I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!

Blaming Teachers Unions for Problems Reopening Schools Is Wrong: Reopening Must Be Done Safely

Right now, after nearly a year since life shut down for COVID-19, things feel like a chaotic mess. Children in lots of places are not in school but are instead learning remotely at home.  Unemployment is endemic. Families face unimaginable financial pressures, and if parents are working, the pressures of managing children out of school have been overwhelming. Some parents have felt obligated to quit work to supervise children learning at home, or if parents themselves are working from home, they may be struggling to manage kids learning remotely while the parents try to do their jobs.

As far as reopening schools full-time, the new Biden administration seems confused. The Washington Post‘s Cleve Wootson and Laura Meckler report: “As the country approaches the one-year mark of the pandemic’s isolation and restrictions, the Biden administration is struggling to give precise, consistent answers to two key questions: when will the pandemic truly be behind us? And short of that, when can children safely return to school? Biden himself has blamed miscommunications for some of the inconsistency, but his administration… is also grappling with the fact that science and data don’t produce answers as tidy or linear as campaign promises… For months, Biden has raised expectations that children would soon return to school… and his press secretary, Jen Psaki, recently suggested that the White House considers schools to be open if students are in school at least one day a week. But at a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, he clarified that he wants students back in school five days a week—while also specifying that his priority is students in grades K-8… It was an attempt to add clarity to an increasingly murky issue at the intersection of safety, education and politics.”

Education policy and politics over the past two decades have outrageously but consistently blamed educators themselves for the so-called “failure” of American public education. No Child Left Behind was designed, its sponsors said, to confront “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—the idea that teachers are not expecting enough from children whose standardized test scores are low.  Congress premised the law on punishments for the educators and the schools with the lowest overall test scores: fire the principal and half the staff, turn the school over to a charter management organization where a private entrepreneur could fire teachers who weren’t working hard enough. Race to the Top went farther by trying to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. None of this policy recognized decades of data which has repeatedly correlated concentrated student poverty with low aggregate standardized test scores. Decades of public policy set out to blame and punish the schools and educators serving our society’s poorest children instead of investing in ameliorating poverty and helping the schools serving poor children.

The idea was that incentives and sanctions would make school teachers and principals work harder and smarter. And embedded in it all was our universal assumption that if we blamed teachers and tried to motivate them with incentives (carrots) and sanctions (sticks), they would solve the problem and let society itself escape the public responsibility for investing in the future of children living in poverty. As usual, we expected schoolteachers to be good sports, and we resented it if they pushed back.

COVID-19 is setting up the same scenario. The pandemic has especially devastated the school districts lacking adequate resources. As Joe Biden, the candidate pointed out in his Education Plan, our society needs to, “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”  In a new report, The Education Law Center adds that state governments collectively cut their funding for local school districts by $600 billion in the decade following the 2008 Great Recession.

It is, of course, the inadequately funded school districts which have struggled hardest to reopen in person during COVID-19. But when the teachers unions in these school districts question whether their large classes crowded into too small classrooms would permit social distancing or whether the school buildings are adequately ventilated, politicians and the general public easily slip into the old pattern of blaming the teachers and their unions.  In an interview last week with the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot clearly continued to blame the Chicago Teachers Union for blocking the reopening of schools even after the school district and the union had settled and agreed to reopen.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss tried to sort out the controversy and clarify that while some teachers unions may have been demanding, feisty teachers unions are not the central problem: “Actually, there is a continued lack of governmental clarity over exactly what proper safety measures are necessary—and plenty of evidence that many school districts already open are not coming close to implementing some of the key measures. Researchers reporting on transmission in schools qualify their results by saying safety measures matter, a point that sometimes gets left out of the reopening debate.” Strauss continues: “In fact, the ‘science’ of reopening schools is evolving—even as more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are starting to spread and presenting new challenges to a country that has done one of the worst-recorded jobs in the world at containing the pandemic. And if a school district is trying to figure out exactly what protocols must be taken, the available guidance is still not crystal clear. ”

Strauss reviews new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control: “On Friday, the CDC released reopening guidance for school districts that rested on five key pillars: masking, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining those exposed. However, those pillars do not include what leading scientists say are other vital measures: well-functioning air ventilation systems and robust testing and screening programs at every school to find people who have the coronavirus but show no symptoms.”

There is some agreement that social distancing means leaving six feet between students’ desks.  However, at current funding levels, classes are usually pretty crowded. Almost no school district has enough teachers and enough empty classrooms to make overall class size smaller by putting smaller groups of children in separate classrooms with additional teachers. That is why many school districts which have brought students back to classrooms are doing so with complicated hybrid systems in which classes are split into remote and in-person sessions as smaller groups of students in each class rotate in and out of in-class and remote learning.

Finally, Strauss points out that, “Many schools are not—repeat, not—taking the appropriate safety steps to allow safe reopenings. Some have little or no testing protocols and poor ventilation.  Teachers report having to buy their own masks—sometimes for students, too—as well as insufficient social distancing and cleaning procedures. Some classrooms have desks inches apart… Many schools were not healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, this is the ordinary: crumbling buildings, unhealthy air quality, bugs and rodents, mold, broken or nonexistent air conditioning and heaters, nonfunctioning toilets, etc… Yet there is no serious discussion about addressing these issues. The debate is increasingly dominated by a refrain from outraged and exasperated editorial writers and columnists and news show hosts who say we must open schools and the monolithic teachers’ unions have to stop fighting it.”

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chose to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and simply demand that public schools reopen. Significant assistance for public schools was finally included in a last minute, December 202, COVID-19 relief package, but I suspect the help, which is to be distributed to public school districts through their states, has not yet made it through the pipeline. And Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains that a good part of the  funding for schools in Biden’s new relief plan now being marked up in the U.S. House of Representatives is for next year: “While Biden has tied the need for more relief funding to his goal of opening a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, the funding estimates in the document cover the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. ‘Funds are included for next year because we know that in order to invest in safely reopening, districts need financial certainty that they will not have to lay off teachers next fall in order to implement consistent COVID-19 safety protocols.’ says the Biden estimate obtained by Education Week.  ‘They do not have that certainty right now. Further, school districts that are already open need more support to implement mitigation efforts that protect students, educators and school staff.'”

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges some patience as the new Biden administration tries to move our society out of the Trump era of COVID denial: “What policymakers are trying to do here is like fighting a war—a war both against the pandemic itself and against the human fallout from the pandemic slump. And when you’re fighting a war, you don’t decide how much to spend by asking: ‘How much stimulus do we need to achieve full employment?’ You spend what you need to spend to win the war. Winning in this case, means providing the resources for a huge vaccination program and for opening schools safely, while limiting the economic misery of families whose breadwinners can’t work and avoiding gratuitous cuts in public services provided by fiscally constrained state and local governments.” Krugman is pushing Congress swiftly to pass Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan, but Krugman knows that it will take time and patience to address the problems that built up as the Trump administration denied the severity of COVID-19 and its attendant health and economic challenges.

There is one step, however, which can be taken immediately to protect schoolteachers—whether they work with 25 or 30 children each day in an elementary school classroom or teach more than a hundred middle and high school students cycling every day through their classrooms. Teachers and other school support staff need to be moved immediately to the front of the line to qualify for the vaccine. Even if school districts are able to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning protocols, not all of the fifty states have prioritized schoolteachers for vaccination. That is wrong and it needs to be corrected.

Check Out this Fine New Book on Social Justice Unionism: “Teachers Unions and Social Justice”

Rethinking Schools just published an excellent new handbook, Teachers Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve.  I call it a handbook because it was written as a guide for teachers union social justice advocacy and organizing. But it is also a handbook for activists, writers, and bloggers strategizing to confront the recent collapse of public education funding, the alarming growth of school privatization at public expense, and the message, spread for too long, that holding schools accountable according to business principles is more important than educating children.

         The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a pioneer in social justice unionism, Karen Lewis died on Monday.  Please read this wonderful tribute to Karen Lewis by Chicago education journalist Sarah Karp.

The editors  have assembled more than 60 short compelling articles and stories by union activists and many of the nation’s prominent advocates for education justice, all telling the story of organized teachers confronting the blindness of the privatizers and the business-accountablity hawks. There is a 2012 interview with the great Karen Lewis, whose loss we mourn this week. And we hear from teachers union justice champions including Jesse Hagopian in Seattle; Jackson Potter and Michelle Gunderson in Chicago; Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul; David Levine in Cincinnati; Eleni Schirmer in North Carolina, Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles; and Michael Charney in Cleveland.

The editors, Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian, and Bob Peterson, introduce the collection of writings: “More than two decades ago in the first edition of this book, Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, we promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism. We argued that such a vision was essential to improving our schools, transforming our unions, and building a more just society. Since then much has happened. Public schools, the entire public sector, and the basic notion of the ‘common good’ have come under severe attack. Wealth inequality has reached an unsustainable level. The scourge of white supremacy has been intensified by rampant xenophobia… But within our schools and the larger society, seeds of struggle have sprouted and grown.” (pp. 13-14)

In the decade since the Great Recession, the Education Law Center documents states’ collective disinvestment in public school funding at $600 billion—a trend following widespread tax cutting that has been exacerbated by alarming diversion of public school funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school tuition vouchers. From the points of view of teachers who led and participated in the Red4Ed strikes of 2018 and 2019, we learn, in Teacher Unions and Social Justice, the stories of the strikes that taught America what all this austerity has meant for our public schools: crowded classrooms of 40 students, shortages of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. Newspaper reporters and the rest of us don’t have an opportunity to go into schools to observe the conditions first-hand, but this book tells the story from inside the public schools in many places.

Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez summarize what happened in the widespread 2018-2019 walkouts: “The West Virginia strike began in late February 2018 when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties… By May 2018, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky… the protests were more than red state revolts. They were rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. Almost all of the places where statewide actions initially occurred, however, were right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and the sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits…  But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests kept the rebellion spreading to ‘purple’ states like Colorado… and North Carolina… and, beyond 2018 to blue states like California, where Los Angeles teachers won a landmark victory in January 2019, and Illinois, where teachers staged a bitter 11-day walkout in September 2019… Nationally, the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 158,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million.  The cuts in public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a  four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed…. (T)he key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization.” (pp. 81-87)

While many of the short articles in the new book are written by teachers, the editors also collect resources for teachers—pieces about communication strategy as well as resources about practices for justice which have been modeled by teachers in particular school districts. Contributors describe union efforts to support restorative justice practices as alternatives to punitive discipline; unions introducing racial justice, African-centered, and Black Lives Matter programming across their schools; and unions collaborating to establish parent-teacher home visits and Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services right at school.

Each section ends by suggesting additional resources on teaching practices as well as recommended background materials about such issues as ameliorating opportunity gaps among students, confronting school privatization coming from state legislatures, and pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing.

The editors of this ambitious book are Michael Charney, a 30 year social studies teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and Cleveland Teachers Union vice president; Jesse Hagopian, ethnic studies and English language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, member of the Seattle Education Association, and author of several books including the recent, Black Lives Matter at School; and Bob Peterson, a fifth grade Milwaukee teacher for over 25 years, and the founding editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He has also co-edited several books.

Bob Peterson describes the history of the movement for social justice teacher unionism: “In 1994 we issued a call for activist teachers to build social justice unions, contrasting them with what we called industrial and professional models of unionism… We asserted, ‘Without a better partnership with the parents and communities that need public education most, we will find ourselves isolated from essential allies.  Without a new vision of schooling that raises the expectations of our students and the standards of our own profession, we will continue to founder.'” (pp. 99-101)

Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles describes what social justice unionism and the dedication of the local’s members accomplished in the January, 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “UTLA’s strike shifted the narrative locally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. We boldly fought for the schools our students deserve and the respect and recognition that public educators have been longing for. What did we win? In addition to a 6 percent salary increase, we got enforceable class size caps for the first time and a class size reduction program. We won more nurses, librarians, counselors, funding for community schools, a reduction in standardized testing, and resources for ethnic studies. We won improvements in special education loads and itinerant workspace. We won a greater voice for educators in schools targeted for charter colocation.  We won an LAUSD resolution calling on the state for a charter moratorium, improvements in adult and early education, the elimination of random student searches, expansion of green space and the removal of unused bungalows (portable classrooms) on our campuses, legal support for immigrant families, and the will to fight for more state and county funding.” (pp. 252-261)

Teacher Unions and Social Justice is available from Rethinking Schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s First Big Test

Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing as President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education is scheduled for this morning at 10 AM in the U.S. Senate Education Committee.  Assuming Cardona is confirmed by the committee and subsequently on the floor of the U.S. Senate, his first big test as Education Secretary will be his decision about what to do about federally mandated high-stakes student testing in this COVID-19 school year.

A groundswell of opposition to student testing continues to grow. On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported that educators across the states are asking Cardona “to give states permission not to give students federally mandated standardized tests this spring.”  Last year Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing right after schools shut down nationwide due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier last week, Strauss reported: “This is the second straight year that states are asking for waivers… This week, the U.S. Education Department sent a letter to chief state school officers saying the February 1 deadline for seeking a waiver was being extended though it didn’t set a new deadline. It promised states that it would soon provide details on submitting waiver requests….” Strauss adds that New York and Michigan have already requested waivers from standardized testing this spring.

Last Tuesday, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, convened a virtual, national town hall where experts detailed some of the many problems this spring with the logistics, the validity and the uses of the standardized testing regime mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act annually for all 3rd-8th graders and once for high school students.

Dr. Lisa Escarcega described logistical challenges and asked participants to consider who would benefit from testing this spring and who would be harmed. A member of the Colorado State Board of Education, Escarcega described the many calls from her constituents trying to figure out how to get enough computers back in school to use for test administration. She explained that school districts have regularly loaned out school computers to students who have lacked access during the pandemic to online learning being provided by their schools and added that educators were struggling with the idea of taking back—for testing purposes—the very computers which their students are using to connect with their teachers in online classes.

Other speakers, including Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-NY); Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky;  Dr. Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of the new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door; and Dr. Lorrie Shepard a professor of research and evaluation methodology at of the University of Colorado, described the special challenges during this school year.

In a recent Education Week column, Dr. Shepard summarizes many of the critiques aired in the FairTest town hall: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.”

Shepard continues: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic. Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Valerie Strauss reprinted a letter addressed to Dr. Cardona from 74 national, state and local organizations and more than 10,000 individuals demanding that, once confirmed as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona  would give states waivers, if the states submit requests, to cancel the testing in the current school year. Here is what the letter says: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic values when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Among the organizations signing the letter are the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, FairTest, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, In the Public Interest, the National Superintendents Roundtable, and Defending the Early Years.

Washington Post Joins NY Times to Demand Reinstatement of Standardized Tests in Schools this Spring: It Is Still a Bad Idea

On Friday, the Washington Post editorialized to demand the reinstatement—this spring in the midst of COVID-19—of the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeed Act. Betsy DeVos mercifully cancelled the testing mandate last spring as the pandemic hit.

On Friday, this blog critiqued a similar January 2nd, editorial from the NY Times‘ editors, who demanded that the new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reinstate the annual annual standardized testing regime.

The reasoning of the Post‘s editorial is flawed, and the realities for teachers, families and children make the federally mandated state testing ridiculous this spring.  The Post‘s editors wonder: “How can schools create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if those losses haven’t been measured? Wouldn’t knowing which students have been most adversely affected be helpful in directing resources for mitigation efforts? Don’t parents have a right to know whether their sons and daughters are achieving?”

The Post would appear to trust big data and distrust educational professionals.  As soon as schools can be opened in person, professionally educated and prepared teachers and public school staff will be assessing what students need, adapting curricula accordingly, and helping parents support their children’s learning. Teachers have been doing their best throughout this school year to meet children’s and parents’ needs, although the disruption of switching back and forth from online to in-person to on-line learning as COVID-19 infections have surged and abated and surged has made the year chaotic for families and for educators.

As experts quoted on Friday in this blog point out, the state-by-state standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act were created as a tool for school accountability; these tests have never been effective for informing classroom practice. The results are not accessible to school teachers for months after the tests are administered.  On Friday, this blog quoted Diane Ravitch explaining that these tests will not assist teachers who are trying to support children as they return to the stable, in-class instruction we anticipate as soon as vaccines are widely available and schools reopen: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test.”

Professor of research and evaluation methodology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Lorrie Shepard warns: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic.  Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Shepard flatly rejects a primary argument of the Post‘s and the Times’ editors: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.  At the state level, there may not be new monies to allocate because of budget cuts.”

Lack of money to support reopening schools and to enhance ongoing programming and even prevent staffing reductions as the COVID-19 recession deepens has been a worry all year among education professionals.  Without COVID relief for state and local governments, it is feared states will be forced to cut their education budgets in the next couple of years—state budgets which cover over 45 percent of all school funding on average.

President Elect Biden is already well aware of alarming educational inequity. Biden has pledged immediately to support another COVID-19 relief bill that would, with the new Democratic Senate majority, presumably include assistance for state and local governments. Biden has also pledged to invest federal dollars through tripling Title I and other investments for equity.  Biden campaigned on on a promise to increase investment in the public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated:  “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Injustice in American public education has been defined for generations by what Jonathan Kozol in 1991 described as Savage Inequalities in investment between wealthy and poor school districts.  Programs like the federal Title I program for compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children as well the states’ school funding distribution formulas are intended, despite their inadequacy, to invest federal and state dollars in the school districts lacking local property taxing capacity.  Inequities will persist until our society finds a way, in the poorest school districts, to invest in pre-Kindergarten and wraparound Community Schools; small classes; plenty of counselors, nurses and librarians; and the kind of curricular enrichment children in wealthy exurbs take for granted.

This COVID-19 year is an excellent time for the federal government to invest in educational equity and to incentivize states to increase their investments in the poorest school districts. It is a bad time to relaunch the failed high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Ugly Attacks on Teachers and Teachers Unions

As a candidate for President, Joseph Biden promised to appoint a teacher or someone experienced in public school education as U.S. Secretary of Education. Now as Biden is appointing the members of his Cabinet, we are reading opinion pieces filled with all the old conventional biases against schoolteachers in general and against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Many Republicans are suspicious of teachers unions, but a lot of the current attacks on teachers are coming from Democrats—from the supporters of the “corporate school reformer” education policies of President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. These are Democrats who adhere to the neoliberal policies that endorsed school privatization in the form of charter schools whose operation is entirely private. Some of these Democrats are people who promote business school school accountability based on incentives and punishments said to increase teachers’ productivity. The current protesters are worried about the possibility that President Elect Biden will appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA’s recent president, or Randi Weingarten, AFT’s current president, as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal printed an extraordinary classist, sexist, elitist, and insultingly anti-teacher screed by Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar.  Here is how Epstein begins his personal attack on Jill Biden: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo…  Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title, ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.'” Mr. Epstein continues, “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness, and the relaxation of standards in university education generally… Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field.” Epstein extols the intense pressure on candidates in the olden days before, as he contends, standards collapsed and the comprehensive exams became less threatening: “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, long after the terror had departed.”

You will have noticed that Mr. Epstein does not attack unionized teachers directly. In fact, he does not even mention that Jill Biden, an English teacher at a community college and a former high school English teacher, is a member of the NEA.  But he manages to denigrate and insult not only women (“kiddo”) and the idea that a woman might have a life and career independent of her husband (“Mrs. Biden”), but also the fact that most school teachers earn advanced degrees by going to school part time at the local state university at the same time they are teaching.  Epstein also disdains the idea that today teachers earn advanced degrees by studying issues related to pedagogy, developmental psychology, or the conditions and needs of their students. Epstein’s bias is for the ivory tower and against what education writer Mike Rose names in the title of his wonderful book about the importance of community colleges: Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America.

A month ago the Wall Street Journal also published an explicitly anti-teachers union piece by William McGurn, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush: “During his campaign, (Biden) promised to appoint a teacher as education secretary.  Now the talk is that Mr. Biden will appoint not only a teacher but the head of a teachers union… Everyone has understood that a Biden Education Department would mark a change of direction from the past four years. But to elevate to education secretary someone whose career has been spent fighting any reform aimed at relaxing the teachers union’s stranglehold on the public schools would be an astonishingly bleak admission about whose interests come first.”

Then there was Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine  interview last week with President Barack Obama. A devotee of Obama’s pro-school reformer–pro-charter school policies, Chait asks the former president why he chose not to discuss his education policies in his new 700 page book, A Promised Land.  Obama replies that he will be exploring education policy in a second volume.  He also hedges as he explains the Race to the Top Program in which Arne Duncan required states, as the qualification to apply for a grant, to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores:  “I think it has to do with the fact that our reform efforts were relatively complicated to explain to the public. It’s easy to talk about ‘We’re going to put more money into buildings’ or ‘We’re going to talk about buying more books or science labs or you name it.’  It’s harder to talk about how we’re trying to create a sense of accountability, but also one that is not loading up even more rigid standardized-testing approaches that I think a lot of teachers rightly feel are suffocating.” Obama tells Chait: “What is… true is that I was fully supportive of the idea of raising expectations, raising standards, encouraging states and local school districts not to give up on kids because it’s hard.  To not assume that money is the only problem.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss bluntly identifies as the primary flaw in Obama’s education policies his failure to address school funding inequity and child poverty: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones. It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

It was to address these two issues that candidate Joe Biden turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration in which he served as Vice President. What happened as Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan was implementing Race to the Top is that state budgets collapsed during the Great Recession in 2008, and then in 2010 in state after state, Tea Party candidates took over and began further to cut taxation.

In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain that: “Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation…  Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 34-36)

One of the authors of The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider published a tweet last week that captures the truth of what has happened over two decades of education policy: “Most people, when talking about “good” or “bad” schools, are talking about schools they’ve never visited in communities they don’t know. Their judgments are rooted in status ideology, rather than knowledge. If we nod our heads, we are complicit in an ignorance that harms us all.”  I believe President Elect Biden has promised to appoint someone with direct public school experience, because Biden noticed that it took teachers themselves to show us the flaws in the movement for corporate school reform and school privatization.

In a new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black reminds us what happened: “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden may or may not choose a member of a teachers union as the next education secretary, but it’s time to stop permitting the corporate-accountability school reformers and charter school privatizers to trash the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. And it is time for us all to examine the stereotypes by which we define school teachers. It ought to be utterly unacceptable to insult Jill Biden for teaching at a community college and for earning an advanced degree at night school at the University of Delaware at the same time she was teaching high school during the day in Wilmington.

Attacks on Teachers Have Been Central to Republicans’ Agenda to Reduce Government Spending

Among the lingering effects of state budget reductions during the 2008 Great Recession have been widespread drops in teachers’ overall compensation. Although some states and local school districts do their part to pay their teachers fairly, and some provide the fringe benefits such professionals should expect, overall according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, “teachers are paid less (in wages and compensation) than other college-educated workers with similar experience.”  And, “(T)his financial penalty discourages college students from entering the teaching profession.”

Our economy has now entered another recession due to layoffs and business closures during COVID-19, and without further federal relief to states, teachers are likely once again to be the victims.

All summer and through September, U.S. Senate Republicans have refused to negotiate with House Democrats, who passed their bid for a second coronavirus relief bill, the HEROES Act, on May 15.  Until this past weekend, it looked as though Congress would recess until after the election without the Senate’s agreeing even to take up the bill for consideration.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House negotiator Steve Mnuchin returned to discussions last week, but until the President became ill with COVID-19 over the weekend, it looked as though progress had broken down. The President’s infection by COVID-19 and indications that the economy will continue to lag have, apparently, brought Pelosi and Mnuchin back to the table over the weekend, and have also made Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus more amenable to further federal investment.  A relief package is needed to help the unemployed, to strengthen SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, and to help states avoid catastrophic budget cuts like those that have continued to depress school funding more than a decade after the 2008 recession.

The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein reported late Friday on what appears to have been a turnaround in the negotiations once the President became ill with COVID-19: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she anticipates striking a bipartisan economic relief deal with the Trump administration, suggesting that the president’s coronavirus diagnosis could speed up an agreement… Democrats had sought a $2.2 trillion package, while the White House’s most recent offer was closer to $1.6 trillion… The pace of talks—and the possibility of a deal—have picked up markedly in recent days… The U.S. economy plunged sharply into a recession earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic led many companies and employers to lay off workers and temporarily close.  The economy recovered a bit during the summer, but it has shown signs of lagging in recent weeks…. In a sign that a deal could be emerging, Mnuchin told at least one Republican senator in a phone call Thursday night that the agreement with Pelosi would include a substantial amount of money for state and local governments, a provision numerous conservative Republican senators have strongly resisted….”

However, after the President was hospitalized and three U.S. Senators tested positive for COVID-19, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he is recessing regular sessions of the Senate until October 19 to protect the health of the members. His decision puts the future of a further COVID-19 relief bill in question.

Why does a second federal relief package matter to states and to their public school districts? First of all, state budgets are lagging in the current recession, but, by law, states are prohibited from running deficits. Further, the effects of the 2008 recession still linger in many states. And, as school funding expert, Mark Weber explains, “Fiscal relief for states is fiscal relief for schools.” Weber continues: “Historically, federal revenues accounted for between 7 to 13 percent of total K-12 funding…. The biggest sources of funding for K-12 schools have been state and local revenue… (E)ach accounts for about half of the remainder after separating out federal funding. Of course, that varies considerably from state to state… But even in the states where districts rely the least on state funding—Missouri, Nebraska and New Hampshire—state funding still accounts for a third of revenues. In the majority of states, half or more of all revenues for schools come from the states themselves. Funding schools is actually one of the primary fiscal activities of the states.”

The Senate’s refusal to negotiate all summer with House Democrats reflects a much larger problem in economic and political ideology, however.  In Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, a new book exploring a growing trend of politicians’ lack of willingness to support federal and state constitutional responsibilities, Derek Black contends that states’ response to the 2008 recession exposed something deeper than the precipitous drop in state tax receipts when the housing market collapsed. What if, as the U.S. Senate has shown us this summer, political leaders are giving up on building the public will to support civic institutions like the public schools which have defined our society for more than 200 years?

Black explains: “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.”  But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(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)

By refusing even to negotiate with Speaker Pelosi all summer long, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican majority have appeared committed to neglecting public purpose and public responsibility in their refusal to raise the federal deficit (despite their giant 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations).

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Robert Greenstein enumerated several basic responsibilities the Senate has seemed determined to abandon by refusing to negotiate: “If policymakers can’t agree on a package… the coming months will be much more difficult for many individuals and families across the country, for numerous small businesses, and for the economy as a whole… (J)oblessness remains high, with job losses concentrated among workers without a college degree… Some 35 million people including 9 million children, are unemployed or live with an unemployed family member… Compounding these concerns, state and local revenues have fallen from pre-pandemic levels even as states and localities face large new pandemic-related costs, leaving them with gaping budget holes. As of August, about 1.1 million public-sector workers had lost their jobs since February…. A number of states have indicated that without substantial relief soon, they will institute more and deeper cuts… In addition, the package would raise the maximum SNAP (food stamp) benefit, which is particularly important for the lowest-income households since they were left out of an earlier increase… The package would also temporarily expand… important refundable tax credits.  It would make the full $2,000 Child Tax Credit available to poor and low-income children, who now get a partial credit or none at all because their incomes are too low… It boosts Medicaid funding to help cash-strapped states cope with rising caseloads and costs and avoid cutting health benefits. And it includes important public health funding to help combat the pandemic more effectively.” If Congress fails to approve a deal, the real worry as some states have, over more than a decade, chosen to avoid facing the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, is that those problems will be compounded once again, as states are forced to ratchet down spending.

In mid-September, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showed the long term effects of the kind of government stinginess we see in too many states and which we have watched this summer in the U.S. Senate’s refusal to consider continued federal relief. Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel released their annual report on the long-term teacher pay penalty which is making it hard in too many states to attract enough college students into teacher preparation programs and making it difficult for states to hire enough quality teachers.  After the Red4Ed wave of strikes and walkouts across the states—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona and other states and cities—in 2018-2019, some states at least temporarily made teachers’ salaries and benefits fairer last year.  But the compensation gap between teachers and other professionals remains sizeable.

Allegretto and Mishel explain:”The teacher wage penalty has grown substantially since the mid-1990s… The regression-adjusted teaching wage penalty was 6.0% in 1996.  In 2019, the penalty was 19.2%..”

They continue: “The wage premium that women teachers experienced in the 1960s and the 1970s has been replaced by a significant wage penalty… (W)omen teachers enjoyed a 14.7% wage premium in 1960…. In 2019, women teachers were earning 13.2% less in weekly  wages than their nonteaching counterparts…. The wage penalty for men in teaching is much larger than it is for women… and it too has worsened considerably. The teacher wage penalty for men was 16.6% in 1979.  In 2019, male teachers earned 30.2% less than similar male college graduates who chose a different profession. This explains, to a large degree, why only one in four teachers are men.”

Have rising benefits compensated for the large teacher pay penalty? “While teacher wage penalties have worsened over time, some of the increase may be attributable to a tradeoff school districts make between pay and benefits.” But, “The benefits advantage of teachers has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty…  The bottom line is that the teacher total compensation penalty grew by 7.5 percentage points from 1993 to 2019.”

Finally Allegretto and Mishel conclude: “The teacher wage penalty exceeds 20% in 21 states and in the District of Columbia… In no state, on average, does the relative wage of teachers surpass that of other college graduates. These inequities must be addressed if we are to ensure that the brightest, most highly skilled professionals are at the head of each and every classroom, and to retain experienced teachers in the mix.”

In his new book, Derek Black explains how growing attacks on schoolteachers over the past decade have been an integral part of the larger far-right attack on government spending and public purpose: “Conservatives who believed the unions had too much political power teamed with education reformers who thought the teaching profession needed an overhaul. Government leaders looking to shrink public investments were eager to listen. The recession provided a perfect opportunity and justification for scaling back teachers’ salaries, rights, and political influence… Across the nation, states made major changes to teachers’ collective bargaining agreements, salary structures, overall benefits, and teaching expectations without giving teachers anything in return.” In Wisconsin, after Governor Scott Walker passed legislation attacking public sector collective bargaining in 2011, “Teacher compensation took a direct hit too, decreasing by 8.2 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Within four years, it fell even more—a whopping $10,843 from teachers’ paychecks and benefits disappeared.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 42-43.”

Let’s hope that Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell will deliver a relief package which will at least help prevent states from being forced to cut teachers’ salaries further.  And in the longer term, it will be essential to turn around the  ideological attack on public schools. They are at the heart of our nation’s promise of opportunity for our children.

Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part 2

On Monday, this blog examined Derek Black’s important new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, threads together the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history, but persistently revived: that our system of public schools, where all children are welcome and where their fundamental right to education is protected by law, is the one institution most essential for preserving our democratic society.

Monday’s post explored  Black’s history of that idea which has animated our society’s durable support for public education for more than 200 years. Today’s post will examine challenges in today’s ideological and political climate which Black believes threaten the very idea of public schooling. His book is a history of the constitutional protection of public schools—federally throughout our nation’s history and over time embedded in every one of the state constitutions. Can these laws and the principles they articulate protect public schools today?  Black explains:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can… protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

“Education reformers,” Black writes, “do not state their agenda as an attack on public education or students’ rights. Their pitch is gentler. They say public schools already have enough resources; they just need to spend what they have more wisely.  Or the problem is not low teacher salaries but tenure and ineffective teaching. They say charter schools and vouchers offer the common man the chance to escape a flawed public education system and trade it for something else… Those who would deprive individuals of that choice are the ones who are antidemocratic and elitist, they say.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 18)

Derek Black names several problems at the heart of today’s threat to public education: the expansion of school privatization via charters and vouchers, massive fortunes invested by far-right libertarians to attack so-called ‘government schools,’ attacks on school teachers and their unions, and persistent tax cutting by state legislatures and the consequent ratcheting down of state funding for public education:  “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.”  But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(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)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Black explains that over the same decade: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 34-36)

Again, equity and racial justice were compromised: “The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have suffered only modest privatization. Their public school systems, for the most part, do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: large percentages of African American students and, save one state, their public schools are facing deep privatization forces.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 239)

All during the recent decade, the federal government’s education policy has also promoted school privatization. During the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos’s efforts to promote vouchers, her lifelong cause, have been well known. But the effort has been bipartisan: “Obama… tapped Arne Duncan… someone whose track record in Chicago involved substantially expanding charters… For the next several years, the federal government promoted and sometimes forced charter school expansion… The Obama administration basically condoned everything states were doing with school funding and made it a little worse. Federal funding for public schools remained flat while the federal budget for charter schools increased by nearly 20 percent between 2008 and 2013.  President Obama called for another 50 percent increase for charters on top of that in 2016 (though he didn’t get it).  The real surprise, though, is how much Duncan managed to accomplish through administrative action… His biggest coup was the process he set up for doling out innovation funds during the recession. As part of the economic recovery legislation, Congress had set aside a substantial chunk of money for education innovation but didn’t specify exactly what schools could spend it on. Duncan, however, told states that if they wanted access to the money, charter schools had to be part of the mix. States that ‘put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools,’ he said, ‘will jeopardize their grant applications.’… The overall result of these state and federal actions was stark—nearly 40 percent growth in the number of charter schools and 200 percent growth in their enrollment.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 36-37)

Derek Black identifies the Red4Ed teacher walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 as the greatest symbol of hope that the idea of American public schooling can survive: “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public about what had happened to public education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade… And it happened in the most unlikely of places—in deep Republican country, in nonunion states, and in the South, not in bastions of liberalism or pro-labor sentiment… The first teacher strike was in West Virginia in 2018… The second teacher walkout was in Kentucky… After that, the protests and walkouts jumped westward to Oklahoma and Arizona… From there, major protests seemed to pop up every month in every place imaginable… Colorado, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington.” Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)

Derek Black concludes his new book positively by reminding readers of America’s education idea, which has survived since 1787: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself…. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Biden and Democrats Turn Away from Two Decades of Test-Based Public School Accountability and Privatization

Joe Biden’s education plan and the Democratic Platform on education this year should be recognized as a significant development. Biden’s plan embodies something new for Democrats—a turn away from two decades when Democrats bought into neoliberal experimentation in education. Biden supports expanding opportunity for children through better federal funding of public schools and at the same time curtailing abuses in charter schools.

This blog will take a short end of summer break.  Look for a new post Wednesday, September 9.

Donald Trump’s stance on education has not changed. For four years, the President has been endorsing marketplace school choice—code language for the expansion of school privatization at public expense. As a candidate for reelection, Trump merely says he will go on trying to expand marketplace school choice if he wins a second term. He and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos endorse the continuation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Trump and DeVos are also pushing a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit program they got got someone to introduce into both the House and Senate as “The School Choice Now Act.” This is the same  Education Freedom Scholarship Program DeVos has inserted year after year into  the President’s proposed federal budget. Every year Congress has made sure that it didn’t make it into the final appropriations bill as passed. While the President says he will push school choice—more charters and an expansion of tuition tax credit school vouchers to pay for private school tuition—he never mentions the public schools except for demanding that they reopen as the vehicle for getting parents back to work.

But for Democrats, the direction of education policy seems finally to have shifted.  Shifted in a very positive direction.

Some History: Two Decades of Education “Reform”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted by Congress with bipartisan support in 2001 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  In NCLB, Democrats and Republicans collaborated on an omnibus law designed to hold teachers and schools accountable for ever-rising standardized test scores. The law was designed to “incentivize” teachers and school administrators to work harder and smarter and push kids harder.  All schools were expected to make “adequate yearly progress” until all students posted proficient scores by 2014. Schools that couldn’t raise scores quickly were to be punished, and the punishments included the idea that so called “failing” public schools could be “improved” by turning them over to private operators of charter schools. It was assumed that private management would, through business principles, more efficiently and more cheaply drive improvements in school performance.

Then in 2008, when Biden was serving as Vice President, President Barack Obama chose Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary. Duncan, a Chicago basketball buddy of the President, had managed Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, an early neoliberal “portfolio school reform” plan in which a school district commits to managing public and charter schools alike as though they are a business portfolio—shedding the bad investments (as measured by aggregate standardized test scores) and expanding the number of high-scoring schools.  The plan spawned the growth of Chicago’s privatized charter sector and culminated several years after Duncan left in the closure, in 2013, of 50 traditional public schools, most of them in the poorest Black and Brown neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides. Whole neighborhoods were left without neighborhood public schools to anchor them.  Children traveled across the city for a school choice program which did not turn out to have transformed school achievement. In 2009, when he became U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan set out to impose neoliberal education theory nationally in programs like Race to the Top and a large Office of Innovation and Improvement charged with spawning the startup of local charter schools and the expansion of charter school management companies.  We now know that NCLB and Duncan’s policies didn’t make all children proficient.  When, as the 2014 deadline loomed and the list of so-called failing schools grew too long, Duncan created waivers to let states off the hook, but he still tried to use test scores to evaluate and punish teachers.

Joe Biden and Other Democrats Now Look to a New Direction

As a candidate for President, Joe Biden has turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration.  Education Week‘s Evie Blad recently described the change in educational philosophy: “Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from (Obama), that self-described supporter of education reform.  Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top Grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.  By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration.  Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.”

Jill Biden was a public high school English teacher before Biden became Vice President. During the Bidens’ eight years in Washington, she taught in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. During the Democratic Convention, Jill Biden addressed the nation from her former high school classroom in Wilmington, Delaware.  Many people believe Biden’s turn toward strengthening traditional public schools instead of following the neoliberal Obama-Duncan agenda is due to his wife’s commitment, and, of course, Jill has very likely played a role.  But last December, when seven of the Democratic candidates for President addressed the MSNBC-televised forum in Pittsburgh, almost all of them had turned away from the test-and-punish and pro-privatization policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Biden was not alone in refocusing the conversation around the desperate needs of the nation’s public schools.

Democrats have been paying attention.  A wave of statewide teachers strikes beginning in West Virginia and moving through Kentucky and Oklahoma in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated the school funding collapse lingering in too many states a decade after the Great Recession. And when the strikes moved to cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, we all learned about huge class sizes and outrageous caseloads for school counselors. Like the rest of us, Joe Biden and other Democrats learned about schools without nurses and schools with shuttered libraries. Democrats paid attention when they heard that school districts in Oklahoma and some California cities pay so little they cannot hold onto teachers from year to year—school districts where salaries are so low that teachers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the district in which they teach. Research studies began to show (see here and here) that the growth of school privatization is draining the budgets of local school districts where charters have expanded and vouchers are sending money to pay private school tuition, often for children who have always attended private and religious schools and never attended the public school losing money to the vouchers.  Reports (here, here, and here) have surfaced about widespread fraud in charter schools, the high rate of instability as charters shut down sometimes mid-school year, and punitive discipline programs that violate students’ rights in unregulated private and charter schools.

Today Democrats have a better understanding of what it means for children and families that private voucher schools are not regulated by law and that state legislators designing charter school enabling legislation cared more about experimenting and innovating than protecting students’ rights. Like the rest of us, Democrats can think of real life examples when we read this warning from the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “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)

Maybe Democrats have also paid attention to a book by Chris Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, and his wife, Sarah, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  In 2014, the Lubienskis published a book reporting on their research showing a public school advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experience in the home… (A)fter further investigation and more targeted analysis, the results held up.  And they held up (or were more ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming.  That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices….” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, p. xvii)

Biden’s 2020 Public Education Plan

Today Joe Biden and other Democrats are responding to the growing evidence that the past two decades of test-based school accountability and experiments with neoliberal school privatization have not accomplished what was originally promised. Today millions of the nation’s poorest children continue to be left behind. Biden has released an education plan which sets out to improve the public schools which serve 90 percent of America’s children and prioritizes equity in the public schools.  Biden’s plan promises that if Biden is elected, he will ensure the federal government: “Invests in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.'” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

2020 Democratic Platform on Public Education

And Biden is not merely some kind of maverick among Democrats. There has been a significant turn across the Democratic Party, which has left test-based accountability and school privatization behind. The Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles as its educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been
neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Roughly six in 10 jobs require at least some education beyond high school, and yet the ever-rising cost of college tuition and fees leaves higher education out of reach—or saddles students with a lifetime of debt… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee every child can receive a great education. To this end, we support K-12 instruction in civics and climate literacy. We will support evidence-based programs and pedagogical approaches, including assessments that consider the well-being of the whole student and recognize the range of ways students can demonstrate learning. We will reimagine our education system guided by the stakeholders and qualified, first-class, well-trained, passionate educators who know these issues best: young people, educators, parents, and community leaders. Democrats fundamentally believe our education system should prepare all our students—indeed, all of us—for college, careers, lifelong learning, and to be informed, engaged citizens of our communities, our country, and our planet.”

Second Judge Blocks Flow of CARES Act Dollars to Private Schools. Will Public Schools Ever See the Money Congress Intended for Them?

While the Republican Party announced the themes of the Republican Convention—“Monday is ‘Land of Promise,’ Tuesday is ‘Land of Opportunity,’ Wednesday is ‘Land of Heroes’ and Thursday is ‘Land of Greatness.'”—the Convention instead dramatized a very old theme: the difference between appearance and reality.  Producers, including people from The Apprentice, put together a spectacular show draped in flags. Their purpose: to distract, distort, and dissemble.

The Convention hardly touched on education policy. But last night in his acceptance speech, the President claimed he will “expand charter schools and provide school choice for every family in America.” Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Tim Scott, (R-SC) also extolled school choice as the future of education, even as, ironically, President Trump himself and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are demanding that the nation’s 90,000 public schools reopen as the only path to getting America’s parents back to work. Trump and DeVos certainly haven’t been counting on their favorite patchwork of charter schools and private schools to accomplish their systemic goal. The convention’s primary education speaker, Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in an anti-teachers union case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, not surprisingly, attacked teachers unions. Although she claimed that the unions “are subverting our republic, so they undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order,” you will remember that instead a wave of #Red4Ed strikes during 2018-2019 pushed states like West Virginia and Oklahoma to increase school funding at least a little bit and forced Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago to address unreasonable conditions including class sizes of 40 students and a dearth of school counselors in public schools serving concentrations of our nation’s poorest students.

While the Republicans held their convention, Betsy DeVos herself wasn’t having such a good week. She was left off the Convention agenda, and on Tuesday, the Savannah Morning News reported that she visited a reopened public school in Forsyth County, Georgia, where she made a speech: “I think it’s been good that schools are committed to reopening… I know there have been a couple of schools that have had more incidences of students with the virus.  The CDC has been very helpful in providing a lot of information and recommendations for how to go about going back to school., and we highly suggest referencing them.” The newspaper countered DeVos’s comment with an analysis by Georgia State University public health professor, Dr. Harry J. Heiman: “According to the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, we are the second worst state in the country for coronavirus transmission… To suggest that not having a mask mandate is a responsible approach, especially for older students, reflects Secretary DeVos’ lack of understanding about both CDC guidelines and the measures necessary to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

And on Monday, a Florida judge blocked a requirement announced on July 6 by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that public schools reopen five days a week for any families who do not opt for virtual learning.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that Corcoran threatened any districts refusing to reopen with a loss of state funding.  Trump and DeVos’s pressure on governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, has in this case created confusion just as schools are trying to manage the complexities of educating children in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic.  Strauss quotes Orange County school board member Karen Castor Dentel: “We were under threat of losing our funding and forced to develop models that are illogical and not based on what’s best for kids.  But we had to go forward…. I wish the ruling came sooner.  Not just that our kids are back in school but in the whole planning stages.  We were planning another model that was developmentally and educationally sound and we had to scrap that.”  And to add more confusion: DeSantis says he intends to appeal the judge’s ruling.

But the most important public education news is that the second judge this week has now blocked Betsy DeVos’s binding guidance that drove school districts to set aside more than expected federal CARES Act dollars for private schools.

Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “A federal judge in California on Wednesday halted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ effort to boost emergency coronavirus relief for private school students. The court ruling blocks DeVos from implementing or enforcing her rule in at least eight states and some of the nation’s largest public school districts. The secretary’s policy requires public school districts  to send a greater share of their CARES Act… pandemic assistance funding to private school students than is typically required under federal law.  U.S. District Judge James Donato’s order prevents DeVos from carrying out her policy in a large swath of the country: Michigan, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia as well as for public school districts in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco.”

Just last Friday, another federal judge in Washington state, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, issued a similar preliminary injunction blocking Betsy DeVos’s binding guidance that federal CARES Act dollars be diverted from the public schools serving poor children to cover the educational needs of students in private schools regardless of the private school students’ family income.

In the statutory language of the CARES Act, Congress directed that CARES Act public education relief be distributed in accordance with the method of the Title I Formula, which awards federal funds to supplement educational programming in public school districts serving concentrations of low-income children. Public school districts receiving Title I dollars are also expected to provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within their district boundaries. In the binding guidance she imposed in July, DeVos demanded that per-pupil CARES Act relief for private schools be based on each private school’s full enrollment, not merely on the number of the private school students who qualify for additional services because their families are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa elaborates on the meaning of Betsy DeVos’s binding rule, whose enforcement two federal district court judges have now blocked: “The Education Department’s interim final rule, publicized in June and formally issued in July, pushes school districts to reserve money under the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus stimulus plan, for services to all local private school students, irrespective of their backgrounds. That represents a major departure from how education law typically governs that arrangement, in which federal money for what’s known as ‘equitable services’ goes to disadvantaged, at-risk private school students.”

Stratford explores what this week’s court rulings will mean: “The pair of rulings amounts to a major setback for DeVos as she seeks to oversee the roughly $16 billion pot of emergency assistance Congress laid out for K-12 schools in the CARES Act in March… The Trump administration argues that it has the authority to create policy dictating public distribution of the funding to private school students because the CARES Act is ambiguous on that point.  But the two judges disagree… Donato ruled that DeVos’ policy is likely to be struck down because she lacks the legal authority to impose her own conditions on coronavirus relief funding for K-12 schools. The judge said Congress’ intent ‘is plain as day’ for how CARES Act funding should be distributed to schools. The judge also said the coronavirus relief law ‘unambiguously’ instructs the funding to be distributed to private school students in the typical manner under federal law based on the number of low-income students.”

For good reason, public school districts are celebrating these two court decisions blocking DeVos’s action to assist private schools at public school expense. But many serious questions remain. The money Congress awarded last March was supposed to enhance learning opportunities for low income students as schools suddenly shut down. The Cares Act relief is the only federal coronavirus assistance Congress has passed for school districts, and the assumption has been that any dollars left from last spring would help school districts plan for this fall. How much of the money that was sent to private schools has already been spent? Is it even possible to recover all of the funding the judges now say was illegally sent to private schools? How much can be recovered for the public school districts that desperately need it?

Both Judge Rothstein in Washington state and Judge Donato in California blocked enforcement of DeVos’ binding guidance with preliminary injunctions while litigation proceeds. How long will further court deliberations delay the resolution of the issue?  Will these cases move through the courts in time for school districts to use the money for safely opening schools this fall?  Will Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education appeal any final federal court decision if it invalidates the rule she issued in July?  If courts eventually throw out DeVos’s rule in the states and school districts represented in these cases, will DeVos’s binding guidance eventually stop being enforced for other states and districts? Schools need money now to reconfigure ventilation systems and hire additional required bus drivers to add bus routes for the purpose of keeping buses less crowded.  And they need additional federal assistance to prevent the layoffs of teachers, counselors, and special education aides right now as state allocations for school funding  are collapsing in the recession.

In this Republican Convention week, as President Trump and Mike Pence formally launched their campaign for a second term, the Trump administration has politicized and failed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that we all know children would benefit from being in class, in-person with with their teachers and their peers, public schools in most places are opening on-line only, because the virus is uncontained.  Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education have created confusion about the availability of CARES Act relief, and the Trump administration and the Republican U.S. Senate have shown no propensity to provide added federal assistance unless school districts agree to reopen in-person for the fall semester.

While Republicans threw a splashy party this week to distract, distort and dissemble, most public schools remain closed and Trump administration policy is chaotic and confused.