David Berliner: Why It Is So Dangerous When Governors and Legislatures Reduce Teacher Credentialing Requirements

As I watch legislators and the general public blame teachers for the way they teach history—or the books they assign—or the aggregate standardized test scores of the groups of students who spend 50 minutes each day in their English or math or social studies class, I find myself reflecting on how people think about what teachers do.

During the COVID pandemic, we have watched an epidemic of blaming teachers—for demanding that they and their students wear masks—for declining test scores as schools went online and students became less connected—for teaching the standard history curriculum which acknowledges that the Civil War was fought to eliminate slavery—for attending sensitively to the needs of students who may be wrestling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. The list goes on and on and on.

There are a lot of teaching positions available right now as we emerge from the pandemic. The shortage has culminated in governors and legislatures blaming professional teachers (as usual) by assuming required training for teachers is relatively worthless and, therefore, reducing the required education for people to qualify for teaching certification. In mid-August, The Tampa Bay TimesAna Ceballos described efforts by Florida’s Ron DeSantis to qualify a surprising number of people to fill the state’s classrooms: “After giving military veterans easier access to temporary teaching certificates, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he wants state legislators to expand that same option for law enforcement officers and other first responders next year… He said the criteria will be the same as for veterans, who currently need to have a bachelor’s degree or complete at least 60 hours of college credits—the equivalent of an associate’s degree—with a minimum grade-point average of 2.5—and pass a Florida subject area examination and a background check.”

When I really think about it, I am forced to conclude that a lot of people—including powerful people like governors and legislators—imagine what teachers do by thinking about what teachers do for them—the important adults.  School teachers keep kids safe and busy—out of the way and out of trouble—while busy adults are at work—work that these adults consider important, in contrast to the work of schoolteachers.

I don’t think it even occurs to many people to imagine what it would be like to manage a classroom, or to help a shy kindergartner relax and become comfortable in a group of 22 children, or to be positive and encouraging to an angry adolescent at the same time that kid is insulting the teacher.

One of the best writers about teaching, the late Mike Rose published my favorite definition of excellent teaching: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

While in his book Possible Lives, Rose portrays much more of what teachers do to create such classrooms, a problem with Rose’s definition here is that he does not convey the difficulty which is part of the job. Rose depicts the classroom of an excellent teacher almost as though a classroom is a painting—the fixed beautiful and balanced creation of an artist.

For some hints about what is involved in day-to-day teaching, we can turn to David Berliner, who edited a new book from Teacher’s College Press, a book that includes biographies of the contributors including the editor: “David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University… He… was a past president of both the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association…. and has authored or coauthored over 400 articles, chapters, and books.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 319)

Right now, David Berliner is outraged at governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and state legislators who are passing laws to reduce the requirements for teachers to become certified. He grasps the complexity of what teachers must know how to do, and he describes what is necessary in a piece he published in August in Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Berliner believes that, like doctors, teachers need college courses on the methodology of practice as well as academic expertise. He also believes prospective teachers need extensive student teaching and mentoring just as medical students need extensive clinical practice:

“In fact, much of the knowledge needed for teaching and for successful medical treatment is clinical knowledge… not easily described and hard to teach to someone else. That’s why physicians have grand rounds and a lengthy apprenticeship. Their prolonged apprenticeship is what gets them started learning what it means to be a practicing physician—not a competent student of biology, chemistry, and pharmacology. Every clinician (psychologists, physicians, social workers, and teachers alike) knows that book learning can only teach a little slice of what it means to be a success in practice. The recognition of this fact is the quite sensible reason behind the requirement that teachers need to take teaching methods courses such as how to teach mathematics, how to teach phonics and comprehension skills, how science is learned and so forth. Course work in mathematics, English literature, and science have no more to say about the teaching of mathematics, literature, and physics than books on organic chemistry prepare a physician for their medical practice. Lengthy residencies are needed in medicine… and extensive student teaching is needed to become a competent teacher… Please—let’s keep untrained but good-hearted people out of classrooms until and unless they get some training in how to do that complex job well.”

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

Teachers are expected to be alert to what is happening all day in a series of socially and emotionally complex situations. “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.  Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day.  Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability, to produce the most learning from their students.”

Here is Berliner’s stunning conclusion: “Our society does identify ‘lesser’ humans, mostly the poor and therefore frequently racial minorities, where inexperienced physicians and teachers are allowed to develop their skills… The legislators, accrediting bodies, and chambers-of-commerce that endorse putting untrained or minimally trained teachers before poor children are hurting America, betraying the principles that Jefferson explicated 200 years ago. Jefferson, a slave-holder and not nearly as democratic as we might have wanted one of our founding fathers to be, did help to persuade his fellow founders of the nation that the poor have talent in equal degree as do the rich. Thus, the poor deserved the same education as the rich, in order to cultivate those talents, so they can be used in service of the nation. He believed that the best way to preserve an ever-fragile democracy was a system of free public schooling. Those who would allow unqualified teachers to enter the classrooms of the poor are traitors to Jeffersonian principles…  Most advocates for a free market in credentialing would never allow their own children to have an untrained novice, or an inadequately trained teacher, nor would they allow their children to attend schools that rely heavily on such teachers. The hypocrisy and traitorous actions of legislators, business leaders, and policy analysts who advocate allowing anyone to teach in a school that would have them as teachers, ensures that social class social membership will remain as it is—difficult to modify. Moreover, the children most likely to be assigned teachers who have little, or no training, are children of color. So, on top of all my other charges, we might want to raise the issue of racism with the advocates of little or no credentialing for teachers.”

New U.S. Census Report Shows Why Congress Must Permanently Expand the Child Tax Credit & Make It Fully Refundable in Year-End Legislation

This blog has strongly advocated that Congress should enact legislation to make permanent last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit. New research confirms the urgency of Congressional action on the Child Tax Credit this year.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census reported* a stunning drop in poverty among U.S. children in 2021, largely thanks to the Biden Administration’s action—temporarily for 2021 alone—to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable under the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act.  That expansion of the Child Tax Credit ended in 2022.  Now it is apparent that unless Congress acts to restore what was a temporary reform to the Child Tax Credit, millions of American children will fall back into poverty.

The U.S. Census created a new measure of poverty in 2011, the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which reflects how government programs like SNAP, school lunch benefits, and refundable tax credits supplement family income and reduce poverty. The Census Bureau’s new report explains: “The SPM (Supplemental Poverty Measure) extends the official poverty measure by accounting for many of the government programs that are designed to assist low-income families but are not included in the official poverty measure. The SPM also includes federal and state taxes and work and medical expenses… Though the SPM does not replace the official poverty measure, it provides a different metric of economic well-being that includes resources from government programs and tax credits to low income families.”

In their September 13 report, using the SPM measure, U.S. Census Bureau researchers documented an extraordinary reduction in child poverty during 2021: “The SPM child poverty rate fell 46 percent in 2021, from 9.7 percent in 2020 to 5.2 percent in 2021, a 4.5 percentage-point decline. This is the lowest SPM child poverty rate on record.” “The decline in the SPM rate for children was largely driven by stimulus payments and the refundable Child Tax Credit, which led to increased resources for families with children.”

To review: In the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act passed in the spring of 2021, Congress made several significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; sending the payments monthly instead of once a year, and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  Making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable was an extremely significant reform. While, since 1997, families with comfortable incomes have qualified for the full Child Tax Credit, until the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act, families with such small incomes that they pay little income tax received only a partial credit and not the full amount. Families without any income (who do not pay federal income tax) could not qualify at all for the tax credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained in a November 2021 report:  “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The American Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.”

When the new Census data came out on September 13, the President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrott, immediately released a statement interpreting the significance of the drop in U.S. child poverty: “The data for 2021 show that the nation knows how to reduce poverty, broaden opportunity, and expand coverage. Temporary measures drove progress… The new data show that due chiefly to the Child Tax Credit, child poverty fell sharply in 2021 and reached a record low of 5.2 percent, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)…. As recently as 2018, 13.7 percent of children were below the SPM poverty line.”

Parrot scrutinizes the meaning of Congress’s temporary action last year to reduce American child poverty: “The Child Tax Credit expansion drove the large reduction in child poverty between 2020 and 2021…. In the absence of the expansion, child poverty would have fallen to 8.1 percent, rather than 5.2 percent, and some 2.1 million more children would have lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. The year-to-year decline in the child poverty rate was the largest on record (4.5 percentage points). Child poverty rates plunged widely across racial and ethnic groups…. For Black non-Latino children, the poverty rate fell to 8.3 percent in 2021 from 17.2 percent in 2020…. This is stunning progress—in 2018 nearly 1 in 4 Black children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line.  In 2021, fewer than 1 in 10 did… In 2021, poverty among Latino children fell to 8.4 percent and for American Indian and Alaska Native children it fell to 7.4 percent.”

Washington Post columnists, Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent believe Congressional action permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit would redefine our society morally: “We can choose to make our economic arrangements fairer. We can make collective decisions that children shouldn’t be disadvantaged at a very young age through no fault of their own. Making the choice to alleviate poverty early in people’s lives… puts children on a path to becoming healthier, happier, more fulfilled, more productive adults.”

Why is eliminating child poverty so significant in the life of each child?  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reviewed the consequences in an urgent new report last Friday: “For children, poverty can mean unstable housing, frequent moves, inadequate nutrition, and high levels of family stress, and other problems. These in turn have been linked with lower reading and math scores, more emotional and behavioral problems, fewer years of completed education, lower earnings, higher likelihood of being arrested, and poorer health in adulthood, a 2019 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report on reducing child poverty found.”

Although Congressional opposition has blocked the inclusion of an expanded Child Tax Credit in economic legislation so far in 2022, there is still time for Congress permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit before the end of the year.  In last Friday’s report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities declared that the need is critical: “Congress and the Biden Administration now face a stark choice: whether to expand the Child Tax Credit or allow all of the gains against child poverty made over the last two years to evaporate, with millions of children needlessly falling back below the poverty line… Without the Child Tax Credit expansion, some 2.1 million more children would have been in poverty in 2021—including 752,000 Latino children, 649,000 white children, 524,000 Black children, 89,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children, and 56,000 Asian children…. Moreover, the Child Tax Credit expansion improved conditions for children of all races and ethnicities and narrowed differences in poverty rates between them.”

Many of us had feared that action on the Child Tax Credit was a lost cause in Congress this year, but it appears there is still hope. Economists at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explain that right now Congress is under pressure to reduce corporate taxes. They declare: “Policymakers should not put corporate interests ahead of the interests of children. That means that… (a) corporate tax cut related to research and experimentation expenses—or any other business tax cut—should not move without an expansion of the Child Tax Credit. Some policymakers have already made clear that they do not support moving ahead with a corporate tax break without an expansion in the Child Tax Credit. For example, in response to the Census report, Senators Bennet, Brown, and Booker and Representatives DeLauro, DelBene, and Torres said that Congress should not enact corporate tax provisions in year-end legislation without expanding the Child Tax Credit.”

* John Creamer, Emily A. Shrider, Kalee Burns, and Frances Chen, Poverty in the United States: 2021, U.S. Census Bureau, September 13, 2022, pp. 1-2.  The link would not import into WORDPRESS.  You may enter the following in any search engine: Poverty in the United States: 2021, September 13, 2022 .

2022 Scores on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, Help Define the Meaning of the Pandemic

When fourth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released last week, the NY Times headline writer informed us: “the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading,” as though a long trend of public school improvement has now been set on a downward trajectory.

What happened instead is that schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring.

What is the National Assessment of Educational Progress?  The Washington Post‘s Donna St. George explains: “NAEP testing is done at public and private schools across the country that are randomly sampled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics… Test takers are randomly sampled, too—14,800 students in all, from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were sampled in both 2020 and 2022.”

The NY TimesSarah Mervosh adds: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered a gold standard in testing.  Unlike state tests, it is standardized across the country, has remained consistent over time and makes no attempt to hold individual schools accountable for results, which experts believe makes it more reliable. The test results (released last week) offered a snapshot for just one age group: 9-year-olds, who are typically in third or fourth grade.  More results, for fourth graders and for eighth graders, will be released later this fall on a state-by-state level.”

What do this year’s scores show us about the impact of the pandemic on public schooling in America?

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

Diane Ravitch highlights another lesson we can very likely learn: remote instruction is an inadequate substitute for going to school.  Decades of research show that education is relational:

“The moral of the story is that students need to have human contact with a teacher and classmates to learn best. Virtual learning is a fourth-rate substitute for a real teacher and interaction with peers… The pandemic isolated children from their teachers. It caused them to be stuck in front of a computer… They needed human interaction. They needed to look into the eyes of a teacher who encouraged them to do better, a teacher who explained what they didn’t understand. The NAEP scores are a wake-up call. We must treasure our teachers and recognize the vital role they play in educating the next generation.”

How Can America Be Supportive of School Teachers and Attract Qualified Young People to the Profession?

The news has been filled with stories of a widespread shortage of teachers as public schools across the U.S. are getting set to begin another school year.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Hannah Natanson reported: “Florida is asking veterans with no teaching background to enter classrooms. Arizona is allowing college students to step in and instruct children.” School districts often struggle in late summer to hire enough teachers and other essential staff to keep class sizes reasonable and ensure that all schools can fully serve their students’ needs. But the shortage seems more acute this year.

Natanson points to “a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents—and sometimes their own school board members—have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues. The stopgap solutions for lack of staff run the gamut, from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who qualify as educators to bumping up class sizes.”

There is evidence, however, of a deeper problem rarely explored in the mainstream press but frequently named by teachers themselves: two decades of standardized test-based school accountability which forces teachers to emphasize two subjects, reading and math, and demands test prep on basic skills to elevate overall school ratings required by the states and the federal government.  Three years ago, even before COVID-19 utterly upended public schools,  Peter Greene penned a blog post that characterizes teachers’ point of view: “I’ve been saying it. Tim Slekar (a well known education professor and blogger and podcaster) has been saying it. Other people who aren’t even directly tied to teaching have been saying it. There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it… Respect. Support. The tools necessary to do a great job. Autonomy. Treating people like actual functioning adults. These are all the things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing.”

Two weeks ago, the National Education Policy Center’s newsletter reported on new peer-reviewed research documenting that Greene was correct: teachers want more latitude to shape what happens in their classrooms: “For administrators, policymakers, and educators, the study, published in March in the peer-reviewed journal Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA), suggests several potential solutions to the K-12 version of the Great Resignation… (T)he new study adds to the existing literature through a deep dive into the impact of teacher voice…. (T)he study finds that higher levels of ‘teacher voice’—defined as the level of teacher influence over classrooms and schools—are associated with lower levels of (teacher) attrition, even after accounting for factors also known to impact attrition, such as salary.”

In a recent column republished by the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss, two elementary sschool teachers, Raechel Barone and Karen Engels, write ostensibly to explain what their students desperately need from their schools as we all readjust after the COVID disruption. What emerges from these teachers’ poignant description of what their students need, however, exposes what these teachers themselves desperately need as school gets underway in the fall of 2022: “Ask teachers around the country about their experiences, and most sound eerily similar. There’s simply a big gap between what we’re being asked to do—relentlessly push students to ‘catch up’ from ‘learning loss’—and what we feel we should do for our students. The education policy context we operate within often seems woefully out of step with the actual children in our classrooms.” Barone and Engels define six of their young students’ most basic needs as we begin another school year and our nation tries to control COVID: (1) love, trust and belonging; (2) emotional safety and well-being; (3) affirmation of full identity; (4) sense of agency and power; (5) unstoppable curiosity; and (6) opportunity to master core skills.

Barone and Engels describe what has gone wrong with education policy over the past two decades: “(T)eachers across the country feel excluded from the policy decisions that directly impact their day-to-day instruction… The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act rightly called out ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ (which President George W. Bush warned against) and decried the stark contrast between the academic test scores of students of different races. But the solution—a relentless focus on math and reading to be measured annually in high stakes assessments—was the wrong solution. Why? Because the solution addresses only one of the six pillars of a classroom where kids can thrive. And in focusing the spotlight on this pillar of foundational skills, NCLB effectively knocked the other pillars loose, unwittingly risking the stability of the whole enterprise of education… We need to loosen our worship of quantitative metrics…. We (teachers) need emotional safety to take risks, to make mistakes, and to receive supportive rather than punitive approaches to our growth.”

Teachers need respect and a sense that they won’t be denied agency in shaping their classrooms and their schools.  But neither can our society be complacent about what has been happening to educators’ salaries.  In June, Bloomberg reported: “Teacher salaries dropped to lowest in a decade during the COVID pandemic… The starting salary for teachers in the U.S. averaged $41,770 for the 2020-21 school year, a 4% decrease from the prior year when adjusted for inflation. Uncertainty drove real wages, which factor in inflation levels, for starting teachers lower, erasing gains made over the course of the last 10 years… Nearly half of all districts in the country offer starting salaries below $40,000, the report found.”

Teachers’ compensation varies across the states as well as across particular school districts within a state.  In April, the Learning Policy Institute published an important resource which compares states’ starting salaries for teachers when adjusted for the cost of living. The report also ranks the states by overall teachers’ wage competitiveness—“how much teachers earn relative to other college-educated workers in that state.” These rankings may surprise you.

Here in order are the top states where teachers’ compensation reaches the level of compensation for other college-educated workers.  At the top is Wyoming, followed in order by Rhode Island, New Jersey, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.

Here are the ten bottom states where teachers’ compensation lags farthest behind the level of compensation for other college-educated workers.  At the bottom is Virginia, and above in order of worst to best: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.

Some school districts are using COVID relief (American Rescue Plan) dollars to offer teachers bonuses; after all, funds from this one-time grant cannot be sustained as part of teachers’ contracts in future budget years.  Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck points to a new Education Week survey showing that: “Teachers prefer base salary increases. Teachers say the financial strategy that would most encourage them to stay is to cover increases that exceed the cost of living.” But: “No matter how well earned, raises like these are typically an expensive proposition for district leaders.”

We must circle back, therefore, to the core problem: the shortage of states’ public education budgets, too often exacerbated these days by expanded voucher and charter school expenditures. In the newest (December 2021) annual school funding report released by the Albert Shanker Institute, school finance expert Bruce Baker explains that states’ Fiscal Effort to fund schools has declined.  Here is how Baker defines a state’s fiscal effort to fund public education: “Fiscal effort is state and local expenditures in each state as a proportion of its gross state product. Effort indicators assess how much states leverage their ability to raise revenue, and help to differentiate states that lack the capacity to meet their students’ needs from those that refuse to devote sufficient resources to their public schools.”

Baker concludes: “U.S. average effort is at its lowest level in at least 20 years. In 37 states, effort is lower than it was on average during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools. Decreasing effort since 2007 ‘cost’ U.S. schools almost $70 billion in 2019 alone… The total cumulative ‘loss’ between 2013 and 2019 is $400 billion, 9 percent of total spending over this time period.”

Although Manchin Doomed the Child Tax Credit in Build Back Better, Discussion Hasn’t Totally Stopped

It would appear that Senator Joe Manchin’s sabotage of the expanded Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better has killed the restoration of last year’s extraordinary but temporary improvement of this federal program as part of the American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill. But America’s child poverty advocacy coalition has not yet given up and neither have the experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Democratic leaders in Congress—Senators Sherrod Brown, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Ron Wyden and Raphael Warnock—and Representatives led by Rosa de Lauro are still in conversation with Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Richard Burr and Steve Daines, who have offered two versions of their own Republican Child Tax Credit proposal.

It is urgently important for America’s public school educators and child advocates to keep on pushing for expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable. The educational damage of child poverty cannot be solved through school reform. While teachers can support children whose lives are ravaged by our society’s alarming economic inequality, public schools alone cannot undo the stresses and privations that poverty imposes on America’s poorest children.

Much of the ongoing conversation this month has been about the Family Security Act,  proposed by Senator Romney and other Republicans, which would replace the Build Back Better Better version of the Child Tax Credit that was rejected by Senator Joe Manchin. Last week a coalition of national child advocacy organizations, the First Focus Campaign for Children, wrote a letter to Senators Mitt Romney, Steve Daines and Richard Burr to explain why their recent version of the Family Security Act isn’t good enough: this most recent version will leave America’s very poorest children in worse straits than a version Romney proposed in 2021.

Here is the First Focus Campaign for Children: “The good news is that we know what works to reduce child poverty.” A 2019 landmark National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) “study finds that a child allowance, operating as an extension of the Child Tax Credit, is the most powerful tool we have to combat child poverty and narrow the racial poverty gap. Extensive research shows when households with children receive cash transfers, they spend it on resources that support their children’s healthy development—improving their physical and behavioral health and educational outcomes and leading them to earn more as adults… The first version (2021) of the original Family Security Act proposed by Senator Romney would have cut child poverty by an estimated 32.6%… Households with the least resources would have been eligible to receive the full (newly increased) Child Tax Credit… Unfortunately, as the Family Security Act morphed into version 2.0, changes focused on adults were made to the Child Tax Credit and significantly reduced the positive impact it would have on millions of children. The ‘best interests of children’ became an afterthought as the focus shifted to some sort of ‘deservedness’ standards for adults that has the effect of punishing children. As a result, the Niskanen Center’s updated analysis shows that the Family Security Act 2.0 would only reduce child poverty by just 12.6%.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details the primary reason why the latest version of the Family Security Act would punish children in families with the lowest income: “To qualify for the maximum credit for each child in the family, families would need to have earned at least $10,000 in the prior year… Families with earnings below $10,000 would receive a proportional credit. For example, a family earning $5,000 would receive 50 percent of the maximum credit for each child.”  Families with no income would no longer qualify, but couples earning up to $400,000 per year would qualify as would single parents making up to $200,000 annually.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities further explains: “The $10,000 earnings requirement to receive the full credit would apply to all families, including parents with babies and young children, retired grandparents caring for their grandchildren, and parents with disabilities that may limit their ability to work.  It would also newly require caregivers not only to live with the child but also to have legal custody of the child, which is stricter than current law and may disqualify many grandparents or other relatives who care for children from claiming the credit. And it would impose a new restriction for families that include immigrants: under current law, children must have a Social Security number (SSN) to qualify for the Child Tax Credit, but the proposal would impose an additional requirement that a parent also have an SSN, denying the credit to children who are U.S. citizens if their parents lack an SSN.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains another serious problem when several of the provisions of the newest version of the Family Security Act, are computed together: “The Romney proposal… (would require) families with low and moderate incomes to pay for more than half the cost of expanding the credit… The Romney plan would dramatically cut the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) a credit that provides an income boost for workers with low and moderate incomes, and eliminate the ‘head of household’ tax filing status, which millions of single parents who work at low-paying jobs use when they file their income tax returns… For example, consider a single mother who has a toddler and a daughter in second grade and works as a home health aide, making $25,000 a year. Her family’s Child Tax Credit would grow by $3,640 under the Romney plan, but they would lose $4,105 from the EITC cuts and the elimination of the head of household filing status, for a net income loss of $465. If both children were age 6 or older, the net income loss would be even larger: $1,665.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes what would be the primary effects of the latest Family Security Act provisions: “Denying the full credit to children based on their parents’ earnings would do virtually nothing to boost parental employment and would withhold help from the children who most need it….

  • “In more than 95 percent of families who benefit from making the credit fully refundable, the parent or other caretaker is working, between jobs, ill or disabled, elderly or has a child under age 2.
  • “Evidence from both the United States and Canada strongly indicates that giving the full credit to all children, including those whose families don’t have earnings in a year, won’t affect adults’ work participation to any large degree. Most estimates suggest around 99 percent of parents would continue to work under an expanded credit.
  • “An earnings requirement hurts children whose parents are least able to meet basic needs, exposing these children to serious hardship.
  • “Research links additional income to better outcomes for children in families with low incomes. The added income could significantly improve their long-term health and how well they do in school, make it more likely they will finish high school and attend college, and boost their earnings as adults.”

When Congress did not renew last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which temporarily made it fully refundable to all families with children, whatever their income, the program reverted to its pre-American Rescue Plan status. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphatically reminds us all of the current Child Tax Credit’s primary injustice: “The major flaw in the current Child Tax Credit has been its denial of some or all of the credit to children in families with little or no income, even though they stand to benefit the most from the extra income. Prior to the Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the credit, roughly 27 million children received less than the full credit or no credit at all because their families earned too little. They included roughly half of all Black children, half of Latino children, roughly one-fifth of white children, one-fifth of Asian children, and roughly half of children living in rural areas.”

Ideologues Beat Up on Public Schools As Many Forget About the Essential Role of These Public Institutions and Our Obligation to Support Them

There is evidence that the ideological attack by enemies of public education is paying off for them, but not for the 50 million students enrolled in America’s public schools.

Last week, Gallup announced: “American’s confidence in U.S. public schools remains low, with 28% saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution, similar to 32% last year. Both figures are down from 41% in 2020, reflecting a brief surge in the early months of the pandemic after registering 29% in 2019… Republicans’ confidence has… plunged, while independents’ has slipped and Democrats’ has remained near their pandemic high… Half of Republicans now have little to no faith in schools.”  Gallup’s data shows the ups and downs during COVID-19 of Republicans’, Independents’ and Democrats’ responses to public schools’ handling of the pandemic’s disruption.  Gallup adds: “Debate has also erupted at the national and local levels over school curricula touching on racism, gender theory and sexual orientation.”

In the past couple of weeks the attacks on public education have continued. We’ve been treated to the story of Larry Arnn announcing that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and proclaiming that “anyone can teach.” Arnn is the president of Michigan’s extremely conservative, Christian, Hillsdale College, which has  launched a chain of classical charter schools across several states and proposed sponsoring at least 50 new schools in Tennessee.

The NY Times also profiled Ian Underwood, a “free stater,” who moved to New Hampshire—to the village of Croydon—as an anti-tax “liberty activist.” Posing this question—“Why is that guy paying for that guy’s kids to be educated?”—Underwood spoke at a town meeting and introduced a motion to cut the town’s public school budget in half—to a total of $800,000 per year.  According to the NY Times report, “Underwood asserted that sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them ‘crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity.'” Fortunately in Croydon, other citizens rose up against Ian Underwood and in favor of the public schools that serve the town’s children.

One detail in Gallup’s new report caught my eye: “While Republicans express low confidence in U.S. public schools, education is not on their minds.  When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today—only 1% of Republicans in June named education in answer to this open-ended question. Thus, it remains to be seen if concerns about education spur Republicans to the polls in November—or if other issues, from inflation to abortion to guns, are more prominent in influencing whether and how people vote.”

The late Mike Rose, author and professor of education, worried that people are not paying enough attention to what teachers do and what their public schools accomplish: “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 we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.” (Why School? p. 203)

In a wonderful essay published posthumously, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” Rose explores dimensions of public schooling that ideologues ignore and many of us forget to consider: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures. Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.” “Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal. (Mike Rose, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” in David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, editors, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Teachers College Press, 2022)

Today’s ideologues and too many of the rest of us also happily discount important questions of political philosophy which have traditionally shaped Americans’ assumptions about public education. Worried about these philosophical questions, The New Republic‘s editor, Michael Tomasky reproaches New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood for forgetting about the principle of public responsibility: “In the U.S., of course, public education is mostly funded by property taxes and financed by local governments.  There are problems with this, as there are with any system invented by imperfect human beings, the main one being that rich districts have a lot more money and thus much better schools; but even still, the good part is that we as a society accept the idea that we all have to contribute. It does not matter whether you have children in the schools…. This is a core principle of civilized society. We all contribute to certain activities that have clear universal social benefit… The question of political philosophy is this: What is the common good—what must it include, and what is each citizen’s responsibility toward securing it? We decided in the U.S. a little more than a century ago that universal public education, free to every child and paid for by all of us, was central to any definition of a common good.”

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

The strategies of the anti-government folks and other school privatizers may differ, but they are all a threat to the principle and operation of public schooling. Croydon, New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood wants to cut taxes and government, while most privatizers advocate for privately operated schools at public expense. What the promoters of education savings account vouchers advocate, for example, is giving every child who opts out of public school a publicly funded credit card voucher to pay for private school or home schooling or whatever kind of education the parents choose. The problem is that the money for the education savings account credit cards inevitably comes out of the state’s public school budget and reduces programming in the public schools likely to remain the primary education provider serving the majority of students and adolescents.

Barber explores how marketplace school choice undermines educational opportunity: “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)

In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, challenges us to consider and protect the fragile principle of public responsibility: “In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)

Ohio Legislature Must Ensure No More Children Are Held Back by 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores

“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.

The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools.  And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.

Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.”  In 2014,  Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade.  Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”

Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success.  A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”

It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy.  In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”

Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.”  Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'”  Finally  O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.

Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”

To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The  Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”

I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels.  For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology.  I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.

Permanently Expanding the Child Tax Credit Would Help Close Educational Opportunity Gaps

Those of us who support closing educational opportunity gaps have a lot on our plates right now.  We are watching states cut taxes instead of investing in teachers, counselors, and enriched curriculum.  It seems that momentum has slowed for ending the misguided scheme of high-stakes test-and-punish school accountability, and, based on test scores, states continue to rank and rate public schools and take over or shut down the so-called “failing” schools.  Laws condoning racism and anti-gay bias are winning in many state legislatures.  We are watching legislatures expand all kinds of private school tuition vouchers at the expense of their states’ public education budgets and watching the charter school lobby protest any kind of reasonable oversight of the largely unregulated, rapaciously greedy, privately operated charter school sector.

So, why do I think advocates for public education should work to support one more priority: pressing Congress to restore the expanded and fully refundable child tax credit that Republican senators along with Joe Manchin blocked when they derailed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill?

I’ll admit that for most of us who are focused on confronting the myriad challenges for the public schools, the complexities of addressing child poverty are not an area of expertise. But I think it is essential that we step back and consider David Berliner’s words: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States. As advocates for the public schools that serve the mass of America’s poorest children, I think we ought to trust the experts who explain how best to ameliorate our nation’s outrageous child poverty. They seem to agree that one simple Congressional action—restoring the American Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit—would enormously reduce child poverty in the United States.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr reports: “Last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit was a striking success, lifting an estimated 3.7 million otherwise-poor children (3 in 10) above the monthly poverty line in December 2021. The credit’s full refundability (ensuring that children with the lowest incomes get the full credit) was the main driver of its poverty reduction; making that provision permanent could have life-long positive impacts in health, educational attainment, and ultimate earnings power for millions of children.”

Until last year’s American Rescue COVID relief bill, families whose incomes were so low they did not pay enough in taxes to be refunded received only partial benefits from the Child Tax Credit. And if a family had no income and paid no taxes, the family received no Child Tax Credit whatsoever. In a more recent report, Marr adds: “Absent a new expansion, the expiration of the Rescue Plan’s expanded Child Tax Credit will push a projected 4.1 million children back below the poverty line in 2022, of whom 1.6 million are Latino, 1.2 million are white, 930,000 are Black, and 132,000 are Asian… (A)nnual poverty rates among Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native children would be an estimated 8 to 9 percentage points higher without the Rescue Plan expansion than if the expansion were still in place. The greatest driver of these rises in poverty would be the loss of the expanded credit’s full refundability. Accordingly making the full credit available to children in families with the lowest incomes would be key to reducing child poverty.”

Writing for The Hill, Albert Hunt identifies a widespread bias of many Americans: that poor people are basically lazy and will only waste the money: “Critics, many Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), have charged making it refundable would create incentives not to work. There are even charges that some recipients would spend the extra money on drugs rather than their kids.”

The Brookings Institution just confirmed the lie in that bias. Instead parents used the money primarily for food, basics, and paying down credit card debt: “Overall, our findings suggest that the expanded CTC supported eligible families in several critical ways. First, the credit allowed families to cover routine expenses, such as housing, food, utilities, clothing, and other essential items for their children while also helping families to save for emergencies and pay off debt. Because one of the primary uses of the benefit was on food, it is not surprising that the CTC significantly lowered eligible families’ food insecurity and helped them afford healthier, balanced meals for their children. Additionally, the CTC reduced overall economic insecurity for eligible households, as evidenced by their declining credit card debt, lower eviction risks, stronger rainy-day funds, and reduced reliance on payday loans, pawn shops, and selling blood plasma to make ends meet.”

It is to be hoped that Senator Manchin has noticed the Brookings study.  It has been widely reported in West Virginia’s newspapers.  The Intelligencer.Wheeling News-Register reported “The study also found that the monthly CTC payments to families did not encourage parents to not work, but likely led them to seek professional training and classes.”  “The survey indicated….  58%… had used the money for essential items, with 56% noting they had purchased additional food with the funding. Another 49% responded they had used the money for emergency savings, with 42% noting it was directed toward debt payment.”

A second new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, the University of California at Berkeley, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Urban Institute, and other partner organizations describes how last year’s Child Tax Credit payments actually helped parents get to work: “During the phone interviews with respondents, parents commented how the monthly payments helped them afford transportation to get to work and covered the cost of child care that allowed them to work additional hours. One mom named Jasmin, who has two kids and lives in New Jersey, explained how transportation costs take up a large portion of her monthly budget… The monthly CTC payments provided her with more resources to pay for the transportation to get to and from her job.”

What about inflation?  Wouldn’t re-establishing last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit drive more inflation?  Writing for the NY Times, Ezra Klein discounts this worry: “Nor is inflation a reason to leave children in poverty. Extending the expanded child tax credit would cost about $100 billion per year for the next few years—less than 0.5 percent of U.S. G.D.P.  And it could easily be paired with policies raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere, making the overall impact on spending nil.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr backs up Klein’s judgment: “Rising prices are no reason for policymakers to delay or avoid taking action on critical policies such as extending the Child Tax Credit expansion. For struggling families, in fact, they make the task more urgent. The Rescue Act’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit would amount to roughly 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. It would provide extremely meaningful income support for millions of low-income families, but it would generate little or no inflationary pressure…. Policymakers need to act.”

The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne Jr. summarizes the depth of the need to support children growing up in poverty: “Our society claims to love children, admire parents and revere the family. But our public policies send the opposite message… It’s hard to think of work more important to a society’s long-term well-being and prosperity than raising children. Yet the market economy values work outside the home that produces goods, services, and profits far more than the work of parenting. While parenting’s value is, well, infinite, it goes largely unmeasured in our gross domestic product… Our country needs a sensible family policy. That’s why child care, universal pre-K, family leave and an expanded child tax credit were central components of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But our debate last year about his proposal rarely got to the merits.”

Ameliorating child poverty in the United States is a moral imperative. It is important for supporters of public education to join child advocacy organizations in standing behind Congressional champions like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who are pushing Congress permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable.

Recent Teachers’ Strikes Reflect Decades-Long Drop in States’ Funding for Public Schools

The late Mike Rose, a professor who educated teachers, wrote a book about a three year journey across the United States back in the mid-1990s to visit and observe the classrooms of teachers who had been identified to him as excellent. In that book, Possible Lives, and later in an article for The American Scholar, Rose very carefully defines fine teachers:

Their “classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

I wish I thought the rest of us reflected so profoundly about what teachers do. Creating engaged, challenging, and respectful classrooms like the ones Rose describes requires academic scholarship, training in child and adolescent development, and a whole lot of management skill. In my most cynical days, I imagine that instead of valuing excellent teachers, many Americans celebrate the people with the tech skills to create phones with better apps. I worry that a lot of people define the purpose of schools as keeping our children out of sight and out of mind. And I am pretty sure when legislators sit down to lay out state budgets, they mostly figure out how to cover all the functions of the state with the revenue available without considering what a tax increase might accomplish. Actually, these days it seems legislators are prone to cut taxes permanently or at least provide a one-time bonus tax refund.

These are the reasons why teachers strike, as they recently did in Minneapolis and Sacramento. State dollars invested in public education pay for concrete basics: enough teachers to keep the student-to-teacher ratio barely manageable, counselors, school psychologists, bus drivers, education support professionals to assist students in special education, and maybe also music teachers and librarians.  When there isn’t enough money, districts cut out the extras and begin shaving down the basics by making classes bigger and delaying cost-of-living raises for teachers and aides and bus drivers. In settlements following both recent strikes, teachers won better salaries for themselves and for the under-paid hourly workers who serve as education support professionals, lunchroom cooks, and bus drivers. Teachers in Minneapolis also won class size caps.

In Minneapolis, a school district with 28,700 students and 4,500 teachers, the Star Tribune reported that the union agreed to “wage increases for education support professionals that boost the starting hourly wage from $19.83 to $23.91, an increase in the number of school counselors, and layoff protections for teachers from ‘a population underrepresented among licensed teachers’… Teachers will receive $4,000 (a one-time stipend) on April 8 and pay raises of at least 2%…  Both new contracts run through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.”

In Sacramento, the issue has been a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers, and education support professionals. The Sacramento Bee reported, “District and union officials said Sunday that an agreement had been reached between the district, the classified employee union SEIU Local 1021 and the Sacramento City Teachers Association… The… agreement with the teachers union includes ongoing 4% salary increases, 3% one-time stipends for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years; one-time payments of $1,250 in the current school year, 25% rate increases for substitutes… The SEIU union said in a separate email that the agreement ‘makes strides to address the causes of the classified staff shortage through a 4% ongoing cost-of-living adjustment… retroactive to July 1, 2021.’… SEIU represents bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides and other workers in the district.”

For two school years now, teaching and working in public schools has demanded more than the academic study, skill, and hard work Mike Rose describes as the routine qualifications for teachers. School districts have been short on staff, and after the COVID disruption, students are presenting enormous academic and emotional challenges. Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria reports: “A few weeks ago, Sacramento teacher Kacie Go had 56 kids for second period. That day, there were 109 students at her eighth-through 12th-grade school who were without an instructor because of staff shortages. So she crammed the students into her room and made it work, but ‘its not sustainable,’ she said… Like Go… teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and instructional aides are fed up with being asked to do more with less. It’s a problem that goes beyond the Sacramento City Unified School District, with 48,000 students in 81 schools. Frustration among teachers and school workers is rampant across California—pushed to a breaking point by the pandemic and a shortage of more than 11,000 credentialed teachers and thousands of support staff…  It’s the same story playing out in hundreds of other districts not just in California but across the country. Minneapolis teachers just ended a 14-day strike that shared some of the same issues of pay and support, underscored by the same teacher chagrin that we talk a good game about supporting public education but don’t always come through with actions.”

Chabria profiles Katie Santora, a cafeteria worker who has worked for 13 years at the district and who has been making $18.98 an hour “for what is essentially a management role.” “Santora is the lead nutrition services worker at a high school, expected to churn out 1,500 meals a day between breakfast and lunch—with a staff of nine people (though they started the year with only five). Most are part-timers because the district doesn’t want to pay them benefits, and they make about minimum wage… She’s in charge of ordering, planning, receiving, and keeping the joint running.”

I notice that both the Minneapolis and Sacramento strike settlement agreements involve one-time stipends for this year and, in Sacramento, retroactive bonuses for work during other years of the pandemic.  One year stipends are one way school districts can use money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (COVID-19 relief).  School districts are unlikely to turn that money into permanent raises, health care increases or other long term benefits because the COVID relief money won’t be replaced permanently in upcoming state budgets. It is good to see both school districts recognizing the challenges school personnel have been handling in the past two years as staff shortages intersect with students’ rising stress as they return to school.

For the Minnesota Reformer Nadra Nittle adds that in Minneapolis an added burden falls on education support professionals: “The low wages education support professionals receive also make it difficult for them to pay for their district health insurance plans, which cost them the same as administrators who earn five times their salaries…. Some education support professionals pay more than $700 monthly for their family health insurance plans, leaving them with little money to pay for other expenses.”

There is a deeper cause to which teachers have been calling attention in the recent strikes. In his newest (December 2021) annual school funding report, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker documents that over the past two decades, many states have diminished their overall tax effort for public education. Baker explains that tax effort for K-12 schooling is a measure of state spending on K-12 schools relative to state fiscal capacity as measured by gross state product (GSP) and the ratio of state spending to aggregate personal income. “In 37 states, effort is lower than it was, on average, during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools.” “States, on average, are devoting smaller shares of their economies to schools than at any point in the past two decades, and the revenue they do raise is in many cases distributed inequitably.”

For The Nation, Eric Blanc concludes: “Public schools were in crisis well before COVID-19. Especially in predominantly non-white, working-class school districts like Minneapolis, decades of underfunding, privatization, high-stakes testing, and low educator pay made it increasingly difficult for teachers and support staff to provide the education their students deserve. To overcome such conditions, an unprecedented upsurge in strikes erupted from West Virginia to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. ‘Red for Ed’ succeeded in energizing educators, capturing headlines, and challenging the bipartisan consensus in favor of privatizing education, but its progress was abruptly checked by the pandemic… In the Twin Cities and beyond, the past two years have reversed Red for Ed’s political momentum and exacerbated structural stressors and inequities, resulting in increased educator outflows from the profession… Schools have lacked basic resources necessary to address students’ mental distress in the face of pandemic conditions.”

In 2022, many school districts continue to face the same financial challenges that the Red for Ed wave highlighted.  If we value our children and if we want to attract extremely talented and well prepared young people to the profession of teaching, we must meet our obligation as citizens to tax ourselves adequately to serve the real needs of our nation’s 50 million young people enrolled in public schools.

Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

What we expect public schools to accomplish has a lot to do with how much we take the institution of universal public schooling for granted. For a long time, we haven’t really been seriously considering the collective needs of our children and their public schools. And when children and their public schools struggle, we elect people with other priorities to represent us in the state legislature and Congress.

Back in 1998 in a book called A Passion for Democracy, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber pointed out what a lot of people still fail to notice: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227) (emphasis in the original)

Last week in a powerful Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss revisits the same theme in a very different context.  She has noticed a thread that runs through two years of press coverage about public schools during the pandemic: “If you Google ‘lessons learned about schools during the pandemic,’ you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020. Many of the pieces highlight similar ‘lessons’—on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues—that seemingly hadn’t been thought of before.”

Strauss believes we ought to have learned all of these “pandemic” lessons over the decades that preceded the onset of COVID-19. Here are some of the themes she observes in recent COVID press coverage: “We learned… that… in person school… is much better for most students…. Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems…. Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school…. Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them…. Technology in schools… has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching…. Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parents communicators, hall and lunch monitors…. School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.”

Strauss concludes: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.”

Among the biggest lessons we learned again during COVID is about inadequate school funding and inequity across districts and states. Strauss explains that federal Title I funding to support schools serving concentrations of the nation’s poorest children, is inadequate and not targeted enough to the nation’s very poorest schools.  Further, “At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding—and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.  There are vast differences within states as well; reports released periodically show wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that ‘almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.'”

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarized the fiscal condition of school districts in the decade between the 2008 Great Recession and the onset of COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

During COVID-19 we learned again about unequal access to computers and broadband.  Strauss writes: “The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid-1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills… In April, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in school that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.'”

Another thing we learned about again during COVID is America’s outrageous rate of child poverty. UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States.  Strauss reports on one of the many ways we relearned this lesson during COVID: “That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly news. The School Lunch act of 1946—repeat, 1946, was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization… According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—nearly 11 million—lived in households considered ‘food insecure,’ meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.”

And during COVID we again learned about American students’ need for counseling and mental health support at school. Strauss writes: “There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic…. But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years.” Strauss cites a declaration of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. The declaration says: “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020… and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

Again and again, staff shortages in underfunded schools have left many students needing far more support. Strauss writes, “In U.S. public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students… According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015.  It’s nearly twice what the association recommends….”

Congress and the state legislatures could have taken extensive steps to reduce these challenges facing our children and their schools year after year, but such investments have been sporadic at best, and at the federal level during COVID, funding increases have been temporary. The allocation of temporary COVID relief from the federal government has not significantly alleviated the intersection of inadequate school funding and the unmet needs of children in school. Temporary COVID relief is a one-time investment, and public schools cannot hire salaried permanent staff with the dollars. Certainly COVID relief dollars were spent to alleviate the digital divide among children, but we know that lack of access to remote schooling during the pandemic still affected many children.

Long term solutions continue to be delayed.  While the Biden administration and many Congressional Democrats tried hard to pass Build Back Better—with permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit to help the poorest American families with children, more dollars for childcare support, and other supports for the well being and health of poor children—the bill has languished in Congress with an uncertain future.

Another example is the fate of full-service wraparound Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society began opening full-service Community Schools in New York City in 1992 and 1993 as a model for programming in schools where child poverty is concentrated. These are schools with family medical and social services located right in the school building. But in this year’s FY 2022 federal budget passed finally last month, after President Biden proposed spending $430 million for full-service Community Schools, Congress allocated only $75 million, an increase from the previous year’s investment of only $30 million, but not enough to make a dent in the meeting the need.

Valerie Strauss concludes her recent column: “So much for the ‘lessons’ we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.”

Strauss adds one other thing that happened again during the pandemic: our tendency to blame teachers when things don’t go smoothly at school instead of looking at our own responsibility for resourcing schools adequately: “(T)here was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that (teachers) were hailed as heroes…. But it didn’t take long for that narrative to… revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety precautions in schools…. (V)itriol about teachers and public schools became common again.” (Emphasis is mine.)