by Félix Pérez
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This year has been a mixed bag for educators and supporters of public education. From a high-profile defeat of charter school expansion to the rise of fear and anxiety in schools and classrooms as a result of the presidential election, 2016 was witness to its share of ups and downs, most of which will reverberate into the new year and beyond.
Here then, in descending order, are the picks by the Ed Votes team for the top five education stories of 2016:
5. New Report: Taxpayers lose $216 million to charter waste, fraud, and abuse
Taxpayers in 15 states have lost about $216 million to charter-school waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, concluded a report issued by the Center for Popular Democracy. With the rapid growth in the number of charter schools nationwide, local and state governments are not equipped to oversee the public’s investment in these schools adequately, according to the report.
It adds that state, local, and federal governments nationwide could lose more than $1.8 billion this year due to deficiencies related to oversight. That’s up from losses totaling $1.4 billion in 2015. The report claims the bulk of these losses will go undetected because of the inability of government at every level to adequately monitor and regulate charters.
The report gives several examples of cases that have grabbed headlines. One involved the founder of three charter schools in Atlanta who was arrested and charged with misappropriating about $600,000 he allegedly obtained through ATM withdrawals linked to the schools’ accounts. Another case mentioned in the report involves the Hope Academy Charter School in Kansas City, Missouri. Law enforcement officials are suing the school for $3.7 million in state funding they charge was misappropriated by the school.
4. School funding ballot wins show strong voter support for public schools
Voters in Maine, California, and Washoe County, Nevada, showed strong support for students and educators by passing ballot measures on Election Day to raise revenues they will invest in their public schools.
Maine voters approved Question 2, a measure that restores a greater degree of tax fairness and increases revenue for schools by instituting a 3 percent surcharge to taxable income above $200,000. Maine schools stand to gain an additional $157 million per year for direct funding of classroom education. The funds will be distributed to districts so they can determine which student supports are most needed.
California voters approved Proposition 55, which extends for 12 years a surtax on the top 2 percent of earners—those with annual incomes more than $250,000 and couples with annual incomes in excess of $500,000. The surtax was first approved by voters in 2012 and was set to expire this year. Educators were part of a broad coalition supporting Prop. 55, and helped gather more than 275,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
Voters in the greater Reno area approved a half-cent sales tax to address long-standing issues with school facilities—there aren’t enough of them, and the buildings they have are too small and falling apart. The passage of WC-1 means eight and middle schools will not be forced to have students attend school in two shifts, with some waiting at bus stops at 4:30 a.m. and others returning home from classes as late as 7 p.m. It will lessen reliance on more than 225 portable modular classrooms in parking lots and playgrounds and end the practice of using hallways and common areas as classrooms. The measure, backed by SOS Washoe, a coalition of businesses and community groups as well as the local and state education associations, represents a victory for the district’s 64,000 students.
3. 5 reasons why Betsy DeVos is wrong for Secretary of Education
Meet Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, a billionaire and conservative mega-donor who has no classroom experience, and whose work in public education consists mainly of efforts to privatize it.
“In Michigan, we know firsthand how disastrous DeVos’s ideology is, as she has spent decades wielding her family’s money and influence to destroy public education and turn our schools and students over to for-profit corporations,” said paraprofessional and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.
Betsy and husband Dick DeVos have pushed for decades for so-called “choice” schemes and corporate charter schools, most of which have performed worse than the state average. DeVos has invested millions lobbying for laws that drain resources from public schools. The DeVos family gave nearly $1 million to GOP lawmakers in the Michigan legislature who gutted a bill that included accountability measures for charter schools in Detroit.
2. MA, GA residents choose students, public schools over charters
Voters in Massachusetts and Georgia defeated ballot measures that could have led to the unchecked growth of charter schools–robbing public schools of valuable resources and funding.
In Massachusetts, voters defeated Question 2, which sought to lift the cap on the creation of new charter schools in the state. The measure would have taken millions of dollars away from public schools, which are already underfunded about a $1 billion per year. Organized under the name of Save Our Public Schools, educators teamed up with parents, students, civil rights leaders, labor and faith-based groups, and other community organizations to defeat Question 2.
in Georgia, voters overwhelmingly voted no on Amendment 1, Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal, which would have opened the door to the proliferation of charter schools in the state. Amendment 1 would have amended the Georgia Constitution to allow the state to take over a school district, wrestling control away from parents and local communities. Once under state control, under-performing public schools could then be converted to charter schools as part of “education reform.” As in Massachusetts, educators joined with parents and a wide variety of community groups to defeat the state takeover amendment.
1. Trump hate rhetoric fuels rise on school, racial. ethnic tensions
Educators across the country have reported alarming incidents in which students are bullied by peers spouting anti-immigrant, anti-minority rhetoric they have heard during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, primarily from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his supporters.
A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project surveyed 2,000 K-12 educators and found that the hostile tone and bullying behavior seen at Trump campaign events were having a profound negative effect on individual students and entire school communities. Nearly 70 percent of educators said students had expressed concerns about what might happen to their families after the November election, stating that most of those students are immigrants, children of immigrants, and Muslims. More than half of the teachers surveyed had seen an increase in hateful language, with more than a third seeing an increase specifically in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant speech.
The survey questions did not name specific candidates. But in the comments section, Trump was named five times more often than all other candidates combined.