Another School District Ends Contract with City Police for Security Guards: Will Improve Counseling and School Climate

Last June, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Washington Post reported that school districts across the United States suddenly felt obligated to take seriously the warnings from civil rights organizations about problems when school districts hire armed police as so-called “Student Resource Officers”:

“For years, civil rights activists have worked to remove police officers from the nation’s public schools, arguing that they pose a greater risk to students of color than the intruders they’re supposed to guard against. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a shift that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago is underway: Several major school systems have canceled their contracts with police, and others are mounting pressure to do the same.” School districts named by the Post last June included: Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and West Contra Costa Unified School District in California.

Now, the New York Times reports that last week another large school district, the Los Angeles Unified School District, approved a plan to eliminate a third of the armed police guards in the city’s public schools: “After a months-long push by students in the nation’s second-largest public school system, leaders in Los Angeles approved a plan on Tuesday to cut the district’s security force by a third, joining a growing number of cities that have reduced the presence of police officers in school hallways… The vote on Tuesday… would also ban the use of pepper spray on students and divert $25 million to programs supporting students of color. It was the result of months of meetings on how best to reconfigure public safety in the district, which serves about 650,000 students… The plan… eliminates 70 sworn officers, who have arrest powers; 62 nonsworn officers; and one support staff member, leaving 211 officers on the district’s force. Officers at secondary schools in Los Angeles will be replaced with ‘climate coaches’ from the community who will mentor students, help resolve conflicts and address implicit bias.”

Employment of armed police guards in public schools accelerated after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. The stated purpose was making schools safer, but bringing police into school has at the same time accelerated another alarming problem known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Young people in school are likely to make mistakes and likely to struggle to resolve conflicts, but when fights result in arrests by police (now called “School Resource Officers”) the students end up in the juvenile justice system—in court and in juvenile detention centers—instead of in the principal’s or a counselor’s office. And because of the structural institutional biases that pervade our society, a huge percentage of the students propelled into court and detention are poor, Black, and Brown.

Advocates for justice at school, and advocates for school policies designed to support students through normal adolescent development have spent two decades pleading for handling school discipline in school instead of in court, and for increasing counseling and mental health staff to support the fair resolution of student conflicts and discipline. The trend of school districts contracting with their police departments to handle student discipline has grown simultaneously with the widespread reduction in school counselors, social workers, and mental health support professionals as public school budgets have declined.

In the introduction to a major report, We Came to Learn from the civil rights agency, Advancement Project, the agency’s former executive director explains: “There is a culture clash that exists between law enforcement and the learning environment: police enforce criminal laws, while schools are supposed to nurture students… This report… documents the school policing model and discusses how school police became institutionalized in America’s public education system through funding and policy at both the federal and local level.”

Collaborating to promote fairer school discipline and school policy that supports normal child and adolescent development, Advancement Project, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education published Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, a guide for institutionalizing restorative practices as an alternative not only to the employment of armed police as School Resource Officers but also to the overuse of suspension and expulsion of students out of school: “Restorative practices are processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.  Restorative practices are increasingly being applied in individual schools and school districts to address youth behavior, rule violations, and to improve school climate and culture… Restorative practices allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing the individuals affected by the behavior. Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future.”

An enormous coalition of national, statewide and local organizations, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains its mission: “challenging the systemic problem of pushout in our nation’s schools and working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”  In a short two page brief, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains Why Counselors, Not Cops:

“The presence of police in schools has escalated dramatically in the last several decades, and the figures on arrests and referrals to law enforcement show disproportionate targeting of black and Latino students. This is just one aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline, where some students are denied an opportunity to succeed, and instead are pushed out of school and into the juvenile or criminal justice system… (I)t is clear that students and their families are criminalized, and that school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement go up when police have a regular presence in schools… For immigrant and undocumented students, bringing police into the school building can lead to deportation for themselves or their families… Counselors, wrap-around services and strong relationships with caring adults give struggling students support, and keep students who may need interventions from falling through the cracks.”

In “NY Times” Piece, Eve Ewing Ignores Economic Catastrophe for Public Schools of Charter School Expansion

I am a great fan of Eve Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard.  I have read the book twice, visited in Chicago some of the sites she describes, given the book to friends as a gift and blogged about it.  In that book, Ewing documents the community grief across Chicago’s South Side, where the now three decades old Renaissance 2010 “portfolio school plan” pits neighborhood public schools and charter schools in competition and closes the so-called “failing” neighborhood public schools when too many families opt for a charter school.

In a column published in Monday’s NY Times, Eve Ewing wants to make peace with charter schools.  She writes that we should allow families to choose and ensure that neighborhood schools and charter schools can all be well resourced and thriving. Ewing grasps for a third way—some sort of amicable compromise in a very polarized situation.

Ewing is a University of Chicago sociologist, and, in her column she examines many of the factors by which neighborhood public schools and charter schools have been compared and rated. She points out that academic quality is a mixed bag with neighborhood and charter schools sometimes besting each other in terms of student achievement. Then she wonders, “What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring… resources for all students?

The problem in Ewing’s column this week is that she never identifies or addresses the matter of public funding for education. I assume she wants to equalize school funding across both sectors. But when charter schools compete for students with public schools, there are now two separate education sectors to split what has proven to be a fixed pot of money.  In every single place I know about where charter schools have been allowed to open up, this is a zero sum game.  A sufficient and growing body of research demonstrates that there is no way to split the funding both ways without cutting the funding that most states and local school districts have been budgeting for their public schools.

Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, explains that one must consider more than the comparative test scores and students’ experiences in neighborhood schools and charters, and instead examine the impact of adding new charter schools into what he calls the entire educational ecosystem of the school district: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.” “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”  In his report, Baker calls charter schools “parasites.”

One issue is that charter schools tend to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students with extremely severe disabilities, leaving behind in the neighborhood public schools the children whose needs are most expensive to serve.  Research by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers University demonstrates, for example, that: “New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (D)ata…  show that many charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”

In Pennsylvania, the state funds special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment.  Peter Greene reports that in Chester Upland, where a charter school is sucking up a mass of special education funding, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”

The biggest financial loss caused by the introduction of a charter sector into a school district is that it is not possible for the school district to recover the stranded costs when children exit to  charter schools.  In a groundbreaking 2018 report, the Oregon political economist, Gordon Lafer demonstrates that California’s Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year to charter schools.  Here’s how: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”  In the same report, Lafer adds that in 2016-17, the San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million to charter schools.

In a subsequent report, Lafer explains: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students.”

The financial loss for any state’s public schools is not limited to  local school district budgets. There is substantial evidence that state legislatures do not create a separate budget line item funded with additional dollars to pay for school privatization; funding is instead sucked out of what used to be budgeted for the state’s public school districts. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black traces how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during the decade following the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

In her brilliant 2018 book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, what Eve Ewing examines is really the social impact in one South Side Chicago community of marketplace school choice in the form of the competition for students between neighborhood public schools and a growing charter school sector. The Renaissance 2010 charter school marketplace expansion was ultimately the economic driver of Chicago’s closure of 50 neighborhood public schools at the end of 2013. The growth of a Chicago charter school sector was a primary cause of the “ghost” neighborhood schoolhouses left abandoned across Chicago’s South Side.

Steve Nelson Believes America’s Obsession with School Policy Based on Standardized Tests Is All Wrong

Steve Nelson is the former Head of School at the private, progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan, but he has also spoken passionately about the danger of current trends in public school policy.  I recommend his book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, and I also enjoy his new blog, where, last week, he warned against the problems in federally mandated standardized testing—a big issue right now as education advocates are urging the new U.S. Secretary of Education to grant states waivers to cancel federally mandated standardized testing in this COVID-19 school year.

Where did our fixation and obsession with standardized testing come from? Nelson weighs in: “Education reformers and so-called policy ‘experts’ are constantly collecting and analyzing data.  Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called ‘the dismal science.’ The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: ‘evidence-based,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘metrics and accountability.’ At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform ‘best practices’ based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests.”

Today’s accountability-based school reform is, writes Nelson, “an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment… systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.”

Nelson calls this sort of teaching “direct instruction,” and he describes the direct but fading results: “‘Direct instruction’ does increase scores on the tests the instruction is aimed toward, even with very young children. This self-fulfilling prophecy is not surprising. But multiple studies also show that the gains in performance are fleeting—they completely wash out after 1-3 years when compared to children who have had no direction instruction.”

What kind of education does Nelson believe is consistent with normal child development?  “If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery).”

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement—‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’—is the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Last year, Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated standardized tests in the midst of COVID-19. I think it is safe to say that Steve Nelson would tell Miguel Cardona that we can safely allow states to cancel the tests again this spring as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our schools and our children’s lives.

Blaming Teachers Unions for Problems Reopening Schools Is Wrong: Reopening Must Be Done Safely

Right now, after nearly a year since life shut down for COVID-19, things feel like a chaotic mess. Children in lots of places are not in school but are instead learning remotely at home.  Unemployment is endemic. Families face unimaginable financial pressures, and if parents are working, the pressures of managing children out of school have been overwhelming. Some parents have felt obligated to quit work to supervise children learning at home, or if parents themselves are working from home, they may be struggling to manage kids learning remotely while the parents try to do their jobs.

As far as reopening schools full-time, the new Biden administration seems confused. The Washington Post‘s Cleve Wootson and Laura Meckler report: “As the country approaches the one-year mark of the pandemic’s isolation and restrictions, the Biden administration is struggling to give precise, consistent answers to two key questions: when will the pandemic truly be behind us? And short of that, when can children safely return to school? Biden himself has blamed miscommunications for some of the inconsistency, but his administration… is also grappling with the fact that science and data don’t produce answers as tidy or linear as campaign promises… For months, Biden has raised expectations that children would soon return to school… and his press secretary, Jen Psaki, recently suggested that the White House considers schools to be open if students are in school at least one day a week. But at a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, he clarified that he wants students back in school five days a week—while also specifying that his priority is students in grades K-8… It was an attempt to add clarity to an increasingly murky issue at the intersection of safety, education and politics.”

Education policy and politics over the past two decades have outrageously but consistently blamed educators themselves for the so-called “failure” of American public education. No Child Left Behind was designed, its sponsors said, to confront “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—the idea that teachers are not expecting enough from children whose standardized test scores are low.  Congress premised the law on punishments for the educators and the schools with the lowest overall test scores: fire the principal and half the staff, turn the school over to a charter management organization where a private entrepreneur could fire teachers who weren’t working hard enough. Race to the Top went farther by trying to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. None of this policy recognized decades of data which has repeatedly correlated concentrated student poverty with low aggregate standardized test scores. Decades of public policy set out to blame and punish the schools and educators serving our society’s poorest children instead of investing in ameliorating poverty and helping the schools serving poor children.

The idea was that incentives and sanctions would make school teachers and principals work harder and smarter. And embedded in it all was our universal assumption that if we blamed teachers and tried to motivate them with incentives (carrots) and sanctions (sticks), they would solve the problem and let society itself escape the public responsibility for investing in the future of children living in poverty. As usual, we expected schoolteachers to be good sports, and we resented it if they pushed back.

COVID-19 is setting up the same scenario. The pandemic has especially devastated the school districts lacking adequate resources. As Joe Biden, the candidate pointed out in his Education Plan, our society needs to, “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.”  In a new report, The Education Law Center adds that state governments collectively cut their funding for local school districts by $600 billion in the decade following the 2008 Great Recession.

It is, of course, the inadequately funded school districts which have struggled hardest to reopen in person during COVID-19. But when the teachers unions in these school districts question whether their large classes crowded into too small classrooms would permit social distancing or whether the school buildings are adequately ventilated, politicians and the general public easily slip into the old pattern of blaming the teachers and their unions.  In an interview last week with the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot clearly continued to blame the Chicago Teachers Union for blocking the reopening of schools even after the school district and the union had settled and agreed to reopen.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss tried to sort out the controversy and clarify that while some teachers unions may have been demanding, feisty teachers unions are not the central problem: “Actually, there is a continued lack of governmental clarity over exactly what proper safety measures are necessary—and plenty of evidence that many school districts already open are not coming close to implementing some of the key measures. Researchers reporting on transmission in schools qualify their results by saying safety measures matter, a point that sometimes gets left out of the reopening debate.” Strauss continues: “In fact, the ‘science’ of reopening schools is evolving—even as more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are starting to spread and presenting new challenges to a country that has done one of the worst-recorded jobs in the world at containing the pandemic. And if a school district is trying to figure out exactly what protocols must be taken, the available guidance is still not crystal clear. ”

Strauss reviews new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control: “On Friday, the CDC released reopening guidance for school districts that rested on five key pillars: masking, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining those exposed. However, those pillars do not include what leading scientists say are other vital measures: well-functioning air ventilation systems and robust testing and screening programs at every school to find people who have the coronavirus but show no symptoms.”

There is some agreement that social distancing means leaving six feet between students’ desks.  However, at current funding levels, classes are usually pretty crowded. Almost no school district has enough teachers and enough empty classrooms to make overall class size smaller by putting smaller groups of children in separate classrooms with additional teachers. That is why many school districts which have brought students back to classrooms are doing so with complicated hybrid systems in which classes are split into remote and in-person sessions as smaller groups of students in each class rotate in and out of in-class and remote learning.

Finally, Strauss points out that, “Many schools are not—repeat, not—taking the appropriate safety steps to allow safe reopenings. Some have little or no testing protocols and poor ventilation.  Teachers report having to buy their own masks—sometimes for students, too—as well as insufficient social distancing and cleaning procedures. Some classrooms have desks inches apart… Many schools were not healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, this is the ordinary: crumbling buildings, unhealthy air quality, bugs and rodents, mold, broken or nonexistent air conditioning and heaters, nonfunctioning toilets, etc… Yet there is no serious discussion about addressing these issues. The debate is increasingly dominated by a refrain from outraged and exasperated editorial writers and columnists and news show hosts who say we must open schools and the monolithic teachers’ unions have to stop fighting it.”

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chose to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and simply demand that public schools reopen. Significant assistance for public schools was finally included in a last minute, December 202, COVID-19 relief package, but I suspect the help, which is to be distributed to public school districts through their states, has not yet made it through the pipeline. And Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains that a good part of the  funding for schools in Biden’s new relief plan now being marked up in the U.S. House of Representatives is for next year: “While Biden has tied the need for more relief funding to his goal of opening a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, the funding estimates in the document cover the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. ‘Funds are included for next year because we know that in order to invest in safely reopening, districts need financial certainty that they will not have to lay off teachers next fall in order to implement consistent COVID-19 safety protocols.’ says the Biden estimate obtained by Education Week.  ‘They do not have that certainty right now. Further, school districts that are already open need more support to implement mitigation efforts that protect students, educators and school staff.'”

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges some patience as the new Biden administration tries to move our society out of the Trump era of COVID denial: “What policymakers are trying to do here is like fighting a war—a war both against the pandemic itself and against the human fallout from the pandemic slump. And when you’re fighting a war, you don’t decide how much to spend by asking: ‘How much stimulus do we need to achieve full employment?’ You spend what you need to spend to win the war. Winning in this case, means providing the resources for a huge vaccination program and for opening schools safely, while limiting the economic misery of families whose breadwinners can’t work and avoiding gratuitous cuts in public services provided by fiscally constrained state and local governments.” Krugman is pushing Congress swiftly to pass Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan, but Krugman knows that it will take time and patience to address the problems that built up as the Trump administration denied the severity of COVID-19 and its attendant health and economic challenges.

There is one step, however, which can be taken immediately to protect schoolteachers—whether they work with 25 or 30 children each day in an elementary school classroom or teach more than a hundred middle and high school students cycling every day through their classrooms. Teachers and other school support staff need to be moved immediately to the front of the line to qualify for the vaccine. Even if school districts are able to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning protocols, not all of the fifty states have prioritized schoolteachers for vaccination. That is wrong and it needs to be corrected.

What Is at Stake when ALEC, the State Policy Network, The Buckeye Institute and EdChoice Lobby for Vouchers?

As we begin 2021, there has been troubling coverage about new voucher programs popping up in state legislatures. This is despite that Betsy DeVos is gone and that President Joseph Biden is a strong supporter of the institution of public schools. And in states like Indiana, and Ohio, where privatized school vouchers have been in place for decades, we can also watch pressure for their expansion.

Earlier this week, Bill Phillis, Ohio’s longest and best informed proponent of public schools and the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, sent around a troubling article from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette describing a bill being considered by the Indiana House Education Committee for the radical expansion of an already enormous publicly funded private school tuition voucher program in Indiana, Ohio’s neighbor:

“The proposed bill expands the $172 million a year voucher program to allow a family of four earning as much as $145,000 a year to qualify for vouchers. Median household income in Indiana is about $60,000 a year. The bill also eliminates income limits on the size of the voucher awards. Currently, a family of four earning up to $48,000 a year is limited to a voucher worth 90% of per-student state funding for the school corporation in which the family resides. At $60,000 a year in household income, the voucher drops to 70%. Four-person families earning up to $96,000 a year qualify for 50% of per-student funding. But HB 1005 drops the income tiers even as it raises income eligibility. A family of four earning up to $109,000 would qualify for a 90% voucher in 2021-22. In 2022-23, eligibility rises to $145,000 a year for a 90% voucher. That translates to millions of tax dollars to parents who do not choose public schools but can afford tuition for their children.”

The goal of voucher proponents in Indiana is clearly similar to Ohio State Senate President Matt Huffman’s dogged purpose in Ohio. In late November, Huffman pushed through without even a committee hearing a revamp of his primary project: expanding voucher accessibility to an ever increasing number of students across our state. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is always said to be the driver of voucher promotion nationwide.  In 2017, ALEC and another national far-right organization FreedomWorks made Matt Huffman their legislator of the week.

A nationwide right-wing bill mill, ALEC creates model bills, including bills for tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and sends its model bills into the 50 statehouses with the intention that at least in some places they will be enacted into state law. FreedomWorks defines itself: “FreedomWorks exists to build, educate, and mobilize the largest network of activists advocating the principles of smaller government, lower taxes, free markets, personal liberty and the rule of law.”

But ALEC and FreedomWorks are not the primary advocates testifying in in state legislatures for the launch of school vouchers—or in states like Indiana and Ohio, the expansion of school vouchers. In Indiana, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for EdChoice, now formally named EdChoice , describes its purpose: “EdChoice is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our team is driven by the shared mission to advance a K–12 education system where all families are free to choose a learning environment that works best for their children.” This is doubletalk for the idea of substituting universal school choice at public expense for a system of public schools.

In Ohio, aligned in purpose with EdChoice, is the Buckeye Institute, a nonprofit that actively and regularly floods the statehouse with lobbyists. In the area of education, the Buckeye Institute says its purpose is, “Giving all children the best education through school choice and returning local control to every community.”  And it announces a special priority: “Support education savings accounts for parents to personalize their children’s learning experience and save for college.”

EdChoice and the Buckeye Institute are both members of the State Policy Network (SPN), which SourceWatch describes as, “a web of right-wing ‘think tanks’ and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states (see this interactive map), Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of August 2020, SPN’s membership totals 162. Today’s SPN is the tip of the spear of (a) far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party… SPN groups operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support.”

Where does the money behind this State Policy Network of organizations come from?  In a major 2013 investigation of the State Policy Network, SourceWatch reported that it is hard to know, because funding mostly flows through DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, dark money sources that do not name individual donors: “The largest known funder behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different nonprofits. It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients because the funds are then distributed in the name of DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.”

SourceWatch has identified some major contributors in addition to DonorsTrust to the State Policy Network and its so-called “think tanks,” including the Walton Family Foundation: $1,725,000 (2014-2019); the Bradley Foundation: $1,570,000 (2014-2019); and the Sarah Scaife Foundation: $840,000 (2016-2018).

Unfortunately knowing about pro-voucher organizations and even some of the groups which are funding all this activity does not make it any easier to advocate against this kind of massive influence peddling for vouchers and tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers across our state legislatures. In an important new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores the serious challenge posed by dark money and groups like ALEC, the State Policy Network, Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, and Indiana’s EdChoice. Derek Black believes the threat is greatest in the nation’s most vulnerable communities serving Black, Brown, and poor children:

“(T)he interests of those pulling the political and financial levers behind the scenes to expand charters and vouchers do not align with disadvantaged communities. Their goal, unlike that of minority communities, is not to ensure that each and every child, regardless of wealth, race, or religion, receives an equal and adequate educational opportunity. The powerful interests behind the scenes want a much different system of government than the one our founders put in our state and federal constitutions. Undermining public education is a big part of making that happen. Education, they say, is ‘the lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today.’ In their minds, the scales of justice should tip away from mass democracy and the common good toward individualism and private property. That means less taxes, less government, less public education. While couched as more liberty, what they really mean is that government should let the chips fall where they may. It isn’t government’s job to ensure equal participation in democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 19)

Derek Black believes those of us who are committed to public education must not merely be persistent in opposing all kinds of school privatization. We must also be prepared clearly to articulate why public schools are so important: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and the CEOs children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Biden’s Relief Package Moves Along—Including Child Tax Credit to Ameliorate Child Poverty

Last week, while America was reliving the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol and listening to an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House continued marking up President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. In a society that has, over the past four years, not even managed to name widespread child poverty as a problem, the new President has—by  getting to work and immediately proposing a comprehensive COVID relief package—managed entirely to change the national conversation. I clipped seven different articles last week alone on Biden’s proposed provisions to reduce child poverty.

First Focus on Children’s Bruce Lesley explains: “(T)here were 12 million children in the United States living in poverty in 2019… Even before the pandemic and recession, the kids were not alright. In an international comparison, our nation is well behind other wealthy nations in a report by UNICEF on dozens of child well-being measures, including child poverty and child mortality.  In that report, the United States ranks… 36th out of 38 countries—behind countries like Romania, Estonia, Slovakia, Latvia, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, and Malta.”  Leslie points out that 31 percent of U.S. children live below the poverty line.

Leslie highlights a key provision in the President’s proposed COVID-19 relief plan, “What stands out is the Biden-Harris proposal to make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable to help… one-third of all our kids… whose parents make too little to qualify for the full child benefit, which is $2,000 annually under current law. The legislation also raises the amount of the Child Tax Credit to $3,600 to families with children 5 and under ($300 per month) and $3,000 to families with children 6-17 years-of-age ($250 per month).”

The Child Tax Credit is exactly that: a tax credit. It works by reducing a parent’s federal income taxes leaving more earned income to be spent on the needs of the family. But if a parent’s income is too low, that parent cannot benefit from the full amount of the credit as higher earning parents do.  Biden’s proposal, now marked up by the House, would make the child tax cut fully available to all parents—“fully refundable” in the jargon of Congress.

In a new brief last Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains the proposal for increasing the Child Tax Credit in the relief bill the House Ways and Means Committee has marked up: “Some 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children and a similar share of rural children—receive less than the current maximum $2,000-per-child tax credit because their parents earn too little, even as middle-and higher-income families get the full amount. The proposal would make the full Child Tax Credit available to children in families with low earnings or that lack earnings in a year, and it would increase the credit’s maximum amount to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age 6.  It would also extend the credit to 17-year-olds. The increase in the maximum amount would begin to phase out for heads of households making $112,500 and married couples making $150,000. The proposal would lift 4.1 million children above the poverty line—cutting the number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent. The proposal also would lift 1.1 million children above half the poverty line (referred to as ‘deep poverty’).  Black and Latino children in particular, whom the current credit disproportionately leaves out or leaves behind, would benefit.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues: “To see what this can mean to individual families, consider these examples:

  • A single mother of a toddler, who earns $10,000 a year providing in-home care to older people (with work hours that fluctuate significantly from month to month), now receives a Child Tax Credit of $1,125. Under the House plan, she’d receive $3,600, a gain of $2,475.
  • A single mother with a 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, who is out of work for the year due to a health condition, now receives no Child Tax Credit at all, adding to the family’s financial insecurity. Under the House plan, she would receive the full Child Tax Credit of $3,600 for her daughter and $3,000 for her son to help with the children’s expenses.”

How has it come to be that one third of children in the United States live in families whose income is below the federal poverty line—$26,200 for a family of four?  Writing last week for the NY Times, Claire Cain Miller and Neil Irwin explain: “The United States is distinct among rich countries in thinking of children as, in many ways, an individual responsibility. Many European countries have family allowances as do Canada and Australia (most allowances are larger than the ones being proposed in the United States), as well as policies like public child care and lengthy paid family leaves. In the 1970s and ’80s, when women entered the work force in large numbers, the United States briefly considered the idea that the government and employers could play a big role in supporting family life, such as with public child care and flexible work hours. Instead policymakers settled on the idea—supported by an alliance of people who believed in small government and traditional family structures—that it was mostly the responsibility of parents, and not the government, to invest in children.”

The President’s proposal to increase the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable as part of the COVID-relief package would expire after this year. However,  in the last session of Congress, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Michael Bennet (D-CO)  introduced  a more permanent solution—the American Family Act, which includes the very same provisions for increasing the child tax credit and making it fully refundable. Last week, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA) reintroduced their companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

We can assume that, through the reconciliation process, President Biden will soon be able to pass the COVID-19 relief bill. The bill’s passage will significantly but temporarily reduce child poverty by repairing the Child Tax Credit. We can hope that with Democratic majorities this year in House and Senate, Congress will pass the American Family Act to provide more permanent assistance for the millions of American children whose families struggle with poverty.

Big Data on Learning Loss Is Not the Point: Teachers Know How to Use Formative Assessments to Guide Their Work with Each Child

Recently on the news, I heard an education researcher discussing the importance of using standardized tests to measure something called “learning loss” across racial, ethnic, and regional groups of children during the pandemic.

Like so many others, this so-called expert made the for case for reinstating—this spring during the pandemic—the standardized testing prescribed by the federal government in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ignoring the impossibility of collecting valid and reliable data and the impracticality of even of trying to administer the tests when some students are learning online and others attending in-person classrooms, this person pretended Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, can merely require the tests and they will happen.  She implied that the mandated tests in two subjects, basic language arts and math, will inform teaching once students come back to school even though we know that teachers do not receive scores for months and the data they receive will not contain information about the particular questions students get right or wrong. And she didn’t mention that even if a teacher did know exactly how a student marked any particular multiple choice answer, it would tell the teacher nothing about that student’s thinking.

Then this specialist who wanted to measure “learning loss” reinforced the notion that the collection of national data would enable the federal government and the states to invest in the schools where children are farthest behind. Advocates for standardized testing this spring often justify the need for testing during the pandemic as a way to drive investment in schools, as though investing in schools where children are farther behind has ever been the result of our regime of standardized testing. Anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades since NCLB mandated annual standardized testing knows that aggregate test scores have not once—federally or at the state level—driven added funding to the schools where students’ scores are low.

The whole regime has been correctly called “test-and-punish” because NCLB prescribed sanctions for so-called failing schools and the states have adopted the same responses: add charter school choice in so called “failing” school districts; make students in so-called “failing” schools eligible for vouchers for private school tuition; close so-called “failing” schools and relocate the students; take over the so-called “failing” school districts in Detroit or Newark or Philadelphia or Chester Upland or Lorain or Youngstown or East Cleveland and put a state-appointed overseer in charge.

Title I is an important national program providing federal compensatory funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children, but if he can bring Congress along, President Biden has already promised to triple funding for this federal program which has long been underfunded despite two decades of standardized testing which have clearly identified Title I schools as places desperately in need of greater investment.  During the presidential campaign last year, Biden identified the need for more money in the same school districts where families have been devastated by COVID-19: “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.”

Seventy-four education advocacy groups and over 10,000 individuals wrote a letter to the incoming education secretary to demand that he grant states waivers to cancel the NCLB/ESSA mandated testing.  One sentence in that letter stood out for me: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

I worry that many people do lack faith in schoolteachers, because I believe that most people lack any understanding of what teachers do.

In a profound article, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, Patricia Wright explains the work of teachers in words that will perhaps help the public grasp why Miguel Cardona should readily grant states waivers to skip standardized testing this spring.

Wright begins: “There has been a lot of talk lately about ‘learning loss.’ How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction?… Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning. This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.”

Wrignt continues: “Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning.  It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level… Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration.”

For a better understanding of formative testing, we can turn to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s Monty Neill, who defines the kind of formative testing teachers use all the time: “(T)eachers must gather information. Teachers must keep track of student learning, check up on what students have learned, and find out what’s going on with them. Keeping track means observing and documenting what students do. Checking up involves various kinds of testing and quizzing. Finding out is the heart of classroom assessment: What does the child mean? What did the child get from the experience? Why did the child do what he or she did? To find out, teachers must ask questions for which they do not already know the answers. To gather all this information, teachers can rely on a range of assessment activities. These include structured and spur-of-the-moment observations that are recorded and filed; formal and informal interviews; collections of work samples; use of extended projects, performances, and exhibitions; performance exams; and various forms of short-answer testing.”

Check Out this Fine New Book on Social Justice Unionism: “Teachers Unions and Social Justice”

Rethinking Schools just published an excellent new handbook, Teachers Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve.  I call it a handbook because it was written as a guide for teachers union social justice advocacy and organizing. But it is also a handbook for activists, writers, and bloggers strategizing to confront the recent collapse of public education funding, the alarming growth of school privatization at public expense, and the message, spread for too long, that holding schools accountable according to business principles is more important than educating children.

         The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a pioneer in social justice unionism, Karen Lewis died on Monday.  Please read this wonderful tribute to Karen Lewis by Chicago education journalist Sarah Karp.

The editors  have assembled more than 60 short compelling articles and stories by union activists and many of the nation’s prominent advocates for education justice, all telling the story of organized teachers confronting the blindness of the privatizers and the business-accountablity hawks. There is a 2012 interview with the great Karen Lewis, whose loss we mourn this week. And we hear from teachers union justice champions including Jesse Hagopian in Seattle; Jackson Potter and Michelle Gunderson in Chicago; Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul; David Levine in Cincinnati; Eleni Schirmer in North Carolina, Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles; and Michael Charney in Cleveland.

The editors, Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian, and Bob Peterson, introduce the collection of writings: “More than two decades ago in the first edition of this book, Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, we promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism. We argued that such a vision was essential to improving our schools, transforming our unions, and building a more just society. Since then much has happened. Public schools, the entire public sector, and the basic notion of the ‘common good’ have come under severe attack. Wealth inequality has reached an unsustainable level. The scourge of white supremacy has been intensified by rampant xenophobia… But within our schools and the larger society, seeds of struggle have sprouted and grown.” (pp. 13-14)

In the decade since the Great Recession, the Education Law Center documents states’ collective disinvestment in public school funding at $600 billion—a trend following widespread tax cutting that has been exacerbated by alarming diversion of public school funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school tuition vouchers. From the points of view of teachers who led and participated in the Red4Ed strikes of 2018 and 2019, we learn, in Teacher Unions and Social Justice, the stories of the strikes that taught America what all this austerity has meant for our public schools: crowded classrooms of 40 students, shortages of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. Newspaper reporters and the rest of us don’t have an opportunity to go into schools to observe the conditions first-hand, but this book tells the story from inside the public schools in many places.

Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez summarize what happened in the widespread 2018-2019 walkouts: “The West Virginia strike began in late February 2018 when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties… By May 2018, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky… the protests were more than red state revolts. They were rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. Almost all of the places where statewide actions initially occurred, however, were right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and the sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits…  But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests kept the rebellion spreading to ‘purple’ states like Colorado… and North Carolina… and, beyond 2018 to blue states like California, where Los Angeles teachers won a landmark victory in January 2019, and Illinois, where teachers staged a bitter 11-day walkout in September 2019… Nationally, the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 158,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million.  The cuts in public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a  four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed…. (T)he key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization.” (pp. 81-87)

While many of the short articles in the new book are written by teachers, the editors also collect resources for teachers—pieces about communication strategy as well as resources about practices for justice which have been modeled by teachers in particular school districts. Contributors describe union efforts to support restorative justice practices as alternatives to punitive discipline; unions introducing racial justice, African-centered, and Black Lives Matter programming across their schools; and unions collaborating to establish parent-teacher home visits and Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services right at school.

Each section ends by suggesting additional resources on teaching practices as well as recommended background materials about such issues as ameliorating opportunity gaps among students, confronting school privatization coming from state legislatures, and pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing.

The editors of this ambitious book are Michael Charney, a 30 year social studies teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and Cleveland Teachers Union vice president; Jesse Hagopian, ethnic studies and English language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, member of the Seattle Education Association, and author of several books including the recent, Black Lives Matter at School; and Bob Peterson, a fifth grade Milwaukee teacher for over 25 years, and the founding editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He has also co-edited several books.

Bob Peterson describes the history of the movement for social justice teacher unionism: “In 1994 we issued a call for activist teachers to build social justice unions, contrasting them with what we called industrial and professional models of unionism… We asserted, ‘Without a better partnership with the parents and communities that need public education most, we will find ourselves isolated from essential allies.  Without a new vision of schooling that raises the expectations of our students and the standards of our own profession, we will continue to founder.'” (pp. 99-101)

Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles describes what social justice unionism and the dedication of the local’s members accomplished in the January, 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “UTLA’s strike shifted the narrative locally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. We boldly fought for the schools our students deserve and the respect and recognition that public educators have been longing for. What did we win? In addition to a 6 percent salary increase, we got enforceable class size caps for the first time and a class size reduction program. We won more nurses, librarians, counselors, funding for community schools, a reduction in standardized testing, and resources for ethnic studies. We won improvements in special education loads and itinerant workspace. We won a greater voice for educators in schools targeted for charter colocation.  We won an LAUSD resolution calling on the state for a charter moratorium, improvements in adult and early education, the elimination of random student searches, expansion of green space and the removal of unused bungalows (portable classrooms) on our campuses, legal support for immigrant families, and the will to fight for more state and county funding.” (pp. 252-261)

Teacher Unions and Social Justice is available from Rethinking Schools.

Lots of New Voucher Proposals Popping Up in State Legislatures: Did Betsy DeVos Leave a Legacy?

Despite that Trump’s privatizer-in-chief, Betsy DeVos has left Washington, D.C. and that President Biden has focused on supporting neighborhood public schools and finally getting them open full time after months of COVID-19 disruption, there is growing concern about the number of bills currently in state legislatures to expand vouchers of all kinds—plain old private school tuition vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings accounts.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that the Network for Public Education has tracked bills for new voucher programs or expansions of vouchers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire.  Strauss reminds us that Betsy DeVos’s skewed understanding of the meaning of public education has not disappeared from the fifty statehouses: “DeVos and her allies, especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), publicly called for a definition that essentially said: If public dollars are used for any kind of schooling that makes it public education—even if the public has no say in how a school operates.”  She quotes DeSantis: “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.”

Why have so many voucher bills been introduced in state legislatures right now? The Huffington Post‘s senior education reporter Rebecca Klein explains: “In the few weeks of 2021, state legislators have introduced a wave of new bills designed to expand or create new voucher, tax credit and education savings programs.  While these programs are often controversial—eliciting staunch opposition from public school groups and teachers unions—advocates say they have seen new momentum after a wave of Republican wins in statehouses and a pandemic that has forced millions of schoolchildren to learn from home.  So far, new legislation related to private school choice has been introduced in over 15 states during 2021.”

After exploring the details of some of the state legislative proposals to expand school privatization, Jeff Bryant considers why they are appearing now: “What’s telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side. Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly.” But, continues Bryant, “School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.  Many parents are beyond distraught with their children’s situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning. Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools… It’s true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa adds: “With millions of children still shut out of closed school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents have looked for months for different options to provide an education for their children. In the early weeks of 2021, lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have responded with bills intended to establish or expand on things like tax-credit-scholarships and education savings accounts.”

Howver, Ujifusa wonders: “Is it a groundswell or a mirage?… (F)ans of school choice… see a pretty straightforward dynamic that will help their issue. In addition to traditional legislative measures, the interest in learning pods—which are informal groups set up by parents to help groups of students during school building closures—could be another source of energy for the movement… But the extent to which many families might simply wish for a return to normalcy and for their children to go back to their prior schools, extracurricular activities, and social networks, could also play a big role in how much K-12 education choice grows in the pandemic’s wake.”

Klein Quotes Catherine Dunn of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, which is part of Public Funds Public Schools, a coalition of organizations opposed to the privatization of public education “We’re not seeing a lot of bipartisan support for the proposals we’re tracking — it’s a result of a lot of the gains from Republicans (in state legislatures) who are pushing these through.”

And it is not as though these bills are all sailing through without controversy. In Depth New Hampshire‘s Garry Rayno describes a confrontational hearing before the New Hampshire House Education Committee where the legislators debated “education freedom accounts” neo-vouchers designed to give parents freedom to use state tax dollars to choose from an array of in and out of school services the parents believe are educational: “A multi-hour public hearing before the House Education Committee drew testimony from as far away as Arizona and as close as Manchester as both sides turned out in force to make their case for or against House Bill 20, a priority of the Republican legislative leadership.  3,198 people signed in to oppose HB 20 while 600 people signed in support and five signed in as neutral. Due to high turn out the hearing was recessed and will resume next Thursday, February 11.”

Proponents of vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts define school choice as individual freedom from government and they conceptualize parents as consumers in a marketplace.  What they never mention is the cost to the public. How much money do the vouchers cost?  Where will the money come from?  When a few students leave and carry away the voucher, what is the cost to the students in the public schools?

At the end of January, Public Funds Public Schools, the collaboration of the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, released a fact sheet to clarify the financial loss to public schools when legislatures establish voucher programs.  Here is some of what they would caution state legislatures considering starting up or expanding voucher programs:

“Voucher programs concentrate students who require increased resources in the public schools.  Because private schools can refuse to admit or provide adequate services for students with disabilities, English learners, and others who may require increased resources for an equitable education, these students are more frequently educated in public schools.  Private schools participating in voucher programs may also ‘counsel out’ or expel students they deem ‘high cost.'”

 “Pubic schools, which serve the vast majority of students, have substantial ‘fixed costs.’  Because students who participate in voucher programs exit their pubic school districts from different schools, grade levels and classrooms, districts are not able to proportionally reduce facilities, staff, programs, and other fixed costs to fully offset the loss of funding that is diverted to voucher programs.”

Finally: “Voucher programs subsidize private education for students who would not otherwise have attended public school.  It is not true that voucher programs simply shift funds that would have been spent on public school student to pay for their private education.  When states establish private school voucher programs, families already paying for or planning to use private education often participate… It is inaccurate to assume that students receiving a voucher switched from public to private education.”

How Are the Children? U.S. Senate Republicans Don’t Worry About That.

This week a group of so-called moderate U.S. Senate Republicans proposed to negotiate with President Joe Biden about his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill.  But even the ten senators, who profess themselves to be moderates and who came forward with a $618 billion alternative proposal, proved themselves willing to neglect the needs of America’s children. The United States, the world’s richest nation, posts an alarming child poverty rate, but, apart from the voices of a handful of social justice advocates, any level of concern about child poverty is inaudible. Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that one of the great strengths of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is the President’s inclusion of funding for programs that would significantly ameliorate suffering among America’s poorest children.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr did recently recognize the significance of the pro-child provisions in Biden’s new American Rescue Plan: “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan includes a Child Tax Credit expansion that would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line, including 2.3 million Black children, 4.1 million Latino children, and 441,000 Asian American children. It also would lift 1.1 million children out of ‘deep poverty,’ raising their family incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line. To do that, the Biden plan would make the credit fully available to 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children—whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough….”

On Monday, VOX‘s Li Zhou and Emily Stewart reported on the alternative, $618 billion plan released by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Thom Tillis (R-NC). This week, President Biden met with these senators about their proposal, which is described by VOX’s Zhou and Stewart: “Republicans’ plan includes not only substantially less funding for provisions like school reopening, it completely leaves out support for state and local governments, and reduces the amounts allocated to direct payments (aka ‘stimulus checks’) and weekly enhanced unemployment. The area in which the Republican plan is most consistent with Biden’s is the $160 billion in funds that it allocates for testing, vaccines, and personal protective equipment for medical professionals.” In the recent VOX report, you will note that while some of the programs described would address the needs of children, the reporters fail to name ameliorating child poverty as something government should specifically consider.

And, on Tuesday, neither were the needs of America’s poorest children mentioned in the text of the Washington Post‘s major news story on the debate about Biden’s stimulus plan. However, if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that a graphic embedded in the Post‘s story clearly showed you that while President Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan does protect children, the Republicans who brought forth their $618 billion alternative utterly neglect to consider the needs of children living in poverty.

Look at the categories in the graphic.  Biden proposes an investment of $120 billion to increase the child tax credit and make it fully refundable; the Republican proposal eliminates money for the child tax credit from the federal stimulus bill. The Republicans would cut in half Biden’s proposed $40 billion investment in child care. While Biden’s American Rescue Plan would invest $170 billion to support safe reopening of public schools, the Republicans drastically cut that investment to $20 billion.  Finally Biden’s plan would invest $350 billion in relief for state and local governments, whose tax revenues have fallen due to business shutdowns and layoffs in the COVID-19 recession.  State governments provide, on average, 47percent of all funding for K-12 public education. Without federal relief, the projected collapse in state budgets will inevitably result in fewer teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, and arts programs across the public schools that serve over 50 million U.S. children and adolescents. The Republican plan also slashes direct payments to families, unemployment insurance, and rental assistance, all cuts which would directly undermine the well-being of the poorest families with children.

Fortunately, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is preparing to pass Biden’s plan through reconciliation without slashing the programs designed to assist the poorest American families with children. But there is a bigger issue here. Why does America refuse to see child poverty or name overcoming child poverty as a national priority?

For three decades, Republican orthodoxy has disdained government dependency—blaming poor parents and promoting hardship as an incentive to make parents look harder for work, even in an economy with too few jobs that pay a living wage. The focus is on incentivizing poor parents to work harder while the needs of their children are forgotten.

Last fall, economist Paul Krugman explained: “You might think that Republicans would set the plutocratic imperative aside when the case for more government spending is compelling, whether it’s to repair our crumbling infrastructure or to provide relief during a pandemic. But all indications are that they believe — probably rightly — that successful government programs make the public more receptive to proposals for additional programs…  And that’s why Republicans are unwilling to provide desperately needed aid to economic victims of the pandemic. They aren’t worried that a relief package would fail; they’re worried that it might succeed, showing that sometimes more government spending is a good thing. Indeed, a successful relief package might pave the way for Democratic proposals that would, among other things, drastically reduce child poverty.”

In his 1838 novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens exposed the kind of thinking that, this week, underpins the $618 billion stimulus proposal ten Republican U.S. Senators presented as though it is an alternative to Biden’s American Rescue Plan.  In Dickens’ novel, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”