State School District Ratings and Report Cards: Educational Redlining and Steering?

In his recent book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein shows how explicit government policies following WWII—Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, low-interest Veterans Administration home mortgages, government sanctioned insurance-writing policies, and others—have caused the racial segregation of America’s cities and suburbs. What we have called de facto segregation—segregation that just happened somehow—was really driven by explicit policies written or sanctioned by the government.

As I think today about states’ rankings and ratings of school districts and specific schools within districts, Rothstein’s book comes to mind. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (which replaced No Child Left Behind) requires labeling of schools. Congress has said that states must test students every year and then—based on the test scores and graduation rates and at least one other factor the federal government and states choose to use—rate schools. Congress says the purpose of this exercise is to help parents know about the quality of their children’s schools.

Some states like Ohio go further.  They aggregate all the indicators into an overall grade, what is known as a summative rating.  Some states classify schools into categories—Excellent-Good-Failing; others award  “A”-“F” grades on a school district report card. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act does not require summative ratings; it merely says states must create a way to tell parents about the quality of schools—based on test scores, graduation rates, and one or more other characteristics states choose to use.

Ohio has chosen to use summative letter grades for school districts—“A” through “F.” A couple of years ago, I began really to think through the implications of Ohio’s school district report cards when I was invited to a forum on education sponsored by our local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress (HCC), which has been working since the 1970s to prevent block busting, disparate treatment and steering under the Fair Housing Law.  Fair housing advocates at HCC had become very concerned about the school ratings published online by real estate listing companies like Zillow and Trulia.  Aren’t these companies really engaging in steering? Aren’t they, in fact, pushing families to choose to look at real estate listings in school districts where the schools get an “A” and to avoid the communities where the schools get a “C” or an “F”?  Isn’t what is happening really a sort of educational redlining?

What struck me as I sat at HCC’s forum—even before I read Richard Rothstein’s book about government sponsored segregation—was this fact: The school ratings published by companies like Zillow and Trulia are not calculated by educational experts and statisticians hired by Zillow and Trulia. These companies are simply using the data gathered under the federal education law and used by our state government, by federal requirement, to rate the schools in each community. The companies are merely publishing the state’s ratings. Isn’t government complicit in educational redlining? Isn’t the state of Ohio itself complicit, by ranking schools, in steering real estate buyers to what test scores tell us are desirable school districts?

Here are some educational implications from experts that put the topic of educational redlining in some perspective. You have previously seen this information in this blog, but I’ll quote it again because it is so important.

First there was Sean Reardon’s 2011 report on growing residential segregation by income—which correlates tightly with segregation by race.  Reardon used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality and residential segregation by income is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Second there is Daniel Koretz, in his urgently important 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, explaining how the test scores that are so central to states’ school ratings don’t really measure the quality of the schools but instead reflect the aggregate economic level of a school’s families and neighborhood:  “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.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Currently the Ohio Legislature and the State Board of Education are re-evaluating Ohio’s school district report cards.  I’m personally delighted to see politicians looking at problems in the report cards, and especially pleased that some critics of our current report cards are looking more deeply at the injustices in this rating system and not merely trying to manipulate the algorithms used in the calculations.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports on a bill  introduced in the Ohio House by Rep. Mike Duffey for the purpose of revising the state report cards. Duffey does worry about how the formulas work in the current report cards: “Gap Closing” and “K-3 Literacy” “are either counter-intuitive or just too hard for parents to understand.”  And Duffey believes student growth should “matter more,” but thinks “educators don’t trust how ‘value -added,’ Ohio’s main growth measure, is calculated.”

More important, however: Duffey is discerning about the systemic injustice in the current system: “(R)eport card ratings almost always make poor districts look bad, compared to affluent ones… A-F grades lead to a punitive approach to schools and should be dropped.”  Yes, Yes, Yes!

O’Donnell adds: “His bill would create a new report card with no A-F grades because they ‘produce a particularly visceral emotional response from parents,’ Duffey said, that can doom tax votes for schools, even when a school is doing well. ‘Sometimes an F is representative just of the demographics of the district….'” “‘We should move away from the winners and losers approach to the report card,’ Duffey told the education committee last week.”

Duffey would like Ohio’s school report cards “also (to) highlight special course offerings or extracurricular activities schools offer.”  He is making the radical proposal that in Ohio, the state could possibly give school districts high marks for a fine music program, a great high school newspaper, a robotics team, or an effort to replace punitive school discipline with conflict mediation and restorative justice. He is absolutely correct that parents would like to learn about such special offerings.

I have a personal bias in all this, of course.  I live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, a community where our family chose to educate our children. It is a mixed income community where black and white children go to school together.  I am so tired of reading about all of the white, affluent suburbs in the outer-ring whose schools, according to the state, “earn” an “A” rating, while high quality schools in the communities around mine get low grades from the state.

Representative Duffey is right that low grades on the state report card make it hard to pass the school levies. What is worse, however, is that the state has been condemning poorer and racially diverse communities with a system of educational redlining. Although this sort of thing has not yet been made explicitly illegal by any current law, fair housing advocates at Heights Community Congress would understand the state school report cards as a form of explicit steering.

Advertisements

The Meaning of Teachers’ Walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky

One indication of the power of recent walkouts by schoolteachers is that people who have traditionally delighted in criticizing teachers and their unions have been investing energy and messaging expertise to try to downplay what has been happening this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington points to a messaging guide created by the State Policy Network (SPN), a formal organization connecting far-right-think thanks across the states and coordinating their work and messaging with the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC): “The ‘messaging guide’ is the brainchild of the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 rightwing ‘ideas factories’ that span every state in the nation. SPN uses its $80m war chest—funded by billionaire super-donors such as the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation… to coordinate conservative strategy across the country. Another financial backer of SPN is the billionaire DeVos family…. SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to ‘defund and defang’ public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers.” (SPN’s Messaging Guide is embedded in Pilkington’s article as a SCRIBD document.)

Here is how SPN introduces its new Messaging Guide: How to Talk about Teacher Strikes: “A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc.  This is an opportunity to sympathize with teachers, while still emphasizing that teacher strikes hurt kids… Independent research has repeatedly shown that time out of school disproportionately hurts low-income kids. Low-income kids already face serious disadvantages and they shouldn’t be punished because adults can’t agree.”

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin clearly got the memo. Without any evidence—and apparently assuming that teachers’ primary role is babysitting—Bevin jumped to the conclusion that a teachers’ strike might endanger kids: “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them… Children were harmed—some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time—because they were vulnerable and left alone.”

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sort of got SPN’s advice right about focusing on the students, although, as usual, she pretty much misses the point that what hurts schools and teachers also affects the children: “I think about the kids. I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Despite efforts by the far-right to message in a way that minimizes the impact of a month’s walkouts by teachers, the President of the United Steelworkers, Leo Gerard sees something else: “GOP politicians have so denigrated public school teachers that the educators in three states have engaged in wildcat strikes, mobbing their capitol buildings and demanding improved school funding for students and better pay and benefits for themselves and other workers.  Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, like the 1920s West Virginia coal miners, had nothing to lose… What these states have in common is Republican control and union suppression.  All are states that forbid labor organizations from charging workers who choose not to join the union fair share payments to cover the costs of collective bargaining… Parents, communities and educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona know that tax-cutting, labor-hating Republican politicians are to blame for the school disruptions.”

Economist Jared Bernstein agrees that repression of unions in the states where teachers have walked out is one of the reasons why teachers’ salaries and investment in public schools have declined dangerously: “First, by ‘what has gone wrong,’ I mean the erosion of institutions whose purpose is to even out inherent power imbalances that arise in all societies and are particularly steep in our current moment… While the union movement has always had its problems—no institutions are immune from their own internal power imbalances—it has always existed, back to the Middle Ages, as a counterfoil to dynamics that today take the form of rising inequality, the defunding of a government that is increasingly dysfunctional, nonrepresentative elections, and the unfettered rise of corporate power and finance.” Bernstein continues, describing striking schoolteachers: “They are pointing the way toward an essential and huge missing piece from today’s politics: middle- and low-income people organizing to fight for an amply funded, functional public sector that balances the scales that have been so sharply tilted against them.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published Peter Greene’s explanation of the month’s walkouts by teachers.  Greene is a career high school teacher in Pennsylvania; he also publishes the Curmuducation blog: “Teachers strike because they are out of options. They strike because the other side won’t negotiate in good faith. They strike because they feel dismissed and disrespected. They strike because their work conditions have become awful, with no relief in sight. They strike because they feel the future of their profession and their school are in peril. They strike because they can’t think of any other way to make things better. But a strike? Couldn’t they get their message across some other way? Guess what? They’ve been trying, and trying some more. In fact, teachers have been engaged in a slow-motion strike for about a decade, walking off the job one or two at a time. But instead of recognizing this as a work stoppage, we’ve labeled it a ‘teacher shortage.’ And instead of responding by asking how we can fix the job so that it is attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers, states have mostly responded by saying, ‘How can we lower standards so that we can put any warm body in a classroom?’”

Retired Michigan music teacher—and author of a regular column about teaching for Education WeekNancy Flanagan considers what teachers have been trying to accomplish this month: “It’s time to talk—again—about this myth that teachers need to run themselves ragged for the pure and holy aim of helping The Children learn. The cherished legend of the teacher who devotes 24/7 to being accessible to her students, never taking time to refresh her own intellect or spirit.  The martyr… Teacher walkouts are the ultimate outcome of wringing every drop of energy, patience and creative juice out of a well-meaning workforce. Ideally, teaching is fully professional work, involving a researched knowledge base, careful training and field preparation, induction and mentoring protocols and the rewards of collegial sharing and personal growth in addition to the satisfaction of knowing one is shaping the nation’s future citizens. An adequate salary and benefit package would help, too. Without all of these in place, we can’t expect high-quality candidates to be attracted to teaching…. What’s happening now is an unmistakable call: Suffering teachers need help to do a better job for the children entrusted to their care. Want better schools? Pay attention.”

Of course what teachers do matters in the deepest ways for children and families—which is why so many parents and students, even children in elementary school—have been marching to support their teachers this month. Education writer Mike Rose captures the essence of what teachers do in a recent blog post: “I value the small stuff.  The teacher who encourages a hesitant question; who remembers a student’s name outside the classroom; who in discussing a paper suggests a book, a podcast, a movie; who spends an extra five minutes in a conference…. These are everyday signs of commitment, micro-evidence of care. Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of students from kindergarten to adult education, and I’ve been struck by how meaningful the small stuff is to them particularly to those students who feel out of place, and in some cases, are having a hard time of it. These behaviors register, I think, because of their everydayness, because they seem to flow naturally from who a particular teacher is and therefore are experienced as real, authentic.”

Rose is, of course, describing teachers’ enormous contribution—the work for which they should be paid fairly and supported with an adequately funded, staffed, and supplied school environment.

Red States: Waking Up to Public Responsibility for Educating Children?

This is the first of two updates on this spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers.  Today’s post will examine the fiscal implications.  Tomorrow’s will explore what the walkouts may mean about shifting attitudes across some of the Heartland’s Red-states.

In a fine piece for NPR’s All Things Considered, Cory Turner provides some context for the fiscal crisis beneath walkouts across a number of states: “How did we get here? When you put that question to people who study teacher pay, you’ll often hear something like this: ‘I have been saying, Why aren’t (teachers) in the streets?  What took them so long?‘ says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley.  She’s compared teachers’ weekly wages to workers with similar levels of experience and education and says teachers consistently earn less.”

In a brief for the Economic Policy Institute, Allegretto’s bar graph displays the nationwide disparities in pay between schoolteachers and other college graduates—but it is a lot worse in some places than others.  Oklahoma’s teachers have been making only 67 percent of the income of their college-educated peers in other fields.  Arizona’s teachers (the lowest-paid) have been making 62.8 percent; West Virginia’s teachers 74.6 percent; and Kentucky’s teachers about 78.8 percent. Across the United States, teachers’ wages average 77 percent what others make with equivalent education, and in not one state do teachers’ salaries exceed what their peers are making.

Turner also quotes Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University: “‘Teachers in Arizona are actually at the bottom of the heap…. And teachers in Oklahoma are pretty near that’… He mentions Tennessee and Colorado as other states with a teacher wage gap.  ‘What’s really so striking to me is that it’s had to get this bad. It was kind of like that slow boil over time.'”

Turner adds: “When you focus on teacher salaries, which make up the lion’s share of schools’ spending, data published by the Education Department show that, after adjusting for inflation, U.S. teachers earned less last year, on average, than they did back in 1990. In Oklahoma, teachers’ wages averaged $45,245 last year, down roughly $8,000 in the past decade. Over the same span, in Arizona, teachers’ wages are down roughly $5,000.”

Turner also addresses the myth of the gold-plated teacher pension: “(I)n many states, teachers don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, either. So they really depend on that pension.”  However, new teachers usually have to teach in a school district for five years even to qualify for the pension system. Turner quotes Chad Aldeman, who edits a publication about teacher pension systems: “In the median state, about half of all new teachers won’t stick around long enough to qualify for any pension at all.”  And while school districts must pay, on average, 17 cents on retirement costs for every dollar in teachers’ salaries, Aldeman explains: “Of that 17 cents, about five of it is actually going in benefits, and 12 cents of it is going to pay down unfunded pension obligations.”

One reason the massive walkouts have exerted so much pressure on legislatures is that huge salary disparities across state borders have fed teacher shortages in states paying less.  Teachers in West Virginia have been leaving for Maryland and in Oklahoma for Texas.  POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma quotes Tulsa School Superintendent, Deborah Gist speaking from her cell phone as she marched with striking teachers from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Gist compared the average teachers’ salary in Texas at $52,575 to the Oklahoma average of $45,245: “I’ve had superintendents in Texas thank us because they hired our teachers. It creates an extraordinarily unstable situation.” Emma adds: “The Sooner State has had to issue emergency certifications to thousands of people in recent years to staff classrooms, raising concerns about qualifications.”

What have teachers won so far through the mass walkouts?  Though teachers have won raises and in some cases school funding boosts, legislators have not been willing to restore cuts to progressive income taxes or to bring back capital gains taxes on wealthy residents and corporations.  Sadly, regressive sales, consumption and sin taxes have prevailed.

Last month West Virginia’s teachers achieved a five percent raise, after the state’s governor had previously offered only one percent. And the state will give the five percent raise to all state employees. It is still unclear where the money will come from as the Governor has promised not to increase taxes.

In Oklahoma, teachers also will get a significant raise, though not the kind of increase they’d hoped for to increase overall school funding. The NY TimesDana Goldstein and Elizabeth Dias report: “In a deep-red state that has pursued tax and service cuts for years, teachers won a raise of about $6,000, depending on experience, while members of schools’ support staff will see a raise of $1,250…  To fund the measures, as well as some limited new revenues for schools, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin instituted new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, motor fuels, and online sales. The state will also allow ball and dice gambling, which we will be taxed.”

After days of striking, Kentucky’s teachers returned to their classrooms after the legislature passed a budget that increases funding for K-12 education and a tax plan to pay for the increase, but Governor Matt Bevin vetoed the spending plan and the taxes to pay for it.  So, last Friday, Kentucky’s teachers closed school for an additional day and brought their enormous presence back to Frankfort. The legislature responded, according to the Associated Press report: “With the chants of hundreds of teachers ringing in their ears, Kentucky lawmakers have completed an override of Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of a more than $480 million tax hike that helps pay for increases in public education spending.”

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein adds that Kentucky’s funding scheme, important as it is, is the definition of regressive: “The plan would flatten Kentucky’s corporate and personal income-tax rates, setting both at 5 percent. Currently, Kentucky’s corporate tax rates runs between 4 and 6 percent, while its income-tax rate ranges from 2 to 6 percent. The new flat rate of 5 percent for everyone means that small companies and Kentuckians with below-average incomes will face tax hikes, and higher earners will get tax cuts. The bill attempts to make up for those cuts by nearly doubling the cigarette tax and imposing sales taxes on 17 additional services, including landscaping, janitorial work, golf courses and pet grooming.”

Pressure from teachers’ walkouts in all these states and a #RedforEd movement threatening its own walkout in Arizona seems to have awakened Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, who announced a plan late last week to raise teachers’ salaries 20 percent by 2020. The Arizona Republic reported: “Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday boosted his proposal for teacher raises next year to 9 percent, up from 1 percent he proposed in January, saying lawmakers would work through the weekend to figure out how to fund the plan.  Coupled with 5 percent raises the following two years—and the 1 percent raise given last year—Ducey said his proposal would give teachers a ‘net pay increase’ of 20 percent by 2020.”

Columnist for Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, Tim Steller warned, however, on Saturday that it’s too early to celebrate in Arizona: “Everybody was right that the governor’s announcement was hopeful news, but this is no time for teachers or the #RedForEd movement to declare victory and stash away their crimson shirts. The only thing that has gotten them this far is collective action and increasing pressure. They cornered the governor in an election year, and they shouldn’t let him out till they’ve got their raises and increased school funding in hand… Ducey’s dramatic announcement was a great relief, but it was just words. It was a proposal to use money of unclear origin to raise the pay for teachers but not other employees like counselors and teachers’ aides. It’s a good gesture, but so far nothing more.”

Meanwhile on Sunday, April 8th, legislators in Kansas—under pressure from the state’s supreme court which had, last October, set an April 30 deadline for compliance with its earlier court order to increase school funding—passed a $534 million increase in school funding over five years. The state’s funding for public schools had collapsed in recent years as a result of former Governor Sam Brownback’s  failed experiment with tax cutting and supply side economics. However, after some hope early in April that the Legislature has likely appropriated enough money to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s expectation, it turns out there was an $80 million flaw in the math behind the plan. The Associated Press‘s John Hanna reports: “The bill approved by lawmakers early Sunday was meant to phase in a $534 million increase over five years, and with the flaw, the figure is $454 million or perhaps a little less.” After a two week break, the Legislature will now return on April 26. There seems to be hope that the miscalculation will be fixed.

In these all-Red states across the Heartland, it is clear that a reckoning has begun. But so far there is neither clear agreement that paying taxes is a responsibility of citizens and businesses nor that taxation should be progressive with the heaviest responsibility falling on those who can best afford to support the public. At least, driven by the voices and actions of desperate schoolteachers—and in Kansas by a supreme court enforcing the state constitution—governors and legislators are having to face that their citizens seem suddenly to agree that there is a floor beneath which education services must not fall. And there seems to be an awareness that enough well qualified teachers are at the heart of what is necessary. That is a positive development.

NAEP Scores Flatline, Achievement Gaps Persist. Millions of Children Are Still Left Behind

For almost two decades since the passage of No Child Left Behind, our society has been operating according to an educational policy scheme by which we say we’ve been holding educators accountable. The two year National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores were released this week, however, and while experts are parsing the meaning of the difference of a couple of points of gain or loss at fourth or eighth grade on the new  scores, what is clear is that No Child Left Behind has neither significantly raised student achievement nor closed racial and economic achievement gaps.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “The gap between high- and low-achieving students widened on a national math and science exam, a disparity that educators say is another sign that schools need to do more to lift the performance of their most challenged students.  Averages for fourth-and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, were mostly unchanged between 2015 and 2017.  The exception was eighth-grade reading scores, which rose slightly.  But scores for the bottom 25 percent of students dropped slightly in all but eighth-grade reading.  Scores for the top quartile rose slightly in eighth-grade reading and math.  The slippage among the nation’s lowest-performing students raised concerns among educators and experts….  Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, said there were no statistically significant changes when it came to different categories of students.  This means black and Hispanic students continue to trail their white counterparts on the exam. Students from low-income households also performed below the national average, as did special-education students, though they posted significant gains in 2017 compared with two years earlier.”

Unlike state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind and continued under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the NAEP is given to a representative sampling of students across all the states. Its purpose is to gauge the overall state of public education across the nation, not to compare scores for particular states or schools.  There is no test-prep for the NAEP.

Education Week‘s Sarah Sparks summarizes the 2017 results: “Across the board struggling American students are falling behind, while top performers are rising higher.”  This certainly reflects the growing gap noticed by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon who, several years ago, used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

In an Education Week follow-up on the release, also this week, of a special subset of NAEP data comparing the scores of large urban school districts, Sparks declares that over time, “America’s large urban districts have been improving faster than the nation as a whole.” Scores in cities of over 250,000 are rising more quickly than the scores of other students, but rising so slowly that it will take decades for them to catch up if growth continues at the current rate. A basic score on NAEP is the lowest level, while proficient is scored in such a way that students deemed proficient are achieving at somewhat above an average level. Sparks describes the trend of rising scores among urban students: “These gains are a mixed blessing: Urban 4th graders scored on average at the basic level in math and reading. Urban 8th graders scored on average at the basic level in reading and below basic in math. Yet, 27 percent of urban 8th graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading in 2017, up 8 percentage points since 2007.  That’s faster than the 5 percentage-point reading growth for students overall.”

For the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell describes a mixed bag of gains and losses for students in that very poor city: “The major bright spot was in eighth-grade math, where Cleveland had the third-highest increase among cities. That placed Cleveland’s scores ahead of the Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno and Milwaukee districts and in a tie with Shelby County (Memphis), Tenn. The district also mostly held on to a sizeable gain it made in fourth grade reading between 2014 and 2015, the previous NAEP test, falling just a single statistically insignificant point. But fourth grade math and eighth grade reading scores had the worst and third-worst drops out of all tested cities.”

The Detroit Free Press’s Lori Higgins reports discouraging scores in that other very poor Rust Belt city: “In Detroit, students had the worst performance not only among large, urban districts but also compared with all states in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as fourth-grade reading.  Detroit shared the bottom spot with Cleveland for eighth-grade reading.”

This year the NAEP was administered online to 80 percent of students, and there has been complaining that the change may have lowered scores. However, Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics explained to the Post‘s Balingit that scores were formally adjusted to compensate for the online administration of the test—and to make the scores comparable with the older paper-and-pencil version: “Research shows digital assessments are tougher for students than paper-and-pencil tests. So, Carr said, her federal center adjusted results so the change in format ‘would not influence the comparisons and trends that we are reporting.'”

The stated purpose of federal policy in education since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 has been to hold schools accountable for raising achievement among the nation’s lowest scoring students and to close achievement gaps. In the meantime, as the teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky have shown us this month, states have cut funding for education due to the economic recession of 2008 and continued tax slashing across many states.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has documented this trend, with 29 states in 2015 providing less overall funding, adjusted for inflation, than in 2008. In 19 of those states, local school districts also cut funding. Comparing 2018 general fund, per-pupil formula funding in 12 states for which that data is currently available, CBPP reports that Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Idaho spend considerably less today than they did in 2008.

Nobody traces small changes in NAEP scores to particular causes from school district to school district. Surely, however, three major trends are implicated in the flattening of NAEP scores over time.

  • Our society has not addressed deepening poverty and widening inequality, at a time when growing research demonstrates that family and neighborhood poverty affects children’s achievement at school.
  • Nearly two decades of education policy has focused on punishing public schools—too often the schools in our poorest communities—by closing schools, by firing teachers and principals, by charterizing schools, or by imposing portfolio governance.
  • As school teachers are now exposing, funding in too many places has collapsed below acceptable levels.

Arizona Supreme Court Denies In-State Tuition for Dreamers

This morning I am thinking about higher education for Dreamers, students who were brought here as young children by their undocumented parents, students who have grown up in our communities but who have been relegated to the shadows without protection of significant rights by law.  The term “Dreamer” comes from the name of the law to protect their rights—a law whose passage these young people have been seeking now for almost two decades, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

I first learned about the academic challenges these students face nearly twenty years ago from a high school counselor in Arizona who explained to me that the valedictorian at her school could not qualify for in-state tuition or a college scholarship to a public community college or university in her state.  Neither could such a student qualify for a Pell Grant or a federally guaranteed college loan.  The counselor was beside herself; she didn’t know where to turn to find help for this student. At that time the lack of protection for these students was unknown to me, and I was shocked.

Since that time, eighteen or so states have created their own laws to allow these students to matriculate with their peers (and pay the same tuition) at their state colleges and universities. But the right is still regularly contested as legislators try to block these laws and as they are tested in court.

To protect undocumented young people from deportation, President Barack Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2014. To qualify, a young person must have arrived in the United States before 2007 and have met several other conditions. Although President Obama protected Dreamers from deportation and created their right to drivers licenses and work permits, however, under federal law he was unable to establish their right to in-state college tuition or federal student loans or grants.

On Monday of this week, the problem of a state’s denial of in-state college tuition once again made the news.  The Arizona Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision denying Dreamers’ right to Arizona in-state tuition.  The Washington Post‘s Samantha Schmidt reports: “The Arizona Supreme Court on Monday ruled that young immigrants protected from deportation under an Obama-era program will no longer be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges. The court unanimously agreed with the Arizona Court of Appeals, which ruled that federal and state laws do not allow Maricopa Community Colleges to grant in-state tuition to Deferred Action for Childhood recipients, also known as ‘dreamers.'”

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition will prevent a number of students from continuing their education. Schmidt explains: “The decision means that Arizona college tuition costs could double or even triple for DACA recipients. In-state tuition for the next school year at Arizona State University, for example, is $9,834, while nonresident tuition is $27,618…. Arizona residents pay $86 per credit hour at the Maricopa Community Colleges, while nonresidents pay $241.”

In a short update from Fronteras, Jorge Valencia explained on Monday: “The unanimous ruling from the seven-member court stems from a lawsuit brought by the Maricopa Community Colleges District, which wanted to give in-state tuition to students who had been brought to the country illegally as children.”  Maricopa County encompasses greater Phoenix.

In a policy brief, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), explains federal law as it applies to in-state tuition for Dreamers. According to NASPA, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) denies the right to in-state tuition. The language is confusing: “(A)n alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or a national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit… without regard to whether the citizen or national is a resident.”  This statement would seem to mean that any state with different in-state and out-of-state tuition rates could not grant in-state tuition to a young person who is a resident of the state but who lacks U.S. citizenship.

NASPA then explains how a number of states states have justified their policies that do grant in-state tuition to Dreamers:  “(S)tates have argued that in attempting to stipulate tuition requirements, the federal policy infringes on a fundamental right of the states, and a number of states have instituted policies which determine state residency regardless of immigration status, using instead location of high school attendance as the primary indicator.”

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) explains further: “Supporters of the legislation argue that the requirement to receive in-state tuition is based on high school attendance and graduation, not residency, and so it is not in conflict with IIRIRA.”

In a 2015 policy brief, NCSL identifies 18 states which have, since 2001 granted in-state tuition for undocumented graduates of their states’ public high schools: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.  In the same document, NCSL names three states that have at one time or another specifically prohibited the granting of in-state tuition for undocumented students who are graduates of their high schools: Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana.  NCSL adds, “Alabama and South Carolina go one step further and prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution… At lest five states—California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington—allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.”  Some states have given their Boards of Regents permission to grant in-state tuition; these include Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Michigan. Virginia’s attorney general has granted in-state tuition to students enrolled formally in DACA.

The National Conference of State Legislatures adds that the right to free public K-12 education was guaranteed in a 1982 decision of the United States Supreme Court: “Due to the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision, states are required to provide all students with K-12 public education, regardless of students’ immigration status.  Although the court did not declare education a fundamental right, it was determined that a ‘public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement.’ ”

I believe this is a moral issue. What kind of society would deny the kind of basic rights we all take for granted to young people who have lived for almost their entire lives in our communities? These young people are our own children’s peers.  In the language of the decision in Plyler v. Doe, doesn’t the deprivation of higher education also take an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well being of the individual, and doesn’t higher education also play a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage?

The Washington Post‘s Schmidt reminds readers that the news about the Arizona Supreme Court’s denial of in-state tuition “also comes as the DACA program as a whole is in limbo. The Trump administration planned to phase out the program and rescind work permits for hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients beginning March 5.  But federal district judges in California and New York issued nationwide injunctions blocking these plans.” President Trump made full-funding for his border wall a condition Congress must meet before he claimed he would sign a bill extending DACA, but when Congress promised the funding, the President changed his mind and demanded all sorts of further restrictions on legal immigration. Dreamers face an unknown and precarious future.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “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.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud

While teachers have been demonstrating in the state capitals of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, a huge fight about the subject of their demonstrations—the failure of states adequately to fund public education—has been going on without so much fanfare in Kansas, where legislators have fought and failed so far to arrive at any kind of compromise about raising funds to comply with a deadline set by the state’s supreme court.

Facing an April 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with enough funds to undo years years of catastrophic tax slashing by former Governor Sam Brownback and the same legislature, this week Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature debated plans for phasing in minimal additional funding over five years—one plan with $274 million and and another with $520 million.  They have also been talking about a tired, old strategy: Attack the Supreme Court itself. Here is the Associated Press report on this latest idea brought to the legislature: “A coalition of Kansas business and agricultural groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole authority to decide education funding levels…. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding would remove the state court’s role in deciding what constitutes suitable education funding….”

By contrast, as teachers marched and filled statehouse lobbies this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, at least some progress was made to repair years and years of austerity budgeting caused by years and years of tax slashing.  All four states—including Kansas—are part of today’s 26-state, all Red wave of Republican trifecta states. In these statehouses large blocks of legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes-in-my-lifetime pledge. These general assemblies are dominated by membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That’s why, despite that the teachers haven’t been winning every salary or pension or state education budget fight, it is necessary to point out that striking teachers have at least begun to apply enough pressure to staunch the bleeding. That’s why Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader‘s editorial board thanked the teachers who have been protesting: “Lawmakers knew that fired-up educators and pro-education Kentuckians, who filled the Capitol for weeks, were watching. That’s a big reason the Republicans who control the General Assembly abandoned some of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s and their own worst ideas for cutting public pensions and public spending. Instead lawmakers chose—of all things—to raise taxes. Many had to break the pledge that they had signed to oppose all tax increases. They responded to the needs and demands of Kentuckians rather than answer to distant anti-government puppet masters. That’s refreshing and encouraging.”  The editorial goes on to explain that the tax increase was the most regressive kind of consumption-sales tax and that the Kentucky legislature did at the same time further cut taxes on the state’s richest citizens, but teachers at least succeeded in securing some funding for the state’s children and their schools as they also demanded that their own pension system be fixed.  (Kentucky is among the fifteen states where teachers do not qualify for Social Security. The pension system provides their sole retirement benefit.)

This week the teachers’ walkouts and teachers’ protests of Red-state tax slashing have also made it as a topic of the commentariat.  Teachers have managed to make visible what has been a widespread problem for years—a problem of state-by-state tax policy that has slipped beneath the radar because it is too wonky and also too easy to castigate as somebody else’s problem.  Without mentioning the teachers themselves, the NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, writing on Monday, explained, “I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics… (C)onsider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma—both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind—have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. also suddenly noticed state tax slashing, austerity budgeting, and public school under-funding: “The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions… Today’s rebellion… is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.  The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay.  They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings and reductions in actual teaching time… The red-state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters.  You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap.  If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this.”

If such columnists regularly wrote about all children’s right to well funded public schools, there would not be such a need for blogs like this one.

Dionne and other columnists recommend that we notice the work of Brooklyn College political scientist, Corey Robin, who believes we may be observing the emergence of a revolution against the anti-tax conservative orthodoxy of the last forty years.  Robin theorizes that our current situation began with the passage—largely ignored in the political season when it was passed by referendum in 1978—of California’s tax freeze, Proposition 13: “which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services….”

Robin continues: “It’s 40 years later… Right now, in the reddest of states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, we’re seeing the real resistance, the most profound and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the contemporary governing order.”

I am a resident of all-Red Ohio, whose property tax freeze—similar to Prop. 13—is embedded in our state’s constitution. Ohio is also a state where tax cuts for corporations and the rich have been undermining public school funding for years.

I am grateful to the public school teachers who have been striking this month to improve not only their salaries but also their working—and our children’s learning—conditions.

However, by paying attention to the impasse in the Kansas General Assembly, we can see that turning around what Robin calls “the Prop 13 order” will be neither quick nor easy. We’ll need persistently to stand with teachers as they rise up against educational austerity in Red-state America.

This blog has covered this month’s walkouts by teachers here, here, here and here.