After reading John Merrow’s reflection on what is happening in the Trump-DeVos Department of Education, I woke up in the night thinking of Bob Dylan. John Merrow covered education for the PBS NewsHour for decades, and he just visited Washington, D.C., where he talked with old friends and contacts who see significant developments at the U.S. Department of Education.
Merrow describes the movement of education policy in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, but he is definitely not depicting a new spirit or a gathering momentum. This is definitely not a “the times, they are a-changin” moment.
I will, however, give Bob Dylan credit for naming what I think John Merrow has noticed: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Here is John Merrow: “In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an ‘education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.’ His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.5% or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives… However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education… I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that ‘Lamar Alexander is really in charge.’… They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy. So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.”
In all this John Merrow is able to derive some optimism: “Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration. That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department…. even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them. Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that state officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts… So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts? Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?”
I wonder what gives John Merrow quite so much optimism about local control. Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, there has definitely been a gross imbalance toward federal power, of course, with the test-and-punish strictures of the federal government conditioning the evaluations of school teachers and even the survival of particular schools on schools’ capacity to raise the test scores quickly. Federal law has demanded accountability even though the federal government itself entirely failed to build the capacity of the schools that have struggled. Congress neglected to demand that funding between rich and poor school districts be equalized and failed as well to address the conditions that concentrated poverty imposes on the schools in our poorest communities.
Restoring some federal-state-local balance would be a very good thing. But it is wrong to imagine that if the federal role fades, school improvement will automatically evolve. The prophetic warning of the late Frederick Douglass should staunch our optimism:“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
If the federal government’s role in education policy dissipates into incompetence and in-fighting, other influential factions across the states and within local school districts are still likely to manage public schools in ways that further privilege the children of the powerful unless democratic pressure persists.
Here are merely two examples of how privileged interests are driving school policy.
The first example is at the local level. On Wednesday, the NY Times published a column by Damon Hewitt, now the director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hewitt protests the injustice of the way New York City selects the students for its “eight ‘specialized’ city public high schools that include Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. About 28,000 students took the multiple-choice test required for admission, and 5,078 did well enough to secure a place. This system, while it might seem meritocratic, in fact leads to a shocking inequity. Even though black and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of public high school students in the city, they routinely represent only 10 percent of those offered admission to the specialized high schools. This year the city offered admission to only 524 black and Latino students. The numbers are even lower at some of the most desired schools, such as Stuyvesant, which has space for nearly 1,000 freshmen and offered admission to only 13 black students… The sole criterion is a student’s score on the multiple-choice admissions test.”
Everybody knows, or should know, that test scores, in the aggregate, reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.) In New York City, parents influential enough to do so scramble in Kindergarten and at the middle school transition to get their children into schools that are thought to prepare students for admission to the elite high schools. And in New York City everybody knows that students whose parents can afford it are tutored for the admissions test for the elite high schools. Hewitt concludes: “If the (DeBlasio) administration is truly committed to admitting black and Latino students who deserve to be in specialized high schools, it must find the courage to disrupt the status quo and ask the harder questions… What if the school district… and the State Legislature… started from scratch to create an admissions process that rewards those who do well in middle school? What if school officials and the public actually believed there are many talented black and Latino students who can succeed in an elite setting?”
The second example is the state-by-state policy promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education: the creation of state report cards that award letter grades based on standardized test scores to school districts and individual schools. Some had pushed that the federal rules for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to create summative ratings (like A-F school grades) for schools and districts in their state ESSA accountability plans. Even though the Obama ESSA accountability rules were just scrapped by the new Congress, Education Week recently reported that at least 18 states have or are developing some form of A-F grading system for their schools: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Because, in the aggregate, test scores are highly correlated with family income and the overall economic level of neighborhoods where children live (See here and here.), such letter grades are currently branding and stigmatizing the schools in poorer communities with lower grades—ratings that are widely advertised on real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia. The assignment of letter grades to schools is condemning schools and school districts in the poorest rural areas, and redlining school districts in big cities and inner ring suburbs. In metropolitan areas the school district grades—legitimized because they are created by state governments themselves—are incentivizing parents to choose the so-called “excellent” school districts in wealthy outer suburbs whose schools are A-rated. Across cities and their suburbs, the letter grades are driving residential segregation by both family income and race.
John Merrow has called our attention to the reality that in federal education policy, something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. We can be sure of one thing, however. A vacuum of power—even if it happens due to federal in-fighting or incompetence—is likely to serve the children of the powerful and not children who have historically been left out or left behind. For those of us who care about justice in public schools, it will be essential to figure out exactly what is happening and then to press hard for policies that expand opportunity for the poorest students and children who have long been marginalized by their race or ethnicity.