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.

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.)

Making the Child Tax Credit Fully Refundable: A Primary Strategy for Closing Opportunity Gaps

Why has this public education blog been relentlessly covering President Biden’s struggle to push Congress to pass a Build Back Better bill that repairs and expands the Child Tax Credit?  Our society has for decades tolerated an appallingly high child poverty rate. The relevance of this injustice to public education has, however, been poorly explored. Child poverty undermines children’s engagement and participation at school.

There is broad agreement that among the most substantial ways to address childhood economic inequality is by reforming and expanding the Child Tax Credit, a federal program initiated in 1997 that has helped middle and even upper income families, but has left out the poorest families whose parents pay too little in taxes to benefit fully from the program.

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner explains the connection of a child’s economic circumstances with that same child’s school achievement: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

A dozen years ago, the Schott Foundation for Public Education published Lost Opportunity: A 50 State Report on the Opportunity to Learn in America and launched its urgently important Opportunity to Learn Network, whose goal has been to define the difference between school achievement gaps and larger opportunity gaps. In the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government had demanded that public schools close school achievement gaps as measured by standardized test scores. The Schott Foundation advocated that policymakers address opportunity gaps in children’s lives at school and in the hours children spend outside of school. The Schott Foundation has supported projects addressing impoverished children’s lack of access to the kind of supports economically privileged children take for granted.

An expanded Child Tax Credit—included temporarily in the 2021 American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill, and passed last November in the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of Build Back Better—addressed child poverty by increasing the per-child amount of the Child Tax Credit, making payments monthly to help parents living paycheck to paycheck, and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, meaning that even parents with little or no income could receive the funds.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why that last provision is so important: “Build Back Better would permanently extend a provision of the 2021 American Rescue Plan making the Child Tax Credit ‘fully refundable,’ meaning that children in families with the lowest incomes receive the same amount as children in higher-income families. Previously, 27 million children—including roughly one-third of all children, about half of Black and Latino children, and half of children in rural areas—received less than the full credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low.  Full refundability marks an important step in reducing racial disparities in income and poverty rooted in this nation’s long history of racism and discrimination, which has created large gaps in both opportunities and outcomes in education, employment, health, and housing.”

Because Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has repeatedly declared that he will not support a Build Back Better if it includes expansion of the Child Tax Credit, many have assumed that expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable cannot happen in today’s U.S. Senate.  However, a stalwart group of Democratic Senators has been working to keep the issue alive. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and Senators Michael Bennet (CO), Cory Booker (NJ), Raphael Warnock (GA), and Ron Wyden (OR) sent a letter to President Biden declaring their continued support for making permanent last year’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit. They were joined at a recent news conference by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (WA) promising that they will not stop working to prevent the rollback of last year’s temporary reforms to the Child Tax Credit.

Researchers and reporters have also continued to examine the facts around arguments made by Manchin and by Republicans in the U.S. Senate.  ProPublica‘s Eli Hager describes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) claiming that the 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law that replaced welfare has addressed child poverty and made reforms in the Child Tax Credit unnecessary. Hager responds: “They are simply wrong about the success of TANF.  It is a program distinguished by failure. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Clinton-era welfare reform law that created TANF, which inspired me and my colleagues at ProPublica to investigate the current state of cash assistance in this country.”

Hager explains that while TANF was passed as a federal program, it is administered by the states: “Some states… avoid spending TANF dollars to help struggling moms, dads and kids. In Arizona, only 6% of families below the poverty line are able to obtain assistance from the program, partly because the state uses more than $150 million a year of its (federal) TANF funding to instead pay for child welfare investigations of many of the very same poor parents, as well as the foster care costs of removing their children….” “In New Mexico… low-income single mothers applying for TANF are forced, in a relic of colonial ‘bastardy’ laws, to first identify the father of their child (and his eye color, license plate number and parents’ addresses), and also to recall under penalty of perjury the exact date when they got pregnant, before they can get a small amount of cash assistance…. When a state has all of this information, it can then go after the dads for child support—much of which the government pockets. (ProPublica found that in 2020, nationally, more than $1.7 billion in child support from fathers meant to go to their kids was instead diverted into government coffers, as part of TANF’s design.)”

At the end of January, National Public Radio‘s Cory Turner reported on data from the Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy, which regularly tracks child poverty.  Turner summarized the Center’s conclusions about the significance of last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “What happened when families earning less than $35,000 a year suddenly had extra money in their bank accounts each month? They used it to buy food, clothing and school supplies, pay their utility bills and cover the rent… Less often, families spent the benefit on vehicle (19% of families), child care (16%) or to pay down old debts (17%)… The monthly payments slashed food insufficiency by a quarter… There’s no evidence the money drove caregivers to quit working… In fact, in interviews parents and caregivers commonly say this benefit helped cover the costs that made working easier by paying for child care or transportation.”

A week ago, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein presented stunning new, mid-February data from the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy, data which describes what has happened since mid-December, when Congress ended the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit payments provided temporarily under the American Rescue Plan: “The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University said that the child poverty rate rose from 12 percent in December 2021 to 17 percent last month, an approximately 41 percent increase. The study found that an additional 3.7 million children are now in poverty relative to the end of December, with Black and Latino children seeing the biggest percentage point increases… Most dramatic for lowering child poverty was the expanded Child Tax Credit, which was made both more generous and extended to nonworking and poor parents who had traditionally been excluded from receiving benefits.”

Quarrels About Critical Race Theory and the Teaching of “Divisive Topics” Persist and Expand

Pitched battles about so-called “Critical Race Theory” and attempts to ban the teaching of “controversial topics” continue to swell across the states.  What follows is a summary of some of the recent coverage describing where and how this war is being waged.

Diane Ravitch provides a summary: “(T)he nation’s public schools have been the object of savage attacks by politicians and ideologues who claim that the schools are teaching ‘critical race theory’ and indoctrinating (white) children… (L)egislators in red states have passed laws mandating that teachers are not allowed to teach about systemic racism or to teach anything that might make some students (white) feel ‘uncomfortable.’ At least 10 states have passed such laws, including Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. Sometimes such laws are called ‘divisive concepts’ laws, because they forbid the teaching of anything that is ‘divisive.’… Teachers in red states that have passed laws against CRT and divisive concepts are wary about teaching about racism. Is teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistence of segregation a violation of the law? Should teachers avoid any mention of the Ku Klux Klan or modern-day white supremacists?”

Promoters of the laws being passed say that they want to protect parents’ freedom to determine what their children should be taught at school, but NY Times columnist, Paul Krugman believes that the ideologues behind the controversy are, in fact, threatening freedom: “Americans like to think of their nation as a beacon of freedom… Now, however, freedom is under attack, on more fronts than many people realize. Everyone knows about the Big Lie, this refusal by a large majority of Republicans to accept the legitimacy of a lost election. But there are many other areas in which freedom is not just under assault but in retreat.  Let’s talk, in particular, about the attack on education, especially, but not only, in Florida, which has become one of America’s leading laboratories of democratic erosion… There’s a bill advancing in the Florida Senate declaring that an individual ‘should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.’ That is, the criterion for what can be taught isn’t ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it supported by the scholarly consensus?’ but rather ‘Does it make certain constituencies uncomfortable?’… And who will enforce the rules? State-sponsored vigilantes! Last month Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, proposed a ‘Stop Woke Act’ that would empower parents to sue school districts they claim teach critical race theory—and collect lawyer fees…. Even the prospect of such lawsuits would have a chilling effect on teaching.”

Krugman describes what’s happening in Florida, but it’s not just in Florida. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s new executive order: “In case you missed it, Virginia’s now governor, Glenn Youngkin, has set up a ‘tip line’ for people to snitch on teachers who supposedly are promoting ‘divisive practices’ and to report on violations of his order against mask mandates. The tip line follows his very first executive order, issued Jan. 22, which forbids the teaching of ‘inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory.'” Strauss adds: “Virginia isn’t original with the teacher tip line idea but is joining a small but growing group of state leaders and legislators who think encouraging citizens to turn on each other is a useful idea in a democracy. For example, in November, the New Hampshire Department of Education set up a website that allows parents to report violations of the state’s 2021 anti-discrimination law, one of a number that use vague language in an attempt to bar teachers from exploring systemic racism with students. Incidentally, it was also in New Hampshire where a chapter of a right-wing group called Moms for Liberty offered a $500 bounty in December that would go to the person who makes the first confirmed report against a teacher.”

In an impassioned editorial, the Columbus Dispatch opposed two laws that have been pending for months in the Ohio Legislature to ban the teaching of divisive concepts: “(These bills) should be rejected outright as toxic to children and truth… (They) are not about protecting children from critical race theory, but they do create a boogeyman people fear.” “It should stir our souls to learn that 17 million people—a number that excludes the millions who died along the way—were trapped in Africa and transported here as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, an outrage the United Nations calls ‘the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity.’ We should feel sorrow that some experts estimate as much of 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas—as many as 20 million people—were wiped out by smallpox in the years following the arrival of Europeans. Knowing and discussing factual occurrences of the past is not a bad thing even though they may make people feel bad.” “Many good and inspiring things happened in the past, but history—American and world—is full of a lot of brutality. Teachers must be empowered to go beyond the surface to help students find truth… The future of Ohio’s children hangs in the balance. The governor said he wants children to be good citizens who are capable of critical thinking, research, and debate. We should all want those things as well, but sugarcoating history to spare ‘feelings’…. is a betrayal of the past that poisons the future.”

There are reports of widespread book banning. The Guardian‘s Adam Gabbatt reports: “Conservative groups across the U.S., often linked to deep-pocketed rightwing donors, are carrying out a campaign to ban books from school libraries, often focused on works that address race, LGBTQ issues or marginalized communities. Literature has already been removed from schools in Texas, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Librarians and teachers warn the trend is on the increase, as groups backed by wealthy Republican donors use centrally drawn up tactics and messaging to harangue school districts into removing certain texts… Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for Intellectual Freedom…. said ALA received 156 book challenges—an attempt to remove or restrict one or more books—in 2020. In the last three months of 2021 alone, the organization saw 330 book challenges.  In most incidents there is a common format. According to conservative groups, one parent of a child at school has spotted an allegedly unsuitable book, and has raised the alarm.  But the movement is far from organic.  The name Moms for Liberty might suggest a homely, kitchen-table effort. In reality, Moms for Liberty is associated with other supposed grassroots groups backed by conservative donors, who appear to be driving the book-banning effort.”

Contrary to the allegations of angry parents mobbing school board meetings, children are not harmed by learning the truth. Chalkbeat just published a moving column by Katherine Sanford, a Northern California social studies teacher whose class raised enough money to take civil rights tour of Alabama and Georgia: “Here in the hills of Northern California, in a community where many deeds still have restrictive covenants on them, it can feel like we are too far removed from certain parts of American history. Several years ago, when it came to my attention that some of my students were casually using the N-word and homophobic language outside of class, my concern only deepened. Black culture was a subject of fascination, but Black people were being denied their humanity. I decided my normal teaching tactics weren’t enough. In 2019, my students and I raised money to fly from California to Georgia and Alabama.”  Sanford’s students definitely felt uncomfortable about what they learned by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visiting civil rights museums, but Sanford does not believe their experience of sadness hurt them in any way: “The most powerful learning experiences came at museums that brought history alive. At the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, there are holograms of enslaved people in cages awaiting sale. One was calling repeatedly for her children from whom she had been separated. Several students had to walk back outside to catch their breath, and I could see on my students’ faces that they truly understood what it meant to deny someone’s humanity.”

What appears to be a parent-led attack on so-called “Critical Race Theory” and divisive concepts is, in fact, a well-designed political initiative—led by organizations like Moms for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education—designed by think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute—and paid for by far-right philanthropists. This project has been set up to inflame white parents in segregated suburbs, or, as a new report summarized by the National Education Policy Center shows, in districts currently experiencing racial change, by stoking fear that their privilege and their protective historical myths are threatened. The broader effect of this political initiative is already undermining democracy, threatening teachers, and undermining our children’s grasp of the complexity of our history and our nation’s challenges today.

Laura Meckler Presents Public Schools as Hopelessly Challenged: She Is Wrong

Has everything’s gone to hell in public schools?  Apparently, according to Laura Meckler’s piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, she believes that.

Meckler writes: “For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers… Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.”

COVID-19 has brought a mass of challenges to America’s public schools, our largest civic institution. But there are myriad ways Meckler fails to sort out the issues.  She fails to point out that most of the problems she names were not caused by public school leaders and teachers, and few are the result of mismanagement.  Almost all of the problems she mentions fall into one category: challenges public schools haven’t been able fully to overcome.

Meckler worries about emotional malaise among students who missed school due to COVID-19 and who are now struggling with social skills and anger or depression.  School leaders are doing everything they can within their budget constraints to involve staff to help students with emotional management, conflict resolution, and mental health, but Meckler’s catalogue of school crises leaves her no room to explore what’s being done.

Meckler mentions worries that public schools have not been able to overcome the shortage—exacerbated by COVID-19—of bus drivers and substitute teachers. Teachers and school administrators are trying to cope with the effects of staffing shortages even as they undertake to support students through a very difficult year.

And Meckler seems to believe that public schools are not doing enough to remedy “learning loss” caused by school closures and remote learning during COVID-19.  She worries “There may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.” However, Meckler doesn’t explore the ways teachers and counselors and school district attendance officers are reaching out to re-engage students, keep them in school, and help them thrive.

Jeff Lavin, a Chicago school principal, profoundly describes how he and his staff are responding to these challenges: “In my school, crisis response means re-budgeting midyear to create a new position for conflict resolution. It means a community organization bringing parent mentors to our classrooms. It means anything that gets more eyes, ears, and hearts for our children now.  It is still is not enough. There is no way to unbreak everything the pandemic broke. You cannot discipline your way out of trauma. There is nothing that can make healing not take time… Our job is to be what children need. Their needs are different now. We have to be different, too.”

Meckler worries about gun violence as a problem of public schools. School shootings are a problem of a society overrun with guns, but the problem is definitely not caused by public schools.

Meckler quotes a staff person at the pro-voucher Ed Choice about how such pro-privatization think tanks are exploiting today’s challenges for public schools as these organizations work hard to lobby state legislatures for vouchers and charter schools. She utterly fails to consider that almost nobody is celebrating remote schooling; millions of parents all over the country are demanding that their public schools reopen in person. Presumably the privatized online charter academies have suffered in reputation as we all learned that putting school on remote during COVID worked neither for students nor their teachers.

Meckler describes the uprisings by parents across American school districts—parents protesting mask mandates—parents protesting teaching about slavery and “controversial topics” that might make some children uncomfortable—parents demanding that school boards ban specific books on “controversial topics.”  She neglects to mention that what appear to be grassroots parent-led attacks are in most cases the result of  a well-designed political initiative—led by organizations like Moms for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education—designed by think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute—and paid for by far-right philanthropists. This project has been set up to inflame white parents in segregated suburbs, or, as a new report summarized by the National Education Policy Center shows, in districts currently experiencing racial change, by stoking these parents’ fears that their privilege and their protective historical myths are threatened.

One thing I have learned after nearly eight years as a blogger: It works best to consider one issue at a time.  Considering everything all at once, as Meckler does in her Washington Post story, immediately becomes overwhelming.

Public schools are durable and complex institutions. Public school teachers and administrators are struggling right now to bring students comfortably back to school after more than a year of disruption. My belief is that most of these professional educators will survive and succeed.

Why Our Federal and State Constitutions Protect Children’s Rights over Parents’ Rights

As fall moves into winter, far-right ideologues continue to argue for the protection of parents’ rights. Organized parents have been mobbing school board meetings to demand the right to screen the curriculum, control the books their children check out of the school library, and prescribe the topics that their children will be allowed to discuss in history and civics classes.

In the past month, Republicans in Congress have been trying to protect parents rights through legislation.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Fox (R-NC), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and several colleagues introduced a Parents Bill of Rights.  And Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a  companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

As the blogger Peter Greene explains, these bills mostly seem to want to protect the rights parents already have in the the vast majority of public school districts: “The bullet point version of the (House) bill lists five rights—the right to know what’s being taught, the right to be heard, the right to see the school budget and spending, the right to protect their child’s privacy, and the right to be updated on any violent activity at school.  Most of which seems… kind of redundant, giving parents rights they already have.”

But there are indications that this debate has emerged because some parents—and the ideologues who are organizing parents—fear that some deeper and more complicated kind of parental control is threatened. Theorists are now speaking to the constitutional issues around protection of parents’ and children’s rights.

In late October, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, an extreme libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and the president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, Philip Hamburger made the bizarre, First Amendment argument that public education itself violates parents’ freedom of speech: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.” (The hotlink is to Diane Ravitch’s blog, where the article is reprinted; the original is paywalled.)

Like many on the far-right, Hamburger prefers to substitute the word “government” for the word “public,” and he seems to believe government is trying to brainwash children with “education” their parents don’t want them to know about.

On Monday, a professor of law at West Virginia University, Joshua Weishart published a profound response to the controversy about parents’ rights—an explanation that identifies what it is at school that has frightened so many parents. Weishart doesn’t worry so much about parents’ rights, because, he explains: “In our constitutional order, children’s freedoms take priority over parental freedoms. Given the overriding importance of schooling to democracy, our laws elevate and protect the rights of all children to learn and grow as citizens.”

Weishart believes today’s frenzy about parents’ rights can be traced back, as controversy about civil rights often is, to America’s oldest problem—racism: “Remember that the demand for equal educational opportunity crystallized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which then sparked opponents’ cries for parental freedom. Many saw then and see now that parental freedom meant the freedom to preserve a racist structure of schooling. Segregation indeed remains our most disgraceful yet enduring sacrifice on the alter of parental freedom. Time and again, the Supreme Court has revered the residential and private school choices of parents even as they have exacerbated segregation and widened school funding disparities, leaving far too many of our schools separate and unequal—essentially upending Brown‘s declaration that both segregation and unequal educational opportunities subvert the equal protection of the laws.”

But some of the state supreme courts have more carefully protected the rights of children to learn from their experiences in diverse common schools. Weishart reviews the Clark v. Board of Directors case decided by the Iowa Supreme Court soon after the end of the Civil War: “The Clark decision offered a stern rebuke to the notion that the law protects the choice to segregate in public school settings. Underlying the court’s reasoning was the notion that segregation denies children the freedom to learn through a unifying school experience open to all, one meant to cultivate a core of shared values, sense of community, and mutual understanding essential for the common good in a democratic society. Segregation, the court thus concluded, deprived all children, Black and white alike, of ‘the privileges and benefits of our common schools,’ guaranteed to them under the state constitution.”

Weishart concludes: “Unbounded parental freedom serves only to stratify students, divide communities, and undercut the mission of public schools.” He adds: “Parents, of course, retain the privilege, under the U.S. Constitution, to decide whether their children will receive a public or private education and, in a more general sense, control their children’s education. But that ‘control’ has always been subject to reasonable state regulation and must yield to state compelling interests in a democratically educated citizenry. In no case does it secure parents the right to dictate the curriculum, restrict the flow of information from the school, or jeopardize the health and well-being of other children. What’s more, parents’ freedom to select a publicly subsidized school of their choice enjoys no constitutional protection whatsoever.”

The American philosopher of education and the father of progressive education, John Dewey believed that children learn not so much from what they are taught but from their experience of society as it is embedded in the school community. The purpose of public schooling is, according to Dewey (in 1897), to provide the social experiences children need to prepare them for American citizenship:

“I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned.” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through those demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.”

Dewey would advise today’s American parents to encourage their children to participate freely in the school community without fear, for the public school is the microcosm of our society.

Appreciating the Public Schools We Take for Granted

This week is American Education Week and next week will be Thanksgiving. In this context, I have been thinking about the challenge of valuing an institution we tend to overlook. Here are a few of my thoughts and some from wiser thinkers who have considered the importance of our nation’s system of public schooling.

This blog will take the holiday week off.  Look for a new post on November 29.

Like all human institutions, public education is imperfect. As a primary civic institution, our public school system reflects all the sins and problems of our society.  Nevertheless, public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents are served. Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular student and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all students.  Our society has improved the fairness of our system of public education over the generations by passing laws to protect the rights and serve the needs of previously marginalized African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, English Language Learner, and LGBTQ children.  We need to keep on making public schools safer and more authentically welcoming for every student, but at the same time, we should be grateful that our ancestors established a school system that aspires to our best civic values.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber summarizes some of the things we forget to value but count on nonetheless: “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)

Appreciating Teachers in these Fraught Times

This year we especially need to celebrate school teachers. They deserve extra respect and gratitude in this year when COVID-19 is still disrupting school—as students and teachers continue to test positive for the pandemic and classes are quarantined for periods of time; as teachers must fill in for others who get sick in addition to managing their own classes because there is a shortage of available substitutes; and as children struggle to adjust a regular schedule after a year of the utter disruption of normal schooling. Exhausted teachers are working to help students catch up academically and readjust socially to institutional routines and being with each other.  As we watch all the frenzied press about parents protesting about mask requirements during COVID and parents distrusting the teaching of American history, we ought to remember that classroom teachers have become an easy target.  Teachers deserve special thanks and appreciation as another difficult COVID-19 school year is now underway.

We especially need to celebrate the fact that so many teachers keep on keeping on day after day amidst these very difficult circumstances. While there are shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers and teachers’ aides, for FiveThirtyEight, Rebecca Klein reports that the number of teachers resigning their positions in frustration has been less than alarming reports originally projected: “By many accounts, teachers have been particularly unhappy and stressed out about their jobs since the pandemic hit, first struggling to adjust to difficult remote-learning requirements and then returning to sometimes unsafe working environments.  A nationally representative survey of teachers by RAND Education and Labor in late January and early February found that educators were feeling depressed and burned out… Yet the data on teacher employment shows a system that is stretched, not shattered.  In an EdWeek Research Center report released in October, a significant number of district leaders and principals surveyed—a little less than half—said that their district had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers. This number paled in comparison, though, with the nearly 80 percent of school leaders who said they were struggling to find substitute teachers, the nearly 70 percent who said they were struggling to find bus drivers and the 55 percent who said they were struggling to find paraprofessionals.”

Klein gives considerable credit to teachers unions for supporting teachers through this very difficult period: “Indeed, union representation, and the perks that come along with it, is something that other sectors facing massive shortages of female workers, like service and hospitality industries don’t necessarily receive. As of 2017, about 70 percent of teachers participated in a union or professional association, according to federal data. By comparison, the same is true for only about 17 percent of nurses, another predominantly female workforce.”

Klein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Every place I went, yes, there’s trepidation, a lot of agita over the effects of COVID, but there’s real joy of people being back in school with their kids… Female professions are undervalued by society, and I think that’s part of the reason teachers are more densely organized than almost any other worker in America right now.”

Appreciating Public Institutions Against the Threat of School Privatization

The purveyors of school privatization at public expense—as an alternative to traditional public schools—are a persistent threat to our universal system of public schooling. Well-organized and determined advocates for school privatization are taking advantage of all the pandemic-related frustrations to peddle their wares. Glitzy ads for K-12 Inc, the for-profit online school, pop up on the cable news networks and despite information to the contrary, charter schools brag to parents that their schools are less disrupted by COVID. Ohio’s new state budget expands plain old vouchers and introduces education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers. Charter schools are being introduced in West Virginia. What are the reasons to appreciate our public system instead?

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, conceptualizes what we all lose when we privatize an essential public institution like education. The losers are always the most vulnerable, those who lack power and money:

“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)

Appreciating Learning in a Public School Setting

In our era when when extremists are disrupting  too many local school board meetings and far-right legislators armed with ALEC model bills for vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers are trying to expand tax supported school privatization in many places, we can consider the words of the late Mike Rose. Rose spent a lifetime celebrating public education, but he believed its promise must be perpetually expanded:

“Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose….  There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.”

Reengaging may begin with taking the time to consider and appreciate what happens in our public schools. Rose continues: “One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life…. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us….  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.”  (Why School?, pp 203-207)

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

Last week this blog highlighted Advocates for Children of New York’s new report documenting that more than 10 percent of the over one million students in the New York City Public Schools—101,000 students—are homeless. These students are living in shelters, doubled up with friends or relatives, or living in cars and parks. What are the academic challenges for these homeless children and other children living in families with minimum wage employment, unemployment, unstable housing, food insecurity and inadequate medical care?

Although federal law continues to require that states measure the quality of schools and school districts with standardized tests, all sorts of research documents that students’ standardized test scores are indicators of their life circumstances and not a good measure of the quality of their public schools. Students concentrated in poor cities or scattered in impoverished and remote rural areas are more likely to struggle academically no matter the quality of their public school.

Here are just two examples of this research.

In 2017, Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan studied data from Michigan to identify the role of economic disadvantage in achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a… detailed measure of economic disadvantage… Children who spend all of their school years eligible for subsidized meals have the lowest scores, whereas those who are never eligible have the highest. In eighth grade, the score gap between these two groups is nearly a standard deviation.” “Sixty percent of Michigan’s eighth graders were eligible for subsidized lunch at least once during their time in public schools. But just a quarter of these children (14% of all eighth graders) were economically disadvantaged in every year between kindergarten and eighth grade… Ninety percent of the test score gap we observe in eighth grade between the persistently disadvantaged and the never disadvantaged is present by third grade.”

In How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University describes academic research showing that evaluating public schools based on standardized test scores is unfair to educators and misleading to the public: “It turns out that gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children are largely formed prior to kindergarten entry and then do not grow appreciably when children are in school.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 9) “Much of the ‘action’ of inequality therefore occurs very early in life… In addition to the fact that achievement gaps are primarily formed in early childhood, there is another reason to believe that schools are not as responsible for inequality as many think. It turns out that when children are in school during the nine-month academic year, achievement gaps are rather stable. Indeed, sometimes we even observe that socioeconomic gaps grow more slowly during school periods than during summers.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 28)

In the context of this research, Downey examines the six indicators the Ohio Department of Education uses to evaluate public schools when it releases annual report cards on school performance. Although the state has ceased branding public schools with “A-F” letter grades, Downey explains that the state of Ohio continues to ignore the role outside-of-school variables in students’ lives when it blames educators and schools for low aggregate test scores:

“The report card for schools is constructed from six indicators and not a single one of them gauges performance independent of the children’s nonschool environments. First is achievement, which is based on the percentage of students  who pass state tests… By far, the biggest determinant of whether a school produces high or low test scores is the income level of the students’ families it serves… Second is the extent to which a district closes achievement gaps among subgroups. But performance on this indicator can also be influenced by factors out of the school’s control… Third, schools are gauged by the degree to which the school improved at-risk K-3 readers… Of course, it is much easier to make progress on this indicator if serving children who go home each evening to reinforce the school goals. Fourth, schools are evaluated on their progress, an indicator based on how much growth students exhibit on math and reading tests. This kind of indicator is better than most at isolating how schools matter, but again, growth is easier in schools where students enjoy home environments that also promote learning… Fifth, the graduation rate constitutes a component of the district’s (rating)… but this is only a measure of school quality if the likelihood of a child’s on-time graduation has nothing to do with the stress they experience at home, the access they have to health care, or the quality of their neighborhood.  Finally districts are evaluated on whether their students are prepared for success.  This indicator gauges the percentage of students at a school viewed as ready to succeed after high school… and is determined by how well the students performed on the ACT or SAT and whether they earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam… These report cards ‘are designed to give parents, communities, educators, and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools,’ but what they really do is mix important factors outside of school with what is going on inside the schools in unknown ways.” (How Schools Really Matter, pp. 115-116)

What these reports and many others demonstrate is that we cannot expect that no child will be left behind merely because Congress passes a law declaring that schools can make every American child post proficient test scores by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s (and now the Every Student Succeeds Act’s)  policies—which have branded schools unable quickly to raise aggregate test scores as “failing schools”— have unfairly targeted school districts located in poor communities. In 2017, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which he shows that ameliorating opportunity gaps in the lives of children is not something schools can accomplish by themselves.

Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)