Trump’s Budget Proposal Neglects Children and Defines Human Decency Down

From the perspective of the welfare of America’s children, the assumptions underneath President Donald Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposal are deeply troubling. The budget reinforces the theory that everybody ought to be earning a living, but except for Ivanka Trump’s idea for six weeks of newborn parental leave, there really isn’t any recognition that child rearing is a kind of work. The budget reflects that as a society we have just come to expect that children are raised, but we neither pay much attention to how that’s supposed to happen nor respect those who do the rearing. According to that logic, we fail to honor not only the work of mothers and fathers but also the work of child care providers. The minimum wage is so low that these workers qualify for Medicaid and SNAP (today’s name for food stamps). The President’s new budget slashes federal funding for Medicaid and for SNAP and fully eliminates a well respected and federally funded after-school program designed to enrich children’s lives in the hours before their parents finish work.

And there are big questions about whether Ivanka’s parental leave program would work for low-income parents. Here is the Center for Law and Social Policy: “In the midst of this grim context for working families, the budget attempts to throw them a small bone with a plan to offer six weeks of paid parental leave to care for a new child. In reality, though, this proposed program would do very little for low-income families. If states set wage replacement comparable to the unemployment insurance rates, that would leave many low-income workers unable to make ends meet while on  leave and therefore unlikely to use the program.”

The NY Times editorial board is blunt in its condemnation of the priorities in Trump’s budget proposal: “Food stamps work. Each month they help feed 43 million poor and low-income Americans, most in families with children and working parents. Food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, keep millions of people from falling into poverty each year and prevent millions of poor people, many disabled or elderly, from falling deeper into poverty. They also improve the future prospects of poor children by fostering better health and graduation rates… President Trump’s budget plan would destroy the food stamp program, on the pretense that it discourages work. That’s nonsense, because most adult recipients either work or are unable to do so because of age or disability. A more plausible explanation is that cutting food stamps would help to offset the cost of huge tax cuts for the rich.”

The Child Welfare League of America lists programs that help children and their families but are being eliminated altogether in Trump’s budget: the Social Services Block Grant, the 21st Century Afterschool Learning Centers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Community Development Block Grant.

The budget further reduces Medicaid, much below the cuts already passed last month in the House effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Here is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “The budget would cut health assistance to low-and moderate-income people by $1.9 trillion over ten years: 1) $1.3 trillion from the House bill to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that the budget endorses—which would take health insurance from 23 million people, raise out-of-pocket health costs for millions more, and substantially weaken key protections for people with pre-existing conditions—and 2) $610 billion Medicaid cuts on top of that.”

First Focus adds that the budget also makes deep cuts to the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program: “As with Medicaid, the Trump budget proposal not only slashes funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), it fundamentally restructures the program.  Despite proposing a two-year extension for CHIP through 2019, it cuts allotments by a staggering $5.8 billion or 21 percent. CHIP is an enormously successful bipartisan program that covers 8.9 million kids and, since its inception in 1997, has reduced the number of uninsured children by an astounding 68 percent. But its funding is set to expire on September 30, so Congress must act to extend the program as soon as possible.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy puts some of this into context: “The budget slashes or eliminates a wide range of other crucial programs that help stabilize low-income families. For example, it eliminates assistance for low-income families and seniors to pay heating and cooling bills. It takes the Child Tax Credit (CTC) away from children living with immigrant, tax-paying parents who file their taxes using an Individualized Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)—a group of about 5 million children, the vast majority of whom are U.S. citizens.  And it would cut the TANF block grant by 10 percent for all states—and more for some—on top of a 30 percent reduction in the block grant as a result of inflation since its enactment 20 years ago, sharply reducing state resources to help low-income families avoid destitution.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy also summarizes budget cuts that will make college less affordable for lower income students: “For low-income students pursuing postsecondary education, the budget is a perfect storm of cuts—making it far harder for students to complete the education they need to move up on the job.  The budget proposal would slash funding for the Work-Study program by almost 50 percent, eliminating employment for more than 300,000 low-income students working their way through college, about 25 percent of whom have an income below $12,000. The budget would also remove $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant budget, threatening to destabilize the program, which already covers less than 30 percent of the average cost of college attendance. The maximum Pell Grant amount is proposed to be frozen at $5,920, which would end the past five years of automatic inflation adjustments. The budget also proposes to eliminate Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which helps cover college costs for more than 1.6 million students with the greatest need each year; abolish subsidized student loans, which prevent interest from accruing on college loans for low-and moderate-income students while they are in school; and end loan forgiveness for students who go into lower-paying public service careers”

While cuts to K-12 federal education programs seem small compared to some of these reductions to health and human services programs that serve families and children, remember that states and local school districts provide the bulk of education funding. Federal funds for education are, however, essential and have already been radically reduced in recent years due to budget austerity through sequestration. Here is Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explaining years’ of slashing federal funding for what is called Non-Defense Discretionary Spending (non-entitlement spending for domestic programs and foreign aid): “As expected, the budget slashes non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs by $54 billion below the already-austere sequestration level for 2018 and by a remarkable $1.6 trillion over the next decade—taking NDD spending in 2018 to its lowest level as a percent of the economy in six decades—and after ten years, to levels as a percent of the economy not seen since the Hoover Administration and possibly even earlier… Indeed, his proposed NDD funding levels strain credulity. In 2027, the Administration calls for cutting funding for NDD programs $218 billion below the 2017 level, adjusted for inflation—that is, cutting NDD 41 percent by 2027.”

Although this budget will certainly not be enacted by Congress as proposed, the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz accuses the Trump administration of “giving a license for… extremism in thinking about the social fabric in our country.” The NY Times editorial board echoes Stiglitz’s concern: “The proposed cuts have little chance of enactment, but they are still dangerous. Extreme proposals are a way to make less extreme proposals seem acceptable.”  This budget encourages Americans to embrace radical individualism, abandon commitment to the social contract, and define decency down.

New Orleans’ Charter School Transformation: the Very Definition of Injustice

When I look back, I can see that the year between September of 2005 and September of 2006 was when I realized deeply and in the most unforgettable way how powerful people can transform the systems we take for granted and in the process disempower the vulnerable.

In November of 2005, I couldn’t believe it when I learned—while bodies were still being discovered in the attics of New Orleans’ flooded and abandoned houses and while most people were staying with relatives in far away places or FEMA trailers in Houston—that the state of Louisiana had changed the law to seize the city’s public schools and fire all the teachers as part of a complicated school governance experiment driven by ideologues in the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Louisiana, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had naively imagined that the goal would be to get families back to town as soon as possible and get children back in school under the secure guidance of the teachers those children knew.

Others were alarmed as well. Naomi Klein used the seizure and mass charterization of New Orleans’ public schools as the very definition of what she called “the shock doctrine”: “New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)  Leigh Dingerson and the Center for Community Change published a short resource titled, Dismantling a Community. And later, in a book published by the Teachers College Press, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, Kristen Buras shared the voices of New Orleans’ high school students describing what had been done to their schools.

In July of 2006, I was able to spend a week in New Orleans and to write about it.  I listened to all kinds of people including experienced teachers—replaced by Teach for America recruits—who had lost their profession and lost their livelihood. Tracie Washington, a civil rights attorney, told me she worried about fragmentation of services in the mass of charter schools: “The schools cannot be effectively compared and evaluated because there are too many types, too many curricula, too many tests, too many everything.”

I learned that a special exception had been made to the theory that charter schools ought to be non-selective.  New Orleans had been permitted to create charters with admissions tests and other selection screens—seizing the public, neighborhood Alcee Fortier High School, for example, and, with a big investment from Tulane University, converting it into selective Lusher Charter High School with an admissions preference for children whose parents taught at area universities. A former public school teacher told me: “Selective schools will show promise because they are selecting students who will show promise by testing well.”

Now, a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, we have another opportunity to listen to the people in New Orleans describing what has happened to their schools.  Last fall, the national NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, and the civil rights organization has been holding local hearings on that resolution. In April, the NAACP chose New Orleans, where the mass charter experiment was launched, for one of its hearings, and Bill Quigley, a long New Orleans resident, esteemed professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, listened as people told their stories.

Here is Bill Quigley’s report:  “The New Orleans hearing… featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system. The single most powerful moment came when a group of students from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools took the podium and detailed the many ways the system has failed and excluded them from participating in its transformation.”

Quigley summarizes: “(T)he NAACP heard that the charter system remains highly segregated by race and economic status. Students have significantly longer commutes to and from school. The percentage of African American teachers has declined dramatically leaving less experienced teachers who are less likely to be accredited and less likely to remain in the system. The costs of administration have gone up while resources for teaching have declined. Several special select schools have their own admission process which results in racially and economically different student bodies. The top administrator of one K-12 system of three schools is paid over a quarter of a million dollars. Students with disabilities have been ill served. Fraud and mismanagement, which certainly predated the conversion to charter schools, continue to occur. Thousand of students are in below-average schools. Students and parents feel disempowered and ignored by the system.”

Quigley emphasizes lingering bitterness about the elimination, in late autumn of 2005, of New Orleans’ entire teaching staff: “The first casualty of the abrupt change was the termination of the South’s largest local union and the firing of over 7000 mostly African American female teachers. Attorney Willie Zanders told the NAACP of the years of struggle for those teachers which, though initially successful, ended in bitter defeat years later. The city’s veteran black educators were replaced by younger, less qualified white teachers from Teach for America and Teach NOLA. The change to charters reduced the percentage of black teachers from 74 percent to 51 percent. There are now fewer experienced teachers, fewer accredited teachers, fewer local teachers, and more teachers who are likely to leave than before Katrina.”

In his brief and well-documented report, Quigley also summarizes some history: “One of the more dramatic and well-documented problems in the changeover to charters is the absence of services for students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over disability violations in 2010… Children with disabilities had been denied enrollment altogether, forced to attend schools ill-equipped or lacking resources to serve them, and suspended without procedural protections.. After suit was filed it took an additional four years to set up a system to uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities. Now, there is a district-wide consent decree in place overseen by an Independent Monitor who reports to the Court. Yet, the disability problems remain. In 2017, a charter was rebuked for suspending a student who the school thought was depressed…  At another charter, since closed, the State identified egregious special education violations. Staff reused to screen students, tried to keep them from enrolling, put them in rooms with nothing to do, deprived students of their services, and faked records to cover it up.”

I urge you to read Bill Quigley’s fine report on the recent  NAACP hearing and the history of New Orleans’ charters over the past dozen years.  In every way Quigley’s essay reinforces what I heard when I visited New Orleans in 2006. I spoke with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, which had already lost control of all but a handful of the public schools to the state Recovery School District slated to manage the charter conversion. Sanders described what he thought was the meaning of the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “We need to keep the public in public education. Bureaucracy has come to connote ‘slow’ and ‘barrier.’ I am against that as well as out-dated rules. But you can have a system without those things. We have thrown out the system. The only people who can make it when there is no system are those who already have access to resources.”

House Trumpcare Bill Guts Medicaid Funding Used by Public Schools to Pay for Special Education

President Donald Trump and members of the House of Representatives celebrated after the House passed the new Trumpcare bill last Thursday. But there is much in the new law not to celebrate, including this: Tucked into the bill is a little-noticed cut in Medicaid funding for the expensive services school districts are required to provide under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students who need speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, medical services, or specialized school transportation.

Here is Stephen Koff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Washington Bureau Chief: “Ohio schools could lose millions of dollars they now get to pay for speech and physical therapy, behavioral services, student evaluations and other special education services, because of changes to Medicaid in the congressional bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. The money assists about 61,000 students in 580 Ohio school districts. In 2013, the last year for which final figures are available, the federal government sent Ohio schools an estimated $47.25 million for the program.”  That is merely what Medicaid paid that year for necessary services in one of the 50 states.

Here is Erica Green for the NY Times: “School districts rely on Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, to provide costly services to millions of students with disabilities across the country. For nearly 30 years, Medicaid has helped school systems cover costs for special education services and equipment, from physical therapists to feeding tubes. The money is also used to provide preventive care such as vision and hearing screenings, for other Medicaid-eligible children.”

Green explains that the bill the House passed last week to repeal and supposedly replace the Affordable Care Act  “would cut Medicaid by $880 billion, or 25 percent, over 10 years and impose a ‘per-capita-cap’ on funding for certain groups of people, such as children and the elderly—a dramatic change that would convert Medicaid from an entitlement designed to cover any costs incurred to a more limited program.”

Stephen Koff explains the problem in plainer language: “(T)he bill… would change Medicaid, a joint federal-state program for low-income Americans that expanded under Obamacare, and lead to a cut in Medicaid funding. Unknown to many Americans, Medicaid helps support special education programs in schools. The Medicaid in Schools program helps pay for services to children with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), ‘including but not limited to behavioral health, nursing, occupational therapy, targeted case management and specialized transportation,’ state documents say.”

A report last week for the Center for American Progress explains: “Part B of the IDEA guarantees children ages 3 to 21 access to special education services in their public schools… (F)unding for Part B falls well below the cost for services, and school districts use a combination of other local, state, and federal funding sources to meet children’s needs… Each year, school districts collectively rely on $4 billion to $5 billion in Medicaid funds to support special education services for children eligible for Medicaid.  Schools use these funds to pay critical personnel such as speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists, as well as to provide assistive technology and transportation for children with special needs.  Many schools also provide developmental screenings to students through Medicaid….”

In the Plain Dealer, Koff quotes a statement released by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown: “Whatever your opinion of the Affordable Care Act, we should all agree that forcing schools to choose between laying off special education therapists that students depend on and increasing class sizes or reducing AP and elective classes for other students is wrong.”

The U.S. Senate will soon be considering Trump’s request to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Although in March and April, as the House of Representatives prepared to consider a healthcare plan, some advocacy groups did raise concerns about threatened cuts in essential special education services paid for by Medicaid, many of us have remained unaware of the problem. Please become conversant with the issues described in this post, inform your colleagues and friends about this serious matter, and be prepared to speak with your U.S. Senators when the healthcare law debate reaches the Senate.

How Public School High School Choice Reinforces Segregation and Inequality in NYC

Last week, Wendy Lecker, an attorney with New Jersey’s Education Law Center and a columnist for the Stamford Advocate published a commentary that defines the meaning of public services and specifically the meaning of “public” in education: “Michigan professor Marina Whitman recently noted that the essence of a public good is that it is non-excludable; i.e. all can partake, and non-rivalrous; i.e. giving one person the good does not diminish its availability to another. Some school reforms strengthen education as a public good; such as school finance reform, which seeks to ensure that all children have adequate educational resources. Unfortunately, the reforms pushed in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations attack education as a public good.  For example, choice—charters and vouchers…. Choice operates on the excludable premise of ‘saving a few.'”

Lecker explores the exclusionary implications of school privatization—charters and vouchers.  But there is also a way to make the public schools themselves less public, and that is the introduction of school choice into public school districts themselves. This has also been a centerpiece of much of modern school “reform,” and the most basic example has been promoted as a formal policy for school districts to adopt: Portfolio School Reform.  Portfolio School Reform has been formulated into principles and promoted across our nation’s big city school districts by a think tank called the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Here is how CRPE defines “portfolio school reform” and its network of “portfolio school districts“: “The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. It puts educators directly in charge of their schools, empowers parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focuses school system leaders on overseeing school success.”

There is a lot of rhetoric in this definition about creating autonomous public schools, moving past one-size-fits-all schools, and putting educators directly in charge.  It is hard to know what all this means, but the next clause is clearer: Portfolio School Reform “empowers parents to choose the right schools for their children.”  And CRPE’s rhetoric promises that parents will all have the right to choose “a great school for every child in every neighborhood.”  Portfolio school reform theory posits the creation of privatized alternatives but it also includes the creation of public school alternatives, many of them themed magnet schools, and many of them selective. The schools are to be managed like a stock portfolio with the school district continually investing in new alternatives and shedding the failed investments.

One of the very first and certainly the largest of the portfolio districts was launched by Michael Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York City—a massive experiment in both public and charter school choice.  Bloomberg’s experiment has been around now for fifteen years, and even before that, for decades, New York City has boasted specialized, selective high schools for students who score high on an entrance exam. One of the problems with New York City’s system is that it has become among the most racially segregated in the United States.

Last week a stunning NY Times investigative report explained just how Bloomberg’s portfolio school reform school choice plan has been cementing inequality for the city’s children instead of expanding opportunity as the rhetoric would have you believe. In New York City all of the school district’s eighth graders have been expected to choose from among hundreds of the city’s high schools.

Before looking at last week’s NY Times report, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that there were warnings that universal high school choice would likely exacerbate inequality.  Back in 2009, in a report, The New Marketpace, the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs warned about problems already apparent in NYC’s policy of closing comprehensive high schools, launching smaller high schools of choice, and setting up a system by which thousands of thirteen-year-olds would choose their high school: “The system of school choice assumes each child has a parent or other adult who is willing and able to take the time to tour schools and fill out applications.  In fact, many children have no such help. Some 14,000 high school students each year are assigned to schools they did not choose… Students with special needs are often assigned to schools that don’t have the services they need.  The Department of Education has no formal mechanism for matching a child’s particular needs with the programs offered at a school… Children whose parents speak a language other than English, who represent 42 percent of the student population, are at a particular disadvantage in the high school admissions process… Struggling students are shut out of many of the best schools…. Many middle-school guidance counselors, charged with helping students fill out their high school applications, are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and the sheer complexity of giving meaningful advice about 400 different schools.”  Then there was a second report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, that exposed the New York City school district’s practice of shunting students who move to the city mid-year or who do not submit a school choice application into under-enrolled public high schools, many of them on the closure list.

Now several years later, the school match process has been improved with a mathematical algorithm that guarantees most students a place in one of their 12 choice high schools, but the NY Times’ new report, The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools, clarifies problems that remain: “Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling them from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was  part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities… But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school. Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools—a situation that school choice was supposed to ease. Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admissions requirements—a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, showing up for an open house. And getting into the best schools, where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average. Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian… At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children… are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower… And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control—like where they live and how much money their families have.”

So, what about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s belief that parents want and need school choice and are prepared to engage in school choice?  In NYC today there are 439 high schools to choose from—described for eighth graders and their parents in a book the size of a telephone book: “The sheer number of choices offers up great possibilities, but it can also make the system maddeningly complex, with so many requirements, open houses, deadlines and portfolios to keep track of… Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.  The process can become like a second job for some parents as they arm themselves with folders, spreadsheets and consultants who earn hundreds of dollars an hour to guide them. But most families in the public school system have neither the flexibility nor the resources to match that arsenal.”

Then there are the hidden barriers built into the system, barriers that may be poorly understood by parents and are almost always invisible to pre-adolescents who are likely to assume the competition is happening on a level playing field. New York City’s eighth graders really began participating in this uneven competition in pre-school and Kindergarten as savvy, privileged parents jockeyed to enroll their children in schools with special advantages: “(I)n practice, children who grow up in neighborhoods with low-performing elementary schools tend to go to low-performing middle schools, then on to high schools with low graduation rates and even lower college-readiness rates.” Here are some of the barriers: “The high school directory lists 29 programs in the city that did not accept anyone with a score lower than 3 on the math exam. Advanced courses taught at many feeder schools also create an advantage. One expert on the system is quoted: “When it is time to apply to high school and create a portfolio, which is required in some cases, they ‘will just have a lot more they can pull from.'”  A school counselor from one huge middle school explains, “We have teachers who have no idea they need to be holding on to students’ work, and they throw it out because they have no place to put it… So for a lot of these students, when it comes time to submit a portfolio, they have nothing to submit.”

Remember Wendy Lecker’s principle that public services are defined as being non-rivalrous—the idea that giving one person an opportunity does not diminish its availability to another? Public services are defined by their capacity to serve all.  But today instead, New York City’s high school choice program is grounded on an ethos of individualism—the idea that we ought to reward individual patience, promise, and determination. School choice rewards the children and parents who can find the lifeboat; who know how to get to the front of the line; who are strong enough to climb in and find a secure seat; and who can then hold on to their seat even if others fall away into the raging sea.

In New York City, despite that all races have losers as well as winners, the idea of school choice is framed on the illusion that every child can be the winner of the competition.  Instead the system has been quietly designed to favor the children of money, privilege and power—the children whose parents  have the time and the wherewithal to calculate and play the system. In such a system, there is also an incentive for the school district to invest unevenly, favoring the specialty schools with expert teachers and the kind of specialty curriculum that is likely to be sought by the parents who are active choosers. Instead our society ought to be investing in an equitable public system—the kind of school finance reform Lecker describes—to ensure that all high schools across the school district can provide excellent instruction and enriched curriculum.

Last fall, the NAACP passed a national resolution opposing school choice through the expansion of charter schools.  But one of the principles in the NAACP’s resolution speaks not only to problems with school privatization but also to the danger of the kind of public school choice that is evident in New York City. The NAACP demands that our society “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

How Did We Stop Honoring School Teachers? Why Does It Matter?

In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.

Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers.  But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers.  In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.

Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.

Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear.  School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart.  It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.

Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3)  “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11)  I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.

I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago.  In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.”  Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.

In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives.  Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation.  The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them.  A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  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. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book.  I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)

The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken 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—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 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 like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“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’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a 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)

School Segregation Driven by Parental Privilege and School Choice

Patrick Wall’s extraordinary examination of an attempt to integrate—racially and economically—two New York City elementary schools, a story in the current issue of The Atlantic, is difficult reading. The difficulty is not that the issues are so complicated but instead that it is hard to face the ugly biases declared openly by parents who invested in New York City real estate only to find they are being zoned out of the exclusive, white, and wealthy neighborhood elementary school they thought they were getting.  It is kind of like reading about Little Rock or Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s.

This is actually a timely article in Donald Trump’s America, where President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are actively promoting school choice. Wall demonstrates all the ways that “privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.”

Wall presents a lot of background about how public schools have become increasingly “highly segregated by both race and income. In 2013-14, the most recent year data are available, more than one in six students attended schools where the vast majority of their classmates were both poor and black or Hispanic—over twice as many as in 2000, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  Wall quotes a study—by Sean Reardon, of Stanford University, Christopher Jencks of Harvard, and Ann Owens at UCLA—demonstrating that “segregation between poor and non-poor students in public schools grew more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2012.  Rising residential segregation by income has fueled that growth, as most children attend their local public schools.  But families can also opt out of their neighborhood school.  Many districts allow parents to apply to transfer programs, magnet and charter schools, or gifted-and-talented programs as alternatives to their nearest public school. Those options are open to any parent, but the most advantaged families are often best equipped to chart a course to their preferred school.”

And in schools where poverty is concentrated, students “are more likely to be held back in ninth grade, kicked out of school, and taught by an inexperienced teacher, and are less likely to be offered critical classes like calculus and physics….” Wall summarizes research from Stanford’s Sean Reardon: “The link between students’ race, their exposure to poverty, and the quality of the schools they attend is what makes segregation harmful to students….”  Wall continues: ” In the largest study of its kind, Reardon analyzed the test-score gap between white students and black and Hispanic students in every school district in the country. He estimated that roughly one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap is due to racial segregation because of the higher poverty rates in schools attended by many black and Hispanic students. ‘School poverty,’ he said, ‘turns out to be a good proxy for the kind of educational opportunities a school can provide.'”

Wall profiles the battle among parents as New York City set out to redistrict an area where one elementary school served the students in a housing project while another served students living in exclusive apartments along the Hudson River. The school defined by its wealth has, over the years, been able to magnify its advantages: “The school, which has won a National Blue Ribbon Award, has such pull among affluent parents that many shop for homes within its boundaries… Once they’re in, parents invest heavily in the school… The parent-teacher association amassed $777,000 last year… The group has funded class trips, theater-workshops, recess monitors, a science teacher, and student laptops… But… (the school’s) abundant resources have led to a shortage of seats.  Even with the building filled above capacity, nearly 100 would-be kindergarteners in the school’s zone had to be placed on a waitlist in 2015.”

What about the poorer school? Our society’s focus on accountability ratings has driven the ruination of the school’s reputation.  Test scores have been low: “Not only were most (students) poor, but nearly one-third had disabilities and almost one-fifth lived in homeless shelters or temporary housing.” And, “In August, after… (a new principal’s) first year… had just ended and her reforms just started, the state branded the school ‘persistently dangerous.’  The label was based on school-reported incidents of student misbehavior, which can range from shoving and bullying to criminal activities.  Some of the incidents dated back to before (the new principal)… arrived.  Teachers said the label was misleading, and pointed to problems with the reporting system (which the state later revamped).  But warranted or not, the designation battered the school’s already weak reputation.”

The battle Wall describes between New York City parents must have been incredibly painful for the parents whose children have hsitorically enrolled in the poorer school, parents who are not really the subject of this article but must have been paying attention as other parents tried to avoid transferring children to the school that serves their own children.  Wall alludes to their pain, quoting one mother: “They say it’s about rezoning… but what they’re worried about is having to integrate with public-housing minority kids.”

Wall summarizes what the wealthier parents are looking for: “The parents wanted a school that was already thriving academically and slush with funding—not one they considered a fixer-upper. The segregation of low-income students of color… had left the school with fewer resources and lower test scores than its neighbors; now privileged parents cited those byproducts of segregation as reasons to avoid the school—thus, maintaining its segregation.”  A state lawmaker representing the New York City neighborhood where the schools are located is quoted about today’s ethos among parents: “Everything’s too competitive. By kindergarten you have to have your kid in ballet and fencing and cooking… It’s too risky now, at least in the eyes of most parents, to sacrifice some years of your child’s education for a greater social good.”

Wall’s story is not entirely pessimistic. A few families being rezoned away from the wealthy school are willing to give the new school a chance, and we know that social change is usually driven by a few leaders.  One parent, impressed with the school’s principal, declared, “Test scores aren’t contagious.”

Wall profiles one of the parents looking to enroll his child in the poorer school: “Among these newcomers, Andrew Chu presented a best-case scenario.  A product manager at a financial-tech firm whose son started pre-K… last fall, he’d joined the school’s leadership team and offered to help start a ‘maker’ program where students could build robots and tinker with 3-D printers.”  With the support of the principal, “Chu began reaching out to MIT professors and a company that sells maker kits… (H)e planned to keep his son… (in the new school) for kindergarten. To him, the entire school was a sort of maker project: A chance to re-imagine what a high-quality education could look like in the 21st century, where student diversity and hands-on learning matter at least as much as test scores and fundraising. ‘I hope I’m not exaggerating,’ he told parents at an open house, ‘but it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really be part of this process.”

Wall examines the court orders and sometimes idealism that drove school integration in the past. He believes that wealthier parents—those with the power to choose—have always been responsible for racial segregation and concentrations of school poverty.  Money has always driven school choice. There is another subtext in Wall’s piece, however, this time about recent public policy. Two decades’ of accountability-driven ranking and rating of schools measured by the yardstick of standardized tests in addition to the kind of branding  he describes—the poor school publicly rated as “persistently-dangerous”—encourage parents to focus on the ratings.  Every time Wall describes wealthy parents visiting the poorer school and talking with the principal and the teachers, the parents are forced to struggle with evidence that classrooms do not confirm the biases they have formed from the ratings assigned. It is especially hard to challenge the ratings, however, because today’s red lining of the poor schools is not, as in the past, merely relegated to real estate marketing, Today rankings and ratings are being assigned ironically by the school school district itself and driven by state and federal policy. Accountability-driven public policy has condemned schools segregated by poverty in a way that discourages desegregation.

Wall concludes: “Today the idea that parents would consider some notion of the common good when deciding on schools can sound quaint; it certainly runs counter to Betsy DeVos’ vision of unrestricted parental choice.”