The education plan Elizabeth Warren released on Monday is urgently important. Today, I am not going to focus on the math—whether Warren’s plan can be funded by the wealth tax she has also proposed. Neither am I going to speculate about whether, politically, she might be able to get Congress—and in the case of some of her proposals, the fifty state legislatures—to enact her ideas.
The paper she published on Monday matters, I believe, for a very different reason. Warren articulates a set of principles that turn away from three decades of neoliberal, corporate school reform—the idea, according to The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner, that “free markets really do work best… that government is inherently incompetent… and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market.” Competition is at the heart of the system, all based on high-stakes tests, and punishments for the schools whose scores fall behind.
In her education plan, Warren endorses the civic and democratic principles which, from the nineteenth century until the late 1980s, defined our nation’s commitment to a comprehensive system of public education. Her plan incorporates the idea that while public schools are not perfect, they are the optimal way for our complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures, by law, the rights and addresses the needs of all children. And she acknowledges the massive scale of the public commitment required to maintain an equitable education system that fairly serves approximately 50 million children and adolescents across cities and towns and sparsely populated rural areas.
I urge you to read Elizabeth Warren’s education plan. Here I will highlight what I believe are her most important suggestions for overcoming the bipartisan, neoliberal, corporate reform agenda, formalized in 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act, but dominating policy for more than a decade before that. Corporate education reform has driven federal policy in education during five recent administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.
Warren emphatically demands that school privatization and the corruption that has accompanied the expansion of vouchers and charters be stopped. This is an improvement from the position Warren advocated fifteen years ago. The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein reminds readers that in a book she published in 2003, Warren suggested a universal voucher program to expand choices for parents, but in recent years, Goldstein points out, Warren seems to have paid more attention to the impact on public schools of the expansion of school choice: “(I)n 2016, Ms. Warren, then in her first term as a senator from Massachusetts, spoke out against a ballot referendum that would have raised the cap on the number of charters that could open each year in her home state.”
In the plan she released on Monday, Warren begins the section on school privatization by condemning the ways charter schools and vouchers damage public schools: “To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools. Efforts to expand the footprint of charter schools, often without even ensuring that charters are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools, strain the resources of school districts and leave students behind, primarily students of color… More than half the states allow public schools to be run by for-profit companies, and corporations are leveraging their market power and schools’ desire to keep pace with rapidly changing technology to extract profits at the expense of vulnerable students. This is wrong. We have a responsibility to provide great neighborhood schools for every student. We should stop the diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits—which are vouchers by another name. We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools.”
Warren names the reforms needed to rein in school privatization:
- She is the only candidate so far who explicitly advocates ending the federal Charter Schools Program, which has used tax dollars as a sort of venture capital fund to stimulate the expansion of charter schools with grants to states and charter management companies. Her declaration is emphatic: “End federal funding for the expansion of charter schools: The Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), a series of federal grants established to promote new charter schools, has been an abject failure… As President, I would eliminate this charter school program and end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools.”
- Like other candidates, Warren proposes to ban for-profit charter schools, but she goes farther by opposing all the arrangements by which nonprofit charter schools are now, quite legally, managed by huge for-profit ventures: “Ban for-profit charter schools: Our public schools should benefit students, not the financial or ideological interests of wealthy patrons like the DeVos and Walton families. I will fight to ban for-profit charter schools and charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies… Many so-called nonprofit schools—including charter schools—operate alongside closely held, for-profit service providers. Others are run by for-profit companies that siphon off profits from students and taxpayers… (M)y plan would ban self-dealing in nonprofit schools to prevent founders and administrators from funneling resources to service providers owned or managed by their family members.”
In her new plan, Warren also addresses the funding crisis in the public schools which serve our nation’s poorest children. She begins by acknowledging the efforts of schoolteachers—on strike this year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles to Oakland and ongoing right now in Chicago—to call attention to their underfunded schools that cannot afford to provide the basics that more privileged American public school students take for granted: “(O)ur country’s educators have taken matters into their own hands—not only in the classroom, but also in the fight for the future of our country. Teachers have been battling for public investment over privatization, and for shared prosperity over concentrated wealth and power. Educators… across the country have carried the #RedforEd movement from the streets to state capitol buildings, striking not just to get the compensation they deserve, but to condemn the diversion of funding from public schools to private ones, to increase funding to reduce class sizes and improve their schools, and to expand services that will make their students’ lives safer and more stable.”
Warren’s proposals for school funding equity are extensive.
- Warren would quadruple the federal investment in Title I to better support public school serving children in poverty. And, in contrast to programs like Race to the Top which incentivized the expansion of charter schools, Warren would offer federal funding incentives to states if they would make their own school funding formulas more equitable.
- She would federally fund 40 percent of the cost for school districts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Education Act. That is what Congress promised in 1975 when the law was passed. Last year, writes Warren, Congress funded the law at a paltry 15 percent.
- Warren endorses the goal of making 25,000 public schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools by 2030. “Community Schools are the hubs of their community. Through school coordinators, they connect students and families with community partners to provide opportunities, support, and services inside and outside the school. These schools center around wraparound services,” incorporate medical and social services, and provide expanded learning time and after school programs.
- She commits to expanding the capacity of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all students are treated fairly under the law. She also commits to providing federal funding for the kind of magnet school and transportation programs which three decades ago enabled school districts to voluntarily integrate, both racially and economically.
- Warren commits to strengthening public school programs for the 10 percent of American students who are English language learners, to ensuring that the needs of immigrant students are fully addressed, and to supporting American Indian students in public schools.
As part of a section of the report devoted to, “providing a warm, safe, and nurturing school climate for all our kids,” Warren buries one of her most important principles: “As President, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”
It is difficult to imagine how Warren would accomplish this goal, because high-stakes testing as the measure for school quality is, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, embedded to varying degrees in the fifty state laws. It is, however, refreshing to have a Presidential candidate strongly advocate for eliminating high stakes testing as the way we evaluate schools and schoolteachers across the United States. Half a century of academic research, most recently culminating in a new study by Stanford University professor, Sean Reardon, has demonstrated that a school’s or school district’s standardized test scores do not measure the quality of a school or the teachers in a school. Instead standardized test scores correlate almost perfectly with the median income of families in the school or district. No Child Left Behind mandated that all public school children be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school, that their scores be used to judge their schools, and that the schools unable quickly to raise scores be punished. Race to the Top then demanded that states tie teachers’ evaluations to the same test scores. Although the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, eased some of this, a test-and-punish regime based on mandated high-stakes testing still drives school accountability across the United States.
Warren is proposing to turn around decades of policy that punishes public schools and the nation’s poorest students and their teachers. None of the other Democratic candidates for President has released such a comprehensive plan. I hope the release of Warren’s new plan will stimulate discussion of these issues among Democrats running for President. In the debates so far, none of the moderators has asked the candidates about their policies regarding public education. It’s time for some serious conversation about the public schools.
(This blog recently named seven important principles candidates for President ought to embrace to address the many ways charter schools damage our public schools.)