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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does It Mean for Our Children and Our Society that State Legislators Don’t Know What Teachers Do?

Political attacks on teachers seem to be everywhere. Fanatical critics charge that teachers destroy white children’s self esteem by honestly acknowledging racism, and worse, they accuse teachers of “grooming” children. Public schoolteachers are the collateral damage in a widespread political campaign to discredit public schooling and promote privatization. As the new year begins, I have been grateful to prominent news commentators for calling out the scapegoating of schoolteachers.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s retired editorial page director, Brent Larkin devoted a weekly column to exploring what’s been happening in Ohio politics: “A large number of odious types in elected life are so obsessed with demonizing public schoolteachers that it interferes with these legislators’ ability to deal with real problems.” Larkin quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association: “When you have people deliberately fostering distrust, it has a devastating impact on educator morale… There are just so many challenges in terms of inequity of resources, discipline, poverty and culture-war attacks that have been very deliberately orchestrated by people on the right.'” Larkin concludes: “Great teachers are to be treasured. The way they’re treated speaks volumes about where we’re headed.”

The Washington Post‘s culture critic, Robin Givhan wonders: “Who will remain when educators tire of picking their way through a political obstacle course of ginned-up outrage over bathrooms and manufactured controversies about racial justice?… Who will educate children when teachers finally become fed up with dodging bullets—or taking bullets—in service to someone else’s child?… It’s no secret that they’re underpaid for all the duties they perform… The United States has lost 370,000 teachers since the start of the pandemic… Critics have been punishing a them from all sides. The country asks public school teachers to carry this nation’s future on their backs, and then we force them to walk through a field of land mines.”

John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour recently wrote: “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight… However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59% of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute… Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation… and according to Education Week, ‘Teachers are also working under a ‘pay penalty,’ an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers…'”

Data confirm Merrow’s concerns. In last summer’s most recent report from the Economic Policy Institute on the need to raise teachers’ salaries, Sylvia Allegretto reported the serious and growing disparity in the wages for teachers and other comparably educated college graduates: “Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers have been relatively flat since 1996. The average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted only for inflation) increased just $29 from 1996 to 2021, from $1,319 to $1,348 (in 2021 dollars). In contrast, inflation-adjusted  weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,564 to $2,009 over the same period—a $445 increase.”

Bloomberg adds that one consequence of low pay on top of a barrage of controversy about what and how teachers teach is the growing shortage of teachers: “Overall, the U.S. job market ended 2022 at a near record for growth but one area in particular underscores how some parts of the economy still lag far behind pre-pandemic levels… The slow crawl is largely due to one industry—education—making up more than half of the jobs lost… (T)here has been a mass exodus of educators, leaving school districts with mounting vacancies to fill.”

There is clearly a tragic disconnect between the needs of America’s public schools and the resources legislators across the states are providing. Why? Part of the cause, of course, is the ideologically driven campaign the news commentators have noticed. Far right groups like the Bradley Foundation, EdChoice, Americans for Prosperity and the Goldwater Institute are pursuing a lavishly funded lobbying campaign—with model laws written and distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—to encourage legislators to privatize the whole educational enterprise.

Something else, however, has made our legislators increasingly susceptible to the ideology of the lobbyists and school privatizers. For several hours in December, as I watched a televised hearing of the Ohio House Education Committee, I was struck by so many lawmakers who seemed to define the role of teachers as mechanical producers of standardized test scores—and who conceptualize schools as merely an assembly line turning out workers who will help attract business and manufacturing to Ohio. I listened to a conversation filled with standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by numbers. The only time human beings appeared in the discussion of education was when legislators blamed teachers for the numbers. It is not surprising that the same Ohio legislators are trying to transform the Ohio Department of Education into a new Department of Education and the Workforce.

In Ohio and across every state, aggregate standardized test scores dropped during the school closures and remote learning during COVID-19, but as I watched the televised hearing, the legislators seemed furious that teachers had not quickly come up with a different set of test-score production methods and turned the scores around. They seemed to believe that teachers should have been able to erase students’ emotional struggles during the return to schooling after COVID disruptions. Several declared that putting the governor in charge of education would take care of the problem and make teachers accountable.

As I watched the hearing, I realized again something that I already knew: Many of the people who make public education policy at the state level don’t know what teachers do. Few people on that committee seemed to grasp that teaching school is a complex and difficult job.

Watching the members of the Ohio House of Representatives discuss their concerns about our public schools made me think about David Berliner’s description of teaching. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University. Berliner comments on the human complexity of teaching as he contrasts the work of teachers and doctors:

“A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously. Many of these students don’t speak English well. Typically anywhere from 5-15% will show emotional and/or cognitive disabilities. Most are poor, and many reside in single parent families… Many patients seek out their physicians, choosing to be in their office. On the other hand, many students seek to be out-of-class…. I always wonder how physicians would fare if 30 or so kids… showed up for medical treatment all at once, and then left 50 minutes later, healed or not!  And suppose this chaotic scene was immediately followed by thirty or more different kids… also in need of personal attention. And they too stayed about 50 minutes…. Imagine waves of these patients hitting a physicians’ office five or six times a day!”

Berliner continues: “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.  Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day. Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability….”

Watching our legislators also made me think about the late Mike Rose’s definition of good teaching.   Rose taught college students how to teach and he spent a good part of his career visiting classes to observe and document what excellent teachers do. Rose’s very best book, Possible Lives, is the story of his observations of excellent teaching as he spent three years observing public school classrooms across the United States: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities… The 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 the people who make the laws which allocate and distribute state funding for public schools, were required to spend one day every year visiting a public school to watch what teachers do. In fact, I wish every state legislator were required to undertake the challenge of teaching in a public elementary, middle or high school for at least half of one school day every year.

One of the most important jobs of state legislators—and a job most of them have failed to fulfill—is to adequately fund the public schools, which every state constitution promises the state will provide. It is the responsibility of state legislators to support teachers by providing enough resources to pay teachers fairly for their work and to make classes small enough that teachers can know and support each student.

Will Americans Want a 2024 Presidential Candidate Who Brazenly Subverts His State’s College Curricula and Politicizes Education?

Strategies to politicize public education are likely the symptom of a backlash against historical developments in a culture’s understanding of itself and/or an era of political divisiveness when one side wants to impose its particular view of a society and that society’s history and its cultural norms on everybody else.

We watched Glenn Youngkin storm through the Virginia governor’s race a couple of years ago with the support of middle class, white suburban mothers—funded by ideologues and supplied with materials from the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute—advocating to ban anything resembling a multicultural curriculum, which they branded as critical race theory.  Across the states, we are watching the same political thrust in the mass of culture war bills being debated in the state legislatures—anti-woke bills, “Don’t say gay bills,” bills that say teachers groom children, and all the attacks on what is being called critical race theory.

There are two ways politicians promoting this sort of thing are proceeding. The first is to pass laws banning the teaching or mentioning of certain subjects; the other is to change the people who oversee the agencies or boards that control what is going on at school. Ohio’s legislature has—so far unsuccessfully—tried both methods of political control of education.  Besides introducing a mass of bills to ban the teaching of divisive subjects, the far-right Republican legislature has been trying to manipulate the makeup of the state board of education—getting some appointed members fired for their positions on culture war issues and even trying to subsume the important functions of the independent state board, whose majority is still independently elected by the people, under a new state department controlled by the governor.

By passing and imposing several elements of this kind of agenda, one American politician today has taken political manipulation of education to a new level (see here, and here) by experimenting with both strategies: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

When, last February, Florida’s legislature was considering DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” which later passed and was signed into law by DeSantis, the Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Lori Rozsa profiled a Miami Beach high school speech and debate teacher:

“The school system in Florida’s most populous county includes students whose families moved here from 160 nations. Its expansive cultural mix is represented in the district’s curriculum, which includes not only American history, but also the stories of violent government upheavals, such as the revolution of enslaved people who founded Haiti, and the more recent political trauma of protestors who fled or perished in Castro’s Cuba. But as Florida lawmakers consider legislation to police what students are taught, Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Russell Rywell wonders if he will still be able to discuss how some of his students’ ancestors arrived in the United States. ‘How do you teach slavery? The slave trade? The Holocaust?’ asked Rywell… who has taught in Miami-Dade County’s public schools for 11 years. ‘How do you teach these issues without talking about the participants and the roles they played?'”

Governor DeSantis’s latest effort to politicize public education is at Florida’s state colleges and universities, not at the K-12 level, but it is perhaps the most outrageously symbolic of the whole series of attacks across the states on independent public schooling. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘s Zac Anderson reports that last Friday, “Gov. Ron DeSantis began the process… of transforming Sarasota’s New College of Florida into a more conservative institution, appointing six new board members, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a dean at conservative Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank… The shakeup of the 13-member board is certain to create major tensions at New College, an institution that started as a progressive private school before becoming the state’s liberal arts honors college. The small school’s student body and faculty have a reputation for leaning left politically. Turning New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale would amount to flipping it upside down, a wholesale reinvention akin to a hostile takeover, and one that many current students and faculty are likely to resist.”

Anderson continues: “DeSantis aides blasted the school Friday and said an overhaul is needed. ‘Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,’ said DeSantis’ communications Director Taryn Fenske.”

In case you have forgotten about Christopher Rufo, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss provides a short review: “Rufo is a Republican activist who in 2020 caught Trump’s eye with an appearance on Fox News in which Rufo declared that critical race theory had ‘pervaded every institution in the federal government.'” She reminds readers that in 2021, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey profiled Rufo as a documentary film maker explaining how to reframe and redefine the concept of “critical race theory,” previously known as a theoretical concept taught in law schools as part of the study of the history of structural racism in America.

Meckler and Dawsey quoted Rufo: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Later in 2021, we learned from the National Education Policy Center that Christopher Rufo was not only a documentary film maker, but also a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Now from Zac Anderson’s report we discover that Rufo has also become a dean at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.

Anderson tells us more about these institutions and what they illuminate about Gov. DeSantis’s goals for politicizing Florida’s public colleges and universities: “Joining Rufo on the New College board is Matthew Spalding, a professor of constitutional government at Hillsdale College and dean of the college’s graduate school of government in Washington, D.C. Spalding was vice president of American studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.”

Anderson continues: “Hillsdale is a small Christian college in Michigan that has been active in conservative education politics. DeSantis spoke at Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar last year and has tapped the school to help reshape Florida’s education system. Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute is joining the New College board… ‘Claremont scholars have collaborated with Ron DeSantis and helped shape the views of Clarence Thomas, Tom Cotton and the conservative activist Christopher Rufo’… the New York Times wrote last year. Trump lawyer John Eastman (is) another senior fellow at the Claremont Institute….”

In last week’s column, Valerie Strauss reminds readers that Hillsdale College’s President Larry Arnn, “was in the news recently when he said that teachers ‘are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country’ and that ‘anyone’ can teach. He headed Trump’s 1776 Commission….”

According to Anderson, Christopher Rufo has already begun promoting Governor DeSantis’s plan to politicize higher education in Florida: “‘Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs,’ Rufo wrote.  Among Rufo’s goals for New College…: Restructuring the administration, developing ‘a new core curriculum,’ eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion policies and restructuring academic departments.”

On Tuesday, NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg quoted Rufo about his plans as a New College trustee: “Later this month, Rufo said he’ll travel to New College with a ‘landing team’ of board members, lawyers, consultants and political allies. ‘We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring,’ he said, with plans to ‘design a new core curriculum from scratch’ and ‘encode it in a new academic master plan.'” What DeSantis and Rufo seem to be planning is a frontal attack on a principle that has been understood as the foundation of higher education across the United States: academic freedom.

As Governor Ron DeSantis becomes better known as a potential candidate for President in 2024—in a nation where polls show that citizens prize their public schools—will DeSantis’s agenda for public K-12 education and for public universities threaten his political viability?

Ohio’s Public Schools Had a Rough 2022 and Face Bleak Legislative Prospects in 2023

In the midst of the big 2022 Christmas week storm, a frozen sprinkler-system pipe burst at the Ohio Statehouse and flooded the state senate chamber.  This year in Ohio’s gerrymandered, supermajority Republican legislature, democracy itself has been so severely threatened that many of us wondered if the event was an expression of cosmic justice.

As Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor retired due to the state’s mandated age limit, O’Connor—herself a Republican—condemned legislators who created one gerrymandered legislative and Congressional district map after another, O’Connor told the Associated Press: “My advice to them was, please review the Constitution and maybe go back to, what is it, fourth or fifth grade and learn about our institutions… And maybe, just maybe, review what it was like in Germany when Hitler intimidated the judiciary and passed those laws that allowed for the treatment of the Jewish population… This country cannot stand if the judiciary is intimidated.” The AP reports that, “In retirement, she has pledged to champion a constitutional amendment that fixes Ohio’s redistricting process…”

Ohio legislators have shown that in 2023 they are determined to increase the threshold for passing a state constitutional amendment from a simple 50 percent majority to a 60 percent majority. Here is Brent Larkin, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial page director from 1991 to 2009: “Many of these same Ohio officeholders and legislators involved in the scheme to limit citizen involvement in state government are the same ones who ignored the Ohio Constitution when they defied the will of the people by drawing gerrymandered legislative districts designed to remove any element of fairness from the redistricting process.” “The betrayal of public trust is breathtaking, though hardly surprising. The legislature leaving office is probably the most unscrupulous in Ohio’s history. Statehouse insiders believe the one taking office this week will be worse.”

With such serious threats to democracy and a mass of controversial bills on a range of issues, one danger is that concerns about public education will just slip through the cracks.  Because it is essential that the public be informed about our state’s most pervasive and influential institution—our public schools, here is a summary of what happened in Ohio public education policy this year.

Bad Things that Did Not Happen in 2022

The 134th Ohio General Assembly did not pass Ohio Senate Bill 178 to hollow out the Ohio State Board of Education and shift its primary responsibilities (including overseeing the Department of Education itself) to a new cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the Governor.  Politics have already to some degree invaded the Ohio State Board of Education, because the governor already appoints 8 of its 19 members.  And during the past two years there have been several legislative/gubernatorial interventions to gerrymander the districts of elected members to favor Republicans, and to fire unruly members and appoint new members who would be more faithful to Ohio Republicans’ priorities.

In 2022, the Ohio Senate passed SB 178 to move the important functions of the State Board of Education under the governor’s control, to insulate the state board from the will of the people, and to remove many of the State Board’s responsibilities. In December, during the last week of the legislative session, SB 178 was heard by the House Education Committee, but the bill never came up for committee vote and never was acted on by the Ohio House.  At 2:30 AM, before the the 134th General Assembly permanently adjourned at 6:30 AM,  Senate President Matt Huffman inserted the entire 2,144 page SB 178 into HB 151 to ban transgender girls from sports, inserted another amendment to ban school vaccine mandates, and sent the entire package back to the Ohio House, where it failed by 6 votes.  Although this problematic bill failed in the 134th General Assembly, Senate President Matt Huffman has pledged another attempt during 2023 to politicize the State Board of Education in the 135th Ohio General Assembly.

A Mass of Culture War Bills Will Die Because They Never Came Up for a Vote (For details, see Honesty for Ohio Education or the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education.)

    • HB 322, HB 327, and HB 616 to ban teaching and materials about divisive concepts including racism and sexual orientation.
    • HB 529 to demand that school curricula be posted online.
    • HB 454 to ban gender affirming care for minors.
    • HB 704 to affirm that gender identity is identifiable at birth according to DNA.
    • HB 722 to ban discussion of any ‘sexually explicit’ content and establish a ‘parents bill of rights.’
    • SB 361 to enable former military troops to become teachers with relaxed credentialing.
    • SB 365 to include curriculum about free market capitalism in educational standards.

HB 290, the “Backpack” universal education savings account voucher program never came up for a vote in the 134th General Assembly. Most people expect, however, that a similar bill will be introduced in the 135th General Assembly, perhaps as part of the FY 2024-2025 biennial budget bill.  For more information see here.

Good Things that Did Not Happen in 2022

The Ohio Legislature did not pass HB 497 to eliminate the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. After HB 497 passed the Ohio House by a margin of 82-10 and after the bill was unanimously endorsed by the Ohio State Board of Education, HB 497 was never considered by the Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee and never forwarded for a vote by the full Ohio Senate. The bill died with the end of the 134th Ohio General Assembly. The bill would have eliminated mandatory retention in third grade of any student who does not reach a proficient score on the state’s third grade achievement test. Research demonstrates that holding kids back in grade damages self esteem and makes it more likely that students will drop out of school before graduating from high school. For background see here.

Bad Things that Happened in 2022

The Ohio State Board of Education adopted, by a 10-7 vote, a resolution to oppose the Biden Administration’s proposed addition of LGBTQ protections to Title IX.  On December 13, 2022, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported: “After months of debate and hundreds of personal testimonies, Ohio’s State Board of Education voted 10 to 7… to push back against the Biden Administration’s plan to add LGBTQ protections to Title IX.”  For more information, see here.

The Ohio Legislature passed an amendment to HB 45 to weaken state incentives to improve preschool and childcare programs.  HB 45 eliminates the requirement that preschool and childcare centers participate in the state’s own Step Up to Quality program to receive state funds. Signal News‘s Paul Rochford reported that before this bill passed, “all early childhood and preschool providers funded by the Department of Education… (were) required to participate in the rating system and…  receive a rating of three or more stars to be eligible for state funding.” The change is likely to undermine the quality of childcare and preschool for Ohio’s poorest children. (Governor DeWine has not yet signed HB 45 and could still potentially line-item veto this provision.)

Mysterious Ohio State Tuition Tax Credit Voucher Program surfaces two years after it was established in the fine print of HB 110, the 2022-2023 state budget. Suddenly parents have received flyers from private schools announcing a new tuition tax credit program that will fund private and religious schools at the expense of the state’s general revenue fund.  Here is one brand new article covering this program.  The only news I could uncover about this program at the time it was passed is this summary from The Highland County Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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