Tax Cuts Part II: What State Tax Cuts Mean for Public Higher Education

Across many states in the past decade, especially after the 2008 Great Recession, followed by the Tea Party red-wave 2010 election, politicians in many states have assumed they could cut taxes—thereby curtailing the revenue stream flowing to the state—without its affecting what is the largest financial outlay in any state—the education budget.

Last spring, a wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and several other states, drew the nation’s attention to the catastrophic consequences of slashing taxes and cutting into state education budgets.  But now in mid-September, we find ourselves barraged by pre-election personal attack ads on television and mired in the scandal-ridden sensationalism of the Trump White House. Two posts on this blog—yesterday and today—review two of the consequences for education of the fiscal crisis in state budgets that schoolteachers brought to our attention last spring.

If tax cutting across many states has dangerously cut public investment in K-12 education, the American Federation of Teachers reports, “State higher education systems have fared even worse. Forty-one states were spending less on higher education in 2017 than they were in 2008, in real terms.  While state support has declined, the overall average cost of attending college has risen. Tuition costs for two-year colleges are up by an average of 36 percent, and for (public) four-year colleges, they are up by an average 40 percent, even after adjusting for inflation.”

For Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer adds: “The number of states leaning heavily on tuition to pay for instruction at public colleges and universities grew last year, surpassing a significant symbolic milestone.  A total of 28 states used tuition to generate more than 50 percent of their total educational revenue in the 2017 fiscal year…. It was the first time more than half of states were recorded relying more on tuition dollars than on government appropriations.”  And reliance on tuition became more widespread despite that, “state and local appropriations rose 2.1 percent between 2016 and 2017 to total $94.5 billion.”

What is the long-term trend in state funding for higher education? Seltzer continues: “After adjusting for inflation, state appropriations per full-time equivalent student are about 10 percent below their levels of a decade ago and down 8 percent from 25 years ago.  Net tuition per full-time equivalent is up 36 percent over a decade and up 96 percent over 25 years.”

In a stunning policy analysis published in August, Senior Policy Analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy, Peter Ruark explains the complicated story of how tax cutting in Michigan has decimated the state’s general fund, with cascading consequences.  In 2010, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s home state began borrowing from the K-12 School Aid Fund—stealing millions from K-12 public education—to pay for the state’s colleges and universities.  It was to have been a one time loan—to be paid back into the School Aid Fund, but instead the policy has been repeated year after year since 2010 with no attempt to pay back the state’s K-12 education School Aid Fund.

Ruark explains: “For 2010, in order to balance a state budget that had been beaten down over the past decade by tax cuts and the Great Recession, Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Michigan Legislature used a supplemental bill to appropriate $208.4 million in School Aid Fund dollars to community colleges. The one-time appropriation included language stating that ‘funds appropriated to community colleges from School Aid Fund will be considered a loan’ that ‘will be repaid from General Fund to School Aid Fund over the period of FY 2011-12 to FY 2015-16.’  The Legislature never paid the funds back.”

Ruark continues: “In Budget Year 2012, Governor Rick Snyder’s first budget drew from the School Aid Fund to replace General Fund dollars going to universities and community colleges, with no language stating it needed to be repaid.  In its final form, the nearly $400 million taken from K-12 was accompanied by a $470-per-pupil cut in the K-12 foundation allowance, the only year since Proposal A (the 1955 law establishing the School Aid Fund) in which the foundation allowance was statutorily cut. The cut was accompanied by a very large tax cut for businesses that cost $1.6 billion, with only part of that amount made up by increased taxes on individuals. The Legislature later passed a supplemental budget that took an additional $63.7 million from the School Aid Fund to pay for community college operations, for a total of $459.6 million in School Aid Fund dollars shifted from K-12 to postsecondary institutions in 2012.  The shift has been the norm during the past eight years as every budget introduced by the Snyder administration and passed by the Legislature has shifted at least $350 million—and often more—from K-12 public schools to universities and community colleges.”

The AFT’s national report depicts graphically that only 9 states are spending more per-pupil to support colleges and universities than they were before the Great Recession. Most states where teachers walked out last spring to protest a catastrophic K-12 school funding crisis are spending far less on a per-pupil basis for students in colleges and universities than they were in 2008—Arizona, $1, 051 per-pupil less—North Carolina, $866 less—Oklahoma $437 less—and Kentucky $400 less.

In his report for Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer concludes that by 2017: “Net tuition revenue per-student (had) increased in 33 states… Michigan collected the highest net tuition revenue per full time-equivalent student, $15,000.”

Teachers walking out last spring were trying to teach us all something about the kind of society we have been becoming.  It is a simple lesson really: If citizens and corporations don’t pay taxes for the services we all depend on, not only will teachers struggle with insufficient salaries, but we’ll all struggle to have the kind if public services most of us and our children need and have in the past taken for granted.


Tax Cuts Part I: What State Tax Cuts Mean for K-12 Public Education

Professor of school law, Derek Black writes: “School funding formulas are one of the most arcane and obscure elements of public policy one can imagine.”  Maybe that’s why most of us lose a sense of the connection of the money to the particulars of what it pays for. When the state cuts school funding—unless our own children lose a teacher, or we see their classes grow over 35 children, or their school loses the counselor or the nurse or the librarian—we aren’t likely to pay attention.

And then there are the totally invisible costs. In a report last summer for In the Public Interest, the political economist Gordon Lafer explains  some of these invisible costs a public school system is required provide in order to serve the community and meet the needs of each of the children—things that a charter school or even charter school chain (which serves a very limited population of children) doesn’t have to worry about: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body (to charter schools)—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Across many states in the past decade, however, especially after the 2008 Great Recession, followed by the Tea Party red-wave, 2010 election, politicians in many states have assumed they could cut taxes—thereby curtailing the revenue stream flowing to the state—without its affecting what is the largest financial outlay in any state—the education budget.

Last spring, a wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and several other states, drew the nation’s attention to the catastrophic consequences of slashing taxes and cutting into state education budgets.  But now in mid-September, we find ourselves barraged by pre-election personal attack ads on television and mired in the scandal-ridden sensationalism of the Trump White House. Two posts on this blog—today and tomorrow—will review two of the consequences for education of the fiscal crisis in state budgets that schoolteachers brought to our attention last spring.

The first thing we learned last spring is that school teachers across many states are no longer being paid salaries that are comparable to peers in other professions with the same level of education. Many—16 percent according to a recent NY Times Magazine profile —are working second jobs to try to make ends meet.  The report notes: “Teachers across the country are now baristas, Amazon warehouse employees, movie-theater managers and fast-food grill cooks.  They’re entering the gig economy in off hours….”  The report features the employment statistics of eight teachers living in a range of states.

In a recent cover story, Time Magazine also tracks teachers’ salaries and explains: “Nationwide, the estimated average public-school teacher’s salary is now $58,950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—a respectable income in many locales, but actual wages vary widely by state, and often do not track with costs of living. When compared with similar educational levels, teacher pay tends to pale. In 2016, for instance, the average teacher’s starting salary was $38,617—20% lower than that of other professions requiring a college degree.” Time’s reporter, Katie Reilly interviews and profiles 13 teachers who are working second jobs.

How serious is the teacher pay gap?  In a September 5, 2018 report, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel explain: “Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $27 from 1996 to 2017, from $1,164 to $1,137 (in 2017 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,339 to $1,476 over this period.”

What teachers showed us last spring is that many states have drastically slashed public education spending. Allegretto and Mishel report that today, ten years after states have had the chance to recover from the Great Recession: “The erosion of teacher pay relative to that of comparable workers in the last couple of years—and in fact since 2008—reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession…. In fact, eight of the 10 states with the largest reductions in education funding since 2008 were states that had reduced their overall ‘tax effort’—meaning through tax cuts or other measures they were collecting less in taxes relative to their capacity to generate tax revenue. These eight states were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.” “These spending cuts are not the result of weak state economies. Rather, state legislatures have enacted them to finance tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.”

And we learn from Michael Leachman, Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that after teachers walked out last spring, and after governors and legislators in two of the states promised significant salary increases, the money for the promised raises may be a mirage: “Arizona and Oklahoma teachers both secured pay increases this spring after major teacher protests, but both states need more revenues to sustainably fund the promised increases and reverse past cuts.”  “In Arizona, the current budget includes a 20 percent increase for teachers over three years but doesn’t include enough new revenue to pay for it, relying instead on optimistic predictions of economic growth… 0klahoma lawmakers raised $530 million in new revenue this spring to fund K-12 education, the first time the state had raised any taxes in more than 25 years. But this was still less than the new spending lawmakers approved to support teachers and classrooms.  And the new funding for school operations makes up less than one-third of the funding cut since 2008, even before accounting for higher enrollment and costs.”

There are always arguments that teachers end their workdays earlier than office workers and that teachers get summers off. There are also arguments that teachers’ benefits make up for low pay, although Allegretto and Mishel counter that argument.  When wages and benefits are combined, they explain, “The total compensation (wage and benefit) penalty for public school teachers grew from 10.5 percent to 11.1 percent in 2017.”

Allegretto and Mishel remind us that as a society, it is in our best interest to make the education profession desirable at a time when the flow of candidates entering the nation’s education pipeline has slowed to a trickle: “To ensure a high-quality teaching workforce, schools must retain experienced teachers and recruit high-quality students into the profession. Pay is an important component of retention and recruitment.”

Rising Tide Fails to Lift All Boats; School Test Scores Track Widening Inequality

For anybody who wants to understand the reasons for low academic test sores and to learn why schools cannot quickly institute reforms and turn around lagging school achievement, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary piece in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine is essential reading.  Desmond is the Princeton University sociologist who authored the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted.  Desmond has also founded the Eviction Lab, a team of researchers who are in the process of building an enormous data base to track eviction and extreme poverty in America.

With the headline, Incomes Rose and Poverty Rate Fell for Third Straight Year, last week the Wall Street Journal began its coverage of the new U.S. Census data: “American incomes rose and poverty declined for the third consecutive year in 2017, according to census figures released Wednesday that suggest more Americans are benefiting from the robust economy.”  It sounds as though a rising tide is lifting all boats.

Matthew Desmond corrects what you thought you learned from that headline: “These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But… the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education?  By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.  In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the ‘productivity-pay gap’—the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent.  If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.”

We are told by politicians like the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan that we ought to cut the safety net programs that lull people into dependence. By contrast, Desmond believes that in an economy where most economic growth benefits people at the top who have significant investment income, safety-net programs are essential but inadequate: “It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for… 41.7 million laborers—nearly a third of the American work force (who) earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.”

We all meet such people every day.  Who are they? “(T)he working poor are not primarily teenagers bagging groceries or scooping ice cream in paper hats. They are adults—often parents—wiping down hotel showers and toilets, taking food orders and bussing tables, eviscerating chickens at meat-processing plants, minding children at 24-hour day care centers, picking berries, emptying trash cans, stacking grocery shelves at midnight, driving taxis and Ubers, answering customer-service hotlines, smoothing hot asphalt on freeways, teaching community-college students as adjunct professors, and yes, bagging groceries and scooping ice cream in paper hats.”

The way minimum wage jobs are set up these days also keeps people down, because there is no way to work hard and move up to a higher position: “Working harder and longer will not translate into a promotion if employers pull up the ladders and offer supervisory positions exclusively to people with college degrees. Because large companies now farm out many positions to independent contractors, those who buff the floors at Microsoft or wash the sheets at the Sheraton typically are not employed by Microsoft or Sheraton, thwarting any hope of advancing within the company. Plus, working harder and longer often isn’t even an option for those at the mercy of an unpredictable schedule. Nearly 40 percent of full-time hourly workers know their work schedules just a week or less in advance. And if you give it your all in a job… that job might not exist for very long: Half of all new positions are eliminated within the first year. According to the labor sociologist Arne Kallenberg, permanent terminations have become ‘a basic component of employers’ restructuring strategies.’ ”

Desmond tracks the story of one home health care worker and her three children. They are homeless some of the time, living in motel rooms or in the car or sometimes with a relative. Desmond defines home health care, “as an archetypal job in this new, low-pay service economy.  Demand for home health care has surged as the population has aged, but according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median annual income for home health aides in the United States was just $23,130.” For a mother with three children, the family Desmond describes in this story, “the federal government estimates (the) family would need to bring in $29,420 a year.”

Unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan who favors a “bootstrap” philosophy, Desmond describes the benefits of our already feeble safety net as absolute necessities for a working-poor family. The mother in the family Desmond profiles, received $5,000 in earned-income and child tax credits: “They helped raise her income, but not above the poverty line. If the working poor are doing better than the nonworking poor, which is the case, it’s not so much because of their jobs per se, but because their employment status provides them access to desperately needed government help. This has caused growing inequality below the poverty line, with the working poor receiving much more social aid than the abandoned nonworking poor or the precariously employed, who are plunged into destitution.”

All kinds of families have children in the public schools—middle class families, working poor families, precariously employed families, and families who are part of the abandoned nonworking poor. And our society  has grown more segregated by income, where in the poorest communities—exemplified by Muskegon, Michigan—poverty among the school district’s families is concentrated. Michigan’s Bridge Magazine has been tracking the impact of poverty at school in Muskegon, and in a story this week, Ron French reports that despite extraordinary efforts by the school district, many children are in danger of being held back at the end of this school year in third grade, because the state has passed a Job Bush model law, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

French visits Moon Elementary School, where the principal describes the school’s efforts to promote literacy in the early grades: “Since the third-grade reading reading law passed in 2016, Moon Elementary has added ‘classroom libraries’ in its classrooms, (libraries) filled with books purchased through donations. Moon Principal Okeela McBride ticked off the school’s other early literacy efforts: ‘We have extended school day at the K-2 level…  We have Champs, MTSS, (and) Kagan training.’  The school is part of the Reading Now Network, an early literacy program organized by superintendents in West Michigan, and uses i-Ready curriculum software to track student progress. Across Muskegon County, more than 22,000 books have been distributed to low-income families with pre-kindergarten children since January….  Across the state, $80 million has been spent on early literacy efforts since the third-grade reading law was passed. And scores have gone down.”

French describes Ms. McBride’s understanding of her school’s and her children’s needs: “Moon Principal McBride thinks the emphasis on literacy curriculum isn’t enough for students in districts like Muskegon, where 90 percent of students are low-income and 159 students were homeless in the 2016-17 school year. Low test scores and low income go hand-in-hand across Michigan. Muskegon’s third-grade reading scores were in the third percentile in the state, but income in the district was in the bottom 1 percent in the state, with a median household income of $28,286.”

The principal would like to have enough funding to offer more support for children as well as for families. Today, “Moon elementary has a social worker one day a week and no counselors.”

The press publishes test scores and school ratings as though all schools have the same resources and as though all families have the same resources and the same needs. Unfortunately in our astoundingly unequal society, many who live in wealthier communities are unaware of the realities in communities where poverty is concentrated.

Checks and Balances Help Protect Us from Betsy DeVos

Sam Tanenhaus, the former editor of the NY Times Book Review, is quite a writer, and it is fascinating to contrast the Betsy DeVos we’ve come to know in the months since she became U.S. Secretary of Education with the Betsy DeVos we meet in Tanenhaus’s Vanity Fair profile of the western Michigan DeVos Empire.  Tanenhaus writes: “In the solar system of elite Republican contributors, Richard DeVos Sr., who died Thursday at age 92—one of the two founders of Amway, the direct-sale colossus—occupied an exalted place, and his offspring did too. Since the 1970s, members of the DeVos family had given as much as $200 million to the G.O.P. and been tireless promoters of the modern conservative movement—its ideas, its policies, and its crusades combining free-market economics, a push for privatization of many government functions, and Christian social values. While other far-right mega-donors may have become better known over the years (the Coorses and the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and the Mercers), Michigan’s DeVos dynasty stands apart—for the duration, range, and depth of its influence.”

Tanenhaus suggests that, “Trump was a useful vehicle for advancing nationally the revolution the DeVoses had already enacted in Michigan. There was, for instance, Betsy DeVos’s campaign to undo the state’s public education system and replace it with for-profit and charter schools that, as she had put it two decades earlier, shared her mission of ‘defending the Judeo-Christian values that made us what we are, but which are under attack from the liberal elite.’  There was also the campaign she and her husband had waged to weaken Michigan’s unions… Other lessons can be found in the pulp-fiction career of Betsy DeVos’s younger brother, Erik Prince, the former navy SEAL, who started Blackwater—the mammoth security company…. Behind all this is the story of a family dynasty that has been a driving force on the far right—the Michigan Medicis of Donald Trump’s America.”

So… how’s it going for Betsy after nearly 20 months on the job?

Last week a House and Senate conference committee approved a compromise education appropriations bill for FY 2019.  It must still be voted on by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, but Education Week‘s federal education policy reporter Andrew Ujifusa draws the following conclusions: “(T)hrough this agreement, members of Congress who oversee spending are sending the Trump administration a pretty clear signal about what they want to pay for and how much they want to pay… In their fiscal 2019 blueprint, the Trump team wanted to shrink or eliminate several programs.  Big-ticket items the administration wanted to eliminate include the Title IV Part A block grant (for student support and academic achievement), Title II aid for educator preparation, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers (a program that supports after-school programs).  They also wanted to shrink the budget for Impact Aid (for school districts that encompass Indian Reservations or federal military installations).  All of these programs are not only preserved in the spending deal—they get raises. The spending increases they would get aren’t huge by percentage. But Congress is sending a clear message that it sees value in those programs.”

Ujifusa continues: “It’s not fair to say that Trump and DeVos have whiffed completely on their priorities. A $40 million increase for charter school grants fits with DeVos’ general push to direct more money to school choice programs. However, that increase is $60 million less than what the president wanted for charters. He and DeVos had a lot less luck on other fronts. Lawmakers completely ignored the administration’s signature school choice proposal for next year, a $1 billion ‘opportunity grants’ program to promote choice. And more broadly Capitol Hill is so far refusing to cut spending like the Trump team wants.” The Department’s two largest and most essential grant programs—Title I to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—and funding for programming mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—receive modest increases in the appropriations agreement just reached in the House-Senate conference committee.

Unable to move her school choice agenda through Congress, DeVos’s department has taken several steps to reduce Obama-era regulations intended to protect students from unscrupulous for-profit colleges that depend on students’ borrowing from the federal government to pay tuition.  The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explain that DeVos has taken steps to cancel federal Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment rules which, during the Obama Administration, allowed students to file claims for loan forgiveness if they could prove they had been defrauded or their college had been shut down. In July, DeVos proposed new rules to “require students to prove schools knowingly deceived them if they want their federal loans canceled. And it scuttled an Obama administration provision that allowed similar claims to be processed as a group.  Instead, students will have to prove their claims individually.”

However, on September 12, a federal judge blocked DeVos’s action on Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment in a decision following a lawsuit brought by 19 states and the District of Columbia. For POLITICO, Michael Stratford reports: “A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s various delays of Obama-era regulations governing loan forgiveness for defrauding borrowers were illegal.  U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss sided with consumer advocates and Democratic attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia who had challenged the Trump administration’s postponement of the regulations, which are known as ‘borrower defense to repayment.’ DeVos had taken action to delay those rules until July 1, 2019, in order to give the Education Department enough time to rewrite them. But in a sweeping 58 page decision, the judge ruled that DeVos’ actions were ‘unlawful,’ ‘procedurally invalid,’ and ‘arbitrary and capricious.’ ”

Washington state’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson commented on the importance of Judge Moss’s decision to block cancellation of Obama-era Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment rules: “These protections prevent predatory for-profit colleges from taking advantage of student loan borrowers. Thousands of Washingtonians are shouldering crippling debt as a result of these predatory practices, and these rules offer real relief from their financial struggles. This Administration can’t arbitrarily block rules simply because it doesn’t like them.”

It is also becoming evident that the battle pitting consumer advocates and state attorneys general against the DeVos Department of Education over student borrowing will not end with Judge Moss’s recent decision. Controversy is growing around the Department’s failure to oversee the huge companies the Department of Education hires as contractors to process student loans. POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The department, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, has thrown roadblocks in front of state law enforcement officials and federal regulators who are pursing legal action against the companies, which include student loan giant Navient…. The interference with state investigations comes as consumer advocates and Democrats blast the Trump administration for dismantling a broad range of protections for students who take out federal loans to attend college… Navient, one of the largest loan servicers, is defending itself against six separate lawsuits brought by state attorneys general in Illinois, Washington, Pennsylvania, California and Mississippi as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The company is accused of overcharging borrowers and steering them into more expensive repayment plans, allegations that it denies. But the Trump administration has instructed Navient and other companies that collect federal loans to refuse demands for information by state attorneys general and others….”

Stratford continues: “DeVos told Congress in March that student loan servicers face ‘appropriate federal oversight’ by her agency.  But a July report submitted to the White House by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin criticized the Education Department’s oversight of the companies… Those concerns were also reinforced by a GAO report last month that department officials had carried out only two of six recommendations meant to address weaknesses in how the agency monitored and evaluated the student loan servicers.”

In a September 4, Washington Post column, Laura Meckler considers DeVos’s record on her lifelong purpose—the expansion of school choice. Meckler credits the check and balance of Congress for blocking the federal expansion of school privatization: “Congress already has said no to her budget proposals. A proposed tax credit supporting voucherlike scholarships has died. A new spending bill again offers little for school choice enthusiasts. And if Democrats gain power after this fall’s midterm elections, chances for action would fall even further. For all practical purposes, the fight is over and she lost.”

It has become apparent that the third branch of government, the judiciary, is now stepping in to block DeVos’s efforts to ease regulation of the for-profit colleges and student loan processors which have been ripping off vulnerable students.

All this is a sign that, at least to some degree, the checks and balances of our federal government are working to keep bad things from happening.

Ohio Releases 2018 School Report Cards, Brands Poorest School Districts with “F”s

Yesterday, Ohio released school district report cards that reflect the test-and-punish theory that if we hold schools accountable for raising students’ test scores and graduation rates, teachers will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way to raise measured achievement to high levels.  Instead, the new state report cards demonstrate just what we already knew they would.  While the 2018 school report cards in Ohio have now become official and will subject the school districts branded with “F”s to punishments like state takeover, the state has been releasing unofficial, trial-balloon school and school district grades for several years now, and every time, the school districts in the state’s wealthiest communities got “A”s while city school districts, and inner-ring suburbs got “D”s and  “F”s.

This year, 28 school districts across Ohio earned “A” ratings. Twenty-three “A”-rated school districts are located in the state’s wealthiest suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Eleven of the A-rated suburban districts are located in greater Cleveland, including five of Cuyahoga County’s privileged suburbs and six exurbs in the surrounding Geauga, Summit, Portage, Lorain and Medina Counties.  Five “A”-rated school districts are located in small towns—four in prosperous farming country in western Ohio.

Fourteen districts across Ohio received “F”s yesterday. These include the majority of the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.  Ohio’s other two big-city school districts—Cincinnati and Akron—earned “D” grades. The list of so-called “F” school districts also includes a number of very poor, segregated inner ring suburbs including East Cleveland and Euclid in greater Cleveland and North College Hill in greater Cincinnati. The two Ohio school districts currently under state takeover—Youngstown and Lorain—did not improve this year under state management; both earned “F” grades. Three school districts were waiting to learn whether the state would take them over if they earned an “F” again for the third time this year: Warrensville Heights in greater Cleveland and Trotwood-Madison in greater Dayton raised their scores to “D” and avoided the takeover. East Cleveland, among the very poorest and most racially segregated school districts in Ohio, will face state takeover, as its 2018 grade adds a third year to the district’s “F” ratings.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell has been reporting since 2013 (here and here) on what many Ohio researchers and educators believe is the correlation of the state’s school and school district grades with aggregate family income in the communities served by particular school districts.

More broadly, academic research, for half a century since the 1966 Coleman Report, has confirmed the correlation of school achievement—measured by standardized achievement tests and graduation rates—with aggregate neighborhood and family economic circumstances.  More recently, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon has shown that our society is resegregating by income with wealthy families and poor families moving to separate communities. Reardon also demonstrates that the number of mixed income communities is declining. Reardon has also shown that as our society is becoming more residentially segregated by family income, there 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.  The geographic distribution of Ohio’s 2018, “A”–“F” school grades demonstrates the growing residential segregation of our state’s metropolitan areas and the kind of economic achievement gap Reardon has identified.

In his important new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz describes the testing regime formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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)

A new report this week from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools additionally indicts what remains very unequal school funding.  While it has been repeatedly demonstrated that school districts where poverty is concentrated need extra money to meet their students’ many needs, these school districts across the United States have fewer dollars per pupil once state and local funding is combined: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources.”  The report adds, “The Education Trust found that in 2015, on average, districts with large majorities of students of color provided about $1,800 (13 percent) less per student than districts in the same state serving the fewest students of color.”  Howard Fleeter, an economist and school funding analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, confirmed in a recent report that Ohio’s current school funding formula fails to compensate for vastly unequal local fiscal capacity across Ohio’s school districts.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the broader implications of Ohio’s policy of awarding “A”–“F” grades to the state’s very unequally funded school districts—places which also reflect the geographic distribution of our society’s massive family economic inequality. While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools and publish the results, and while ESSA says that standardized test scores and graduation rates must be part of the calculation, Congress does not require states to award a single “summative” grade to each school and school district.  Several years ago in greater Cleveland, a local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress sponsored a well-attended program on how real estate websites—like Great Schools, which at the time published A-F grades for public schools (Great Schools now uses numerical ratings.)—have been redlining particular school districts and the neighborhoods in the attendance zones of particular schools. You would think these real estate websites have been violating the Fair Housing Act by steering families away from particular school districts, but they have been, in fact, merely using the information provided by the state of Ohio in the school report cards. The branding of public schools with “A”–“F” grades (or today’s Great Schools’ numerical system) encourages families who can afford it to avoid poor and mixed income school districts and buy homes in homogeneously white and wealthy exurbia.

Instead of branding Ohio’s poorest African American and Hispanic school districts with “F”s and punishing the state’s very poorest school districts with state takeover, the state should significantly increase its financial support for public schools in poor communities and encourage the development of full-service wraparound schools that provide medical and social services for families right at school.  Ohio’s system of branding the state’s poorest schools with “F” grades and imposing sanctions like state takeover undermines support for public education in school districts that desperately need strong community institutions.  The school district report cards also encourage segregation of the state’s metropolitan areas by race and family income.

Stunning New Report: How Can Our Society Repay A Long Education Debt to Our Poorest Communities?

How can our society overcome nearly a quarter century of catastrophic public education policy designed by neocons, supply side economists, billionaire privatizers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council?  A new report, released yesterday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, outlines three steps by which we can recommit ourselves to a public school system prepared to serve and nurture all of America’s children.

  1. Congress must fund fully two federal programs designed to help school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty and children with special needs: Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
  2. Together the federal government, states and local school districts must, by 2025, launch 25,000 sustainable, wraparound Community Schools to ensure that children and families in our poorest communities have access to supports that will enable the children to achieve at school; and
  3. The U.S. Department of Education must recommit itself to its primary purpose: ensuring equity across America’s over 90,000 public schools.

The report challenges federal and state governments together to address today’s reality: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per-pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources. By failing to provide adequate funding, we deny these children the chance to fulfill their potential.”

School finance is a three part bargain, with each school district taxing itself (currently roughly 45 percent of school funding); states providing revenue (currently about 47 percent) and creating a state distribution formula to overcome disparities in local capacity; and the federal government providing a relatively smaller amount (currently roughly 8 percent) to support students with particular needs and to oversee civil rights. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools outlines five policy mistakes which have compounded a fiscal crisis over time for public schools in poor communities and areas without sufficient capacity to raise funding locally:

  1. Congress has failed to fund Title I and the IDEA at the levels promised when these programs were enacted.
  2. Local funding in the poorest communities is inadequate even when the citizens make a significant tax effort; and the states have failed to distribute their funds to eradicate inequity across local school districts.
  3. Current tax policies at the federal level and in many states have become regressive in the extreme, with tax policy benefiting corporations and the very wealthy, and services for the rest of us—public schools, for example—suffering.
  4. States have increased spending for incarceration and reduced education budgets at the same time school districts have increasingly replaced counselors and social workers with what are called School Resource Officers (guards).
  5. Privatization—investments in privately operated charter schools and private school tuition vouchers—at federal, state, and local levels has deliberately devastated traditional public schools when funds are extracted to pay for charters and vouchers out of fixed or declining public school budgets.

When Congress established Title I in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the intent was to provide significant extra dollars to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—an overwhelming challenge for any school district: “Not only did lawmakers recognize the need for additional resources—they attempted to quantify it.  Embedded in the law is the authorization… to provide school districts an additional 40 percent for each Title I-eligible child so that their schools could offer supplemental supports such as reading specialists and smaller class sizes. Having established that 40 percent target in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.” In graphic form, the report demonstrates that Title I funding declined between 2005 between 2017: from 18 percent of the original 40 percent Congressional commitment in 2005 to only 12 percent today.

The report concludes: “The impact of those under-funded appropriations is wrenchingly clear. If Title I was fully funded by Congress, the nation’s high-poverty schools could provide: health and mental health services for every student…; and a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and a full-time additional counselor for every Title I school; OR a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom across the country.”

The story is similar with what was promised in 1975, when Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  But there is one difference: In the IDEA, Congress mandated specific services schools must provide for disabled students. “The financial assumption underlying IDEA is that on average, the cost of educating a child with disabilities is twice the cost of educating a non-disabled student. IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.”  Again, the report graphically presents the underfunding of the 40 percent promise. In 2005, Congress funded 18 percent of he cost of IDEA’s mandated services, and the percentage has declined since then to 15 percent today.  When funding support is lacking from the federal government for mandatory IDEA services, school districts must cover the rest of the cost with general fund dollars—meaning larger classes for the general student population, fewer counselors, no librarian, no school nurse.

Please read the report (executive summary) for a more detailed picture of where our society has gone terribly wrong and what we need to do to make it right.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools represents parents, youths, teachers, and community and labor organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.

New Report: How Big Money Has Been Swinging Elections Against Public Education

In a fine new report, the Network for Public Education Action exposes, “how the super rich buy elections to undermine public schools.” The report presents nine case studies—in Newark, New Jersey; Washington state; Los Angeles; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Louisiana; Rhode Island; Minneapolis; New York; and Denver—where billionaire dollars have been carefully invested to buy elections and promote the privatization of public education.

Who are the people investing their fortunes in privatizing public schools? The report, Hijacked by Billionaires, begins with profiles of the people who have either donated more than a million dollars to candidates or political committees or have contributed to at least three of the nine elections profiled in the case studies. The report’s index of billionaires includes Netflix’s Reed Hastings; the Walton family, founders of Walmart, and including Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, and Steuart Walton; Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The GAP; the Bloomberg family including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma; Microsoft founder Bill and his wife, Melinda Gates (The report tracks personal, not Gates Foundation gifts.); California businessman Eli Broad; co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc.; California businessman William Bloomfield; Lane Grigsby and Cajun Industries, the Louisiana construction company; former ENRON trader John Arnold and his wife Laura; the Bezos family including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his parents Jackie and Mike; venture capitalist Nick Hanauer; Samson Oil heiress Stacy Schusterman; SiliconValley venture capitalist Arthur Rock; Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective LLC; Eagle Capital Management’s Ravenel Boykin Curry IV and his wife Elizabeth; Purdue Pharma’s Jonathan Sackler; and Katherine Bradley, who is connected with three of the case studies and whose husband chairs Atlantic Media Group.

So… what’s in it for these people? “Many of the big charter chains have boards that include billionaires—allowing those who would never dream of sending their own children to a charter or neighborhood public school to direct the education of thousands of disadvantaged children. For some billionaires, charter directorship has become a source of pride and prestige. Other billionaires despise teacher unions (and all unions) and blame them for the struggles of poor students. They prefer charter schools, because more than 90% of them have no unions… Others have true disdain for democracy and believe if ordinary people govern their schools, corruption is inevitable. Still others believe that only the marketplace and consumerism can produce quality. If the marketplace and competition made them and their business successful, then surely that will work for schools too. All are united by the belief that education cures poverty and that their enormous wealth has little to do with the economic injustice and generational poverty that plagues our cities and rural communities… The billionaires’ refusal to confront the importance of poverty and its negative effects on school performance suggests that their focus on school choice is meant to distract us from policy changes that would really help children, such as increasing the equity and adequacy of (public) school funding, reducing class sizes, providing medical care and nutrition for students, and other specific efforts to meet the needs of children and families.”

Here are brief summaries of three of the report’s case studies:

After a string of failures, Washington State finally passed a ballot initiative to permit charter schools: “In November 2012, Washington State voters passed the Charter School Ballot Initiative 1240, which provided for the establishment of up to 40 charter schools within five years.  It passed by a very slim margin, 50.69% in favor, to 49.31% opposed. This was Washington State’s fourth charter school ballot initiative with the first three attempts having failed in 1996… 2000… and 2004…  In addition to ballot initiatives, pro-charter legislation had been proposed and failed.”  Who were the billionaires who invested enough to get the initiative passed in 2012? The largest investors from within Washington were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft; venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer; and Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Large out-of-state investment came from Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Education Reform Now, based in New York, the 501(c)(4), dark-money affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. The report lists other investors, including $1.1 million from Alice Walton.

In 2011, a huge influx of out-of-state money tipped the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: “John White spent two years as a teacher with Teach for America. He later became an executive director of TFA in both Chicago and New Jersey and a deputy superintendent in New York City under ‘reform’ chancellor Joel Klein. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal decided he wanted White as his state superintendent… The only problem was that Jindal did not believe that Louisiana’s then current state board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), would deliver enough votes in support of White.  In Louisiana, the state superintendent is determined by a supermajority of BESE members—at least eight out of the total eleven must vote a candidate into office….”  Jindal reached out to his friend Jeb Bush and the political influence of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and an alliance of pro-corporate-reform state school superintendents Jeb had convened—Chiefs for Change.  Members of both groups reached out to key allies to help fund the 2011 BESE election: Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad, John and Laura Arnold, Alice and Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner.  Smaller gifts came from Arthur Rock, Reed Hastings, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  From within Louisiana, the Grigsby family and Cajun Industries donated a quarter of a million dollars. BESE was flipped to Jindal’s satisfaction, and John White, Jindal’s favorite candidate for state superintendent—the guy favoring Teach for America—was approved by the new BESE.

The third example among NPE’s case studies is of New York, a state where Wall Street money has made Governor Andrew Cuomo a strong supporter of charter schools: “Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, Andrew Cuomo received generous contributions in exchange for his support of charter schools…  When Cuomo sought money from the hedge fund community, it was made clear that he needed to support their pro-charter agenda… In exchange for Cuomo’s support of charters, charter board members became extraordinarily generous to the Cuomo campaign. One donor was the Great Public Schools PAC, started by the controversial Success Academy Charter School leader, Eva Moskowitz.” Success Academy Charters’ board members have been primary contributors: Dan Loeb, Bruce Kovner, Joel Greenblatt and his wife Julia, Bryan Binder, Daniel Nir and his wife Jill Braufman, Andra and Dana Stone, Kent Yalowitz, Catherine Shainker, Jarret Posner, Suleman Lunat, and John Petry.  The list of New York and Connecticut donors to Cuomo campaigns—people who are connected with charter schools, and even in some who own construction companies that build charter schools—continues for three pages.  In Cuomo’s 2014 bid for reelection, “All the efforts and contributions made by charter advocates paid off.  In the final two months of the election, Andrew Cuomo outspent his Republican gubernatorial opponent… five to one… Post-election, Andrew Cuomo Inc., was left with about $9 million for his next campaign.”

The Network for Public Education Action urges readers to follow the money in their own states. “Education reform billionaires are trying to buy elections across the country… The Citizens United decision allows corporations and other groups and individuals to form Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) called Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs). These IECs are allowed to ‘spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate.'” However, because Independent Expenditure Committees are required to report their contributors to the Federal Election Committee, the report’s authors were able to document many of the names of contributors.

NPE Action’s new report that tracks an enormous web of wealthy givers trying to undermine public schools across the states is disturbing.  The report traces the massive political power of people whose fortunes have grown with today’s exploding inequality.  In his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas worries about the same trend. Giridharadas challenges the power of money in our modern Gilded Age: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (pp. 10-11) (This blog explored Giridharadas’s new book here.)