Is our society beginning to realize that we must invest in helping instead of punishing the school districts which serve our poorest children?
Clearly the conversation about public education among the Democratic candidates for President has turned away from what has been a quarter century of bipartisan test-and-punish, pro-privatization education policy. No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law 18 years ago, formalized the strategy. But in a remarkable commentary on Wednesday in USA Today, Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders declared a very different agenda: “Under NCLB, standardized tests were utilized to hold public schools and teachers ‘accountable’ for student outcomes. As a result, some schools that underperformed were closed and their teachers and unions blamed. The long-term effects of this approach have been disastrous. NCLB perpetuated the myth of public schools and teachers as failing, which opened the door for the spread of school voucher programs and charter schools that we have today. Some of these charter schools are operated by for-profits, many of them are nonunion and are not publicly accountable… The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing, however, is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.”
And all the leading Democratic candidates have also taken notice. In Pittsburgh on December 14, at a Public Education Forum 2020, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President all endorsed tripling or quadrupling the federal investment in Title I. They spoke for helping instead of punishing the schools in our nation’s poorest communities.
The Devastation Wrought by Accountability-Based, Test-and-Punish, Pro-Privatization School Reform
Federal and state governments have imposed school closures, state takeovers, and the transformation of low-scoring public schools into charter schools, but I don’t know of any school district serving mostly poor children with enough money to do the things wealthy school districts are able to accomplish by investing local property tax dollars they can collect on high-end real estate. Money enables wealthy school districts to develop high school symphony orchestras; make English classes small enough that teachers can assign in-depth writing about students’ research or reading or experience; rehire professional librarians and turn elementary schools into places where excitement about reading dominates the school culture; and accelerate and enrich math classes so that every child is on a path to take advanced math in high school.
A primary problem has been a chronic shortage of state and federal investment in public education. After tax revenues collapsed in the 2008 recession, many states made the problem worse by continuing to cut taxes. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.
In a short, profound analysis last fall, the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker summarized what teachers and administrators had reported to Education Week are their greatest challenges: “A new Education Week national survey of school districts reveals disturbing gaps between state and federal policy and the reality in American public schools… The most serious funding problem districts report is convincing elected officials to sufficiently fund public schools. They give both state and federal officials poor marks for their ability to understand school spending, and cite state legislators as the biggest obstacle to making spending decisions that best address student needs.”
Lecker continues: “Recent research highlights the failure of federal and state leaders to grasp the reality facing public schools. The most pernicious failure is the refusal to recognize the connection between poverty, funding and educational opportunity… Rather than recognize that high-poverty schools need more tools, and thus more funding, to best serve their students, federal and state leaders mandate intervention strategies that are proven failures: school turnaround, school closures, and state takeovers of school districts… Federal and state policies repeat a toxic cycle of disinvestment, punishment, then further disinvestment.”
Are Public Attitudes Shifting?
For two years now, striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen. Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions in their schools created by collapsing revenue—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.
On December 14 when candidates were asked about their education policies—after months when moderators in televised candidates’ debates failed to ask even a single question about public education—the candidates went on record to declare that underinvestment in our public schools has become the education imperative of our times. We owe enormous thanks to the sponsors of the December 14, Public Education Forum 2020, which brought leading Democratic candidates face to face with teachers, parents, public school students, and community advocates who pressed candidates publicly to commit to increasing federal funding to ensure opportunity for our nation’s poorest children in their public schools. The event was a collaboration of the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.
Professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, David Knight explains the significance of the Democratic candidates’ new consensus on significantly expanding Title I: “Funding increases of this scale would transform the federal role in education policy, making it easier for school districts to pay teachers higher wages while reducing class sizes. This focus on funding would mark a departure from previous administrations which instead emphasized policies intended to increase accountability and strengthen teacher evaluation.”
Derek Black, the school funding expert at the University of South Carolina School of Law, attended the December Democratic candidates’ forum in Pittsburgh. Black concurs with Knight on the importance of the shift among leading Democrats away from accountability and toward equalizing the opportunity to learn: “With few exceptions, the various Democratic plans for public education share a common theme: more funding, less privatizing… The way taxpayers do or do not fund public schools goes to the core question of the role of government in democracy. Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of the state and local tax dollars. No other single program comes close. Many of the earliest statewide tax systems came into existence for the express purpose of funding schools. And later major expansions of state taxes, like the state income tax in New Jersey, were solutions to unequal funding across school districts. Education holds this special status because state constitutions specifically require legislatures to fund uniform and adequate systems of public schools…. Public education has suffered steep funding declines over the past decade. Even once the Recession passed and tax revenues fully rebounded, states failed to replace those funds… The longstanding research consensus shows that fairly funding public schools is key to boosting student achievement for low-income students—and the precise connection between funding and student outcomes rows stronger and more detailed with each passing year… (T)hese new Democratic proposals try to do something that the nation has never before attempted, much less achieved: fully funding the educational needs of every poor, disabled, and English language learner student in the nation.”
Two Additional Encouraging Developments
The first involves efforts by state governments to address the school funding challenge. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill to increase school funding across the state by $1.5 billion annually. And Maryland is set to consider a new plan developed over three years by a 25-member Kirwan Commission. The commission’s chair, William Kirwan declares: “Kids growing up in poverty need more resources, and so a major portion of our recommendations are aimed at putting the resources into the schools where there are lots of low-income kids and providing them support.”
A second development is at least mildly encouraging. In the federal budget President Trump signed just before Christmas, Congress did not cut funding for public education as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had proposed. The new federal budget does not, of course, move toward the transformational changes being suggested by the leading Democrats running for President, but it does at least protect Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from deep cuts. And Congress neglected once again to enact DeVos’s annual proposal for federal tuition tax credit vouchers.
Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “The fiscal 2020 spending bill Trump just signed provides $72.8 billion in discretionary funding to the Education Department, a $1.3 billion increase that stands in stark contrast to the 10 percent cut Trump proposed in his blueprint from March. The spending bill he signed includes a $450 million increase for Title I spending on disadvantaged students, a $410 million increase for state special education grants, and more money for programs covering enrichment and educator training.” Increasing Title I by $450 million and funding for mandated IDEA programming by $410 million—once these dollars are spread across 50 states—is a tiny and relatively meaningless investment. But it is a statement of continuing Congressional rejection of Trump’s policies.
A change is emerging, but if we want to transform every public elementary school, middle school and high school into a model school, and, on top of enriching the academics, to transform the schools serving the poorest families into full-service wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, there is still a long way to go. It is time to keep on keeping on.