Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading

Should an Ivy League Business School Train Education Leaders? Why Not?

Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.

In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)

But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education. 

Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT. Via Wikimedia user Nick Allen.

Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets? 

A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.  Continue reading

Media: “Give Louisville’s Low-Income Families the Same School Choice the Wealthy Have” in the Courier-Journal

Louisville is a wonderful city, and I’m proud to call it home, but like many other American cities, your child’s educational opportunities depend heavily on your income level. It doesn’t have to be this way: charter schools and scholarship tax credit programs are two policy mechanisms that can help level the educational playing field.

My op-ed out today in the Louisville Courier-Journal focuses on the need for Kentucky’s policymakers to empower lower-income parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child — just like the wealthy already do:

All families deserve to choose the best educational path for their children, but right now in Louisville, that right is reserved only for the wealthy.

Families with financial means who are unhappy with Jefferson County Public Schools have several options. They can move to nearby Oldham, Shelby or Bullitt counties, as thousands have done since the early 1990s, taking a significant amount of taxable wealth with them. Or they can enroll their children in one of the area’s many private schools, as thousands per year also do. Low-income families, meanwhile, are essentially asked to wait and hope that the school system improves.

Read my full op-ed here, and check out Bellwether’s other writing on school choice issues here.

Kentucky Teachers Just Elected a New Governor — But His Education Policies Might Not Win

Teachers in Kentucky are feelin’ good as hell. Their organizing efforts helped a Democrat — current Attorney General Andy Beshear — unseat the nation’s most unpopular governor in a state that Donald Trump carried by 30 points in 2016. While current Governor Matt Bevin requested a recanvass, educators are enjoying the catharsis of their success, and hoping for a pay raise, higher levels of state funding for K-12 education, and better outcomes for their students. 

photo of Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear visiting a school in the state

Photo of Beshear via his Instagram

Unfortunately, the actual impact of this election on students in Kentucky will be minimal unless Governor-elect Beshear pursues bipartisan cooperation on education issues, which will be a challenge as he works with a Republican-dominated legislature. 

Beshear has promised an ambitious and expensive education policy agenda that includes reducing class sizes and giving a $2,000 pay raise to every teacher. But it’s very likely that in 2020, down ballot voting in Kentucky will remain ruby red and stymie Beshear’s education proposals. Additionally, Kentucky’s legislature will be able to override any Beshear vetoes with a simple majority, as they did several times under Bevin.

We can expect Governor-elect Beshear to make splashy personnel moves, but they may have only limited impact on students. While Beshear can appoint four members to the State Board of Education in 2020, he’s vowed to use a precedent set by Governor Bevin to replace the entire board on day one of his administration, with the hopes that they fire the current Commissioner of Education on day two. This action is sure to provoke a legal challenge by the man replacing him as Attorney General, Daniel Cameron.  Continue reading

Will Denver’s School Board Change Direction on Tuesday?

In Hamilton, George Washington tells the title character: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” But the experience of school system leaders is sometimes the inverse: implementing policies that yield tangible improvements is one thing, but winning support at the ballot box can be more difficult. Even when reforms deliver significant improvements in student outcomes, it’s no guarantee that those policies — or the leaders who support them — will withstand the next election.

Denver is a clear example of this dynamic. While 2019 is considered an “off year” for federal elections, Denver’s school board race could have a major impact on the future of the city’s reform efforts.

The work to transform Denver’s school system began in earnest in 2005, when four-year graduation rates were a dismal 39 percent. After a decade of consistent improvement, the four-year graduation rate rose to 69 percent by 2017, with achievement scores also showing impressive growth. Two leaders responsible for sparking this transformation have since left their positions: Superintendent Michael Bennet was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009 and won a full term in 2010, and former mayor John Hickenlooper was elected governor in 2010 and is seeking Colorado’s other senate seat in 2020.

While Denver’s school board continued to push for improvement in student outcomes after these leaders moved on, elections in 2017 weakened that consensus. And the balance of control on Denver’s school board may be “flipped” away from the reform-inclined majority on Tuesday. There are three seats up for grabs, with three candidates vying for each seat, none of whom are incumbents.

One of the key underlying themes of the race is a sense that for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities. While Denver officials are working to improve community engagement efforts, building those relationships may be even more critical in the coming years. Projections show a potential enrollment decline in Denver’s future, which may lead to the painful prospect of school consolidations or closures.

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