How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

Ohio Legislature Must Ensure No More Children Are Held Back by 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores

“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.

The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools.  And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.

Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.”  In 2014,  Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade.  Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”

Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success.  A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”

It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy.  In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”

Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.”  Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'”  Finally  O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.

Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”

To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The  Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”

I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels.  For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology.  I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.

Education Expert Demonstrates Why Gov. Youngkin’s Attack on Virginia’s Public Schools Is Wrong

I suspect that Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, knows very little, really, about public education.  He was an investment banker before he became a politician, and his children attend the elite, private Georgetown Prep. But Youngkin knows how to build political capital by frightening parents and the general public about so-called failures in the state’s public schools. He campaigned last year by promoting the racist idea that parents need more control over their kids’ schools to prevent the children’s being frightened or upset by the injustices that have scarred American history. And now, he has begun using test score data to try to paint the state’s public schools as failing.

The problem is that this time, as he tries to use the state’s scores on the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Education Progress ( NAEP), to prove there is something drastically wrong with Virginia’s public schools, he and his so-called experts who just castigated the state’s schools in a new report seem to have misread the meaning of the test scores they denigrate. Youngkin’s claim is that too few Virginia students achieve the “proficient” cut score on the NAEP.

For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson and Laura Vozzella report: “The Virginia Department of Education painted a grim picture of student achievement in the state in a report released Thursday, asserting that children are performing poorly on national assessments in reading and math and falling behind peers in other states.  The 34-page report on students’ academic performance, requested as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first executive order, says these trends are especially pronounced among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The report further critiques what it calls school districts’ lack of transparency regarding declining student performance—and it laments parents’ ‘eroding’ confidence in the state’s public schools.”  The Youngkin administration’s new report contends that Virginia has been expecting too little of its public school students—that, while Virginia’s state test, the Standards of Learning or SOL, shows the state’s students are doing well, Virginia’s NAEP scores show the states’ students are not really “proficient.”

But Youngkin’s report ignores years of discussion about what the “proficient” achievement level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress really means.  In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch who once served on the NAEP’s Governing Board, took the trouble to explain: “All definitions of education standards are subjective…  People who set standards use their own judgment to decide the passing mark on a test. None of this is science.” Ravitch explains further precisely how the NAEP Governing Board has always defined the difference between the “proficient” standard and the “basic” standard: “‘Proficient’ represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)… defines it as ‘solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.’… ‘Basic,’ as defined by NAGB, is ‘partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.'” Ravitch concludes that according to the NAEP standard: “a student who is ‘proficient’ earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+” while “the student who scores ‘basic’ is probably a B or C student.” (Reign of Error, p. 47)

Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses for high stakes school accountability devotes an entire chapter of his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, to the topic, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets.”  Koretz describes exactly how Glenn Youngkin appears to be manipulating the meaning of NAEP cut scores as an argument for blaming the schools and pressuring educators to prep students to improve test scores at any cost: “In a nutshell, the core of the approach has been simply to set an arbitrary performance target (the ‘Proficient’ standard) and declare that all schools must make all students reach it in an equally arbitrary amount of time…. (A)lmost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… This trust in performance standards, however is misplaced… (I)n fact, despite all the care that goes into creating them, these standards are anything but solid. They are arbitrary, and the ‘percent proficient’ is a very slippery number.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 119-121)

Natanson and Vozzella report that Virginia’s educators immediately pushed back against Youngkin’s new report: “The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C, Hutchings Jr., said the report inspired him to navigate to the NAEP website, where he discovered that Virginia students had consistently scored above the national average. ‘So, I’m not really understanding the whole premise of this report…. (which) was around us performing so much lower than everyone else.'”

Fortunately, last Friday, right after Youngkin’s report was released, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a column by James Harvey, the recently retired executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.  Harvey scathingly criticizes the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) for its confusing definition of “proficient.”  Like a lot of federal policy after Reagan’s 1983, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for widespread mediocrity and and became the basis for standards-based school reform, the NAGB set its proficiency targets to drive higher expectations. Harvey writes: “Proficient doesn’t mean proficient. Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as ‘aspirational.’ In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that: ‘The proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Harvey summarizes the decades-long controversy about National Assessment of Educational Progress cut scores: “What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights…  (T)he likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were ‘fundamentally flawed,’ ‘indefensible,’ and ‘of doubtful validity,’ while producing ‘results that are not believable.'”

Harvey continues: “How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the creme de la creme of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world. For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.”

In her introduction to Harvey’s piece, Valerie Strauss explains: “Youngkin isn’t the first politician to misinterpret NAEP scores and then use that bad interpretation to bash public schools.” Please do read Strauss’s introduction and James Harvey’s fine column to better understand how high stakes standardized testing has been used politically to drive a kind of school reform that manipulates big data but has little relevance to expanding educational opportunity.

Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

Texas Governor Outrageously Proposes Denying Undocumented Immigrant Children the Right to K-12 Public Education

In September of 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Texas statute denying children brought to the United States by their undocumented parents the right to public education.  In Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court protected the right of all children living in the United States to a free K-12 public education. The Court also defined the public purpose of our system of public schools, accessible to all children.

In the majority decision, Justice William Brennan wrote these powerful words: “A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment… (T)he Texas statute imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. These children can neither affect their parents’ conduct nor their own undocumented status. The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. 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.”

Brennan continues, quoting from the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.”

Brennan is careful not to contradict the precedent in San Antonio v Rodriguez that public education, never mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, is not protected as a federal fundamental right, but he comes as close as possible when he declares that for children brought into the United States by undocumented immigrants: “(W)hen the State provides an education to some and denies it to others, it immediately and inevitably creates class distinctions of a type fundamentally inconsistent with those purposes, mentioned above, of the Equal Protection Clause. Children denied an education are placed at a permanent and insurmountable competitive disadvantage, for an uneducated child is denied even the opportunity to achieve. And when those children are members of an identifiable group, that group—through the State’s action—will have been converted into a discrete underclass.”

Now, when it looks as though today’s U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, Texas Governor Greg Abbott says he hopes the Court will overturn other precedents. When he was interviewed on a radio talk show, Governor Abbott suggested that Texas may consider challenging Plyler v. Doe: “The challenges put on our public systems is extraordinary… Texas already long ago sued the federal government about having to incur the costs of the education program, in a case called Plyler versus Doe.  And the Supreme Court ruled against us on the issue about denying, or let’s say Texas having to bear that burden. I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again, because the expenses are extraordinary….”

The Dallas Morning NewsRobert T. Garrett quotes Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF): “First, Abbott needs some remedial education on Plyler itself… This was a case brought against Texas, not by Texas, as Abbott asserted. The case was filed by MALDEF on behalf of students threatened by a Texas statute allowing schools to exclude undocumented students from public school.”  Garrett adds, “In the four-decade-old ruling, The Supreme Court split 5-4 on declaring the Texas law unconstitutional. But even the four dissenters agreed with the majority that Texas was unwise to pass the law, Saenz noted. ‘All of the justices, including then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, agreed that the Texas law seeking to exclude undocumented children from school was bad public policy,’ he said.”

Reporting for the NY Times, J. David Goodman explains that: “Attitudes about immigration have shifted in Texas, where former Republican governors like George W. Bush and Rick Perry adopted relatively moderate tones. Mr. Perry, during his term, signed a law allowing undocumented college students access to in-state tuition and financial aid at public universities in Texas. But taking a hard stance on immigration has been a politically comfortable place for Mr. Abbott.”

Goodman reports: “Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for many public benefits. And Texas offers fewer than most states. Edna Yang of American Gateways, an immigration legal services provider in Texas, said that undocumented immigrants in the state qualified for only a small number of benefits, including emergency medical services, food aid for children and public education.”  But, Abbott is protesting the cost of educating English language learners: “The governor’s office has said that the cost of each additional student enrolled in Texas pubic schools is about $6,100 per year, not including the cost of providing bilingual and special education services, which add more than $2,000 in additional spending.”

Goodman adds: “(I)t is against federal law to record the immigration status of students in school, (and) the number of students in question is not precisely known.  An overwhelming majority of children of undocumented migrants were born in the United States and are citizens. Researchers have estimated there are about one million undocumented young people in the country.”

Goodman quotes Justin Driver, author of an extremely significant book on public education and the U.S. Supreme Court: “I view Plyler v. Doe as among the most significant constitutional decisions in the Supreme Court’s history… That is because the decision succeeded in interring this sort of legislation (like the state law Plyer overturned in Texas) and keeping it from spreading all around the country.”

Governor Greg Abbott is, according to Goodman, a former attorney general in Texas. I am shocked that a public official schooled in the role of federal law so flagrantly suggests overturning a Supreme Court decision that protects students’ rights. Many of the children Abbot seeks to exclude from Texas public schools hope someday to become citizens of the United States. Governor Abbott’s entire purpose is to slash Texas’ investment in its public schools, which the Texas constitution defines as a primary responsibility of the state. Abbott’s priority is cutting out teachers and programs designed to serve English language learners, whatever the impact on children’s lives and their preparation for participating in our democracy. For Governor Abbott, the public purpose of public schooling, so eloquently defined and defended in Plyler v. Doe by Justice William Brennan, matters not at all.

Permanently Expanding the Child Tax Credit Would Help Close Educational Opportunity Gaps

Those of us who support closing educational opportunity gaps have a lot on our plates right now.  We are watching states cut taxes instead of investing in teachers, counselors, and enriched curriculum.  It seems that momentum has slowed for ending the misguided scheme of high-stakes test-and-punish school accountability, and, based on test scores, states continue to rank and rate public schools and take over or shut down the so-called “failing” schools.  Laws condoning racism and anti-gay bias are winning in many state legislatures.  We are watching legislatures expand all kinds of private school tuition vouchers at the expense of their states’ public education budgets and watching the charter school lobby protest any kind of reasonable oversight of the largely unregulated, rapaciously greedy, privately operated charter school sector.

So, why do I think advocates for public education should work to support one more priority: pressing Congress to restore the expanded and fully refundable child tax credit that Republican senators along with Joe Manchin blocked when they derailed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill?

I’ll admit that for most of us who are focused on confronting the myriad challenges for the public schools, the complexities of addressing child poverty are not an area of expertise. But I think it is essential that we step back and consider David Berliner’s words: “(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. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States. As advocates for the public schools that serve the mass of America’s poorest children, I think we ought to trust the experts who explain how best to ameliorate our nation’s outrageous child poverty. They seem to agree that one simple Congressional action—restoring the American Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit—would enormously reduce child poverty in the United States.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr reports: “Last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit was a striking success, lifting an estimated 3.7 million otherwise-poor children (3 in 10) above the monthly poverty line in December 2021. The credit’s full refundability (ensuring that children with the lowest incomes get the full credit) was the main driver of its poverty reduction; making that provision permanent could have life-long positive impacts in health, educational attainment, and ultimate earnings power for millions of children.”

Until last year’s American Rescue COVID relief bill, families whose incomes were so low they did not pay enough in taxes to be refunded received only partial benefits from the Child Tax Credit. And if a family had no income and paid no taxes, the family received no Child Tax Credit whatsoever. In a more recent report, Marr adds: “Absent a new expansion, the expiration of the Rescue Plan’s expanded Child Tax Credit will push a projected 4.1 million children back below the poverty line in 2022, of whom 1.6 million are Latino, 1.2 million are white, 930,000 are Black, and 132,000 are Asian… (A)nnual poverty rates among Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native children would be an estimated 8 to 9 percentage points higher without the Rescue Plan expansion than if the expansion were still in place. The greatest driver of these rises in poverty would be the loss of the expanded credit’s full refundability. Accordingly making the full credit available to children in families with the lowest incomes would be key to reducing child poverty.”

Writing for The Hill, Albert Hunt identifies a widespread bias of many Americans: that poor people are basically lazy and will only waste the money: “Critics, many Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), have charged making it refundable would create incentives not to work. There are even charges that some recipients would spend the extra money on drugs rather than their kids.”

The Brookings Institution just confirmed the lie in that bias. Instead parents used the money primarily for food, basics, and paying down credit card debt: “Overall, our findings suggest that the expanded CTC supported eligible families in several critical ways. First, the credit allowed families to cover routine expenses, such as housing, food, utilities, clothing, and other essential items for their children while also helping families to save for emergencies and pay off debt. Because one of the primary uses of the benefit was on food, it is not surprising that the CTC significantly lowered eligible families’ food insecurity and helped them afford healthier, balanced meals for their children. Additionally, the CTC reduced overall economic insecurity for eligible households, as evidenced by their declining credit card debt, lower eviction risks, stronger rainy-day funds, and reduced reliance on payday loans, pawn shops, and selling blood plasma to make ends meet.”

It is to be hoped that Senator Manchin has noticed the Brookings study.  It has been widely reported in West Virginia’s newspapers.  The Intelligencer.Wheeling News-Register reported “The study also found that the monthly CTC payments to families did not encourage parents to not work, but likely led them to seek professional training and classes.”  “The survey indicated….  58%… had used the money for essential items, with 56% noting they had purchased additional food with the funding. Another 49% responded they had used the money for emergency savings, with 42% noting it was directed toward debt payment.”

A second new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, the University of California at Berkeley, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Urban Institute, and other partner organizations describes how last year’s Child Tax Credit payments actually helped parents get to work: “During the phone interviews with respondents, parents commented how the monthly payments helped them afford transportation to get to work and covered the cost of child care that allowed them to work additional hours. One mom named Jasmin, who has two kids and lives in New Jersey, explained how transportation costs take up a large portion of her monthly budget… The monthly CTC payments provided her with more resources to pay for the transportation to get to and from her job.”

What about inflation?  Wouldn’t re-establishing last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit drive more inflation?  Writing for the NY Times, Ezra Klein discounts this worry: “Nor is inflation a reason to leave children in poverty. Extending the expanded child tax credit would cost about $100 billion per year for the next few years—less than 0.5 percent of U.S. G.D.P.  And it could easily be paired with policies raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere, making the overall impact on spending nil.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr backs up Klein’s judgment: “Rising prices are no reason for policymakers to delay or avoid taking action on critical policies such as extending the Child Tax Credit expansion. For struggling families, in fact, they make the task more urgent. The Rescue Act’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit would amount to roughly 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. It would provide extremely meaningful income support for millions of low-income families, but it would generate little or no inflationary pressure…. Policymakers need to act.”

The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne Jr. summarizes the depth of the need to support children growing up in poverty: “Our society claims to love children, admire parents and revere the family. But our public policies send the opposite message… It’s hard to think of work more important to a society’s long-term well-being and prosperity than raising children. Yet the market economy values work outside the home that produces goods, services, and profits far more than the work of parenting. While parenting’s value is, well, infinite, it goes largely unmeasured in our gross domestic product… Our country needs a sensible family policy. That’s why child care, universal pre-K, family leave and an expanded child tax credit were central components of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But our debate last year about his proposal rarely got to the merits.”

Ameliorating child poverty in the United States is a moral imperative. It is important for supporters of public education to join child advocacy organizations in standing behind Congressional champions like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who are pushing Congress permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable.

Recent Teachers’ Strikes Reflect Decades-Long Drop in States’ Funding for Public Schools

The late Mike Rose, a professor who educated teachers, wrote a book about a three year journey across the United States back in the mid-1990s to visit and observe the classrooms of teachers who had been identified to him as excellent. In that book, Possible Lives, and later in an article for The American Scholar, Rose very carefully defines fine teachers:

Their “classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

I wish I thought the rest of us reflected so profoundly about what teachers do. Creating engaged, challenging, and respectful classrooms like the ones Rose describes requires academic scholarship, training in child and adolescent development, and a whole lot of management skill. In my most cynical days, I imagine that instead of valuing excellent teachers, many Americans celebrate the people with the tech skills to create phones with better apps. I worry that a lot of people define the purpose of schools as keeping our children out of sight and out of mind. And I am pretty sure when legislators sit down to lay out state budgets, they mostly figure out how to cover all the functions of the state with the revenue available without considering what a tax increase might accomplish. Actually, these days it seems legislators are prone to cut taxes permanently or at least provide a one-time bonus tax refund.

These are the reasons why teachers strike, as they recently did in Minneapolis and Sacramento. State dollars invested in public education pay for concrete basics: enough teachers to keep the student-to-teacher ratio barely manageable, counselors, school psychologists, bus drivers, education support professionals to assist students in special education, and maybe also music teachers and librarians.  When there isn’t enough money, districts cut out the extras and begin shaving down the basics by making classes bigger and delaying cost-of-living raises for teachers and aides and bus drivers. In settlements following both recent strikes, teachers won better salaries for themselves and for the under-paid hourly workers who serve as education support professionals, lunchroom cooks, and bus drivers. Teachers in Minneapolis also won class size caps.

In Minneapolis, a school district with 28,700 students and 4,500 teachers, the Star Tribune reported that the union agreed to “wage increases for education support professionals that boost the starting hourly wage from $19.83 to $23.91, an increase in the number of school counselors, and layoff protections for teachers from ‘a population underrepresented among licensed teachers’… Teachers will receive $4,000 (a one-time stipend) on April 8 and pay raises of at least 2%…  Both new contracts run through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.”

In Sacramento, the issue has been a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers, and education support professionals. The Sacramento Bee reported, “District and union officials said Sunday that an agreement had been reached between the district, the classified employee union SEIU Local 1021 and the Sacramento City Teachers Association… The… agreement with the teachers union includes ongoing 4% salary increases, 3% one-time stipends for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years; one-time payments of $1,250 in the current school year, 25% rate increases for substitutes… The SEIU union said in a separate email that the agreement ‘makes strides to address the causes of the classified staff shortage through a 4% ongoing cost-of-living adjustment… retroactive to July 1, 2021.’… SEIU represents bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides and other workers in the district.”

For two school years now, teaching and working in public schools has demanded more than the academic study, skill, and hard work Mike Rose describes as the routine qualifications for teachers. School districts have been short on staff, and after the COVID disruption, students are presenting enormous academic and emotional challenges. Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria reports: “A few weeks ago, Sacramento teacher Kacie Go had 56 kids for second period. That day, there were 109 students at her eighth-through 12th-grade school who were without an instructor because of staff shortages. So she crammed the students into her room and made it work, but ‘its not sustainable,’ she said… Like Go… teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and instructional aides are fed up with being asked to do more with less. It’s a problem that goes beyond the Sacramento City Unified School District, with 48,000 students in 81 schools. Frustration among teachers and school workers is rampant across California—pushed to a breaking point by the pandemic and a shortage of more than 11,000 credentialed teachers and thousands of support staff…  It’s the same story playing out in hundreds of other districts not just in California but across the country. Minneapolis teachers just ended a 14-day strike that shared some of the same issues of pay and support, underscored by the same teacher chagrin that we talk a good game about supporting public education but don’t always come through with actions.”

Chabria profiles Katie Santora, a cafeteria worker who has worked for 13 years at the district and who has been making $18.98 an hour “for what is essentially a management role.” “Santora is the lead nutrition services worker at a high school, expected to churn out 1,500 meals a day between breakfast and lunch—with a staff of nine people (though they started the year with only five). Most are part-timers because the district doesn’t want to pay them benefits, and they make about minimum wage… She’s in charge of ordering, planning, receiving, and keeping the joint running.”

I notice that both the Minneapolis and Sacramento strike settlement agreements involve one-time stipends for this year and, in Sacramento, retroactive bonuses for work during other years of the pandemic.  One year stipends are one way school districts can use money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (COVID-19 relief).  School districts are unlikely to turn that money into permanent raises, health care increases or other long term benefits because the COVID relief money won’t be replaced permanently in upcoming state budgets. It is good to see both school districts recognizing the challenges school personnel have been handling in the past two years as staff shortages intersect with students’ rising stress as they return to school.

For the Minnesota Reformer Nadra Nittle adds that in Minneapolis an added burden falls on education support professionals: “The low wages education support professionals receive also make it difficult for them to pay for their district health insurance plans, which cost them the same as administrators who earn five times their salaries…. Some education support professionals pay more than $700 monthly for their family health insurance plans, leaving them with little money to pay for other expenses.”

There is a deeper cause to which teachers have been calling attention in the recent strikes. In his newest (December 2021) annual school funding report, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker documents that over the past two decades, many states have diminished their overall tax effort for public education. Baker explains that tax effort for K-12 schooling is a measure of state spending on K-12 schools relative to state fiscal capacity as measured by gross state product (GSP) and the ratio of state spending to aggregate personal income. “In 37 states, effort is lower than it was, on average, during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools.” “States, on average, are devoting smaller shares of their economies to schools than at any point in the past two decades, and the revenue they do raise is in many cases distributed inequitably.”

For The Nation, Eric Blanc concludes: “Public schools were in crisis well before COVID-19. Especially in predominantly non-white, working-class school districts like Minneapolis, decades of underfunding, privatization, high-stakes testing, and low educator pay made it increasingly difficult for teachers and support staff to provide the education their students deserve. To overcome such conditions, an unprecedented upsurge in strikes erupted from West Virginia to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. ‘Red for Ed’ succeeded in energizing educators, capturing headlines, and challenging the bipartisan consensus in favor of privatizing education, but its progress was abruptly checked by the pandemic… In the Twin Cities and beyond, the past two years have reversed Red for Ed’s political momentum and exacerbated structural stressors and inequities, resulting in increased educator outflows from the profession… Schools have lacked basic resources necessary to address students’ mental distress in the face of pandemic conditions.”

In 2022, many school districts continue to face the same financial challenges that the Red for Ed wave highlighted.  If we value our children and if we want to attract extremely talented and well prepared young people to the profession of teaching, we must meet our obligation as citizens to tax ourselves adequately to serve the real needs of our nation’s 50 million young people enrolled in public schools.

Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

What we expect public schools to accomplish has a lot to do with how much we take the institution of universal public schooling for granted. For a long time, we haven’t really been seriously considering the collective needs of our children and their public schools. And when children and their public schools struggle, we elect people with other priorities to represent us in the state legislature and Congress.

Back in 1998 in a book called A Passion for Democracy, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber pointed out what a lot of people still fail to notice: “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, (and) special education centers… 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) (emphasis in the original)

Last week in a powerful Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss revisits the same theme in a very different context.  She has noticed a thread that runs through two years of press coverage about public schools during the pandemic: “If you Google ‘lessons learned about schools during the pandemic,’ you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020. Many of the pieces highlight similar ‘lessons’—on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues—that seemingly hadn’t been thought of before.”

Strauss believes we ought to have learned all of these “pandemic” lessons over the decades that preceded the onset of COVID-19. Here are some of the themes she observes in recent COVID press coverage: “We learned… that… in person school… is much better for most students…. Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems…. Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school…. Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them…. Technology in schools… has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching…. Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parents communicators, hall and lunch monitors…. School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.”

Strauss concludes: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.”

Among the biggest lessons we learned again during COVID is about inadequate school funding and inequity across districts and states. Strauss explains that federal Title I funding to support schools serving concentrations of the nation’s poorest children, is inadequate and not targeted enough to the nation’s very poorest schools.  Further, “At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding—and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.  There are vast differences within states as well; reports released periodically show wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that ‘almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.'”

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarized the fiscal condition of school districts in the decade between the 2008 Great Recession and the onset of COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

During COVID-19 we learned again about unequal access to computers and broadband.  Strauss writes: “The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid-1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills… In April, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in school that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.'”

Another thing we learned about again during COVID is America’s outrageous rate of child poverty. UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States.  Strauss reports on one of the many ways we relearned this lesson during COVID: “That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly news. The School Lunch act of 1946—repeat, 1946, was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization… According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—nearly 11 million—lived in households considered ‘food insecure,’ meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.”

And during COVID we again learned about American students’ need for counseling and mental health support at school. Strauss writes: “There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic…. But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years.” Strauss cites a declaration of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. The declaration says: “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020… and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

Again and again, staff shortages in underfunded schools have left many students needing far more support. Strauss writes, “In U.S. public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students… According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015.  It’s nearly twice what the association recommends….”

Congress and the state legislatures could have taken extensive steps to reduce these challenges facing our children and their schools year after year, but such investments have been sporadic at best, and at the federal level during COVID, funding increases have been temporary. The allocation of temporary COVID relief from the federal government has not significantly alleviated the intersection of inadequate school funding and the unmet needs of children in school. Temporary COVID relief is a one-time investment, and public schools cannot hire salaried permanent staff with the dollars. Certainly COVID relief dollars were spent to alleviate the digital divide among children, but we know that lack of access to remote schooling during the pandemic still affected many children.

Long term solutions continue to be delayed.  While the Biden administration and many Congressional Democrats tried hard to pass Build Back Better—with permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit to help the poorest American families with children, more dollars for childcare support, and other supports for the well being and health of poor children—the bill has languished in Congress with an uncertain future.

Another example is the fate of full-service wraparound Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society began opening full-service Community Schools in New York City in 1992 and 1993 as a model for programming in schools where child poverty is concentrated. These are schools with family medical and social services located right in the school building. But in this year’s FY 2022 federal budget passed finally last month, after President Biden proposed spending $430 million for full-service Community Schools, Congress allocated only $75 million, an increase from the previous year’s investment of only $30 million, but not enough to make a dent in the meeting the need.

Valerie Strauss concludes her recent column: “So much for the ‘lessons’ we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.”

Strauss adds one other thing that happened again during the pandemic: our tendency to blame teachers when things don’t go smoothly at school instead of looking at our own responsibility for resourcing schools adequately: “(T)here was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that (teachers) were hailed as heroes…. But it didn’t take long for that narrative to… revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety precautions in schools…. (V)itriol about teachers and public schools became common again.” (Emphasis is mine.)

What Does Today’s Battle Over “Critical Race Theory” Have in Common with the Old Battle About Evolution?

Jill Lepore’s Why The School Wars Still Rage, in the March 21, 2022, New Yorker Magazine, examines in historical perspective today’s attack on public school teaching about so-called divisive topics and “critical race theory.”  Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University.

Lepore traces a direct connection between the battle a hundred years ago over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes and today’s fight about the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” and divisive concepts in social studies classes: “In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922… (was) the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, ‘Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.'”… Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill, Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech ‘A Time for Choosing.’… In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history.  Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state.”

So what does Lepore believe is the ultimate goal of extremist organizations like the Heritage Foundation who are working to inflame parents agitating about what to teach children and adolescents about the history of our nation and our society?  “(T)his fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about ‘parents’ rights,’ and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.”

In some detail, Lepore traces the long fight at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century by parents seeing to protect their own rights against the right of the state to establish compulsory school attendance and vaccine mandates. The teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution became part of this battle: “When anti-evolutionists condemned ‘evolution,’ they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean, today, when they condemn ‘critical race theory.’ Anti-evolutionists weren’t simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.”

The battle over parents’ rights continued into the rebellion against racial integration that followed the 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as Mississippi Senator James Eastland argued that: “‘Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing’…. By the end of the nineteen-fifties, segregationists had begun using a new catchphrase: ‘school choice,’ maybe because it would have been confusing to call for ‘parents’ rights’ when they were also arguing for ‘states’ rights.'”

What are parents really protesting when they mob school board meetings and press legislators to introduce laws against the teaching of “divisive” concepts? “A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today’s parents’-rights groups like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package. They’re balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They’re also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.”

But on a deeper level, Lepore believes parents are attacking the public purpose of public schooling in an attempt to protect their own personal parochialism and bias. Parents’ fight to assert their rights as individuals over the rights of the public defines both the old battle over teaching about evolution and today’s “critical race theory” controversy:

“(A)cross the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation.”

Lepore continues: “In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice: they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all the other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghani, everyone.  That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.”

Another School District Closes Public Schools in Response to the Long Damage of Corporate School Reform and Privatization

In its newsletter last week the National Education Policy Center shows how last month’s announcement of upcoming school closures in Oakland, California is merely the latest in a series of public school closures as a consequence of the wave of privatization and experiments with school reform across the states:

“It’s happening again. Another urban school district, this time Oakland Unified in California, has voted to close schools that serve a disproportionate number of students of color from low-income families. Two schools will close this year, and five more next year…. Black students comprise 23 percent of the Oakland school district, but 43 percent of the students in the schools slated for closure. Oakland is the latest in a growing collection of urban school districts that have decided in recent years to close schools that disproportionately enroll students of color and students from low-income families. Other examples include Chicago, which closed or radically reconstituted roughly 200 schools between 2002 and 2018, St. Paul Minnesota, which approved six school closures in December, and Baltimore City, where board members decided in January to shutter three schools. ‘Closures tend to differentially affect low-income communities and communities of color that are politically disempowered, and closures may work against the demand of local actors for more investment in their local institutions,’ according to a NEPC brief authored in 2017 by Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland along with Erin Coughlan and Rick Mintrop of U.C. Berkeley.”

The Mercury News reported on the Oakland school board’s February 8 decision:; “The Oakland Unified school district will close seven schools, merge two others and cut grades from two more over the next two years, the district board of directors decided in a meeting that stretched for nearly nine hours Tuesday into early Wednesday morning. The vote came after district officials, under pressure from the state and county to create a long-term plan for financial success, presented to the board last week a plan to close, merge, or reduce 16 schools, starting at the end of this school year.”

How has the Oakland Unified School District found itself in such a financial mess that public school closures are being proposed as a solution?  The district was part of an early experiment with small schools, part of a Gates Foundation project that broke up large high schools into small schools. It was an experiment so expensive and unworkable that the Gates Foundation eventually gave it up.  Janelle Scott, a professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of California at Berkeley identifies “the multiple determinants of the deficit, which include the intentional creation of small schools that are now slated for closure and the cost of charter schools.”

The California blogger Tom Ultican identifies state takeover as another factor: “Twenty years ago, the state took over OUSD claiming a financial crisis…. Then like now, the Bakersfield non-profit FCMAT was brought in to supervise. The state went on to appoint a series of administrators to run the district.”

California’s EdSource provides more details about the state takeover: “In 2003, the district went into state receivership after receiving a $100 million bailout in order to balance its budget amid a massive shortfall…. Though the district still has not fully paid off the loan, control was given back to the district about five years later. The state appointed a trustee with veto authority over the district’s financial decisions…. For years, Oakland city and state representatives have called on the state to forgive the remainder of the loan to no avail.”

What is always mentioned, but rarely detailed in the news reports about today’s school closures in Oakland is the role of the unregulated explosion of charter schools in the district.  Before he became California’s governor and, when he was mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown himself founded two charter schools in the city.

No account of Oakland’s financial troubles so clearly exposes the fiscal damage wrought by the out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Oakland as Gordon Lafer’s Breaking Point report for In the Public Interest: “In a first-of-its kind analysis, this report reveals that neighborhood public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools. In 2016-17, charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School district $57.3 million…. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while the costs do not.”

In Oakland, charter school expansion and other factors have gone so far as to drain the enrollment in several public schools. By now, policymakers very likely imagine that it is easier to close the schools than to figure out a way to build back enrollment in the neighborhood schools in the poorest part of the city.  As in Chicago in 2013, when the school district closed 50 schools in primarily African American neighborhoods, schools being closed are identified as under-enrolled, and school closures are seen the right solution for a mathematical problem.

But in Chicago, when the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research studied what happened after the school closures, here is what the researchers discovered: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.” “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning.”

Oakland residents and educators are pushing back against the school district’s decision to close public schools in African American neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation compares what is happening right now in Oakland to what happened in Chicago: “The struggle against school closures in Oakland is part of a nationwide tapestry of community movements that have resisted privatization budget cuts, and built community schools in their place. Oakland’s most compelling analog would likely be the 2015 fight to save Dyett High School in Chicago. Dyett was the last open-enrollment public school in Chicago’s historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville… In addition to an overwhelming response from the community, parents undertook what would become a 34-day hunger strike, which ended with the announcement of Dyett’s reopening.”

In the conclusion of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her powerful 2018 book that explores the meaning of Chicago’s 2013 school closures for the neighborhoods those schools had served, University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing suggests that policymakers consider deeper human questions when they set out to right-size a school district in the midst of a long financial crisis: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p.159)