Will President Joseph Biden Lead Us Toward Equity and Opportunity in the Public Schools?

Betsy DeVos, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education, has been complaining about the public schools again. The public schools are, of course, the schools she is supposed to be supporting through the operation of her federal department. But as a lifelong promoter of vouchers for private and religious schools, DeVos clings to the idea that “Government really sucks.” Last week Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa described DeVos’s attempt during this lame duck transition period to condemn states and school districts for failing fully to spend federal CARES Act relief dollars allocated last March for states to help their public schools cover the expenses of serving children during the pandemic.

Happy Thanksgiving! This blog will take a short break. Look for a new post on Monday, November 30.

Ujifusa quotes DeVos condemning school districts for failing to reopen fully in-person: “States that neglected their obligations to provide full-time education, while complaining about a lack of resources, have left significant sums of money sitting in the bank… There may be valid reasons for states to be deliberate in how they spend CARES Act resources, but these data make clear there is little to support their claims of being cash-poor.”

Last week DeVos set up a new data tool through which CARES Act spending can be traced. Ujifusa quotes some of the data DeVos’s department released as part of an obvious attempt to sow distrust of state departments of education and public school districts: “From the enactment of CARES to Sept. 30, the department said, $1.6 billion of the $13.6 billion provided for K-12 schools—or 12 percent—has been spent. And of the $3 billion in a governor’s education fund that can be spent on K-12 and higher education, $535 million—or 18 percent–had been spent.”

While DeVos seems dedicated to seizing every opportunity to condemn the operation of public schools, Ujifusa reports that DeVos isn’t being fair. Ujifusa quotes a response from Carisssa Moffat Miller, who leads the Council of Chief State School Officers: “The Education Department’s figures do not tell the full story of how CARES Act funds are being used… Many states and school districts have obligated funds beyond the levels described in the Department’s figures—that is, they have placed orders or entered into service contracts that must be paid in the future.”  Ujifusa adds: “She noted that states and districts have until September 2022 to enter into obligations to spend CARES money, and added that CCSSO estimates schools will need between $158 billion and $245 billion in new federal aid to cover various costs related to the pandemic.”

Derek Black, author of the wonderful new book, School House Burning, worries that America’s belief in public schooling has wilted and not only because of DeVos’s incessant attacks on the public schools over the past four years. For the previous two decades, under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, school reform rhetoric grounded in business school competition and efficiency, test-and-punish accountability, and the active promotion of school privatization undermined our collective capacity to consider the public role of public education.

Black, like other advocates for the nation’s public schools, understands the current era as a pivotal moment in federal education policy: “Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else… This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education (funding) cuts initially looked like a response to the (2008) recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable.  In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened.  Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.” (School House Burning, pp. 225-227)

Black explains how conversations about education policy have been hijacked: “(Y)ou will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess.” By contrast, continues Black, “Education decision-making—and thus policy—has always been part of a much larger historical and constitutional framework. That framework has long defined who we are as a nation, what type of democracy we want, and how far we have to go.  That history and constitutional framework represent the hopes and dreams of a nation where all men and women might be equal citizens and participants in this thing we call democracy… Education has always been at the center of those ideas and commitments.”(School House Burning, pp. 49-50)

Black continues: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy.  As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.  One of the nation’s foremost school funding scholars, Bruce Baker, led a national study of what it would cost for students to achieve ‘average’ outcomes… They (Baker and his colleagues) found that when it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need… but only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.”(School House Burning, pp. 238-241)

Black’s book—published in September—provides helpful background for a presidential transition that has a chance to change the course of education policy. Candidate Joe Biden presented a very different kind of education agenda, one that seems once again to embody America’s traditional understanding of public schooling as a force for equal opportunity: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the IDEA, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

We need to press our new President to fulfill his promise to lead us away from an obsession with standardized testing and school privatization. His first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

This blog has recently covered President Elect Biden’s education plan here, here, and here.

Ohio Legislative Leader Rams Through Voucher Changes that Hurt Students in Poor, Title I Schools

This post has been updated.

The Ohio Senate is up to its old tricks.

Five years ago right at the end of a spring session of the Ohio Legislature, a group of state senators added a long amendment to House Bill 70, which was about expanding the number of full service, wraparound community learning centers—schools with medical and social services located right in the school. The amendment had nothing to do with the subject of the original bill. The amendment’s purpose was to establish the state takeover of the school district in Youngstown and set up a procedure for state takeovers of other so-called “failing” school districts. A deal had been cut. No opponent testimony was permitted. The Ohio Senate passed the amended HB 70 and sent it back for quick approval by the Ohio House. Within hours, Governor John Kasich had signed it, and without public input, an appointed Academic Distress Commission supplanted the elected school board in Youngstown.

This time the subject is vouchers.

Last spring, just as everything shut down due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, both houses of the Ohio Legislature debated changes in the EdChoice voucher program and came up with two separate bills. EdChoice eligibility is currently described by legislators as “performance-based.” The state designates EdChoice schools by these schools’ low ratings on the state’s school district report card, which everybody agrees is flawed. Last spring the program was expected to double in size. At angry hearings, school districts complained because EdChoice vouchers are funded through something called “the school district deduction.” The House plan would have funded the vouchers out of the state budget; the Senate plan kept the school district deduction.

When COVID-19 shut everything down and House and Senate were unable to agree on a plan, a conference committee began quietly meeting. It’s been a complicated year, so everybody was surprised last week when the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported that Matt Huffman, a powerful legislator already elected to be senate president in the new legislative session beginning in January, had announced that the conference committee has a new plan for EdChoice vouchers. On Wednesday of this week, without any public hearings and without any real attempt to explain Huffman’s EdChoice scheme to the public, the Ohio Senate passed Huffman’s new plan as part of Senate Bill 89. On Thursday SB 89 was approved by the Ohio House .

Thank you, Senator Teesa Fedor (D-Toledo) for speaking the truth despite being outvoted. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports that Fedor protested that the new EdChoice plan “does not reflect the public school advocates and the issues they brought forward (last spring). At best, this change is based on arbitrary criteria.”

What Is Huffman’s New Plan?

Here is how the EdChoice program has been working. Schools are “EdChoice Designated” by their scores on the state report card. The state continues to count the voucher students as though they are enrolled in the public schools and gives each voucher student’s per pupil state foundation formula funding to the school district, but then deducts the voucher from the school district’s local budget. The problem is that in all but a handful of the state’s school districts, the cost of the voucher—$4,650 for a K-8 voucher or $6,000 for a high school voucher—is higher than the amount the state gives the school district for that student. EdChoice voucher deductions rob school districts of essential budget dollars. And in the current budget biennium, with state school funding frozen at the FY19 level for all school districts, 100 percent of the cost of newly awarded vouchers is being covered by local school district budgets. Thus EdChoice vouchers reduce local school budgets at the expense of needed programming for the students who attend traditional public schools.

Huffman’s new, revised SB 89 plan passed on Wednesday by the Ohio Senate and accepted by the Ohio House on Thursday, still uses the school district deduction method of funding. But instead of relying on the school district report cards—whose calculation everybody regards as flawed—Huffman’s plan starts by targeting public schools where at least 20 percent of students qualify for federal Title I funding. Title I schools are identified by the federal government because they serve concentrations of students living in poverty. Second,  Huffman’s plan selects the 20 percent of Ohio’s schools scoring lowest on the performance index of the state report cards. Through the combination of these two factors, Huffman’s plan designates the schools which will qualify for EdChoice. The new Huffman plan will designate only 469 schools.  Under the old state report card designation process, EdChoice had been expected to double its current size this winter to 1,229 schools.

Serious Questions about Huffman’s New Plan

Why does Senator Huffman want to extract precious funding from the budgets of school districts that serve concentrations poor students who themselves need smaller classes and more programming in their public schools?  Despite that the Ohio Legislature justifies EdChoice vouchers as a way to help poor students (ignoring considerable evidence—see Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, The Public School Advantage—that private and religious schools are not superior to public schools), the plan hurts the mass of poor students whose public schools are diminished when the vouchers extract money out of their public school’s budget. Tebben quotes State Senator Andy Brenner—among the Legislature’s farthest-to-the-right ALEC members who once dubbed public schools a form of socialism—disingenuously justifying the new plan as a salvation for poor students who attend so-called “failing” schools: “We need to make sure that those students are given a solid education and yes, I would love to see that those students stay in their original, traditional buildings if they could do that… But they’re not learning… They should be allowed that opportunity.”

The situation in the school district where I live, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, typifies the mistake in the Legislature’s justification.  In the CH-UH school district during the current school year, 1,699 of the 1,792 students carrying the vouchers out of the school district—95 percent—have never been enrolled in the school district’s public schools. In essence this means that in CH-UH, and across Ohio, the Legislature is forcing local public school districts to undertake the unexpected expense of paying for private and religious education. Dispatch reporter, Staver quotes both Senator Huffman and current Senate President Larry Obhoff worrying about private and religious school families who fear losing vouchers as the reason the Senate must hurry up and pass the new plan, but it is the state’s poorest public school students who will lose out under Huffman’s new plan.

Covering Huffman’s new plan, cleveland.com’s Jeremy Pelzer quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, condemning the new plan because it is increasingly targeted to districts serving children in poverty: “Schools that rate low on the state’s performance index are usually in areas of the state with high poverty rates…  We don’t think that’s fair… We don’t think this is a good day for Ohio’s kids.” DiMauro’s assessment is correct. Last March, part of the controversy about EdChoice vouchers was that the Ohio school district report card designation had projected a number of schools in wealthy suburbs becoming EdChoice Designated as the number of Designated schools was set to explode to 1,229.  By limiting EdChoice Designated schools to Title I schools, Huffman’s new plan will protect the local budgets of the outer suburban districts serving wealthy families from EdChoice voucher deductions.

Why did Senator Huffman sneak through a redesigned voucher plan without hearings when the Legislature is currently holding hearings on a carefully developed, bipartisan comprehensive school funding plan that his voucher funding scheme contradicts? Important questions about Huffman’s rushed attempt to pass SB 89 this week arise because the Ohio House and Ohio Senate are currently considering Substitute HB 305 and SB 376, which together constitute a new, comprehensive state school funding system. The Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort that has undergone two years of analysis, is currently in open hearings, and must be passed by the end of the current legislative session on December 31, 2020 or the process would have to start over again.  The Fair School Funding Plan is designed to rectify an old formula that has stopped working altogether.  A decade of state tax cuts has left the formula underfunded; 508 of the state’s 610 school districts had been operating under caps or hold harmless guarantees until the current biennial budget froze all formula state aid at the FY 2019 level. The new plan identifies growing inequity as a particular problem as the state has failed to help the school districts with the lowest local taxing capacity and the greatest number of impoverished students. If it is adopted, the new Fair School Funding formula would increase state categorical per-pupil assistance for disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil.

The new Fair School Funding Plan would also eliminate all school district deduction funding for vouchers and charters. The Ohio House has begun hearing open testimony from public school superintendents, treasurers, parents, and advocates about the dire need for more state assistance.  Even the state’s fast-growing outer suburbs have been suffering under capped funding as they need to hire more teachers. The state’s poorest school districts are desperate. I wonder why Senator Huffman has rushed through a bill to confirm school district deduction voucher funding at the same time the Legislature is considering banning this funding method?

Why is Senator Huffman designating Ohio schools by their Title I status for vouchers that extract local school district funding, thereby directly undermining the purpose of the federal Title I program?  The federal Title Formula program was enacted in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. Its purpose was federally improving school funding equity by supplementing state funding in the schools serving our nation’s poorest students. Now the Ohio Legislature has passed a plan to use the Title I designation to identify school districts from which state will be diverting funding for EdChoice vouchers for private and religious schools. Ironically and tragically, Ohio Senate Bill 89 will undermine the purpose of Title I by denying opportunity for the students enrolled in the state’s Title I public schools.

President Elect Biden’s Public School Agenda Addresses the Opportunity Gap

A strong supporter of public education will move into the White House on January 20. President Elect Joe Biden has promised to close the Opportunity Gap by investing in public school improvement and pledging to support reform of healthcare and other conditions that worsen economic inequality. There is an important difference between Biden’s saying that we as a society have failed our children by neglecting to pay for educational opportunity and more than two decades of education policy—under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump—that blamed public school educators for failing our children.

Closing the Opportunity Gap is a more ambitious and far more expensive goal than merely blaming and punishing public school teachers for what policymakers have, for decades, called the achievement gap. The Opportunity Gap is defined by the complex web of structural economic and racial inequality in America, not by the failure of teachers to raise test scores quickly. Framing the educational goal as “closing the achievement gap” brought us No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish policies and the Race to the Top which merely punished the schools at the bottom—the schools without adequate property taxing capacity and that serve the poorest children.

President Elect Biden’s focus is funding equity in the public schools themselves instead of creating escapes for a few children out of so-called “failing” schools. For four years we have been listening to Betsy DeVos promote vouchers and every kind of privatized school choice for parents. Before that, we had Arne Duncan promoting charterizing public schools, closing low scoring public schools as a turnaround plan, and evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores.

DeVos sought to privatize; Duncan sought to punish. Biden says he wants to help the public schools improve.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education launched an Opportunity to Learn Campaign to demand that we talk about closing Opportunity Gaps instead of framing public education policy around forcing schools to narrow test score achievement gaps: “The achievement gap between White students and Black and Latino students correlates to the OPPORTUNITY GAP—disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources. For the past two decades, our nation’s leaders have focused on “output” standards and testing to close the achievement gaps that separate different student groups. This only looks at one side of the equation for success. It is essential to hold public officials accountable for “input” standards, assuring that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to the resources they need to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. If we close the opportunity gap, we can close the achievement gap.”

The research for changing our public education strategy is decades long and very clear. Here are two examples:

In 2016, the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley explained that school reform must address enormous disparities in opportunity among our children:  “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not come close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, (Stanford University’s) Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.’ The irony is that the very problem the law was supposed to fix became worse…. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking. Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities….  Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

A year later, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard testing expert, Daniel Koretz explained why standardized test-based school accountability poses unreasonable expectations because schools cannot, quickly and without support, increase their capacity to overcome widespread inequality: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

In the years when No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were closing so-called “failing” schools or charterizing them or firing their principals or teachers, public economic support for public schools diminished. In 2008, the Great Recession reduced states’ investment in public education as tax revenues collapsed. Even after the recession ended, Tea Party-dominated state legislatures cut taxes further in many states. Finally in 2018 and 2019, the nation’s public school teachers rose up in Red4Ed strikes to show us how Opportunity Gaps had left public schools destitute. Teachers exposed: class sizes of 40 students in Los Angeles; schools everywhere without enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses; Chicago schools shutting down school libraries and laying off certified librarians; Oklahoma teachers with paltry salaries quitting and moving across the border to Texas; and teachers paid so little in Oakland that they were unable to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment within driving distance from their school.

President Elect Joe Biden proposes to address the Educational Opportunity Gap with federal investment: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

His plan would triple Title I funding; fully fund 40 percent of mandated IDEA special education services within a decade; incentivize greater investment by state governments by requiring states without adequate and equitable school funding to match a share of federal funding; provide high quality pre-Kindergarten for impoverished three- and four-year olds; increase the number of counselors, school psychologists, and school nurses; and increase the number of full-service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional families.

If Republicans continue to dominate the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell continues as Senate President, President Biden will struggle to accomplish his Opportunity to Learn agenda.  Advocates for America’s children and for strong public schools must stop framing education policy around closing the achievement gap.  We must demand instead that Congress join with the President to overcome the Opportunity Gap by investing in the nation’s public schools and in other programs to address child poverty.

Will we, as citizens, create the political will to force Congress and the state legislatures to raise the necessary tax revenue?

Donald Trump Exemplifies Plutocratic Populism Run Amok: the Implications for All of Us

The United States has become a textbook case, and I don’t mean merely a textbook case of pandemic denial, although that is also true.  Last July, two political science professors, Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson from the University of California at Berkeley, published a thorough analysis of the politics of today’s Republican Party. They explain that President Donald Trump is a mere symptom of what the Republican Party has become.

In Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson define “plutocratic populism.” They preview what we subsequently watched through the fall’s presidential election campaign, and what we were still observing this past weekend in Washington, D.C. as Donald Trump’s bullies paraded en masse, ending in a violent melee.  Here are Hacker and Pierson on the rise of Republican plutocratic populism over recent decades:

“As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged. Encouraging white backlash and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media. When and where that proved insufficient, it adopted a ruthless focus on altering electoral rules, maximizing the sway of its base and minimizing the influence of the rest of the electorate through a variety of anti-democratic tactics, from voter disenfranchisement to extreme partisan gerrymandering to laws and practices opening the floodgates to big money. And more and more, it coupled this vote rigging with even more extreme strategies to undermine the checks and balances in our system, weakening democratic accountability and strengthening the ability of powerful minorities to dictate policy. In short, Republicans used white identity to defend wealth inequality. They undermined democracy to uphold plutocracy.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)

Hacker and Pierson explain what they call the Conservative Dilemma: “(T)his is the essence of the Conservative Dilemma: Conservative parties want to stand up for the rich when writing laws, even as the rich are increasingly outnumbered when votes are cast.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 113)  “Scholars… have long seen extreme inequality as a threat to democracy. This threat takes three forms. The first is unequal power. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”… The second threat extreme inequality poses is diverging interests. Democracy rests on the notion that even in large and diverse societies where fundamental disagreements are inevitable, most citizens will come to have reconcilable economic interests… The third and final threat is elite fear. There are always going to be very considerable tensions between rich and poor. A widening chasm between the interests of the wealthy and those of the less fortunate encourages the privileged to view democracy itself as a danger to their wealth and status.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 19-20) (Emphasis is mine.)

Finally: “We use ‘Conservative Dilemma’ more specifically to describe the tension facing conservative parties. A century ago, in all countries with expanding franchises, conservative parties struggled to maintain their historical defense of elite privilege in the face of electoral challenges from the masses. When suffrage was restricted, conservative parties could ignore the massive gap between the rich and the rest. But this became a losing game once the working class gained the vote. Relatively quickly, conservative parties found themselves caught between a commitment to economic elites and an expanding electorate. How, they were forced to ask themselves, do we reconcile the needs of our core constituency with the need to win elections? … Inevitably, conservative parties found they had to offer something else to voters. Outflanked on the left on economic issues, their survival depended on introducing or highlighting other social divisions… In modern societies, the list of such ‘cleavages’ is short, and their history unpleasant. There are racial, ethnic and religions divisions. There is the call of nationalism or foreign military adventures. There are sectional loyalties. There is opposition to immigration. In short, there is a set of non-economic issues—many racially tinged, all involving strong identities and strong emotions—that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 21-22)

After mounting a fear-based election campaign based on the sort of plutocratic populism Hacker and Pierson describe—appealing to racism and white identity, promoting individual freedom from any government restraint demanding mask-wearing in a pandemic, and exploiting conspiracy theories promoted by extreme right-wing media—the President, who lost but still attracted nearly 73 million votes, continues to rage. It also appears that a conservative U.S. Senate majority is not prepared to give up protecting the privilege of economic elites at the expense of the masses whose needs continue to be ignored.  Here are three examples:

The first involves the pandemic itself as Trump and his staff have sponsored superspreader events at the White House and a mass of maskless campaign rallies that produced a surge of COVID-19 even inside the Secret Service. And a summer and autumn have passed without a second COVID-19 relief bill. The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner summarized the dilemma last week: “Congressional Democratic leaders accused Republicans on Thursday of refusing to confront the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic and instead acquiescing to President Trump’s false insistence that he won last week’s presidential election… As Washington has become paralyzed over the past 10 days, 1 million new people have tested positive for the virus as death numbers are climbing rapidly.  President-elect Joe Biden joined congressional Democratic leaders on Thursday and demanded a new economic relief package to address the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic before the end of the year… Democrats have called for a wide-ranging bill that would extend new unemployment benefits, send another round of $1,200 checks to American households, provide more small business aid, money for states and cities, and expand access to testing…. McConnell has said that third-quarter economic news showing the unemployment rate has dropped makes a case for a smaller relief package.”

The second example is a pending student loan debt crisis reported yesterday by POLITICO’s Michael Stratford: “At midnight on New Year’s Eve, President Donald Trump’s pause on student loan payments for 33 million Americans is set to expire, just three weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is slated to take over… Even though Trump said this summer that he planned to later ‘extend’ the freeze beyond Dec. 31, a White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the president is still considering another executive action to move the expiration date… In an unusual alliance, loan industry officials are advocating alongside congressional Democrats, higher education groups, and consumer organizations, all warning that suddenly turning back on the federal government’s massive student loan apparatus—mostly frozen since March—in the midst of a presidential transition could lead to anguish for everybody involved…  Nearly 41 million federal student loan borrowers have had interest suspended on their loans since March 13…. Roughly 33 million of those borrowers have had their payments paused, and the Education Department has stopped seeking to collect from the 8 million other borrowers who were in default… House Democrats’ stimulus legislation would extend the freeze on student loan payments until next October and keep the interest rate at zero until at least that time—or longer if the unemployment rate remains high. Senate Republicans’ latest stimulus proposal did not include an extension of the benefits….”

A third example is the deep and widespread fiscal catastrophe in our nation’s public schools, a problem that grew slowly, quietly, and invisibly more serious until the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019 taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets during the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession, an especially serious situation in places where Tea Party legislatures had continued to cut taxes even after the recession, and as school privatization at public expense decimated state and local school budgets. From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. Schoolteachers across striking states demanded that Americans open their eyes to the problems our collective lack of support has caused for our children.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to address our collective failure to support more generous services for children in the nation’s public schools.  He has especially lifted up our obligation to expand the opportunity to learn in the schools that serve children who live in poverty: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

For the first time in many years, a president elect is putting the spotlight on urgently needed investment in basic programming in the public schools that serve over 50 million children. I hope President Biden will provide leadership to to overcome the divisions that plutocratic populism has wrought: by working with Congress to address the COVID-19 health and economic crises, exerting leadership even before he takes office to encourage Congress to relieve the student debt crisis this month, and expanding learning opportunities across of our nation’s public schools.

An Open Letter to President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team

I encourage you, as members of President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team, to recommend the appointment of Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen Garcia as our next Secretary of Education. I believe that one of these women would provide the kind of leadership in public education policy that our nation and our children desperately need.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the outgoing President of the National Education Association, have provided extraordinary leadership of efforts by the nation’s teachers significantly to change the long narrative of standardized test-based accountability as the primary driver of federal education policy. They are both public school educators who would turn away from Betsy DeVos’s obsession with vouchers. I believe their leadership helped shape the priorities embodied in the education plan President Elect Biden released during the campaign, an agenda designed to expand opportunity within the public schools serving our nation’s most vulnerable students. Biden’s plan, if implemented, will enhance educational equity and improve children’s experiences at school.

Here are three reasons either Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten is the right choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

First:     We all watched the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019—walkouts that taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets over the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession. Teachers on strike showed us how Tea Party tax cuts across many states had further decimated state education budgets and how states had then sent away more education dollars to a growing charter school sector and to vouchers for private school tuition.  From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. In some right-to-work states, the national teachers unions supported spontaneous statewide walkouts by non-unionized teachers, and in strikes launched by NEA and AFT local affiliates, Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten walked with their teachers.

Second:     All this year I have watched these two women provide a level of policy leadership I have not seen for a long time. It began with the the best planned and best executed event I have ever attended—the Public Education Candidates Forum last December in Pittsburgh. It was clear who had envisioned this meeting which brought together seven of the Democratic candidates for President with 1,500 people from NEA, AFT, the Schott Foundation, SEIU, NAACP, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Network for Public Education, VOTO Latino, and the Center for Popular Democracy.  When I think of the diversity in that room—the questions that came from Chicago teachers and parents grieving about the Renaissance 2010 shutdown of their neighborhood schools, and comments from children in Newark who wondered why they do not have school music programs, I still have an emotional reaction. I found myself sitting between a 30 year special education teacher from the Navajo Nation and Derek Black, the constitutional law professor who just published School House Burning. That day, seven Democratic presidential candidates were pressed to commit to strategies to improve our public schools. None of the seven candidates dared to promote standardized test-and-punish; nobody promoted the expansion of charter schools. There was a lot of talk about expanding Title I and fully funding 40 percent of the IDEA. The fact that the meeting was teacher-driven was palpable.

Third:     Throughout this summer and until Congress gave up at the end of October, the NEA and the AFT have relentlessly advocated for a second COVID-19 relief HEROES Act. A second relief bill was never enacted, but Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia kept the focus on those Senate Republicans who refused to consider helping out state governments that provide over 40 percent of all public school funding. These women kept on reminding America that Congress was failing to support public schools during COVID-19, a time when schools were being pressured to reopen or were forced to operate online without adequate guidance or support.  Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten have consistently outlined what will be the years-long repercussions for the the public schools that serve our children.

While people like Michelle Rhee say that teachers unions work for the needs of adults instead of children, Michelle Rhee is wrong.  Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia have persistently pressed the Democratic Party to choose a candidate with a pro-public school plan, which is also an emphatically pro-child agenda.  Weingarten spent the entire month of October on a cross country bus tour meeting with schoolteachers and promoting Biden’s election and his pro-public schools plan.

I live in Ohio, which has fallen head-over-heals behind Betsy DeVos’s dream of vouchers for all, and which, for the two previous decades, also embraced education policy dominated by technocratic, neoliberal, test-and–punish, outcomes-driven education reform.  In Ohio, worrying about standardized test score outcomes instead of investment in the public schools has left us with a poorly regulated charter school sector and at least 5 different kinds of vouchers, along with state school report cards that drive segregation and educational redlining; autocratic state takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland; and the third-grade guarantee. This month our legislature is considering a new school funding formula because 503 districts out of Ohio’s 610 school districts are capped or have fallen into hold-harmless guarantees. But our legislators are honest about the shortage of funding: the new plan will be a blueprint to be phased in over 6 years if the legislature can, in upcoming legislative sessions, find the money to pay for the full phase in.

We need a U.S. Secretary of Education who will lead us away from DeVos’s drive to extract dollars out of public schools for vouchers for private and religious schools. Just as important, we need an education secretary and who will not take us back to the Obama-Duncan agenda—to another Race to the Top competition, to the further expansion of charter schools, to evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, to the idea of school closure as a turnaround plan, and all the rest.

Thank you for serving on the Department of Education Transition Team.  I hope you will recommend to President Elect Biden that he appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia or Randi Weingarten as our next U.S. Secretary of Education. These women are fully prepared to promote and implement President Elect Biden’s plan to close opportunity gaps across our nation’s public schools.

Ohio Legislature Looks to Adopt New School Finance Plan During 2020 Lame Duck Session

The Ohio Legislature will waste no time before trying to enact—before the end of the current legislative session at the end of December—a Fair School Funding Plan, which was proposed in the spring of 2019. The Ohio House has been holding hearings for months on what, this week, became Substitute House Bill 305. Last week Senate Education Chair, Peggy Lehner, and 14 additional co-sponsors introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 376.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky summarizes the Ohio Legislature’s attempt to move forward immediately to pass the new school funding blueprint: “A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Friday unveiled a complex and long-sought overhaul of Ohio’s school funding system that would provide another $1.99 billion a year—about a 24% increase—to K-12 schools when fully implemented. The proposal to change the way state aid is calculated and distributed to public schools establishes the per-pupil cost of ‘a quality education,’ and determines how much funding each local community should be able to cover itself and how much should come from the state. It aims to keep overall funding levels relatively even across the state despite widely varied tax bases across Ohio’s more than 600 school districts.”

The term-limiting of several of the plan’s co-sponsors is accelerating the timeline for seeking the bill’s passage before the end of 2020.

Here is the primary reason why a new school funding plan is needed in Ohio. Materials released when the new funding plan was introduced in the spring of 2019 showed that before the current biennium, in 503 of the state’s 610 school districts, state school funding was capped or the district had fallen onto a hold-harmless guarantee. Then the current biennial budget for FY 2020-2021, froze the state’s contribution to state foundation school funding at the FY 2019 level with no increase to cover normal inflation.

The purpose of a state school funding plan, in accord with the provisions of each state’s constitution, is to create a system ensuring that all children, no matter where they live, are provided an equitable opportunity to learn. The late political theorist, Benjamin Barber defined educational equity: “Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical…” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, p. 13)

The Fair School Funding Plan Would Make Ohio School Funding More Equitable

The plan the Ohio Legislature now hopes to pass has been modified from an earlier version to enhance equity.  It directs additional funding to the state’s poorest school districts, particularly those in urban areas where poverty is concentrated. The plan was developed through a comprehensive costing out study to establish an ongoing method for defining the per-pupil base cost, which the formula then modifies through a calculation of each school district’s local capacity to raise school revenue. Local capacity in this plan combines two measures: (1) each school district’s local property valuation and (2) the income of the school district’s residents (as a proxy for their capacity to vote to pass local levies). Modifications to the original plan have expanded the calculation that divides the state’s school districts into five tiers based on local school district wealth categories. Very significantly, the revised plan increases categorical aid for economically disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil.

The Fair School Funding Plan Eliminates School District Deduction Funding for Charters and Vouchers

The Fair School Funding Plan does nothing to reduce the extensive school privatization that already exists in Ohio.  Ohio’s original school voucher program is the second oldest in the country, and the legislature has multiplied the number of statewide school voucher programs at public expense.  Neither does the new plan control the number of charter schools nor does it enhance regulation of what has proven to be a charter sector filled with conflicts of interest and fraud.

However, the new plan significantly shifts the funding mechanism for some of these programs. In Ohio, while some of the voucher and charter programs are currently funded out of the state budget, the legislature has recently expanded the funding of statewide EdChoice vouchers by deducting dollars right out of school districts’ local budgets for students to carry away in vouchers for private school tuition.

In the current biennial budget, passed in the summer of 2019, the Legislature expanded EdChoice vouchers by adding new grade level cohorts of students who qualify in designated schools and also by expanding the number of schools the state deems “EdChoice designated.” Because the burden of EdChoice falls most heavily on public school districts serving poor children, the expansion of EdChoice, which is funded by the local deduction method, poses serious equity concerns, by extracting essential dollars that could otherwise be used for reducing class size and hiring counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan eliminates the school district deduction funding mechanism for the state’s vouchers and charter schools and would, therefore, remedy what has become a primary inequity in Ohio’s system of funding schools. Here is the sponsors’ explanation of Substitute HB 305: “‘Enrollment’ used in HB 305 means the number of students actually being educated by the district. Students attending community schools (Ohio’s name for charter schools), other schools through one of the state scholarship programs (Ohio’s name for vouchers), or court-placed in schools outside the district of residence would be counted for funding purposes in the school where they are being taught. Students open enrolling into a district also would be counted as students of the district where they are taught.  In all of these instances, funding would go directly (from the state) to the educating entity.”

The Fair School Funding Plan’s elimination of the school district deduction as the funding mechanism for privatized vouchers and charter schools  is one of the urgently important reasons for the Legislature to pass Substitute HB 305 and SB 376.  Recently the Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Bill Phillis documented that in FY 21 and FY 22, “$2,352,881,306 will be deducted statewide from local school district budgets for vouchers and charters.

In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, the district where I live, the amount of the local school district deduction for EdChoice vouchers has grown explosively: from $2,256,017 in 2017;  to $3,232,403 in 2018;  to $4,187,249 in 2019;  to $7,074,249 in 2020;  to $9,017,250 in the current 2020-2021 school year. This year students with vouchers are carrying away 45 percent of the school district’s state foundation funding to pay private and religious school tuition. Ninety-five percent of the students carrying vouchers out of the CH-UH public school budget this year have never been enrolled in the district’s public schools. In essence, this means that in the CH-UH school district, and across Ohio, the Legislature has been forcing local public school districts to undertake an unexpected expense: paying for private and religious education. 

Will the Ohio Legislature Raise the Funds to Pay for a Six Year Phase-In of the Fair School Funding Plan?

The caution about the new plan is that sponsors call it a blueprint, but they are clear that it will not come with immediate funding appropriations to cover the cost.  A six year phase-in is anticipated.

Funding the new plan will pose a major challenge as, after a decade of tax cuts during Governor John Kasich’s tenure, the state lacks the necessary revenue to cover the cost of the new plan. The worry about funding is complicated by projections, reported last Friday by the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer, that Ohio will face a state budget shortfall in the current fiscal year of $2 billion (before June 30, 2021) due to the COVID-19 recession which is expected to continue and perhaps intensify unless the pandemic can be brought under control through testing and contact tracing until a vaccine is widely available. Late last spring, after the pandemic caused business shutdowns and widespread layoffs, Governor Mike DeWine was forced by a recessionary collapse in state revenue to cut $330 million out of the already appropriated FY 20 state K-12 education funding. This money, which school districts had already allocated for specific expenses, disappeared before June 30.

Despite Worries About Paying for the 6-Year Phase-In, the Legislature Should Adopt the Fair School Funding Plan.

Despite concerns about how the Legislature will fund the six-year phase-in of the plan, it is important that a bipartisan coalition of Ohio legislators has come together to create a blueprint school funding formula, which would fulfill the Legislature’s obligation under the state constitution to provide all of Ohio’s children equal access to educational opportunity. It will be up to the public to support the full funding of the new plan.

President Elect Joe Biden’s Education Plan Is Designed to Expand the Opportunity to Learn

The education plan President Elect Joe Biden announced during his campaign for President reflects a public school, “opportunity to learn” agenda—a radical renunciation of the private school, radically individualistic policies of our current President, Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The plan Biden has promoted also differs significantly from the technocratic neoliberalism embodied in education policy during the Obama administration, when Biden served as Vice President.

Through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, public education policy rested on threatening public schools with sanctions if they were unable promptly to raise aggregate standardized test scores and close what were called achievement gaps. The No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy punitively demanded ever-rising outcomes.  President Elect Biden instead emphasizes investing in inputs to expand public schools’ capacity to close opportunity gaps. Biden’s plan reflects his understanding that government is responsible for investing in programs and services necessary to ensure that all students can thrive.

Biden’s pledge to expand the opportunity to learn reflects an understanding of school achievement documented last year by Sean Reardon, a Stanford University education sociologist in Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps. Here Reardon addresses specifically what has been called the black-white achievement gap: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

For fifteen years before Trump and DeVos launched a quest for radically expanding publicly funded vouchers to enable families to pay tuition at private and religious schools, Democrats joined Republicans in endorsing the rapid expansion of charter schools, which many Democrats justified by claiming that charters, are not really private. I once heard a prominent Washington, D.C. liberal Democrat say, “We can’t support vouchers because they are a form of privatization, but charter schools are OK because, you know, they aren’t really private.” Charter schools are, of course, privately operated—a form of government contracting with private operators at taxpayer expense. The Clinton and Obama administrations invested in the growth of charter schools. Biden has distanced himself from the pursuit of more charter schools. He has, at least, condemned the charter management companies that are making a profit from our tax dollars and has pledged improve oversight of a charter sector filled with fraud and corruption.  We can’t yet be sure about how he will deal with the threat of charter school privatization. It is notable, however, that his education plan emphasizes reforms to support the nation’s public schools, while there is no endorsement of standardized testing, school accountability, charter schools, vouchers, or marketplace school choice.

Biden’s education plan does, however, reflect what we all learned from events in 2018 and 2019 that challenged the nation’s understanding of what has gone missing in public schools. Over the decade from 2008—at the same time federal policy was demanding that somehow schools immediately raise aggregate standardized test scores—the Great Recession collapsed state budgets and thereby devastated state funding that makes up roughly 40 percent of public investment in K-12 education. Then across many states, Tea Party state legislators elected in 2010 further cut the taxes needed to fund the public schools and other state functions.

In massive walkouts and strikes through 2018 and 2019—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago—teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford. We watched teachers demand that their legislatures provide enough money to reduce class sizes of 40 students. Teachers protested an epidemic shortage of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians. Red4Ed strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland demonstrated how public schools had been devastated by the diversion of local school budgets to charter schools. Economist Gordon Lafer showed, for example, that the Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year as essential public school funds are diverted to charter schools. Although the press has covered pleas for the public to contribute to go-fund-me campaigns to help teachers buy classroom supplies, teachers taught us in two years of strikes what a shortage of educational investment really means: widespread disinvestment in staff. Not only were key staff being laid off, but teachers’ salaries in too many school districts were declining below the level of decency.  In some places we heard from teachers who were unable afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching. Teachers in Oklahoma were quitting and moving to Texas where salaries were higher.  Colleges and universities reported fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career.

Biden’s education plan declares that he listened to striking teachers: “We have witnessed educators around the country—in states from West Virginia to Arizona to Kentucky—heroically organize walkouts and other actions to stand up not just for their own wages and benefits, but also for the resources they need to serve their students.  Educators shouldn’t have to fight so hard for resources and respect.”  During the campaign, Biden pledged to:

  • Triple funding for Title I, the federal program funding schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families;
  • Increase funding for mandated programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to the full 40 percent of the cost—what Congress originally promised when the law was passed. Today Congress funds roughly 14 percent of the cost and leaves the rest to be absorbed by local school district budgets.
  • Use federal policy to promote equity by incentivizing states to increase investment in the local school districts with the least capacity to raise local revenue. “States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.”
  • Provide high-quality universal pre-Kindergarten for all three-and four-year-olds.
  • Ensure teachers receive competitive salaries and benefits: “Public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996.”
  • “Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools so our kids get the mental health care they need.”
  • Provide wraparound, full service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional students and their families.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to expand the opportunity to learn: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Educators and advocates will need to hold Joe Biden accountable for these promises even as we work to support his efforts to make them a reality.  A significant challenge for Biden will be passing the tax increase he has pledged to enact for corporations and the wealthiest Americans—a tax increase which would pay for his education plan and other important programs. Mitch McConnell will continue to lead a Republican majority Senate, whose members will likely not be amenable to raising these taxes.

What Is at Stake for Public Education in the Presidential Race?

Update:  No new Friday, November 6th post, as we all await the outcome of the election.  We stand on a precipice as we wait to see whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be elected or whether Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be re-elected. This post, from Monday, November 2nd, describes the implications of the presidential election for public education policy.

Look for a new post on Monday, November 9th.

I believe a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris victory  would provide a turning point in education policy.  We would, of course, be able to put behind us the failure of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to protect the public schools. But further, I hope the new administration would turn our national conversation about education away from more than two decades when federal policy makers have worried about accountability, efficiency and privatization but largely forgotten about seriously trying to support and improve the nation’s over 98,000 public schools..

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

How Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Have Damaged Public Education

In a profound book, American Amnesia, published in 2016, before Donald Trump was elected, two political scientists, Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson describe precisely what Trump has undermined in our political system: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Government exercises legitimate coercion to protect our rights and freedom through regulations that protect us from individuals and corporations who would undermine our rights and endanger our collective safety. But the Trump White House has set about removing government protection of the common welfare.  Besides sidelining Anthony Fauci as the President tries to pretend COVID-19 will merely disappear, the President appointed David Bernhardt, an energy company lobbyist as Secretary of the Department of Interior;  Dan Brouillett, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Company as Secretary of the Department of Energy;  Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for the coal mining industry as head of the Environmental Protection Agency;  Elaine Chao, who has become wealthy through her family’s interest in a major shipping company, as Secretary of Transportation;  Eugene Scalia, an attorney representing companies opposing labor unions, as the Secretary of Labor;  and Betsy DeVos, a lifelong promoter of spending public tax dollars for private religious education, as Secretary of Education.

Fortunately DeVos has not been entirely successful in her quest to promote private and religious schools and her attempt to undermine public education in America. She has tried to cut the budget of key programs in the Department of Education, but Congress has not permitted her to combine a mass of programs into one large block grant, and has protected at least minimal funding for the formula programs—Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Every year she has tried to insert into her department’s budget $5 billion for a federal private school tuition tax credit program she calls Education Freedom Scholarships. This year she even got Senator Tim Scott to introduce this program as a stand alone School Choice Now Act.  But Congress has eliminated it in every annual appropriations bill and refused to act on Scott’s bill this year. This year after Congress set up COVID-19 relief dollars under the CARES Act for public schools that serve many poor children, DeVos even tried to redirect a significant amount of that money to private and religious schools, but she was blocked by a federal court.

But like many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and department heads, DeVos has succeeded in damaging public policy by rewriting rules and guidance to reduce government oversight of bad actors. For example she refused to investigate complaints by students with enormous federal loan debts, students who had been ripped off by for-profit colleges which attracted students with fraudulent advertising and then left the students unemployable because their certificates and degrees turned out to be worthless. In some cases the students’ for-profit colleges and trade schools had folded and left them half way through their education with mountains of federal loan debt. Refusing to investigate such cases, DeVos’s department built up a huge backlog of complaints and finally rewrote the the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule altogether. Congress tried to overturn DeVos’s new rule, but President Trump vetoed the Congressional action.  Today thousands of defrauded students continue to carry outrageous debts.

Sometimes she has simply done nothing to regulate or oversee bad programs.  The federal Charter Schools Program has been savagely criticized by the Network for Public Education for spreading billions of federal startup dollars to charter schools that either never opened or were subsequently quickly shut down. And criticism from NPE only adds to years of biennial reports from the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, reports documenting lack of record keeping and failed oversight.  DeVos has done nothing to oversee and clean up this program.

She has also undermined important functions of the Department of Education such as the department’s Office for Civil Rights, charged with protecting students from violations based on discrimination by race, ethnicity, income, gender and sexuality.  She has significantly reduced comprehensive investigations of historic patterns of civil right violations when complaints are filed, failed to investigate accusations that some schools are overly assigning African American students to special education, failed to protect transgender students,  failed to protect the victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and failed to investigate and protect students in school discipline cases. On a significant scale, by failing to enforce federal regulations designed to protect students, DeVos’s department has failed to exert what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government.”  

During DeVos’s Tenure, Decades of Other Bad Policies Have Just Sort of Faded Out of the Conversation

On one level, however, Betsy DeVos has done us a favor. For two decades before Donald Trump took office, public education policy had fallen into a period of bipartisan technocratic neoliberalism. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration and the launch of the federal Charter Schools Program, followed under President George W. Bush by the omnibus bipartisan 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, federal policy in public education was transformed from its original mission to help public schools serve students in marginalized groups who had been poorly served by their state policies.

Then as computer driven policy expanded, large data sets documented the achievement gaps between privileged, mostly white students and African Americans. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) substituted  punishment—not enhancement and support—as the way to close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Standardized testing to create the data sets by which schools across the country would be rated and ranked were mandated for every student every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  Schools were expected to raise scores for all students in every demographic group every year to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient.  Schools falling behind the schedule were sanctioned: their teachers and principals would be fired; they’d have to institute a new curriculum; or they would be turned into charter schools or managed by large Charter Management Organizations.  When President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took over, test-and-punish continued. Schools would compete for Race to the Top money and to qualify to enter the competition, they’d have to promise to adopt standards (which became the Common Core), expand the number of charter schools, turn around failing schools using all the old punishments under NCLB, and evaluate teachers by students’ test scores.

But the test-and-punish school reform juggernaut did not improve public schools according to the test scores universally adopted as the measuring stick. Just last week, Diane Ravitch reported that in the latest administration of the one national test which everybody trusts because it cannot be gamed in the competition for state-by-state accountability, the National Assessment of Education Progress, 12th graders’ scores have not risen since 2005.

In the four years since Betsy DeVos took over, we have heard less and less about school reform, and Adequate Yearly Progress and all the rest.  Actually under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, which reduced the federal role but still requires states to submit an annual plan to accomplish the old NCLB goals, DeVos’s staff have been approving the plans which the states keep on submitting, but hardly anybody I know is tracking this. The narrative has just kind of died out as DeVos has ramped up her own narrative about publicly funded vouchers for private and religious education.

How Would a Biden Administration Transform the Narrative about Education in America?

If Joe Biden wins tomorrow, I am looking for leadership to drive the narrative back to where it belongs: improving access to opportunity in America’s public schools. In Biden’s education plan: there is no endorsement of standardized testing, no endorsement of holding schools accountable according to their aggregate test scores, and no support for vouchers for private and religious schools. Biden has not said he would end the federal Charter Schools Program, but he has pledged to better monitor and oversee charter schools.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan is all about our system of public education. He emphasizes the importance of expanding the opportunity to learn for every child regardless of race, ethnicity, family economics or the child’s primary language.  Biden’s plan proclaims: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals. Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden pledges to add 300,000 new full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, and he pledges to restore  justice for students by strengthening enforcement of regulations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman led with this comment on how Joe Biden, if elected, is likely to repair what Trump has done to government itself and to domestic policy: “(I)f Democrats win big, I expect to see many of Trump’s substantive policies reversed, and then some. Environmental protection and the social safety net will probably end up substantially stronger, taxes on the rich substantially higher, than they were under Barack Obama.”

If Joe Biden is elected President, I also expect him to begin repairing a quarter century of neoliberal expansion of school privatization as well as two decades of failed test-and-punish school accountability. If he is elected, I expect Biden to restore racial and economic justice in public schools as the central mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Prospects for COVID-19 Stimulus Package Fade: Will We Have to Wait for A New President and New Congress to Negotiate Relief for States and Their Public Schools?

Negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House negotiator Steve Mnuchin and Senate Republicans for a second coronavirus relief bill have collapsed until at least after the election—maybe until a new Congress convenes in 2021 and, perhaps, a new President takes over.  Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has declared that the U.S. Senate will not even be back in session until November 9.

Of immediate urgency is essential assistance for individuals and small businesses now that most of the programs funded by last March’s CARES Act have run out—the one-time $1,200 stimulus checks, the small business paycheck protection program, pandemic emergency unemployment benefits, an eviction moratorium, and support for health coverage. But there is another critically important need—one that is slightly farther removed from families’ immediate crisis.

Through months of negotiations, the two sides could never reach any agreement on one of Nancy Pelosi’s top priorities and something essential for the nation’s over 13,000 local public school districts: significant relief for state and local governments. State funding averages 40 percent of all public school funding, with local funds comprising around 40 percent.  President Donald Trump and some Republican  Senators opposed what Trump called “a bailout for poorly managed ‘blue’ states.”  While Trump and so-called “deficit hawk” Republican Senators have politicized the issue, here is how—last April—Rutgers University education funding expert, Bruce Baker, and Albert Shanker Institute policy expert, Matthew Di Carlo defined the urgent need for relief for state and local governments: “The most terrible and lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic will of course be measured in loss of life. But a parallel tragedy will also be unfolding in the coming months and years, this one affecting those at the beginning of their lives: an unprecedented school funding crisis that threatens to disadvantage a generation of children. It currently is difficult to make any precise predictions about the magnitude of the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, except to say that it has already started and it is likely to be severe. The revenue that funds public K-12 schools—almost 90 percent of which comes from state and local sources—will see large decreases… Making things worse, school districts in many states have yet to recover from the last recession, the so-called Great Recession, which officially began in late 2007 and devastated state and local education budgets.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s Heather Gillers and Gunjan Banerji analyzed how a COVID-19 recession continuing for at least the next two years will affect the states: “U.S. states are facing their biggest cash crisis since the Great Depression.  Nationwide, the U.S. state budget shortfall from 2020-2022 could amount to about $434 billion, according to data from Moody’s Analytics…. That’s greater than the 2019 K-12 education budget for every state combined, or more than twice the amount spent that year on state roads and other transportation infrastructure…. Even after rainy day funds are used, Moody’s Analytics projects 46 states coming up short, with Nevada, Louisiana and Florida having the greatest gaps as a percentage of their 2019 budgets… States are dependent on taxes for revenue—sales and income taxes make up more than 60% of the revenue states collect for general operating funds…. Both types of taxes have been crushed by historic job losses and the steepest decline in consumer spending in six decades… The U.S. economy has steadily recovered since the spring, and more than 11 million jobs of the 22 million lost earlier in the year have come back.  Still, the unemployment rate recently hovered at 7.9%, and there has been an uptick in permanent layoffs.”

One effect will be a reduction in teachers’ salaries, which are already significantly lower in many states than average salaries and benefits for similarly educated professionals.  In mid-September, the Economic Policy Institute showed the long term effects of the kind of government stinginess we see in too many states and which we have watched this summer in the U.S. Senate’s refusal to consider continued federal relief. Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel released their annual report on the long-term teacher pay penalty which is making it hard in too many states to attract enough college students into teacher preparation programs and making it difficult for states to hire enough quality teachers.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,  Derek Black worries about the long consequences of a COVID-19 recession for public school budgets: “If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last (the 2008 recession), the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that spent the two years prior to 2020 protesting shamefully low salaries may simply break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket. No one will take their place. The number of college students pursuing teaching degrees was already shockingly low. Class sizes will continue on their decade long expansion. And the pre-kindergarten opportunities, mental health counselors, and other supports that disadvantaged students so desperately need—but which states wouldn’t fund during good times—might as well be on permanent hold.” Schoolhouse Burning, p. 258)

Last week, Education Week‘s Daarel Burnette II examined the current situation in the context of what happened during the Great Recession a decade ago: “The last recession was financially ruinous for poor and majority Black and Latino school districts, almost wiping out the progress states had made in the last half century in closing funding gaps between property-rich and property-poor school districts.  Many of these school districts, even before the pandemic, had yet to financially recover from recession-era budget cuts. The pandemic has again blown a crater in sales and income tax revenues on which property-poor districts are heavily reliant. Without a substantial federal bailout, low-income districts are expected to lose millions of dollars in the coming years, which will undoubtedly have academic repercussions.”

Describing last week’s collapse of negotiations for a second COVID-19 package between House Speaker Pelosi, White House negotiator, Mnuchin, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate The Wall Street Journal noted: “Administration officials acknowledge that Senate Republicans remain a major roadblock to passing a deal with a high price tag.” Throughout the negotiation process, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reported many Senators were refusing to support assistance for state and local governments. These Senators are the far-right, so-called “deficit hawks,” who are now alarmed about increasing the size of the federal deficit despite that they passed enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in 2011.

Last week, Nobel Prize winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman confronted the deficit hawks’ argument. Krugman assumes that the responsibility for passing COVID-19 relief will be delayed until we have a new Congress in January and a new administration headed by Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump. Krugman directs his advice to the new President: “Given the current and likely future state of the U.S. economy, it’s time to (a) spend a lot of money on the future and (b) not worry about where the money is coming from. For now, and for at least the next few years, large-scale deficit spending isn’t just OK, it’s the only responsible thing to do… (I)t will be crucial to provide another round of large-scale fiscal relief, especially aid to the unemployed and to cash-strapped state and local governments. The main purpose of this relief will be humanitarian—helping families pay the rent and keep food on the table, helping cities and towns avoid devastating cuts in essential services. But it will also help avoid a downward economic spiral, by heading off a potential collapse in consumer and local government spending. The need for big spending will not, however, end with the pandemic. We also need to invest in our future. After years of public underspending, America desperately needs to upgrade its infrastructure… And we should also do much more to help children grow up to be healthy, productive adults; America spends shamefully little on aid to families compared with other wealthy countries.”

While state and local governments are, for the most part, prohibited by law from borrowing, the federal government can borrow. Krugman continues: “When a government can borrow at low interest rates, and in particular when the interest rate on debt is well below the economy’s long-run growth rate, debt just isn’t a major problem. It doesn’t pose any threat to the government’s solvency; it doesn’t in any meaningful way compete with private investment.” “Under these conditions it would actually be irresponsible for the federal government not to engage in large-scale borrowing to invest in the future.”

Betsy DeVos Still Doesn’t Get the Connection Between Democracy and Our System of Public Schools

A week ago, at one of the nation’s most conservative Christian colleges, Betsy DeVos delivered a vehement attack on the idea of public education. With the election coming up next week, we can hope it was the final attack on the institution of public schooling DeVos will deliver from per perch as U.S. Secretary of Education.

In a column last Wednesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s Hillsdale College address: “In 2015, billionaire Betsy DeVos declared that ‘government really sucks’—and after serving nearly four years as U.S. education secretary, she has not tempered that view one iota.  She gave a speech this week at a Christian college disparaging the U.S. public education system, saying it is set up to replace the home and family. While blasting the government is nothing new for DeVos—critics see her as the most ideological and anti-public-education secretary in the Education Department’s 40-plus-year history—she gave what may be her fiercest anti-government polemic at the Hillsdale College event in her home state…. She explained how her philosophy was formed by Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian-turned-politician who was prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905 and who believed that Protestant, Catholic and secular groups should run their own independent schools and colleges. The United States could fix its education system, she said, if it were to ‘go Dutch’ by embracing ‘the family as the sovereign sphere that is, a sphere that predates government altogether.'”

Strauss reprints DeVos’s Hillsdale College speech in its entirety. In it DeVos confides to her audience the secret she has learned while serving as our education secretary: “I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much. These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students. It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting ‘the system.'” Remember Betsy’s notorious rebuke all those years ago: “Government really sucks.”

DeVos brags about her accomplishments as Secretary of Education: “(W)e restored state, local, and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), by ending Common Core, and by urging Congress to put an end to education earmarks by consolidating nearly all Federal K-12 programs into one block grant.  We expanded the in-demand D.C. voucher program…. We supported the creation of more public charter schools… And we support the bipartisan School Choice Now Act.”  Strauss explains that ESSA was passed in 2015 before DeVos became Secretary of Education and tells us that the Common Core had already faded, though it is still in place in several states. Strauss reminds readers that many of the supposed accomplishments DeVos brags about were mere initiatives proposed but never enacted. Congress did not, for example, buy into consolidating all of the Department’s programs into a single block grant, and the School Choice Now Act, introduced by Senator Tim Scott, is merely a proposal for DeVos’s $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships, a tuition tax credit program DeVos has inserted into the department’s budget every year, but a budget appropriation Congress has repeatedly refused to enact. Scott introduced the program as a piece of stand-alone legislation this year, but Congress has not passed the law.

In her Hillsdale College address DeVos suggests that the average U.S. public school expenditure-per-pupil (encompassing federal, state and local dollars) of $15,000 should be given to families like a little portable backpack that the child could carry to whatever education institution the family chooses. Neglecting to point out that the bulk of that money pays for teachers and other essential school staff, DeVos says: “Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: ‘I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!’.. You could improve your child’s outcomes with that kind of money.  A single parent in Detroit, or Flint, or Grand Rapids could open the door to a better life for their child if only they had control of how taxpayer dollars are spent on their child’s education. America’s parents agree. There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental ‘school choice.'”

While Betsy DeVos suggests that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, the political theorist Benjamin Barber explains why choices based on self interest fail to protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards necessary in a modern complex democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)

Because our schools are public, over more than two centuries of our nation’s history, Congress and the 50 state legislatures have been able to pass statutes to protect the rights of all children, and the courts have interpreted these laws to ensure that the the meaning of the promise to protect every child’s rights has expanded. As primary civic institutions the public schools have inevitably embodied the biases and injustices embraced by our society, but over time as advocates have insisted that we learn to understand the ways our public schools have failed to live up to our nation’s promises, our legislative and legal systems have been able to ensure that schools have moved closer to justice.

We have already come a long way. Since the early nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of the struggle—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents—to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil War, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled.

The battle to expand the meaning of equality included the struggle to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools and once able to enter a city’s public schools, would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track.  Women, African Americans, and immigrants finally have increased the possibility of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them. American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have fought for the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture. Disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, have finally earned the right to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and to not be excluded into sheltered classes. Immigrant students have fought for and won, in some states at least, the right to bilingual education. Undocumented students won the right to a public education only in a 1982 Supreme Court decision, but they are too often still denied financial assistance through in-state college tuition. The fight for justice and equality in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for their children the very equality promised in the founding documents.  If American education were transformed by Betsy DeVos’s vision of universal privatized parental choice, none of these rights could be protected.

In a wonderful new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Educaton and the Assault on American Democracy, Derek Black, a professor of constitutional law, demonstrates how, over the centuries since the founding of our nation, our society has been able to expand the democratic protection of every student’s right to public education: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

Betsy DeVos’s belief that we should “go Dutch” and adopt universal school choice for families is contrary to the promise of our American democracy.