Growing Trend: Arizona School Districts Hiring Foreign Teachers on Temporary Guest Worker Visas

The press has widely reported teachers walking out in the past week due to desperate conditions in the public schools of Arizona and Colorado.

In a new blockbuster follow up report for the NY Times Dana Goldstein digs into into another symptom of desperation in Arizona’s poorest school districts. Arizona school districts have rapidly expanded the practice of recruiting school teachers from abroad on J-1 temporary guest worker visas. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that desperate districts, unable to pay competitive salaries to the state’s college educated and certified teachers, should be recruiting teachers willing to come from the Philippines for three-year stints.

Goldstein describes the program: “The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into American jobs brought Donato Soberano from the Philippines to Arizona two years ago. He had to pay thousands of dollars to a job broker and lived for a time in an apartment with five other Filipino workers. The lure is the pay—10 times more than what he made doing the same work back home. But Mr. Soberano is not a hospitality worker or a home health aide. He is in another line of work that increasingly pays too little to attract enough Americans: Mr. Soberano is a public school teacher.”

Goldstein continues: “Among the latest states hit by the protests is Arizona, where teacher pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year. The Pendergast Elementary School District, where Mr. Soberano works, has recruited more than 50 teachers from the Philippines since 2015. They hold J-1 visas, which allow them to work temporarily in the United States, like au pairs or camp counselors, but offer no path to citizenship. More than 2,800 foreign teachers arrived on American soil last year through the J-1, according to the State Department, up from about 1,200 in 2010.”

In 2015, an Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices drafted a code of conduct designed to protect teachers recruited by U.S. school districts from other countries.  The code established that the school district recruiting foreign teachers should pay for the costs of recruitment, and any legal costs, but the teachers Goldstein describes—hired from the Philippines and processed by entrepreneurial consultants, have all paid their own costs: “Much like other foreign workers… (Mr. Soberano) went into debt…. He said he used savings and a bank loan to pay $12,500, about three years’ worth of his salary in the Philippines, to Petro-Fil Manpower Services. That is a Filipino company of Ligaya Avenida, a California-based consultant who recruits and screens teachers for the J-1.  The payment covered Mr. Soberano’s airfare and rent for his first few months in Arizona, as well as a $2,500 fee for Ms. Avenida and a $3,500 fee to Alliance Abroad Group, a Texas-based company that is an official State Department sponsor for J-1 visa holders. The J-1 lasts three years, with the option for two one-year extensions.”

Goldstein reports that the J-1 program was envisioned not as an employment program for guest workers, but instead as a cultural exchange program as part of the 1961 Fulbright-Hayes Act.  Goldstein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers advocating that the H-1B visa program for highly skilled immigrants would be a more appropriate path for education professionals.  Mr. Soberano, for example, has three professional degrees earned in the Philippines—one of them in education with a focus in physics, along with 20 years of classroom teaching experience. Weingarten and others believe such teachers should be recruited through a program that would provide a potential path to citizenship instead of being recruited merely as short-term guest workers.

Teachers like Mr. Soberano are sometimes interviewed via Skype, although some school districts are sending recruiters to the Philippines.  “The Philippines was the top sender of J-1 teachers to the United States in 2017, followed by Jamaica and China… Many short-staffed schools turn to Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates and career-changers for two-year stints in the classroom. But to hire a Teach for America recruit, who may have no teaching experience or coursework in education, the district must pay $5,000 per teacher, in addition to salaries.  For a similar amount, a single trip to the Philippines can net dozen of candidates, all of whom, as required by the J-1 program, have degrees in education or the subjects they teach, and at least two years of experience in a Filipino school.” There is, of course, no guarantee that these teachers’ training reflects the kind of preparation required for Arizona teacher certification.

Importing foreign teachers, willing to work for far lower salaries, may seem like a solution to a school district’s deep, years-long financial crisis.  But teachers imported from abroad on J-1 visas are, by definition, short term hires. Goldstein reminds readers that, “research is clear that teacher churn negatively impacts academic achievement.  J-1 teachers are, because of the visa’s limitations, temporary, and without higher pay and regular raises, administrators in these districts say it will be impossible to attract enough American teachers and keep them in the classroom.” “The school districts that recruit teachers like Mr. Soberano say that they have few other options because they can’t find enough American educators willing to work for the pay on offer. They say that the foreign teachers are being given valuable opportunities, and that American students are enriched by learning from them. But critics argue the teachers are being taken advantage of in a practice that helps keep wages low and perpetuates years-long austerity policies.”

Please read Goldstein’s fine report, Teacher Pay Is So Low in Some U.S. School Districts That They’re Recruiting Overseas.  Then spend some time considering, along with everything else you have learned from the stories of striking teachers this spring, what all this says about years of austerity budgeting across a sizeable number of states. These are perilous times.


Trump and Congress Launch Libertarian Attack on Poor Adults; Forget All About The Children

Paul Ryan’s firing of the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives has cast a bright light on the absence of any kind of public ethics in public policy coming out of the Trump administration and Congress.

The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes: “Praying for the poor is now apparently a firing offense in the corridors of power…Only in this perverted time could a priest lose his job after committing the sin of crying out for justice for the poor. But then, look around: Everywhere are the signs of a rising kleptrocracy. The $1.5 trillion tax cut did make winners of corporations and the wealthy. And actions since then show that the Trump administration is making losers of the poor… If you preach about the poor in today’s Washington, you don’t have a prayer.”

Writing for the Post’s “Morning Plum Line” on Friday, Greg Sargent reported: “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R. Wis.) has dismissed the House chaplain, outraging Catholics in the lower chamber, and this morning’s speculation has centered on a prayer offered by the chaplain that was critical of the GOP tax law. In that prayer, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy urged members of the House to ensure that ‘there are not winners and losers’ under the new law, but rather ‘benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.'”

Sargent continues: “Ryan has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009, he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain ‘the morality of capitalism,’ which he described as ‘the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed.’… Ryan has long believed, as many liberertarians do, that taxes and the safety net are paramount threats to individual liberty, both because redistribution is confiscation from the productive ‘makers’ and because… the safety net squelches individual initiative, turning them into ‘takers.'”

Even before Ryan dismissed Rev. Conroy, the NY TimesPaul Krugman penned a scathing column last week about Trump’s War on the Poor: “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like the collection of petty grifters and miscreants surrounding Trump.  Price, Pruitt, Zinke, Carson…. The perks many Trump officials demand—the gratuitous first-class travel, the double super-secret soundproof phone booths, and so on—are outrageous, and they tell you a lot about the kind of people they are.  But what really matters are their policy decisions. Ben Carson’s insistence on spending taxpayer funds on a $31,000 dining set is ridiculous; his proposal to sharply raise housing costs for hundreds of thousands of needy American families, tripling rent for some of the poorest households, is vicious… That war is being fought on multiple fronts.  The move to slash housing subsidies follows moves to sharply increase work requirements for those seeking food stamps.  Meanwhile, the administration has been granting Republican-controlled states waivers allowing them to impose onerous new work requirements for recipients of Medicaid….”

The writers of all three of these fine columns about the decline of classic public morality miss one important additional issue, however. There are children in the picture. When libertarians cut food stamps or triple the rent for a publicly subsidized apartment, or deny Medicaid to unemployed parents, and when they design punitive policies that will, they say, force adults to take initiative and be productive, the children are hurt every single time.

Krugman does acknowledge the long term economic consequences of denying the needs of millions of children: “(T)he creation of the food stamp program didn’t just make the lives of recipients a bit easier. It also had major positive impacts on the long-term health of children from poor families, which made them more productive as adults—more likely to pay taxes, less likely to need further public assistance. The same goes for Medicaid, where new studies suggest that more than half of each dollar spent on health care for children eventually comes back as higher tax receipts from healthier adults.”

I am delighted that Krugman remembers children, but his argument makes me think about the comment of Jonathan Kozol in one of his books about the children of the South Bronx: “Even groups that advocate for children do not seem to feel it’s safe to make an argument their behalf without convincing us that being kind to children will be cost-effective.  Money invested in nutrition programs and pre-natal care, we’re told in countless publications, ‘saves hundreds of thousands of dollars’…. Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business.  ‘A dollar spent on Head start,’ they repeat time and again, ‘will save our government six dollars over 20 years’ in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration.  It’s a point worth making if it’s true, although it’s hard to prove; and still, it strikes one as a pretty dreadful way to have to speak of four-year-olds… Why do our natural compassion and religious inclinations need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on?  Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they’re children and deserve to have some fun while they’re still less than four feet high?”  (Ordinary Resurrections, pp 137-138)

As our children are forgotten, so are the schools that serve them—especially schools overwhelmed by concentrations of children living in extremely poor neighborhoods and therefore zoned into particular schools.  The Schott Foundation for Public Education, however, has been calling attention to child poverty and to the needs of public schools punished in our accountability-driven times because they are serving concentrations of poor children.  In a column published by the Learning Policy Institute as part of the recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation, declares: “The ideology of the 1980s, ’90s, and today has primarily focused on elevating ‘personal responsibility’ and blaming the economically disadvantaged or the community workers who provide services to them instead of recognizing the systemic inequities in opportunities that exist and creating systems in which each child and his or her family have the supports to achieve high outcomes… (P)arental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not the type of public school, the particulars of teacher labor contracts, or the brand of assessment used.  Decades of robust debates on education standards, assessments, accountability, labor contracts, and traditional vs. charter public schools have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms, and teachers, while ignoring inequities in students’ neighborhood living environments.  Research shows that those inequities—such as lack of access to affordable housing and health care—are reflected in unequal student outcomes and rates of success.  Simply stated, every child needs both healthy living and learning climates to grow academically and to have a fair chance at succeeding.”

Jackson continues: “(S)egregation, in conjunction with unfair school funding formulas and disinvestment in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods has created separate and unequal living and learning environments where children do not have access to even the most basic resources and supports they need to learn and thrive… In February 2018, Schott launched the Loving Cities Index to outline and analyze the system of supports needed to affirmatively heal communities from the damage caused by decades of racialized policies, criminalization, and segregation.”  In all of the cities the Schott Foundation has studied there are “high levels of people working full time who are still earning 200% below the federal poverty line. They also show a housing market crisis in which the majority of residents cannot find rental options affordable at their income levels.  Fair wages, along with affordable and safe housing are part of a system of supports that are critical to providing children and families with stable living environments…”

Dana Milbank is correct that “The poor don’t have a prayer in today’s Washington.” I am delighted that John Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education are calling attention to the needs of poor children in these appalling times.  For when Trump and Congress beat up on poor parents for lacking initiative and being “takers,” it is the children who really suffer.

Walkouts by Teachers Spread to Arizona and Colorado

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto identifies the teacher pay gap in all the states: the difference between average salaries for schoolteachers and for other college graduates. Arizona and Colorado, where teachers walked out last Thursday and Friday, represent the two states where the gap is widest among all the fifty states.  In Arizona, public school teachers make only 62.8 percent and in Colorado 64.5 percent of the salaries of other college graduates. And in both states the cost of living is quickly rising.

Surely their paltry wages are part of the reason school teachers in these states have mounted major protests at their state capitols, but conditions in the schools where they teach are the other reason.

Here are some realities in Arizona, where teachers continued their strike yesterday. The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reports: “When adjusted for inflation, Arizona cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.  That has led to relatively low teacher salaries, crumbling school buildings, and the elimination of free full-day kindergarten in some districts… Low teacher pay has contributed to teacher shortages in Arizona. Some districts, unable to find qualified teaching candidates, have turned to emergency long-term substitutes who are required to hold only a high school diploma.”

Writing for Education Week, Daarel Burnete II adds: “Arizona is one of seven states that, in response to voter demands, has cut income taxes in the last decade, a revenue source schools rely on heavily. In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state’s department of revenue.  At the same time, Arizona has made among the most dramatic budget cuts in the nation to its schools, totaling 14 percent in the last decade alone… The paradox is that Arizona’s economy is in its best condition in years.  Its unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, and the state’s 100 largest corporations added more than 20,000 jobs last year alone.”

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has promised teachers a 20 percent raise over five years and also promised to do it without a tax increase.  Striking teachers do not believe his plan will produce the raises he has promised. Neither do they believe he will be able significantly to increase overall school funding.  NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg describes what she found when she visited schools in Arizona last week: “I visited a K-8 school in the scrublands of South Phoenix, a flat, dusty, wide-open area that’s only a 15-minute drive from downtown but feels much farther.  (The principal asked me not to identify it, or him, for fear that his school would suffer administrative reprisals for letting a journalist in.)  The science teacher told me her classes have 30-36 students each.  Aside from desks, she’d either bought most of what was in her classroom, or had it donated—not just books, but also chairs and even a water dispenser, which the class needed during the seven months when the school’s drinking fountains were broken… The teacher… was sad and anxious about the walkout, but had voted for it out of desperation. ‘I’m at a breaking point,’ she told me. ‘We don’t have the resources. I’m spending more and more money out of my own pocket, and I can’t have the impact that I want to have with the way things are now. Something needs to happen.'”

Colorado’s capacity to fund its schools is complicated by an American Legislative Exchange Council backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a TABOR, adopted into Colorado’s state constitution in 1992. Here is a description about how Colorado’s TABOR affects school funding: “(W)hat it basically means is that lawmakers can’t raise your taxes without making you vote on it first. And it also limits how much of a ‘raise,’ so to speak, that the state gets each year. And, if the state happens to generate too much money, it can’t keep it. Instead, this goes back to taxpayers.”  TABOR and other tax freezes and limitations in Colorado mean that state’s allocation for school districts has declined steadily.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains further that Colorado is the only state that has embedded a TABOR into its constitution despite attempts in other states, where voters have defeated passage of this kind of restrictive policy that is being promoted by far-right anti-tax interests. More than a decade after the TABOR was passed, Colorado’s revenue collapsed so completely that: “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort.  TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

The state’s school funding morass due to the TABOR means that Colorado teachers’ purpose in rallying is a little different than in Arizona.  The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Livingston reports: “Meanwhile, in Colorado, an upcoming ballot measure in November could tip the scales in the students’ favor. The ‘Great Schools, Thriving Communities’ measure would increase tax rates for corporations and for people who make more than $150,000 annually. The money would be used to increase base funding for all students, provide full-day kindergarten and increase funding from the state to local districts for English language classes and special education.”

Unfortunately the prospects for passage of the ballot initiative are unsure: The Post‘s Moriah Balingit summarizes the tenuous financial situation faced by school teachers in TABOR-constrained Colorado: “The stagnant salaries, combined with skyrocketing housing prices in the booming state, have made life untenable for many educators. The state’s constitution gives only voters the authority to raise taxes, and they have twice rejected such proposals.”

Teachers in Arizona and Colorado have now joined their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to expose what it means for children and their teachers when far-right governments impose tax freezes and slash taxes.  As NY Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman explained very plainly last week: “Education accounts for more than half of the state and local (public) work force….  What tax cuts do.. is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. That means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level—simply let the budget deficit balloon.  Instead they have to cut spending. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.”

Story of ECOT Fraud Becoming Political Issue for Ohio’s May 8 Primary Election

This week here in Ohio we had one more confirmation that the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which was shut down by the state at the end of January, has been intentionally defrauding the state of hundreds of millions of dollars by inflating its attendance figures.

The Associated Press‘s Julie Carr Smyth reported: “Education regulators are reviewing a whistleblower’s claim that Ohio’s then-largest online charter school intentionally inflated attendance figures tied to its state funding using software it purchased after previous allegations of attendance inflation… A former technology employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said he told the Ohio Department of Education last year that school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state’s demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year… His concerns were first raised in an Aug. 3, e-mail to the state….”

It isn’t as though ECOT’s fraudulent ripoff of tax dollars is new information, and it isn’t as though anybody imagined ECOT’s  overinflated attendance figures were anything but fraudulently manipulated. We have all been aware that  ECOT’s ripoff of public education dollars was not accidental, after all.  For the 2015-16 school year alone, the state found ECOT over-reported its attendance by 60 percent. The state paid ECOT on a per-pupil basis, and for two years the Ohio Department of Education has been trying to claw back $60 million for that school year alone—and now an additional $20 million overpaid by the state for the 2016-2017 school year.

My clipping file on the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is two and a half inches thick.  For years, the state did not even require careful record keeping of student attendance by the state’s online charter schools.  But when the legislature strengthened the law to clamp down on suspected fraud in 2015, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow fought back against any kind of reasonable oversight. The press has been tracking the ongoing fight ever since with relentless reporting by the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell and the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky. These people deserve credit for the fact that ECOT has now been put out of business.

The most significant story was Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel’s July 30, 2017, interview with a waitress at a Columbus Waffle House where Bill Lager and a business partner cooked up the idea of ECOT as a business venture to try to help Lager recover from a personal bankruptcy. Candisky and Siegel traced ECOT’s fraudulent exaggeration of student attendance way back to 2001, at the end of the school’s first year of operation, when then state Auditor Jim Petro, “found the school in its first year had no policies for processing student enrollment or withdrawals, and the state paid $1.9 million over two months for students with no documented hours of instruction.”

The editorial boards of the state’s major newspapers have relentlessly traced a narrative of fraud by ECOT along with massive payoffs to Ohio’s mostly Republican politicians by William Lager, owner of the two for-profit companies that ran the online school and provided its curriculum.  Ohio’s newspapers have persisted all the while ECOT and Bill Lager tied up any state crackdown on the school’s fraud by filing lawsuits against the state along with masses of appeals when lower courts denied ECOT’s claims. Here is a sampling of editorial condemnation of ECOT’s fight to continue ripping off the state:

  • Back in September of 2016, the retired editorial page director of the Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin began his column: “The biggest scandal in Ohio history is knocking on the Statehouse door. This isn’t about then-Gov. Bob Taft failing to disclose a few rounds of golf. It’s about pouring hundreds of millions of dollars a year down a rat hole and selling out tens of thousands of children… The villains who want to perpetuate this swindle are the Republicans who run the Ohio General Assembly… In March, an initial ODE review of ECOT’s records determined that most students log into ECOT’s online platform only about an hour a day…  So when the state asked a Franklin County court to order ECOT to turn over attendance records as part of an effort to determine whether students are actually receiving the 920 annual hours of education that the state requires, ECOT fought back—with a vengeance.”
  • In October of 2016, the Akron Beacon Journal editorialized: “What is the misspending of hundreds of millions of public dollars?  The word ‘scandal’ comes to mind, and it describes the misdeeds of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and its many Republican enablers at the statehouse.”
  • A year ago, the Columbus Dispatch commented: “For sheer audacity, there is no precedent for the claims to Ohio taxpayer money being made by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. The state’s largest online school, ECOT demands more than $100 million per year from the treasury, while claiming the state—on behalf of taxpayers—has no right to document that students are actually logging in.  ECOT argues its contract with the Ohio Department of Education allows it to teach to an empty classroom, while continuing annual collections of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.”
  • In late January of this year as the state shut ECOT down, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial board spoke out: “While the debate continues over the way in which the online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow squandered Ohio taxpayer money and failed the young Ohioans it was supposed to be teaching, there can’t be any debate over what the ECOT mess has taught Ohio’s taxpayers: Money talks at the Statehouse. At every turn in the regulatory road, ECOT’s mainly Republican enablers looked the other way because, in effect, that’s what they were paid to do—legally, through campaign donations.”

Although this week’s new Associated Press report about the ECOT whistleblower doesn’t say anything really new about ECOT’s failure accurately to count its students, and even though nobody has imagined that ECOT mis-reported student attendance by accident, the new story is accomplishing something important. Suddenly politicians in the race for governor, state auditor, and state attorney general are accusing incumbents of failure to pay attention and to respond immediately last summer to a whistleblower’s  account of what was surely criminal fraud on ECOT’s part.  And the incumbents are all scurrying around saying that they paid more attention than anybody knew.  Suddenly the ECOT scandal—which died down for a couple of months after the school was shut down in January—is a major topic in the political campaigns for statewide offices in the May 8, primary election.

In Ohio, where the Governor is a Republican and the state House of Representatives is dominated by a 66:33 Republican majority and the state Senate by a 33:9 Republican majority, we don’t have any checks and balances.  It is essential that the over-fifteen-year ECOT ripoff  will remain in the news and that candidates running for office demand that voters hold Ohio’s politicians accountable.

ECOT is now closed, a school in bankruptcy with its affairs being managed by a receiver, but ECOT’s owners are still trying to resurrect the school through the appeal of its case against the state, a case heard finally in February by the Ohio Supreme Court. We await the Court’s decision. Once again, during oral arguments, the press played its essential role.  The Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel described the final interchange between ECOT’s attorney and Ohio’s Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor: “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only long in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’ she asked.”

We shall see how the Ohio Supreme Court eventually decides the case. Ohio’s supreme court is elected, and like the legislature, it is majority-Republican. But the persistent coverage by the press has kept pressure on the Court just as it has on the staff at the Ohio Department of Education and on ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.  After all, unless the Supreme Court saves it, ECOT is now closed.  It is no longer receiving Ohio tax dollars, even though it still owes the state millions of dollars that had not yet been clawed back prior to the date of its closure.

DeVos Diminishes Civil Rights Enforcement, Violates Education Department’s Mission

There continue to be warning signs that Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education is backing away from its responsibility to protect students’ civil rights:

  • The NY TimesErica Green reported this week on a new protocol by which the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will “disregard cases that are part of serial filings or that they consider burdensome to the office.”  Department officials plan to stop investigating claims from frequent filers—people calling attention to widespread problems by filing numerous complaints against a number of institutions like schools, colleges, libraries and other educational institutions.  The stated goal of DeVos’s department is efficiency, despite that Catherine Lhamon, who led the OCR during the Obama administration explains: “the Education Department cannot pick and choose the cases it pursues. If the office has evidence that the law has been violated, it must open a case.”
  • Then there is the February publication of a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on a proposal to delay for two years the implementation of an Obama-era rule requiring schools to address huge disparities by race in the “placement, classification, and/or discipline of students with disabilities.”  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a commentary by Touro College professor of special education Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides, who worries: “It is not a coincidence that racial disparities in special education mirror broader educational opportunity gaps… Relying upon a racially neutral policy approach that preserves state rights will not sufficiently counter these inequities.” Voulgarides makes the obvious point that when a disproportionate number of black or brown children are placed in special education or once-placed, disproportionately disciplined, the OCR ought to be investigating the disparities.
  • Then this week Congress confirmed Carlos G. Muniz as the Department of Education’s General Counsel. The Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy’s Jeff Smith reports that Muniz represented a Florida college football player accused of raping a young woman, a case later investigated by the Education Department’s OCR, “after it was discovered that the university barely investigated the rape case.”  Muniz also “helped to defend the Florida Attorney General’s decision to sit out legal action against Trump University.”  Smith adds that Muniz is part of the libertarian Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which is a member of the State Policy Network and a supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

However, the most recent serious concerns are raised in a report published in March by the United States Government Accountability Office. The GAO documents the presence of disproportionate severe discipline and police referrals out of school for African American students, a concern emphasized by the Obama Administration and an injustice many believe Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education is failing to address. The NY TimesErica Green summarizes the GAO’s findings: “Black students continue to be disciplined at school more often and more harshly than their white peers, often for similar infractions, according to a new report by Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, which counters claims fueling the Trump administration’s efforts to re-examine discipline policies of the Obama administration.  The report… is the first national governmental analysis of discipline policies since the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that urged schools to examine the disproportionate rates at which black students were being punished. Critics of the Obama-era guidance have questioned whether students of color suffer from unfair treatment under school discipline policies. But the G.A.O. found that not only have black students across the nation continued to bear the brunt of such policies, but the impact was felt more widely than previously reported—including by  black students in affluent schools.”

Annie Waldman’s report this week from ProPublica describes in very personal terms how harsh and disproportionate discipline fuels the school to prison pipeline in Bryan, Texas. Recounting the story of a mother, Yvola Polk, and her daughter, Trah’Vaeziah—a seventh grader who is arrested by a school-based police officer, taken to juvenile detention over a whole weekend before she gets a hearing, and later assigned to her school district’s disciplinary alternative school, Waldman tells the story of of a child put on the path to school failure.  Although a relatively simple in-school disciplinary action could easily have handled the problem without the involvement of the police, the school district’s policy of locating a police officer at the school elevated the child’s original misbehavior into a crime, which launched a series of automatic escalations despite that the family of the other child—in an incident that likely represented teasing gone awry—chose not to press charges.

Here is how the consequences of the disciplinary process sucked the seventh grader into the juvenile justice system: “Trah’Vaeziah faced further consequences. Days after her release, at a due process hearing at the school, she was sentenced to five weeks in the district’s disciplinary alternative school. When the mother appealed, the stint was reduced to about two weeks. The disciplinary school epitomizes the district’s racial disparities. About 44 percent of students referred to the school are black, more than twice the district-wide proportion…. As research has shown, juvenile arrests can increase student misconduct, perpetuating a disciplinary cycle as children begin to internalize a ‘criminal’ label.  Trah’Vaeziah was no exception. In January 2018, after a classmate pulled Trah’Vaeziah’s hair, provoking a scuffle, she was sent back to the disciplinary school which she currently attends. The school emphasizes computer-based instruction, so Trah’Veziah and the other students receive minimal personal instruction from teachers.  They mainly watch video lectures and complete lessons online.”

Waldman contrasts the Obama era approach—protecting students’ rights and pressing for restorative rather than punitive discipline—to often harsh and apparently too often disparate discipline policies that Betsy DeVos’s Office of Civil Rights seems willing not to investigate: “Flooded with about 1,500 complaints related to racial discrimination in school discipline between 2011 and 2017, the Obama administration made the issue a priority.  Relying on the doctrine of ‘disparate impact’ which emerged in the 1970s and holds that differential treatment by race amounts to discrimination whether or not there is overt or intentional bias, the Department of Education opened sweeping investigations into disciplinary disparities, from large school districts such as Minneapolis and Oakland to smaller ones like Bryan, Texas, where Trah’Vaeziah goes to school. It pushed investigators in its regional offices to broaden probes of individual incidents to look for systemic discrimination.  But under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration is taking a more hands-off approach.  DeVos has indicated that she may soon reverse Obama-era guidelines on disparate impact and school discipline.” And in Texas, in September of 2017, the Education Department Office for Civil Rights’ Texas office ended its investigation of the school district in Bryan, “notifying the complainants that there was ‘insufficient evidence to support a conclusion of noncompliance.'”

Here is what the GAO reported last month—a finding that corroborates the results of studies over the past two decades: “Black students, boys, and students with disabilities experienced disproportionate levels of discipline. Black students were particularly overrepresented among students who were suspended from school, received corporal punishment, or had a school-related arrest…  For example, Black students represented 15.5 percent of all public school students and accounted for 39 percent of students suspended from school, an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points. Differences in discipline were particularly large between Black and White students. Although there were approximately 17.4 million more White students than Black students attending K-12 public schools in 2013-14, nearly 176,000 more Black students than White students were suspended from school that year…  Further, boys as a group were overrepresented, while girls were underrepresented among students disciplined…. Students with disabilities represented approximately 12 percent of all public school students, and accounted for nearly 25 percent or more of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident, or suspended from school (an overrepresentation of roughly 15.5 percentage points for referrals to law enforcement and school related arrests, and 13 percentage points for out-of-school suspensions).”

Both the GAO report and Annie Waldman’s profile of the seventh grader in Bryan, Texas are evidence of needed strong federal civil rights enforcement of equitable school discipline. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was established because a number of states were not protecting the rights of black and brown children. Betsy DeVos’s reduction of the Department of Education’s civil rights enforcement violates the department’s mission.

Arizona Teachers Will Walk Out Tomorrow for Salaries and Adequate School Funding

Last Thursday, Arizona’s teachers voted to walk out tomorrow, April 26, unless Governor Doug Ducey can show there is a way to pay for his recent promise to raise teachers’ salaries in one of the nation’s lowest paying states. For the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reports: “Ducey said he would give teachers a 20 percent pay hike by 2020. But Arizona teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, say the governor has not identified how he would pay for it, and they say their schools are starving for funds after massive budget cuts since the Great Recession. According to the nonprofit group Arizona Schools Now, the Arizona legislature cut $1.5 billion in school funding while a 2016 voter-approved initiative has restored only 18 percent.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Arizona is among 7 of the 12 states with deep cuts in education spending that have also cut personal or corporate income taxes since 2008.  Arizona has cut income taxes by 13.6 percent over the decade.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein adds: “The state has cut approximately $1 billion from schools since the 2008 recession, while also cutting taxes. It spent under $7,500 per pupil annually in 2015, the last year for which census data was available; only Utah and Idaho spent less.”

Goldstein describes the details of weeks of protests and negotiations that have led Governor Ducey to promise a salary increase. She also explains why teachers are skeptical that Ducey will be able to raise salaries without a tax increase, as he has promised—when there is no obvious ready source of revenue: “The vote in Arizona followed weeks of protest across the state and promises from the governor to raise salaries. The Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United (AEU), a group of teachers who organized independently on Facebook, said that 78 percent of the teachers and school workers who cast ballots supported a walkout.  The groups said the walkout would take place on April 26 if  legislators and the governor did not meet their demands, not only for a raise for teachers but also one for school support staff.  They also called for an end to tax cuts until Arizona’s per-pupil spending reaches the national average… Arizona has never before had a statewide teacher walkout, and has experienced only a handful of districtwide strikes over the past four decades.”

Goldstein briefly profiles several young teachers in their twenties and thirties who are making less than $40,000 per year: “In San Tan Valley, an exurban area an hour southeast of Phoenix, Mary Stavely… 34, earns $36,800. Thirteen of 38 teachers at her school, Circle Cross Ranch K-8 are planning to resign at the end of this academic year, she said, because of factors like low pay and a lack of rental housing in the area. ‘It directly affects students’ when teacher turnover is high, Ms. Stavely said, because children ‘lose morale and the connections that were made’ with caring adults. Ms. Stavely, a single mother, is currently living with her parents….”

The Arizona Republic’s Ricardo Cano reports about what many teachers regard as problems with Governor Ducey’s promised raise: “Organizers with AEU and the Arizona Education Association criticized Ducey’s plan, saying it left out support professionals, lacked funding details and didn’t address schools’ broader funding needs for things like reducing the number of students in each classroom, updating textbooks and purchasing new technology.”

The best explanation I’ve read about the meaning of this month’s walkouts by school teachers is the school finance primer published in yesterday’s NY Times from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman: “At the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers… The federal government… is basically an insurance company with an army: nondefense spending is dominated by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. State and local governments, however, are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for the rest. So what happens when hard-line conservatives take over a state, as they did in much of the country after the 2010 Tea Party wave?  They almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy. This promise is, however, never—and I mean never—fulfilled….  What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue…. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs… At the national level, earnings of public-school teachers have fallen behind inflation since the mid-1990s, and have fallen even more behind the earnings of comparable workers.  At this point, teachers earn 23 percent less than other college graduates…. Meanwhile teachers’ benefits are also getting worse. In particular, teachers are having to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums, a severe burden when their real earnings are declining at the same time.”

Here are two additional important commentaries on the meaning of this month’s teachers’ walkouts.

Writing for the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson views the walkouts by school teachers across all-Red states as a rejection of the anti-tax dogma that swept the country in the 2010 Tea Party wave: “The remarkable upsurge of teachers in Republican-run, largely non-union states that has swept through West Virginia and is now sweeping through Oklahoma and Kentucky, and is poised to descend on Arizona, has returned the mass strike to the United States after decades of relegation to the history books. In each of these states, the teachers unions have something between limited and no legal rights to bargain collectively, and correspondingly, represent just a hard core of members whose commitment to their union is more a matter of belief than of anticipated reward. And yet, able to mobilize even in non-union terrains through the use of social media, and outraged by their states’ continued opposition to funding public education, the teachers have leapt beyond law and formal organization to press their case… Indeed, what the Republican governors and legislators of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are now discovering is that, contra the GOP’s Grover Norquist nostrums, their constituents actually don’t want a government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub.”

Finally, what does tomorrow’s walkout in Arizona say about overall education policy?  Not only has Arizona under-funded its public schools, but the state has been a leader in the push for school privatization.  The state has a large charter school sector and an education savings account-voucher program that Governor Ducey expanded last year to make all 1.1 million public school students in the state eligible, though an initial cap was set at 30,000. A grassroots coalition, Save Our Schools Arizona has garnered enough signatures for Proposition 305, a November referendum to stop the growth of the education savings account program, an expansion which would only further bankrupt the public school budget. A UCLA academic who has tracked public policy in education, Pedro Noguera believes this spring’s wave of community-supported walkouts by teachers as a sign that the public is turning away from accountability-based corporate school reform and education privatization:

“In many respects, the strikes are the culmination of a long-simmering response to the numerous attacks that have been directed at teachers and public education generally, under the guise of ‘reform.’ In several cities and states, Republicans, and in some cases Democrats, have promoted a package of measures—expansion of charter schools, vouchers, state takeover of school districts (primarily those that serve poor children of color)—that have undermined and weakened public education. The impact of these measures has been particularly devastating in cities where the reformers have sought to privatize and dismantle school systems they claimed were ‘failing.’ However, despite the vast amount of private-foundation and hedge-fund money behind them, these reformers are losing steam… It’s become clear that the fight over the future of public education is a major front in the fight over the future of American democracy.  The teachers’ strikes and the public support they’ve generated are a resounding affirmation that those who see a strong public education as critical to America’s future are not giving up.”

House Farm Bill Will Make Families Work 20 Hours a Week to Qualify for Food Stamps and Reduce Access to School Lunch

With voting along strict party lines, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed a 2018 Farm Bill out of committee last Wednesday, a bill which would add punitive work requirements curtailing families’ participation in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway has said he will bring the bill to the House floor for a vote in May.  The bill would not only reduce families’ access to SNAP, but it would also limit students’ access to free school lunch and breakfast programs.

Marc Egan, Director of Government Relations for the National Education Association, sent a letter to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives last week to urge them to vote NO on this bill when it comes before the full House next month.  Egan explains the implications for federally funded school meals: “This bill makes unnecessary changes to certification and eligibility requirements that could reduce the number of students eligible for free school meals… Children living in households that receive SNAP benefits are eligible to receive free school meals… Congress required all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to directly certify… (these) students for free school meals. H.R. 2 (the Farm Bill) undermines this important link in the 28 states that have chosen a broad based eligibility option under current SNAP rules…. (T)his would impact as many as 265,000 students nationwide.  Direct certification for SNAP also provides the foundation for the Community Eligibility Provision, a hugely successful option that allows over 20,000 high poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to their students.  The provision eliminates the need for schools to collect and process school meal applications…. Schools are eligible to implement community eligibility if at least 40 percent of their students are certified to receive free school meals without submitting an application. Community eligibility schools are reimbursed based on the poverty within the school.”

Egan concludes: “Reducing the number of students who are directly certified by changing the rules for categorical eligibility means that fewer schools will be eligible to implement community eligibility, and many schools that are eligible will find that it is no longer financially viable, because fewer of their meals would be reimbursed at the free rate.”

The House version of the Farm Bill would also directly reduce SNAP eligibility for families by adding a work requirement. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains: “Among its most significant proposals, the Chairman’s plan would impose new, nationwide mandatory work requirements on millions of SNAP participants.  It would require SNAP participants ages 18 through 59 who are not disabled or raising a child under 6 to prove—every month—they they’re working at least 20 hours a week, participating in at least 20 hours a week in a work program, or a combination of the two. The typical individual who would be subject to the new requirements receives about $150 or $185 a month in SNAP benefits. Those who can’t comply would face harsh sanctions—the first failure would mean a loss of benefits for 12 months; each subsequent failure would lock individuals out of the program for 36 months.”  CBPP adds that funding provided in the bill for training programs is insufficient to support SNAP recipients needing to work.  Additionally, many workers in low income jobs cannot control their schedules and the number of hours they may be assigned to work each month; such jobs too often provide sporadic employment. A SNAP recipient who is working might lose SNAP due to a layoff or scheduling problem the worker cannot control.

Schools serving students in families who depend on SNAP benefits, especially the schools where a large percentage of students need free breakfast and lunch, are the very schools whose students face a mass of other challenges—children who are homeless, in the children’s services system, or in families with unstable employment.  Such schools struggle, often without much of anyone’s noticing, when cuts in federal and state social services and health programs further stress the vulnerable families they serve.

Monday’s Washington Post featured Robert Samuels’ portrait of a Milwaukee family trying to survive in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin—an all-Red, tax slashing state that has modeled what Samuels describes as “the GOP model for ‘welfare reform.'” Samuels explains: “The way things are changing in Wisconsin—and around much of the country—is that lawmakers are embracing increasingly aggressive measures to move the poor out of the social safety net and into the workforce. In 2013, Wisconsin took a leading role in this trend when Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation requiring childless adults who aren’t disabled to work at least 20 hours a week to continue to qualify for food stamps. Those who didn’t do so were required to attend training programs scattered throughout the state until they could find a job. In February, the state took it a step further: Parents of school-age children will also have to work to receive food stamps. And instead of 20 hours, they must work at least 30.  ‘We will help people when they are down and out,’ Walker said in his State of the State address in January.  ‘But for those who are able, public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.'”  The parents and two children in Samuels’ story are homeless and dependent on a car in need of major repairs. Both parents have worked sporadically, but struggle with desperation when a layoff occurs or the car breaks down and they cannot afford repairs.

Samuels reports that Wisconsin’s regulations limiting access to SNAP have increased desperation among Wisconsin’s poorest families: “State officials also said that more than 86,000 people have lost their ability to get food stamps and did not report getting new jobs.  There’s been no government study examining what happened to them. State officials say they presume some got new jobs and didn’t bother to report them, but advocates say they see swelling numbers at churches and food pantries where more and more people go looking for help.”

In their startling 2015 book on America’s deepest poverty, sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer describe deepening poverty among our society’s poorest families: “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more, not only were these figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996—and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)

Edin and Shaefer also highlight the essential role of SNAP: “One piece of good news in these findings was that the government safety net was helping at least some households. When Shaefer added in SNAP as if it were cash—a problematic assumption because SNAP cannot legally be converted to cash, so it can’t be used to pay the light bill, the rent, or buy a bus pass—the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty fell by about half. This vital in-kind government program was clearly reaching many, though not all of the poorest of the poor.  Even counting SNAP as cash, though, Shaefer found that the increase in the number of families with children living in $2-a-day poverty remained large—up 70 percent in fifteen years…  A look at government data on those receiving SNAP revealed a large increase in the number of families with no other source of income. And reports from the nation’s public schools showed that more and more children were facing homelessness.  Taken together, these findings seemed to confirm the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress made over the past three decades.”  ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)

The Farm Bill coming out of the House Agricultural Committee will hurt poor children, their families, and their public schools. All this is why the National Education Association is asking its members to send its action alert asking members of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against the Farm Bill that was passed out of committee last week.  You might also want to send NEA’s action alert to your Congressional representative.