“Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…”

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.

What Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Means for Children at School and their Teachers

Contrary to the widespread popular belief that learning is absorbing a body information and that computers can accomplish the task of pouring in material as well as human teachers, teachers know that knowledge is constructed, primarily through human relationship and the connection between the student and teacher and student and student.

Here is Alfie Kohn explaining learning theory: “Superb teachers strive constantly to imagine how things look from the child’s point of view… (K)nowledge is constructed rather than absorbed: we form beliefs, build theories, make order. We act on the environment rather than just responding to it—and we do it naturally and continually. It’s part of who we are. Learning isn’t a matter of acquiring new information and storing it on top of the information we already have. It’s a matter of coming across something unexpected, something that can’t easily be explained by those theories we’ve already developed. To resolve that conflict, we have to change what we previously believed.  We have to reorganize our way of understanding to accommodate the new reality we’ve just encountered…  Some would call… (the) teacher a ‘facilitator ‘ of learning, but she doesn’t facilitate ‘in the sense of making smooth or easy’; rather, she stimulates learning ‘by making problems more complex, involving, and arousing.’  She artfully complicates the situation, challenging the children to think harder and better.” (The Schools Our Children Deserve, pp. 131-135)

For learning to happen, as Kohn describes it, children need to be intellectually and emotionally present at school in order to learn.  I have been reflecting on what I know about how schools help children learn while I’ve been reading the news reports about President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown on people who live in the United States without documentation.

Anya Kamenetz describes the new immigration policies in a short piece for National Public Radio: “Under the new directives issued in February by the Trump administration, anyone with deportation orders already issued, and anyone convicted of even a minor crime like a traffic offense, can be targeted for immediate removal.  This is a change from the Obama administration’s policy, when suspected gang members and felons received the highest priority from law enforcement.”  The problem for public schools is that many of the people who risk detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deportation are parents of children in public schools.

Public schools are required to educate all children living in the United States and not to require families to declare their immigration status.  The Associated Press explains: “Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler vs. Doe, K-12 public institutions are not allowed to ask for the documentation status of any child.”  Plyler vs. Doe guarantees all children, whether or not they or their parents have legal immigration status, the right to a free, public education.  It is difficult to know exactly how many families and children are affected because schools may not collect the data, but the Pew Research Center has made estimates, which were recently reported by Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The Pew Research Center estimates 3.9 million schoolchildren had an unauthorized immigrant parent in 2014—or 7.3 percent of all schoolchildren. About 725,000 of those children were unauthorized immigrants themselves.”

While the Department of Homeland Security has declared that schools are off limits to ICE agents, and that neither children nor their parents may be detained inside the school, anxiety has become acute among children and their families. Even children who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens may have parents without legal immigration papers. These children risk being suddenly separated from their parents. Schools are scrambling to provide guidance to frightened parents and emotional support for children who may be too upset to learn. Balingit and Brown quote Virginia’s state school superintendent of public instruction: “‘Our goal is to get children in school and have then engage in learning,’ said Steven R. Staples… ‘A frightened child doesn’t learn much.’  He also said the state doesn’t want children ‘to be missing days of school because of concerns about immigration status.'”

Cities and school districts seem to be responding in different ways to the need to try to reassure parents and children. Boston has responded warmly and proactively. Even though children’s rights are protected by the Plyler vs. Doe decision, Boston has reached out farther to be supportive.  On March 8, the city council passed a resolution granting the Boston Public Schools sanctuary status: “The resolution forbids federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from entering BPS property without explicit permission from Superintendent Tommy Chang and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. It also prevents BPS from requiring proof of legal immigration prior to enrollment, and recommends BPS refuse all voluntary sharing of information with ICE to the fullest extent possible under law.” The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh released a public statement: “We are committed to making sure students and families of all cultural backgrounds succeed, and feel safe and welcome in their schools and neighborhoods.” Boston Public Schools just launched a new website, bpswedreamtogether.org, that provides information about immigration issues in fifteen languages. The Boston Globe describes almost half of Boston’s 57,000 public school students as speaking a primary language at home other than English.

In January New York, the schools chancellor Carman Farina sent a letter to the families of the district’s more than one million students to reassure them that the schools cannot keep records of a family’s immigration status and that ICE agents may not roam the schools. Politico New York Education reported yesterday that on Tuesday, NYC updated its protocols to further limit access of ICE to the city’s 1,800 public schools.  In her piece for NPR, Anya Kamenetz describes a meeting convened by Christian Rodriguez, a parent coordinator in a PreK-8 school in the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a school that is more than 80 percent Hispanic.  Rodriguez describes “children crying in the classroom, crying in my office… When I ask them, ‘Why are you crying?,’ they have expressed to me that they don’t want their moms to be apprehended and taken away from them.”  To the meeting Rodriguez convened to reassure parents, she brought attorneys and community workers who, “advised attendees to be prepared: Don’t drive with burned-out taillights.  Don’t exceed the speed limit.  If you have an attorney, carry his or her business card at all times.  If ICE… comes to your home or stops you on the street, they are allowed to call themselves ‘police.’ But they can’t come inside your home or car without a warrant unless you invite them in. You are allowed to ask for a warrant and to make them slip the warrant under the door.”

The Huffington Post reports on a school in Austin, Texas where teachers—told they were forbidden to take a political stance—felt they couldn’t discuss the issue of immigration in their classrooms, but they could invite children write about and draw their feelings. When the reporter visited the school, an immigration sweep had just led to dozens of arrests nearby. The reporter interviews teachers anonymously because they believe they are forbidden to speak. The teachers describe their students’ dilemmas: “ICE operations in front of a local H-E-B supermarket had left some students too nervous to go shopping. Rather than venture outside and exposing themselves or their parents to ICE, they’re making do with what they have to eat in the house… Some parents worry that ICE agents will follow them if they take their kids to class. ‘What we’re seeing is a lot of parents who used to pick up their children from school and now they’re sending them on the bus,’ a teacher told HuffPost. ‘The parents are afraid to come to the school.'”

In Colorado Springs, the atmosphere described by the Associated Press reporter is more tense.  A spokesperson for the Harrison School District 2, describes the schools as places that “legally cannot deny access to public education, whether a student or parent is residing here legally or not… Public schools also cannot give legal advice or stand in the way of law enforcement, and have to remain politically unbiased.”  The school district sent home a letter that lists services to help families with immigration problems.  But the reporter also profiles a white parent who is closely watching to be sure the school district doesn’t go too far to support families who may be undocumented: “Harrison parent Thompson said he doesn’t think it’s the job of public school administrators to ‘comfort illegal immigrants.’ ‘People are raising an eyebrow about this.'” Thompson says he is concerned that perhaps undocumented parents are even being allowed to serve as volunteers at the school.

The majority of reports in the press, however, have been compassionate—emphasizing what the immigration crackdown means for children—and for the teachers who know that it is almost impossible for children to thrive at school and to engage with their teachers and their fellow students in the active process of learning if they are constantly frightened.  Here is Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration studies in New York, commenting on the psychological impact of Trump’s policy on millions of children: “It’s difficult to think of a crueler fate for a child than to see their parent deported.  It’s like their world turns upside down on them.  Studies show they mourn, have trouble sleeping, their eating patterns change. Some cannot concentrate in school, they’re fearful and some withdraw, while other act out in anger. Beyond losing a parent, they’re often dealing with the sorrow and distress of another adult, typically a second parent.”

School Funding: A Moral, Not a Fiscal Problem

Taxes are merely a tool by which governments can fund the services needed in a good society.  Today instead, as the Freedom Caucus dominates the House of Representatives and Donald Trump sets sets the agenda, taxes and government are seen as the enemy—something to eliminate.  Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform and who has convinced a mass of state legislators to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, is famous for his declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In the eyes of many of today’s politicians, tax policy has become not a tool of government but a goal in itself along with the goal of reducing the programs and services the government provides.

Some of the services tax cutters want to eliminate are provided by public schools.  Even before President Donald Trump announced his budget outline last week, federal funding for schools had declined because many in Congress have prioritized tax cutting. In October 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the two largest funding streams for K-12 public schools have been growing smaller. Funding for Title I, the program for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty dropped 8.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2010 and 2016 and funding to support federally mandated programs for special education dropped 6.4 percent (again adjusted for inflation).

If tax reduction were merely a federal malaise, it would not be so serious for schools, for federal funds pay for merely 10 percent of school funding, with the bulk of the money roughly split between states and local school districts. But because schools make up one of the the biggest budget lines in every state, tax slashing by the state legislative endorsers of Norquist’s pledge is definitely affecting public schools. That is why we are seeing more and more reports like this one about school districts in rural and small towns instituting four-day school weeks.  When states cut the budget and federal programs are also reduced, local school districts can either raise millage or cut programs.

School funding problems continue on display during this state budget season. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) released a white paper documenting that again this year Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget fails to fulfill the state’s commitment under the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision to fund schools adequately under the standards of New York’s constitution. AQE condemns Cuomo’s recent budget proposal: “The 2017-18 Executive Budget repeals and does not replace the Foundation Aid formula, and would return New York State to the pre-CFE era when political machinations and arbitrary formulas guided the distribution of school aid—without regard for student need.”  In a new lawsuit, parents in three New York school districts have also just demanded that an appeals court release funds that had already been allocated to their school districts but that have been frozen by another court: “On December 28, 2016, Judge Kimberly O’Connor in Albany found that the budget director exceeded his legal authority in withholding the grants and ordered the funds be immediately released… for distribution to support vital programs at the schools.”  But, “Governor Cuomo decided to appeal Judge O’Connor’s ruling last month. Under New York law, the appeal triggers an automatic stay of the order to release the funds.”  The school districts list the services they cannot afford to provide without the funds: social work and counseling, family outreach, academic interventions, professional development, and extended learning time.”

And in Illinois—where weeks ago Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to send $215 million that had already been promised by the state to help the Chicago Public Schools avert bankruptcy—Rauner has finally agreed to release the funds, but only if legislators will redo the state’s pension system.  Rauner is holding Chicago’s children and teachers hostage.  A reporter for Chicago’s DNA Info describes  Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s response to Rauner’s pension reform ransom demand: “The legislation would require public sector employees to give up ‘pension benefits in return for a one-time fix for CPS and no guarantee the state will offer the same assistance next year or any other year.” While there is politics involved in all this wrangling, experts document that Illinois imposes a structurally flawed funding system on Chicago and other poor school districts. The Education Law Center has identified Illinois school funding as among the nation’s most inequitable and has identified Chicago as chronically among “the most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation.”

Kansas is the state where relief suddenly seems possible. Ironically Donald Trump himself may intervene (sort of) in the school funding crisis. It has been reported that Trump may be appointing Governor Sam Brownback to a post with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where Brownback would coordinate the work of agencies involved in food and agriculture. Yesterday the NY Times editorialized: “Kansas can only hope that reports are true that the Trump administration will let… (Kansas’s) governor, Sam Brownback, escape the disaster he created in Topeka….”  The editorial continues: “Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived. The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30.”  The NY Times describes Kansas families as “experiencing the deepening budget crisis firsthand in shortened school hours and resources as the state suffered two credit downgrades. Public protest led to a number of Brownback loyalists voted out last year, with legislative newcomers igniting a budget revolt against the governor.”

We can only hope for Brownback’s departure through the confirmation of the Trump appointment to Rome. But there is some question about what would happen then. It is to be hoped that if he becomes governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also a fiscal conservative, will not veto—as Brownback last month vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to increase taxes by $1 billion over two years—the necessary revenue to support the state’s schools.

In Final Test, a book written long before our country faced today’s army of tax slashers—President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Congressional Budget Office Director Mick Mulvaney and the members of the House Freedom Caucus—Peter Schrag, the retired editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, ruminated about the decades-long California school funding crisis following the passage of Proposition 13 and the role of the courts in trying to rectify legislative failures to fund schools. In chapters on school finance court battles in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and New York, Schrag ponders a question that is more timely today than it was when his book was published in 2003: “Court decisions—particularly those that seem to require states to provide ever-richer resources to under-performing children—will almost certainly run into increasing political resistance, on both financial and equity grounds. To what extent are middle-income and affluent voters, the people who come to the polls, willing to send their local and state tax dollars to support extra resources for other people’s children, especially if they’re poor, black, or Latino?” (p.238)

Of course, that is what the social contract is all about. School finance is not so much a fiscal as a moral issue.

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Trump’s Proposed 2018 Budget for K-12 Education: What It Means

Yesterday the Trump administration released what’s being called its “skinny” budget.  A president’s budget proposal does NOT work like an executive order, however.  It is merely a declaration of the president’s priorities, and it must be discussed and enacted by Congress, which then appropriates the money.

And this is a budget that outlines only what is called “discretionary” spending. That is the part that actually gets appropriated every year, and it is a very small part of the federal budget, which mostly goes to “mandatory” programs, another term for entitlements.

A large part of discretionary spending is for the military. And the military is definitely a priority of Donald Trump’s.  Yesterday’s budget proposal adds $52 billion to the military and a 7 percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security and a 6 percent increase for Veterans Affairs.

VOX explains the nature of “non-defense” federal discretionary spending: “This is the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low-and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.” Yesterday’s budget cuts non-defense discretionary spending in order for the federal government to ask for large increases in the military and homeland security.

Here are just some of the percentage losses reported by the NY Times for departments whose programs are likely directly to affect children and families: Education, -14 percent; Health and Human Services, -16 percent; and Housing and Urban Development, -12 percent.  The cuts are likely to affect public housing and subsidies for housing vouchers, may affect support for homeless shelters, and will eliminate after-school programs.  Being erased altogether are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps very poor people pay gas bills in the winter and the Legal Services Corporation. School lunch, school breakfast and summer feeding programs have been made into mandatory spending and are not covered by this budget. We’ll have to watch for a later, more detailed budget to observe these programs, and we can hope they will be spared. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is slightly reduced from $6.4 billion to $6.2 billion in Trump’s proposed budget. There are also significant cuts to health programs and much debate currently about the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal reporter explains that Trump proposes to cut the federal education budget significantly and also to shift money around to expand school choice (support for privatization): “President Donald Trump’s first budget seeks to slash the Education Department’s roughly $68 billion budget by $9 billion, or 13 percent in the coming fiscal year, whacking popular programs that help districts offer after-school programs, and hire and train teachers.  At the same time, it seeks a historic $1.4 billion federal investment in school choice, including new money for private school vouchers and charter schools, as well as directing $1 billion to follow students to the school of their choice.”

How does Trump seek to expand school choice?  Klein explains that the federal Charter Schools Program, which now has a $333 million budget would be expanded with an additional $168 million. You may remember that this program has been condemned for poor oversight on several occasions by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General.  In the budget proposal, Trump also proposes to add $250 million for what Klein describes as a “private school choice initiative that could provide vouchers for use at private schools, including religious schools.”

Trump also brings back the idea of “Title I Portability” in this budget proposal. According to Klein, “As part of the school choice push, the budget would include a $1 billion increase for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, currently funded at nearly $15 billion.”  Sounds wonderful so far, as Title I has long been under-funded, but Klein continues: “But that money would come with a twist: States and districts would be encouraged to use the funds for a system of ‘student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and Local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.'”  This is a public, not a private school voucher program.

There are, however, several problems with the Title I Portability program described here.

One is that, as Klein describes it, students would carry not only federal and state dollars if they transfer to another public school district through some sort of open enrollment program, but they would also carry local dollars from one school district to another.  Klein explains that the proposal for Title I Portability, “could be aided by a new pilot program created under ESSA that allows up to 50 districts to adopt a ‘weighted student funding formula’, combining federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.  English language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.”

The second problem is that the idea of Title I Portability undermines the purpose of Title I, as it was designed in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to provide supplementary funding for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. This is a big problem in our society that is becoming more segregated economically. Under Trump’s proposal, if a poor student were to transfer to a wealthier public school district, that child would carry her funding, including the extra Title I money.  The poor district, still in need of help because it is serving a mass of students in poverty, including students who are part of the county’s foster care system and very likely a significant homeless population, would lose the Title I dollars intended to help schools serving many very poor students.

It is important to add here that Title I Portability is a proposal pushed hard by the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, during the 2015 debate on the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Senator Alexander was unable to amass sufficient Congressional support to pass Title I Portability in 2015.  Remember that Trump’s budget proposal cannot be accomplished by him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.  It must be approved and appropriated by Congress.  Emma Brown in her Washington Post budget report explains, “That policy, known as ‘portability,’ was rejected in the Republican-led Senate during deliberations over the main K-12 education law in 2015.  Many Democrats see portability as the first step toward federal vouchers for private schools and argue that it would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty and profound needs to those in more affluent neighborhoods.”

Trump’s  proposed budget maintains funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at $13 billion, the 2017 amount; is silent on funding for the Office of Civil Rights, where many had expected to see cuts; reduces funding for two programs that promote college access; cuts support for preparing teachers and school leaders; and eliminates altogether the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides before- and after-school and summer programs. On the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the budget document declares: “The program lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives such as improving student achievement,”  an assessment that assumes raising test scores is the sole goal of after-school programs and summer enrichment programs. Full service, wraparound Community Schools frequently incorporate 21st Century Learning Center funding as the way to pay for the after-school and summer enrichment programs that are essential for children’s development.

There is an important additional set of facts to remember as background for President Trump’s proposed budget.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminds us: “This is the seventh year of austerity in non-defense appropriations, brought about by the multi-year appropriations caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and further reduced by ‘sequestration’ budget cuts under BCA. In 2017 the non-defense cap is frozen at the prior year’s level, and in 2018 it falls by $3 billion as enacted sequestration relief expires and full sequestration cuts take effect for the first time.  The 2018 cap is 16 percent below the comparable 2010 level when adjusted for inflation, and 21 percent below the 2010 level when adjusted for both inflation and population growth… Policy makers can alleviate the squeeze in 2018 and beyond by enacting legislation to reduce the sequestration cuts in those years and substitute alternative deficit-reduction measures—as they have done on a bipartisan basis for each year from 2013 through 2017.”

What this very technical analysis means is that Trump’s budget proposal which slashes next year’s non-defense discretionary spending is not the first time spending has been reduced in recent years. If Congress eventually passes a budget with the kind of cuts Trump outlines in the document released yesterday, the new budget reductions will deepen the cutbacks we have already been experiencing as Congress has prioritized reducing the deficit over programs that support our citizens.

Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society.”

You will notice that I did not mention the issue of school funding in the title of this post. Neither did I mention the name of the state that is the subject of the post. While I cannot tell exactly who is reading this blog, WordPress statistics tell me which posts are viewed, and I know that school funding is a topic people don’t like to read about—especially if it is in somebody else’s state.

School funding is not a taboo subject, however, if the fight is happening in your state. If we are parents, we know that what’s at stake is a class size of 32 children for third grade, or the presence of a school nurse, or an elementary school library that is staffed and unlocked. We know that the number of college counselors at the high school and the presence of the marching band or the orchestra might be at stake. We also know what pay-to-play means in a school-specific context where fees to play football or run track are threatened if the school funding is reduced. This is all pretty much invisible to other people, however. Because schools are buildings most of us rarely enter, we cannot see how money translates directly into services for children.

I hope that introduction is enough to make you feel obligated to finish reading this post, because I believe it is about some of the most important concerns for our society.  Do we feel an obligation to help the children in our nuclear family succeed or do we have an obligation to all children and the role of their education for our broader society? Do we somehow really believe that education is a competitive, zero sum game and that if other children win, our own children will lose? Are we willing to spend some of what we have earned to support the institutions of our community and our state?  Is cutting taxes more important than anything else?  Do we really believe deep in our hearts: “I earned it so I should get to keep it!”?

This post is—yet again—about Kansas. Kansas matters because what Kansas does about its tax cuts and its state budget and its school funding is really about the issues in many states. And what’s the matter with Kansas is also the problem in our Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act and the impact of Congressional freezes like the Sequester on the federal budget.

You’ll remember that Governor Sam Brownback just vetoed a state budget that would have increased taxes to raise $1 billion over the next two years to help remedy years of budget shortfalls that have resulted from his income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.  Brownback has dreamed that his experiment in income tax slashing would grow the state’s economy, but economic growth has not followed.

You may remember that a school funding inequity decision from the Kansas Supreme Court last year sent some additional money to Kansas’ poorest school districts. You may also remember that a school funding adequacy case, Gannon v. State of Kansas, has been making its way through the courts.

You may have forgotten that the anti-taxers in Kansas have been so desperate to save money they first tried (unsuccessfully) to pass a constitutional amendment to make school funding solely a legislative matter over which the courts had no jurisdiction. When that failed, and because court justices face retention elections every six years in Kansas, money was spent on campaigns to defeat four of the justices who have supported increased funding for public education. But all the justices targeted by the anti-taxers were reelected last November.  And a sizeable number of moderates who are not so committed to tax slashing were also elected to the state’s legislature in November.

All this led up to what happened on March 2, when the Supreme Court in Kansas announced a decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas. Here is John Hanna of the Associated Press: “Kansas’ highest court on Thursday ordered the state to increase its spending on public schools, which could further complicate the state’s dire budget problems and increase pressure to undo large tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The unanimous state Supreme Court ruling gave the Republican-controlled Legislature until the end of June to to enact a new school funding law.”  Hanna explains: “Many moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature favor rolling back the large income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013, which the conservative governor pushed as a way to stimulate the economy.  The state has struggled to balance its budget ever since, and even some Republican voters have come to view the tax cuts as a failure.”

The Gannon lawsuit was brought by four school districts, Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City, but last week’s Supreme Court’s decision demands increased school funding across the state.  The Wichita Eagle outlines the implications of the decision: “It gave lawmakers until June 30 to craft a new school finance formula that meets constitutional funding requirements. If they don’t, the state will have no constitutional mechanism for funding schools, which could lead to school closures. The court ruled unanimously that Gov. Sam Brownback’s ‘block grant’ funding system for schools is unconstitutional, siding with school districts that complained it underfunded their operations.”

School funding is an important piece of the state budget because in Kansas, according to Hanna, “The state spends more than half of its tax dollars on public schools.” Some allege, of course, that the fact that public schools make up large percentages of all state budgets is a symptom of our society’s overindulgence in elegant public schools at the public expense. President Donald Trump made such an allegation in his inaugural address when he declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” The reality, of course, is that schools cannot substitute cheaper robots and computers and create the climate of caring and trust our children need.  Public schools employ  professional teachers and counselors because that is what our society must expect for our children.  This is an expensive proposition when it comes to serving 50 million children across the United States.

In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle quotes Alan Rupe, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who commented that last week’s decision should not surprise anybody: “The Kansas Supreme Court has finally confirmed what anyone who has recently stepped inside a Kansas public school already knew: Kansas public education is significantly underfunded.”

And Wichita’s state senator, Lynn Rogers, who also serves on the Wichita Board of Education, declared: This is 10 years coming, and the state has lost every case so far… We’ve lost a whole generation of kids with inadequate funding, and hopefully this will communicate to the state how important it is not to lose a single kid, and that we need to do better than what we’ve done.”

School Privatization Means Loss of Public Investment to Profits and Sacrifice of Students’ Rights

Here is how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson begin their newest book, American Amnesia, that explores the subject of America’s capitulation to the belief that government is the problem, not the solution to our society’s concerns: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because American’s cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends… Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Exactly how our turning away from government has affected public schools is the subject of a fascinating analysis by Alex Molnar, Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold.  Molnar—a Research Professor and Publications Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—painstakingly traces the history of the development of public education as “an egalitarian institution that was redistributive in its effects… Public education in the United States has from its earliest days been structured to embody and strengthen representative democracy by inculcating democratic values….”  But, “The major education reforms of the past 35 years—education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies, to subject them to the ‘laws’ of the ‘market’; and to put them at the service of the economic elite.  The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.” It is also a world where “the progressive edifice that Roosevelt… constructed (in the New Deal) would have to be set aside, taxes on wealth and profits reduced, wages suppressed, and a greater share of government costs shifted to the working class.”

Molnar marks the beginning of our times with the economics of Ronald Reagan, which “replaced the citizen’s democratic right to a ‘voice’ in shaping their public schools with a consumer’s choice to ‘exit’ schools. Under the banner of ‘school choice,’ public education would thus be removed from democratic control and reformulated as a commodity to be ‘chosen.'” Our society has been wooed away from supporting public schools. “Under pressure from and with the aid of charitable foundations, wealthy philanthropists, and ideologues, government policy makers have steadily shifted control of the schools from locally elected school boards to appointed governing bodies. A for-profit school sector has emerged that depends entirely on taxpayer and philanthropic funds. Accountability has been shifted from government regulatory oversight mechanisms to ‘market discipline.’… Getting this myth ‘believed’ meant new opportunities to turn tax dollars into profits—profits from, for example, paying a few teachers more and many teachers less; profits from designing standardized tests; profits from renting school facilities; profits from managing schools; profits from data management systems and test scoring systems; and profits from selling software platforms and computing devices. Best of all, these profitmaking opportunities came with little or no government oversight to thwart self-dealing and ferret out fraud and abuse.  Oversight and regulation had by this time been successfully characterized as innovation and achievement killers.”

In his analysis Molnar highlights two prominent abuses that have emerged with the wave of school privatization—the removal of what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government”—regulation and oversight which are said by the privatizers to kill innovation, and the distortions that result when government funding flows to private profits. Conveniently, two exposes in the press this week—mere examples of the cascade of stories we are reading about abuses in charter schools and other privatized education ventures—exemplify the very problems Molnar highlights.

The first, These For-Profit Schools are ‘Like a Prison’, comes from Pro Publica and was jointly published at Slate.  It is an expose of staff abusing students in private, for-profit alternative schools run by Camelot Education. Camelot “contracts with traditional school  districts to run about 40 schools across the country—schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically.  In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago.  The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.” Pro Publica‘s story covers problems in York and Reading’s Camelot schools in some depth. “Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school-district officials to… (transfer their students to) Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet.” “Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school, instead counting only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools.” “Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly people of color.”  Pro Publica‘s report describes Camelot schools as resembling “the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed above all else, to maintain obedience and control.”

Because Camelot schools are privately operated, even courts investigating complaints of physical abuse of students have struggled to acquire evidence or get staff to testify after their schools threatened staff with job loss. Some parents describe being pressured to sign away their children’s due process rights at the schools.  The Pro Publica reporters describe a lawsuit brought against a Pensacola, Florida Camelot alternative school: “Pensacola’s school district stayed out of the Tillery cases. It let Camelot investigate and address them, said Vickie Mathis, the director of alternative education for the district. ‘They are Camelot employees,’ she said. ‘We expected Camelot to do the investigation and come to a finding and take action if there was a finding of wrongdoing.'”  The reporters do cite two school districts—Reading, Pennsylvania, and New Orleans—where, to protect students’ rights, public “school officials cut ties with Camelot as abuse allegations emerged.”

Then there is Ohio, where enormous profits from the online academies are being used to block the very regulations that would protect the state’s investment in its public schools. The legislature needs to increase oversight to prevent massive over-payments by the state for students the e-schools claim are enrolled, but who do not participate actively in online education.  Over-payments for phantom students in Ohio’s electronic schools have been regularly reported in the state’s newspapers, but this week the story made headlines in Education Week: Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute: “The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year, but state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total… Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school’s learning software….  Historically, the Ohio education department determined student attendance, and thus enrollment, based on paperwork submitted by e-school representatives, who certified that students were enrolled and had been offered the 920 hours of learning required by state law.”

Now when regulators from the Ohio Department of Education are cracking down to insist that the state pay only for students who are actively participating and that e-schools do more than merely offer the curriculum, the e-schools are pushing back. ECOT has taken the state to court to block the enforcement of stricter regulations, and William Lager, who reaps the profits from both of his privately owned companies that manage ECOT, has hired the state’s most prominent lobbyists as well as keeping up the contributions to legislators’ political campaigns. The Ohio House and Senate, not surprisingly, continue to refuse to pass strict and explicit regulations. (This blog has covered the ECOT phantom student scandal here.)

Together these articles explore and expose what has been happening through school privatization and school reformers’ efforts to undermine the coercive power of government.  Only government—the law and its democratic enforcement—can protect students’ civil rights and our public investment in education.