The Challenges of Reopening Public Schools in Fall 2020

It’s hard to get a handle on how reopening public schools this autumn is going across the United States. A lot of blame and anger is floating around—for botched plans on the one hand and COVID-19 outbreaks on the other. Nobody endorses full-time remote learning, but it seems to be the reality in most places, especially in the nation’s biggest school districts where school operations on a huge scale complicate the best intentions of the people trying to work it all out.

On Monday to examine trends across the country, the NY Times published a major analysis including charts and maps of several states. The conclusion: “Schools are not islands, and so it was inevitable that when students and teachers returned this fall to classrooms, coronavirus cases would follow them. But more than a month after the first school districts welcomed students back for in-person instruction, it is nearly impossible to tally a precise figure of how many cases have been identified in schools.”

Just as the Trump administration has failed to institute national COVID-19 testing and contact tracing across the states, the Trump administration also failed, during many months before schools were scheduled to reopen this fall, to convene health and education experts with state school superintendents, local superintendents, principals and school teachers to listen to their concerns and plan for contingencies.  While the states are, through the mandates of their own constitutions, themselves responsible for providing “a thorough and efficient system of common schools” (the language in several of the state constitutions), some effort at least to coordinate school opening plans with broader testing and contact tracing would have made things smoother. The NY Times reports that there has been no systematic collection of data and in many places no reporting of data: “In an effort to better account for virus cases in Kindergarten through 12th grade, The New York Times set out to collect data from state and local health and education agencies and through directly surveying school districts in eight states. Our goal was to understand, as well as possible, how prevalent the virus was in America’s schools over the first weeks of classes… The Times directly surveyed every school district in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The Response rate was 26 percent.  Where possible, The Times sought to identify case totals since July 1. Case counts represent the latest available data for each district or state, covering a period from Aug. 21 to Sept. 17.”

Chalkbeat reports on what is commonly regarded as the fiasco in New York City, after the Mayor promised schools would open according to a hybrid in-person/online plan. I have considerable sympathy for Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s intentions to make it possible for all of the district’s 1.1 million students—114,000 of them homeless and many others living in poverty—to connect personally with school personnel at least once a week. Despite the best efforts of the school district, many students struggled to find online access last spring.

But the hybrid schedule in NYC has looked pretty unworkable from the beginning. Chalkbeat describes the plan: “To head back to school, the mayor settled on a hybrid model with students attending socially distanced classes at least once a week and learning online the rest of the time.  Families can also opt for remote-only learning at any time—something that at least 42% of students have already chosen.  A hybrid approach is inherently complicated, creating different groups of students who need to be taught at the same time: some in the classroom, some online part-time, and others learning virtually all the time. That is layered on top of social distancing rules, which means teachers who might have been assigned a class of 25 children can now teach only a fraction of students inside the building. There could be as few as nine children in a room, depending on the size of the space. Additionally, the city has granted medical accommodations for 21% of teachers—so far—to work from home because they’re at risk for complications from COVID-19… Districts across the country have run into this very staffing problem.  Schools need at least the same number of teachers in their buildings, but they have fewer teachers on hand because of health accommodations.  On top of that, they’re teaching only a fraction of their normal students at a time because of social distancing rules.  It adds up to a thorny math problem about how teachers can cover remote and in-person students simultaneously… In New York City, the staffing challenge is compounded by a deal struck between city officials and the teachers union discouraging teachers with in-person classes from also being assigned virtual classes.”  The challenge right now is the district’s shortage of thousands of teachers, which the district will try to address by deploying all certified central office staff into classrooms and hiring substitute teachers.

If, as you read this, you find yourself frustrated by what seem like unreasonable demands by the New York City United Federation of Teachers, consider this story that is part of the NY Times‘ broad survey of school reopenings.  In the Alcoa City Schools, a small school district south of Knoxville, Tennessee, the superintendent, Rebecca Stone found herself worried as schools reopened about unreasonable demands on her teachers: “Mrs. Stone said it had been hard to operate a hybrid system, especially with no money to hire extra staff.  She said many teachers were working with three different groups of students daily—those who were in school, those who were at home for the day, and the roughly 10 percent of students in the district who opted for full-time remote learning.  ‘Our teachers are doing an amazing job, but they’re drowning.’ she said.”

Or consider this story from Patrick O’Donnell at The 74, about a Cleveland, Ohio parochial school teacher working in-person with students seated in her classroom at the same time she tries to keep in touch with students connecting to the class from home via computer: “‘Take out your math books,’ teacher Jessica Montanez tells her first-graders at Cleveland’s St. Stanislaus Elementary School, looking at her students through her plastic face shield. ‘Take out your pencils.’  As students in the classroom, all wearing masks, start going through their desks, Montanez turns away and looks at the webcam on her own desk at another group of students who need her attention—the students in her class whose parents chose to start this school year online. ‘Good morning, friends at home,’ she says, as more first-grade faces look back at her from her computer screen. ‘Everyone at home, you should be taking out your math book and your pencils. We’re going to get started.'”  When I read this, I tried to imagine the experience of the first-graders at home. Would the teacher, concentrating on the kids in her classroom, be able to reach out in any personal way to the students who appear on the computer screen?

Long before NYC schools were scheduled to reopen, there were months of mile-high, district-wide planning, much of it focused on the mechanics of social distancing and the necessary updating of building ventilation. Staffing plans that respect the human capacity of teachers who cannot work around the clock became apparent as the opening date loomed nearer, and as New York City’s  United Federation of Teachers negotiated some limits.

For a window into the human demands being made as schools open this fall, we can turn to a profile of Latasha Geverola, the principal of Oscar DePriest Elementary School, a pre-K–Grade 8 public school in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.  Writing for The New Yorker, Peter Slevin describes Geverola’s challenges through last spring’s shut down and experiment with virtual learning, through a summer school session for children with special needs, and now her efforts to open her school virtually. While you might imagine that opening online would be easier—without social distancing and ventilation concerns—you would be underestimating Geverola’s challenges. One week in late August, “Geverola had spent Monday and Tuesday calling and e-mailing hundreds of families, alerting them to plans for a hybrid-learning schedule that would place students in school for part of each week. Then, that Wednesday, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, reversed course and announced that there would be no in-person teaching before November 9th, owing to upticks of COVID-19 cases… In normal times, DePriest serves as an oasis for about five hundred students from pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade, the vast majority.of whom come from low-income households in Austin, a neighborhood hit hard by COVID-19 and the economic downturn.  Now Geverola and her forty-five teachers are laboring to construct a virtual world that not only instructs students but supports and embraces them during the most difficult year that many of them have ever faced… It is not just COVID-19 that afflicts the DePriest community.  This year is on pace to have the most murders in Chicago since the nineteen nineties… On August 19th, a nine-year-old boy and his mother were shot and seriously injured on a street eight blocks from the school….”

One of Geverola’s worries has been about how to be fair to her staff who will likely be on-call throughout many of their entire waking hours: “Geverola solved one problem by moving money from her transportation budget—no field trips this fall—into an account that will pay teachers forty-nine dollars an hour to hold virtual office hours in the evening, when working parents are more likely to be available to help their children.”

Geverola has also undertaken the challenge of helping families get access to the Internet, including working with many grandparents who are primary caregivers while parents are at work and who are at the same time unfamiliar with computers and laptops: “I sat in her office one morning in August as she started dialing a hundred and twenty-four families to alert them about a program that offered free Internet service… In the waning days of August, families began dropping by DePriest to learn how remote teaching would work, and what help the school would provide. Then, on the day after Labor Day, DePriest’s virtual classroom doors opened.  Geverola said, ‘We thought that we jumped ahead of things by personally calling and walking families through the process of logging in.  We thought we had enough devices out there and that everyone in need of Internet was in the process of getting it installed. Day One knocked us down’…. The DePriest phones rang all day long, with families asking for equipment or log-in instructions or new passwords. But by the next day, she said, ninety percent of students had logged in, and by Monday, she described things as ‘quiet.’  That day, she visited the homes of five students who had been late to log in, to see what they needed… At last, she had time to log into classes, where she saw ‘teachers teaching and students learning’… ‘It means we can do it when we work together,’ she said. ‘Now time to plan meetings with teachers. We do not want to let the energy drop.'”

These stories have helped me grasp the complexities of opening 98,000 public schools that serve over 50 million children in the midst of a pandemic.  It is easier to conceptualize the mechanical arrangements—the ventilation, the social distancing in the buses and in classrooms, the distribution of laptops and Internet hot spots—than to grasp the demands being made on the people who have to make it all work.  I suspect part of our problem is our admiration of people—especially women—who can make complicated jobs like managing school classrooms and even giving dinner parties look easy.  We imagine that such “easy tasks” can be accomplished without exhaustion.

In the case of reopening 98,000 public schools this fall in the middle of the coronavrus pandemic, there is no easy way to do it. Maybe there is no good way to do it—especially in a society which failed to manage COVID-19 and contact tracing, and in a society where the federal government made no attempt to convene all the stakeholders for long range planning and coordination. I think what’s necessary then is to respect the hard work of mayors like New York’s Bill DeBlasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza, school superintendents and principals and schoolteachers and to remember that weird and unmanageable hybrid schedules and full time virtual schooling are temporary.  When things don’t go as expected, we need to give people at least some credit for doing the best they can.

Trump Fans Racism As He Rages Against Public High School History and Government Teachers

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke at an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Trump tried to turn the Constitution Day event held at the National Archives into a celebration of whitewashed American exceptionalism and an attack on how educators in our public schools teach history and government.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler cover the speech: “Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence… characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as ‘left-wing rioting and mayhem’ that ‘are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’… As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality. His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic… Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools—already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems—into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that on Thursday, Trump specifically attacked something called the 1619 Project, a curriculum developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the NY Times and the Pulitzer Center: “Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’  He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.'”

In her blog, the education historian Diane Ravitch wonders: “Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools?… Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits ‘any department, agency officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…'”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson challenges Trump’s push to censor the full implications of slavery from public school history classes: “Trump… doubles down on the notion, embraced by too many, that slavery is now over, no legacy or current injustices exist, end of conversation…  In fact it is a grave threat to our democracy to ignore—and fail to correct—the systemic racism that undergirds our nation’s public policies and practices. The violence against Blacks by the police may lead the headlines today, but the full story cannot be understood without taking a 400-year view of the legacy of slavery. The violence of law enforcement today cannot be separated from the violence that enforced slavery, laws prohibiting Blacks from learning to read and write, segregation, inequitable schools that deny educational opportunities to children, as well as redlining and real estate covenants that deny housing opportunities to families. Only by understanding the full breadth of our nation’s history can we see the common threads linking the myriad crises of today.”

When the NY Times Magazine published the 1619 Project a year ago in August, Education Week‘s Madeline Will described the kind of critical thinking the group of authors hoped the materials would inspire among high school students of American history and government: “The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones; essay, ‘The Idea of America.’ It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.  Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society… There’s a list of questions for students to discuss in class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?  Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619 (the year the first slaves were sold by pirates to American colonists), and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery.”

I urge you to read Hannah-Jones essay, The Idea of America, for a fascinating exploration of the origins of slavery, its history, the role of Reconstruction and its replacement by Jim Crow. Hannah-Jones challenges assumptions at the core of our national mythology, but her essay’s purpose is constructive and patriotic: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Not only is it fascinating to explore Hannah-Jones’ article that drives the 1619 Project, but it is essential to consider why, as we move closer to the November election and as his desperation grows, President Trump is so belligerently fanning the flames of racism.  We can turn to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, academics who just published a new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality , on today’s political climate. In the deliberate tone one might expect from two professors in a Political Science 101 class, Hacker and Pierson explicate why Trump is alleging, without any reference to the facts, that America’s public schools are undermining white America:

“We see a political system in which a once-moderate party now tightly orbits the most reactionary elements of America’s emergent plutocracy. And we see a political system in which, despite that party’s embrace of unpopular economic policies, tens of millions of Americans of modest means don’t just vote for that party but have become increasingly tribal in their loyalty to it. (p. 3) “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (p. 117) (All citations are to Let Them Eat Tweets).

Framing a New Website Forced Us to Reconsider Public Education’s Core Principles

This week the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education launched a new website.  If you live in Central Ohio in Columbus or Marion or Chillicothe—or Southwest Ohio in Dayton or Cincinnati or Middletown—or Northwest Ohio in Toledo—or Southeast Ohio in Athens or along the Ohio River, you may not imagine that this website will be of interest to you. And if you live in another state, you are probably certain the new website is irrelevant. If you live in Northeast Ohio, however—in Cleveland or Akron or Youngstown, Lorain or East Cleveland (the three impoverished school districts which the state has taken over in recent years) or in any of the suburbs of these urban areas, maybe you’ll take a look.

I believe, however, that the website might, on some level, be important for anybody who cares about public education in America. The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education is a loose group of educators and advocates, and the way this new website evolved out of several broader conversations speaks to our times.

Federally and across the states, America’s public schools are emerging from two decades of federally mandated, rigid, high-stakes, standardized-test-based, public school accountability—punitive accountability with sanctions, and delivered without financial help for the mostly underfunded schools and school districts deemed “failing.” We had fifteen years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—softened in 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. The new version modified the punishments but continued to mandate the annual testing and the theory of sanctioning schools into better performance—performance still measured by each school’s aggregate standardized test scores.

Privatization was part of this. One of the federally mandated punishments for so-called “failing” schools was to privatize them—turn them into charter schools. Plus, since 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has persistently stimulated the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools.

Then, in 2016, President Trump made things worse for public schools by appointing Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos, founder and board member for years of the American Federation for Children, has been among the nation’s richest and most powerful advocates for tuition vouchers for private and religious education. Under DeVos, we have watched four years of lack of attention to the public schools by the Department of Education, along with massive conflict in education policy and educational philosophy.

And since last April, schools have struggled to operate during a pandemic which the President has failed to control.  After a difficult spring and the sudden closure of public schools, it was assumed that public schools would find a way to open safely for the fall semester. But instead we are watching a miasma of approaches—hybrid schedules to bring a limited and safe number of children into buildings each day—public schools opening in some places full-time everyday—schools open only for virtual learning—alarming inequity as many children lack internet capability—increasing outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff in districts that have fully reopened—schools opening and quickly forced to close—wealthy families grouping together to hire private teachers for tiny schools in the basement or the attic.

In this leaderless situation with schools struggling everywhere, no matter their efforts to prepare, questions of policy have just sort of faded away—except that the privatizers are doggedly trying to co-opt the chaos in every way they can. In Ohio, the Legislature has taken advantage of the time while the public is distracted by COVID-19 to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers for private schools at the expense of public school district budgets, to neglect to address the injustices of our state’s punitive, autocratic state takeovers of the public schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and to put off for over a year discussion of a proposed plan to fix a state school funding formula so broken that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts (80 percent) have fallen off a grossly under-funded old formula.

In recent years, most Ohio school districts have been getting exactly as much state funding as they got last year and the year before that and the year before that even if their overall enrollment has increased, the number poor children has risen, or the number of special education students has grown. And all this got even worse under the current two-year state budget, in which school funding was simply frozen for every school district at the amount allocated in fiscal year 2019.  That is until this past June, when, due to the revenue shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor cut an additional $330 million from the money already budgeted for public schools in the fiscal year that ended June 30, thus forcing school districts to reduce their own budgets below what they had been promised. With much hoopla in the spring of 2019, the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan was proposed. A year ago, however, research indicated (see here and here) that—partly thanks to the past decade of tax cuts in Ohio and partly due to problems in the new distribution formula itself—the new school funding proposal failed to help the state’s poorest schools districts. The analysis said that a lot of work would be required to make the plan equitable.  New hearings are planned this fall, but nobody has yet reported on whether or how the Cupp-Patterson Plan has been readjusted.

In this context, discussions in the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education focused on our need to help ourselves and the citizens in our school districts find our way.  What are the big issues? What information will help us explore and advocate effectively for policies that will ensure our schools are funded adequately and that funding is distributed equitably? In Ohio, how can we effectively push the Legislature to collect enough revenue to be able to fund the state’s 610 school districts without dumping the entire burden onto local school districts passing voted property tax levies? How can we help stop what feels like a privatization juggernaut in the Ohio Legislature? And how can federal policy be made to invest in and help the nation’s most vulnerable public schools?

The idea of a website emerged, with the idea of highlighting four core principles—with a cache of information in each section: Why Public Schools?  Why More School Funding? Why Not Privatization? and Why Educational Equity?  Although we have noticed that much public school advocacy these days emphasizes what public school supporters are against, we decided to frame our website instead about what we stand for as “friends of public education” even though our opposition to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers is evident in our website.

Our framing around key ways to support public public education is consistent with thinking in other periods in our nation’s history when policy discussion regarding public schools has centered more narrowly on three of the public school questions which organize the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website: Why Public Schools?, Why More School Funding?, and Why Educational Equity?

Not too long ago, before the kind of thinking that culminated in No Child Left Behind flooded across the country, in a 1993 book called An Aristocracy of Everyone, political philosopher Benjamin Barber described public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)

Educational historian David Tyack reflected on the public role of public education in his 2003, Seeking Common Ground: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

In 2004, James Banks, the father of multicultural education, anticipated issues that have now culminated in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Banks explicitly rejected dominant culture hegemony as he described the public purpose of the public schools: “A significant challenge facing educators… is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship, p. 12)

All the way back, in 1785, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  (Center on Education Policy, Why We Still Need Public Schools, 2007, p. 1.)

The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website reframes our organization’s work according to the old principle that it is our civic responsibility to protect our nation’s and our state’s commitment to our children and our future in a system of well-funded public schools.

Senate Republicans Once Again Refuse to Help States and Their Local School Districts

Last week, the Republican dominated U.S. Senate once again failed to pass its latest version of a second stimulus bill to help alleviate the recession that is undermining the economy, the lives of individuals, and institutions like public schools. The Republicans called their bill a skinny (minimal) bill, and everybody knew it wasn’t going to pass, but the consequences are likely to be serious.  At least, by sinking the bill, Congress did not pass the Betsy DeVos favorite, a tuition tax credit Freedom Scholarship program inserted at the last minute by Sen. Ted Cruz.

The Washington Post’s Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm explain last week’s Senate action: “The failed GOP bill would have authorized new money for small businesses, coronavirus testing and schools, and $300 in enhanced weekly enhanced unemployment benefits. The measure included roughly $650 billion in total spending, but it would repurpose roughly $350 billion in previously approved spending, bringing the tally of new funding to around $300 billion. The measure did not include a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for individual Americans, even though that’s something the White House supports. It also excluded any new money for cities and states, a top Democratic priority as municipal governments face the prospect of mass layoffs because of plunging tax revenue. And it contained some conservative priorities that Democrats dismissed as unacceptable ‘poison pills’ including liability protections for businesses and a tax credit aimed at helping students attend private schools.”

There is speculation that Congress won’t be able to agree on any additional stimulus prior to the election. Under pressure from Democratic members of the House to pass something before November 3rd to assist their constituents, Nancy Pelosi declared yesterday that she’ll keep the House in session until there is a bill to consider. Congress has scheduled its pre-election recess to begin on October 2, but the Washington Post clarified later that, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, “lawmakers would not actually remain in Washington beyond their scheduled recess… and instead would be required to be on call in case they must return.” The House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in mid-May as the statement of House Democratic priorities, and Pelosi has refused to compromise away what Democrats identified as essential programs. Senate Republicans, by contrast, came up with a $1 trillion draft, and then dropped it to $640 billion with $350 billion of that repurposed from previous allocations (presumably the CARES Act, passed in March). Republican Senators seem willing to avoid considering any additional fiscal stimulus.

This blog has worried about Congressional Republican unwillingness to pass additional assistance for state and local governments. Mark Weber explains why. Weber, who blogs at Jersey Jazzman, is a teacher, a musician and also a Ph.D. in school finance: “The Senate’s complete abdication to do anything serous about the economy might lead you to believe that Republicans don’t believe that public schools are facing a fiscal crisis.  But that’s not entirely true.  Even though the GOP school aid proposal is incredibly weak, the very fact that Republicans are proposing aid to schools is a tacit acknowledgement that they are in financial trouble. But, as usual, Republicans are proposing an inadequate solution to a very real problem. Part of this inadequacy is due to the insistence of ideologues on privileging private schools when coming up with an aid package… But a big part is due to a fundamental misunderstanding—likely a deliberate misunderstanding—of how schools get their revenue. Schools rely heavily on their states for funding—but the Republicans are refusing to provide fiscal relief for the states.  Let me put this as clearly as I can: Fiscal relief for states is fiscal relief for schools… Historically, federal revenues accounted for between 7 to 13 percent of total K-12 funding…. The biggest sources of funding for K-12 schools have been state and local revenue… (E)ach accounts for about half of the remainder after separating out federal funding. Of course, that varies considerably from state to state… But even in the states where districts rely the least on state funding—Missouri, Nebraska and New Hampshire—state funding still accounts for a third of revenues. In the majority of states, half of more of all revenues for schools come from the states themselves. Funding schools is actually one of the primary fiscal activities of the states.” (emphasis in the original)

In a recent brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Vice President for Federal Policy and Program Development, Sharon Parrot identifies three primary reasons why Congress needs to pass further economic stimulus: “The latest data on hardship, the economy, and state and local budgets make clear a much stronger package is essential. Hardship levels are extremely high. Some 29 million adults reported that their household didn’t get enough to eat, and nearly 15 million adults reported being behind on rent…. Some 19 million children—fully 1 in 4—lived in a household in which people weren’t getting enough to eat, that was behind on the rent or mortgage, or both…. Job losses are high, particularly for lower -paid workers. While the unemployment rate fell in August, the economy still has 11.5 million fewer jobs than in February… States and localities face deep budget shortfalls.  States across the nation, with governors of both parties, face large shortfalls in this fiscal year, which in most states started July 1. States and localities have started making cuts—indeed, they cut 1.1 million jobs between February and August, about 60 percent of them in K-12 and higher education. These job losses far exceed those during the Great Recession of a decade ago and its aftermath. Of particular concern, many states are waiting to make more and substantially deeper cuts….” (emphasis in the original)

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Deputy Director of State Policy Research Wesley Tharpe explained specifically how the COVID-19 driven recession is affecting public K-12 and higher education this fall: “The harsh recession and deep state budget crisis triggered by COVID-19 are causing sizable public-sector job losses, especially in K-12 and higher education… As of August, about 1.1 million public-sector workers had lost their jobs since February, an estimated 668,000 (59 percent) of them in education.  About 462,000 of the lost education jobs were in K-12 schools, with most of the rest in colleges and universities… The initial cuts in the spring fell hard on educational workers. Massachusetts school districts sent layoff or nonrenewal notices to more than 2,000 educators (the vast majority of them teachers…); Minnesota school districts sent home hundreds of educators and assistants…; and New York City furloughed about 14,000 school bus drivers and related workers. Half of the lost K-12 jobs in March and April were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants…; large losses also occurred among counselors, nurses, janitors and maintenance workers…  To be sure, some staffing reductions in education would have occurred even in normal times, as local districts and institutions of higher learning routinely reduce hours or furlough certain support workers—such as counselors and bus drivers—over the summer.  But the scope of the job loss this year was huge—far beyond any normal seasonal variation. As of August, nearly 700,000 fewer people were working in state and local education nationwide than in the same month last year… (M)any states and localities have already cut K-12 spending—by more than $500 million in Colorado and nearly $1 billion in Georgia, for example… (M)ost school districts are operating this fall in a partial or entirely virtual environment, which has reduced the need for people like cafeteria workers or bus drivers but imposed costs in other areas, such as technology.  Furloughing those workers may be helping districts avoid deeper cuts in other areas right now but, when districts call them back, they’ll face renewed pressure to cut elsewhere—such as by reducing teacher positions or cutting enrichment activities—unless more federal aid is forthcoming.”

There are lessons to be learned from what happened to education spending in the Great Recession a decade ago.  Last month C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”

Will Congress ignore these realities and fail to pass a stimulus package including assistance for the states and their public schools?  Our children’s future rests on this question.

American Plutocracy and The So-Called Objective Media

For ten years Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist, and Paul Pierson, the Berkeley political scientist, have been tracking exploding economic inequality in the United States. In this summer’s book, Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson explicitly identify our government as a plutocracy.  And they track how politicians (with the help of right-wing media) shape a populist, racist, gun-toting, religious fundamentalist story line to distract the public from a government that exclusively serves the wealthy.  In a new article published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Journalism’s Gates Keepers, Tim Schwab examines our plutocracy from a different point of view: How is the mainstream media, the institution most of us look to for objective news, shaped increasingly by philanthropists stepping in to fill the funding gaps as newspapers go broke and news organizations consolidate?

In their 2010 classic, Winner-Take-All Politics, Hacker and Pierson present “three big clues” pointing to the tilt of our economy to winner-take-all: “(1) Hyperconcentration of Income… The first clue is that the gains of the winner-take-all economy, befitting its name, have been extraordinarily concentrated. Though economic gaps have grown across the board, the big action is at the top, especially the very top… (2) Sustained Hyperconcentration… The shift of income toward the top has been sustained increasingly steadily (and, by historical standards, extremely rapidly) since 1980… (3) Limited Benefits for the Nonrich… In an era in which those at the top reaped massive gains, the economy stopped working for middle-and working-class Americans.”  Winner-Take-All Politics, pp. 15-19) (emphasis in the original)

Hacker and Pierson’s second book in the recent decade, the 2016 American Amnesia explores America’s loss of faith in government, our massive forgetting about the role of government regulation and balance in a capitalist economy: “(T)he institution that bears the greatest credit often gets short shrift: that combination of government dexterity and market nimbleness known as the mixed economy. The improvement of health, standards of living, and so much else we take for granted occurred when and where government overcame market failures, invested in the advance of science, safeguarded and supported the smooth functioning of markets, and ensured that economic gains became social gains.” (American Amnesia, p. 69)

In their new Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson no longer avoid the label. They now call America a full blown plutocracy: “This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead, it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy—government of, by, and for the rich.  Runaway inequality has remade American politics, reorienting power and policy toward corporations and the super-rich (particularly the most conservative among them)… The rise of plutocracy is the story of post-1980 American politics. Over the last forty years, the wealthiest Americans and the biggest financial and corporate interests have amassed wealth on a scale unimaginable to prior generations and without parallel in other western democracies. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have roughly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. They have used that wealth—and the connections and influence that come with it—to construct a set of political organizations that are also distinctive in historical and cross-national perspective. What makes them distinctive is not just the scope of their influence, especially on the right and far right. It is also the degree to which the plutocrats, the biggest winners in our winner-take-all economy, pursue aims at odds with the broader interests of American society.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 1-2)

Let Them Eat Tweets is about American plutocracy, the growing conservatism of the GOP, and politicians’ use of racism, right wing media, the NRA, and religious fundamentalism to win elections by distracting the masses from noticing that they are benefiting not at all from America’s plutocracy.  The book is a wonderful guide to what we are all living through as we watch the evening news—the strategies underneath Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

But there is another hidden element of the power of plutocrats. Philanthropies led by the wealthy make charitable gifts which subtly shape news reporting itself.  And the subject here is not merely Fox and Breitbart and the other right-wing outlets. Tim Schwab’s important report from the Columbia Journalism Review is about one of America’s powerful plutocrats, Bill Gates. Schwab explores, “a larger trend—and ethical issue—with billionaire philanthropists’ bankrolling the news.  The Broad Foundation, whose philanthropic agenda includes promoting charter schools, at one point funded part of the LA Times‘ reporting on education. Charles Koch has made charitable donations to journalistic institutions such as the Poynter Institute, as well as to news outlets such as the Daily Caller, that support his conservative politics. And the Rockefeller Foundation funds Vox‘s Future Perfect, a reporting project that examines the world ‘through the lens of effective altruism’—often looking at philanthropy.  As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an unexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors.”

Those of us who have been following public education policy over two decades know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in policy itself—funding think tanks like the Center on Reinventing Public Education—which brought us “portfolio school reform” charter school expansion—which led to Chicago’s Renaissance 2010— which led to Arne Duncan’s bringing that strategy into federal policy in Race to the Top.  We know that the Gates Foundation funded what ended up as an expensive and failed small high schools initiative, and, after that failed—an experiment with evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores—and later experimenting with incentive bonuses for teachers who quickly “produce” higher student scores.  We remember that the Gates Foundation brought us the now fading Common Core. And we remember that Arne Duncan filled his department with staff hired directly from the Gates Foundation.

What we too often forget is that the Gates Foundation has also invested in creating a positive climate for the reception of the Foundation’s policy initiatives—a positive climate that has been uncritical until years later when the experiments failed—sometimes leaving behind millions of dollars in costs to be paid, for example by the school district in Hillsborough County, Florida, and leaving public school districts to undo complicated restructuring and restore comprehensive high schools.

Schwab shows how the Gates Foundation has been able to shape reporting on its policy experiments: “I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism.  Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, A1 Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times‘ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a ‘news site’ to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate.  The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders… Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.”

Schwab evaluates exactly what kind of influence Gates’ investment has purchased: “In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes‘s list of the most powerful people in the world.”  “Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity.  Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.”

Of course, the PBS NewsHour discloses Gates Foundation funding when Bill Gates is invited to comment on the coronavirus pandemic as though he is not merely a funder of world health initiatives but is instead himself a world health expert. But Schwab doesn’t believe the ubiquitous disclosure statements solve the problem: “Even perfect disclosure of Gates funding doesn’t mean the money can’t still introduce bias. At the same time, Gates funding, alone, doesn’t fully explain why so much of the news about the foundation is positive. Even news outlets with no obvious financial ties to Gates—the foundation isn’t required to publicly report all of the money it gives to journalism, making the full extent of its giving unknown—tend to report favorably on the foundation. That may be because Gates’s expansive giving over the decades has helped influence a larger media narrative about its work.  And it may also be because the news media is always, and especially right now, looking for heroes.  A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires-turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

The Washington Post appears independent and at this point seems merely to reflect its current owner’s laudable belief, proclaimed every morning on the newspaper’s masthead, that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  But we ought to consider how Jeff Bezos’s generous purchase of The Post affects our objectivity as we try to evaluate the role of AMAZON in our economy.  How is Bezos’s generosity subtly undermining our own objectivity?

In Let Them Eat Tweets, two prominent political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson have now explicitly identified our government as a plutocracy. Tim Schwab expands the analysis: warning about the plutocratic purchase of how we understand our world even if we shun the extremist press and get our news straight from the mainstream media.

POLITICO Article on Charter Schools Entirely Misses the Point

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)  Because public education is systemic and schools are operated according to the law, it is possible to ensure that public schools protect the rights and serve the needs of all children, while charter schools are designed to serve the choices of individual families.

Charter schools were set up according to a theory of social entrepreneurship—the idea that if you give individuals enough freedom, they will experiment and innovate and do a better job of meeting the needs of particular students one school at a time.  Of course, our nation’s public schools have never fully embodied the principle of justice; like all core social institutions they have reflected the injustices and biases of the society they represent. But over the generations, as our society has begun to acknowledge racial and ethnic biases and realized that disabled people ought to be made full participants in our society, our representatives have passed laws and regulations to protect the rights of children formerly left out of the blessings promised in our nation’s principles. Our representatives in Congress passed Title I as part of the War on Poverty in 1965 to supplement investment in the public schools that serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help public schools pay for expert teachers to support the needs of disabled children. And the courts have protected the rights of immigrant children—even undocumented students—in the public schools. Further, in accordance with the principles of equity embedded in many state constitutions, courts in a number of states have been able to demand legislative remedies to support services for children previously left out or left behind. Justice in our nation’s public schools is, by definition, a work in progress, dependent on good leadership in the context of our nation’s ideals.

In this year’s race for President, the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination have consistently demonstrated a realization that social entrepreneurship in education—embodied in Race to the Top, for example—has not fulfilled our society’s definition of justice and inclusion. Privately operated charter schools—like their cousins, tuition vouchers for private schools—provide escapes from the public system that continues to serve over 50 million of our nation’s children. But not all of the escapes have been academically adequate; many have ripped off the public investment; and the existence of the charter sector has imperiled the public school districts from which the charter schools suck money.  In many cases the growth of a charter school sector has left the public schools serving masses of poor children and immigrant children without essential operating funds.

Democrats have eschewed vouchers but for two decades have sought to, sort of, compromise—by claiming that privately operated charter schools are not really fully private because they are publicly funded. But they have at the same time been watching the damage to America’s public school districts and begun noticing that promised leaps in charter school academic achievement as measured by test scores have not materialized. The consensus on education policy now recognized by the majority of Democrats who ran for President this year—apart from devoted charter school supporters like Michael Benett and Cory Booker—is that justice for our children can best be realized by fully funding the public schools and working to intensify the effort to come closer to equity in public school investment across rich and poor districts.

Achieving equity in today’s alarmingly unequal society is an enormous challenge. In a stunning editorial last May, the NY Times editorial board declared: “Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short.  Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”

Joe Biden’s education plan recognizes how our society’s shocking inequity affects the public schools.  He proposes to address long-standing funding injustices: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.’” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

Last weekend, POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano questioned what she views as, perhaps, the political liability of Biden’s inattention to charter schools. Gaudiano blames the teachers unions, raising the tired old arch-conservative cliche that politicians who want to support traditional public education are mere captives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It is part of the long Republican cliche about the danger of unions in general and a remnant of Michelle Rhee’s screed that we have to put students first and protect our society from people who support adult interests. I suspect this sort of thinking also derives from some old biases we ought to have put behind us a long time ago—that teachers like child care workers are servants who ought to be working purely for the love of children without selfishly hoping to make a living.

Gaudiano explains that Biden may lose Black voters who want escapes from public schools and looks at the history of Democratic politicians supporting charter schools. She blames Biden’s support on the unions: “Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups.  Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters.  But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.”

It is interesting that Gaudiano quotes policy advocates from organizations known for prominently supporting the growth of the charter sector and of school privatization, but no organization working to build stronger investment in the public schools.  She quotes Margaret Fortune of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools; Michael Petrilli of “the conservative Fordham Institute,” Charles Barone of “the pro-charter group Education Reform Now,” Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the neoliberal Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education Partners.

Explaining that Black and Hispanic voters are likely to support charter schools, Gaudiano defines the future of charter schools as a matter of racial politics. She seems unaware that in 2016, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a resolution, “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools at least until such time as: charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The  Movement for Black Lives supported the NAACP’s resolution, and the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has strongly advocated for urban public school districts where the needs of public schools and poor children are often ill-served by the expansion of the charter school sector. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the Journey for Justice Alliance as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities… with more than 52,000 members across the United States.”

Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown, J4J’s national director, explaining J4J’s support for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… We at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues.  Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools.  We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.’… We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include: Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better… Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation… The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education has published a series of in-depth investigations of fraud, instability, and mismanagement across the charter school sector. Broken Promises tracks the trend of sudden charter school closures leaving students stranded—sometimes mid-school-year—without a school.  Charters and Consequences investigates fraud and corruption as tiny local California school districts collect state tax dollars to pad their own operating budgets by running shoddy storefront charter schools out of strip malls to draw students and these students’ state funding out of large urban districts. Finally the Network for Public Education has investigated the federal Charter Schools Program (here and here).  These reports document the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to oversee its own Charter Schools Program due to lack of a rigorous process for selecting qualified applicants and the utter absence of good record keeping and oversight.  The Charter Schools Program has seeded the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failed to oversee their operation—wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools it seeded never opened or quickly shut down.

It is too frequently assumed that when students leave a public school district to attend a charter school it is a financial  wash for the school district: the student leaves; the student no longer needs services; the school district no longer has to pay to educate that student. Therefore, the assumption is that the school district suffers no financial penalty when charter schools are opened within its boundaries. Two years ago, In the Public Interest hired the political economist Gordon Lafer to investigate the contention that the growth of the charter school sector has been fiscally neutral for public school districts. Instead Lafer documented that one school district alone, the Oakland Unified School District in California, loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries.

Lafer explains how charter schools serve as a parasite on the public school districts where they operate: “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.” “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.”

It is not only Joe Biden who seeks to turn the nation’s attention in this presidential election year to the critical need for equity in America’s public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. This year’s Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles regarding our public schools as the Party’s educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee that every child can receive a great education.”

DeVos Privatization Schemes Are Blocked by Courts and Likely to Be Further Blocked by Congress

Betsy DeVos, a lifelong supporter of private and religious schools and the expansion of tax-funded tuition vouchers for private schools, has pursued the privatization of public education throughout her tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education. In recent months DeVos devised a way to divert to private schools some of the funding Congress appropriated for public school CARES Act relief, and this month DeVos has persisted by working with Sen. Ted Cruz to insert her $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarship tuition tax credit program into a new Senate coronavirus relief package.

Famous for disdaining public institutions, DeVos once declared: “Government really sucks.”  Everyone has worried for over three years that Betsy DeVos might succeed in radically expanding school privatization from her perch in the Trump administration, but, despite all the rhetoric, she hasn’t succeeded.  Now her CARES Act initiative has been struck down, and her tuition tax credit scheme is headed nowhere.

Court Permanently Blocks DeVos CARES Act Distribution Favoring Private Schools

In July, Betsy DeVos imposed a binding rule to favor distribution of a significant portion of last spring’s CARES Act relief money to private schools at the expense of the public schools serving the nation’s poorest children.  Last Friday, in NAACP v. DeVos, the third court decision on DeVos’s CARES Act rule in recent weeks, a federal judge permanently blocked DeVos’s plan.

POLITICO’s Michael Stratford explains: “U.S District Judge Dabney Friedrich, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled that DeVos ran afoul of the CARES Act when she required public schools to send a greater share of pandemic assistance to private school students than is typically required under federal law.  The judge sided with the NAACP, which had brought the legal challenge against DeVos’ policy, criticizing it as a ploy to divert emergency aid away from needy public schools toward more affluent private-school students.  Several other judges had already preliminarily blocked DeVos’ rule in certain states, but Judge Friedrich’s ruling—which is final—goes further in striking down the entire rule as illegal.  The ruling will apply nationwide.”

In the statutory language of the CARES Act, Congress directed that CARES Act public education relief be distributed in accordance with the method of the Title I Formula, which awards federal funds to supplement educational programming in public school districts serving concentrations of low-income children. Public school districts receiving Title I dollars are also expected to provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within their district boundaries. In the binding guidance she imposed in July, DeVos demanded that per-pupil CARES Act relief for private schools be based on each private school’s full enrollment, not merely on the number of the private school students who qualify for additional services because their families are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Public Funds Public Schools, a coalition including the law firm of Munger Tolles & Olson L.L.P., the Education Law Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented the plaintiffs in NAACP v. DeVosPublic Funds Public Schools commented on the ruling: “The court’s ruling grants a nationwide vacatur of the rule, bringing much-needed certainty to public schools across the country that they will have the full amount of CARES Act funds to which they are entitled.”

Along with the NAACP, additional plaintiffs included public school parents from Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Nevada, Mississippi, Alabama, and Washington, DC, as well as Broward County Public Schools in Florida, the DeKalb County School District in Georgia, the Denver County School District in Colorado, the Pasadena Unified School District in California, and Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut.

With Sen. Ted Cruz, DeVos Again Pushes for $5 Billion Federal Tuition Tax Credit Program

DeVos’s favorite school privatization scheme—a federal tuition tax credit voucher program DeVos has called “Education Freedom Scholarships” and which she has unsuccessfully tried to insert every year into the federal budget—has now been proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz as part of a new, very meager Senate Republican coronavirus relief bill. Cruz’s idea is already so controversial that it is holding up negotiations on the bill.  You will remember that the House passed the HEROES Act to lay down its bid for $3 trillion in further relief last May 15. The U.S. Senate has not yet agreed to a plan.

On Sunday, the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner explained: “Talks on additional coronavirus relief legislation broke down in August and have remained stalled.  Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Tuesday (September 8) and leaders in both parties say they hope to reach agreement on a new coronavirus relief bill. But they remain far apart, and it’s unclear whether a deal will be possible. Democrats are unwilling to agree to legislation that spends less than $2 trillion, while Republicans say that figure is too high. Senate GOP leaders have been hoping to try advancing a slimmed-down bill costing about $500 billion, but they’ve struggled to reach agreement even on that. The latest hang-up involves a push by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for a school-choice provision opposed by some fellow Republicans.”

CNN reporters Manu Raju. Phil Mattingly and Ted Barrett describe Cruz’s latest push for the privatization of education: “Cruz’s proposal would essentially provide reimbursement–in full–for donations to state-based nonprofit scholarship funds that help families with tuition and other education expenses for private K-12 schooling.”

No one believes the relief package into which Cruz seeks to insert his tuition tax credits is serious legislation headed toward enactment.  The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Laura Meckler explain: “The $5 billion tax credit proposal has long been championed by DeVos, and President Trump has offered his support for school choice as part of his reelection campaign. Now the measure is being pushed behind the scenes by Sen. Ted Cruz…. But his move is opposed by a number of other members of the Senate Republican conference—some on the merits, others for strategic reasons.  They will need to resolve the impasse to finalize the legislation.  The bill is meant to be a negotiating tool with Democrats, though a previous measure with a similar goal went nowhere last month.  Senate Republicans are seeking to pass a targeted bill as a way of countering a bill recently passed by House Democrats that sought to boost funding for the U.S. Postal Service.”

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi has staunchly stood behind the need for a much more generous COVID-19 relief package than the Senate has been willing to consider. Pelosi has insisted, for example, on funding significant relief for the unemployed and at the same time alleviating a deepening fiscal crisis in state and local governments. It is impossible to believe the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will ever buy into the skinniest possible Senate proposal that not only leaves out desperately needed coronavirus relief but also privatizes public education. Although Betsy DeVos is known for her persistent devotion to school choice, the U.S. House has been equally persistent in rejecting DeVos’s school privatization overtures.

Biden and Democrats Turn Away from Two Decades of Test-Based Public School Accountability and Privatization

Joe Biden’s education plan and the Democratic Platform on education this year should be recognized as a significant development. Biden’s plan embodies something new for Democrats—a turn away from two decades when Democrats bought into neoliberal experimentation in education. Biden supports expanding opportunity for children through better federal funding of public schools and at the same time curtailing abuses in charter schools.

This blog will take a short end of summer break.  Look for a new post Wednesday, September 9.

Donald Trump’s stance on education has not changed. For four years, the President has been endorsing marketplace school choice—code language for the expansion of school privatization at public expense. As a candidate for reelection, Trump merely says he will go on trying to expand marketplace school choice if he wins a second term. He and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos endorse the continuation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Trump and DeVos are also pushing a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit program they got got someone to introduce into both the House and Senate as “The School Choice Now Act.” This is the same  Education Freedom Scholarship Program DeVos has inserted year after year into  the President’s proposed federal budget. Every year Congress has made sure that it didn’t make it into the final appropriations bill as passed. While the President says he will push school choice—more charters and an expansion of tuition tax credit school vouchers to pay for private school tuition—he never mentions the public schools except for demanding that they reopen as the vehicle for getting parents back to work.

But for Democrats, the direction of education policy seems finally to have shifted.  Shifted in a very positive direction.

Some History: Two Decades of Education “Reform”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted by Congress with bipartisan support in 2001 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  In NCLB, Democrats and Republicans collaborated on an omnibus law designed to hold teachers and schools accountable for ever-rising standardized test scores. The law was designed to “incentivize” teachers and school administrators to work harder and smarter and push kids harder.  All schools were expected to make “adequate yearly progress” until all students posted proficient scores by 2014. Schools that couldn’t raise scores quickly were to be punished, and the punishments included the idea that so called “failing” public schools could be “improved” by turning them over to private operators of charter schools. It was assumed that private management would, through business principles, more efficiently and more cheaply drive improvements in school performance.

Then in 2008, when Biden was serving as Vice President, President Barack Obama chose Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary. Duncan, a Chicago basketball buddy of the President, had managed Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, an early neoliberal “portfolio school reform” plan in which a school district commits to managing public and charter schools alike as though they are a business portfolio—shedding the bad investments (as measured by aggregate standardized test scores) and expanding the number of high-scoring schools.  The plan spawned the growth of Chicago’s privatized charter sector and culminated several years after Duncan left in the closure, in 2013, of 50 traditional public schools, most of them in the poorest Black and Brown neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides. Whole neighborhoods were left without neighborhood public schools to anchor them.  Children traveled across the city for a school choice program which did not turn out to have transformed school achievement. In 2009, when he became U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan set out to impose neoliberal education theory nationally in programs like Race to the Top and a large Office of Innovation and Improvement charged with spawning the startup of local charter schools and the expansion of charter school management companies.  We now know that NCLB and Duncan’s policies didn’t make all children proficient.  When, as the 2014 deadline loomed and the list of so-called failing schools grew too long, Duncan created waivers to let states off the hook, but he still tried to use test scores to evaluate and punish teachers.

Joe Biden and Other Democrats Now Look to a New Direction

As a candidate for President, Joe Biden has turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration.  Education Week‘s Evie Blad recently described the change in educational philosophy: “Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from (Obama), that self-described supporter of education reform.  Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top Grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.  By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration.  Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.”

Jill Biden was a public high school English teacher before Biden became Vice President. During the Bidens’ eight years in Washington, she taught in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. During the Democratic Convention, Jill Biden addressed the nation from her former high school classroom in Wilmington, Delaware.  Many people believe Biden’s turn toward strengthening traditional public schools instead of following the neoliberal Obama-Duncan agenda is due to his wife’s commitment, and, of course, Jill has very likely played a role.  But last December, when seven of the Democratic candidates for President addressed the MSNBC-televised forum in Pittsburgh, almost all of them had turned away from the test-and-punish and pro-privatization policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Biden was not alone in refocusing the conversation around the desperate needs of the nation’s public schools.

Democrats have been paying attention.  A wave of statewide teachers strikes beginning in West Virginia and moving through Kentucky and Oklahoma in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated the school funding collapse lingering in too many states a decade after the Great Recession. And when the strikes moved to cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, we all learned about huge class sizes and outrageous caseloads for school counselors. Like the rest of us, Joe Biden and other Democrats learned about schools without nurses and schools with shuttered libraries. Democrats paid attention when they heard that school districts in Oklahoma and some California cities pay so little they cannot hold onto teachers from year to year—school districts where salaries are so low that teachers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the district in which they teach. Research studies began to show (see here and here) that the growth of school privatization is draining the budgets of local school districts where charters have expanded and vouchers are sending money to pay private school tuition, often for children who have always attended private and religious schools and never attended the public school losing money to the vouchers.  Reports (here, here, and here) have surfaced about widespread fraud in charter schools, the high rate of instability as charters shut down sometimes mid-school year, and punitive discipline programs that violate students’ rights in unregulated private and charter schools.

Today Democrats have a better understanding of what it means for children and families that private voucher schools are not regulated by law and that state legislators designing charter school enabling legislation cared more about experimenting and innovating than protecting students’ rights. Like the rest of us, Democrats can think of real life examples when we read this warning from the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Maybe Democrats have also paid attention to a book by Chris Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, and his wife, Sarah, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  In 2014, the Lubienskis published a book reporting on their research showing a public school advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experience in the home… (A)fter further investigation and more targeted analysis, the results held up.  And they held up (or were more ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming.  That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices….” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, p. xvii)

Biden’s 2020 Public Education Plan

Today Joe Biden and other Democrats are responding to the growing evidence that the past two decades of test-based school accountability and experiments with neoliberal school privatization have not accomplished what was originally promised. Today millions of the nation’s poorest children continue to be left behind. Biden has released an education plan which sets out to improve the public schools which serve 90 percent of America’s children and prioritizes equity in the public schools.  Biden’s plan promises that if Biden is elected, he will ensure the federal government: “Invests in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.'” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

2020 Democratic Platform on Public Education

And Biden is not merely some kind of maverick among Democrats. There has been a significant turn across the Democratic Party, which has left test-based accountability and school privatization behind. The Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles as its educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been
neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Roughly six in 10 jobs require at least some education beyond high school, and yet the ever-rising cost of college tuition and fees leaves higher education out of reach—or saddles students with a lifetime of debt… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee every child can receive a great education. To this end, we support K-12 instruction in civics and climate literacy. We will support evidence-based programs and pedagogical approaches, including assessments that consider the well-being of the whole student and recognize the range of ways students can demonstrate learning. We will reimagine our education system guided by the stakeholders and qualified, first-class, well-trained, passionate educators who know these issues best: young people, educators, parents, and community leaders. Democrats fundamentally believe our education system should prepare all our students—indeed, all of us—for college, careers, lifelong learning, and to be informed, engaged citizens of our communities, our country, and our planet.”

Second Judge Blocks Flow of CARES Act Dollars to Private Schools. Will Public Schools Ever See the Money Congress Intended for Them?

While the Republican Party announced the themes of the Republican Convention—“Monday is ‘Land of Promise,’ Tuesday is ‘Land of Opportunity,’ Wednesday is ‘Land of Heroes’ and Thursday is ‘Land of Greatness.'”—the Convention instead dramatized a very old theme: the difference between appearance and reality.  Producers, including people from The Apprentice, put together a spectacular show draped in flags. Their purpose: to distract, distort, and dissemble.

The Convention hardly touched on education policy. But last night in his acceptance speech, the President claimed he will “expand charter schools and provide school choice for every family in America.” Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Tim Scott, (R-SC) also extolled school choice as the future of education, even as, ironically, President Trump himself and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are demanding that the nation’s 90,000 public schools reopen as the only path to getting America’s parents back to work. Trump and DeVos certainly haven’t been counting on their favorite patchwork of charter schools and private schools to accomplish their systemic goal. The convention’s primary education speaker, Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in an anti-teachers union case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, not surprisingly, attacked teachers unions. Although she claimed that the unions “are subverting our republic, so they undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order,” you will remember that instead a wave of #Red4Ed strikes during 2018-2019 pushed states like West Virginia and Oklahoma to increase school funding at least a little bit and forced Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago to address unreasonable conditions including class sizes of 40 students and a dearth of school counselors in public schools serving concentrations of our nation’s poorest students.

While the Republicans held their convention, Betsy DeVos herself wasn’t having such a good week. She was left off the Convention agenda, and on Tuesday, the Savannah Morning News reported that she visited a reopened public school in Forsyth County, Georgia, where she made a speech: “I think it’s been good that schools are committed to reopening… I know there have been a couple of schools that have had more incidences of students with the virus.  The CDC has been very helpful in providing a lot of information and recommendations for how to go about going back to school., and we highly suggest referencing them.” The newspaper countered DeVos’s comment with an analysis by Georgia State University public health professor, Dr. Harry J. Heiman: “According to the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, we are the second worst state in the country for coronavirus transmission… To suggest that not having a mask mandate is a responsible approach, especially for older students, reflects Secretary DeVos’ lack of understanding about both CDC guidelines and the measures necessary to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

And on Monday, a Florida judge blocked a requirement announced on July 6 by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that public schools reopen five days a week for any families who do not opt for virtual learning.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that Corcoran threatened any districts refusing to reopen with a loss of state funding.  Trump and DeVos’s pressure on governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, has in this case created confusion just as schools are trying to manage the complexities of educating children in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic.  Strauss quotes Orange County school board member Karen Castor Dentel: “We were under threat of losing our funding and forced to develop models that are illogical and not based on what’s best for kids.  But we had to go forward…. I wish the ruling came sooner.  Not just that our kids are back in school but in the whole planning stages.  We were planning another model that was developmentally and educationally sound and we had to scrap that.”  And to add more confusion: DeSantis says he intends to appeal the judge’s ruling.

But the most important public education news is that the second judge this week has now blocked Betsy DeVos’s binding guidance that drove school districts to set aside more than expected federal CARES Act dollars for private schools.

Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “A federal judge in California on Wednesday halted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ effort to boost emergency coronavirus relief for private school students. The court ruling blocks DeVos from implementing or enforcing her rule in at least eight states and some of the nation’s largest public school districts. The secretary’s policy requires public school districts  to send a greater share of their CARES Act… pandemic assistance funding to private school students than is typically required under federal law.  U.S. District Judge James Donato’s order prevents DeVos from carrying out her policy in a large swath of the country: Michigan, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia as well as for public school districts in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco.”

Just last Friday, another federal judge in Washington state, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, issued a similar preliminary injunction blocking Betsy DeVos’s binding guidance that federal CARES Act dollars be diverted from the public schools serving poor children to cover the educational needs of students in private schools regardless of the private school students’ family income.

In the statutory language of the CARES Act, Congress directed that CARES Act public education relief be distributed in accordance with the method of the Title I Formula, which awards federal funds to supplement educational programming in public school districts serving concentrations of low-income children. Public school districts receiving Title I dollars are also expected to provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within their district boundaries. In the binding guidance she imposed in July, DeVos demanded that per-pupil CARES Act relief for private schools be based on each private school’s full enrollment, not merely on the number of the private school students who qualify for additional services because their families are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa elaborates on the meaning of Betsy DeVos’s binding rule, whose enforcement two federal district court judges have now blocked: “The Education Department’s interim final rule, publicized in June and formally issued in July, pushes school districts to reserve money under the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus stimulus plan, for services to all local private school students, irrespective of their backgrounds. That represents a major departure from how education law typically governs that arrangement, in which federal money for what’s known as ‘equitable services’ goes to disadvantaged, at-risk private school students.”

Stratford explores what this week’s court rulings will mean: “The pair of rulings amounts to a major setback for DeVos as she seeks to oversee the roughly $16 billion pot of emergency assistance Congress laid out for K-12 schools in the CARES Act in March… The Trump administration argues that it has the authority to create policy dictating public distribution of the funding to private school students because the CARES Act is ambiguous on that point.  But the two judges disagree… Donato ruled that DeVos’ policy is likely to be struck down because she lacks the legal authority to impose her own conditions on coronavirus relief funding for K-12 schools. The judge said Congress’ intent ‘is plain as day’ for how CARES Act funding should be distributed to schools. The judge also said the coronavirus relief law ‘unambiguously’ instructs the funding to be distributed to private school students in the typical manner under federal law based on the number of low-income students.”

For good reason, public school districts are celebrating these two court decisions blocking DeVos’s action to assist private schools at public school expense. But many serious questions remain. The money Congress awarded last March was supposed to enhance learning opportunities for low income students as schools suddenly shut down. The Cares Act relief is the only federal coronavirus assistance Congress has passed for school districts, and the assumption has been that any dollars left from last spring would help school districts plan for this fall. How much of the money that was sent to private schools has already been spent? Is it even possible to recover all of the funding the judges now say was illegally sent to private schools? How much can be recovered for the public school districts that desperately need it?

Both Judge Rothstein in Washington state and Judge Donato in California blocked enforcement of DeVos’ binding guidance with preliminary injunctions while litigation proceeds. How long will further court deliberations delay the resolution of the issue?  Will these cases move through the courts in time for school districts to use the money for safely opening schools this fall?  Will Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education appeal any final federal court decision if it invalidates the rule she issued in July?  If courts eventually throw out DeVos’s rule in the states and school districts represented in these cases, will DeVos’s binding guidance eventually stop being enforced for other states and districts? Schools need money now to reconfigure ventilation systems and hire additional required bus drivers to add bus routes for the purpose of keeping buses less crowded.  And they need additional federal assistance to prevent the layoffs of teachers, counselors, and special education aides right now as state allocations for school funding  are collapsing in the recession.

In this Republican Convention week, as President Trump and Mike Pence formally launched their campaign for a second term, the Trump administration has politicized and failed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that we all know children would benefit from being in class, in-person with with their teachers and their peers, public schools in most places are opening on-line only, because the virus is uncontained.  Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education have created confusion about the availability of CARES Act relief, and the Trump administration and the Republican U.S. Senate have shown no propensity to provide added federal assistance unless school districts agree to reopen in-person for the fall semester.

While Republicans threw a splashy party this week to distract, distort and dissemble, most public schools remain closed and Trump administration policy is chaotic and confused.

Republican Plutocrats Hold a Convention that Fans Fear, Racism and Rage

Despite its sensational title, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, Let Them Eat Tweets, is a basic and thorough examination of what we are watching in this week’s Republican Convention. Hacker is a respected professor of political science at Yale and Pierson at the University of California at Berkeley. Their new book, published on July 7, is important for its careful analysis of what has happened to today’s Republican Party.

Hacker and Pierson explain that Republicans have, for years now, been pursuing an agenda that promotes extreme economic inequality—a political strategy unlikely to be popular with voters. But they have figured out a way to win elections by divisively hyping rage, racism and fear: “This book is our answer to the ‘how’ question. As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.  Encouraging white backlash and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media. When and where that proved insufficient, it adopted a ruthless focus on altering electoral rules, maximizing the sway of its base and minimizing the influence of the rest of the electorate through a variety of anti-democratic tactics, from voter disenfranchisement to extreme partisan gerrymandering, to laws and practices opening the floodgates to big money… In short Republicans used white identity to defend wealth inequality.  They undermined democracy to uphold plutocracy.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)

Hacker and Pierson remind us: “The tax cuts of 2017—passed after a presidential campaign in which the Republican standard-bearer suggested he would turn the GOP into a ‘worker’s party’—delivered more than 80 percent of their largesse to the top 1 percent.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)  To provide cover for an agenda that exclusively benefits wealthy Americans and the stock market, “the GOP proved unusually skilled at creating durable shared identities that motivated citizens, and then getting those citizens to show up, not just on election day, but whenever big shows of strength were needed.  These were groups, in short, that could rally their troops, creating sharp lines between friend and foe and instilling a sense of threat.  And what best rallied those troops, they discovered, was outrage.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 78)  Hacker and Pierson explore the political roles of a long list of GOP-Trump allies—the Christian right, the National Rifle Association, talk radio shock-jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Sean Hannity, Breitbart and its provocateurs. “The false narratives boosted by right-wing media generally have two characteristics: they incite tribalism and they escalate a sense of threat.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 103)

And so… As we watch the Republican Convention on television this week, the NY TimesPaul Krugman warns: “If you get your information from administration officials or Fox News, you probably believe that millions of undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent votes, even though actual voter fraud hardly ever happens; that Black Lives Matter protests, which with some exceptions have been remarkably nonviolent, have turned major cities into smoking ruins; and more. Why this fixation on phantom menaces?… Trump… can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try… What he… can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices…”

The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank describes the Republican Convention as “a veritable festival of fear—made all the more intriguing because it… (is) delivered by the incumbent president’s party, much of it from an ornate hall near the White House, the Mellon Auditorium, named for a robber baron. Four years ago, Trump pledged to end ‘American carnage.’  Now he’s asking for another four years to put an end to all the additional American carnage he created in the first four years. The difference is his leadership has turned the dystopian America Trump pictured into more of a reality.”

And Milbank mentions something that ought to make us all stop and think: “The party officially resolved to ‘adjourn without adopting a new platform.'”  For MarketWatch, Mike Murphy reports: “The Republican National Committee will go without a traditional policy platform… saying instead that it ‘will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-First agenda.'”

The real, but little little mentioned, Republican platform—what is underneath all the sensationalism and fear mongering—is, as Hacker and Pierson document extensively, the protection of tax cuts for plutocrats and the growth of the stock market. The real Republican platform neglects the millions who are unemployed in a quiet but deep recession caused by COVID-19 driven business closures. It is an agenda that has prevented Congress from passing a second relief bill that would have helped school districts implement precautions to make reopening schools much safer, increased needed funding for Medicaid and SNAP (foodstamps), and provided needed assistance for state and local governments to protect the jobs of school teachers, school nurses and healthcare workers during what is expected to be a long recession.

When he was asked his priorities for the next four years, the President threw out an off the cuff remark: “I’d love to see school choice… Education is going to be a big factor for me.” It’s hard to believe that Trump really cares at all about the education of America’s children.  His education secretary Betsy DeVos, however,  has persistently advocated for expanding marketplace school choice by supporting privately operated charter schools and advocating for vouchers which divert tax dollars to pay for private school tuition, while neither of these priorities has been seriously expanded by Congress during Trump’s first term.

What is clear, however, is that Trump has paid no attention to the needs of the nation’s 90,000 public schools. Never has his neglect been so visible as it is right now. His administration has failed to enact a consistent plan to contain the coronavirus at the same time Trump is demanding that schools reopen. This is despite high infection rates; despite problems with making school transportation safe; and despite challenges posed by old school buildings that are heated in many places with steam radiators, lack ventilation systems altogether, and depend on opening classroom windows.

NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes powerfully about her dilemma as a New York City public school parent this month: “There are only two ways out of pandemic-driven insecurity: great personal wealth or a functioning government.  Right now, many of us who’d thought we were insulated from American precarity are finding out just how frightening the world can be when you don’t have either.” “The abandonment starts, of course, at the top, with a president who has refused to take the necessary steps to get the pandemic under control. By blundering into the debate over schools, issuing threats and pressuring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its guidelines, the administration has destroyed many people’s confidence that schools can be reopened safely, even in places like New York City that have low transmission rates. Republican senators have abandoned families by refusing to pass new funding to allow schools to improve ventilation and make other urgently required upgrades.”

The Republican Party agenda—the plutocrats’ agenda described by Hacker and Pierson,—is not a public school agenda. Here, from educational historian David Tyack, is one of the things that is missing from the priorities of the Republican Party:

“I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)