Congress Must Make Last Spring’s Temporary Expansion of the Child Tax Credit Permanent As Part of the Build Back Better Bill

In the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-relief bill passed in March, President Joe Biden and Congress temporarily increased the Child Tax Credit and made it fully refundable. Now, as House and Senate bargain and fight about President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill (sometimes called the reconciliation package), they need to invest in making permanent last spring’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Congress should not add parental work requirements as qualifications for families to receive the full Child Tax Credit. The program was designed to protect children from the ravages of poverty.  Children should not be punished if parents are unable to work or unable to find or afford childcare.

The big problem with the Child Tax Credit until last spring when Congress temporarily expanded the program was that it helped middle class families far more than it assisted impoverished families whose children’s needs may be desperate.  Until Congress fixed it temporarily in the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit was what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls “an upside-down policy (which) gave less help to the very children who needed it most.” “Prior to enactment of the American Rescue Plan in March,  27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low, including roughly half of all Black and Latino children and children who live in rural communities… Enacted in 1997, the original Child Tax Credit largely excluded children whose families had low or moderate incomes because the credit could only be used to offset a family’s income tax liability, not to boost a family’s low income.”

The Center on Budget and Policy’s September 7, 2020 report fills in the history of the Child Tax Credit: “As part of tax legislation, President George W. Bush signed in 2001, a bipartisan group of senators restructured the Child Tax Credit to make it partially ‘refundable,’ meaning that a family with little or no income tax liability could receive part of the credit as a refund… During each of the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations, policymakers on a bipartisan basis incrementally reduced the earnings threshold.  Most recently, Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee pushed to reduce it to $2,500 in the 2017 law, which also increased the maximum credit to $2,000 per child.  But because the credit only phased in at the rate of 15 cents on the dollar for earnings above $2,500, a mother of two earning $15,000 received just $1,875 per year… still substantially less than middle-income families. The American Rescue Plan took a major step in rectifying this problem by making the full Child Tax Credit available to children in families with low or no earnings for 2021.”

The American Rescue Plan also increased the amount of the Child Tax Credit to $3,600 for each child under age 5 and to $3,000 for children ages 6-17.  “The Rescue Plan also allowed the IRS to deliver the Child Tax Credit to families on a monthly basis, rather than as a lump sum at tax time. The monthly cadence of payments provides financial predictability and stability for families with incomes near the poverty line.”

In late September, as some members of Congress suggested adding parents’ work requirements as a condition for families’ qualification for the Child Tax Credit, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a second report to define the explicit purpose of reforming the Child Tax Credit: to help support children living in poverty, not to punish unemployed parents. “Recent suggestions that Congress should deny the credit to children whose parents don’t have earnings are misguided. Taking away the full credit from children based on their parents’ earnings would needlessly leave in poverty — or push deeper into poverty — the children who need help the most, injuring their long-term health and educational outcomes and reducing their earnings as adults, while doing virtually nothing to boost parental employment…In more than 95 percent of families who benefit from making the credit fully refundable, the parent or other caretaker is working, between jobs, ill or disabled, elderly, or has a child under age.”

Permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable are tools for addressing economic inequality and racial injustice. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues: “Prior to the Rescue Plan expansion, about half of Black and Latino children received a partial credit or no credit at all because their incomes were too low, compared to about a fifth of white children. About half of children in rural… communities were also excluded from the full credit due to their family’s low income. These facts reflect sharp disparities in the educational and employment opportunities available to Black, Latino, and rural communities… The nation’s high child poverty rate and gaping racial ethnic, and geographic disparities in child poverty have translated into lost opportunities for millions of children.”  “The most common way people used their initial monthly Child Tax Credit payments this summer was to buy food… In the month and a half after the initial monthly Child Tax Credit payment was issued, the number of adults with children reporting that the household didn’t have enough to eat dropped by 3.3 million or nearly one-third.”

While middle class families have been receiving the full Child Tax Credit for each of their children since its inception in 1997, working poor and unemployed families have been excluded. The purpose of permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit is to help alleviate the threats of hunger, housing insecurity, and family stress for 27 million of our nation’s poorest children who have been left out of this program. It is time for Congress to do the right thing by making permanent the temporary reforms that were part of the American Rescue Plan.

Kentucky Judge Finds New School Voucher Program Unconstitutional

Here is some encouraging news at a time when legislators have been actively introducing a wave of legislation across the states to launch or expand all kinds of publicly funded private school tuition vouchers—regular old vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings account vouchers.

A judge in Kentucky just found a new tuition tax credit program unconstitutional.

In a book he published in 2020,  Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores our society’s history of public education as it is reflected in our nation’s founding documents and in the fifty state constitutions. Today state legislatures are pushing the limits of the state constitutions, and ideologically driven law firms representing voucher advocates are testing whether the courts can protect public schooling and students’ rights. Black worries that today’s threats seriously threaten our society’s foundational institution of public schooling:

“State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

In another important book published last year, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire conclude: “(T)he present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new threat….  Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution. An increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks, all backed by deep-pocketed funders, has aligned behind a vision of a radical reinvention.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xix)

In this context, we must welcome last week’s news from Public Funds Public Schools:  “A Kentucky trial court has ruled in Council for Better Education v. Johnson that a 2021 law establishing the state’s first private school voucher program violates the Kentucky Constitution and cannot be implemented.” Governor Andy Beshear had vetoed Kentucky House Bill 563 establishing the tuition tax credit voucher program when it came across his desk, but the state’s legislature had overridden his veto. The case will likely be appealed.

On Friday, October 8, the Louisville Courier Journal reported: “Franklin Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd’s decision delivers a crippling blow to the fledgling education opportunity account program, which narrowly became law earlier this year. In his decision, Shepherd enjoined state officials from enforcing the parts of House Bill 563 that deal with the school choice program. They will not be allowed to approve the creation of any account granting organizations or education opportunity accounts, nor can they grant any tax credits to fund either.”

Public Funds Public Schools summarizes the decision: Judge Shepherd held that Kentucky’s new voucher law “violates two separate sections of the Kentucky Constitution.  First… the voucher law violates Section 59, which prohibits laws that discriminate by singling out particular individuals or geographic locations, because it arbitrarily establishes private school tuition vouchers in only nine Kentucky counties. Second, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the law violates Section 184 of the state constitution, which provides that funds raised or collected for education may be spent only in the public schools, unless otherwise approved by the voters. Judge Shepherd rejected the defendants’ claim that the funds raised for the voucher program ‘are ‘a donation’ in any meaningful sense of that word,’ noting that the legislation permits a ‘favored’ group of taxpayers to redirect money they owe to the state and send it to voucher-granting organizations instead.” The Louisville Courier Journal adds: “The Institute for Justice… (had) argued that the funds were merely private donations.”

The fact that the Institute for Justice litigated this case on behalf of voucher advocates demonstrates that this was not merely a spontaneous local effort by parents seeking help with their private school tuition. For decades the Institute for Justice has been a leader representing advocates for publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools. On its website the Institute for Justice identifies itself as “The National Law Firm for Liberty, (which) litigates to limit the size and scope of government power and to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society.”

SourceWatch reports: “According to a statement on the Institute for Justice’s  website, ‘Charles Koch provided the initial seed funding that made it possible to launch the Institute in 1991.’ … Since its founding, the Institute for Justice has received donations from a number of groups with links to the Koch brothers, including a donation of $15,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation in 2001 and two donations of $250,000 each from the David H. Koch Foundation in 1999 and 2001. The Institute for Justice also received $716,800 from DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund between 2010 and 2012. Other organizations with links to the Kochs have worked on cases with the Institute for Justice, including the Cato Institute and the Goldwater Institute.”

The law firm successfully represented Ohio voucher advocates in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 2002 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court permitted tax dollars to fund tuition vouchers for education at religious schools as long as the vouchers were awarded to the parents and not directly to the schools. In 2011, the Institute for Justice also represented voucher advocates  in Arizona pushing an education savings account program—the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts—whose expansion was at least prevented in 2018 when public school advocates passed a referendum to limit the size of the program. And in 2020, the Institute for Justice successfully represented voucher advocates in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, seeking to protect voucher schools under the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause by arguing that if the state awards vouchers to private schools, it may not discriminate against religious private schools.

Today’s attacks on public schools are strategically planned and well funded.  It is worth considering the consumerist and anti-democratic ideology that underpins the idea of marketplace school choice. For this, we must turn to the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber:

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive… Privatization ideology today encourages us to believe that the market is not only efficient and flexible but can somehow turn its regressive impulses into the service of what is left of the idea of the public good.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Barber continues: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

This post has been updated.  The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program was not eliminated.  Instead, by referendum in 2018, voters prohibited the vast expansion of this education savings account voucher program.

Ohio State Education Board Repeals Anti-Racism Resolution: Part of National Wave of Rage and Controversy in Legislatures and Boards of Education

Late on Wednesday night, the Ohio State Board of Education repealed Resolution 20, an important declaration passed in the summer of 2020 directing the Ohio Department of Education to establish staff diversity training and launch a curriculum review intended to reduce racism and bias in the state’s public schools.

The Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver reports: “Ohio’s State Board of Education repealed an anti-racism resolution Wednesday night and replaced it with one condemning any teachings that ‘seek to divide.'” Staver explains that the 2020 anti-racism resolution: “condemned hate crimes and white supremacy movements ‘in the strongest possible terms,’ but it also directed the Ohio Department of Education to teach its employees about implicit bias. Local school boards were asked to review their graduation rates, discipline records and classroom resources… Opponents… argued that (the resolution) opened the door for districts to teach ‘disturbing’ and ‘divisive’ material about racism and identity.”

State Board member Brandon Shea drafted Resolution 13, a counter statement which eventually passed but without some of Shea’s proposed language.  Shea’s proposal, according to Staver’s report, “observed not only a growing national divide but a troubling focus on the color of one’s skin rather than on the content of one’s character.'” Shea’s proposal also condemned “critical race theory.”

While Staver reports that Resolution 13, as passed, removes the incendiary language about critical race theory, the replacement resolution condemns “any language that seeks to divide” and “any standards, curriculum, or training programs for students, teachers, or staff that seek to ascribe circumstances or qualities, such as collective guilt, moral deficiency, or racial bias, to a whole race or group of people.”  This is, of course, language that conforms to the prescriptions of far right ideologues who want to protect the white majority from looking honestly at white privilege and examining the history of slavery and racism in the United States.

For The Intercept, Akela Lacy summarized the original July 2020 resolution which was rescinded on Wednesday night: “The resolution, introduced by board President Laura Kohler, acknowledges that ‘Ohio’s education system has not been immune’ to racism and inequality, and that ‘while we earnestly strive to correct them, we have a great deal of work left to do.’ It calls for the state education board to offer board members implicit bias training, programs designed to help people understand their own unconscious biases and the ways stereotypes can distort their beliefs; for all state Department of Education employees and contractors to take the training; for the department to reexamine curricula for racial bias; and for school districts to examine curricula and practices for hiring, staff development, and student discipline.”

As Lacy explains, ever since the original resolution passed, there has been an outcry from members of the public and a loud minority within the State Board itself complaining that the resolution constitutes “critical race theory.”  Under pressure, the State Board finally asked Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to determine whether the resolution is constitutional. He let the resolution stand, saying such a determination is outside his authority, except, he said, the State Board cannot impose these mandates on private contractors. For months, the resolution has been the subject of hearings in the Ohio House of Representatives’ State and Local Government Committee, where hundreds of educators and members of the public have offered testimony in favor of last year’s resolution.  However, at one hearing, Lacy reports that one member of the State Board of Education, Diana Fessler, openly defended white supremacy.

It would be one thing if this sort of battle were happening only in Ohio’s state board of education, but instead the same kind of confrontations are being reported in local school boards all across the country.  And the arguments and downright fights are highly politicized.  In the Washington Post, Adam Laats reported: “Conflicts (have) roiled school board meetings across the country, over a range of hot-button issues: masks, vaccines, policies for trans athletes, Critical Race Theory. The conflicts moved past yelling, to lawsuits and demands for recalls—and not just of individual members but entire boards. Over and over again, local school board meetings have turned from staid discussions of budgets and staffing to heated ideological forums, hosting a go-nowhere series of fights that have little to do with the actual needs of the local schools.  Conservative pundits have talked up these confrontations as part of a larger political strategy… Why have school boards become ground zero for these aggressive ideological skirmishes? Quite simply: They are accessible. Most meetings are open to the public, in local town halls or school district offices; their members are local volunteers, who usually have no campaign war chests or partisan election support…  And if school board meetings are disrupted, members recalled, teachers threatened, students intimidated, it is that much harder for schools to function and children to learn.”

For the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot points out that people are using language and threats most often reserved for anonymous raging online: “There might be legitimate, even passionate, debate to be had about the wearing of masks… But, in so many cases, legitimate debate is not what’s on offer.  Online, the thinking usually goes, people sometimes say the kinds of venomous things they wouldn’t in person; but in these public forums, they seem all too ready to. They boo and jeer at people who express an opinion different than theirs.”

Talbot names some of the organizations and individuals who are responsible for riling people up and organizing the protests: “(P)arental ire over masks and anti-racism education, stoked by national figures such as Tucker Carlson, on Fox, and Charlie Kirk, of Turning Point USA, has helped galvanize school-board recall efforts, promote new candidates for the boards… and push legislative bills. (Twenty-eight states have restricted the teaching of critical race theory.)…. The rage has also spurred the growth of new organizations, with names like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.”

Profiling some of the rancorous school board battles in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, the Associated Press‘s Julie Carr Smyth and Patty Nieberg describe efforts whose goal is to prevent teaching about the history of slavery and racism and also to fight against requirements for students to wear masks. One group is training candidates running for local school boards: “FreedomWorks, a conservative group that supported the rise of former President Donald Trump, launched a candidate academy in March that already has trained about 300 people nationwide, with the largest number from Ohio… About 1,000 people have signed up.” Another of the “active groups in Ohio is Ohio Value Voters, which created its own spinoff—Protect Ohio Children Coalition—in April, state business records show.  The group’s leaders did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comments, but its website coaches parents to show up in groups of 30 and employ a ‘tsunami strategy’ to raise hot-button social issues and disrupt board meetings.  The group… keeps an interactive ‘indoctrination map’ that takes aim at districts offering what it describes as critical race theory, comprehensive sexuality education, and social-emotional learning. It also directs parents to the FreedomWorks training academy, stating as one of its goals ‘replacing radical school board officials through the election process.”

The National School Boards Association felt compelled to take the unusual step of asking President Biden for federal assistance.  For the Washington Post, Timothy Bella reported: “The NSBA noted more than 20 instances of intimidation, threats, harassment, and disruption in states such as California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Georgia.”

Bella adds that, in response to NSBA’s request, on Monday, October 4th, Attorney General Merrick Garland… ordered the FBI to work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a ‘disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence’ against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues such as mask mandates and interpretations of critical race theory.  In a memorandum to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and federal prosecutors, Garland wrote that the Justice Department will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement in the next 30 days and is expected to announce a series of measures in response to ‘the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel'”

In his memorandum to Christopher Wray, Garland continued: “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”

It is worth reminding ourselves of the excellent brief published by the National Education Policy Center at the end of September to explain the controversy about so-called “critical race theory” and the political objectives of those who are attacking local school board members, state school board members, and teachers: “We see two overall political objectives of the anti-Critical Race Theory attacks: (1) Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections; and (2) Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism.” As a political mobilization tool: “Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools: They could serve as hot-button ‘culture war’ issues to rally both conservatives and moderates.”  As a tool for blocking efforts to promote racial justice: “The anti-Critical Race Theory narrative is… used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by members of marginalized groups.”

This blog has covered the controversy about critical race theory here, here and here.

U.S. Department of Education Offers Hope to Hundreds of Thousands of Public Servants Who Never Got Promised Forgiveness of Student Loans

Here is a piece of good news. Last Wednesday, the Biden Administration announced that it will repair the long-mismanaged public service student loan forgiveness program, which has denied promised relief to thousands of people who should have qualified.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains that the reprieve is a temporary one-year waiver, with applications due by October 31, 2022. The reform will address years of mismanagement: “(T)he move will bring more than 550,000 people closer to debt cancellation, including 22,000 who will be immediately eligible.”

Calling the program “a notorious quagmire,” the NY Times Stacy Cowley and Erica Green report: “The Biden administration is overhauling a student loan forgiveness program for public service employees… introducing a sweeping set of fixes… that Education Department officials said would help more than half a million people get closer to the relief they had been denied for years… The beneficiaries will include ‘teachers, nurses, (military) service members, and millions of workers serving on the front lines of the pandemic,’ said Seth Frotman, a former student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who now runs the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center.”

The program was created as an incentive to make public service work more enticing, despite salaries likely to be low relative to the private sector. Douglas-Gabriel explains how the program was designed: “Borrowers must make 120 on-time monthly payments for 10 years to have the remaining balance canceled. They must work for the government or certain nonprofit organizations. They must have loans made directly by the federal government. And they must be enrolled in specific repayment plans, primarily those that cap monthly loan payments to a percentage of their income.”

But there have been problems for years. Thousands of people reported that they got bad advice from the loan servicing companies which serve as contractors for the U.S. Department of Education to manage the program and collect the payments. Some people thought they were in the correct loan plan which would qualify for public service loan forgiveness, even though they had been guided  by their loan servicer to another program. Cowley and Green report that the public service loan forgiveness program rules say that to qualify a person must have a loan made directly by the federal government: “But before 2010, most borrowers had government-backed bank loans known as Federal Family Education Loans. Hundreds of thousands of borrowers in public service jobs made payments on those loans for years without realizing—because loan servicers often failed to tell them—that those payments would not count toward the 120 monthly payments they needed to rack up to have their loans forgiven. The Education Department had long resisted giving borrowers credit for those payments, insisting it lacked the authority to do so.”

Borrowers who now qualify for loan forgiveness under the Department of Education’s new plan fall into four categories: those whose loans came from the Federal Family Education Loan Program; those who previously consolidated Federal Family Education Loans and Direct Loans from the Department of Education; those who made 120 payments in the wrong payment plan; and active duty members of the military who have deferred loans while they are serving.

Douglas-Gabriel points out that while “military service members and federal employees will receive automatic credit without an application through data matches beginning next year,” the process of applying to have loans forgiven will be complicated for most borrowers, who must submit an application and verify their public service employment before October 31, 2022.  Borrowers whose loans came from the Federal Family Education Loan Program will have to “consolidate into the Direct Loan program.”

Douglas-Gabriel adds: “The Education Department also will review the applications of borrowers who have been rejected by the forgiveness program, looking for errors and giving people an opportunity to have the determination reconsidered. Although tens of thousands of people have applied for forgiveness to date, just over 16,000 have been successful.”

In late September, POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford reported on newly released data documenting that, “More than 4,500 educators at 2,700 schools… have been denied as they seek to certify that their employment counts for the program…. The schools where borrowers were denied are located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

Last week, when he announced the Education Department’s overhaul of this program, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona declared: “Borrowers who devote a decade of their lives to public service should be able to rely on the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The system has not delivered on that promise to date, but that is about to change for many borrowers who have served their communities and their country.”

Status of School Vouchers—30 Years After Milwaukee Vouchers and 25 Years After Cleveland Vouchers Began

Milwaukee, the oldest publicly funded, private school voucher program in the United States just marked its 30th anniversary. Wisconsin vouchers have been a model for voucher expansion all over the country, which makes this a good time to review the impact of the growth of diversion of tax dollars to cover private school costs.

In a two part review for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School reflects on the operation and public policy impact of the now 30-year-old Milwaukee voucher program, and more generally on the implications of the growing use of school vouchers.

Borsuk begins by noting that in Wisconsin, vouchers are now so old they have lost some of their luster. He believes the public ought to be watching more closely: “In Wisconsin, the sector wars between public school people and school choice people are kind of old hat. The hottest cup of coffee served in the last generation of education around here seems lukewarm now. But that is also a good reason to re-cap the impact of providing public support for thousands of children to attend private and religious schools….”

Based on his study of the Milwaukee voucher program over its 30 year history, Borsuk offers 10 primarily descriptive observations:

  1. “The voucher movement is big. It started out in Fall 1991 with 337 students in seven schools… By last fall, about 28,000 children, around a quarter of all Milwaukee children receiving publicly funded education, were going to about 115 private schools.”
  2. “It really is school choice… (N)o one has ever been required or assigned to use a voucher to go to a private school… Thousands of parents want their kids to attend private and, most cases, religious schools, and vouchers make that possible.”
  3. “Vouchers haven’t solved the success gaps in education.  One of the primary claims of voucher supporters… was that giving parents more freedom to choose schools, coupled with competition among schools… would drive big improvements in overall academic success…. Nope. Overall, the reading and math scores of students using vouchers aren’t much different than students in Milwaukee Public Schools—and proficiency rates in both streams of schools have been generally unchanged… at depressingly low levels. Whatever is needed to… start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”
  4. “Vouchers have impacted Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) negatively… (O)verall, in large part due to voucher use and charter enrollment, enrollment in MPS has fallen steadily for more than a decade, and that is not good for the system… Also, MPS has a higher percentage of students with special needs and students who have chronic behavior problems than schools in other sectors have.”
  5. “The voucher movement is religious… (F)or the last five years, more than $200 million a year in state money has been spent on vouchers, the strong majority of it at religious schools. Those schools cover a wide range of religions—Catholic, Lutheran, other Christian denominations, Muslim, Jewish—and there are almost no limits on how religion is taught or practiced in those schools.  Both Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts have ruled it is not a violation of separation of church and state, on the theory that the state is supporting parents choosing schools and not the state choosing schools.”
  6. “Milwaukee taught the country. One important lesson was how not to do vouchers… People with limited or dubious qualifications opened schools… Some schools were outrageously bad.  Many were just mediocre and poorly run.  It was only by launching regulations and creating some oversight that bad financial practices and… bad educational practice was reined in and many schools closed.”
  7. “School choice movement is stable. In the 2010s, it seemed like every two years, when the state budget was developed, big changes were made…. Voucher programs were added for Racine, for the rest of Wisconsin, and for students with special needs… Now, especially with split control of state government, nothing is changing.”
  8. “Vouchers keep private schools going… At many private schools, more than 90%  of students are supported by vouchers of more than $8,000 per student per year… Milwaukee has a much more vibrant private school sector than many comparable cities.  Is this a public good?…  (S)aying vouchers are keeping the private school sector going is stating a fact.”
  9. “Vouchers fractured education politics… The intense battles between public school people… and voucher people meant there wasn’t a united front in responding to the needs of all the children in the city.  The division and divisiveness remain….”
  10. “The voucher school roster has improved… (T)he closing of many of the poorest schools has moved the overall record of private schools in a positive direction.”

Borsuk’s analysis presents a pretty objective analysis of many aspects of Wisconsin vouchers, but he entirely fails to address what across many states is the most serious concern: vouchers eat up a huge and growing portion of state education funding in Wisconsin and other states where voucher programs have grown over the years. Borsuk points out that the Milwaukee school district’s loss of students has been bad for the public schools.  What he doesn’t mention is that as students leave for private schools, in some states they carry the voucher funding out of their local school district’s budget.  But even when the state pays directly for the cost of the voucher, the school district loses the voucher student’s per-pupil state funding, and because many school district costs are fixed, the district loses funds needed for programming for the majority of a community’s students—the children enrolled in the public schools.

While Borsuk doesn’t mention the fiscal impact on public schools of the growth of vouchers across his state, in a 2017 brief from the National Education Policy Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Ellie Bruecker does evaluate the fiscal impact of Wisconsin’s vouchers on the state’s public schools:  “The program as currently structured appears likely to exacerbate existing inequities in state school financing. Taxpayers in many communities will be burdened with higher tax costs without seeing that burden translate into more spending on students attending local public schools. Moreover, the relative amount of money the state allocates to each public school student it supports is likely to decline. As more states enact or expand voucher programs, the case of Wisconsin offers a cautionary tale. Statewide voucher programs have the potential to seriously exacerbate funding disparities in the public system.”

Additionally voucher programs educate the few at the expense of the millions of children who continue to be enrolled in the public schools which lose the funding. For the Phi Delta Kappan, Mark Berends explains that today, while they are expensive, voucher programs serve relatively few students: “The number of school voucher programs has increased dramatically over the last two-decades. In 2000, there were just five such programs in operation in school districts and states… by 2010, the number had increased to 12, and by 2021, it had climbed to 29… (T)he number of students participating in voucher programs… has increased significantly in the last decade, though the total number of students receiving vouchers remains a tiny fraction of the total number of students in the U.S. (about 0.5%).” (Emphasis is mine.)

And while the voucher program in Wisconsin may have reached a stable plateau, in Ohio, like many other states, legislatures are making big new investments in private school vouchers.  Writing for the Columbus Dispatch, Anna Staver and Grace Deng report: “School choice advocates say… they want Ohio and eventually the country to give a voucher to any kid who wants one. ‘People are cutting their cable and buying individual channels and personalizing what they want for their own entertainment,’ said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the… Buckeye Institute. ‘It’s about choice. It’s about empowering folks. People want choice in their food, in their entertainment. Education should be that too.'”

Staver and Deng summarize the history of the recent rapid expansion of these programs, “(T)he rules that govern eligibility get a little more expansive every year.  At first, only students assigned to schools in ‘academic emergency’—the state’s lowest rating—for three consecutive years could apply for a voucher. A year later it became schools in either academic emergency or academic watch for three years.  Six months after that, the requirement dropped to two of the last three years. In 2013, lawmakers created an income-based scholarship for all kids regardless of their home district… Today, roughly half of Ohio’s families are eligible for an income-based voucher because the limit for a family of four (is) $65,500 of annual household income.”

In the state budget passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature raised the size of each voucher in another program, EdChoice, from $4,650 for students in grades K-8 to $5,500 and for students in high school from $6,000 to $7,500. Previously only 60,000 students could qualify for EdChoice statewide, but in the new budget, the Legislature eliminated any cap on the program’s size  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now a rolling window with no closing date.  And beginning with the FY 26 school year students will no longer be required to attend a public school in the year prior to qualifying for a voucher. Today high school students need not attend a public school in the year before qualifying, but as of 2026, no student will need to have attended a public school prior to qualifying.

In Ohio, it never seems to stop. Last Wednesday members of the Ohio House held a press conference to promote House Bill 290, introduced last spring as what its sponsor is reported to have called “a legislative intent bill” for the purpose of promoting widespread discussion of universal vouchers.

The Dispatch’s Anna Staver covered last week’s press conference: “It’s called the backpack scholarship program, and it would direct the state treasurer to create ‘education savings accounts’ for any student who wanted one starting in the summer of 2023. The accounts would be filled with either $5,500 (K-8 grade) or $7,500 (9-12 grade) in state dollars annually and could be used to pay for things like private school tuition, homeschool supplies, after-school care, advanced placement testing fees or educational therapies.”

It doesn’t look as though there is any possibility this bill can quickly move through the legislature because its cost would be prohibitive. In May, two professors at Miami University of Ohio, Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joel Malin entirely dismissed the idea that such a law is likely to be enacted—even by Ohio’s far-right legislature: “(N)either Ohio, nor any other state, can afford to adequately fund education across both public and private sectors. The cost of this model, if the intent is truly to foster high-quality education, would be prohibitively expensive.”

Ohio’s experiment with vouchers is now 25 years old.  The Cleveland Voucher program began only only five years after Milwaukee’s. While Alan Borsuk believes growth in Wisconsin’s program may have peaked, it is clear that voucher expansion still has active and enthusiastic support in Ohio. Public education advocates are worried. That is why a sizeable number of Ohio school districts soon plan to file a lawsuit (see here and here) challenging vouchers under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution.

Another Year of Meaningless Standardized Testing: Will Congress Ever Reconsider the High-Stakes Testing Mandate?

While this fall the education news has been filled with conflicts about vaccine and mask mandates and fights about Critical Race Theory, the results of last year’s standardized testing in public schools have begun to arrive.

That is, the scores have begun to be reported from the school districts that administered the mandatory tests last spring.  All the states were required to conduct the testing despite that some schools had opened in-person, others were remote and some were on hybrid schedules. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona did, however, offer states some flexibility.  They could put off the testing until summer or even this fall depending on their circumstances, and they could exempt some students and schools under difficult circumstances.

Because the school year was disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19 in March of 2020 Betsy DeVos had cancelled testing in 2019-2020, but last February, even before Miguel Cardona was confirmed as education secretary, an acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum sent a garbled letter that mandated some form of the universal standardized testing: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

These are the tests that Congress requires under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required two decades ago by No Child Left Behind for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They are the foundation of a two-decades-old scheme to hold schools accountable. In his abstract and garbled letter, Rosenblum did say that states that applied for waivers would not have to use the test scores in this one year to hold schools accountable.

Now, the scores from the tests for the states whose schools did administer the tests last spring—and not in the summer or this fall, as Secretary Cardona permitted—are coming in.  For example, Michigan’s Bridge Magazine reported: “The share of students scoring at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher in English language arts dropped from 2019… in grades 3-7.  The share of students considered ‘proficient’ or higher inched upward for grades 8-11.  Scores in math nosedived in the seven grades in which the test is administered… dropping by more than 5 percentage points in grades 4, 5, and 6. Less than 30 percent of fifth-and sixth-graders who took the test score at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher… Still it’s likely that the true learning skid is even worse than the data… indicates. In typical years, schools are required to have at least 95 percent of students take the M-Step. That federal rule was relaxed this school year because of the pandemic—schools had to give the test, but students, particularly those taking classes online, could opt out… The percentages of students who took the English language arts and math M-STEP tests in the spring ranged by grade and subject from 64 percent to 72 percent, and varied wildly between school districts.”

So, what does all this mean?  That is the subject of a profound blog post from a retired Michigan teacher and wonderful writer who used to have a regular column in Education Week, Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan explains: “Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled.  If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months… The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even ‘lost learning’ any more, without a mountain of numbers.  Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children.”

Remembering a Michigan state school board meeting she attended following the passage of No Child Left Behind, Flanagan describes how she began to grasp of what’s wrong with our national testing regime: “(T)he Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8.  Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.”

Flanagan continues: What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased—the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: ‘If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cuttoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—Does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?’  The phrase ‘set the bar high’ was used repeatedly. The word ‘proficient’ became meaningless.”

Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been tracing the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing mandate for two decades. Now, watching the release of data from the tests that were administered last spring, Schaeffer summarizes what has happened this year: “Earlier this year, thousands of parents, educators and community leaders endorsed a call to suspend high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools because the results would not be valid, reliable, or useful. Critics of testing have made that argument for years, but they seem especially relevant given that tests were being given during a pandemic that had upended education since spring 2020.”  Now: “States are releasing their spring test scores, and … wait for it… the results are exactly as predicted.  Scores declined across the board, and historically underserved students fell further behind.”

Schaeffer points out the flaw in the justification Secretary Cardona used to justify requiring testing this year: “So far, there’s little evidence demonstrating that data from this round of standardized exams is being used to address the pandemic’s expected impact, as testing advocates had promised. It’s hard to find examples of states or cities targeting additional resources to schools serving the neediest students..”

Schaeffer wonders: “Were spring 2021 exams really helpful in promoting academic quality and educational equity?  Or was this just another politically driven ‘testing for the sake of testing’ exercise? ”

The question—What to do about too much ineffective standardized testing?— has much larger implications than for just last school year and the current school year. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As our nation anticipates the 20th anniversary of test-and-punish school accountability, we all ought to demand that Secretary Cardona and Congress reconsider the entire two decades of the failure of federal policy demanding that states turn around the schools deemed “failing” based on their aggregate test scores. We know that the premise of No Child Left Behind—that all American students could be made to score “proficient” by 2014—was proven a failure.

The National Education Policy Center’s newsletter this week questions the myth underneath the No Child Left Behind Act—that schools can be quickly turned around so that they suddenly raise low aggregate test scores and close achievement gaps. Opportunity gaps among students are far more complicated:

“(D)ifferences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S. arise primarily outside of schools… Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income, and wealth…  There are two primary ways to change this. The first way is the most obvious: directly reducing poverty by improving the social safety net…. Yet most U.S. policymakers have instead embraced a second approach, at least rhetorically… provide children with high-quality public schooling…. placing enormous expectations on the public school system.”

Instead of a No Child Left Behind demand that schools alone close opportunity gaps, the National Education Policy Center is researching “insights about the need to integrate school-centric and social-system reforms and programs….”

Secretary Cardona and Congress ought to pay attention, especially now as Congress considers funding  President Biden’s Build Back Better program for extending the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, establishing federally funded universal pre-Kindergarten and expanding of Full-Service Community Schools.

Private Equity Partnership with Ron Packard’s Accel Charter Schools Supercharges the Profit Motive

Charter school management in Ohio was, for a long time, a flamboyant affair.  For nearly two decades, until the state finally put him out of business, William Lager ran the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—charging the state, year-after-year, for students who were not really enrolled and making contributions to the legislators who then neglected to regulate online charter schools.

Even more notorious was David Brennan, who wore a ten gallon hat and dubbed his charter company White Hat Management. He had an empire of Life Skills and Hope Academy charter schools and an online virtual school, the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA).

In 2018, the same year that Bill Lager’s ECOT was shut down, Brennan sold off his charter school holdings and later died. Charter school management quieted down after that, but the quality didn’t improve, and the profits continued to flow to the man (and his partner investors) who bought off much of David Brennan’s empire—Ron Packard. Packard was the founder of the for-profit online giant, K-12, but he left K-12, when it was under a cloud for misleading investors and poorly educating its students. By 2014, Packard had founded Accel Schools, another for-profit chain of charter schools, which was owned and operated by something called Pansophic Learning.

In a stunning new Alternet report, Jeff Bryant traces how Packard and Pansophic Learning expanded rapidly—27 charter schools across Colorado, Illinois, Michigan,  Minnesota and Ohio.  Pansophic Learning bought up not only Brennan’s charter schools but also the financially struggling Mosaica network of charters and a small local chain of I Can schools in Cleveland, along with Brennan’s statewide electronic school, OHDELA.

Packard’s finances are complicated by private equity investment intended quickly to produce significant profit. Investors in Accel and Pansophic Learning include a Saudi private equity firm, Safanad, whose CEO Kamal Bahamdan, leads Bahamdan Investment Group.

Bryant explores the role of private equity ownership not only of charter schools but also of private prisons and nursing homes.  He cites a study which “distinguished private equity for-profit ownership from ‘generic’ for-profit ownership because ‘private equity ownership confers distinct incentives to quickly and substantially increase the value of their portfolio firms.’  It is this form of intense, high-powered profit-maximizing incentives, the authors asserted, ‘that characterizes private equity… and could lead to detrimental implications for consumer welfare.'”

Bryant describes Accel’s use of a sweeps contract to operate the Broadway Academy charter school in Cleveland.  With a sweeps contract, an Accel charter school collects per-pupil charter school funding from the state of Ohio and then turns over more than 90 percent of the funding to Pansophic which then manages the school with virtually no oversight from the appointed charter school board but with a strong incentive to maximize profit by reducing services for students.

Bryant identifies an additional source of profit for Packard and his partners: “While Accel’s contract with Broadway Academy doesn’t include real estate, the authors of (a recent) Network for Public Education report searched the database of Ohio charter school contracts… and found that ‘Global School Properties Ohio, LLC holds the leases for many Accel charter schools. The… landlord is at the same 1650 Tysons Blvd. address in McLean, Virginia, as Pansophic Learning.'” Hence we learn that Pansophic not only collects virtually all the state per-pupil charter school funding, but it also very likely makes a profit by charging inflated rent to lease the building that it secretly owns back to its own school.

Bryant unearths the complicated financial dealings of Pansophic Learning, Safanad, and the Bahamdan Investment Group. His report details the troubling financial web underneath Accel and the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA).  For the Washington Post, Steve Yoder describes how all this affects a Conneaut, Ohio mother and her children. Amanda Nemergut wanted to move her children to online learning as an alternative to in-person schooling during COVID-19.  Wooed by fancy online advertising, Nemergut enrolled her children in OHDELA: “Soon Nemergut and her kids… noticed problems. OHDELA’s model relies on parents to help supervise their children’s instruction, and Nemergut did, stepping in throughout the day to aid with technical glitches and questions on assignments. But there were issues she couldn’t fix.  The homework didn’t match the material teachers covered in class. When teachers gave live instruction—no more than 20 minutes per class… students couldn’t ask questions because chats were blocked. When her daughters sent questions by email, they got no answer. Teachers didn’t give credit for work her kids had turned in and marked them absent for classes they attended.”

One must acknowledge that the test-score-based Ohio state school report cards are flawed measurements of school quality, but even recognizing the inadequacy of the report cards, Jeff Bryant writes that Ron Packard’s Accel Schools in Cleveland area are not breaking any records for academic quality: “Accel Schools in the Cleveland area, where the management company has its highest density of schools, has no schools with A or B ratings from the 2018-2019 school year, the last one measured due to the pandemic. There are three C rated schools, including Broadway Academy.  Eleven others are D and F rated schools.”

New Chicago Public Schools CEO, Pedro Martinez Must Address the Catastrophe of Student Based Budgeting

A new public schools CEO, recently appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, joined the Chicago Public Schools at the end of September.  Everyone agrees that Pedro Martinez, formerly the superintendent of the public schools in San Antonio, faces huge challenges.

Martinez previously served the Chicago Public Schools as Arne Duncan’s chief financial officer. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp summarizes what have been some positive—and urgently needed—changes in the school district since Martinez left in 2009: “The good news for the new CEO is that CPS is relatively financially stable, at least in the short term. The school district received more than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to be spent over three years… Former CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade made equity a focus. They sent extra money to schools serving poor students. They also gave schools the opportunity to apply for specialties, such as dual language or International Baccalaureate programs. In the past, the mayor and school leaders picked which schools got these special programs without any indication as to how or why they were chosen. Jackson and McDade also developed curriculum for every grade and every subject that they touted as a first for the district.”

However, enormous challenges persist. First are the politics. Karp continues: “Few people would disagree that the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor have a toxic relationship.”

But the biggest problem is structural—at the heart of the operation of the school district: providing quality programming in a district that operates with a plan called “student based budgeting.” Karp explains: “Since Martinez left Chicago Public Schools in 2009, enrollment has dropped by some 80,000 students. This has hit neighborhood high schools particularly hard, leaving some with very few students.  At the same time, the school district changed how it funds schools so they get a set amount per student, leaving low enrollment schools with limited budgets. The end result: schools with few students in huge buildings that can’t afford robust programming.”

Student based budgeting sets up a race to the bottom.  Once students begin to leave, the district cuts the school’s budget, which inevitably means reducing teachers and diminishing programming. And the downward cycle accelerates.

Student based budgeting was instituted in 2014.  Several years later in 2019, researchers at Roosevelt University evaluated the plan: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’s putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. The clustering of low-budget schools in low-income Black neighborhoods adds another layer of hardship in neighborhoods experiencing distress from depopulation, low incomes, and unaffordable housing.”

How serious is the problem of population loss and neighborhood and school enrollment decline in Chicago?  Here in a report from earlier last week is WBEZ’s Sarah Karp: “Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools dropped dramatically again this fall as the pandemic appears to be exacerbating a decade-long slide. District-run schools are down about 10,000 students compared to last fall…. Total enrollment is expected to be less than 330,000…. Last year’s total was 341,000—down 14,500 from the year before the pandemic began. The school district may no longer be the third largest in the country… Over the last decade, CPS’ enrollment has dropped by at least 74,000 students… It has… been well-documented that Black families are leaving the city.  Some are seeking safer communities and more opportunity. Some are migrating to Southern states. For years there’s been a growing number of majority Black schools with tiny student populations. This year, that number grew by 11%. These schools, which have less than 250 students, include 12 neighborhood high schools. Manly High School on the West Side has just 64 students and Hirsch on the South Side has just 78. Given the way Chicago Public Schools is structured, it is difficult for these schools to provide comprehensive, robust programming….”

The new CEO, Pedro Martinez has an accounting background, with a certificate from the Broad Superintendents’ Academy, a corporate-reformer program launched by the late Eli Broad, the business tycoon and school-reformer philanthropist. But the most urgent challenge Martinez will face in Chicago is educational.  Martinez must staunch the district’s declining enrollment and support positive educational transformation in the schools trapped by student based budgeting in an accelerating cycle of decline.  After the disastrous experiment with 50 school closures of so-called underutilized schools in 2013, the school district has instituted a moratorium on more school closures for now.  Martinez’s great challenge will be to make the city’s public schools that anchor the city’s African American neighborhoods authentically welcoming and to improve the educational experience of these schools’ students.

The district is currently undertaking what must be the first step: looking for students who have fallen away due to fears about the spread of COVID-19. Karp explains: “CPS officials last year attributed a 14,500 student enrollment drop largely to parents choosing not to enroll their children in preschool and kindergarten… Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney said the school district is calling the parents of children who haven’t turned up.  Similarly, district officials are reaching out to older children who were not engaged last year during remote learning and have not returned to buildings. Last year, the school district identified some 18l,000 students who they said were highly disengaged based on their attendance, grades and other risk factors.”

However, a new report from Chalkbeat Chicago has uncovered a much deeper problem at schools whose staffs have been diminished over time as student based budgeting has collapsed programming. The school district has been moving around and laying off the very teachers students depend on for support and encouragement. The ongoing churn of staff at the poorest and smallest schools is further undermining these schools’ viability and leaving students feeling isolated and alone.

Chalkbeat‘s Mai Spoto reports: “Laila McKinney was dreading senior year at Chicago’s King College Prep. Not just because of COVID-19.  Not just because last year was disrupted by remote learning. But because the 18-year-old’s long-term dance teacher, someone she considered a cherished mentor, and her journalism teacher wouldn’t be there. The two were among the 562 educators —272 teachers and 290 non-teacher employees—laid off by Chicago Public Schools at the end of last year.  The number of layoffs this past spring was the lowest in several years. Still, a Chalkbeat analysis found the layoffs hit small schools in high-poverty areas disproportionately hard. Most schools with clusters of three or more teacher layoffs were shrinking campuses, with at least seven of the 22 schools considered ‘underutilized’ by the district…. At least two schools, King and Christian Fenger Academy, laid off 15% of their staff, though Fenger was among the few schools on the list that has gained enrollment over the past two years and planned to add staff this year… Chicago’s teacher layoff numbers are under particular scrutiny this fall for two reasons. Advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union say the district should have used federal pandemic relief money to prevent the layoffs. They asserted the layoffs take a toll on school programming, resources, and communities, making it difficult to recruit new students when enrollment starts to fall.”

Spoto continues: “Christian Fenger Academy laid off five of its 29 teachers in spring. Among those laid off was Xochitl Infante, who taught social studies and other subjects at the school for more than a decade… Infante was not rehired for another full-time teaching job before the fall started but will stay with the district this year and is currently categorized as a reassigned teacher. At Fenger, she was the school’s only Embarc teacher.  Embarc is a district-wide three year program that connects high schoolers from low-income families to community-based opportunities and provides college and career readiness training…  After Infante left Fenger, a new teacher took her place to close out the (three-year) sequence.  But the program is not supposed to be implemented that way, Infante said, noting that long-term teacher-student relationships are Embarc’s foundation. The cut has happened before: Her first Embarc group saw the school discontinue the program for their junior year. It was later reinstated amid popular student demand.  Senior Taqueria Halsey credits the program—specifically Infante’s teaching—for strengthening her personal relationships and for teaching her how to assert herself… ‘With her not being here, my senior year is going to be hard… She was almost the only one that followed us. It’s going to be hard going back to new teachers.'”

It seems obvious that Pedro Martinez must focus on building community, strengthening academic programming, and supporting students’ social and emotional well-being across Chicago’s poorest schools, many diminished over time by student based budgeting.  I hope Martinez will invest COVID relief dollars to rebuild stable educational communities in the schools made vulnerable by dropping enrollment and student based budgeting. Such investments define the very basic mission of every public school district.

National Education Policy Center’s New Brief on Critical Race Theory Is a Must-Read for All Americans

The National Education Policy Center’ new brief,  Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory,  is essential reading to support all of us who are puzzled or grieving or outraged by the battle raging across the states about regulating the way public school teachers can teach American history. Or, if you are not aware that these fights have been happening across 26 states, you should definitely read this brief to inform yourself. Far right ideologues are working hard to prevent any discussion about race, racism, and the history of slavery in public school social studies classes.

After all, according to the brief, “Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.” The brief addresses the questions that puzzle many of us.

What is this battle that that is tearing apart state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards?

“Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.  Even as many local school boards and state boards of education have been implementing new policies, additional legislation has been or is being, considered in 15 other states and in the U.S. Congress.”  “President Trump issued an Executive Order 13950 in September of 2020 to withhold funding from federal entities that promoted nine categories termed ‘divisive concepts’ as well as race or sex ‘stereotyping’ and ‘scapegoating.’  In December 2020, litigation successfully stayed the order, and in January 2021, President Biden rescinded it. However, at least a half-dozen bills with similar aims and approaches have been introduced in Congress… Republican legislators in 26 states introduced copycat legislation to ban certain types of curriculum… Although the framing of the bills varies somewhat by state, they all attempt to ban the use of ‘divisive concepts’ in employee training programs, in K-12 curriculum, and in certain student activities.”

What is Critical Race Theory (called CRT, for short) and how has the meaning of the original academic concept been turned upside down by far right ideologues?

“Critical Race Theory is an academic legal theory developed in the 1970s by Derrick Bell (and colleagues) to examine how race and racism have shaped American institutions, culture, politics, economics and education and to examine how racism produces and sustains inequality… Given that CRT is a theoretical, analytical framework useful primarily to academic researchers, at first glance it seems an odd target for pundits, think tanks, wealthy donors, foundations, and legislators associated with the ideological right to attack…  The demand that CRT not be taught in schools is absurd, since it would be hard to find a K-12 school that teaches CRT to begin with…  Instead, ideologues are using CRT as a frightening symbol to intensify a collection of cultural and political fears related to race, racism, and the prospect of an increasing number of citizens from marginalized groups participating in the democratic process.”

“Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts.  These organizations include The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute, as well as billionaire-funded advocacy organizations such as Parents Defending Education and the Legal Insurrection Foundation.”  The brief quotes Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo describing how he set out to change the meaning of Critical Race Theory and politically charge his new concept: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic.”

What are the political objectives of those promoting attacks on CRT?

“We see two overall political objectives of the anti-CRT attacks.”

(1) “Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections… Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools… In this context, the anti-CRT legislation is intended to mobilize the Republican base for the 2022 midterm elections….”

(2) “Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism and suppressing information about it… Most such bills allude to the premise that if a school teaches about racism, White children will be scapegoated for being White and so will experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment related to their race, which will in turn prompt fear and resentment of people of color—and thus promote racial division. This framing promotes distrust in government and opposition to government efforts to address racism.”

How can citizens—who believe that American history should be taught accurately and who believe our children should consider how our society can better embody our stated goals of liberty and justice for all—most effectively respond to provocative and highly charged attacks on teachers and public school curriculum?

“Some ways of engaging politically are likely to be more successful than others. Strategies that may seem logical, such as denouncing ‘dog-whistle’ politicians for being racist, or avoiding mentioning race in order to avoid accusations of engaging in ‘identity politics,’ are not necessarily the most effective…. Efforts to reframe the debate, engage with decision-makers… are more likely to be successful. Of particular interest and importance is research supporting messaging that acknowledges race and racism, but establishes the shared stake of Americans of all racial backgrounds in public education; that contextualizes social, economic, and educational inequities; that illustrates why inequities should concern Americans of all racial backgrounds; and that provides specific examples of solutions. Ultimately, only by understanding the political nature of the attacks… can we choose effective political ways to counter them….”

How does the Fight about Critical Race Theory Fit into the Big Picture?

The National Education Policy Center’s new brief additionally presents the history of politically motivated attacks on the honest acknowledgment of racism in public school social studies classrooms—during the McCarthy era, during the Civil Rights Movement, as a reaction during the Reagan era to educational and political liberalism in the 1960s, and after the tragic death of George Floyd last year. The new brief explains the NY Times Magazine articles called The 1619 Project and the backlash led by President Donald Trump to prevent students from reading these articles as part of high school history and government classes.

It is important to remember that the attacks on teaching about race and racism in public schools are motivated more by politics  than they are by educational concerns.  In Let Then Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, a book published in the summer of 2020 as President Donald Trump was mounting his campaign for reelection, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic practices, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize.” (Let Then Eat Tweets, p. 117)

But the implications for our children are not only political; they are educational.  In June, to confront today’s right-wing attack on the accurate teaching of American history, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History : “(T)hese bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.  Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”