School Choice & Charters Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

October 20, 2020 8 min read
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Fiscal Outlook Grim for School Funding in Next Few Years

Tough financial times are ahead for school districts. Most district leaders are already attuned to that. Just how tough, though? Far worse than that of the Great Recession, with many governors asking their various agency heads to project budget reductions of 15 percent to 20 percent.

So says the National Association of State Budget Officers in a new analysis.

The analysis, in fact, shows that for the first time in roughly a decade, a majority of states closed their fiscal 2020 books with a decline in general-revenue funds. And NASBO’s data don’t even include New York, Texas, or three other states whose fiscal years ran beyond June.

The 45 states that were done by then reported an average revenue shortfall of 6 percent in fiscal 2020, from a combination of sales, income-and corporate-tax collections, lottery and gaming revenue, and other funding sources falling short of projections.

Overall, it will be several years before states fully dig themselves out of coronavirus budget holes, according to NASBO, and future revenue losses stemming from the current recession are forecast to surpass “the 11.6 percent drop states experienced over two years during and following the Great Recession.”

Education is not immune to what lies ahead. Districts rely immensely on state funding sources, and school systems with relatively large Black, Latino, and low-income student populations can in some cases receive more than half their revenue from state aid. Brian Sigritz, NASBO’s director of state fiscal studies, said governors and lawmakers dealing with large shortfalls are going to have to make cuts in areas like K-12 education.

The speed at which state coffers rebound will depend on several factors, he said, including whether Congress passes another COVID-19 stimulus package, which would lessen the need for spending cuts, and whether the country gets ravaged by a second wave of coronavirus during the fall and winter.

“If there is additional federal aid, if the economy does recover more quickly, it might lessen the need for these sorts of cuts by the states,” Sigritz said. “Lessen. Not eliminate.”

Florida Appeals Court Sides With Governor Over Opening Schools for In-Person Classes

Florida’s governor has gotten his way to force schools to re-open and hold in-person classes even though coronavirus cases are on the rise in the state.

A state appellate court this month overturned a trial judge and upheld, at least temporarily, a COVID-19 emergency order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration that required most public schools in the state to reopen in person by Aug. 31 or face a significant loss of state funding, à la President Donald Trump’s goal.

The ruling comes in a closely watched legal battle over education during the pandemic between the Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs and the Republican administration. It is somewhat anticlimactic in that all but a few districts had opened for in-person instruction. Some schools later closed following confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

The plaintiffs “have invited the judiciary to second-guess the executive’s discretionary actions exercising emergency powers during a public-health emergency to address the health, safety, and welfare of students in Florida’s public schools,” said a unanimous three-judge panel. “The courts must decline the invitation.”

The panel’s decision overturns an injunction by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson, who had said that the governor, education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and the Florida education department had “arbitrarily prioritized re-opening schools statewide in August over safety and the advice of health experts.”

In the new appellate opinion, Judge Lori S. Rowe said the challengers of the emergency order were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their various claims under the state constitution.Rowe said the plaintiffs were unable to show that any students were denied the option to continue remote learning or “that any teacher was forced to return to the classroom, denied a requested accommodation from their employing school district, and then suffered harm.”

Said Andrew Spar, the president of the FEA: “The lower court got this case right, and the appellate court got it wrong. That’s why we will appeal this misguided ruling.”

Trump Administration Urges Schools and Colleges to Reconsider Affiliation With Chinese Program

In its latest attempt to curb China’s presence in the United States amid a battle over trade, the coronavirus, and human-rights issues, the Trump administration is encouraging schools and colleges to rethink their ties to the Confucius Institute, a program that brings Chinese-language classes to America but, according to federal officials, also invites a “malign influence” from that country.

In letters to state education officials and universities, the U.S. Departments of Education and State said the program gives China a foothold on American soil and poses a threat to free speech. Schools are being advised to examine the program’s activities and “take action to safeguard your educational environments.”

“The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campuses has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” said the letters signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The program brings Chinese-language classes to about 500 elementary and secondary classrooms, and more than 60 U.S. universities host the Confucius Institute through partnerships with an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. China provides teachers and textbooks and typically splits the cost with the schools. The program has drawn mounting scrutiny from U.S. officials amid ratcheted tensions with China. In August, the State Department labeled the program’s national office as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party, which requires the program to submit reports about its operations and spending in the United States.

In the most recent letters, which went out Oct. 9, U.S. officials drew attention to China’s new national security law in Hong Kong, which critics say curtails free expression and other liberties.

DeVos and Pompeo echoed long-standing complaints from academic groups that say schools give China too much control over what’s taught in Confucius Institute classes. Teachers who are vetted and paid by the Chinese government “can be expected to avoid discussing China’s treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities,” the officials wrote.

The letters do not explicitly urge schools to cut ties with the program but say the measure could avoid problems. Officials said many schools have built “excellent Chinese-language and culture programs” without the Chinese government.

S.C. High Court Rejects Use of COVID Aid for Vouchers

Some states tried to send federal coronavirus aid to all students in private schools. But the federal judiciary knocked that idea down—several times. Then GOP governors in several states tried to send their discretionary coronavirus aid to private schools. And South Carolina’s governor added the flourish of doing so via vouchers. Now that state’s supreme court has put the kibosh on the program.

The high court ruled that Gov. Henry McMaster’s goal to allocate $32 million—of the state’s $48 million—in aid to private and religious schools is unconstitutional because the public money would directly benefit the schools.

In the court’s opinion, Chief Justice Don Beatty acknowledged the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the lives of South Carolinians and the state’s education system, and the “unprecedented challenges” faced by state leaders. But the difficulties of the pandemic could not dictate the court’s decision, Beatty wrote.

“No matter the circumstances, the court has a responsibility to uphold the constitution,” he wrote.

The ruling came days after congressional leaders called on the U.S. Department of Education to review the program, arguing it violated “the plain text” of the coronavirus-aid package and guidance provided by the federal department.

McMaster said the one-time program would cover about 5,000 grants of up to $6,500 for students to attend private schools this academic year and help parents who could not afford the expense otherwise.

Lawyers for McMaster said the groups couldn’t show how they were personally injured by the program because public schools were not inherently entitled to the funds. They said the funds only indirectly benefited the schools while directly benefiting the students and families who would receive the tuition grants.

McMaster said he would request the court to reconsider its decision, noting the opinion could also jeopardize millions of federal aid dollars recently appropriated by the state legislature to directly reimburse private colleges and historically Black colleges and universities.

Okla. Virtual Charter Blasted in State Audit

An embattled virtual charter school that has grown to become Oklahoma’s largest public school used a “remarkably complex” infrastructure to divert tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into a for-profit business controlled by three men, says state auditor Cindy Byrd.

A Republican with more than two decades of auditing experience, Byrd said the problems uncovered in the investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and the company that manages it, Epic Youth Services, were among the worst she has seen.

She released a scathing 120-page audit of the school’s activities and finances from 2015 to 2020 that shows it funneled about $80 million into a “learning fund” managed by the school’s founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, that has never been audited. Another $45.9 million went directly into the for-profit management company controlled by Harris, Chaney, and the school’s chief financial officer, Josh Brock.

“This arrangement presents an inherent conflict of interest,” she said.

Among the audit’s other findings: The school recently spent $3 million over three months on advertising to attract new students; Epic Youth Services used $203,000 from the student-learning fund to help with startup expenses for expanding its operations into California; Harris and Chaney used Oklahoma school personnel and funds for its California operations; and they pledged credit from Epic bank accounts as collateral to secure loans to run their for-profit venture in California.

An Epic spokeswoman described Byrd’s press conference as “political theatrics” and said school officials dispute many of the audit’s findings.

The P-12 school has enjoyed explosive growth since it was founded in 2011 and now has an enrollment of about 46,000 students.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, David Saleh Rauf, and Mark Walsh. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed


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