More School Closures Planned in Chicago

Last week the Chicago Public Schools announced a massive plan for school mergers and closures.  Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common… The proposals will be the subject of public hearings in January ahead of a Chicago Board of Education vote.”

Why this announcement now?  WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp reports, “Chicago Public Schools has lost 32,000 students over the last five years, nearly the same enrollment drop as in the 10-year period leading up to the closures of 50 elementary schools in 2013.  Those missing students could fill 53 average-sized Chicago schools.  This massive enrollment decline comes as a self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018… The school system must announce by Dec. 1 any proposed closures for its more than 600 schools.”

Karp, who covered the Chicago Public Schools for Catalyst before the magazine’s closure, explains that expansion of charter schools has exacerbated enrollment decline in the traditional public schools: “But the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines.  High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today.  Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

In a special report for the Chicago Tribune, Juan Perez, Jr.  describes what has happened at Tilden High School on Chicago’s South Side:  “Over the last decade, the district has expanded the number of high school options families can choose from, with the growth of independently run schools such as charters and of selective enrollment programs… At the same time, enrollment has plummeted. From 2006-2015, overall CPS enrollment declined by more than 21,000 students. Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, the district has lost close to 21,000 additional students.  District officials blame much of the enrollment loss on falling birthrates, slower immigration patterns and the well-documented flight of residents from the city’s South and West sides. The numbers have left Tilden and many other schools facing a slow death.”

Parents and activists in Chicago blame the school district for under-investing in the high schools the new plan slates for consolidation or closure. One of the ways the district has accelerated the demise of some schools is through a policy Karp describes as zero-enrollment. After the district stops assigning students to a school, eventually so few students are left that the school is no longer viable. But public officials respond by blaming what our society has come come to call the “failing” school itself. Perez Jr. identifies another issue: the way Chicago allocates funding.  In Chicago, the money follows the student, which means that schools with dwindling enrollment can afford fewer teachers and fewer programs that might attract students.  It is a downward spiral.

In a report published just a year ago, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, challenges school districts like Chicago, where, despite the trend of smaller families and despite ongoing enrollment decline from out-migration, officials promote privatization and competition via rapid expansion of charter schools: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Here is a similar analysis in a report published in March, 2017, from Roosevelt University in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

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House Republicans Release Proposal for Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

Last Friday, as the U.S. Senate was debating and passing its version of the tax overhaul, House Republicans introduced a major bill—a proposal for reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act.  Just as it took longer than the recommended five years to reauthorize the K-12, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (from  passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 to passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015), Congress has delayed updating the Higher Education Act, which was supposed to expire in 2013. Everyone predicts months of debate on the issues proposed in the new House bill.

The bill is 542 pages long, which makes it impossible to summarize comprehensively.  Recent reports from Benjamin Wermund at POLITICO Morning Education, from Daniele Douglas-Gabriel at the Washington Post, from Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week, and from Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell and Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal do, however, indicate the bill’s overall direction—rejecting regulation of for-profit colleges established in the Obama Department of Education—changing the federal student loan program—and emphasizing the connection of higher education to the needs of employers. The liberal arts are underappreciated in this bill, named by its sponsors “The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act”—the PROSPER Act.

Easing Regulations on For-Profit Colleges

It is clear that for-profit colleges would once again prosper under the PROSPER Act. The bill would eliminate regulations instituted during the Obama Administration to regulate these institutions, particularly those whose career training programs are so weak that graduates are not qualified for subsequent employment.  Here is POLITICO‘s Wermund: “Much of the proposal is aimed at scrapping Obama-era regulations—and making sure they stay gone.  Those regulations include ‘gainful employment’ and ‘borrorower’s defense to repayment’ rules, which cut off federal funding to career college programs that produce graduates with large debt loads and provide debt relief to defrauded student loan borrowers, respectively.”  Colleges like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institute were put out of business through Obama-era regulation. The PROSPER Act would prohibit the Education Secretary from creating such rules in the future.

The PROSPER Act also eliminates the 90-10 Rule, which sets an already very liberal 90 percent cap on the amount of revenue any higher education institution may receive from Title IV federal student aid.  The 90-10 rule has been used to try to regulate the for-profit colleges which depend for virtually all of their revenue on federal student loans—with a high default rate when students discover their subsequent income is so meager they cannot repay their loans.

Student Loans

With a hold-harmless to protect students already in the program, The PROSPER Act would eliminate the opportunity for graduates to have student loans forgiven after ten years if they have made payments for 10 years and worked in jobs that benefit the public sector.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Douglas-Gabriel: “The plan, much like the White House budget (proposed but never as yet enacted), would do away with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that wipes away federal student debt for people in the public sector who have reliably made payments for ten years. The program, enacted in 2007 under President George W. Bush, was designed to encourage college graduates to pursue careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders, or doctors in rural areas.”

The PROSPER Act would collapse eight current federal loan programs into two and set limits on federal borrowing: $39,000 for undergraduates (up from $31,000 today), $150,000 for graduate students, and $56,250 for parents.  According to Douglas-Gabriel, “As it stands, people can opt to have their monthly loan payments capped to a percentage of their earnings, with the remaining balance of the debt forgiven after 20 or 25 years. The House plan would eliminate that loan forgiveness, but cap the interest payments on the loan after 10 years.”

Emphasizing Career Prep

Without explicitly castigating the liberal arts and the sciences, rhetoric about the PROSPER Act emphasizes career preparation—even as the bill eases regulations on for-profit colleges with shoddy programs that have left graduates ill-prepared for the jobs the colleges promise.  The Wall Street Journal reporters describe, “Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which drafted the proposal, (who) lamented that so much of higher education was considered ‘irrelevant’ by employers.  She hopes to better harness technology by pushing accreditors to lean on schools to accept more creative alternatives to higher education: ‘Since the last bill came out, we had a big recession and tremendous technological changes,’ she said. ‘We have a shortage of 6 million skilled workers. What we want to do is help colleges provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.’  The PROSPER Act aims to expand apprenticeships and competency-based education along with more ‘learn and earn’ opportunities, said Rep. Foxx, a former community college president.”

The WSJ reporters predict that The PROSPER Act will be extremely unpopular with leaders of traditional colleges and universities.  Belkin explains: “The act focuses on ensuring students don’t just enroll in school, but actually graduate with skills that the labor market is seeking.” They quote Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation: “You will get nontraditional actors like companies that provide coursework for apprenticeships.”

Surely it is advantageous for graduates of any program to be employable, but higher education has additional important goals. Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has explored the role of education in general and of community colleges in particular, recently suggested in his personal blog that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

I urge you to read Rose’s reflection on the many purposes of college, graduate school, and post-secondary career training.  The debate about the role of  higher education is complex. It will be much debated in what will likely be months or maybe years of wrangling before the Higher Education Act is eventually reauthorized.

Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?

An important piece by Rebecca Mead in this week’s New Yorker takes us into Eva Moskowitz’s very controversial Success Academy charter schools in New York City. Mead explains the point of her piece: “For all the controversy, one question has, surprisingly, been overlooked: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Success Academy education?”

Mead’s subtitle names a contradiction at the center of Moskowitz’s educational theory: “Inside Eva Moskowitz’s Quest to Combine Rigid Discipline with a Progressive Curriculum.” Even as Moskowitz defends the rigid and punitive discipline for which her schools are famous (In Mead’s piece, Moskowitz is quoted as defending the suspension of young children out of school as an important way of impressing a lesson on children and their parents.), Moskowitz claims John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as a guide to what happens in her schools. Moskowitz describes her curriculum as an example of progressivism—“circle time on the classroom rug; interdisciplinary projects that encompass math, science, social studies, and literacy.”  The question that underlies Mead’s analysis is whether it is possible to run a progressive school with no-excuses discipline.

While on one level Mead entertains Moskowitz’s rhetoric about progressivism, Mead seems puzzled by the circle time on the classroom rug: “In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square there was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion.  The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as ‘tracking.’  Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact is not acceptable.”

Like students at progressive schools (and all kinds of public schools, actually), students in Success Academies go on field trips.  And Mead visits a room where Kindergardeners are taken to play with blocks: “The school has dedicated a special classroom to the activity, and shelves were filled with an enviable supply of blocks. The walls of the room were decorated with pictures of architectural structures that the students might seek to emulate, from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal. There was also a list of rules: always walk; carry two small blocks or hug one large block; speak in a whisper.” Unlike free-play at progressive early childhood centers—with dolls, and blocks, and easels and paint, and clay or PlayDoh—block time at the school Mead visits is a specific activity provided by the school in a “block” room to which the entire class of children is led for an assigned period.

For older students there are what Moskowitz likes to consider seminar-type discussions in which children explore ideas. Here is Mead considering one of the class discussions: “The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction reminded the class of the necessary ‘thinking job’ required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the ‘lesson learned.’…  Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: ‘I disagree with X’, ‘I agree with X,’ and ‘I want to add on.’… But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of the narrative. When the students were called to ‘turn and talk,’ they swivelled, inside their grids (on the rug), to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached rather than independently expanding them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought… Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of big ideas that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model.”

These descriptions of what happened in the Success Academy schools Mead visited sent me to First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, a book published just last year by Steve Nelson, the recently retired head of the Calhoun School, a well-known progressive private school in New York City. What follows are just three of the many characteristics of progressive education that Nelson explores in this book:

  • On the difference between discovery and being taught: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.”'(p. 11)
  • On progressive education growing from and enhancing the curiosity of students rather than being driven by adults: “In a conventional school, students are seen as vessels into which authoritative adults pour ‘content.’  In a progressive school, students are seen as unique individuals, partners in learning, with their own important ideas, values and experiences.  While there are many shades of grey, conventional schools tend to value and insist on compliance and conformity, while progressive schools encourage skepticism and originality.” (p. 12)
  • On intrinsic motivation—not rewards and punishments—as essential to progressive education: “Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is driven by systems of rewards and punishments… Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within, such as self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all human beings across all cultures and societies… (I)ntrinsic motivation declines as extrinsic structures dramatically increase.” (pp. 160-163)

Contrary to what Nelson identifies as the kind of child-centered, intrinsically motivated, experiential learning that defines progressive education, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies are rigid, relentlessly adult-driven, test-prep factories. Mead explains that to compensate for high turnover among teachers, “Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries…”

According to their purpose, Success Academy charter schools are are successful: “(T)hey get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the state of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four percent in English Language Art: citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight percent.”  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Success Academies do not replace students who drop out after fourth grade; Moskowitz has shamelessly admitted that students who do not fit the Success culture and expectations are encouraged to leave. Public schools, of course, must accept all children. In 2014, Success Academies opened its first high school, which last spring presented diplomas to seventeen students, whose “pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.”

Mead reports that the high school has struggled with students’ learning styles formed in Success Academy elementary schools: “There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”  But, “Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

Public Education, Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps—A Bake Sale Is Not Enough

Three decades ago, I was sucked into public education advocacy as a mom with children in a school district whose local school tax was in danger of failure at the polls. School levy elections are gut-wrenching experiences for parents in my state, where we have scanty and unequal state investment in our schools along with a local property tax freeze that can be overcome only when a school district’s residents vote for an increase. In the years when my children were in elementary and high school, school finance seemed at the heart of what mattered—the size of the Kindergarten class—reading enrichment specialists to help children catch up before they fell hopelessly behind—the high school orchestra—guidance counselors with small enough case loads to guide adolescents through the college application process—advanced lab science classes and the Calculus class.

At a community meeting, someone once asked me, “Can you tell me another way we can fund public schools instead of through taxes?” I still remember looking at the woman and biting my tongue to hold back my own question: “Were you thinking of a bake sale?” Did she misunderstand the scale of the endeavor of a public education system that must serve over 50 million children?  Did she think of education and other programs that serve children as a charity that can be paid for with a few dollars donated during the holiday season?

Now that the Senate—like the House last month—has passed its version of tax reform and House and Senate will reconcile their versions in the conference committee, we are familiarizing ourselves with the details of what it will mean, including some specifics affecting public schools.  Tax bills passed by the House and the Senate both adhere to the theory of supply-side, trickle-down economics; they tilt heavily toward benefits for corporations and the extremely wealthy, on the assumption that benefits will trickle down to the rest of us.

Specifics that will directly affect K-12 public education are summarized by Moriah Balingit and Nick Anderson for the Washington Post:

  • Both Senate and House bills cut what is now a federal tax deduction for taxes paid to state and local governments, although Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reminds us the Senate bill does preserve a deduction for state and local property taxes up to $10,000. Advocates worry that cutting this deduction will make it harder for states and school districts to increase desperately needed taxes for education.  Today state and local taxes raise 92 percent of the cost of public schools.
  • Both Senate and House bills make it possible for parents to use 529 savings plans—that can now be used only for the payment of college tuition—for private K-12 school tuition. A 529 plan enables parents to invest after-tax dollars into savings plans for college, but when the investments in the 529 plan appreciate, the increase will not be taxed.  Clearly this provision will affect only wealthier parents who can afford to make sizeable investments.
  • The Senate plan doubles what is currently up to a $250 tax deduction for teachers spending their own money for for classroom supplies. While the Senate plan increases the amount a teacher can deduct annually up to $500, the House version eliminates it altogether.

The really serious consequences that will follow whatever tax overhaul House and Senate reconcile in upcoming weeks are more complicated, however, and until recent days little discussed. On Friday, in a column for the Washington Post, Jeff Stein reported on what he’s been hearing now that members of Congress feel more confident about the passage of their tax plan. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been predicting what it has dubbed “a tax reform two-step“: cuts in taxes followed by cuts in government programs. Stein quotes members of Congress admitting they intend to cut spending once tax reform passes: “High-ranking Republicans are hinting that, after their tax overhaul, the party intends to look at cutting spending on welfare, entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and other parts of the social safety net. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis) said recently that he wants Republicans to focus in 2018 on reducing spending on government programs… While whipping votes for a GOP tax bill on Thursday, Senate Finance committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) attacked ‘liberal programs’ for the poor and said Congress needed to stop wasting Americans’ money. ‘We’re spending ourselves into bankruptcy,’ Hatch said. ‘Now, let’s just be honest about it: We’re in trouble. This country is in deep debt.  You don’t help the poor by not solving the problems of debt, and you don’t help the poor by continually pushing more and more liberal programs through.'”

Is there any evidence that supply-side, trickle-down economics generates needed revenue by growing the economy? Governor Sam Brownback in Kansas called his tax cuts a real life experiment in supply-side economics. Explosive economic growth, he predicted, would follow the tax cuts. Here is Michael Tomasky, writing for the NY Times about how the experiment turned out: “Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending…. The taxes were cut, and by a lot. The cumulative cut was forecast to be $3.9 billion by 2019… The cuts came. But the growth never did… The experiment has been a disaster… Finally, even the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality.”  Last June, after the state’s supreme court had presented an ultimatum to the legislature to improve school funding by June 30, or school could not open in September, both houses of the Kansas legislature  voted to overturn several years of Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cutting and at the same time to eliminate a special taxing innovation that reduced business taxes on pass-through income. The tax increases in Kansas last June have begun to restore solvency to the state.  The AP‘s John Hanna reports: “Kansas is reporting that it collected $8.5 million more in taxes than anticipated in November…. Tax collections this year are 11.7 percent ahead of last year’s collections. Lawmakers increased income taxes earlier this year to help balance the budget.”

Then there is Ohio, where Nick Pittner, the litigator of Ohio’s long-running but ultimately disappointing DeRolph school funding case recently concluded: “Ohio still lacks a school funding formula that meets the requirements set forth in the DeRolph decisions.”  One reason “is the ‘T’ word. School funding reform in the traditional sense cannot be done within the confines of existing revenue…. The prevailing political agenda in Ohio, as in many other states, has been to do everything possible to cut taxes….”

This past Sunday, Brent Larkin, former director of the Plain Dealer‘s editorial page, applied the lesson from Ohio to his analysis of Congress’s current tax overhaul based on trickle-down: “Then there’s the preposterous notion the tax cuts will generate so much economic growth they’ll pay for themselves.  It’s the same specious argument Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the legislature used to sell the huge cuts in Ohio’s income tax—cuts that spurred little growth but left the state with a budget crisis that required it to curtail worthwhile investments in the state’s future and essential funding for children.”

Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz confirms Larkin’s skepticism: “The sordidness of all this will be sugarcoated with the hoary claim that lower tax rates will spur growth. There is simply no theoretical or empirical basis for this…. ”

Finally, another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman describes his concerns about the tax reform plans Congress will be reconciling: “This time around, much more clearly than before, the goal seems to be to favor wealth, especially inherited wealth, over work. And buried in the legislation are multiple measures that would make it much harder for the children of the middle and working classes to work their way up… Suppose that a child from a working-class family decides, despite limited financial resources, to attend college, probably taking out a loan…. Under the House bill, that interest would no longer be deductible… What if you’re working your way through school and your employer contributes toward your education expenses?  The House bill would make that contribution taxable income. What if your parent is a university employee, and you get reduced tuition as a result? That tuition break becomes taxable income. So would tuition breaks for graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants. So what we’re looking at here are a variety of measures that will close off opportunities for children who weren’t clever enough to choose wealthy parents.  Meanwhile, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers more than eight million children, expired a month and a half ago—and so far, Republicans have made no serious effort to restore it. That is surely the shape of things to come…. So this isn’t just ordinary class warfare; it’s class warfare aimed at perpetuating inequality into the next generation. Taken together, the elements of both the House and the Senate bills amount to a more or less systematic attempt to lavish benefits on the children of the ultra-wealthy while making it harder for less fortunate young people to achieve upward social mobility.”

This blog has covered the 2017 tax overhaul here and here.

Tax Slashing Predictably Reduces Government’s Capacity to Do Its Job

Commenting for the NY Times yesterday on the tax reform bill being rushed through Congress, Peter Goodman and Patricia Cohen explain: “The tax plan has been marketed by President Trump and Republican leaders as a straightforward if enormous rebate for the masses, a $1.5 trillion package of cuts to spur hiring and economic growth. But as the bill has been rushed through Congress with scant debate, its far broader ramifications have come into focus, revealing a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care.”

This warning about the persistent effort to reduce government should frighten those of us who worry about government’s capacity to educate the 50 million children and adolescents who fill public schools across our states. Perhaps you are taking comfort in the fact that fiscal responsibility for schools is shared by local, state, and federal governments, but it isn’t really that simple. What happens at the top—the federal level—or at the middle level, in your state—or in your local school district’s passage or failure of your most recent school levy is tightly woven together with the funding at other levels. On Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released A Punishing Decade for School Funding, the latest in its annual bird’s eye surveys of what is being spent across the United States on K-12 public education.  This latest report comes a decade after the Great Recession caused tax collections to collapse across many states. The report examines whether and to what degree states and their public schools have been able to recover.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) emphasizes the essential concept of interconnectedness. Public education is primarily a state function; schools are established by the 50 state constitutions, not the federal constitution. Forty-seven percent of money for public schools is provided through taxation by state governments; 45 percent of school funding comes from local school taxes; and only 8 percent is currently provided by the federal government. The number of students enrolled has grown in the decade when the Great Recession hit in 2008: “(W)hile the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers has fallen by 135,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,419,000.”

So… what has happened to cause the number of teachers to fall even as the number of students has risen?  “When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times. Raising rates was particularly difficult during a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.  As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, exacerbating the even steeper fall in state funding.”

State funding has not caught up (when adjusted for inflation): “In 29 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2015 school year (the most recent year for which data is available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 17 states, the cut was 10 percent or more.  In 19 states, local funding per student fell over the same period. In the other 29 states for which we have data local funding rose, but those increases usually did not make up for cuts in state support. In 29 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2015 school years.”

And even before we learn what will happen with the current tax-reform bill being considered by Congress this week, we learn from CPBB that, “Federal policy makers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. The part of the federal budget that includes most forms of funding for states and localities… known as non-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy. Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Authors of CBPP’s new report cite peer-reviewed research by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico, scholars at Northwestern University and the University of California at Berkeley, who tracked the long-term impact on children of their school district’s funding level: “As common sense suggests—and academic research confirms—money matters for educational outcomes. For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.” Here are the learning essentials the CBPP report attributes to adequate school funding: recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers; trimming class size; and expanding learning time. Nothing fancy here: These are basic but very expensive fundamentals.

Why has spending on K-12 public education in many places never caught up to where it was in 2007?  The CBPP reports: “States disproportionately relied on spending cuts to close their large budget shortfalls after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases… State revenues have been hurt this year and last by a variety of factors, including falling oil prices, delayed sales of capital, and sluggish sales tax growth.”

Finally and not surprisingly, “Some states cut taxes deeply. Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but some enacted large tax cuts, further reducing revenues. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have also cut income tax rates in recent years.”

Austerity government and tax slashing—the reality in too many states in recent years—ought to serve as a warning to us all as Congress considers big reductions in federal taxes. There will inevitably be serious consequences for people who depend on government for things like healthcare and education.

Will Congress Get Around to Reinstating the Children’s Health Insurance Program?

As Congress returns after Thanksgiving, members face a complicated calendar.  They must pass a budget bill by December 8 (or another continuing resolution and an eventual budget by year’s end) to keep the government from shutting down, deal with tax reform that is a priority of the President and the Republican Congress, and deal with another try at changing the Affordable Care Act—something that has now been tucked into tax reform.

And then there are some smaller things, including reinstating the Children’s Health Insurance Program that Congress allowed to lapse on September 30.  What kind of society puts tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy ahead of medical care for its poorest children?

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was always a bipartisan effort—originally sponsored by Orin Hatch, a Utah Republican and Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.  CHIP is a program for the children of the working poor;  it covers 9 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance. The program also covers low income women who are pregnant. And Mark Trahant, writing for OurFuture.org, explains that 54 percent of American and Alaska Native children rely on Medicaid or CHIP to pay for their healthcare.

NBC News explains: “CHIP is funded by a combination of state and federal dollars.  An estimated 11 states will run out of federal CHIP funding by the end of the year, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, and 21 more states… will be depleted by March 2018.”

Annie Lowrey, in The Atlantic, describes the dilemma being faced by the state officials who administer the program: “The 50 states, according to the intricacies of 50 budgets and the laws and policies governing their 50 CHIP programs, are figuring out what to do.  That means figuring out how much money they have and how long they can extend coverage.  It means figuring out whether they need to cap enrollment or let a program lapse.  ‘It’s not just trying to pinpoint the exact date’ a state will run out of money, Jesse Cross-Call, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… told me.  ‘It’s also executing whatever process is supposed to happen by statute or by whatever dictates the policy change at the state level. The process of putting together notices—states haven’t had to do that before. It’s not like they can call up that Word document from two years ago and change the date on it.’  It means figuring out how to enact a cap, freeze, or shutdown—something many states have never done.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz and Sandhya Somashekar describe how the federal agency that works with state governments is trying to inform state partners: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which administers the program at the federal level, issued a notice to state health officials on Nov. 9 detailing their options if CHIP funding does run dry.  States forced to end the program will need to determine whether enrolled children are eligible for Medicaid or whether their family will need to seek insurance through an Affordable Care Act marketplace, the guidance said… The program, which is credited with helping to bring the rate of uninsured children to a record low of 4.5 percent, has been reauthorized several times over the years. And under the ACA, the federal government sharply boosted its match rate. It now provides 88 percent or more of every state’s CHIP costs. Congress has been unable to agree on how to pay for the $15 billion program moving forward, however.  President Trump’s 2018 budget proposed to cut billions from CHIP over two years and limit eligibility for federal matching funds.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to reauthorize CHIP, but it takes money from other federal health programs to pay for reinstating CHIP—including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Mark Trahant explains more about the bill the House has passed: “(T)hat bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and change other rules.”  A Senate committee is considering another version.

Perhaps, some predict, a bipartisan compromise on CHIP will be part of whatever final budget agreement Congress must reach to keep the government running. But, if Congress is distracted what are seen as the bigger problems—passing some kind of budget—achieving promised tax reform for corporations and the wealthy, the needs of low-income families and children may again be pushed aside. One even worries that our society may have come to consider the children of the poor to be undeserving.

So, what does all this have to do with an education blog? Make no mistake, programs like CHIP and the Affordable Care Act make an enormous difference for public schools. Poverty is recognized increasingly as the variable most closely tied with academic achievement. Prenatal care and access to pediatric care directly impact children’s capacity to thrive and focus on school. Tax reform and avoidance of federal deficits must never trump the well-being of our nation’s children.

Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.