Berea College, Work Colleges, Tax Bills, and Student Loan Ripoffs

Gulfport   Berea College is as close as something comes to a one-of-a-kind, single institution, social change education experiment. Founded 162 years ago by abolitionists in Kentucky to educate freed slaves and lower income white students, to this day the college only admits lower income students. The Times reports that 98% of its classes use federal Pell grants and 64% are first time college students. Amazingly, all four years of college are tuition free for the students. Why don’t we have more college like this!

I’ve followed Berea at a distance with admiration. A former ACORN organizer in New Orleans moved to Berea when he fell for a local woman from there and always spoke of the town and the school with awe. Not being a college guy, I had looked them up back when and wondered why we didn’t recruit organizers there, and why they weren’t trying to get us to take summer interns, provide work study, and teach classes.

All of which surprised me to see Berea in the papers in an article connected to the Republican’s tax bill. Turned out Kentucky’s Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to put in a last minute carveout for Berea that would exempt them from paying the additional tax the bill had put on college endowments valued at over $500,000 per student. The target was the Ivy League schools and other big hitters like Stanford and the like. Turns out little Berea’s big, billion dollar plus endowment puts them at $700,000 per pupil. Anyway, Democrats like Bernie Sanders put a red flag on the item as not being budget related and breaking the rules. Now, Berea is in the middle of a partisan squabble as McConnell tries to put the horns on Sanders, and Sanders retorts that McConnell and the Repubs ought to support his bill making all college tuition free.

Somehow you know Berea is going to get a fix, but in the PT Barnum sense that “any publicity is good publicity,” let’s make the most of their moment in the sun, or storm, or whatever you want to call it. One thing that’s getting some more light as the sparks fly is that Berea is one of seven so-called “work colleges,” which is also interesting. The concept there is that students pledge to study and work throughout their time, arguably making them good-to-go for job skills and discipline when they matriculate, but also helping pay the bills in an equitable fashion without much, if any, student loan debt. Looking at the list of other schools, it’s a hill country kind of phenomena it seems with schools in North Carolina, Kentucky, southern Illinois and southern Missouri and Arkansas, including the College of the Ozarks.

Better to look at these brave few schools than the ones the Republicans really seem to love which are the for-profit college. Secretary of Education and for-profit college investor, Betty DeVos says that she is about to release her plan to renege on canceling the loan debt for students who were ripped off by the for-profit scamsters who made claims that they couldn’t deliver. Obama’s people were going to cancel out 100% of the debt, sticking it to the fraudulent institutions. DeVos wants a formula that exempts students who are making 50% less than others, but makes those making 50% or more of other graduates in their cohort to have to pay some share of the loans.

Let me get this straight. Republicans are claiming they love Berea which is about work, and Republicans also want to penalize students coming from ripoff schools who have taken the lemons, made lemonade, and are working.

Does this add up? You figure?!?


Scorecards Indicate Charter Schools are Failing in New Orleans Experiment

Snapshot of New Orleans Charter School Performance

New Orleans   Performance rankings for schools conducted by the Louisiana Department of Education indicate that most New Orleans schools have tanked between 2014 and 2017 with 65% of them scoring more poorly in that period. Schools in Orleans parish overall now only rate a “C” grade. About 40% of the city’s schools received either a D or an F grade. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans school system has been the site of the largest and most extensive charter school experiment in the country, so this is a bright yellow flashing caution light, if not a solid red stop sign.

Part of the problem, according to educators and the online news site, The Lens, lies in the tougher standards being implemented since Louisiana adopted Common Core standards in 2010 and introduced as a test in 2015 that reflected the new standards. Part of the failure, as conceded by charter operations like one of the larger New Orleans groups, Firstline Schools, lies right at the feet of charters compared to central, public school districts. Firstline’s CEO was quoted in The Advocate saying, “The resources to develop a comprehensive curriculum that aligns with those (new standards) exceeds the capacity of a single charter or group. It’s interesting that one of the things that helped the schools – autonomy – can work against us if we’re not also open to adopting things that are more standardized when helpful.” Needless to say, this goes to the heart of the charter school movement’s key arguments for their existence and their superiority over public school systems.

And, worse it turns out that all of this reflects the fact that the state has been grading on a curve to protect against the criticism of lower performance. As Marta Jewson reports, “For the last four years, school letter grades have been assigned on a curve to ensure the statewide distribution didn’t get worse than it was in 2013.” Without the curve school board members note that more than half of the schools would have been D or F’s.

The school performance grades are used by the state to assure charter accountability, but this has broken down as well. Charter contracts are only evaluated three years after their first initiated and then “again after the fourth year.” Worse, critics and other observers note that the same schools are staying at the bottom of the list, and too often it means that when the reckoning comes due, one charter is simply switched for another, and the clock is allowed to run out on the students yet again with substandard schools and curriculum.

No matter which side of the argument you have been on, this has to trigger a demand for immediate accountability and direct responsibility for school performance by the public, not a con game shuffle of kids from failing charter to failing charter.