Kansas Children Still Hurt By Austerity Budgeting and Tax Cuts: Court Says School Funding Too Low

In the first week of June, the Republican dominated Kansas legislature repudiated Governor Sam Brownbeck’s multi-year experiment with massive tax slashing, increased taxes, and instituted a new school funding plan that legislators hoped would undo the damage of years of austerity budgeting.  But on Monday of this week, the Kansas Supreme Court found the new plan unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable and gave the legislature until June 30 to allocate more money and distribute it more fairly across the state’s school districts.

Here is the Wichita Eagle describing the new decision: “In a case with potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars at stake, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature’s latest efforts to provide adequate and fair funding still fall short. The decision that the current system is unconstitutional will send the issue back to the Legislature with orders to add more funding to school district budgets statewide next year. The ruling also ordered a fairer distribution of state funding, to ensure that students in poor districts have the same educational opportunities as their peers in wealthier communities.”  The Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature, which reconvenes in January, to produce a new plan by April 30 of next year, have it reviewed by the court, and ensure that a new funding system is in place by June 30.

One lesson in this latest decision in Gannon v. Kansas, a case originally filed in 2010, is that it isn’t so easy to fix the consequences of several years’ of undermining the financial capacity of government.  Because public education—with the schools serving masses of children in every hamlet, town, city and suburb—is always among the biggest lines in a state budget, the school budget is always among the government responsibilities most seriously undermined by a state budget crisis. In Kansas, of course, part of the tragedy is that Governor Brownback created the tax slashing experiment that led to the budget crisis on purpose, because he believed somehow that massive tax cuts would grow the economy. He was proven wrong, and the children of Kansas have been paying the price.

Associated Press reporter John Hanna explains: “The decision puts the state in a tough spot: Another big school spending increase will force it to either make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget or raise taxes less than a year after the GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The court rejected the state’s arguments that a new law phasing in a$293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for each of the state’s 458,000 students.  Four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010 had argued that the increase was at least $600 million short of what was necessary over two years.”

Of course following court decisions like the one this week in Kansas, there are people who argue that because school spending has increased over the years while school achievement has not risen, school spending makes no difference.  Bruce Baker, the school finance expert and economist at Rutgers University recently posted a brief on his School Finance 101 blog with evidence that disproves this allegation. Baker examines long term trends in the scores of black and white children on the National Assessment of Education Progress and demonstrates that since 1975 there has been a steady upward trend in both groups in reading and math.

His brief also covers school spending trends across the fifty states in a series of technical graphs. Baker demonstrates that, across the 50 states, school spending, adjusted for inflation, is not out of control: “(P)er pupil spending hasn’t risen for a decade and has barely risen over two decades…. So, no, school spending is not dramatically increasing over time and has declined in real terms from 2009 to 2015…. Over the longer term… government expenditure on elementary and secondary education as a share of gross domestic product has oscillated over decades but is presently about where it was both 15 years earlier (2000) and 40 years earlier (1975).  That is, education spending is not outstripping our economic capacity to pay for it.”

And there is evidence from another national report, this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that during the past decade Kansas has had among the most serious shortfalls in school spending.  Last October, before the Kansas Legislature did undo Governor Brownback’s income tax cuts, per-pupil school funding in Kansas had fallen 13.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) below what the state was spending in 2008.

Advertisements

Congress Messes Up: Fails to Renew Children’s Health Insurance Program by Sept. 30 Deadline

Last Saturday, September 30, Congress let the Children’s Health Insurance Program lapse. When the program was reauthorized in 2015, Congress set September 30, 2017 as the deadline for renewal.  If Congress can get its act together, it can still vote to renew the program. But the longer Congress waits, administrative and fiscal problems will grow for the states who are partners in this effort, and medical problems will loom for children when coverage is threatened.

There is widespread concern that failure to renew CHIP on time is a symptom of Congressional disfunction.  On September 18, Senators Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize CHIP, but momentum collapsed in the Senate during the late-September debate over the Graham-Cassidy bill to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Writing for the New Republic, Clio Chang quotes Bruce Leslie, president of the children’s advocacy group First Focus: “There was growing attention and movement towards getting this done and then Graham-Cassidy came up and everyone stopped talking to us about it. It was hard to get meetings after that, to talk to people about the Hatch-Wyden bill.  People were like, ‘No we’re 24/7 on Graham-Cassidy’… It just dumbfounds me that they’re not doing this… It’s a no-brainer.”

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss explains that the failure to renew children’s healthcare legislation cannot be without consequences for the nation’s public schools. CHIP is a health insurance program for children in poor and moderate-income families: “If action is not taken soon to restore the funding, the effects will become obvious in schools across the country, with many of the children in the program unable to see a doctor for routine checkups, immunizations, visits when sick and other services.” According to Strauss, the program cost to the federal government in 2016 was $13.6 billion.

CHIP currently covers 9 million children. Writing for Roll Call, Rebecca Adams explains: “CHIP was instrumental in boosting the share of children nationwide who have coverage from 86 percent in 1997, the year Congress enacted it, to 95 percent of U.S. children today.”

CHIP is a federal-state partnership with funding provided by the federal government (and enhanced in some states through their own budgets) and the states administering the program. Adams explains that the impact of Congressional failure to renew the law on time will affect states differently depending on whether they have any program money left unspent: “States can use two-thirds of any leftover money until it’s gone, leading some lawmakers to suggest that the deadline is not a hard one.”  Minnesota will be the first state to run out of money: “The state would likely be out of money for coverage of low-income children and pregnant women by the end of September… Minnesota is the first state to hit a funding crisis, but others are on the cusp.  Nine other states are projected to face a shortfall by the end of the year… By late March, 32 states would likely drain their money.”

Adams continues: “There are complicated consequences if the funding deadline lapses. If Congress were to take longer than a couple of weeks beyond the deadline to renew the program, some states plan to take steps toward capping enrollment or shutting off coverage entirely… Every state would also face the hassle and costs of preparing for changes and training their staffs… Most states do have budget cushions that would protect their programs for at least another month or two… And parts of CHIP would halt completely Sept. 30.  For instance, states would lose the ability to expedite enrollments or the renewal of a child’s benefits in CHIP by using information from other programs such as State Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, or the food stamp benefits…. That so-called ‘express lane’ process has helped kids get covered without delays.”

The failure to renew CHIP is puzzling because there seems to be widespread bipartisan support for the program.  Adams wrote her Roll Call piece on September 25, days before the deadline. Describing comments from Congressional representatives and their staffs to explain lack of attention to the CHIP deadline, Adams reports that most everyone said Congress was distracted by the debate about the health care exchanges in the Graham-Cassidy bill:  “(T)he health care law exchanges get far more attention. Lawmakers blame this year’s chaotic legislative fights over the law as the primary reason they have been distracted from passing routine, bipartisan updates to existing health care programs that are expiring and must be renewed in order to function… Federal lawmakers say they are doing their best in a year fraught with tensions over the direction of the country, an ambitious agenda, an unpredictable electorate and a nascent presidency that Republicans want to use to reshape the federal government’s role in Americans’ lives.”

It is a tragedy that healthcare for the nation’s most vulnerable children fell by the way. Please let your Senators and your Representative know that you want the Children’s Health Insurance Program renewed as soon as possible. Here is a link to the Action Alert provided by the Network for Public Education.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reopens School Funding Case

Yesterday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the rights of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts to seek redress for inadequate and inequitably distributed public school funding.

Here is the statement from Pennsylvania’s Public Interest Law Center: “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court today delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education. The lawsuit – William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. – was filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure in Harrisburg to adequately fund public education and provide students with the resources they need to succeed academically. In a sweeping decision, the Court agreed that it has a clear duty to consider the case and ensure legislative compliance with the state’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to ‘provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education’ for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of claims by parents and school districts that the legislature’s grossly unequal funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”

Last February, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, collaborating with the Education Law Center, published a report on the 54 most fiscally disadvantaged school districts in the United States. Pennsylvania’s Reading School District made the list.

And just last Sunday, philly.com reporter Maddie Hanna profiled the problems in Reading, which exemplify Pennsylvania’s educational inequality: “Reading remains a prime example of the paradoxes of educational funding in Pennsylvania, the subject of longstanding complaints and a case now before the state Supreme Court… Over the last four decades, the state’s contribution to local school funding has steadily dipped—from 54 percent in the early 1970s to 35 percent last year…. And within its borders, that’s helped build one of the largest disparities in per pupil spending, thanks to its reliance on property taxes.  In the 2015-16 school year, for example, Reading was spending about $6,500 per pupil on instructional costs—compared with better than $17,000 in the much wealthier Lower Merion School District….

The problem is not that the people of Reading are failing to make a strong local effort to fund their schools: “Reading’s school taxes, in a city with high municipal levies and a 3.6 percent residential wage tax, have measured in the top 20 percent statewide.”

Hanna summarizes the troubled history of Pennsylvania school funding—explaining that “for more than 15 years, starting in 1992, the state didn’t use a funding formula, instead sending districts money based on what they received the year before….”  Lawmakers tried to improve school funding in 2008, but a particularly serious blow hit the state’s poorest school districts in 2011 when Tom Corbett became governor. “(T)he (2008) formula was cast aside in 2011, as federal stimulus money ran out, and a new governor, Republican Tom Corbett, took over.  Poorer districts were disproportionately hurt, in part because budget cuts reversed the formula’s effects….”

In 2016, after the election of Governor Tom Wolf, the state adopted a plan for more equitable funding, but while it helped the state’s poorest school districts, the legislature would agree to apply the new formula only to future increases in state aid.  The new formula was overlaid on years of inequality.  In her article last Sunday, Maddie Hanna explains: “(L)awmakers agreed on a formula that allots more money to districts such as Reading’s, taking into account such factors as the number of students in poverty or learning English, in addition to local wealth and the rates at which districts taxed property. But the state’s past approach to funding still factors heavily into what districts receive: The new formula didn’t apply to what the state was already spending on schools…. As a result, the money that schools receive, raise, and spend today is still rooted in a system that over the years veered between formulas written into law and politically negotiated increases, producing wide spending gaps between high-and low-poverty districts.”

In 2014, several of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts along with parents filed the William Penn lawsuit for greater equity, but in 2015, a lower court rejected the case as “non-justiciable” under the state’s constitution. The case was then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Maddie Hanna reported again yesterday for philly.com on yesterday’s decision in the state’s long-running fight over school finance: “The court’s opinion—joined by four justices and accompanied by two dissenting opinions—does not resolve the William Penn lawsuit.  But it enables a trial court to hear arguments in the case, which contends that Pennsylvania’s school-funding system violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a ‘thorough and efficient system’ of education, and its equal-protection provision. Commonwealth Court had dismissed the suit….”

Hanna quotes Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declaring that the new decision, “validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding.”

John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  The late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’… I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Ohio Senate Committee Will Finally Hold a Hearing on Joe Schiavoni’s Bill to Regulate ECOT

Ohio State Senator Joe Schiavoni ought to be a hero to public school teachers and parents—and to citizens who support responsible stewardship of tax dollars.  Except that thanks to the power of the Republican leadership in the Ohio legislature, few people are really aware of Schiavoni’s heroic effort to put a stop to Bill Lager’s massive scam—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Schiavoni is a Democrat and his bill to regulate online charter schools has been pushed aside for over a year now.  As Schiavoni explained in testimony last February, “Senate Bill 39 is the updated version of Senate Bill 298 from the last General Assembly.”  In March of 2016, Schiavoni first introduced a version of this bill—designed to reign in Bill Lager’s giant scam. ECOT was (and still is) charging the state, which pays charter schools on a per pupil basis, for students who have enrolled at ECOT but are not regularly logging onto their computers to participate in the educational program.

Here is how Schiavoni described the bill (then Senate Bill 298) at that time: “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.” Schiavoni’s bill required e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It required online schools to notify the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days. It required that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation. In the last legislative session, the bill was never fully debated and never brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

Schiavoni re-introduced the bill in February, and this afternoon at 3:15,  Peggy Lehner, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, is finally holding a hearing on Schiavoni’s bill.  When he testified in February about the bill he was introducing, Schiavoni explained why it is needed: “Other than the requirement that e-schools provide no less than 920 hours per year of learning opportunities, there are no specific statewide standards related to the number of hours per day or week that e-school students must be engaged in learning.  In an environment where a teacher is not physically able to see students in a classroom, this lack of accountability is very concerning.”

Schiavoni believes Senate Bill 39 will address the outrageous problems at Ohio’s on-line charter schools: “Senate Bill 39 requires each e-school to keep an accurate record of how long each individual student is actively participating in learning in every 24-hour period.  This information must be reported to ODE on a monthly basis, and ODE would be required to make this report available on their website. Senate Bill 39 would also require a teacher who is licensed by the Ohio Department of Education to certify the accuracy of student participation logs… on a monthly basis.”

Senate Bill 39 has some new provisions that were not in the original SB 298. To protect local  school districts, Schiavoni has added “a provision specifying that when the Auditor issues a Finding for Recovery from an audit of a… (charter) school, that money is returned to the school district.”  Serious questions have been raised about the $60 million clawback the Ohio Department of Education is currently trying to institute against ECOT, because ECOT has been robbing not only the state, but also local school districts.  Because of the way Ohio school finance works, a significant amount of the money redirected to charter schools comes out of the budget of the school district where each student resides.

As the ECOT scam has dragged on and mushroomed, the need for improved oversight by the state has become increasingly apparent as the press has exposed how millions of tax dollars are being diverted not only to Bill Lager but also to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies that manage the school and provide its curriculum.  We have also learned that sponsoring agencies are collecting very significant fees without providing any real oversight.

Schiavoni describes provisions in Senate Bill 39 to address these concerns:

  • “In the event that a student’s academic performance declines, the student’s parent/guardian, teachers, and principal must evaluate the student’s continued enrollment in the school;
  • “Requires e-school sponsors to report a school’s failure to comply with online learning standards to ODE;
  • “Requires e-schools to report their student mobility rate on their report cards…
  • “Creates a bipartisan ‘E-school Funding Commission’ to study what the actual costs are to run an e-school.”

Schiavoni describes why passage of his bill is so important: “While this bill focuses on strengthening the oversight of attendance policies and the accurate accounting of tax dollars, it’s also about ensuring our children receive a quality education. Unfortunately, the evidence is growing that some online schools are failing too many of our children.”

In the meantime, the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear ECOT’s case against the state. Also, Dave Yost, Ohio’s auditor has begun escrowing a portion of ECOT’s state funding for the 2017-2018 school year to ensure that, if the court finds against the school for over-reporting its enrollment and if the school should declare bankruptcy as a result, the state could recapture at least some of the money Lager has stolen.

Bill Lager has kept ECOT open and kept on collecting public funding, much of it for phantom students—by looking for and continuing to find loopholes in Ohio’s notoriously weak charter school regulations. For example, on Monday, the Ohio Department of Education granted ECOT initial approval to switch its designation and become a Dropout Recovery School. ECOT, which has been chronically awarded F ratings by the state for its students’ deplorable graduation rate and test scores, will have its F rating automatically turned into a C, without any change in its academic performance because the state will understand the school to be educating students with greater educational challenges.  Its new rating as a Dropout Recovery School will save the life of its sponsor, the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West, whose existence has been threatened due to ECOT’s deplorable record. This blog has covered the ECOT scandal here.

It is time for the legislature to begin seriously cracking down.  A good start would be for the Legislature to pass Joe Schiavoni’s sensible law to protect our children and our tax dollars by requiring that e-schools accurately report the number of students they enroll.

America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

“Backpack Full of Cash”: Northeast Ohio Screening, Oct. 10, 7 PM, Cleveland Heights High School

In these times when Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is devotedly promoting school privatization, if you can make it to Cleveland Heights on October 10, please join us to consider the strengths of public education and the disadvantages of privatizing public schools.

On Tuesday, October 10 at 7 PM, in the auditorium at Cleveland Heights High School (corner of Ceder and Lee Roads), we’ll screen the film, Backpack Full of Cash, from Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions and narrated by Matt Damon. The screening will be followed by discussion.

Sponsoring this free screening is the Heights Coalition for Public Education, in conjunction with the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795 AFT; Reaching Heights; the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education; the Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women; and Progress Northeast Ohio.

Public Education is important compared to privatized alternatives merely by its size. In the discussion guide for the film (Touch the thumbnail for the discussion guide.) the education journal Rethinking Schools explains: “There are more than 13,500 public school districts (over 90,000 public schools) serving approximately 50 million students in the United States… There are about 6,800 charters in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving almost three million students, or… 6 percent of the nation’s public school students….  Roughly 1.3 million students took part in a voucher or voucher-like program in 2017.”

The discussion guide traces the history of charter schools: “Charters first appeared, often with community and teacher union support, in urban districts in the late 1980s and early 1990s… Over the years, the charter school movement has changed dramatically. While there are high-quality individual charter schools, the charter movement has become a national and well-funded campaign organized by investors, foundations, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system with less public accountability and less democratic oversight.”

What about the history of vouchers? “The voucher movement can be traced to economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. In 1955, he called for eliminating the funding of public schools and replacing it with universal vouchers…. The first use of vouchers was by white families after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision. For five years, until federal courts intervened, officials closed the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than desegregate.  White parents took advantage of vouchers to send their children to a private, whites-only academy… The first contemporary voucher school program began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1990.”  It was soon followed by the state supported voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. Voucher programs today also include education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits.

Here are some of the questions our October 10 film screening will address:

  • We live in a capitalist country. Why not look to the free market for solutions to challenges in education?
  • Is it true, as some say, that charters and vouchers outperform public schools?
  • If a school is educating a child, whether it’s a private school or a charter school, doesn’t it deserve public dollars?
  • Why shouldn’t we be using public dollars to help some children escape from public schools?
  • We have choices in other areas of life. Why not in schools?
  • How should we define our civic responsibility to educate all children?

Our screening of Backpack Full of Cash and the ensuing discussion will address timely concerns not only in today’s national context as our U.S. Secretary of Education promotes school privatization, but also in Ohio, where children’s opportunities and our public school funding are threatened by an unregulated charter sector—including out-of-control online academies, in addition to several statewide school voucher programs.

Check out the official trailer for the film.