After Three Decades, New York Legislature Finally Passes Budget To Equalize Public School Funding

In 2007, New York State agreed to comply with a court mandate to invest five and a half billion dollars over four years—and maintain the investment annually—to equalize school funding in a state with vast differences in wealth and alarming disparities in public school funding across its 688 public school districts.  But in 2008, when the Great Recession hit, New York never invested the promised money in the education of the state’s children.

Last week, however, when both chambers of the state legislature agreed on the 2021-2022 state budget, New York promised once again to invest substantially in the education of its children and finally to comply with the court’s requirement, under the decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, for a legislative remedy.

Rochesterfirst.com reports: “The FY 2022 Enacted Budget provides $29.5 billion in State funding to school districts for the 2021-22 school year through School Aid, the highest level of State aid ever, supporting the operational costs of school districts that educate 2.5 million students statewide. This investment represents an increase of $3.0 billion (11.3 percent) compared to the 2020-21 school year, including a $1.4 billion (7.6 percent) Foundation Aid increase. Approximately 75 percent of this increase is targeted to high-need school districts.”

The NY Daily News’ Michael Elsen-Rooney explains the implications for the public schools in New York City, where over 1 million of the state’s children are enrolled in the nation’s largest school district: “A state budget agreement… includes a long-awaited windfall for New York City schools that could pad the city education budget by more than $1 billion annually by 2023.  Legislative budget documents… include an agreement to fully fund the state’s court-mandated ‘Foundation Aid’ formula for distributing money to school districts based on need. State education funding currently falls about $4 billion short of the amount the formula calls for—a shortfall that advocates and lawmakers have been fighting to reverse for more than a decade. The budget agreement will phase in the additional funding over three years, with state foundation aid spending likely to increase by roughly $1.4 billion each of the next three years.  When the additional funds are fully phased in, the city’s education budget could grow by more than $1 billion a year by 2023, advocates and analysts say.”

Last week’s legislative victory in New York has been a long time coming. For two decades, New York’s Alliance for Quality Education has led statewide organizing in the fight for fair school funding.  AQE’s executive director, Jasmine Gripper thanks all those who have worked with AQE over the years to stand up for New York’s children: “We are so humbled by every one of the parents, community leaders, students, educators, and elected officials who have stood alongside us through the years and never stopped pushing New York to finally do right by our students and fund the state’s own equitable school funding formula Foundation Aid. The Alliance for Quality Education has worked with our coalition partners Citizen Action of New York, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice to build a statewide force of parent power to lead and anchor this fight. The fight to hold the State to its obligation to fund public education has always been deeply steeped in racial justice; the majority of Foundation Aid remaining is due to school districts with 40 percent or more Black and Latinx students. The full funding of Foundation Aid that will be provided to schools over the next three years represents a major step toward racial and economic equity in education.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education credits the work of the Alliance for Quality Education and its partners for the work that paid off in New York’s new budget: “But the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was always more than just a lawsuit: it was at the heart of a renaissance of educational justice organizing across the state… While attorneys were making arguments in courthouses, there were parents, students, and educators rallying on the steps outside. Academics and researchers pored through spreadsheets and made records requests to find out just how much schools were being underfunded. Parents and students organized in their schools and neighborhoods to educate and organize their peers. And seasoned advocates were making ever-stronger cases for funding equity to policymakers under the capitol dome in Albany… In the last several years, the hard-fought battles, consistent parent and youth organizing—and two 150 mile marches to Albany—began to pay off.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed the lawsuit for equitable school funding in 1993. The Schott Foundation examines the purpose of the lawsuit and the serious injustice that has persisted for New York’s children until last week: “The 2021-22 New York State budget meets a thirty-year-old demand and thirteen-year-old broken promise: equitably fund New York State’s public schools so that no matter what zip code a child resides in, there is a baseline of quality their public schools can afford to meet. The massive, downright Dickensian difference in funding between schools that sometimes are mere blocks from each other has been a hallmark of New York’s public education system for generations. In 2012, a Schott Foundation report on the particularly stark disparities in New York City described it as educational redlining: schools with predominantly white children were far better funded—and unsurprisingly, had higher academic outcomes—than schools with predominantly Black and Latinx children. We found similar disparity with income as well… ‘A black or Hispanic student, or a student of any race or ethnicity from a low-income household, is most likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools.'”

“By 2012, it shouldn’t have been that way. Five years earlier, in 2007, the 13-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit concluded in a victory for public schools: New York State agreed, under court mandate, to commit more than $5.5 billion in funding over four years to equitably fund all public schools. 70% of that funding was to go to the lowest-income school districts, whose property tax bases couldn’t compare with those of wealthier cities and neighborhoods.  However, this funding, known as Foundation Aid, never fully materialized.  Between the 2008 financial crisis and a wave of budget cuts by legislators, what should have been a decade of equity became one of austerity.”

Cardona’s Flexibility on Standardized Testing Creates Confusion and Rancor

After a chaotic schoolyear including remote learning and sometimes complicated hybrid schedules of in-person and remote learning, students are returning to full-time school to face the annual standardized tests. These are the tests that Congress requires under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They are the foundation of a two-decade-old scheme to hold schools accountable. Betsy DeVos cancelled required standardized testing last spring after schools shut down as the pandemic struck the Unites States.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in late February, before Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was even confirmed, that it is requiring standardized testing this spring. There is a whole lot of confusion between the federal government and the states right now because the federal guidance about testing this year features “flexibility.”

Here is some of the letter, dated February 22, 2021, from acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum, a letter which informed states they must test students this year: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

The letter explains further what is permissible: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

As you might expect, states and school districts are responding in very different ways to the federal requirement that testing continue as usual. The New York Daily News reports: “New York City will hold in-person standardized tests for elementary and middle school students this spring…. But districts have extra latitude this year on how to set up their exams, and New York City education officials said that they will only offer the exams to families who opt in.”

New Jersey Spotlight‘s John Mooney reports that Cardona’s Department of Education has given the state permission to put off testing until next fall and offer a different, shorter test: “In a letter this week, the federal Department of Education said the state’s plan to conduct a shorter test in the fall—“Start Strong”—would suffice in meeting federal requirements for annual testing, as long as districts continue less formal, in-class assessments this spring as well.”

And U.S. NewsLauren Camera reports that Secretary Cardona’s Department of Education seems to have contradicted itself by granting a district-wide testing waiver for this school year to the District of Columbia: “The decision, outlined in a letter sent to District of Columbia Public Schools officials on Wednesday, cites the staggering number of students who are still learning fully remote more than a year after the onset of the pandemic—roughly 88% of the city’s 51,000 students as of the end of March—and the likelihood that little usable data would be gleaned by administering a test to the few students who are learning in person. ‘Very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring,’ Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote in the letter. ‘This would also likely result in D.C. education officials not being able to report much, if any data, due to minimum subgroup size for reporting and the need to protect personally identifiable information.'”

Camera adds that Rosenblum’s blanket waiver to the D.C. public schools “has drawn the ire of education officials in other states, including Georgia, New York, and South Carolina” who also submitted formal requests for blanket state waivers this school year.

For Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad explain that, while the Department of Education approved a request from Oregon to reduce the number of tests given this spring and a similar request from Colorado, it has rejected a formal request from Michigan despite “the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state and the decision by Detroit schools and other Michigan districts to shift back to remote learning this week.”

Two months of protests—from deans of colleges of education, more than 500 educational researchers, experts on the dangers of the use of standardized testing for school accountability since the passage of No Child Behind, and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have made little difference.

Lauren Camera reports that Secretary Miguel Cardona continues to claim: “Using statewide assessments to assess where students are are one indicator we can use to make sure the $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan is going toward the students who have the greatest need and have the most deficit.”  But the testing scheme created by No Child Left Behind has never driven financial support to the school districts serving the nation’s poorest students whose needs are greatest.  The standardized tests have always been the foundation for test-and-punish accountability, driving reforms like state takeovers and school closures and state report cards that brand the poorest communities with F-rated schools.

It would now appear that the Department’s “flexible” guidance is already creating rancor and chaos as states struggle to comply and officials notice that the rules are not being applied consistently.  And as Peter Greene recently pointed out in his Forbes column, the testing this year cannot possibly create valid or reliable data:

“It is completely understandable that education leaders and policymakers and even editorial kibbitzers would like to have a clear, data-rich description of where students across the country are right now. There’s just one problem. They can’t have it. They certainly can’t get it from the Big Standardized Test. That’s in part because it will be anything but a standardized test. D.C. has been given a waiver based on the number of students attending school remotely, which means that other districts also qualify under the Education Department’s ideas about flexibility. New York City schools are the first to make the tests opt-in, meaning only the students who choose to take them will. Across the country, some students will take the test remotely, and some will take it in school… Some number of students across the country will opt out. Some will take a shorter version of the test. Some will test in the spring, and some in the fall. Other students will take the test carrying any number of traumas with them from home. And many students will take the test without the usual weeks of test prep, so that their answers will not reflect a lack of skills or knowledge, but a lack of familiarity with the language and expectations of the testing format itself. In short, nothing about the taking of the test will be standardized. The 2021 tests will generate a spoonful of data dissolved in an ocean of noise…. Nor will there be a useful framework into which the data can be plugged. Any comparison of 2021 data to where students are ‘supposed’ to be requires data crunchers to extrapolate data from two years ago, creating test results that they imagine would have happened this year in a universe without a pandemic.” (emphasis in the original)

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” —John Adams

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California.  A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.”  Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”

Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”

In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education.  Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming.  To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,  pp. 279-280)

What makes the preservation of public education so important?  Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.  
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns a turnaround strategy.
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score proficient on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!

Educational Researchers Demand Cancellation of Spring 2021 Tests: Secretary Cardona Won’t Cancel, but Says In Future He May Reexamine Role of Testing

On Tuesday, in remarks at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona declared that he will not bow to pressure and will instead continue demanding that standardized tests be administrated this year again as usual, despite that COVID-19 has utterly upended another school year.  Last year Betsy DeVos cancelled the tests as schools shut down in March.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported on Wednesday: “A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams…. (H)e said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,’ he said.”

On Monday, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter urgently asking Secretary Cardona to cancel the federally required standardized achievement tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. America’s standardized testing regime was mandated in January of 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act and, in 2015, folded into that law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The federal government set up the testing regime as the foundation of a massive school accountability scheme that ranked and rated America’s public schools and set out to turnaround (mostly through a cascade of sanctions) the poorest performing schools as measured by the tests. It was said that all of America’s youth would score “proficient” by 2014. Today we know that the law did not improve academic achievement overall and that it failed to close academic achievement gaps by race and family economics. In fact damage for students, their schools, and their teachers followed instead.

The letter, sent to Cardona on Monday from a large body of academic researchers in education, directly questions the value of forcing public schools to administer standardized tests this spring as being not only impractical and burdensome for school districts when some students are learning in class and others online, but unlikely to produce complete or reliable data. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beyond Test Scores Project, and authored by Jack Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Lorrie Shephard, Michelle Renee Valladares, and Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A list several pages long contains the names of 544 additional academic researchers.

Here are the concerns the researchers identify about the gathering of data through standardized tests this spring: “First, we strongly urge USED to work with states to approve requests for flexibility as they attempt to limit statewide testing, especially in states where significant numbers of students are still engaged in remote learning and where the state request has identified alternative data sources that can meet state needs.  This recommendation is based on the following: The results of remotely administered tests will not be equivalent to the results of in-person testing. Great variability in participation rates and non-random selection bias make it impossible to compare results across schools or between this year and previous years… (T)here is no way to prevent misinterpretation and misuse of these highly flawed data.”

The researchers also caution about the use of data, once gathered, from any administration of standardized tests this year: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed.  But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa interviewed Secretary Cardona. Ujifusa asked about Cardona’s decision to continue standardized tests this year, while being willing to work with states and offer some degree of flexibility. In his answer, Cardona expresses some of the same concerns the researchers raise in Monday’s letter about the past two decades’ uses of standardized testing: “To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse.  So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for (labeling) schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that. We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for (educator) evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year. However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion (in federal COVID-19 aid for schools), any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and (addressing) lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important. The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in come places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.” (Parenthetical statements are Ujifusa’s.)

While Secretary Cardona seems to share some of the researchers’ concerns, we will need to observe his actions carefully in upcoming months as he takes over a federal department that has been mired for twenty years in a scheme organized to stigmatize and punish the schools and teachers serving poor children. These tests have never been used to drive the allocation of resources on a scale that would help the students in the school districts where our society’s poorest children are segregated. Will Cardona change a department which has tried to shape up low scoring schools by inducing states to punish and sometimes fire the principal and the teachers, or by imposing school closures or state takeovers, or by encouraging states to locate privatized charter schools or offer private school vouchers to students in those districts?

In his recent book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black highlights the massive school funding inequity that has endured throughout the past twenty years of standardized, test-based school accountability: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need. (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Widespread Attacks on Voting Rights and Attempts to Privatize Public Schools Together Threaten Democracy

In Friday’s NY Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie reflected on Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s first speech on the Senate floor:

“Warnock is the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and only the second elected from the South since Reconstruction. His presence on the Senate floor is historic just on its own.  It represents progress—and yet it is also evocative of the past. A Black lawmaker from the South, urging his mostly white colleagues to defend the voting rights of millions of Americans is, to my mind, an occasion to revisit one particular episode in the history of American democracy: the fight in Congress over the Civil Rights Act of 1875.”

Bouie summarizes what was in this bill, proposed by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in a Reconstruction Congress right after the Civil War: “As originally written, Sumner’s bill would, ‘Secure equal rights in railroads, steamboats, public conveyances, hotels, licensed theaters, houses of public entertainment, common schools, and institutions of learning authorized by law, church institutions, and cemetery associations incorporated by national or State authority; also on juries in courts, national and State.'” In 1871, the bill was repeatedly blocked in committee, but Senator Sumner reintroduced it in modified form in 1873: “This revised bill added a clause that stated that ‘no citizen of the United States shall, by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, be excepted or excluded from full and equal enjoyment’ of ‘common schools and public institutions of learning, the same being supported by moneys derived from general taxation or authorized by law.'”

School integration held up the bill’s passage, however, and when it finally passed in 1875, “It did so without the schools clause.” “It was the schools clause that proved especially controversial… (O)pponents saw school desegregation as collapsing a distinction between public rights that would allow the government to invade all provinces of an individual’s life.”

Senator Raphael Warnock addressed his colleagues last week not about the denial of educational rights but about the attack on voting rights during the recent election and in a rash of new attempts to block legislation which would guarantee access to the ballot box: “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era… This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Here in Ohio right now, we are in the midst of a three part discussion of Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning. Black, a professor of constitutional law, views denial of the protection of each citizen’s right to vote and the denial of the protection of each child’s right to education as tightly woven threats to our democracy: “Two hundred years ago our founding fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown to the world at the time. The first was democracy—what they called a republican form of government. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined… Our founding ideas, though flawed in their initial implementation, were compelling enough to take root and bear fruit for generations to come. The contradiction between our democratic ideas and practical reality was also strong enough to spark a Civil War and then constitutional change. The post-war Constitution prohibited racial voting restrictions, and then later gender and wealth restrictions. Another century later, the nation doubled down on those ideas through the Voting Rights Act…. The story of public education goes hand in hand with democracy and voting. That story, however, is not as well told… This book mines that history to help us better see who we are and have been—for better and for worse.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 10-11)

Black devotes two chapters to the urgent demand for public schools from freed slaves and a few years later during Reconstruction constitutional conventions when African Americans represented their constituents across the South.  He quotes a resolution passed by an African American Freedman’s convention in Arkansas in 1865: “Clothe us with the power of self-protection, by giving us our equality before the law and the right of suffrage, so we may become bona fide citizens of the state…. That we are… the foundation on which the future power and wealth of the State of Arkansas must be built… we respectfully ask the Legislature to provide for the education of our children.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 99)

Just as Senator Warnick worries that attacks on voting rights in 2021 are reminiscent of the years after the collapse of Reconstruction as Jim Crow state legislatures undermined voting rights, Derek Black worries that today’s trends in public education threaten protection of the public educational system that has been central to preparing citizens for the responsibilities of democracy.  Black explains: “The last decade aligns better with the darker periods of our history than the brighter ones.  The trend is alarming not just for public education. It is alarming for democracy itself.”(Schoolhouse Burning, p.12)

Black examines what has happened to public schools across the states during the Great Recession which began in 2008 and in the years since: “The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Jim Crow and the civil rights backlash saw attacks on public education, too. But those attacking public education did not claim public education was the problem. Rather, black people and the cost and inconvenience of extending equality to black people were the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Black summarizes the trends that concern him: “Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened. Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 226-227)

Black concludes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement.”  And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…. (W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education. (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-243)

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Begins to Rectify Injustice in Department’s College Loan Program

Last Thursday, March 18, 2021, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona rescinded a policy devised by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, for processing complaints by students who claimed to have been defrauded by unscrupulous for-profit colleges and trade schools. DeVos’s policy denied debt relief for thousands of students whose complaints were not carefully or fairly considered.

The U.S. Department of Education manages an enormous higher education loan program which has been criticized by borrowers and members of Congress alike—all concerned that under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, student borrowers were left unprotected after for-profit colleges and trade schools induced them to take out big loans for shoddy education programs. Because these institutions are highly dependent on federal student loans to cover their operating expenses, they too frequently prey on students and military veterans with fraudulent advertising about the nature and quality of the programs to which they lure students. A federal rule called “the borrower defense to repayment” is supposed to protect students by cancelling their student loans when the students can prove the schools’ promises were fraudulent.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains the significance of Cardona’s action last week: “About 72,000 people will have their federal loans canceled after Education Secretary Miguel Cardona… scrapped a plan to give partial debt relief to students defrauded by their colleges, ending a controversial policy instituted by his predecessor Betsy DeVos. The move… amounts to roughly $1 billion in debt relief.  But it only addresses a subset of the nearly 200,000 people who have filed claims in the last six years under… ‘borrower defense to repayment.'”

Inside Higher Education‘s Lilah Burke reviews DeVos’s widely criticized scheme for calculating how students’ debt could be erased once adjudicators determined they had been defrauded: “(I)f a borrower’s claim that they were cheated was accepted, the Education Department determined loan relief based on a formula. If a borrower’s earnings after graduation were two standard deviations below the median for similar programs, the department granted the borrower full relief. If the borrower’s earnings were below the median, but not by two standard deviations, the department granted 25, 50, or 75 percent relief.  Under the Obama administration, the department recommended full relief for borrowers that attended the (now closed) for-profit chains Corinthian College and ITT Technical Institute. DeVos said the policies were too generous with taxpayer money and debuted the formula in December 2019.”

Now under Secretary Cardona’s leadership, Douglas-Gabriel reports: “(T)he department will revive the Obama-era policy.  Borrowers whose claims have been approved, including those who previously received partial loan relief, will have a path to a full loan discharge. The department will reimburse any amounts paid on the loans, request credit bureaus to remove negative reporting tied to the debt and reinstate federal aid eligibility…. Eligible borrowers will be notified in the coming weeks.”

Douglas-Gabriel adds that there remain limitations and that Cardona’s department will need to go through a formal process to correct DeVos’s version of ‘borrower defense to repayment’: “The new policy only applies to claims that have been approved to date, not any that are still under review or those that have been rejected. A senior department official told reporters Thursday the agency is reviewing the best approach for those claims going forward. The Biden administration said it will also pursue an overhaul of the prior administration’s rewrite of the borrower defense rules, a process that will require new rulemaking.”

There have been complaints for years about DeVos’s overhaul of the Department of Education’s processing of complaints from indebted students who claim they were defrauded by false advertising. It has also been well known that after she took over the department, a huge backlog of complaints piled up as she balked at processing them. In a New York Times report last week, Stacy Cowley reports on recently uncovered evidence demonstrating that when Betsy DeVos was pressured to begin processing complaints, some of which dated back to the Obama administration, she set up a process that violated the rights of the indebted students:

“The documents were obtained under court order by lawyers in the class-action case, which involves more than 200,000 people who brought claims under a relief program known as borrower defense to repayment… (T)he lawsuit, filed in 2019 in federal court in San Francisco, sought to compel the department to review claims that had languished for as long as four years. In a settlement agreement struck last year, the department agreed to speed things up and make decisions.”

Cowley continues: “Nearly 95 percent of the borrowers in the case whose claims were decided were rejected, according to court filings.” “In Ms. DeVos’s final year in office, her agency denied nearly 130,000 claims—far surpassing the 9,000 rejections in the prior five years—with a system that pressured workers to speed through applications in a matter of minutes…. The department aimed to process 5,000 applications a week.. a standard that required agency employees to adjudicate claims that could stretch to hundreds of pages in less than 12 minutes. Those who did it faster were eligible for bonuses; those who took longer risked being fired. Agency employees rejected claims… for not including written evidence that borrowers were never required to submit.” “After the borrowers’ lawyers complained, Judge William Alsup rejected the settlement in October.  His ruling strongly criticized the department for ‘issuing perfunctory denial notices utterly devoid of meaningful explanation at a blistering pace.'”

Betsy DeVos is no longer operating a college loan program for the benefit of for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of the rights of their students who have, for years in many cases, been awaiting consideration of their particular cases.  It is a good thing that Miguel Cardona, the new Secretary of Education, has begun to correct longstanding injustice in the Department’s adjudication of student loan complaints.

Disciplining Ourselves to Stay On Message and Make a Difference for Our Children and Their Public Schools

Over 50 million children and adolescents attend public schools in the United States. Our public schools are spread across every city, town, suburb and rural area. And because they are established and regulated by laws, they embody a promise to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children. The protections embodied in our laws have expanded over more than two centuries as our society’s understanding of children’s rights and needs has grown.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black reminds readers about the history and significance of our public system of education along with the protection of voting rights as the two central guarantees of our democracy: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together by public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 225) “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)

Here in Ohio, we’ve been discussing Derek Black’s new book—about 80 of us gathered on ZOOM. Despite the awkwardness of being together for an entirely online event, one advantage of ZOOM is that we were able to invite Derek Black himself to help launch our first evening’s conversation. He presented an introduction to the book’s history of the founding of public schools and all the subsequent threats to public education—as Reconstruction faded into the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as resistance to Brown v. Board of Education met with opposition strong enough to close public schools for four years between 1959 and 1963 and deny public schooling for the African American children in Prince Edward County, Virginia—and as today public schools face an overwhelming financial drain from charter schools and private school tuition vouchers in an era characterized by tax cutting across many states. Last Wednesday evening, Black concluded his formal remarks by reminding us—all supporters of public education—of the need for disciplined messaging as we try to fight the forces working to undermine our neighborhood public schools.

In the book itself Black explains: “Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you… they want to improve educational opportunity.  If you aren’t sure about that, you will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess… (T)oday’s policy debates skew our frame of reference, trick us into looking at the wrong measures of education’s value and purpose, and distract us from the fundamental questions about the role of public education in our democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 49-50)

Derek Black himself discusses some of these same policy questions in his book, but he urges all of us who cover the debates in education policy to remember to pay close attention to framing the issues.  We need to articulate not only the threats but also the meaning and importance of the institution we are defending. And he would have us remember that today’s threats to taxpayer supported public education are historically connected to the period after the collapse of Reconstruction, when lawmakers in states recently readmitted to the union figured out how to segregate Black children and push them into inferior public schools by making education funding rely more and more on local property taxes. Historically we also should remember that the widespread racial and economic segregation of public schools today is the legacy of the more recent past—the post Civil Rights Movement, when wealth and privilege and racism expressed themselves in court decisions that banned desegregation across jurisdictional boundaries and encouraged families with means to insulate their children in exclusive exurbs.

One particular framing concern I find myself and others struggling to overcome is that, as we try to identify the people and organizations pushing bad policy, we forget to to follow through with a clear definition of precisely how that particular person or organization is undermining the public schools Derek Black holds up as our most important democratic institution.  While it is good to know, for example, that Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children or Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd or Democrats for Education Reform or the Heritage Foundation or EdChoice or the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is actively working to undermine public policy with dollars contributed by wealthy Americans, and while it is important to know the names of specific donors, these facts are not enough.  Advocates must also explicitly demonstrate first, what dangerous policy steps that organization or individual is taking to bring about an outcome; second, how that specific policy will directly undermine the public schools in our particular state or local school district; and third, the logic and steps we must employ to counter that policy.

In Chicago, for example, many people accepted Arne Duncan’s (and later Rahm Emanuel’s) neoliberal Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion project as a nice experiment that might bring more choices to Chicago’s families with few choices. But advocates like Jitu Brown—an organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (and now leader of the Journey4Justice Alliance)—realized that what Renaissance 2010 was really accomplishing was the closure of neighborhood public schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. In 2016, Jitu Brown and other advocates protested the closure of Dyett High School with a 34 day hunger strike. Their advocacy and their action eventually reopened Dyett High School as a public neighborhood high school. After 50 Chicago neighborhood public schools were shut down due to charter school competition in June of 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist Eve Ewing chronicled the massive and widespread community grieving that followed. Renaissance 2010 is a Portfolio School Reform policy to expand charters, and it’s always good to point that out, and even to point out that the theory came from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education.  And it is fine to note that it was Arne’s policy later endorsed by Rahm. But what challenged Chicago to look hard at the danger of public-school-destruction was community advocacy about the meaning of the the school closures themselves. Advocates demonstrated that when Chicago tried Renaissance 2010, it destroyed public education across some of that city’s proud but poor Black neighborhoods.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black pushes advocates to do a better job of framing: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then committed to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, 238-243)

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber had a way of capturing the principles we must learn to name explicitly  as we advocate for the public schools.  Barber wrote:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber almost perfectly formulates the problem that threatens our public schools in 2021: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)