Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

After today, this blog will take a three week end of summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, September 13!

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Gene Glass Gives Up on Psychometrics, Explains Danger of Test-and-Punish

Gene Glass is a seasoned professor of education—an expert in psychometrics, the science of measuring—who recently explained Why I am No Longer a Measurement Specialist.

Glass’s late career shift is a principled decision: “In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education.  The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying the taxes.  The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions.  Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

In other words, Glass is tired of affiliating with the segment of educational academia that has created the tests used by cynical politicians and ideologues to justify blaming the schools that serve other people’s children along with the simultaneous underfunding of these schools.

Glass explains that after he was given an award for his 1966 dissertation, he was hired as a psychometrician by a major university. “Psychometrics,” he writes, “promised to help build a better world.  But twenty years later, the promises were still unfulfilled.  Both talent and tasks were too complex to yield to this simple plan. Instead, psychometricians grew enthralled with mathematical niceties.”

Then in 1980, Glass served for a time on the committee that governs the National Assessment of Education Progress, the test administered without any school identifiers or punitive consequences.  It is used to measure overall trends in American student achievement over time.  Glass reports, “The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/ Proficient/Basic.  Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.”

But, of course, standardized testing has acquired political consequences over the years—culminating in the punitive test-and-punish federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 and the Obama Race to the Top Program and NCLB waivers that have mandated that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.

Glass concludes: “When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered.  I have watched this happen for several years now.  I have slowly withdrawn my intellectual commitment to the field of measurement.  Recently I asked my dean to switch my affiliation from the measurement program to the policy program.  I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.”

In the book Glass co-authored last year with long-time educational researcher, David Berliner, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten American Public Education, the reader can see Glass and Berliner’s discontent with the way psychometrics is being manipulated by politicians to evaluate school teachers: “President Obama’s recent school reform initiative, Race to the Top, adds yet another seemingly sensible, but actually reprehensible, policy to the list of pressures on teachers…. One of the stipulations of the RTTT grant was that states had to implement a merit pay system based, in significant part, on student achievement scores.  States also are encouraged to base other personnel decisions (e.g. retention, tenure, termination, etc.) on student growth data… Most states have adopted a value-added measurement (VAM) method to statistically measure teacher performance based on student test scores.  VAMs are designed to measure student growth from year to year by controlling for non-teacher influence, such as student social class standing or English language competency.  But a host of other variables that are known to affect the growth of classroom achievement in any one year are totally unaccounted for.” (50 Myths & Lies, pp. 58-59)

Glass begins his recent column, “I was introduced to psychometrics in 1959. I thought it was really neat.”  Most of us don’t find the details of statistical measurement and control of variables “really neat.” We are paying the price for our own inattention to the details as politicians have sold us this latest bottle of snake oil. Gene Glass knows a lot about this arcane subject. We ought to listen to him as he gives up what he expected would be his lifelong calling.

State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.

Blaming Teachers Gets Us All Off the Hook

It is important to read stories like Joe Mozingo’s piece, San Bernardino: Broken City, or listen to the NPR broadcast based on Mozingo’s reporting.  The subject is desperation and family homelessness among the destitute in a faded California city where many children reside in cheap motels.  I watched children, ready for school, come out of a strip of such places one morning in Phoenix, and I once watched a school bus drop off children at such a motel in Florida. It’s a jarring sight, partly because of what it says about America these days and partly because most of us, far more privileged, imagine going to school in the context of our own school days or the educational setting we intentionally provided for our children.

I suppose this place in our own more privileged imaginations is why, for many of us, blaming teachers makes sense.  If students in our poorest communities can’t realize our expectations for rising test scores, we are willing to accept it when someone says we have to hold teachers accountable.  As Mozingo paints the picture—meth addiction, homelessness, grueling employment for parents in the huge distribution warehouses out in the desert—San Bernardino is a place where median household income has fallen from $56,278 in 1970 to $37,440 today in inflation-adjusted dollars.  While Mozingo reports on neither the schools nor the test scores, I am certain the schools are caught in the same kind of vicious cycle. I live in the Northeast Rust Belt, and I don’t get to California very often, but when I drive through downtown Gary, Indiana or the devastated neighborhoods of Youngstown, Ohio, I have created a discipline for myself.  To parrot society’s message, I say to myself, “The children’s test scores here are because of the school teachers,” and then I consider the implications of that statement.

There is a whole shelf of sociology books—Karl Alexander’s The Long Shadow, about Baltimore—Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect—Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality—about the concept of neighborhood ecology—all the factors that come together to shape people’s experience of where they live.  Sharkey defines the ecology of neighborhoods very clearly: “To truly understand inequality in America… it is necessary to move beyond a focus on income, occupation, and education, the traditional markers of socioeconomic status, and to consider the ways in which inequality is organized in space.  In doing so, we find that the neighborhood is an independent dimension of stratification, meaning the residential patterning of American neighborhoods is not explained by these other dimensions of stratification—income, occupation, or education… By studying neighborhoods and communities we see a different dimension of inequality, and a more severe brand of racial inequality.” “(T)he spatial clustering of social phenomena, economic opportunities, environmental resources and  hazards, and public institutions has important implications for the life chances of individuals.”(Stuck in Place, p. 15)

Instead of considering something as complicated and nuanced as the ecology of neighborhoods, the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind, which set out to blame somebody and punish the school-perpetrators of low test scores, and the No Child Left Behind Waivers granted to states by the Obama Department of Education, which demanded that states evaluate school teachers in part by their students’ standardized test scores, have given us an easy target: the teachers in public schools serving low-income neighborhoods, teachers who serve our society’s most vulnerable children.  All the blame, wielded through data collection and published rankings of teachers—and the hoops that teachers must now jump through to prove they are effective (including submission of reams of goals and plans that fills up teachers’ evenings and weekends), has not raised the test scores.  But it seems to be making the career of teaching far less appealing.  There is a significant drop in the number of people who want to become school teachers.

Motoko Rich reported last week for the NY Times: “Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education…  At the same time, a growing number of English language learners are entering public schools, yet it is increasingly difficult to find bilingual teachers.  So schools are looking for applicants everywhere they can—whether out of state or out of country—and wooing candidates earlier and quicker… In California, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2012…. Nationally, the drop was 30 percent between 2010 and 2014….”  Rich ties the drop in the number of candidates training to be teachers to several factors including the long impact of the Great Recession and the intimidating prospect of college debt.

An Associated Press report last week also examined teacher shortages in Oklahoma, Kansas and Indiana.   Noting that in Oklahoma per-pupil funding has continued to fall and teachers have not had a pay raise in a decade, the report also examines the impact of widespread teacher bashing on college students’ interest in the profession: “Some former teachers say an increase in mandatory testing and a sense of hostility from lawmakers has crushed morale. Recent Oklahoma measures are designed to increase rigor as well as imposing a grading system for schools that many teachers and administrators felt was unfair.”

The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin interviewed Timothy Slekar, the dean of Edgewood College’s School of Education, who reports that applications to his department have fallen by a third: “At a time when we supposedly are saying we want our best people to be stepping up to become teachers, we are pushing those people away more and more and more…. People never went into teaching for the money.  They went because there was this sense of wanting to make a difference and change the world—very idealistic, right?  Why are people not doing that anymore?  That’s where you have to ask the real question… On top of me not making enough money, you mean I’m not going to have autonomy, I’m not going to have respect and everybody in the country thinks it’s my fault that kids are failing in schools?  It’s the qualitative part of being a teacher that is driving people away from the field.”

WA Court Fines Legislature $100,000 a Day for Failure to Remedy School Funding

Despite the intrusive role of the federal government in public education imposed by the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act, “All 50 state constitutions require their state to establish and fund education for its children.  These provisions are in the constitutions because education is so fundamental to preservation of democracy and a republican form of government,” explains Molly Hunter, Direction of Education Justice at the Education Law Center.  Hunter continues: “Yet, too many states across the country are failing to provide fair funding for the essential resources necessary to offer genuine learning  opportunities to their students.  In some of those states, including Washington, plaintiffs have traveled the long journey through the courts to prove shocking resource deficits and harm to schoolchildren.  After court rulings ordering states to bring their funding systems into compliance with their state constitutions, some states enact thorough and effective remedies.  But a few legislatures and governors resist, in Kansas and Arizona, for example.”  (Last week this blog covered the deplorably inadequate and inequitable school finance in Kansas, the result of tax slashing and austerity measures imposed by Governor Sam Brownback and a far-right legislature.),

The action of Washington’s state supreme court last week is an encouraging contrast to the ongoing school funding catastrophe in Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and a number of other states.  The NY Times reports that: “Washington State’s highest court, which has threatened, cajoled and pleaded with the state Legislature and governor for years to close the gap in spending between rich and poor schools, said on Thursday that it had finally lost its patience.  In a unanimous decision, the nine-member Supreme Court imposed a fine of $100,000 a day on the state until a plan to reduce the gap was accepted, and in a written order ‘encouraged’ Gov. Jay Inslee to call the Legislature into a special session.  The financial sanctions, which started on Thursday with the filing of the order, will be owed every 24 hours, seven days a week with the money going into an education fund.”

Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent of public instruction is reported by the NY Times to have, “applauded the court’s decision and said that the fines might achieve what previous orders by the court had not.  Washington, he said, is near the bottom of the national rankings in class size and in per-pupil K-12 funding.  An over-reliance on local taxes—which is at the heart  of the case underlying Thursday’s order—has created, he said, a patchwork of rich districts and poor ones.  That makes the question not just one of books and teacher salaries, Mr. Dorn said, but civil rights.”

The Seattle Times traces the history of the McCleary lawsuit, filed in January of 2007.  The case made its way to the state’s supreme court, which ordered the state to raise spending and required progress reports after each legislative session.  The court imposed the fines last week at the end of the 2015 session, while it acknowledged that significant progress has been made in transportation funding, and support for other operating costs, materials and supplies.  The state has also made some progress toward providing full day kindergarten for all children and reducing class size in the primary grades, but, according to the court, has fallen short in overall class-size reduction, in capital outlays to provide enough space for all-day kindergarten and smaller classes, and additional funding for salaries for teachers and other employees.  In addition to imposing the fines last week, the court now wants a master plan with a phase-in schedule that explains how the legislature plans to bring the state into compliance.

In the 2015-2017  biennial budget just signed into law, the Seattle Times explains, “lawmakers… came up with $1.3 billion in additional K-12 funding, which included spending to reduce K-3 class sizes, expand all-day kindergarten, and pay for materials, supplies and operating costs.  The plaintiffs have argued that’s far short of the additional $5 billion a year actually needed.  In their order, the justices questioned whether the state devoted enough money to class-size reduction, noting it allocated $350 million while the Legislature’s education task force had recommended in 2012 that about $663 million would be needed this budget cycle… Justices also questioned whether lawmakers provided enough money to help schools build the extra classrooms needed to provide all-day kindergarten and to lower class sizes.”

This year Governor Jay Inslee proposed new state taxes, though the legislature balked.  The NY Times reports, “Mr. Inslee this year proposed $1.4 billion in new taxes as part of a nearly $39 billion budget plan that included a new capital gains tax on the wealthy and a cap-and-trade carbon tax system he said would also reduce climate-altering pollution.  That extra money, along with a projected $3 billion surge in revenue from existing taxes in a recovering economy, would have been funneled heavily to education.  But the governor’s new taxes faltered in the Legislature.”

The Civic Importance of Public Education: Valuing What We Take for Granted

How can we learn to value what we take for granted?

Public schools are institutions we have taken for granted for so long that it’s hard to imagine they could disappear.  In Cleveland’s saddest neighborhoods, I am jarred every time I drive by an empty lot where I used to see a school that has now been torn down.  I still remember the names of each of the elementary schools in my small Montana town.  Schools are the institutional anchors by which I define neighborhoods.  But when people attack public education, as lots of people do these days, I struggle to know how to put into words my defense of this core civic institution.

One way to learn to appreciate the public schools is to read the philosophies and histories of public education.  David Tyack, the education historian, writes: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not.  The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering.  Almost anywhere a school-age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend.  Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff.” (Seeking Common Ground: Public schools in a Diverse Society, p. 182)

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, Harvard economists, share another perspective on the importance of public education in our nation’s history. They identify a set of virtues of public education: “By virtues, we mean a set of characteristics that originated in basic democratic and egalitarian principles and that influenced the educational system.  The virtues… include public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.  These virtuous features are summarized by the word ‘egalitarianism.’ They have held the promise (if not always the reality) of equality of opportunity and a common education for all U.S. children.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 130)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was designed to hold schools accountable for outcomes. For the purpose of forcing everybody to try harder, No Child Left Behind set utopian and unreachable test score targets.  Schools that could not quickly and consistently raise scores every year until all children were deemed proficient by 2014 were labeled “failing.”  More and more schools were marked as “failing”  every year, and the federal government was finally forced to create waivers for schools from the punishments that were supposed to follow.  But the waivers have not diminished the sting of the widespread label of “failure.”  These days when people think about public education, their minds are driven by the media to the need for turnaround and accountability.  This happens so frequently that I have actually felt compelled to formulate a response: Public schools cannot be perfect, but a system of public education provides society’s best chance for meeting the needs and protecting the rights of all of our children.

Of course, such responses are theoretical; they miss the heart of the matter.  There is one book, however, that explores public schools in a very different way.  Last week in the Washington Post, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives, Valerie Strauss printed a guest column from its author, Mike Rose, research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  Possible Lives is a wonderful and inspiring book, the result of a series of Rose’s visits to the classrooms of extraordinary teachers across the United States.  In last week’s column, Rose writes: “Possible Lives is my favorite of my books because of the many encounters and discoveries it afforded me.  I began with the intention of writing about school and ended up writing as well about our country.  About its physical and social landscape…  You can’t really write—or think or talk—about schools in any comprehensive way without writing about all that surrounds them, for schools are so embedded in place.  Schools are porous; whatever is going on outside quickly makes its way into the classroom.  And schools—memory of them, the experience of them—for good or bad shape individual and communal life.”  In this book Rose takes his readers into classrooms from Calexico, California to Chicago to rural Kentucky to a one room school in Polaris, Montana. Teachers in these places and dozens more respect and nurture children, challenge them to think and reflect.  Possible Lives is over 400 pages, but I felt so sad when I finished it.  It is the one education book I can enthusiastically recommend as a great summer read, though its content is serious, or as a good way to mark the beginning of the 2015-1016 school year.

In the preface Rose wrote for the 2006 edition, he points out that this book does not intend to gloss over the problems with our public schools: “Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools.  This book is not a defense of the status quo.  The reader will gain sharp perspective on the ills of public education from the teachers and students in the classrooms we visit.  It is necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter… (B)efore we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We would also want to ask why we’re evaluating.  To what end?” (Possible Lives, p. xv)

Rose concludes that preface: “Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.  This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent.  It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language.  It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled.  When a local affair or a regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word.  When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward.  When a student said that his teacher ‘coaxes our thinking along.’… There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic.  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades.  Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p, xxviii)

You Get What You Pay For: Taxes and the Public Schools

Slashing income taxes will not grow your state’s economy, but it will very likely destroy your public schools.  If your state rolls back income taxes, your public schools will inevitably have fewer guidance counselors, and class sizes will be bigger—that is unless you can pass extra taxes locally to make up for the cuts in state revenue.  It is an old maxim: You get what you pay for.

Here is the warning that came in mid-May from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “More than a dozen states have cut personal income tax rates in recent years in hopes of spurring their economies in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  Five states—Kansas, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—enacted especially large cuts in the last five years.  In all five states, leading policymakers claimed that the tax cuts would produce stronger economic growth.  For example, after signing the cuts in his state, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback claimed, ‘Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.’  None of these big tax-cutting states have seen their economies surge since enacting the tax cuts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report continues: “Four of the five states that enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last few years have had slower job growth since enacting their cuts than the nation as a whole… States with the biggest tax cuts in the 1990s grew jobs during the next economic cycle at an average rate only one-third as large as more cautious states… Kansas, which enacted the most aggressive personal income tax cuts of recent years, has nearly drained its operating reserves to pay for the tax cuts.  It now faces hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to funding for schools and other priorities already damaged by the recession.”  It’s a race to the bottom among the tax-slashing states: “Because states must balance their budgets, they must pay for tax cuts by cutting state services, raising other taxes, or both  Those actions slow the economy, offsetting the economic benefit of the tax cuts.”

Chris Suellentrop, a writer for the NY Times Magazine, shifts the point of view by showing us this story through the distorted ideological lenses of members of the Kansas legislature and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.  Things look different in Topeka, if you hang out in the halls of a statehouse where conservative Republicans dominate both houses and where Governor Brownback doggedly insists that Kansas’s economic future hinges on a “march to zero” income taxes.

Here is what Suellentrop learns by talking to his uncle, the vice-chair of the Tax Committee in the Kansas House of Representatives: “‘People are leaving Kansas,’ he told me. The state has no mountains and no beaches, and thousands of jobs that were lost during the Great Recession, especially in Wichita’s aircraft industry, never returned.  The march to zero, which includes an already-passed provision that exempts the owners of 330,000 businesses and farms in Kansas from income tax, was designed… to turn Kansas into a different sort of tourist attraction. As he and his fellow conservatives see it, it’s an ‘open for business’ sign, one they hope will draw free enterprise to the state, perhaps akin to the way the national debate over the expansion of slavery once drew young abolitionists from New England to the plains.  At the very least, they hope it will prevent young people and existing businesses from moving elsewhere, to places with ski lodges or surf shops.”

Suellentrop describes the move to the far-right in Kansas’ politics: “In the past four years, Brownback has remade the Kansas Republican Party in his likeness.  The party’s once-powerful moderate wing has withered after steep losses in consecutive primary elections, the main battleground where policy is determined in a one-party state.  In 2011, the Kansas House welcomed 33 new Republican members, and then 40 more in 2013, a turnover of more than half the body in just a few years.  The Senate’s moderate Republican president, Steve Morris, was ousted in 2012 with Brownback’s support.  It has been a striking transformation for a state party long associated with a more cooperative approach to politics.”

Suellentrop explains the clash between Brownback’s vision and fiscal reality in terms that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities would confirm: “The budget itself, at least in broad strokes, is not a complicated document.  About half the state’s spending goes to K-12 education, with another 12 percent or so given to the state’s public colleges.  Around 20 percent goes to Medicaid, some more to pensions for teachers and state workers.  Add those numbers up and you get a budget that’s relatively inflexible, even for a governor and legislature eager to cut it.”

The problem for Kansas’ governor and legislators, as Suellentrop tells the story, is that they want good schools and universities, but they want to have the tax cuts, too.  So far Brownback’s income tax cuts haven’t brought the promised economic growth that would make all this work out: “Government revenues plummeted.  In fiscal year 2014, which ended about a year ago, Kansas took in almost $330 million less than it had anticipated, almost 6 percent below the estimates of the state’s nonpartisan experts.  According to Pew, at the end of 2014 only five states had experienced declines in tax revenues for three consecutive quarters: Alaska, Connecticut, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kansas.  Moody’s cut its debt rating for Kansas in April of last year.”

Late night budget negotiations continued through the spring of 2015 and into this summer.  The legislature repealed the over-twenty-year-old school funding formula, freezing school funding for two years as the legislature figures all this out, but at the same time restoring millions of dollars in emergency school cuts made mid-budget last February.  In a nod to fiscal reality, on June 12th, the legislature passed a plan that, “raised the state’s sales tax to 6.5 percent, from 6.15 percent; eliminated most itemized deductions for income taxes; raised cigarette taxes, and preserved a watered-down version of Brownback’s ratchet (that turns any revenue growth in future years to income tax cuts).”

Hanging over these negotiations, Suellentrop reminds us, is  a long-running lawsuit “before the Kansas Supreme Court over whether the Legislature’s K-12 cuts were constitutional and satisfied the legal requirement to adequately and equitably educate Kansas children.”  In late June the state’s supreme court released an 87 page ruling that the legislature’s new plan to fund the schools without a formula violates the state constitution.  The Wichita Eagle reports: “The court ruled that the bill violates the state constitution, ‘both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid.'”  The court clearly disputes the governor and legislature’s arithmetic by which they have claimed that the state is providing enough funding for schools this year and distributing it as fairly as it did under the old formula.  Additionally, in a long-running case which the Kansas Supreme Court had sent back to a lower court for additional action last December, even before this spring’s finagling, “the District Court panel ruled that school funding was inadequate under the state constitution.”

What’s the matter with Kansas? An ideology of tax slashing in this one-party state is clearly one of the primary problems.