelle Scott [00:15:38] Right — at the same time that the city was approving more charter schools. These proposals to close schools have set off these very protracted and deeply fractured politics in the cities about whose schools are slated for closing. What kinds of resources are being allocated to them and how race does or does not show up in those decisions. In terms of the traditional civil rights group, we’re also seeing fracturing there.

In California, the NAACP issued a call for a moratorium on charter schools, even as the Urban League opposed that moratorium. And so we’re seeing a fracturing in the kinds of civil rights advocacy sector that we have not typically seen in modern civil rights history. So, I think those are some of the issues I would call our attention to as we think about the kind of politics of privatization in cities.

We haven’t yet talked about performance according to the kind of standardized measures.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:16:42] Well, so that was my next question, you know, do they work? They’re causing some other problems fiscally, but are they educating students better? And especially when you talk about the early waves of support for charter schools, you know, I’m sympathetic to the ideas of communities saying, “Hey we’ve been disinvested, these public schools are not educating our children. This alternative model allows us greater control and this is what we want.” Did it work? Are they better?

Janelle Scott [00:17:12] So not to be a jargony academic. I know that the show does not allow for that.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:17:19] All right. Well, say it and then we’ll make you explain it. Give us the jargon first.

Janelle Scott [00:17:22] I mostly meant I was going to equivocate, but actually, the equivocation aligns with the evidence. We know that the performance on standardized assessments, which is our primary way of assessing whether they are working or not working, shows that charter school achievement is kind of all over the place. And so, you have a sector or a small sub-sample of charter schools that are outperforming traditional public schools.

You have another strand, a much larger strand, that’s performing right about the same. And then, you have another strand that’s performing much worse. And so this has raised lots of questions. I think first and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that there are students who are getting great educations in some charter schools. There are parents who are deeply happy with the education that their students are receiving and that they seem to be functional good places for kids teachers and communities. Right. That it also exists amidst the other problems or politics that that I’ve been discussing.

But, in terms of the schools performing about the same and the schools performing much worse, it does raise questions about one of the original theories of action for charter schools, which is the factor that was causing underperformance of schools or disempowerment of families was the lack of educational freedom to do what you wanted to do in a school. The theory of action was if we get freedom from the state, the state being the school district, and in this instance then all these schools would just flourish because they wouldn’t be held down by regulations and this sort of stultifying bureaucracy that’s impervious to change. And so, the fact that we have such a large concentration of schools that are performing right about the same or worse, really, does challenge that original theory of action. Many people have tried to turn to the high flyers to understand what’s going on in those schools. Is there a way to replicate that not only in the traditional public school sector, but also in the charter sector the other parts of the charter sector more broadly.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:19:30] We’ve talked about how this is not solely, but largely, an urban phenomenon — that’s where we’re finding higher concentrations of different types of privatization and charter schools, in particular. And you’ve spoken in your research about how segregation has played a role in helping privatization come about. Are the schools themselves, when they crop up, contributing to segregation or are they a desegregating force or is it unclear?

Janelle Scott [00:19:58] I think that we’re seeing, dynamically, a little bit of both, which makes it difficult to make consequential statements overall. Part of the reason we’re seeing that great diversity in terms of that relationship between the proliferation of choice and segregation is that some schools are set up with a mission to be intentionally diverse. And so those schools, in general, do achieve better diversity. But in other cases, we are seeing this sort of sorting mechanism happening with charter schools where you have families given the power to choose and schools given the power to choose families that we’re seeing this sorting of children into schools that are racially or socioeconomically segregated in many ways. It’s hard to say.

You didn’t say, and I am glad you didn’t say, “Are they causing segregation?” Because they’re not. Segregation existed long before they came along. But there is a whole set of complex federal and state and local policies that also feed into our situation with with racial and ethnic segregation. But I think what we’re not seeing is a deep disruption of those overall patterns and, in many many cases, we’re seeing a heightening of them.

One of the things that has also been raised as a concern or area of focus is the extent that black and Latinx students are not only heavily concentrated in charter schools, for example, but also what kinds of charter schools they are being they’re concentrated into. And so many of the schools that we see this heavy concentration of black and Latinx kids who also come from high-poverty families are what have been called “no excuses” charter schools. These are schools that are based on a set of pedagogical teaching and learning assumptions that students need strict discipline order, longer school days, longer school year, emphasis on behavior and behavior targets, and in many ways is sort of very highly regimented back-to-basics kind of model.

These models were controversial from the beginning, not only because they did not align with decades and decades of research on educating black and brown children holistically, with love, with care and with rigor, but also because the operators of these schools tended to be white. The sort of racial dynamics of a sort of white middle-class orientation to diagnosing and intervening in perceived problems in black and Latinx children and communities was very deficit-laden. And we’re starting to see a rethinking of this model by many of the operators of these schools, even as families are choosing these schools. And that’s important to note. While many families are satisfied with those schools, we also see great attrition out of those schools back into traditional public schools for children whose behavior was deemed unacceptable or inappropriate. Families who were not able to adhere to the very regimented expectations of them, in terms of volunteer hours or having their children there for longer days or longer hours.

So, the dynamics that it creates within predominantly black and Latinx communities then is something that, I think, we’re seeing more and more conversation about and really important to have this conversation, this sort of revitalized attention we’re seeing across the United States on trying to finally desegregate our schools. We’re seeing that in the Democratic primary, for example, these conversations about the role of these candidates, either as participants or architects of desegregation plans, that we’re seeing these questions raised.

You know, one other aspect of segregation that has really drawn a lot of attention in the charter school sector in the voucher sector is the relative under enrollment of students with special needs and, in some cases, that disproportionality is quite marked and intense. And what we are seeing in many cases where charter schools do enroll students that are in percentages that are more aligned with school district percentages that those students tend to have less severe disabilities. So, some of the pressure that that’s creating, in terms of traditional public schools being able to serve the students they have, is something that get gets raised in this space around segregation.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:24:36] Sure. Because it’s changing the population then of students who are left to be served by the public schools if you’re taking people out of that population and funneling them to private. Got it. All right, well there’s a lot to untangle here, but we try to kind of end on, if we can, in a somewhat more actionable space. So, wrapping it all up, what do you, as an expert, think that cities and policymakers could do to address some of the disparities in education that are maybe fueling the rise the rise of privatization? Or, how could we maybe integrate private and public systems better together? What are the things that you think would make for better policy on the ground?

Janelle Scott [00:25:15] I think there are some things we can do in multiple spaces. One is, I think, that the politics and debates around these areas are so charged and there’s a very robust think tank and advocacy sector producing evidence on, “Are these schools working are these systems working?” And they’re sort of arguing across ideological divides. And I think that has created a space where people essentially will look at the source of our report and discount it based on the source. So, I think there’s a really important and central role for state governments to take on the sort of research and evaluation of these policies in a way that is perceived as objective and robust and rigorous.

For example, the issue of fiscal impact of charter schools on traditional public schools is still a matter of very intense debate. But I think a really great state-sponsored study could help adjudicate that debate and point us into ways to alter, legislatively, the charter school laws that are either feeding into this fiscal impact or mitigating that fiscal impact, so I think there is a real healthy role for government in this space.

Similarly, states could alter their charter school laws to really tighten up their racial and ethnic diversity requirements. I do think that if districts and other authorizing bodies were allowed to consider the impact on racial and ethnic segregation of the approval of a particular charter, that could help to incentivize those considerations in the sector. So I think those are two ideas.

And I think, in general, we just need to really buttress up our ability. If we are going to invite private sector operators into the function and delivery of schooling, then we need to make sure that we have good accountability mechanisms, in terms of reviewing contracts, holding contractors accountable for performance. Otherwise, we are in a situation in which we’re just allowing public resources to be wasted in a time when they’re very scarce.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:27:26] Great. Well there you have it, state governments. It’s back-to-school time, so get your data together. Thank you so much, Dr. Scott, for talking to us today.

Janelle Scott [00:27:35] Sure. Thank you for having me.

Lizzy Ghedi-Ehrlich [00:27:43] And thank you all for listening. For more on Janelle Scott’s research, check out our show notes at No Jargon is the podcast for the Scholars Strategy Network, a nationwide organization that connects journalists, policymakers and civic leaders with America’s top researchers to improve policy and strengthen democracy. The producer of our show is Dominik Doemer and our sound engineer is JM Baez. If you liked the show, please subscribe and rate us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your shows. You can give us feedback on Twitter @NoJargonPodcast or at our email address at