In “60 Minutes” Interview, DeVos Demonstrates Failure to Grasp Her Own Department’s Mission

On Sunday evening, reporter Lesley Stahl interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview and read the transcript.

Betsy DeVos is not a person of action. In the interview she describes what she believes are the symptoms of education malaise across America and then she prescribes two treatments: more school choice and less federal regulation. DeVos understands herself as an undoer rather than a doer.  When Stahl asks her what she is most proud of accomplishing during her first year as Education Secretary, DeVos replies: “We’ve been looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.”

Yesterday President Donald Trump established a Federal Commission on School Safety, and he put DeVos in charge.  The Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker quotes DeVos on the urgent need for this new Commission: “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste… No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”

In the 60 Minutes interview, however, DeVos doesn’t appear to plan to do more than convene the school safety commission. Here is  the interchange between Stahl and DeVos on DeVos’s role as chair of the new school safety commission:

Stahl: “Do you see yourself as a leader in this—in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?”

DeVos : “I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing. See there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”

Stahl: “Do you feel a sense of urgency:”

DeVos: “Yes.”

Stahl: “Cause this sounds like talking. Instead of acting.”

DeVos: “No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.”

When Stahl asks DeVos directly whether teachers should be armed, a position Trump has endorsed but the majority of teachers have strongly opposed, DeVos waffles: “That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in this way. But for those who are—who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered. But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.”

In perhaps the most important part of the interview, Stahl probes Secretary DeVos’s ideas about what can be done to improve public education in America. DeVos pronounces what has become her standard answer: “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there.  I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices.  We need all parents to have those choices.”

Stahl follows up with the essential question: “Okay.  But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working?  What about those kids?”  “Why take money away from the school that’s not working? ”

DeVos answers that school choice imposes competition, which, she believes improves schools: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in…school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems… Well, in places where there have been—where there is—a lot of choice that’s been introduced… studies show that then there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually—the results get better, as well.”

Stahl: “Now, has that happened in Michigan?… We’re in Michigan.  This is your home state… Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”

DeVos: “I don’t know.  Overall, I—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”

Stahl: “The public schools here are doing worse than they did… Have you seen the really bad schools?  Maybe to try to figure out what they’re doing?”

DeVos: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

Stahl: “Maybe you should.”

DeVos: “Maybe I should.  Yes.”

About the undoing of the federal role in education, what DeVos calls federal overreach, she is clearer: “Yeah. We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.” While DeVos has been very busy weakening regulation of for-profit colleges, federal student loan processors and debt collection agencies, the discussion in the 60 Minutes interview centers on the weakening of civil rights protections for students in K-12 schools. Stahl mentions DeVos’s rescinding the guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, weakening a rule to prevent disproportionate discipline applied across racial groups, changing Title IX guidelines to focus more on the rights of the accused rather than the accuser.

DeVos seems unable to grasp that the protection of students’ rights by law must apply—and has always historically applied—to protected classes of students, for example, by race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender expression, and religion.  Here is DeVos responding to Stahl’s questions about the Department of Education’s designated role of protecting students’ civil rights: “We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment.  And all students means all students… Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids… I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”

When Stahl presses DeVos to clarify exactly how she understands the rules and how the Department of Education will ensure that the Department will fully enforce civil rights protections of the rights of the victims in sexual assault cases, DeVos replies: “I don’t know.  I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

None of this, of course, is new or shocking. Our Secretary of Education is extremely consistent. She is an educational libertarian who once declared in a major policy address: “Government really sucks.”  However, in the area of K-12 schools, there are several primary roles assigned to the U.S. Department of Education that are being undermined or ignored under DeVos’s leadership.  DeVos is systematically undoing the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

And she is not doing anything to address the issues we know are denying opportunity for millions of our nation’s poorest children.  In a nation that is increasingly segregated by income—with the rich sequestered in privileged suburbs and the poor trapped in particular neighborhoods of our cities and in remote rural areas— DeVos has done nothing to increase Title I, the Department’s primary program for helping schools that serve concentrations of poor children. Nor has she ever discussed ways the Department of Education could incentivize state governments to improve the equitable distribution of state aid to schools. Nor has she ever mentioned partnering with other Departments to develop multi-pronged efforts to ameliorate concentrated family poverty itself.

Her interview with 60 Minutes pretty much describes DeVos’s philosophy of government: undoing and not doing. She fails to grasp that in education, the definition of justice is to distribute opportunity fairly to all children. Government, through the law and the administration of the law by executive departments like Education, is supposed to help with that.  Individuals—the people DeVos always mentions—lack the power to secure justice for themselves.  And in DeVos’s imagined ideal education marketplace, the least powerful individuals will continue to lack the power to compete. DeVos clearly does not grasp that government agencies like the Department of Education are charged with the mission of protecting, by law, the children who have the least power.


Schott Foundation’s New “Loving Cities Index” Rejects Decades-Long, Test-and-Punish School Policy

Here is Dr. John Jackson, President & CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, announcing the Foundation’s new Loving Cities Index: “Considering the social and political moment, the public, private and philanthropic sectors must go beyond the normal separate silos approach to shift from a standards-based agenda where we only analyze shortcomings to a supports-based agenda where we focus on the resources needed for all students to overcome obstacles created by inequity and achieve high outcomes.”

What is our social and political moment that makes Schott’s new initiative so important?

Last month in Parkland, Florida, there was a tragedy—a school shooting in which 17 adolescents and adults were killed by a former student with a semi-automatic rifle. An outpouring of grief has turned the attention of the nation, as it should, to the insanity of the absence of restrictions on the possession of guns.

One cannot compare tragedies, of course, but it is essential that this latest tragedy not totally displace concern about another calamity happening right in front of us, but invisible nonetheless because we choose not to see it.  This one also involves students at school.  Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the release of the Kerner Commission Report, Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute published a brief reminding us that economic inequality, residential segregation by income and race, and inequitable school funding improved briefly in the decade after the Kerner Report, but began once again to rise after 1980:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Half a century ago Jonathan Kozol named these same problems that kill children’s spirits and block their opportunities “death at an early age.”  Today these circumstances affect several million young people as our unequal society awards high honors to wealthy suburban high schools for producing National Merit Scholars and brands the schools in our cities’ poorest school districts with “D”s and “F”s on so-called school report cards issued by state governments.

In a must-read book published last fall—The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better—Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the catastrophic mistake in the test-and-punish school reform that has reigned for the past two decades: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Our society has chosen to blame and punish our poorest schools—shutting them down, moving the students around to other schools, instituting privatization—instead of investing to support the teachers, make classes smaller, enrich curriculum and provide more counselors, along with trying to do something to alleviate poverty itself.  The Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index calls for a cross-sector effort to overturn today’s public policy that tests, punishes, and brands schools and teachers and children in our poorest communities.

What makes the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index so important?

The Loving Cities Index Report redefines the problem of children left behind: “(T)wo facts remain true at a systems level: the public school system remains the primary institution of education for over 90% of students in America; and parental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not type of public school, labor contract, or brand of assessment.  For far too long, efforts to improve educational outcomes have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms and teachers, while ignoring the large and growing body of research that confirms what parents and families have long known—at the district level, health, housing, and parental employment opportunities are all intimately linked to high school and college attainment…  (A) Stanford University analysis of reading and math test sores from across the country found that, ‘Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.'”

The Loving Cities Index project encourages bridging services across schools and communities: “(T)he U.S. public school system continues to be our best hub to link families and students to the supports needed to thrive from birth… Providing students an opportunity to learn from birth is as much—if not more—the responsibility of mayors, county commissioners and city council members as it is superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers, and parents.”

The report continues: “A  new day requires that we no longer promote the false narrative that the American public education system is a failing proposition, which inaccurately places blame and policy focus on regulating principals, educators, students and parents… A new day requires that we take a more student-centered approach and commit to improving living environments as well as learning environments.”

The project begins with 10 cities judged on 24 indicators representing supports necessary for academic and economic success…”Ideally, we believe cities should achieve a  minimum of 80% of possible points for indicators of healthy living and learning to be considered a model Loving City….”  Today, with 52%, Minneapolis and Long Beach are the highest scorers, with Buffalo at 50% a close second.

Schott’s Loving Cities Index rates cities by CARE indicators–health resources and physical environment (prenatal health, in-school support staff, clean air, healthy food, health insurance, parks, and mental health), and rates schools by COMMITMENT indicators—school policies and practices fostering the development of each student’s unique potential (preschool suspension alternatives, K-12 suspension alternatives, school-to-prison alternatives, K-12 expulsion alternatives, anti-bullying, and early childhood education).

In a preface to the report, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of Repairers of the Breach explains: “A large and growing body of research shows a clear connection between economic and racial inequality and opportunity gaps in areas like housing, health care and community involvement… The Loving Cities Index provides a frame to align policy-makers, philanthropy, and community members around a supports-based agenda, recognizing that the standards-based approach that has dominated education reform… for decades has failed to provide students an opportunity to learn.”

Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education Quietly Rolls Back Wide Array of Important Regulations

Betsy DeVos’s record at the U.S. Department of Education has been marked by passage of no major policy initiatives—no new programs to help public schools and not even any major federal initiatives to promote her pet cause, privatization of public education.  Her accomplishments have been behind the scenes as she has begun dismantling civil rights protections and taken a series of steps to undermine protection for college students, especially those who are paying for school with federal student loans.

At the end of February, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts released DeVos Watch, Year One: Failing America’s Students. These two members of Congress sharply criticize Congress’s confirmation of a woman they believe was unqualified to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Education: “She became Education Secretary despite having absolutely no experience as a school teacher, school administrator, or public official, and despite her long record of bankrolling politicians and supporting policies that are damaging to public education. She had no record or experience related to the Education Department’s job of managing the $1 trillion federal student loan program.”

Warren and Clark condemn DeVos’s actions to reduce civil rights protections for students by “reversing, rescinding, overturning, or delaying” guidance and regulations that protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence, and that protect transgender students. She threatens to delay the implementation of an Obama Department rule designed to prevent what has been widespread over-representation due to racial bias of students of color in special education programs. She has also weakened investigation of civil rights violations after the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights receives formal complaints.

Warren and Clark’s deepest worries about Betsy Devos, however, involve higher education and actions DeVos has taken to deregulate for-profit colleges and to weaken protections for students in the federal student loan program.Warren and Clark cite examples when DeVos hired insiders from the for-profit college sector to fill positions tasked with regulating for profit colleges. For two months after DeVos hired Robert Eitel as an assistant in the U.S. Department of Education, Eitel continued to serve as the Vice President for Regulatory Legal Services at for-profit Bridgepoint Education. Eventually Eitel recused himself from direct work with Bridgepoint, but, “he has been permitted to work on the Department’s delay and rewrite of Borrower Defense to Repayment regulations… which directly impact his former employer.”  Taylor Hansen, who served for several months under DeVos before he was forced to resign, had worked previously as lobbyist for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. Before DeVos hired him, Hansen had lobbied for years against the very rules he was expected to enforce as a member of DeVos’s staff.

Warren and Clark detail DeVos’s actions to weaken oversight of for-profit higher education and of the enormous college loan program:

  • While the Obama Department of Education had forbidden collection agencies from adding collection fees as long as borrowers in default had entered a repayment program, DeVos simply “withdrew this guidance.”
  • DeVos has delayed and denied relief under the Borrower Defense to Repayment rule. This rule, established in 1994, “provided relief from loan burdens in cases where colleges broke the law to get students to take out student loans and enroll.”  After Corinthian Colleges closed in 2015 and ITT Technical Institute closed in 2016, thousands of claims were filed.  The U.S. Department of Education settled 28,000 of these claims by January 20, 2017, but in the six months following DeVos’s confirmation as Education Secretary, the Department did not grant relief to any additional students who had filed complaints.  After a number of state attorneys general sued, the Department began processing claims, but “the Department denied an additional 8,600 applications from former Corinthian College students.” DeVos has delayed the implementation of Obama era Borrower Defense rules from July 2017 until July of 2019.
  •  DeVos has also delayed enforcement of the Gainful Employment rule by which Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Department of Education tied eligibility for funding to students’ employment outcomes to protect students from predatory for-profits whose programs are so inferior their graduates are unemployable. In January of 2018, write Warren and Clark, “the Department of Education proposed removing all penalties for low-performing programs.”
  • DeVos’s Department of Education has also eased accreditation of for-profit colleges.  John King, President Obama’s second Education Secretary, stopped recognizing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges as an approved accrediting organization due to the failure of two for-profits it had accredited: Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. “But on January 24, 2018, the Department accepted the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges’ petition to be reconsidered as a national accreditor….”
  • Warren and Clark describe an additional way DeVos’s Department of Education is easing up on for-profit colleges: “In recent years, several for-profit colleges have sought nonprofit status in order to skirt regulations, such as gainful employment requirements and rules meant to prevent for-profit colleges from receiving all of their revenue from the federal government… But under Secretary DeVos, the Department has pre-approved the sale of the troubled Education Management Corporation’s for-profit portfolio (including the Argosy University, South University, and much of the Art Institute systems) to the Dream Center Foundation… and has allowed Kaplan University’s acquisition by Purdue University.”

Finally there is the massive student loan program. Last summer, DeVos ended a long agreement between the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to share information and oversight of federal student loans and to investigate complaints about problems with loans at predatory colleges as well as problems with the contractors hired by the Department of Education to service loans and collect debt. Warren and Clark report: “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau currently has a pending lawsuit against Navient, the Department’s largest federal student loan servicing contractor, alleging that the company broke the law by creating obstacles for borrowers to repay loans, which harmed students and boosted the company’s profits.”

Warren and Clark report that DeVos is also working to block state-by-state oversight of student loan servicers. Michael Stratford explains in more detail at Politico: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is preparing to issue a declaration that companies collecting federal student loans are off limits for state lawmakers and regulators. The ‘notice of interpretation’ argues that only the federal government, not the states, has the authority to oversee federal student loan servicers…. That includes industry giants like Navient and Nelnet… The attempt by the Education and Justice departments to help the student loan industry pushes back against growing scrutiny from states—and even as the Trump administration has repeatedly called for giving states more control over education and other issues.  It also comes after the student loan industry has for months lobbied the federal government for protection from the state efforts to crack down on them… The department each year pays nearly $1 billion to a handful of student loan companies that collect the debt on behalf of the federal government. More than 42 million Americans owe roughly $1.4 trillion in outstanding federal student loans.”

Stratford reports that more than a dozen states have passed or are considering laws to regulate loan-processing companies. Many state attorneys general agree, “arguing that states have the right to oversee companies operating within their borders that collect loan payments from their residents.”  “Education Department officials late last year ordered the loan companies that work for the agency to avoid responding directly to information requests from third parties, which would include state regulators….”

While Warren and Clark’s report is wonkish, what is clear is that under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has quietly been weakening oversight of two very profitable sectors—for-profit colleges and the huge companies that process student loans and make collections on these loans. And in the area of public education, DeVos’s department has been weakening civil rights enforcement.  While all this re-working of the rules is relatively invisible, it is likely to touch the lives of millions of citizens.

Making the Invisible Visible: What the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Showed Us All

Yesterday morning the West Virginia Senate joined the House of Representatives in agreeing to a 5 percent raise for the state’s teachers, support staff, bus drivers and West Virginia state troopers.  School reopens today.  This is a good thing for the state’s children and for the state’s teachers. The downside is that the salary increases will come at the expense of $20 million in cuts to general services and Medicaid.

I keep thinking about watching West Virginia’s teachers on the picket line.

Did you notice how many teachers were involved in the strike? Twenty-thousand of them, according to the papers.  The masses of teachers in red t-shirts seemed overwhelming. The system of public education is enormous even in a relatively small state. So many lives were affected by the strike!

Did you notice that addressing the strike was so essential that the Governor and Legislature really had no choice but to meet the teachers’ demands? More than a quarter of a million students were without their schools for over a week.  More than a quarter of a million students without education, without a place to go during the day—many of them without the federally subsidized lunches and breakfasts for which they qualify because their families are poor.

Did you notice that when striking teachers were interviewed, they seemed connected to the students who were standing with them on the picket lines?  Did you notice the stories about teachers preparing lunches for their poorest students before the teachers left in the morning for the picket lines?

Did you notice the spirit and energy of West Virginia’s school teachers? They are just the sort of people a parent would seek for nurturing, stimulating, and educating their children.

Did you notice that most of West Virginia’s children were affected when the state’s public schools shut down?  I don’t know how many parochial schools there are in West Virginia, but it seemed that West Virginia’s school population reflects or exceeds the national average—with over 90 percent of the state’s students enrolled in public schools.

Did you notice that neither the teachers nor their students appear to be millionaires?  For most families in West Virginia, the public schools are what they have, what they are proud of.

Did you notice that nobody really argued that teachers in West Virginia were asking for an overly lavish raise? Neither the public nor members of the legislature seemed shocked at the request. Everybody seemed to agree that teachers should earn enough to be able to support their families and shouldn’t be forced to move to a nearby state to earn a fair salary. Before they finally settled, leaders in the West Virginia Senate argued the state didn’t have enough money to pay for the raises, but everybody pretty much agreed that teachers have been underpaid.

This strike brought our national attention back to what matters and, for me at least, highlighted the ridiculousness of that other public education agenda being promoted by our U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy De Vos. Here—amazingly— is what Betsy DeVos told the children last fall when she made a beginning-of-the-school-year visit to a school in Casper,Wyoming:  “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school.  And the year before that.  And the generation before that.  And the generation before that… It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures… Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”

Here are some of the ways West Virginia’s teachers confronted Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

Betsy DeVos regularly derides education systems. For DeVos, what really matters are individual parents who, she says, need to have school choice.  But… what I found myself noticing and admiring in West Virginia were the systems—not only the school system, set up across 55 counties, but also the system of teachers’ organizations who, despite a law that prohibits real teachers’ unions, organized and maintained an effective nine-day strike. Then there was the democratic system of government that made it possible for the teachers to make their case for more funding and better salaries and health insurance.

Betsy DeVos always prescribes school choice. But I have been to West Virginia, and I know that the state’s geography cannot support broad-based privatized school choice. The state is a web of tiny towns located in the mountain hollows as well as bigger towns and  a few small cities. When there have been attempts to consolidate high schools in some parts of West Virginia, impossible winding Appalachian mountain roads made bus routes impossible.

Last autumn in Casper, Betsy DeVos complained that public schools dampen dreams, dim horizons and deny futures. But that description doesn’t describe the teachers I have been watching during the West Virginia teachers’ strike.

As West Virginia’s teachers struck for fair salaries and health insurance coverage, they showed us why it is important to bring the national education conversation right back where it belongs—away from the libertarian ideology of Betsy DeVos—and back to the importance of society’s responsibility to provide adequately for its public schools. Here are merely some of the important policy questions underneath the debate in West Virginia’s statehouse.  Have we forgotten the role of government for providing essential services in a systematic way? Are we paying enough taxes at the state and federal levels to remunerate public servants fairly and provide more than the barest minimum for the absolutely essential services our society needs?  Are we abusing public sector workers when taxes are cut and the Supreme Court threatens to curtail their right to organize?

Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article on the West Virginia strike by Dana Goldstein, whose book, The Teacher Wars, traces the history of America’s teaching profession—all the public pressures on teachers and the role of teachers’ unions for fighting to ensure that teachers, educated as professionals, are paid a professional wage.  In yesterday’s NY Times article on this year’s West Virginia teachers’ strike, Goldstein reminds readers that in 1897 Chicago, teachers, “were asked to preside over classrooms of up to 60 children, many of whom could not speak English, in a city surging with immigrants and struggling to control rampant child labor and typhoid in the water.  All for the equivalent of $13,000 a year in today’s dollars.”

Goldstein describes the challenges facing the West Virginia teachers who have been on strike: “Almost every major (teachers’) strike… has come as teachers have been asked to shoulder society’s biggest challenges, from disease to racial inequality, and today in West Virginia, a drug crisis on top of a growing nationwide fear of bloodshed in the classroom.”

Goldstein quotes a high school English teacher from Martinsburg: “In West Virginia we deal with high levels of poverty and the opioid epidemic, but then there are the smaller things, like kids who come in and they don’t have support at home and they just need someone to care about them and love them.”

Jay O’Neal, a seventh-grade English teacher from Charleston, tells Goldstein: “I can’t tell you how many students we have being raised by grandparents because of parents’ drug addictions…  It’s just part of a broader problem teaching here, dealing with the effects of poverty.”

Goldstein adds: “While the state’s cost of living is in the middle of the pack, the state is poor. Its (2016) median household income of $43,385… placed it 49th in the nation, ahead of only Mississippi. West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and an opioid overdose death rate that is more than three times the national average. All of this plays out in the classroom.”

Goldstein believes one of the important accomplishments of the West Virginia teachers’ strike is that it has, once again, made the essentials visible to us: “Today in West Virginia, policymakers have their own ideas about how to improve schools. The state Department of Education has revamped vocational education, while the Republican-controlled Legislature has debated weakening teachers’ seniority protections and providing parents with tax incentives to pay for private school tuition. But striking teachers are asking that first, the state Legislature consider the basics: the salaries and benefits that they say will keep them from fleeing the state.”

Statewide W. VA Teachers’ Strike Should Remind Us to Appreciate What Teachers Do

On February 22, school teachers across all 55 county school districts in West Virginia shut down the state’s schools by going on strike. West Virginia’s teachers say they cannot afford to support their families. The strike involves about 20,000 teachers and over 250,000 students.

Here is Sarah Jaffe in the NY Times: Strikes as broad as the one in West Virginia are vanishingly rare. But when they do happen, the prove that our labor history is not that deeply buried… West Virginia’s teachers, along with the rest of the state’s government workers, never got the legal right to collective bargaining, yet even without that right, teachers and school service workers have united across a largely rural state… By rising up against austerity, they have set an example for the rest of the labor movement and made it clear that they fight for the rights of all workers rather than special treatment for a few.  The teachers were on strike as the oral arguments began last week in Janus v. AFSCME at the Supreme Court, a case that seems likely to push public workers across the country closer to the lack of protections West Virginians have.”

Jaffe believes that despite Janus, what is happening in West Virginia is a sign of hope: “(I)n West Virginia, where… the teachers are near the bottom of the national pay scale, teachers have no special privileges, no agency fees, no bargaining tables at all. Their unions are ‘associations’ that mostly aside from one other major strike in 1990, lobby for laws to win what other unions bargain over….” And yet West Virginia’s teachers have maintained solidarity for what today is the ninth day the strike has kept schools closed.

On Tuesday, February 27, Governor James C. Justice met with teachers and promised a 5 percent pay increase and a task force to explore ways to address rapidly rising health care premiums for teachers. The West Virginia House agreed to the 5 percent raise, but the deal fell apart on Saturday March 3, when the West Virginia Senate cut the House’s proposed raise to 4 percent. Intense negotiations continued last night all through the evening, but school remains closed today.

A year ago, when Education Week compared teachers’ salaries, ranking the top ten states and the bottom. West Virginia’s teachers were sixth from the bottom, beating out only Arizona, North Carolina, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and lowest of all, Mississippi.  Education Week adds that cost of living measured in things like housing expenses is much higher in the states like New York, where average teacher pay at $76,593 is the near the top.  But there is another important concern for places like West Virginia, where average teachers’ pay is $45,477 and Alaska—the highest paying state for teachers, where the average salary is $77,843.  Apparently Alaska’s school districts realize they must pay a premium to draw teachers to a distant and pretty lonely setting for many teachers. While West Virginia isn’t quite so remote, many of its small Appalachian communities remain unattractive just because they are so isolated. In places like West Virginia and Oklahoma—whose average teacher’s salary at $42,647 is below West Virginia’s—a teachers’ shortage looms.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), West Virginia is among the states where state formula per student  funding has dropped below pre-recession levels—down 11.4 percent since 2008.  CBPP reports: “Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia… have been hurt by declines in prices for oil and other natural resources.” Unlike several other states whose per-pupil general funding has dropped since 2008, at least West Virginia has abstained from further slashing state taxes.

I think the West Virginia teachers’ strike, a desperate action by the teachers across an entire state to call attention to the undervaluing of their work, ought to make us consider the daily work of teachers. No Child Left Behind and other test-and-punish school reforms over two decades have unfairly demanded that teachers raise students’ test scores without considering a mass of outside of school factors that affect scores.  The result has been widespread scapegoating of school teachers.

In the mid 1990s, Mike Rose, a UCLA professor of education, spent four years traveling across the United States visiting classrooms in public schools.  Possible Lives, the story of Rose’s journey, remains a timely book of hope.  In the book’s conclusion, Rose reflects on the teachers whose classrooms he observed: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning, and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal. But, of course, good teachers not only know things, but are also adept at conveying what they know: presenting it, clarifying it, sparking interest in it, using it to generate thought and action. Part of the pleasure of this journey for me was being guided through books I hadn’t read before, working, with a fresh take, calculations I had long since forgotten, considering a historical or current event in an unexpected context… As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity.  As studies of teacher cognition have shown, and as we saw in the classrooms we visited, teaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly….  There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual student’s lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms.” (Possible Lives, pp. 418-422)

I worry that after nearly two decades of accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform, we’ve forgotten how to think about what teachers do.  Fair and adequate salaries for teachers are important as a way to honor the work teachers undertake day after day.  Do we care any longer about the human relationships that make our children feel valued at school and that enable them to learn? As Rose helps us see in his description of school visits all across the United States, the adults who shape our children’s education at school are as important in West Virginia as in New York or Illinois or Oregon or Alaska or Alabama.

In The Public Interest Releases New Report on Widespread Financial Mess in California Charters

Today’s subject is the charter school sector in California, a microcosm of widespread problems with charter schools across the states. Many of us are missing the seriousness of the charter school scandal across the United States. Because education is governed pretty much by the state constitution, activists are in the habit of following the education news in their own state and assuming that schools elsewhere are the problem of that other state. This all makes it very easy to ignore the scope of violations of students’ rights and the amount of tax dollars being stolen by unscrupulous charter school operators. Reading about what’s happening in another state’s charter schools helps one grasp that problems of charter schools are widespread.*

Yesterday, In the Public Interest (ITPI) published Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools, a fine new report clarifying the magnitude of charter school problems in California: “A modern gold rush continues to sweep California. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have increased in number by more than 900 percent in the past two decades to over 1,200 schools today, the most in the nation. Charter school funding (in California), including local, state, and federal expenditures, now tops $6 billion annually—this on top of the hundreds of millions of public dollars and publicly subsidized funds the state’s charter schools receive each year to lease, build, or buy buildings.”

And it is not only that money flows out of the public schools to fund privatization, but also that charter schools in California—as in many other states—are poorly regulated: “Despite this substantial investment, governments at all levels are unable to proactively monitor (for fraud and waste) the private groups that operate charter schools…. Most public school districts aren’t given adequate resources to oversee operators, especially large charter management organizations (CMOs), while all lack the statutory authority to effectively monitor and hold charter schools accountable.”

ITPI’s new report identifies three categories of fraud and waste:

  • “The most straightforward type of charter school fraud is the illegal practice of using public funds directly for personal gain.”  For example, the founder of the Celerity Education Group in Los Angeles used public dollars to buy luxurious meals, hotel stays, limousine trips and salon visits.
  • “Some charter school operators have used public funds to illegally support their own personal businesses.”  For example, the Bay Area’s Tri-Valley Learning Corporation was discovered covering up conflicts of interest, misappropriation of funds, and weak internal financial controls that allowed the CEO to divert $2.7 million without any record of the spending.
  • Finally there is widespread basic mismanagement. Beacon Classical Academy eventually lost its charter for failure to educate students, faulty financial audits, violations of the open-meeting-law, and fire code violations.

Despite that California’s legislature has “made limited attempts to increase oversight,” there are not nearly enough auditors to monitor charter schools for fraudulent financial practices, and state officials lack adequate authority for investigation unless serious violations have been alleged. Charter school operators are able to manipulate regulations to limit transparency. In California local school boards or country boards of education function as charter school authorizers, but if a school district or county board rejects a charter school application, state law permits the California State Board of Education to overrule the local agency’s decision.

ITPI’s report lists individual schools that have been caught, punished or closed in each category—turning public money into personal gain, self-dealing, and mismanaging public money and schools.  The report also includes an appendix that identifies the name of each charter school, its location, and the amount of money stolen or misspent.

Last November’s report from the Network for Public Education (NPE) is a wonderful companion to ITPIs new report. The early chapters in Charters and Consequences describe NPE Executive Director, Carol Burris’s visits to California to investigate abuses by charter schools. Her stories describe not only financial mismanagement and fraud by currently operating California charter schools but also educational malpractice—drop-in centers in strip malls where even 12-year-old students stop by occasionally to talk with their supposed teachers—and tiny school districts that sponsor satellite drop-in schools in far away urban school districts (that are never informed about the siting of these charter schools within their school district boundaries) in order to tap into funds California awards to sponsors for what is assumed will be oversight. Oversight, however, is what is lacking; nobody is looking out for the needs of students or for the interests of California taxpayers.

ITPI’s Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools concludes: “Only the tip of the iceberg is visible, but this much is known: total alleged and confirmed fraud and waste in California’s charter schools has reached over $149 million.”

*Here is the question that comes up every time we talk about charter schools.  Aren’t charter schools really a kind of public school? The answer is NO.  Charter schools are a form of private contracting by a state or state-approved charter school authorizer. Even if your school district is the authorizer, your school district is contracting with a private provider with its own privately appointed board of directors. Proponents of charter schools try to BRAND charter schools as “public charter schools,” and they justify the branding with the fact that charter schools are funded largely with tax dollars. But the tax dollars are always paid to a private operator. That operator may be nonprofit or for-profit, but even if it is a nonprofit, it may well be subcontracting the operation of the school to a for-profit. By definition, however, charter schools are a form of private contracting. Someone other than a public school district is basically hired to run the charter school.

New Brief Examines Injustice in U.S. Public Education Fifty Years After the Kerner Commission Report

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released what has come to be known as the Kerner Commission Report (named for the Commission’s chair, Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois), which concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  This week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of that report, the Milton Eisenhower Foundation published a new book-length report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report.  The new book is a multi-disciplinary assessment, to be accompanied by a series of academic conferences, beginning this week at the University of California at Berkeley, and—specifically on the report’s conclusions about public education—at George Washington University.

We can read about the new report’s findings about public education—from the chapter written by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond—in a short brief released this week by the Learning Policy Institute. Darling-Hammond begins: “Without major social changes, the (Kerner) Commission warned, the U.S. faced a ‘system of apartheid’ in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality. While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty-hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low income communities.”

Most of us construct our understanding of the world as we observe our own particular communities.  If one doesn’t live in one of America’s big cities, it might be possible to have missed the following trends:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Certainly public policy has failed to address these trends.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, our society has tested all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and then imposed sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise test scores. The idea was to press teachers to expect more and work harder. The consequence has instead been a rush to blame the schools and teachers where scores remain low and to punish the lowest-scoring five percent of schools with mandated turnarounds—fire the teachers and principal or close the school, or turn it over to a charter school manager.

Darling-Hammond traces a mass of factors showing that as a society we identified the wrong problem, satisfied ourselves with blaming somebody, and ignored our responsibility collectively to confront primary social injustices that are the real cause of achievement gaps.  What we accomplished instead was discrediting public education and undermining support for teachers.

Darling-Hammond believes our problem is that we have stopped trying to do anything about racial and economic segregation: “In a study of the effects of court-ordered desegregation on students born between 1945 and 1970, economist Rucker Johnson found that graduation rates climbed by 2 percentage points for every year a Black student attended an integrated school… The difference was tied to the fact that schools under court supervision benefit from higher per-pupil spending and smaller student-teacher ratios… During the 1960s and ’70s, many communities took on efforts like these.  As a result, there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality in the decade after the original Kerner report…. (S)ubstantial gains were made in equalizing both educational inputs and outcomes. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted resources to communities with the most need, recognizing that where a child grows up should not determine where he or she ends up… However, the gains from the Great Society programs were pushed back during the Reagan administration, when most targeted federal programs supporting investments in college access and K-12 schools in urban and poor rural areas were reduced or eliminated, and federal aid to schools was cut from 12% to 6% of a shrinking total…By 1991, stark differences had reemerged between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which generally spent twice as much on education.”

About our current era, Darling-Hammond is very clear: “Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards.”  One investment that is affected by school funding is in the credentials of the teachers, explains Darling-Hammond: “In combination, teachers’ qualifications can have substantial effects. One large research study demonstrates: (S)tudents’ achievement growth was significantly higher if they were taught by a teacher who was certified in his or her teaching field, fully prepared upon entry (rather than entering through the state’s alternative… route), had higher scores on the teacher licensing test, graduated from a competitive college, (and) had taught for more than 2 years, or was Nationally Board Certified.”

Darling-Hammond concludes that to support our most vulnerable children and their schools, we will need radically to rethink our foundational values: “To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all our children. Although education is a state responsibility, federal policy is also needed to ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities, and quality teachers.”