Secretary Cardona Begins to Correct DeVos’s College Loan Policies that Undermined Vulnerable College Students’ Access to Education

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has begun repairing some of the injustice of Betsy DeVos’s policies in the federal college loan program administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

In an extremely significant first step, two weeks ago, Cardona replaced Mark A Brown, who had been appointed by Betsy DeVos in 2019 to oversee the Department’s enormous student loan program. Brown is known to have favored the interests of the for-profit colleges that depend for their existence on tuition derived from student loans. As Brown’s replacement, Cardona has appointed Richard Cordray, a dogged advocate for the students and military veterans who have been preyed upon by for-profit colleges.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports: “Education Secretary Miguel Carrdona… named Richard Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to head the federal office that oversees the government’s $1.5 trillion student loan portfolio. Cordray led the bureau’s crackdown on consumer abuses in debt collection, student loan servicing, and for-profit colleges, garnering the respect of advocates and drawing the ire of those industries. His selection signals tougher oversight of the Education Department’s contractors and enforcement of the rules governing federal student aid… During his six-year tenure at the CFPB, which he joined in 2011, Cordray frequently clashed with the financial industry and conservatives over his aggressive regulation. His efforts to weed out poor servicing of student loans and predatory career training schools at times put him at odds with the Education Department… The CFPB under Cordray’s direction brought some of the most high-profile student lending cases in recent years. Among them: a lawsuit against the now-defunct for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges for steering students into private loans that had interest rates as high as 15 percent.”

In a piece for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner summarizes some of the outrageous Trump-DeVos abuses Cordray will need to address in the Department’s college loan program: “For starters, there is the appalling story of management of cancellation of debt for people who do ten years of public service. This is authorized under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But under Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, the Education Department did everything possible to deny this relief. To date, just 1.26 percent of applicants have received debt relief… More broadly, Cordray needs to reverse the Education Department’s Trump-era priority—from collecting as much money as possible to serving the needs of students and former students now in debt. One way to do that is to exercise much tougher oversight of the for-profit loan servicers on contract to the department, who often give bad advice to students in order to maximize their own profits.”

In March, Cardona granted debt relief to approximately 72,000 college students whose claims that their mostly for-profit colleges had defrauded them had already been adjudicated by Betsy DeVos’s staff. And at the end of March, Cardona also extended a freeze on loan payments and interest to borrowers who have defaulted during the pandemic and set the interest rate at zero.  POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reported: “The Education Department said that it will immediately suspend the collection of 1.14 million federally backed student loans that are in default. The relief will apply retroactively… and the agency will refund the tax returns and wages that it seized from borrowers who have defaulted since March 13, 2020, when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of COVID-19.”

However, many defrauded borrowers agree with Kuttner that despite some progress in Biden’s first few months in office, there is an urgent need to speed up relief after years of delay under Betsy DeVos.  On Friday, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reported: “(W)hen it comes to cases involving federal student aid, consumer attorneys say the Biden administration is moving at a glacial pace. ‘I’m shocked that more than 100 days in we’re still in an active appeal on something that is so opposed to what the Biden administration claims it’s about.’  said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a group representing borrowers in multiple Trump-Era cases….  Education Department spokeswoman Kelly Leon said the agency’s ‘new leadership is working actively to address concerns relating to the student financial aid policies of the prior administration.'”

Correcting DeVos era injustices for college students involves needed action in more than the loan program itself. Cardona has taken several steps to undo Trump-DeVos era policies that excluded vulnerable college students from pandemic relief assistance.

Politico’s Michael Stratford reports that beginning with the CARES Act in March 2020 and in all of the subsequent COVID-19 relief bills, “colleges must pass along roughly half of their COVID relief dollars directly to students in the form of emergency financial aid cash grants.”  However, in the Trump-DeVos years undocumented students, including DREAMERS who have lived in the United States since they were young children, and international students were shut out of this assistance: “The Biden administration is reversing a Trump-era policy that barred undocumented college students and others from receiving federal relief grants meant to help pay for expenses like food, housing, and child care during the coronavirus pandemic. Education Secretary Cardona on Tuesday (May 11, 2021) finalized a new regulation that allows colleges to distribute tens of billions (of dollars) in federal pandemic relief grants to all students, regardless of their immigration status or whether they qualify for federal student aid.”

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel further explains DeVos’s rationale for excluding undocumented and international students from relief all last year: “After confusing and conflicting guidance, DeVos issued a rule in June asserting that only those who can participate in federal student aid programs can receive (pandemic relief) money.  It shut out undocumented and international students…. The Trump administration said a 1996 welfare reform law bars those groups from receiving public aid.”  Now, under Cardona’s leadership, “The Education Department said the final rule better reflects the intent of Congress and makes clear that emergency aid can support all students who are or were enrolled in college during the pandemic.”  The rule had been challenged by hundreds of colleges: “Many colleges and universities have been using their own institutional funds to lend a hand to undocumented and international students… Hundreds of schools urged the department to reverse course in public comments on the DeVos rule…. ‘Denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn’t just legally questionable, it was a moral failing, and I’m relieved to see this finally corrected,’ said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.”

As we watch Secretary Cardona begin to address the injustices in education department programs intended to support vulnerable students secure a higher education, we more fully grasp the scope of the damage imposed under Betsy DeVos’s leadership.

Bill and Melinda Will Divorce, but the Gates Brand of Venture Philanthropy Will Continue On

A month ago, this blog suggested that hubris is at the heart of today’s billionaire philanthropy but noted that Bill and Melinda Gates have so much power that, despite the tragic blindness of their privilege, there will be no tragic fall and no consequences. Now, with Bill and Melinda announcing their divorce, we continue to learn even more about how privilege in an unequal America insulates the super-rich who have the power to drive the public policy that shapes the institutions on which we all depend

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss seized the occasion of the Gates’ pending divorce as an opportunity to review the ways Bill and Melinda have used their influence and their money to shape public education policy at the federal level and across the states: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on numerous education projects—such as creating small high schools, writing and implementing the Common Core State Standards, evaluating teachers by standardized test scores—and the couple has had enormous influence on what happened in classrooms across the country. Their philanthropy, especially in the school reform area, has been at the center of a national debate about whether it serves democracy when wealthy people can use their own money to drive public policy and fund their pet education projects. The foundation’s financial backing of some of the controversial priorities of the Obama administration’s Education Department put the couple at the center of this national conversation. Critics have said that many of the foundation’s key education projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.”

Strauss doesn’t even mention some of the details. For example, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan wanted to encourage states to apply for Race to the Top Grants back in 2009—grants for which states could qualify only if they would agree to adopt Duncan’s (and the Gates’) favorite policies like removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools, adopting state standards, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave each state that wanted to apply $250,000 to hire experienced grant writers to prepare their federal applications.

And Tampa’s WFLA, News Channel 8 reported two weeks ago about the long term impact for Florida’ Hillsborough County School District of a 2009 Gates project to evaluate teachers by students’ standardized test scores and then provide bonuses to the best teachers. The Gates Foundation gave up on the experiment midstream: “The Hillsborough County Public School system is in a budget crisis. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has given the school board just days to come up with a financial plan to fund an emergency reserve account…. to be used in case of emergency or disaster. Some school board members estimate the account will be more than $100 million dollars short this year. Now, some school board members are blaming a 2009 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for putting the county on a path to have a budget shortfall… When the grant was announced, the county understood they would receive 100 million dollars if the county put up matching funds. When the grant expired in 2016, the Gates Foundation had only provided 80 million dollars, the county put up 124 million dollars… After further review, the foundation said they found bonuses to teachers didn’t improve the quality of education for students.”

Strauss explains further that Bill and Melinda Gates have been candid about admitting mistakes which had repercussions for children, teachers and public school budgets but which had no real consequences for the Gates themselves: “In 2013, Bill Gates said, ‘It would be great if our education stuff worked. But that we won’t know for probably a decade.’ It didn’t take 10 years for them and their foundation to acknowledge that key education investments didn’t turn out as well as they hoped. In the Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, Melinda Gates said, ‘The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though.  Just the opposite.’  That same annual letter had a rather remarkable statement from Melinda Gates about the role of the wealthy in education policy…. ‘We certainly understand why so many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.'”

Except that Melinda’s description isn’t how Gates’ philanthropy has worked. The Gates Foundation has regularly been the generator of the ideas.

Back in June of 2003, for example, their foundation put out a press release: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $22 million investment in the NewSchools Venture Fund to increase the number of high-quality charter schools around the country by creating systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.” Certainly this was a Gates Foundation-initiated project, and we know how those nonprofit chains of charter schools have morphed today in too many instances into giant for-profit CMOs.

Despite their pending divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates both plan to continue as co-chairs and trustees of the Foundation. Is there a chance that their pending divorce will cause Bill and Melinda to reconsider the danger of their own power?  It doesn’t look like it. In a NY Times interview last December, Melinda Gates acknowledged that venture philanthropy does shape policy these days, but Melinda seems to have convinced herself that the partnership of philanthropy and government is a form of collaboration. What she misses is that Gates’ investments have regularly involved the wielding of vast sums of money to purchase public policy. The reporter asks: “Do you accept the line of criticism that says big philanthropy has too much power right now, that individuals, not governments, are making decisions that shape educational policy and public policy?”

Melinda answers: “I think that’s a critique that is well worth listening to and looking at. In our philanthropic work, there isn’t a single thing that we don’t work on in partnership with governments. Because at the end of the day, it is governments that scale things up and that can help the most people. There is a healthy ecosystem that needs to exist between government, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society… You know, if Bill and I had had more decision-making authority in education, maybe we would’ve gotten farther in the United States. But we haven’t. Some of the things that we piloted or tried got rejected, or didn’t work, and I think there’s a very healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers’ unions and mayors and city councils that make those education decisions. I wish the U.S. school system was better for all kids.”

Notice that Melinda Gates seems to consider the role of government as merely a check on the education reforms the Gates Foundation chooses to launch. Although, a long time ago, organizations used to apply for grants from philanthropies to meet specific needs envisioned by the applicants, today venture philanthropists themselves imagine how they want to disrupt existing institutions—designing, starting up, implementing, and marketing new ideas. Then the foundation’s staff evaluates the projects according to the foundation’s specifications to see whether the foundation will choose to continue the projects. Melinda Gates is correct that citizens working with government have sometimes stopped a Gates project, but in education, for example, the process of protecting public schools from damage has sometimes taken years.

Melinda Gates talks around the problem but fails to recognize how her vision and experience—from a  perch that the NY Times’ Nicholas Kulish, Rebecca R. Ruiz and David Gelles describe as the Gates’ 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, with a foundation staff of 1,600—may leave her unable to grasp the realities where all the rest of us live. The reporters characterize the foundation as working on an ever growing and massive to-do list and describe policy wrestling between Bill and Melinda, who both have personal priorities. Maybe as Bill and Melinda Gates divorce, they will pursue different priorities and give up on corporate, accountability-based school reform. We can only hope!

But it appears that not much has changed in the eleven years since, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explored venture philanthropy’s role in launching corporate school reform: “Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do. They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people… These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)

Ohio Legislature Heats Up Controversy by Making New Public School Funding Plan and Method of Funding School Vouchers All Part of the Budget

This week in my school district in Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Ohio, parents and public school supporters are going through a quiet ritual. People have been scrambling to write and submit legislative testimony. Some people are submitting written testimony; others are driving two and a half hours to Columbus, sitting in the hearing room and driving home in the dark. The Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee is holding hearings on the state’s next biennial budget and considering a new—desperately needed—school funding plan that has now been folded into the budget bill, which must be passed by June 30.

What is happening is a big deal.  Last fall, a new $2 billion school funding plan was passed by the Ohio House by a vote of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate let the bill die at the end of the session. Now that plan has been folded into the state budget. The House has already passed the budget—including the Fair School Funding Plan—but the Senate is just now holding hearings. If you read some of the testimony being submitted, you might imagine what’s going on in Ohio would get coverage in the state’s big newspapers, but most of them have been bought out by Gannett-Gatehouse Media or Advance Media, companies that have reduced the number of reporters.  Right now not enough people are paying attention to a debate about whether the Legislature will repair the services our state is currently failing to provide for 1.6 million students in Ohio’s 610 public school districts at the same time the state continues to expand school vouchers at public schools’ expense.

I am going to share some of my own testimony and the testimony from others who are members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education. You can find copies of each of these documents in the Ohio Senate Education Committee’s document archive for May 4, 5, and 6.  I will date each reference.

My own testimony (May 6) summarizes the issues at stake in this particular Ohio budget debate, which also includes a fight about the new state school funding plan. I name three principles embodied by the new school funding plan we hope the Senate will fold into the state budget: “The Fair School Funding Plan… enhances equity, increases the state’s investment in the under-resourced public schools which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children, and ends school district deduction funding for charter schools and EdChoice vouchers for private school tuition.”

On the need for more equitable school funding, I quote Howard Fleeter, our state’s school finance expert, who documents that “poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18” while “the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.”

On the subject of adequate school funding, I quote Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton, who has demonstrated that, “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985,” and Howard Fleeter who reminds us: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.”

And on the subject of the catastrophe of Ohio’s “school district deduction” funding for EdChoice vouchers, I describe data from Scott Gainer, the Treasurer of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district. In Ohio, the state counts voucher students as though they attend the public schools and then sends the voucher amount—$4,650 for younger students and $6,000 for high school students—to the private school.  In my school district and many others, the voucher amount is far more than the district receives from the state in basic aid for that student. The result: In my school district between 2017 and today, the District’s loss to vouchers has grown from $2,256,017 to $9,017,250. The district is losing 45 percent of the district’s state basic aid school funding even though 1,699 of our district’s 1,792 voucher students—roughly 95% have never been enrolled in our public schools.

The burden of EdChoice vouchers falls unevenly from school district to school district, and to add to the inequity imposed by “school district deduction” funding for the vouchers, last November the Legislature restructured this program to prescribe that from now on, only children living in the attendance zone of a federally designated Title I school can qualify for an EdChoice voucher. This change places the financial burden of the vouchers only on the school districts serving concentrations of Ohio’s poorest children.

I conclude my testimony: While “the Ohio Constitution does not provide for the diversion of tax dollars to privately operated charter schools or to private school tuition vouchers, the framers of the Ohio Constitution understood public education as a guarantee to each of our children of the right to a school that protects their rights by law and serves their particular needs. Twenty-four years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the Constitution’s promise of adequate public school funding , equitably distributed…. By ensuring that the Fair School Funding Plan remains intact in the budget, you will… realize the twenty-four year DeRolph promise.”

As a senior citizen whose children graduated from high school twenty years ago, I can lay out the reasons the Legislature needs to repair our state’s long-broken school finance system, but others from our district who are current parents and teachers also presented testimony to the legislature this week. They describe what they have watched in recent years as our state’s school funding system has collapsed.

Krissy Dietrich, who chaired two school levy campaigns in 2020 in an effort to keep our school district afloat, told the Senate Education Committee: “I’ve been volunteering to pass CH-UH school levies and bond issues for nearly 15 years, working on my first campaign when my eldest son was still in preschool. Most recently, I chaired back-to-back levies in 2020, one in the Primary Election that lost by 700 votes and one in the General that won by less than half of one percent of the votes cast. Our committee raised nearly $120,000 to run these two campaigns. We spent countless hours working to convince voters; we engaged many hundreds of volunteers over a period of 11 months…. (W)e are forced to engage in a brutal and expensive public battle every few years just to secure the most basic funding necessary to educate our community’s children. We are forced to do this by a funding system that is inherently broken. It is unconstitutional, unsustainable, and unfair.” (May 6)

Joan Spoerl, the parent of a junior at Cleveland Heights High School, explains: “When I listened to testimony relating to state education policies last February, I was struck by the oft-repeated themes from public school supporters from every kind of community in Ohio—small, medium, large, rural and urban. Rural community members described their public schools as the heart or center of their community. Many voiced pride about how their public schools welcome and serve all who need them, turn away no one, weaving together all kinds of children and families, forming a beautiful tapestry of community. But I also learned that my community isn’t unique in finding its beautiful fabric too often weakened or rent by the state’s current funding model and other education policies. I heard about the divisions created in all kinds of communities, by the need for levy campaigns to simply keep up with inflation and the unfortunate consequences of budget cuts when those levies fail” (May 6)

Toni Thayer, parent of two current Heights High students describes her children’s losses at school due to recent budget cuts: “It is from the point of view of my children and their peers that I first want to appeal to you.  My children… love their schools and they love our community, for its rich commitment to diversity, education, and the arts. But they have watched over the course of their time in public school the effects of a broken school funding system that has only gotten worse as the charter school movement and the EdChoice voucher program have diverted public funds away from public schools. They have seen their class sizes increase and their curricular options decrease. They have said goodbye to beloved and highly qualified teachers who were downsized for budgetary reasons. Even more painful than all of that, they have watched as our community has been turned against itself over school funding. Our district relies heavily on residential property taxes for local school funding because, as a tightly packed inner-ring suburb, we have little commercial tax base. The heavy burden on homeowners and the need for frequent levies to make up for gaps in funding from the state have pushed us to the breaking point.” (May 5)

Ari Klein, a 33 year math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, has watched how legislative decisions over the decades have hurt our school district: “My two children graduated from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where my wife, my parents, and I all went to school. I am retiring next month from my entire 33 year teaching career in this same school system. Throughout my career I have witnessed desperation for funding public schools that has gotten worse and worse. We have always taxed ourselves heavily in my community, but in the last 8-10 years the state has caused an exponential drain on local dollars by allowing the deduction method of funding community schools (Ohio’s name for charter schools), as well as private and parochial schools through vouchers. My district has been hard hit with losses not because you have labelled our schools as “failing” but because we have a diverse community that has a significant private and parochial school population. 93% of the families who use EdChoice vouchers have never attended and never planned to attend our public schools. We now lose more than half of our annual state foundation funding!… (L)ocal dollars must be used to subsidize… (voucher students) since our state aid is less than the money the state requires to be deducted from our school district… The results of these state policies for our community are enormous because with district enrollment at just over 5,000 we can’t afford to pay the price for an additional 2,200 students who use community (charter) schools and vouchers. Remember, over 90% of these students using vouchers have never set foot in our buildings.” (May 6)

Finally, Susan Kaeser, long a public school advocate and leader in the Heights Coalition for Public Education, defines the value of public education in her challenge to the members of the Ohio Senate: “Your decision about whether or not you choose to fund a high-quality system of public schools is a values choice. Are you committed to the equal value of every resident of our state? Do you support the Ohio Constitution and the operating principle that education is a civic resource not a consumer choice? When you use public funds for parallel systems operated with different rules, you weaken the public system and its civic benefits… This is a critical moment in Ohio’s history. After a relentless assault on the reputation of our system of public education, years of flat funding of the public schools and extravagant funding of nonpublic and often for-profit education providers, many districts are on the verge of financial collapse.” (May 4)

Biden’s Proposed American Families Plan Would Revolutionize Life for Poor Children

When public policy has been entirely inadequate and misguided for decades, it is difficult to grasp the full implications of the beginning steps for reform. Such is the case with President Joe Biden’s proposal last week to respond to our society’s outrageous level of child poverty. The development of coherent, efficient policy to ameliorate the overwhelming and complicated problems of America’s poorest families will take a long time, even if Democrats continue to occupy the White House and sustain Congressional majorities.

But on April 28, President Biden introduced a plan to begin the journey to remedy fiscal austerity when it comes to our society’s poorest families and children. We can turn to some experts to put the significance of President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan in perspective.

California’s EdSource quotes Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education: “Biden’s proposals, so far, will go further toward supporting children—especially those living in poverty—than anyone in the White House in my lifetime… Right now, children from low-income families are beginning kindergarten substantially behind their middle-class peers. Most of the achievement gap is well in place when children begin school. One reason is lower participation in preschool and lower quality preschool for low-income children. Anything that broadens access and ensures quality is worth doing, and the child care and extension of the tax credit initiatives are very exciting.”

First Focus on Children’s Bruce Leslie also believes Biden’s American Families Plan is revolutionary: “There are moments in time when historic or transformational changes are made by our nation’s leaders to really make a difference for children and families in this country. If President Biden’s just released American Families Plan becomes law, today would be one of those moments.  Unfortunately, the reality we face is that children are often merely an afterthought of election officials, as kids do not vote, do not make campaign contributions or operate a Political Action Committee (PAC), and do not employ a team of lobbyists to demand that lawmakers hear their concerns and address their needs.”

About Biden’s plan, Leslie adds: “His plan fully recognizes the enormous (challenges)… that have plagued our children even before the current (COVID-19) crisis, including child poverty, inadequate early childhood supports, education inequities, substandard and unaffordable child care, health care affordability and access to care, the need for family medical leave, and college affordability. This plan also takes significant strides to address racial and socio-economic inequities among our children.”

Biden’s changes to the Child Tax Credit in the proposed American Families Plan extend changes Congress has already passed as part of Biden’s March relief bill. In the American Rescue plan, the President increased the amount of the child tax credit to $3,000 (and $3,600 per child for children under six years of age). Biden’s relief bill also made the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, which means that the poorest families—those too poor to pay enough income tax to receive the full tax credit in the past—will now qualify.  Biden’s March relief bill extends the changes in the Child Tax Credit only through this year, but the proposed American Families Plan would extend the reforms until 2025.

Leslie further examines the impact of changes in the Child Tax Credit as proposed by the American Families Plan: “The proposal extends the critically important tax provisions in the American Rescue Plan that have the potential to cut child poverty by an estimated 47%, according to an analysis by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, and will benefit an estimated 66 million children—or more than 90% of all the children in this country. The American Family Plan achieves this by: making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable on a permanent basis; … expanding the credit to include 17-year-olds for the first time; increasing the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 for children between the ages of 6-18, (and) to $3,600 for children under the age of 6 through 2025;… (delivering) the Child Tax Credit regularly, meaning that families will not need to wait until tax season to receive a refund … (and) will receive regular payments that allow them to cover household expenses as they rise; (and) making permanent the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) improvements, which will give families a credit for up to half of their spending on qualified child care for children under age 13, up to a total of $4,000 for one child or $8,000 for two or more children.”

Expanding children’s access to quality childcare and enriched pre-Kindergarten are other urgently important improvements in Biden’s American Families Plan. But by examining today’s pay levels for child care workers and preschool teachers, one can see how economically untenable our current policies have become and how difficult it will to lift the salaries and the status of the women whose work is to care for young children. For Chalkbeat, Ann Schimke, Cassie Walker Burke, and Koby Levin report: “Nationally, the median hourly wage is $11.56 for child care workers and $14.67 for preschool teachers…. About 40% percent of the early childhood workforce are women of color, and many early childhood workers make so little that they qualify for public assistance.” The Chalkbeat reporters quote Meg Franko of Early Milestones Colorado: “It’s hard to recruit in the field when Target is paying more than you make as an early educator.”

The Chalkbeat reporters add: “In addition to the $15 minimum wage, Biden’s proposal calls for early childhood workers with comparable qualifications to kindergarten teachers—typically at least a bachelor’s degree—to earn commensurate pay.  Places such as New York City already have such pay parity efforts, but many workers struggle to take advantage of them because it’s hard to earn the necessary credentials while working full time for little money.”

The President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priority Priorities, Sharon Parrott emphasizes that together the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan will contribute to closing economic gaps by race: “(C)hild poverty rates are far higher among Black, Indigenous, and Latino children than white children. Prior to the recent one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit (in the March relief bill), almost half of all Black and Latino children—-compared to about 1 in 5 white children got only a partial Child Tax Credit or none at all because their families’ incomes were too low. Ensuring that all families with low or no income get the full Child Tax Credit—an improvement made in the American Rescue Plan that the President wants to extend—will reduce disparities in child poverty rates and improve educational and employment outcomes for low-income children.”

Parrott adds that the President’s plan to pay for his reforms by raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations will itself address inequality: “To build toward an equitable recovery requires a tax system that raises revenues from those who have the most and who benefit greatly from public investments in everything from science and technology to infrastructure and education.  The Biden tax proposals would do this by curtailing the tax code’s tilt toward investments rather than income from labor… The plan would… help ensure that wealthy individuals and businesses pay the taxes they owe, by enabling the IRS to rebuild its depleted audit staff and upgrade its antiquated computer systems so that it can audit the returns of a larger share of high income households and corporations.”

If Biden can push legislation for his American Families Plan through Congress, Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman believes it will be overwhelmingly significant: “Conservatives beware: If the main elements in Joe Biden’s American Families Plan become law, they’ll be very hard to repeal. Why? Because they’ll deliver huge, indeed transformational benefits to millions. I mean, just imagine trying to take away affordable child care, universal pre-K, and paid leave for new parents once they’ve become part of the fabric of our society… The American Families Plan would… provide… free preschool for all 3-and 4-year-olds while limiting child care costs to not more than 7 percent of income for lower and middle-income parents… Just to be clear, making it possible for more women to take paid jobs isn’t the principal point of this plan—and there’s nothing wrong with parents’ choosing to stay at home and care for their kids. Instead, it’s mainly about improving the environment in which children grow up, partly as a matter of social justice, partly so that they eventually become healthier, more productive adults… (I)f these plans improve life for millions of Americans, will anyone besides professional ideologues care if they’re ‘big government’?”

Will Staff Returning from Obama/Duncan Years Compromise Biden’s Public Education Promises?

At the end of his first hundred days, President Joe Biden deserves credit for taking important steps to help public schools serving children living in communities where family poverty is concentrated.

First, the President promised during the campaign to triple funding for Title I schools, and the federal budget he has proposed for FY22 would accomplish two-thirds of that promise by doubling the federal investment in Title I, whose funding has lagged for decades behind what is needed for equity.

Second, in the American Rescue Plan federal stimulus passed in March, the President expanded and made fully refundable the Child Tax Credit. In his new American Family Plan he has proposed to extend these urgently needed changes in the Child Tax Credit until 2025.  The expansion of the Child Tax Credit will make it possible for America’s poorest families with children to qualify for this program for the first time. We know that poverty is an overwhelming impediment for children, and ameliorating child poverty is an important step toward helping America’s poorest children thrive at school.

During the campaign, Biden also promised to move public school policy away from two decades of standardized testing.  That is a promise he has, at least until now, entirely broken.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year on the mandated annual high-stakes standardized tests, the centerpiece of the test-and-punish school accountability scheme introduced in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act.  Rosenblum said the Department of Education would permit flexibility for states which applied for wavers, but Rosenblum described the flexibility in gobbledegook: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”  Not surprisingly there has been enormous inconsistency in which some states have been allowed to cut back or delay or pretty much cancel testing, while others were denied their requests.

Rosenblum released the federal guidance on testing before Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was confirmed, and everyone hoped he would rescind the policy.  But instead, Secretary Cardona  justified demanding standardized testing in this COVID-19 year, despite overwhelming problems with the practicality, consistency, reliability, and validity of the tests. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quoted Dr. Cardona: “He said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said… that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better.'”

One would have hoped that Dr. Cardona would be familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now. He assures us that mandated testing during this school year, which has been utterly disrupted by COVID-19, will be used to drive federal investment into the school districts where tests show students are suffering most.  However, standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. Instead federally mandated standardized tests are now the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them with policies that rate and rank public schools, punish so-called failing schools by privatizing or closing them, evaluate schoolteachers by their students’ test scores, and require states to remove caps on charter schools.

Now, as the Biden Administration and Cardona’s Department of Education staff up, it is becoming apparent that Education Department and White House staff will include key people returning from President Barack Obama’s administration—people who helped design and implement these test-and-punish policies,

Last week, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reported that President Biden will nominate Roberto Rodriguez for the position of Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development in the Department of Education. Rodriguez was a special White House assistant to President Obama for education policy. And before that, he helped formulate accountability-based school reform as staff to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee when the No Child Left Behind Act was formulated in 2001.

In 2012, Education Week‘s Alyson Klein quoted Rodriguez bragging about Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program: “Mr. Rodriguez, the White house adviser, argues that the Race to the Top has spurred big and lasting change, including helping to advance the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. ‘We are going to take credit for helping to accelerate the adoption of these standards throughout the country.  Race to the Top clearly did  that.'” You will remember that in order to be able to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to adopt formal standards, and after Bill Gates had funded the development of the Common Core, most states grabbed onto what was available.

After serving in the Obama White House, Rodriguez became CEO of an organization called Teach Plus, whose website claims its mission is “to empower excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success.”  Progressive educator and writer,  Steve Nelson reads that mission a little differently: “On the surface it is dedicated to developing ‘teacher leaders.’ The clear sub-text is to inculcate the values of anti-union reform in a generation of young teachers. Sort of like Teach for America, graduate school edition. They rail against seniority as job security, asserting with no basis that subpar teachers are retained in times of cost cuts because of union protection. They also claim that unions stifle innovation. Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and has among its donors the Walton Family Foundation and an all-star roster of philanthropic sources dedicated to so-called reform… For several decades public education has been a battlefield between committed educators with little money or power and committed non-educators with lots of money and power.”

Roberto Rodriguez will face Senate confirmation to his new position. But if he is confirmed, he will join an administration that includes a former Obama era colleague now serving in the Biden White House.  Diane Ravitch reports that Carmel Martin holds the the same position—Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy—that Roberto Rodriguez held in the Obama Administration.

The 74‘s Kevin Mahnken provides some background on Carmel Martin: “Carmel Martin is one of the most powerful education experts in Washington, a top Democratic policy adviser…. So why haven’t you heard of her?  ‘Carmel’s a ghost,’ said Andrew Rotherham, a longtime education commentator and founder of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. ‘You’re not going to find lots of published stuff by her. She’s that archetype that you can work with on various issues, an inside-game person, but she’s set herself up for this moment because she doesn’t have this crazy-long paper trail.'”  Martin also was staff to Senator Ted Kennedy back in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act gathered bipartisan steam. Mahnken describes Martin as a defender of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and the Common Core standards when she served in Obama’s White House and of Arne Duncan’s policy demanding that states evaluate teachers by their students’ scores.

Secretary Cardona’s has kept everyone’s eyes myopically focused on school reopening after COVID-19. But we all need to pay closer attention to the other policy initiatives that will emerge from Cardona’s Department of Education. Diane Ravitch worries: “that Rodriguez and Carmel Martin will make policy, not Secretary Cardona or Deputy Secretary-designate Cindy Marten. Biden is looking to the future with his sweeping domestic policy plans. But in education, he is looking in the rear-view mirror to the architects of Obama’s failed programs.”

New Statewide Campaign Pressures Ohio Senate to Pass School Funding Reform in FY22-23 State Budget

On Wednesday, four key organizations announced ALL in for Ohio Kids, a statewide campaign to demand that the Ohio Senate will pass a major a new school funding formula as part of the FY 2022-23 state budget.

The new coalition brings together four organizations: the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, representing public school teachers; the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, pulling together public school parents and community members; and Policy Matters Ohio, adding the weight of complex policy expertise.

A new school funding plan, developed over several years, was passed on April 21st by the Ohio House of Representatives as part of the FY 2022-2023 state budget and submitted to the Ohio Senate. The Ohio Legislature must, by law, come up with a compromise by June 30.

With Ohio’s Republican supermajority House and Senate, you might suppose that members of the Ohio Senate would simply affirm the proposal forwarded by their colleagues in the House. You would be wrong. While the plan was originally sponsored by and developed under the guidance of House Speaker Bob Cupp and passed by the Ohio House in a stand alone bill in December by a vote of 87-9, the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan refused to bring the House bill forward for a vote by the full Senate. Therefore, the bill died at the end of the FY 20-21 legislative session.

The New All In for Ohio Kids Campaign and Policy Matters’ Wendy Patton Release Major Report

Outlining Ohio’s urgent need for the Fair School Funding Plan, Policy Matters’ state fiscal expert Wendy Patton released a position paper as part of the launch of the All in for Ohio Kids Campaign: “For many years Ohio lawmakers have provided neither sufficient nor fair distribution of state support. Even as policymakers have expected public schools to do more, they have cut state aid to public schools over time, by allowing it to be eroded by inflation and diversion of funds to charter schools… and vouchers… As a result, public schools have increasingly relied on local resources, which causes unequal funding…. This is because our state’s school funding system relies heavily on property taxes, which advantages wealthier districts… As corporations eliminated jobs with living wages in Ohio, racial discrimination in employment and government-sanctioned segregation forced Black, Indigenous and other people of color into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty…. Schools in these communities need additional resources, but the declining local tax base cannot generate what’s needed. Many rural and small-town districts have faced economic challenges that make it hard for them to provide local funding.”

Patton outlines what has happened to the state’s level of investment in public schools: “On average, local governments paid for the greater part of school funding in each of the last 40 years but three, 1987-1989. At times, the gap narrowed between state and local share, but the 2006-07 budget halted that progress by eliminating major business taxes and phasing in big state income tax cuts. Gov. Ted. Strickland made positive steps using federal stimulus…. But Gov. John Kasich promptly reversed that effort with a $1.8 billion cut to school funding imposed over the two-year budget of 2012-13. School funding has lagged ever since. By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.  Lawmakers…. also changed the formula for granting state aid four times over the past dozen years. Uncertainty in state aid makes planning and staffing hard for districts.”

Although the Ohio Constitution requires the state to establish a “thorough and efficient system” of public schools, and despite that the 1997 Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding unconstitutional and overly reliant on local property taxes—a decision whose demands have never been met, Patton describes the state’s funding of public education today as “a system of Band-Aids and patches”: “Today there is little connection between the funding of Ohio’s schools and the cost of educating a student: Formula funding is simply frozen at 2019 levels. Lawmakers provided no increase to cover the effect of inflation and the rising cost of education since then. According to projections used in the governor’s budget, between 2019 and 2023, state formula funding for public education will lose over $600 million in value as a result of inflation.”

Patton castigates the legislature for diverting an ever growing amount of state education dollars to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers at the same time Ohio’s legislators have failed to fund the public schools which serve 1.6 million Ohio students. Funding for charter schools is by school district deduction, which counts the student as though enrolled in the public school district, sends the state’s basic aid school funding amount to the public district, but then deducts from the local school district budget the state’s allocation for each charter school student. In many cases, the state charter school deduction from the school district’s budget is significantly more than the district receives in basic aid for that same student.  Patton provides an example: “Columbus received $4,815 per student in the 2018-19 school year in state formula funding, but the district had to provide an average of $8,305 per student in the 2018-19 school year to students at charter schools. In other words, for every charter student, Columbus must provide $3,489 more than it receives from the state.”

One of the state’s voucher programs, EdChoice, works the same way. The state sends the school district’s basic aid amount but then deducts $4,650 for every K-8 voucher and $6,000 for every high school student voucher. And because EdChoice voucher qualification rules limit the vouchers only to students living in the attendance area of a school designated by the federal government for Title I, school district deduction EdChoice vouchers are concentrated in areas of family poverty. Here is Patton’s explanation: “The use of vouchers is heavily concentrated in a limited number of districts. Fifteen of the 31 districts that transferred 10% or more of their total state aid to vouchers are located in Cuyahoga County.”  Cuyahoga County, an urban county with significant child poverty, includes Cleveland, to which the state has assigned its own voucher program, and several inner-ring suburbs with concentrations of children from poor families who qualify for the EdChoice Program. The irony in the majority of these school districts is that students taking vouchers out of the public system are students who have never been enrolled in public schools. Students already enrolled in private and religious schools are extracting state dollars out of public school districts serving concentrations of poor students, districts where more money is desperately needed for the students who are enrolled.

Patton concludes:  The Fair School Funding Plan is based on the actual cost of education….  When fully funded, it would help nearly all public schools by boosting the average state per-pupil aid from $6,835 to $8,459…. A predictable formula would create stability and certainty in planning and hiring… The funding for economically disadvantaged students would increase from $272 to $422 per student…. This will help students experiencing poverty and give needed resources to schools that serve communities where poverty is concentrated.” She adds: “The Fair School Funding Plan… would separate charter and voucher funding from the state’s formula funding system… Charter and voucher programs would… be funded through a separate line item in the state budget.”

What Is Holding Up Support for the Fair School Funding Plan in the Ohio Senate When Public Schools Are Desperately in Need?

Here is the problem: Senate President Matt Huffman’s website defines him this way: “President Huffman is devoted to quality school choices for all families, lowering taxes and reducing regulations on Ohio’s small business.”  And the Ohio Coalition for Adequacy and Equity of School Funding quotes Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan: “Where a child gets educated is not as important to us as: ‘The child gets educated.'” Huffman and Dolan are committed to marketplace school choice at public expense; neither is committed to public education as one of our most essential community institutions and our mutual obligation to our children.

The All In for Ohio Kids Campaign is all about calling members of the Ohio Senate to uphold the state’s constitutional mandate for adequate public school funding, distributed equitably according to need and considering each school district’s capacity to raise local school taxes. The Ohio Constitution does not provide for diverting public dollars to privately operated charter schools or, as tuition vouchers, to pay for private schooling.

What Is President Biden’s American Families Plan?

Tonight, when President Biden marks 100 days in office with a major speech to a joint session of Congress, he is expected to announce the second part of his Infrastructure Plan—the American Families Plan.  This part of Biden’s agenda does not directly support the public schools, but it will continue to ameliorate child poverty and reduce stress on families and thereby help public school students in myriad ways.

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein explains what is known about the plan, despite that negotiations have been fluid even in recent days: “The ‘American Families Plan,’ set to be released ahead of the president’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday, calls for devoting hundreds of billions of dollars to national child care, prekindergarten, paid family leave and tuition-free community college, among other domestic priorities… The key components of the plan consist of roughly $300 billion in education funding, the biggest pot of which includes funding to make two-year community colleges tuition-free; $225 billion in child-care funding; $225 billion for paid family and medical leave; $200 billion for prekindergarten instruction; and $200 billion to extend more enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies….  The plan would also extend a more robust child tax credit until 2025… a measure that could cost as much as $400 billion, as well as extend a more robust tax credit for workers. Aides repeatedly stressed that the details of the plan were subject to change and that final decisions had not yet been made.”

Fiscally austere federal policy to address economic inequality dates back to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the law that ended welfare. Policy designed to stigmatize instead of helping low income families has been around for so long that, it’s clear, the path to final enactment of Biden’s American Families Plan will not be smooth. Stein continues: “Those programs all largely reflect ideas that have moved into the Democratic mainstream, brought to the fore by the changes caused by the pandemic. The United States is the only wealthy nation with no federally provided paid maternity leave; is one of about five with no paid paternity leave; and is one of two without general paid sick leave… The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has ranked the United States as one of the worst in the world in terms of spending on families, with parents particularly stressed by the high cost and lack of access of child care during the pandemic.”

Negotiations in Congress look challenging. CNN‘s Phil Mattingly reports that after tonight’s speech to Congress, “Biden will then hit the road on his first sales pitch for the plan later this week.” The American Family Plan is being announced second—after the Infrastructure Plan was recently announced.  Mattingly explains: “(O)fficials acknowledged to CNN… that this is a far heavier lift politically, with limited chance for any GOP buy-in. The two pieces were spaced out intentionally in part to give space for Biden’s infrastructure plan to attract bipartisan support.” From the other side, Congressional Democrats are demanding that Biden extend the plan with additional programs and investments.

Especially controversial with Republicans are the tax reforms that have been discussed as the way to pay for the plan. Stein explains: “Biden and White House officials have been adamant that their tax hikes would not hit anyone earning under $400,000 per year. The key tax changes are expected to include increasing the top tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent; taxing investment gains from capital income at ordinary wage rates for those earning more than $1 million; and imposing a higher tax on assets when they are transferred at death, among other provisions….”

A Little History about the Need for Such a Plan

In the first 100 days of his term, President Biden has been taking enormous steps to try to establish a new set of foundational values regarding the role of government for supporting children—both at school and at home. When a major shift is underway in the direction of public policy, it is difficult to discern the ultimate implications.  We can’t anticipate how Biden’s Infrastructure Plan will work out or even whether he will get his proposed budget for education passed.

We had another major shift in the basic values under public policy when a  bipartisan Congressional coalition passed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) back in 2002. That law—with its glowing title about saving children—would instead solidify the idea that public schools across America are failing and would launch an era of austerity budgeting for public schools federally and across the states. We have now watched two-decades of blaming and sanctioning the schools serving America’s poorest children instead of helping them.  And at the same time, federal policy has reduced economic support for the poorest children served by public schools. The federal punitive requirements of NCLB conspired with the 1996 law that “ended welfare as we know it”— and later with the Great Recession followed by austerity budgeting across the states after the Tea Party wave election in 2010—to destroy overall state investment in public education and programs to help families barely subsisting as economic inequality soared.

It took two years (through 2018 and 2019) of statewide walkouts by public school teachers from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma along with huge strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland and Chicago to begin to correct NCLB’s strategy of test-and-punish. Teachers finally opened the nation’s eyes to the impact on schools and on children of austerity budgeting and privatizing education—an agenda that had conspired across the states to punish, privatize, and even close public schools in America’s poorest communities.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

It’s been a long time coming, but right now President Biden is attempting significantly to shift policy that shapes the lives of America’s poorest children and their schools. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, allocates significant dollars for school reopening, and his FY 22 budget proposal would double investment in the Title I program that invests extra dollars in the public schools serving concentrations of America’s poorest children. Both are designed to rectify the damage to schools wrought by NCLB and a cascade of other punitive policies like Race to the Top.

Today the Biden Administration, spurred on by the economic catastrophe of COVID-19, will propose to supplement those investments by introducing the American Families Plan, intended to reshape national policies that have blamed America’s poorest families for being poor and denied them urgently needed public support. The American Families Plan would make permanent the American Rescue Act’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit and offer a boost for families struggling to afford preschool, for young people unable to afford community college, and for families shut out of affordable childcare and burdened with persistent poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Last month when the President’s infrastructure bill was announced, the Center for Law and Public Policy’s executive director, Claudia Golden responded to the parts of the infrastructure package that comprise the American Families Plan: “CLASP looks forward to supporting the remaining crucial infrastructure investments anticipated in the forthcoming American Families Plan. A successful economic recovery can’t occur without a national paid leave program that enables workers everywhere to take time when they need to care for themselves or loved ones without risking their livelihoods. It requires a large-scale investment to transform the nation’s child care and early education system, building on the important first step in the recently enacted American Rescue Plan to stabilize the sector.  A comprehensive recovery must also make permanent improvements to the child tax credit and earned income tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan, as well as a substantial additional investment in mental health….”

How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”