School Finance Experts Raise Concerns about Legislature’s Phase-In of Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan

Howard Fleeter and R. Gregory Browning recently conducted a new, preliminary study of the funding of Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) under the state’s Fair School Funding Plan. The new plan was passed two years ago as part of the FY 2022-2023 state budget to be phased in over six years—three biennial budget cycles. Although Fleeter and Browning’s new report describes what the the state calls a Fair School Funding Plan, they show why the fairness of the plan has already become corrupted.  Sadly the plan’s implementation is coming to epitomize the old, old joke about school finance: “School funding is like a Russian novel: it’s long, and it’s boring, and in the end, everybody gets killed.”

In the case of Ohio, according to Fleeter and Browning’s December 2022 report, the school districts that get hurt the most are the ones serving a lot of the state’s poorest children. For thirty years, economist Howard Fleeter has been Ohio’s school finance guru—the person who understands better than anyone else the arcane complexities of the state’s system for funding its 610 public school districts.  Last Thursday, the Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben provided a copy for the general public of Fleeter and Browning’s recent report, which she describes as “an effort to show the state legislature some of the needs of the state education system.”

Fleeter and Browning explain their purpose in the report’s first sentence: “to help Ohio educators and public policymakers gain a deeper understanding of the specific supplemental services being provided to Ohio public primary and secondary school students who come from economically disadvantaged circumstances. The report also includes a preliminary analysis of the costs associated with providing these services.”  In fact, the new report focuses on the funding for the services, not the services themselves.

How much more funding from federal, state, and local sources does a school district need if a large number of poor students are enrolled in its public schools? Fleeter and Browning accept findings from three 2004 and 2007 economic studies which “demonstrate that a 30% multiplier for districts with high concentrations of students in poverty is on the low end of the marginal cost shown by educational research.” In other words, a district serving a lot of poor children needs at least 30 percent more per pupil funds to provide the services those children need at school. Necessary services include: “district-provided preschool programming and primary grade reading intervention… supplemental supports such as after-school programming, summer school and high school credit recovery;… and health and wellness supports, including school counselors and nurses, school-based health clinics and in-house behavioral health services.”

Fleeter and Browning examine the needs of three representative Ohio school districts—one urban, one rural, and another suburban. They conclude that, “the districts, in large part, provided the same array of supplemental services to their respective populations of economically disadvantaged students… Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) program and the federal Title I program remain the pillars of funding for supplemental services for economically disadvantaged students. These sources have been in place for many years and are the only funding sources that are specifically and exclusively intended to finance these services on an ongoing basis.”

However, Fleeter and Browning report that the three school districts have also been using a significant amount of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support services for children living in poverty.  ESSER funds were awarded by the federal government to mitigate the problems from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But there is a problem: ESSER funds were a one-time grant; they are not an ongoing funding source. “Clearly, for each district, DPIA and/or Title I funding would have to be dramatically increased to replace one-time ESSER federal stimulus related funding that is currently being used to help pay for roughly 30% of supplemental service in each of the three districts... And in each case (school) leaders… believe that the identified low-inome students’ needs were largely, if not entirely in existence prior to the 2020 beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are needs that will be continuing past the pandemic and into the foreseeable future.” (emphasis in the original)

In the second paragraph of their report, Fleeter and Browning provide what they call the context for their concerns as we enter 2023, when the governor and the legislature are required to come up with a new FY 2024-2025 biennial budget. Early in the report we get the following hint about why this is all going to be like the long, sad Russian novel from the old joke:

“Ohio’s current school funding policies are rooted in the Ohio Fair School Funding Plan, which is being phased in over a six-year period beginning in FY 22. The plan is a new, inputs-based approach to funding primary and secondary education. It includes a new methodology for providing supplemental funding for the additional costs of providing needed educational services to economically disadvantaged students. This funding comes through the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) component of the state’s school funding formula. Importantly, the phase-in of the new funding formula does not treat all components of the formula uniformly, as DPIA is phased in at a slower rate than the other funding components, nor does it provide a clearly articulated, evidence-based approach to funding DPIA. Lastly, there is no legal requirement that the new state funding formula be phased in fully in future years.”

Later in the report Fleeter and Browning detail some of the serious problems with the legislature’s calculation of the amount of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid and with the program’s implementation:

  • The state was supposed to provide an in-depth, cost-based study of the services needed to help very poor children thrive at school. But the state has neither funded such a study nor conducted it.
  • The Fair School Funding Plan is supposed to be cost-based, but the state came up with phasing in an additional $422 per pupil for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid on the cheap—without considering what school districts actually must spend: “(T)he mathematics behind the $422 per pupil figure are based on a 30% increase over the prior $6,020 per pupil base cost amount for non-disadvantaged students.  Under Ohio’s new state aid formula, the state average base cost—which is intended to reflect the cost of educating the ‘typical student in the typical school district’ is $7,349.  30% of this figure is $2,205, a nearly $400 increase over the $1,806 per pupil from which the $422 per pupil base DPIA figure is derived.” (emphasis in the original)
  • Under the Fair School Funding Plan, the state has promised to support school districts serving poor children with added Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, but is phasing in increases for DPIA at a slower rate than the phase-in of the rest of the plan. “There was zero increase in DPIA funding in FY 22 and only a 14% phase-in in FY 23.  All other components of the formula were phased in at a 16.67% rate in FY 22 and a 33.33% rate in FY 23.” Doesn’t it make sense to phase in DPIA at the same rate as the phase-in of the rest of the plan?
  • The overall amount of funds allocated over the years to Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid has lagged at the same time the number of poor students who need the services has grown considerably: “(F)rom 2001 through 2021 total state aid for economically disadvantaged students has increased by 23.3%… while the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased by 57.5%….”

Finally, Fleeter and Browning name a serious threat to the future of the entire Fair School Funding Plan. The legislature funded the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan only for the first two years of the scheduled six year phase-in. The Plan was passed as part of the last biennial budget; it has never been established by stand-alone legislation. Two years ago, legislators left themselves the option of abandoning the funding of the plan after the end of the FY 2022-2023 biennium. In other words, their commitment to the plan may be winding down to its conclusion now before the new budget cycle begins on July 1, 2023.

It will be urgently important for advocates to demand that the Fair School Funding Plan survives in the FY 2024-FY2025 state budget, and that the full phase-in of this year’s promise—2/3 of the six year phase-in of the full plan—be part of the new biennial budget.  Additionally there must be a correction to ensure the full and timely phase-in of funding for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid.

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The Three Most Serious Problems for U.S. Public Education in 2023

The new year is a good time to stop and consider where our society stands in terms of its public priorities. During the first week of 2023, this blog will consider three overall problems of federal public education policy that undermine our public schools, their teachers, and our children. On Thursday, the topic will be serious concerns at the state level, with a focus on my state, Ohio.

In a wonderful post last week at Curmuducation, Peter Greene examined 11 different conditions that imperil public schooling as we begin 2023. Two of the threats to public schooling he identifies in the past year rise to a level of importance above all the others: “the Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” and “High Stakes Testing.”

I agree with Greene’s assessment, with one difference: He traces the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” in 2023 to the culture warriors who attack the teaching of so-called critical race theory, who won’t let teachers say “gay,” and who think teachers are somehow grooming children.  He’s right about that, but I think we should also remember that the culture war attacks are merely the most recent strand of a four-decades long attack that began in 1983 with the Ronald Reagan-era, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for undermining America’s position in the world.

So… what do I believe are the three greatest perils facing public schooling as we begin 2023?

Peril #1: “High Stakes Testing” and the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement ” are together being used to discredit America’s system of public education.

In 2001, Congress prescribed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the cure for A Nation at Risk‘s diagnosis of “failing” public schools. NCLB brought us high stakes school accountability as embodied in annual standardized testing along with punishments for the schools unable to raise test scores every year. The 2001, NCLB “solution” to our “failing” public schools was, of course, what Peter Greene calls this year’s second huge threat: “High Stakes Testing.” We need to remember that high states standardized testing is very much still with us. For decades now the press and the testing companies and the accountability hawks have bombarded society with the message that standardized test scores must stay on a perpetual upward trajectory. Even when a worldwide pandemic and consequent school closures temporarily disrupted the trajectory of ever rising scores, many people, therefore, came to fear that our children have “lost decades of improvement.”

But the damage of the annual high-stakes testing is deeper and more insidious in all the ways the testing undermines and discredits our public system of education.  Testing, with all of the drilling and narrowing what’s being taught, has undermined teaching. In NCLB, Congress also tied scores to teacher evaluation in a way that was shown to be unreliable. The federal government imposed sanctions like school reconstitution and mandatory charterization on public schools which struggled to raise scores. Thousands of students have been held back in third grade based on one test score even though there is evidence that being held back even once increases the probability that a student will drop out of school before graduating.  In the minds of the public, test scores now measure the quality of the school, the quality of the teachers, and the quality of each school district as the place to invest in a house. States are still required by the federal government to rank and rate the schools and to create school report cards that are published in the newspaper.

While some of the history of No Child Left Behind school accountability has faded in our memories, the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” is on a many levels still driven and entangled with “High Stakes Testing.”  And this year, as high stakes testing continues to undermine confidence in our schools and as the culture warriors and parents’ rights advocates clamor to discredit teachers, state legislators are feeling empowered to listen as EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute pressure them to redirect desperately needed tax dollars to privatized alternatives by growing voucher programs and expanding charter schools.

In the midst of all the controversy as we begin 2023, we’ve forgotten about a second peril.  This one is not part of Peter Greene’s list.

Peril #2:  Public Schools Across the United States remain alarmingly unequal.

First Focus on Children just released a new report: Big Ideas 2023, whose first chapter by constitutional scholar and author of Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black proclaims the importance of Reclaiming the Federal Role in Education: educational equity. Black reminds us that much of today’s conversation about public schooling seems to have drifted away from the goals of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act and one of the Department of Education’s primary programs, Title I:

“On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.  Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%. The federal government has done little to stem the decline. Most disturbing, some states are currently taking steps to amend their state constitutions and make cuts to education even easier.”

Black explains that in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but he adds that in the 2015 version Congress did not improve the federal education law: “Congress simply stripped the federal government of regulatory power and vastly expanded state discretion. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government now lacks the ability to make prompt improvements in student achievement or to demand equal resources for low-income students… Congress can realign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… with its historic mission of improving academic achievement and equity for low-income students, but it should also enact better mechanisms to achieve those goals. First, ESEA must increase federal investment in education. An increased federal investment is also necessary if states are to accept the second step: strict prohibitions on the unequal distribution of educational resources by states. The final step is to expand preschool education to all low-income students—a goal the Department of Education has pushed in recent years, but which states seemingly lack the capacity to reach alone.”

Derek Black reminds us that there is an urgent need for the federal government to reclaim and act on its traditional role as the guarantor of educational equity.  But equity cannot be achieved  by schools alone, which brings us to the third peril.

Peril #3: In 2022, Congress chose not to ameliorate child poverty.

Over a decade ago in a 2009 report, Lost Opportunity, the Schott Foundation for Public Education made a stunning effort to redefine what No Child Left Behind called “achievement gaps” and to shift our nation’s goal to closing children’s “opportunity gaps” not only at school but also in the whole of their lives.  What are all the factors that affect a child’s “Opportunity to Learn”?  Research demonstrates that child poverty itself creates perhaps the most serious of our society’s opportunity gaps.

Here is David Berliner, a retired professor of education and the former president of the American Educational Research Association: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services.”

Professor of education at the University of Colorado and director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner adds: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system…?” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

While in 2021, as part of the American Rescue COVID relief bill, Congress temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit, the expansion ended at the beginning of 2022. Then, last fall (2022) it appeared there was a chance that Congress would, as part of the year-end omnibus budget act, make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, but the moment has now passed.

Writing for The New Republic, Grace Segers recounts what happened: “The implementation of the expanded child tax credit was akin to a social experiment in real time, with almost immediate results. During the six months it was in effect, the credit reached more than 60 million children in 36 million households. Due in large part to the expanded child tax credit, child poverty was cut nearly in half in 2021 compared to 2022, according to the Census Bureau. Food insufficiency also decreased significantly among families with children, dropping from a rate of 11 percent to 8.4 percent after the first monthly payment was distributed in July 2021.”

Segers continues: “The results of the credit’s expiration were as immediate as those of its implementation. January 2022 saw 3.7 million more children fall beneath the poverty line compared ‘to December 2021. That increase was particularly dramatic for Black and Latino children. Following the end of the expanded child tax credit, there was a 28 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Black children, and a 40 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Latino children from December 2021 to February 2022. The expiration of the expanded credit was also associated with a 25 percent increase in food insufficiency for families with children.”

Segers concludes that as the new Congress gets underway in January 2023 the chance for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the next couple of years is likely gone: “With Republicans taking control of the House in January, these final weeks of the year represented the last chance for the foreseeable future for the Democratic majority in both houses to reinstate the credit.”

With both chambers of Congress last year majority Democrat, 2022 was also probably the end of any chance in the immediate future to reduce reliance on mandated standardized testing accompanied by all of the high-stakes punishments for public schools or to shift attention back to the traditional role of the Department of Education—promoting educational equity at the federal level and incentivizing states to equalize their educational investment.

Like Peter Greene, I believe there are major threats to public schooling as we begin 2023. In this time when Congressional action is unlikely, the questions for those of us who support public education are:

  • how to keep on pushing to clear out the awful lingering policy around test-based school accountability;
  • how to keep on pushing back against widespread attacks on public education itself; and
  • how to keep on speaking for the needs of our society’s poorest children as well as for the needs of their public schools.

We need to remember the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.

Culture Wars at Schools Increase: Undermine Educators, Block Respectful Dialogue, and Make Students Feel Unsafe and Invisible

Conversations about public schooling have been utterly sidetracked this year by fights about Critical Race Theory, “Don’t say gay!” laws, and whether somebody is “grooming” children at school? Where did these culture wars come from?

This blog will take a 2 week holiday break.  Good wishes for Christmas and the New Year.  Look for a new post on January 3.

A NY Times analysis earlier this week tracks book banning in public schools as part of an epidemic of culture war disruption: “Traditionally, debates over what books are appropriate for school libraries have taken place between a concerned parent and a librarian or administrator, and resulted in a single title or a few books being re-evaluated, and either removed or returned to shelves. But recently, the issue has been supercharged by a rapidly growing and increasingly influential constellation of conservative groups. The organizations frequently describe themselves as defending parental rights. Some are new, and others are longstanding, but with a recent focus on books. Some work at the district and state level, others have national reach. And over the past two years or so, they have grown vastly more organized, interconnected, well funded — and effective.  The groups have pursued their goals by becoming heavily involved in local and state politics, where Republican efforts have largely outmatched liberal organizations in many states for years.”

The reporters track research from PEN America: “(T)here are at least 50 groups across the country working to remove books they object to from libraries. Some have seen explosive growth recently: Of the 300 chapters that PEN tracked, 73 percent were formed after 2020. The growth comes, in part, from the rise of ‘parental rights’ organizations during the pandemic. Formed to fight COVID restrictions in schools, some groups adopted a broader conservative agenda focused on opposing instruction on race, gender and sexuality, and on removing books they regard as inappropriate.”

How is the culture war uproar affecting public schools? In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) tracked research concluding: “Preparing students to participate in civil and respectful ways in our diverse democracy has long been a core mission of public schools.” Today, “U.S. high schools are struggling to fulfill this mission as they increasingly encounter hyper-partisan efforts. Those efforts have sought to spread misinformation, to encourage harassment of LGBTQ+ students, and to limit opportunities for productively discussing controversial topics. Such challenges are particularly pervasive in politically diverse areas where one party does not dominate.” The researchers surveyed 682 public high school principals and subsequently followed up by interviewing 32 of those principals. NEPC reports:

  1. “Public schools increasingly are targets of political conflict. Nearly half of principals (45 percent) reported that the amount of conflict in their community was higher during the 2021-2022 school year than it was pre-pandemic… Teaching about race and racism was the area where principals were most likely to report challenges from community members, followed closely by LGBTQ+ content.”
  2. “Political conflict undermines the practice of respectful dialogue.  A majority of high school principals report that students have made demeaning or hateful remarks toward classmates for expressing either liberal or conservative views and that strong differences of political opinion among students have created more contentious classroom environments.”
  3. “Conflict makes it harder to address misinformation. Misinformation—much of it tied to partisan organizations and causes—makes it more challenging to encourage productive and civil dialogue. After all, it is difficult to develop a shared sense of how to move forward when different people are working from different sets of ‘facts.’ Nearly two thirds of principals (64 percent) say parents or community members have challenged information used by teachers at their schools. The share of principals saying parents or community members challenged teachers’ use of information three or more times nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022.”
  4. “Conflict leads to declines in support for teaching about race, racism, and racial and ethnic diversity.  High schools increasingly struggle to teach students about the full spectrum of American experiences and histories, especially when it comes to issues related to racism and race… ‘My superintendent told me in no uncertain terms that I could not address issues of race and bias etc. with students or staff this year,’ said a principal in a red community in Minnesota. ‘We could not address the deeper learning.'”
  5. “Principals report sizable growth in harassment of LGBTQ+ youth. The survey results also suggest that schools are increasingly facing challenges related to teaching students to treat one another with dignity and respect… Fewer than half of principals said school board members or district leaders made statements or acted to promote policies and practices that protected LGBTQ+ student rights.”

“Parents’ rights” are the rallying cry for many of today’s culture warriors who want to protect the dominant culture and shield their children from uncomfortable controversy.  But in a recent and very personal Washington Post column, “When Children Ask About Race and Sex, We Have No Choice But to Answer,” Danielle Allen, a political theorist and the Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and an African American mother, explains the point of view of many other parents and children. Allen examines why it is so urgently important for teachers to be able to respond to children’s own observations and questions when the students themselves initiate conversation about the same fraught subjects the NEPC researchers describe organized parents trying to ban from the schools.

Allen describes a conversation her own two-year-old daughter launched about race, while the child sat in seat of the grocery store cart as they were in the midst of shopping. The child declared, “Mommy, I think it’s not good to be Black.”

Allen reflects upon what her toddler had already observed about race in America: “My daughter’s statement was a question. Its subtext went like this: ‘I’ve noticed something, Mommy. It seems like it’s not good to be Black. But can that be right? You’re Black. I love you. How can these things fit together? And what does this mean for me?'”

Allen continues: “What I can assure you of is that even before any of our kids, of any racial or ethnic background, get to school, every Black family in the United States is having to teach its children about race and the history of enslavement and stories of overcoming that have played out generation after generation. The same must be true for kids raised in LGBTQ families, with regard to the history and contemporary experience of gender and sexuality… This means that the only way you can keep knowledge and questions about these histories, experiences and perspectives out of the school curriculum in early grades is to keep Black people or members of LGBTQ families out of school.”

Or, according to NEPC’s research, many school districts are enrolling Black and Brown children and children from LGBTQ families while the school districts may be imposing policies to silence such children, to make their realities invisible to other students, and to refuse to help them answer their own hard questions.

Public schools are required by law to serve all the children whatever their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. It is not the business of school board members, school superintendents, school principals, or teachers to cater to any one group of parents’ rights advocates, no matter how well organized or well funded is their lobby.

Here, writing for The Progressive, is retired high school teacher, Peter Greene, who understands educators’ obligation to protect the interests of all the students who fill our nation’s public school classrooms: “Schools must balance the needs and concerns of all of their many stakeholders. Parents absolutely have rights when it comes to public schools, but so do non-parents, taxpayers and other community stakeholders. It’s up to the school district to balance all of these concerns, while also depending on the professional judgment of its trained personnel. It is a tricky balance to maintain, requiring nuance and sensitivity. It is correct to argue that ‘schoolchildren are not mere creatures of the state.’ But framing the issue as parents versus school has served some folks with a very specific agenda.”

What’s Happening Right Now at the Statehouse Epitomizes the Collapse of Democracy in Ohio

Today, Tuesday, December 13, 2022, the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education Committee will consider and possibly pass and advance to the full Ohio House the more than 2,100 page, Substitute Senate Bill 178, introduced into the House committee just yesterday, December 12, 2022.  This bill, which guts the State Board of Education, came out of the Ohio Senate’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee only last Tuesday; it was passed on Wednesday by the full Ohio Senate during the 134th General Assembly’s lame-duck rush.

Substitute SB 178 would hollow out the State Board of Education and transfer most of its responsibilities to a new cabinet level Division of Education and the Workforce under the control of the Governor’s appointed deputy director.  A State Board of Education would continue to exist; it would appoint a state superintendent (but one whose responsibility would be severely reduced) and handle educator licensure and disciplinary actions.  Most of the power and responsibility of the current State Board and the State Superintendent would, however, be transferred to the new Division of Education and the Workforce. The bill also creates a new Division of Career-Technical Education, which would have its own deputy director.

Constitutional law professor and historian Derek Black provides some important historical background on the role of state boards of education and independently appointed superintendents of public instruction. All the states have education clauses in their state constitutions, many enacted in the period immediately following the Civil War: “Today all fifty state constitutions protect the right to education. All fifty states, through constitutional language, place that right on a pedestal. They also attempt something quite curious: they try to insulate public education from partisan politics.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p.15)

Black continues: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised. But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 232)

At the Ohio Statehouse today, we are watching politicians whose intent is precisely to insert politics into the governance, operation, and funding of public education. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s editorial last Friday perfectly captures this reality—explaining that Sub. SB 178, “will take key policymaking out of the hands of a state board subject to Sunshine Law rules and with required public input, and give it to a new Director of Education and the Workforce named by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate.”

The newspaper’s editors describe what happened after the November election:  “A curious thing happened on Nov. 8.  Amid a stampede of Republican victories in Ohio, voters in state education board districts ousted two GOP incumbents in favor of Democrats and elected another Democrat in a contested district previously held by a Republican. While the races were officially nonpartisan, the outcome gave board members who’d campaigned to take culture-war issues off the table at the State Board of Education a much larger voice… In response to this clear expression of voter concern that the State Board of Education needed to refocus on the nuts and bolts of educating Ohio children, a substitute bill gutting the board and transferring most of its key powers to an extensively revamped state education bureaucracy emerged in the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors continue: “Virtually overnight, one-page Senate Bill 178 suddenly became 2,144 page Substitute Senate Bill 178… Yet… just a day after hearing from the bill’s opponents, the committee voted 5-1 to push the bill out for a full floor vote, and the Senate immediately passed Sub. SB 178 on a lopsided 22-7 vote, sending it to the House.”

Yesterday (December 12), less than a week after the Ohio Senate passed Sub. SB 178, the bill was introduced in the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education Committee, which heard sponsor testimony. The House education committee meets again today, and could potentially pass the bill and forward it to the full Ohio House of Representatives.

The Plain Dealer‘s editors acknowledge that there have been problems in Ohio’s State Board, especially in recent decades after the legislature granted the governor 8 appointed seats out of a state board of 19 members. Most of these problems are themselves the result of political meddling by powerful Ohio Republican leaders. After the State Board passed an anti-racism resolution in 2020, and then in 2021 rescinded it and substituted a bill to ban discussion of divisive topics, Governor DeWine subsequently forced the resignation of his appointed members who had voted for the original anti-racism resolution. Then, as the Plain Dealer‘s editors remind us, “Last January Gov. Mike DeWine redistricted State Board of Education districts in ways that appeared to target some of the elected board members who’d opposed him on last year’s repeal of the board’s anti-racism resolution. Voters then turned around and elected three new board members who campaigned on returning the board to educational policy pursuits. That expression of the voters’ will shouldn’t have prompted a frontal assault on the State Board of Education itself, supported by Gov. DeWine. But it appears it has.”

Although the Plain Dealer‘s editors acknowledge recent problems in the State Board, they believe a democratically responsive State Board is necessary: “It has to be said, in fairness that the State Board of Education has not covered itself in glory, bogging down in culture-war battles and failing to name a new superintendent of public instruction… But the State Board of Education provides Ohioans with benefits, too, including transparency in educational policy discussions and voter input into the choice of most board members. Successive governors have tried to squeeze the board’s powers and the voters’ voice on its members, but without being able to gain full control.”

The Plain Dealer challenges the Ohio House—led by Speaker Bob Cupp, who was one of the designers of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan and has been a strong supporter of Ohio’s public schools—to block Sub. SB 178: “Now it’s up to the Ohio House to shut the door on misguided Substitute Senate Bill 178.”

Democratically governed public schools remain the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the public obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students. I wish I were optimistic about what the Ohio House will do in the remaining weeks of the lame-duck session. I suspect instead that as we watch Ohio’s gerrymandered, supermajority Republican legislature eviscerate the State Board of Education, we are looking at a long and difficult battle to protect democratically governed public education in Ohio.

In the Midst of Lame-Duck Culture War Attacks and Fighting about Vouchers, Here Are Some Core Principles to Remember

On Tuesday, this blog considered the implications of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s denigration of public school teachers, disdain for public schools, and exploitation of racist and homophobic attacks on the public school curriculum as their strategy for building far-right 2024 Presidential campaigns.  And right now, across many of the 50 statehouses, we are watching privatizers debate laws to expand vouchers at the expense of their state’s public school budgets and bills to threaten teachers who lead thoughtful and honest discussions of American history.

Watching the fraught educational culture wars and the current legislative battles, I thought about the following post I published in May of 2017, following the death of political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, a profound writer about public education.  Benjamin Barber believed a universal system of public schools is the best way to serve the needs of all children and protect their rights.

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Over the years, Benjamin Barber’s writing spoke poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed (along with the racism and homophobia that surrounds us in 2022)—Barber’s thinking calls us back to the principles by which our society defined the purpose of public education. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

Some of the short essays published in Barber’s 1998 collection, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remain remarkably timely all these years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes  them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity. If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers…  who dismiss as harmless a more-than twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools (and today’s Republican fixation on expanding vouchers).

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

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

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated:

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ public schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at an important conference. As a keynoter described the hurricane as an opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

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

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Compete with Each Other to Trash Public School Teachers

As the race to be the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. President in 2024 heats up, it’s already become ugly.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been ginning up his 2024 Presidential campaign with a scurrilous attack on none other than Randi Weingarten and America’s public school teachers. Two weeks ago, Pompeo announced: “I get asked, ‘Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?’ The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, ‘Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?’ It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.”

Pompeo doesn’t seem to have noticed what happened in Tennessee with the Hillsdale College plan to open 50 charter schools across the state.  A sizeable backlash ensued after Hillsdale’s President Larry Arnn was caught on a hidden-camera video telling an audience that anybody can be a teacher and that public school teachers are “educated in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” After Arnn attacked teachers, a number of school districts across Tennessee quickly terminated negotiations for starting up any Hillsdale charter schools.

Last week, in a NY Post opinion piece, Pompeo clarified his shameless, ad hominum attack on America’s more than 3 million public school teachers by presenting his own culture war spin on the public schools’ failure to indoctrinate our children with a curriculum of American exceptionalism combined with the promotion of educational competition via school privatization: “Critical race theory and the 1619 Project derive from Marxist precepts; they do not reflect the greatness and the power of the American experiment… America’s founding was a watershed in world history. Our nation is exceptional. China, Russia and Iran destroy human initiative; America allows it to flourish…  Public schools must be required to compete for students with charter, private, and religious schools, in addition to homeschooling, for competition improves performance.”

Ah — Pompeo’s attack on teachers is merely his spectacularly ugly take on the platform another prospective 2024 Presidential candidate—Ron DeSantis—has already been implementing. Most public education policy is established under the 50 state constitutions, and Ron DeSantis, as Governor of Florida, is better positioned than a former Secretary of State to have already put in place a program that undermines his state’s public schools. After he was re-elected on November 8, DeSantis bragged: “Florida is “where woke goes to die.”  Here are a few things Ron DeSantis has accomplished:

  • Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and Parents’ Bill of Rights Bill — On July 1, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, popularly known by critics as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, went into effect on Friday, restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation… The law, signed March 28 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), is the first of its kind in the country… The law also legally empowers parents to sue school districts as a way to advance their ‘parental rights.’”
  • A Book Ban — Salon‘s Kathryn Joyce reported: “This March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a policy… that bans schools from using any books that are ‘pornographic’ or age ‘inappropriate,’ and allows parents broad access to review and challenge all books and materials used for instruction or in school libraries….”
  • Florida State Public School Funding Dollars Flooding Out of Public Schools into Florida’s Huge and Growing Voucher Programs — In a collaborative report released in September, the national Education Law Center and the Florida Policy Center document that over a billion dollars is currently flowing out of Florida’s public school funding budget into vouchers.  And even more shocking, when students take a voucher the state sucks money right out of the already established school district budget: “School districts have no control over the number of students who apply for vouchers, which makes budgeting difficult.”

Now weeks after the November election, another of DeSantis’s strategies is falling into place.  Some of the conservative school board candidates Governor DeSantis endorsed have been making deep changes in the school districts for which they are responsible. Last week, Politico‘s Andrew Atterbury reported: “Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis put his weight behind dozens of conservative school board candidates across Florida during the midterms. Now they’re in office—and are purging some educational leaders who enforced Covid-19 mandates.  New board members in two GOP-leaning counties essentially sacked their school superintendents over the span of one week… And while not tied to the 2022 election, the school board in Broward County earlier this month fired its superintendent through an effort led by five members appointed by DeSantis. All combined, school boards with ties to DeSantis pushed out three superintendents in November alone….”

The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler adds: “School board races in Florida are nominally nonpartisan, but DeSantis jumped into the fray and endorsed 30 candidates whom he said would carry conservative values into local districts. Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent group with similar goals, made an overlapping set of endorsements as well. In response, Florida Democrats and teachers unions endorsed some candidates on the other side, turning school board races in some communities into de facto partisan political contests.  DeSantis’s picks ran on the mantle of parents’ rights, which typically translates to fewer accommodations for transgender students, less conversation about race and racism in the classroom and heightened scrutiny of books with sexual or other controversial themes.”

Politicians pandering to the hard right by blaming schoolteachers for America’s challenges are the same Republicans who appeal to racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and homophobia.

In the NY Post last Friday, Randi Weingarten responded to Mike Pompeo’s attack on America’s teachers: “It’s tough to stand out in the GOP presidential scrum, but my 1.7 million members and I had a good eye roll last week when Mike Pompeo decided that calling me ‘the most dangerous person in the world’ was his surest path to the White House… His spite might be childish and petty, but what’s truly outrageous (is)… calling what educators do ‘filth’ and ‘propaganda.’  Our teachers give their all for their students, showing up every day for their kids, partnering with parents and helping the next generation fulfill their dreams… We agree with Pompeo that literacy is crucial—that’s why this year alone we (the American Federation of Teachers) have given out 1 million books to promote the joy of reading, instead of banning them, as his MAGA pals want to do. And in McDowell County, W. Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, we launched a public-private partnership that has boosted high-school graduation rates, raised academic proficiency and helped stem the teacher shortage by building houses for teachers… If (Pompeo) wants to engage in a real discussion about how best to strengthen public education or the importance of treating educators with respect, I invite him to join me in a visit to one of America’s 100,000 public schools to learn a thing or two.”

Mike Pompeo might learn a lot by visiting the public schools he disdains. The late Mike Rose, a beloved educator and education writer, published his very best book, Possible Lives, about what he learned by visiting public school classrooms across the United States. Toward the end of that wonderful book, Rose writes: “The teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society, gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With One Action in this Lame-Duck Session, Congress Could Significantly Ameliorate Child Poverty

To address educational opportunity gaps, the United States will need to help families with children overcome poverty.  Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) have just released precise instructions for Congress to take a major step for accomplishing this goal.

Before year’s end, “policymakers will have the opportunity once again to expand the Child Tax Credit… Indeed, Congress will likely consider tax legislation during this time, as business interests are pressing for corporate tax breaks that would undo some of the modest business tax increases that were enacted as part of the 2017 tax cuts, which gave extremely large net tax cuts to corporations.  Expanding the Child Tax Credit is more important than undoing a few provisions of the 2017 tax law that were used to offset some of the massive corporate tax cuts.  At a minimum, policymakers should not enact any year-end corporate tax breaks without expanding the Child Tax Credit.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is specific about what part of the Child Tax Credit must be fixed: “The current Child Tax Credit has a major design flaw: millions of children are prevented from receiving the full credit because their families’ incomes are too low. In total, an estimated 19 million children under age 17 receive less than the full $2,000-per-child credit or no credit at all because their families’ earnings are too low or because the adults were out of work that year…. This is because the credit phases in with earnings at 15 cents per dollar, for earnings above $2,500, and the refundable portion of the credit (the amount a family can receive if their credit exceeds their income tax liability) is capped at $1,500 per child. This slow phase-in rate results in the children whose families most need the credit receiving a smaller credit than children in families with higher incomes, or no credit at all. Furthermore, the credit phases in largely based on income, not the number of children a family has. So, a family with low income often receives the same total credit whether they have one, two, or more children, whereas families with higher incomes receive $2,000 per child.”

In policy-speak, the required change would make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable. “The vast majority of parents who are denied the full credit work, but their earnings are low enough that they can only get a partial credit, and not the full $2,000-per-child credit that families with higher earnings get.”

The policy language is a little complicated, but here is the example the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides: “(A) single mother with a toddler and a second grader, who earns $15,000 as a home health aide helping older adults meet their basic needs, would (under today’s law) receive a total of $1,875 in Child Tax Credit, less than what other families would receive for just one child. In contrast, a family with two children and earnings of $150,000 would receive the full $2,000 per child, or $4,000 in total. In fact, families with much higher incomes—including married couples with incomes of up to $400,000—get the full credit for each child, while the lowest-income families are partially or completely shut out of the credit.”

“In the example described above of the home health aide with two children, the family receives less than half of the maximum Child Tax Credit under current law. Even a parent working full time as a cashier at a wage of $10 per hour, earning $20,000 per year, would not earn enough to get the full credit for two children.”

For six months in 2021, under the American Rescue Plan, Congress made the full Child Tax Credit available to families with low or no income. Congress also increased the amount of the Child Tax Credit for each child. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities assumes that this year Congressional deliberations will be intense and prescribes the one reform that would make the most difference. Increasing the amount of the credit per child is not so important as making the full tax credit fully available for the poorest families with children:

“Making the full $2,000 credit available to these children would substantially lower poverty, reducing the number of children living in a family with income below the poverty line by roughly 10 percent—or about 1.7 million children—in 2022 relative to current law.  By contrast, increasing the maximum credit amount without making the credit more available to the lowest-income children would do far less to lift children above the poverty line, and at a higher cost than making the credit fully refundable (to the poorest families). To make the greatest impact on child poverty, any future expansion should prioritize expanding the credit to children in families with low incomes.”  The new report adds: “Increasing the maximum size of the credit, after making it fully available, would further reduce child poverty. But if policymakers increase the maximum credit amount to the Rescue Plan levels without making the credit fully available… the number of children in families with income below the poverty line would fall by just 2 percent—or just 222,000 children… at more than twice the cost of making the $2,000 credit fully available (to the poorest families with children).

Which families would benefit from making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable? “The estimated 19 million children under 17 who do not receive the full credit are disproportionately Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native…. Due to historical and ongoing racial discrimination, many people of color are overrepresented in low-paid work and face more limited economic opportunities… The credit’s current structure also disproportionately disadvantages children who live in rural (that is, non-metropolitan) areas. An estimated 32 percent of children under 17 living in rural areas receive less than the full credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes are too low or because the adults were out of work this year, compared with a still sizable 26 percent living in metro areas, largely because pay is generally lower in rural areas.”

Why must Congress act before year’s end? “Poverty and the hardships that come with it—unstable housing, frequent moves, inadequate nutrition, and high levels of stress in the family—can take a heavy toll on children; they are associated with lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health in adulthood, and lower earnings in adulthood.”

The new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is an urgent call to action. I encourage you to let your U.S. Senator and Congressional Representative know that you believe making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable should be a top priority for Congress this year.

Ohio Teachers Help Elect Candidates Who Will Fight to End Culture War Quagmire in the State School Board

In an article published early last Wednesday afternoon as election returns were being reported, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock published (or see here) a story about a race that had sadly been under-reported during the lead up to the election:

“Voters elected three candidates to the Ohio State Board of Education on Tuesday who oppose fights over LGBTQ students in bathrooms and attempts to control how American racism is discussed in social studies classes. The Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Education Association contributed tens of thousands of dollars to help the campaigns of former state senator Teresa Fedor of Toledo, Tom Jackson of Solon and Katie Hofmann of Cincinnati, who each won their races against more conservative candidates… The unions were involved in recruiting the three candidates. Fedor and Hofmann are each former teachers and members of OFT. Jackson, a businessman, is a volunteer coach at Solon High School and serves on the Solon City Schools Strategic Planning Team… ”

In the context of today’s big money politics, the unions made a modest financial investment. Hancock adds: “They also gave their candidates a big fundraising boost. In addition to writing checks for each candidate’s campaign—OEA gave $13,700 to each candidate’s campaign and the OFT gave $12,000 to Fedor and Jackson and $13,700 to Hofmann—the unions spent at least $100,000 to get them elected through an independent super PAC called Educators for Ohio… ‘The super PAC spent money only on the three state school board candidates, said Scott DiMauro, president of the OEA. ‘The three individuals who won those contested races are all strong advocates of public education… I would anticipate they would work closely with other members of the state board who have been pushing back on some of those (culture wars) attacks.'”

Thank you Ohio Education Association and Ohio Federation of Teachers!

When public school supporters saw Hancock’s article last Wednesday, many were grateful to learn that someone had made a strategic effort to turn the tide in the Ohio State Board of Education, a body which has for two years been trapped in a morass of culture war conflict. Eleven members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, with eight members appointed by the governor. In 2020, the Ohio State Board passed an anti-racism resolution, which was overturned by the conservative Board majority in 2021 and replaced with a resolution condemning any teachings that ‘seek to divide.’  Governor Mike DeWine  subsequently forced the resignation of his appointed members of the Board who had voted to keep the original anti-racism resolution, including Laura Kohler, the State Board’s elected president.

The culture wars have continued. Hancock explains: “More recently, conservatives on the board have been pushing a resolution that would urge local school districts to defy Title IX protections for LGBTQ students that are being proposed by President Joe Biden’s administration, potentially putting federal money for free and reduced lunch and special education in jeopardy. The resolution remains under consideration. Board members have spent 10 hours taking public testimony and discussing it since September.”  Yesterday, the State Board of Education’s executive committee voted to send a version of the resolution endorsing state-sponsored discrimination against LGBTQ+ students back for a final vote at today’s scheduled November meeting of the full Board.

On top of all this has been the gerrymandering mess. Again Hancock explains: “Every 10 years, the boundaries for the Ohio State Board of Education shift when Ohio Senate boundaries are redrawn. Gov. Mike DeWine changed state school board boundaries Jan. 31.” But, “DeWine didn’t change the school board map, even as state mapmakers shifted the Senate’s boundaries found to violate the Ohio Constitution, and on July 14, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose notified county boards of election to use the Jan. 31 changes DeWine made. Candidates for the state school board, which are nonpartisan, had to file to run for the seats Aug. 10, which left just a few months to campaign.” Added to these problems, DeWine’s new State School Board district map does not comply with Ohio law.  It also radically shifts the communities and school districts located in each candidate’s district, which meant that for the November election several candidates had to run in areas where they were not well known.

Hancock quotes Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers describing the challenge the teachers unions undertook at the last minute to encourage pro-public school candidates to run: “It really was a crunch in trying to get quality candidates to run… We had incumbents we know that were not pro-public education, who were in my opinion, pushing these culture war issues at the state board level. And it was just critical to us that we could get them out of there. So we definitely were looking for people who understand public education, who have been engaged in conversations about equity, social-emotional learning, the whole child approach, all that things that are really important to us.”

To understand the depth of concern many in Ohio share about the recent culture war imbroglio in the State Board, it is helpful to read a formal statement released last month by four dismayed elected members of the current State Board of Education—Christina Collins, Meryl Johnson, Michelle Newman, and Antoinette Miranda. They wrote in opposition to the proposed resolution the Board is currently considering which would urge school districts to oppose federal Title IX rules:

“In an unexpected, politically charged action, a member of the State Board of Education, Brendan Shea, introduced his ‘Resolution to Support Parents, Schools, and Districts in Rejecting Harmful, Coercive, and Burdensome Gender Identity Policies.’ The resolution not only advocates for state-endorsed lawlessness; it also works to codify the exact discrimination that Title IX was developed to prevent… Our entire educational system must be founded on respecting, nurturing, and supporting children. EVERY. SINGLE. CHILD. We are not and should never be in the business of selecting which child is worthy of protection and instruction. This resolution is a political grenade thrown into an arena that has already been overwhelmed with more politics and culture wars than actions that actually improve education. Beyond the moral reprehension of this particular resolution, the time spent on an issue that reflects the unrealized fears of adults will only harm our most vulnerable children while distracting us all from real issues of educational urgency.”

NAEP Scores Confirm that COVID Disrupted Schooling; They Do Not Reflect a Downward Trajectory in School Achievement

Are the new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores a catastrophic indication that the U.S. public schools have fallen into decline? I don’t think so.

Early this week, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a large data set from National Assessment of Educational Progress exams administered last spring to 4th and 8th grade students in U.S. public schools. Last month, NCES released scores from tests administered to a smaller group of 4th graders.  Both sets of scores show that the COVID pandemic seriously disrupted schooling for the nation’s children and adolescents.

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum explains what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too. The latest results are based on tests given between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic… Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.”

The NAEP scores released this week were precipitously lower than scores on the NAEP when it was administered in 2019, before COVID—particularly in 8th grade math. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “The portion of eighth-graders rated proficient or better in math fell to 27 percent, from 34 percent in 2019… the steepest decline in more than a half century of testing.”  (The fact that every year relatively few students reach NAEP’s proficient level overall is because the NAEP “proficient” cut score is set artificially high; it marks what most people would define as “advanced.”)

Some people assume that this year’s drop in NAEP scores signals a reversal of progress, the beginning of a downward spiral.  Others are using the scores as evidence for their particular reform or as evidence that their state had a better policy on school closures than other states. Meckler writes: “Partisans on all sides of the education debate seized on the results to advance competing ideas about the way ahead… The test results also offered fodder for those who argue bringing students back to campuses quickly was the right move… ‘We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove we made the right decision,’ Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said on Twitter.  But the data did not establish a connection between back-to-school policies and academic performance. In California, for instance, many public schools were closed well into the 2020-21 school year and some students never saw a classroom that year. But the declines were similar to those in Texas and Florida, where schools were ordered to reopen much sooner.”

In a blog post last month when the first set of 4th grade NAEP scores was released, I shared my own assessment of what had happened. I think the scores released last month and the scores released this week show the same thing. Here is some of what I said in that post.

***

There is no cause for panic.  Schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring…

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

***

In a new statement this week after the second set of NAEP scores were released, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a statement by Harry Feder: “Given that Monday’s state-by-state NAEP data mirror September’s national trends, as expected, we are getting an even greater cry of panic over “learning loss” and a call for dramatic interventions to catch students up. Such reactions are not justified. The September scores reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted. State-by-state numbers affirm what educators and parents already know – the pandemic was bad for kids.  But now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal.  In all likelihood, scores for future 4th and 8th graders will revert to more normal patterns. We will need to see what happens to students as they age to see whether the pandemic score plunge dissipates over time.”