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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciating the Public Schools We Take for Granted

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

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

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

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

Appreciating Teachers in these Fraught Times

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

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

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

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

Appreciating Public Institutions Against the Threat of School Privatization

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

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

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

Appreciating Learning in a Public School Setting

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

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

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

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

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

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

Here are just two examples of this research.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Has Historians’ Understanding of American History Evolved and What Does that Mean for Today’s Public School History Classes?

If we hadn’t noticed it before, surely in recent weeks filled with angry protests at school board meetings about so-called “Critical Race Theory” we have become aware of a considerable disparity between the ideals declared in our nation’s founding documents and the realities recounted by major historians. There seems to be widespread disagreement among parents about what students ought to be learning at school about the unsavory parts of American history. Does this mean that parents can define our history according to what they may themselves have been taught and then insist that public schools teach each parent’s version?

In an extraordinary article yesterday, the editor of the NY Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein explores changes over the decades in the way historians have told the story of our nation. Silverstein examines “the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them. This conception denies history its own history—the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed. The study of this is known as historiography, and a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.”

Silverstein summarizes some of this historiography, beginning with George Bancroft whose 10 volumes from the mid-1800s “synthesize American history into a grand and glorious epic.” Then came the Progressive historians including Charles Beard, “who tried to show that the founders were motivated not exclusively by idealism and virtue but also by their pocketbooks.”  What followed during the Cold War was history written by the Consensus historians who who “played down class conflict” and sought to emphasize “a keen sense of national purpose” and “to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative.”

The 1960s brought a shift that has helped shape the way historians interpret our history today: “A group of scholars identified variously as Neo Progressive historians, New Left historians, or social historians challenged the old paradigm, turning their focus to the lives of common people in colonial society and U.S. history more broadly. Earlier generations primarily studied elites, who left a copious archive of written material. Because the subjects of the new history—laborers, seamen, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people—produced relatively little writing of their own, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets like tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of what were sometimes called the ‘inarticulate masses’…. An explosion of new research resulted, transforming the field of American history. One of the most significant developments was an increased attention to Black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a profession dominated by white men had mostly consigned these subjects to the sidelines.”

Gaining academic attention at the same time was a hundred years of history by African American historians—George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, Benjamin Quarles, Deborah Gray White, Annette Gordon-Reed, Nathan Irvin Huggins and others—whose work had been too little read or recognized.

What has emerged since the original publishing in 2019 of The 1619 Project, followed by the Trump era rebuttal in the form of the 1776 Commission, is this year’s maelstrom with parents protesting public schools’ teaching anything that seeks to divide. Today’s battle reflects the historiographical divides Silverstein summarizes—between those who would have schools teach America’s exceptional story as the embodiment of liberty and justice for all and others who believe children should learn about the realities that historical studies have been documenting for the past half century.

A member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Thomas Suddes challenges those who today insist that we teach our children that the United States has always been the perfect exemplar of our founding ideals of freedom and justice: “Those ‘authentic founding principles’ may not exactly resonate with African American Ohioans: Forty-one or so of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence had owned slaves. About 25 of the 55 delegates who wrote the U.S. Constitution were slave owners. And the Constitution counted slaves as three fifths of a person…. Moreover, of the nation’s first 12 presidents, the only two never to own slaves were John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams… And—oh yes—the Ohio Constitution of 1802 forbade Black Ohioans to vote.”

Jake Silverstein believes that honest exploration of American history by public school students and their teachers does not, as many parents fear, mean we should all be ashamed.  Neither does our history, including all of its injustices, mean that our nation has utterly failed to fulfill the promise of the ideals and moral principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  These documents set a high standard toward which our society has struggled:

“Devotion to the traditional origin story of the United States, and the hostile reaction that has greeted nearly every attempt to revise it, have prevented generations of Americans from learning how to accept this fundamental contradiction at our core — the painful twinning of slavery and democracy that began as far back as the summer of 1619. But as we have seen, in a democratic nation, history does not stand still. As our country has moved forward from its imperfect beginnings, haltingly expanding its audacious promise to enfranchise more and more of us, our history has transformed behind us, rearranging itself as the advance of our founding principles enables us to see more of our American ancestors as having had a legitimate, recoverable perspective on the events of their own day.”

The history of the expansion of the right to public schooling—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents and the state constitutions—provides an excellent example of how the ideals and principles declared in our founding documents established a level of moral obligation which our society has over generations worked to realize.  Since the mid- nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of this struggle:

  • to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil war, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled;
  • to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools;
  • to ensure that African American students  would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track and to expand the possibility for women, African Americans, and immigrants of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them;
  • to ensure that American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have won the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture;
  • to protect the right to a safe and respectful education for LGBTQ students;
  • to protect the right of disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and not to be excluded into sheltered classes.
  • to protect the rights of immigrant students, in some states at least, to bilingual education;  and
  • to protect undocumented students’ right right to a K-12 public education.

The fight for justice in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for every one of our children the very equality promised in the founding documents. Of course, none of this is guaranteed, which means that the struggle to make equality mean something real for all students is a work in progress and a battle that is too frequently interrupted.

Number of Homeless Public School Students Tops 101,000 in New York City

Advocates for Children of New York just reported that “more than 101,000 New York City students experienced homelessness in 2020-21.” The NYC public schools serve over a million students, and the number of homeless students is, once again this year, approximately 10 percent of the district’s student population. “Last year marked the sixth consecutive school year that more than 100,000 New York City students experienced homelessness.”

Advocates for Children describes homeless students’ living conditions in New York City: “Last year, as the pandemic raged and most students continued to learn remotely, nearly 28,000 of them did so while living in New York City’s shelters, and approximately 65,000 lived ‘doubled-up’ with friends or family, staying temporarily with others in overcrowded housing.  An additional 3,860 students were unsheltered last year, living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings. While the total number of students identified as homeless was 9% lower than in 2019-20, some of this decline is likely attributable to the drop in overall public school enrollment (3.3%),  as well as the difficulty schools experienced identifying students whose housing situation changed while they were learning remotely.”

It is hard for most of us to grasp the challenges for a school district struggling to serve such a large group of students experiencing poverty and homelessness.  As we consider the logistical issues, we can better grasp why concentrated poverty is such an enormous barrier to student achievement.  A longer report and set of recommendations for New York City’s Mayor-Elect Eric Adams exposes the implications of student homelessness for academic engagement: “Even before the pandemic, students experiencing homelessness—85% of whom are Black or Hispanic—faced tremendous obstacles to success in school.  For example, in 2019, only 29% of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers, and only 61% of students who were homeless graduated high school in four years, 18 percentage points lower than students who are permanently housed.”

Thirty-nine New York City organizations joined Advocates for Children last week to release a set of recommendations for improving coordination of services for children and adolescents whose families are homeless.  The report begins with the recommendation that Mayor-Elect Adams should pull together an interagency initiative to manage the problem—including the City’s Department of Education, Department of Homeless Services, Human Resources Administration, Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Here is the list of recommendations that follow:

  • “Improve school attendance… During the pandemic, students in shelter had strikingly low attendance, significantly lower than any other group of students…
  • “Increase shelter placements closer to where children attend school. The City places more than 40% of families in a shelter in a different borough from their child’s school. This practice leads to long commutes, unnecessary school transfers, school absences, and barriers to participation in after-school and sports activities…
  • “Revamp city, shelter, and social service agency protocols and policies to take into account the educational needs of children… The average length of stay in shelter spans two school years… The City should… revisit policies that have a harmful impact on children. For example, the lengthy and burdensome shelter eligibility process that can take weeks to complete often results in children missing school and experiencing added instability and trauma…
  • “Bridge the digital divide. During the pandemic, many students in shelter could not access remote learning because their shelters did not have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception for the iPads provided by the Department of Education…. While the City finally installed WiFi in family shelters, the City will need to maintain connectivity and ensure it is sufficient for students to participate in online learning….
  • “Improve access to academic and social-emotional support… For example, as the Department of Education develops plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funding for supplemental programming, the City must prioritize students who are homeless….
  • “Increase access to early childhood education and services… The City should work to increase enrollment among children who are homeless in early childhood education programs, including 3-K, Pre-K, EarlyLearn, Head Start, and preschool special education programs…
  • “Improve access to special education services… Thirty percent of students in shelter have Individualized Education Programs entitling them to special education services…. But research shows that NYC students who are homeless receive IEPs later than permanently housed students, missing out on services during the early years….
  • “Improve language access for families and supports for English Language Learners… The City should ensure that families who are homeless receive school-related documents and information in their primary language and have access to translation and interpretation… (and) ensure that English Language Learners who are homeless get the language instruction and the support they have the right to receive…
  • “Expand opportunities for students who are homeless to participate in after-school and summer programs…  Many students who are homeless attend schools far from where they live, but bus service is available only at the end of the school day—not following after-school programs… In addition, students who switch school mid-year may find that the after-school program at their new school or near their new temporary housing is already fully subscribed. The City should take steps to address these barriers….”

Advocates for Children and the coalition it has assembled emphasize one final recommendation as urgently important: “Ensure every shelter has staff qualified and equipped to support students’ educational needs starting by hiring 150 shelter-based Department of Education community coordinators… Currently there are 117 Department of Education Family Assistants assigned to help families in shelter, a number that has not grown over the past decade even though the number of school-aged children in shelter has increased by thousands of students, and Family Assistants must divide their time between multiple shelter sites. The Family Assistant title is a very low-paying position ($28,000 for 10 months), making it hard to recruit and retain staff who have the skills needed to help families navigate NYC’s complex school system.”

In the nation’s largest school district, there are no quick or easy solutions to managing the needs of 101,000 children whose families lack stable housing.

Glenn Youngkin’s Campaign in Virginia Was about Something Sinister, Not about Public Education

If you listen to the national news on CNN or PBS or the networks, you have been told how shocking it was that public education became a hot issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race.  These newscasters, who rarely cover statewide news and were reporting on the Virginia election as a national bell weather, seemed surprised that public school policy had caught voters’ attention. In fact, public schooling is regularly an issue when candidates run for state legislatures or governor. Usually a third or more of a state’s budget pays for the public schools, and most public education policy is made by state legislators and administered by governors according to the principles defined in the 50 state constitutions.

But what was unusual in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia is that it was not really about the state’s public schools, despite that there was some discussion in both his and Terry McAuliffe’s campaigns about the funding of the state’s schools.

As more and more commentators are taking the trouble to explain, Youngkin’s campaign was instead a tissue of dog whistle appeals to racism, the culmination of a months’ long strategy by policy think tanks to redefine an arcane academic term, “Critical Race Theory” for the purpose of provoking fear among white, Republican parents.

The truth is that far-right groups are inflaming parents with an artificially constructed argument that public school teachers and curriculum directors are trying to make white children anxious or guilty or ashamed.  In June, The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identified Christopher Rufo as a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight.”

More recently the National Education Policy Center documented that Rufo is, in fact, a well-paid fellow of the Manhattan Institute: “The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-Critical Race Theory narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’”

The National Education Policy Center traces the work aimed at inspiring this year’s controversy about Critical Race Theory to particular think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.  Well funded groups working to galvanize parents include Parents Defending Education,  Moms for LibertyNo Left Turn in Education,  FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education.

In a column in yesterday’s NY Times, political strategists Tory Gavito and Adam Jentleson analyze what happened Tuesday in Virginia’s election for governor: “The Virginia election results should shock Democrats into confronting the powerful role that racially coded attacks play in American politics. No candidate would think of entering an election without a winning message on the economy or health care. Yet by failing to counter his opponent’s racial dog whistles, Terry McAuliffe did the equivalent, finding himself defenseless against a strategy Republicans have used to win elections for decades. Crucially, the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, was able to use racially coded attacks to motivate sky-high white turnout… (T)he past half-century of American political history shows that racially coded attacks are how Republicans have been winning elections… from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign to Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad.  Many of these campaigns were masterminded by the strategist Lee Atwater, who in 1981 offered a blunt explanation: Being overtly racist backfires, he noted, ‘so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.’  C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory) is straight out of the Atwater playbook.”

It is rare for me to agree wholeheartedly with Frederick Hess, a neoliberal corporate school reformer who supported No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, who bought into Race to the Top, and who supports the expansion of charter schools. But today, Hess’s analysis of Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race is persuasive.  Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson describes Hess’s concerns:

“Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks one of McAuliffe’s fatal blunders was to avoid forthrightly addressing the issue of critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives including teacher-bias trainings. McAuliffe should have told parents that he wants to ensure every kid feels valued and learns the country’s true history,  Hess said — but McAuliffe should have made clear that does not mean letting interest groups or ideologues shape public school curriculums. ‘That would have lanced the boil in a very powerful way, and they could have reset the conversation…. If Democrats start making those decisions and articulating those arguments, I think this could all turn out to be a post-Trump fever and it breaks…. But if Democrats can’t bring themselves to do that… I think this could very well build to a head of steam in 2024.”

This blog has covered the controversy about Critical Race Theory here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”

Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. A mob isn’t supposed to attack Congress to overturn the routine approval of the vote count in a Presidential election, and mobs of angry parents are not supposed to appear at local school board meetings trying to bully the school board to censor the books in classrooms or make teachers leave out the history of slavery or omit the theory of evolution.

I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But even I can tell that something weird is brewing when a right-wing PAC, The Conservative Action Project, sends an alert, Conservatives Urge Every Parent To Attend Their School Board Meetings in Defiance of the FBI, signed by a long list of people including attorneys like former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Trump defender Cleta Mitchell, demanding that parents attend local school board meetings to defy the FBI and demonstrate their First Amendment rights. Of course this action alert is carefully framed to ask parents “to use their rights to speak, to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws, to engage in dialogue with elected school boards,” but the Conservative Action Project message to parents is a response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s threat to involve the FBI when school board members are threatened with violence or outshouted and unable to do their work in the context of rude and violent parent protests.

Then there is last week’s bizarre Wall Street Journal commentary* by Philip Hamburger, a libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal organization which describes itself this way: “NCLA views the administrative state as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.” (*The link is to Diane Ravitch’s reprinting of this column, because the original is paywalled.)

Hamburger makes the following argument, based on his interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, for direct parental control of the curriculum in public schools and for finding public education itself unconstitutional because parents’ free speech rights are being violated: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.”

Here is the response of journalist, Jennifer Berkshire and education historian, Jack Schneider: “(O)ne might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents… When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular world view denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least to entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently.”

Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board spoke up for the rights of children themselves and the importance to the public of students who have developed critical thinking skills: “Allowing one parent—or a group of parents—to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content.  Everyone—parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as politicians—needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.”

Education historian, Diane Ravitch challenges Hamburger’s inaccurate depiction of the history of American public schooling: “Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics… Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.  Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government. The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, though taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.”

Without taking on the bizarre logic of Hamburger’s far-right legal argument that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech renders public schooling unconstitutional as a violation of parents’ rights, First Focus on Children’s executive director Bruce Lesley suggests  the chaotic result if a school board were to adopt the demands being shouted by parents to suppress what is deemed accurate science or history or to censor books we’ve all been reading for decades:

“(I)magine an elementary school of 450 students where 15 parents oppose the teaching of evolution, 19 parents believe the earth is flat, 28 are Holocaust deniers, 22 oppose white children learning about slavery, 7 believe in racial segregation, 21 believe in the concept of a school without walls, 49 demand the use of corporal punishment, 18 want to ban Harry Potter books from the school library, 26 want to ban any books that mention the Trail of Tears, 62 believe that parents should be allowed to overrule a physician’s decision that a child with a concussion should refrain from participating in sports, 87 oppose keeping their kids out of school when they have the flu, 9 believe that a child with cancer might be contagious, 29 believe that kids who are vaccinated should be the ones who quarantine, 72 support “tracking” in all subject areas, 32 believe students should not be taught how to spell the word “isolation” and “quarantine” because they are too “scary of words,” 104 don’t like the school neighborhood boundaries, 38 don’t like the bus routes, 71 parents want a vegan-only lunchroom, 4 demand same-sex classrooms, 5 oppose textbooks and want their children only reading from the Bible, and it can go on and on. The vast majority of parents do not agree with any of these things, and yet, parental rights extremists would insist schools must accommodate them, even if they are completely false, undermine the purpose of education, threaten the safety of children, or promote discrimination. How can a school operate if every parent can decide every aspect of the education of their child, as some are demanding? It cannot.”

Lesley juxtaposes Hamburger’s libertarian argument with the profound defense of public schooling by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)

U.S. Department of Education Offers Hope to Hundreds of Thousands of Public Servants Who Never Got Promised Forgiveness of Student Loans

Here is a piece of good news. Last Wednesday, the Biden Administration announced that it will repair the long-mismanaged public service student loan forgiveness program, which has denied promised relief to thousands of people who should have qualified.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains that the reprieve is a temporary one-year waiver, with applications due by October 31, 2022. The reform will address years of mismanagement: “(T)he move will bring more than 550,000 people closer to debt cancellation, including 22,000 who will be immediately eligible.”

Calling the program “a notorious quagmire,” the NY Times Stacy Cowley and Erica Green report: “The Biden administration is overhauling a student loan forgiveness program for public service employees… introducing a sweeping set of fixes… that Education Department officials said would help more than half a million people get closer to the relief they had been denied for years… The beneficiaries will include ‘teachers, nurses, (military) service members, and millions of workers serving on the front lines of the pandemic,’ said Seth Frotman, a former student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who now runs the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center.”

The program was created as an incentive to make public service work more enticing, despite salaries likely to be low relative to the private sector. Douglas-Gabriel explains how the program was designed: “Borrowers must make 120 on-time monthly payments for 10 years to have the remaining balance canceled. They must work for the government or certain nonprofit organizations. They must have loans made directly by the federal government. And they must be enrolled in specific repayment plans, primarily those that cap monthly loan payments to a percentage of their income.”

But there have been problems for years. Thousands of people reported that they got bad advice from the loan servicing companies which serve as contractors for the U.S. Department of Education to manage the program and collect the payments. Some people thought they were in the correct loan plan which would qualify for public service loan forgiveness, even though they had been guided  by their loan servicer to another program. Cowley and Green report that the public service loan forgiveness program rules say that to qualify a person must have a loan made directly by the federal government: “But before 2010, most borrowers had government-backed bank loans known as Federal Family Education Loans. Hundreds of thousands of borrowers in public service jobs made payments on those loans for years without realizing—because loan servicers often failed to tell them—that those payments would not count toward the 120 monthly payments they needed to rack up to have their loans forgiven. The Education Department had long resisted giving borrowers credit for those payments, insisting it lacked the authority to do so.”

Borrowers who now qualify for loan forgiveness under the Department of Education’s new plan fall into four categories: those whose loans came from the Federal Family Education Loan Program; those who previously consolidated Federal Family Education Loans and Direct Loans from the Department of Education; those who made 120 payments in the wrong payment plan; and active duty members of the military who have deferred loans while they are serving.

Douglas-Gabriel points out that while “military service members and federal employees will receive automatic credit without an application through data matches beginning next year,” the process of applying to have loans forgiven will be complicated for most borrowers, who must submit an application and verify their public service employment before October 31, 2022.  Borrowers whose loans came from the Federal Family Education Loan Program will have to “consolidate into the Direct Loan program.”

Douglas-Gabriel adds: “The Education Department also will review the applications of borrowers who have been rejected by the forgiveness program, looking for errors and giving people an opportunity to have the determination reconsidered. Although tens of thousands of people have applied for forgiveness to date, just over 16,000 have been successful.”

In late September, POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford reported on newly released data documenting that, “More than 4,500 educators at 2,700 schools… have been denied as they seek to certify that their employment counts for the program…. The schools where borrowers were denied are located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

Last week, when he announced the Education Department’s overhaul of this program, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona declared: “Borrowers who devote a decade of their lives to public service should be able to rely on the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The system has not delivered on that promise to date, but that is about to change for many borrowers who have served their communities and their country.”