While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

Teachers Emerge As Strong Political Force for the Public Good in States with Austerity Budgeting

In an extraordinary NY Times piece, Dana Goldstein profiles the plight of public school teachers in Oklahoma, where salaries are third-lowest in the United States. Only in Mississippi and South Dakota are salaries lower for teachers. Oklahoma teachers are preparing to strike as their West Virginia peers did earlier this month.

“When teachers… (in Oklahoma) last went on strike, in 1990 for four days, they won a raise and limitations on class sizes. But that was the last time the Oklahoma Legislature raised taxes. In 1992, anti-tax activists successfully organized a ballot referendum to require a three-quarters majority in both the state House and Senate to raise new revenue and today, Oklahoma is one of 13 states that require a supermajority to impose new taxes… (E)ver since the referendum passed, it has become an insurmountable barrier for attempts to increase school spending.  The 1990 class size reductions were scrapped for lack of funds. Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut its per-pupil instructional funding by 28 percent—the largest cut in the nation, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities….” Goldstein reports that Oklahoma teachers have not had even a modest raise for ten years.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report that Goldstein cites, Oklahoma is among seven states that have cut income taxes since 2008, further undermining these states’ capacity to recover from the Great Recession—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Many of the teachers Goldstein describes are working second jobs. She profiles one Oklahoma teacher, a mother whose three children qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and for federally subsidized Head Start preschool. For them, the state’s fiscal straitjacket is daunting: “In 2016, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have increased education funding through an additional one percent sales tax.  More recently, a legislative proposal called Step Up Oklahoma would have funded $5,000 raises by increasing gas and tobacco taxes and modestly raising production taxes on the energy industry. It was supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, the teachers union and a coalition of business leaders.”  But “63 members of the state House of Representatives voted for it, and 3 against, short of the required 75 percent supermajority. A quarter of Republicans and more than two-thirds of Democrats opposed the bill. The Platform Caucus, a group of Republican opponents, issued a statement saying the tax increases would have undone the benefits of President Trump’s tax cuts… Democratic opponents said the plan was too easy on oil and gas, while raising taxes too high on the wind industry. They also asked for an increase in income taxes on high earners.”  In Oklahoma, neither party prioritized paying teachers.

The Oklahoma legislature has valued school facilities over the teachers who work with children: “Local districts can use property taxes and bonds to pay for facilities, and many of the school buildings themselves are beautiful… But most instructional costs are covered by the state, where laws and politics make it difficult to raise taxes.  And it is inside the classroom that students and parents have noticed the impact of depressed state budgets.”  Twenty percent of school districts in Oklahoma have moved to a four day week.

Arizona’s public school teachers are also underpaid, although on top of austerity budgeting in Arizona, another primary cause is the growing diversion of tax dollars to massive privatized voucher schemes.  In Arizona, a grassroots coalition of parents, teachers and community members, Save Our Schools Arizona, secured enough signatures to let voters decide Proposition 305 by referendum in  November. Proposition 305 challenges a new law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Accounts—a type of vouchers—to make all 1.1 million public school students across the state eligible (although the program would initially be capped at 30,000 students).  On Wednesday of this week, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision—permitting Save Our Schools Arizona’s Proposition 305 to appear on the November ballot.

Goldstein considers three states, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona, where organized teachers are rising up not only to increase  their salaries but also to improve the conditions for children in the schools where they work: “All three states are paragons of austerity budgeting, guided by a belief that taxes should be as low as possible to encourage people to spend more and companies to move there and grow.” West Virginia’s successful strike for a long-overdue 5 percent raise has bolstered the resolve of teachers themselves to protest austerity budgeting in Oklahoma and Arizona. And in Arizona, teachers are a central part of the grassroots uprising against Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker suggests we reconsider the role of taxation, something many of us forget about as we grumble that our own taxes are too high: “Let’s step back for a moment and consider broadly the provision of public goods and services through a system of taxpayer support…  Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual who furthers her education. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Making the Invisible Visible: What the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Showed Us All

Yesterday morning the West Virginia Senate joined the House of Representatives in agreeing to a 5 percent raise for the state’s teachers, support staff, bus drivers and West Virginia state troopers.  School reopens today.  This is a good thing for the state’s children and for the state’s teachers. The downside is that the salary increases will come at the expense of $20 million in cuts to general services and Medicaid.

I keep thinking about watching West Virginia’s teachers on the picket line.

Did you notice how many teachers were involved in the strike? Twenty-thousand of them, according to the papers.  The masses of teachers in red t-shirts seemed overwhelming. The system of public education is enormous even in a relatively small state. So many lives were affected by the strike!

Did you notice that addressing the strike was so essential that the Governor and Legislature really had no choice but to meet the teachers’ demands? More than a quarter of a million students were without their schools for over a week.  More than a quarter of a million students without education, without a place to go during the day—many of them without the federally subsidized lunches and breakfasts for which they qualify because their families are poor.

Did you notice that when striking teachers were interviewed, they seemed connected to the students who were standing with them on the picket lines?  Did you notice the stories about teachers preparing lunches for their poorest students before the teachers left in the morning for the picket lines?

Did you notice the spirit and energy of West Virginia’s school teachers? They are just the sort of people a parent would seek for nurturing, stimulating, and educating their children.

Did you notice that most of West Virginia’s children were affected when the state’s public schools shut down?  I don’t know how many parochial schools there are in West Virginia, but it seemed that West Virginia’s school population reflects or exceeds the national average—with over 90 percent of the state’s students enrolled in public schools.

Did you notice that neither the teachers nor their students appear to be millionaires?  For most families in West Virginia, the public schools are what they have, what they are proud of.

Did you notice that nobody really argued that teachers in West Virginia were asking for an overly lavish raise? Neither the public nor members of the legislature seemed shocked at the request. Everybody seemed to agree that teachers should earn enough to be able to support their families and shouldn’t be forced to move to a nearby state to earn a fair salary. Before they finally settled, leaders in the West Virginia Senate argued the state didn’t have enough money to pay for the raises, but everybody pretty much agreed that teachers have been underpaid.

This strike brought our national attention back to what matters and, for me at least, highlighted the ridiculousness of that other public education agenda being promoted by our U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy De Vos. Here—amazingly— is what Betsy DeVos told the children last fall when she made a beginning-of-the-school-year visit to a school in Casper,Wyoming:  “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school.  And the year before that.  And the generation before that.  And the generation before that… It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures… Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”

Here are some of the ways West Virginia’s teachers confronted Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

Betsy DeVos regularly derides education systems. For DeVos, what really matters are individual parents who, she says, need to have school choice.  But… what I found myself noticing and admiring in West Virginia were the systems—not only the school system, set up across 55 counties, but also the system of teachers’ organizations who, despite a law that prohibits real teachers’ unions, organized and maintained an effective nine-day strike. Then there was the democratic system of government that made it possible for the teachers to make their case for more funding and better salaries and health insurance.

Betsy DeVos always prescribes school choice. But I have been to West Virginia, and I know that the state’s geography cannot support broad-based privatized school choice. The state is a web of tiny towns located in the mountain hollows as well as bigger towns and  a few small cities. When there have been attempts to consolidate high schools in some parts of West Virginia, impossible winding Appalachian mountain roads made bus routes impossible.

Last autumn in Casper, Betsy DeVos complained that public schools dampen dreams, dim horizons and deny futures. But that description doesn’t describe the teachers I have been watching during the West Virginia teachers’ strike.

As West Virginia’s teachers struck for fair salaries and health insurance coverage, they showed us why it is important to bring the national education conversation right back where it belongs—away from the libertarian ideology of Betsy DeVos—and back to the importance of society’s responsibility to provide adequately for its public schools. Here are merely some of the important policy questions underneath the debate in West Virginia’s statehouse.  Have we forgotten the role of government for providing essential services in a systematic way? Are we paying enough taxes at the state and federal levels to remunerate public servants fairly and provide more than the barest minimum for the absolutely essential services our society needs?  Are we abusing public sector workers when taxes are cut and the Supreme Court threatens to curtail their right to organize?

Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article on the West Virginia strike by Dana Goldstein, whose book, The Teacher Wars, traces the history of America’s teaching profession—all the public pressures on teachers and the role of teachers’ unions for fighting to ensure that teachers, educated as professionals, are paid a professional wage.  In yesterday’s NY Times article on this year’s West Virginia teachers’ strike, Goldstein reminds readers that in 1897 Chicago, teachers, “were asked to preside over classrooms of up to 60 children, many of whom could not speak English, in a city surging with immigrants and struggling to control rampant child labor and typhoid in the water.  All for the equivalent of $13,000 a year in today’s dollars.”

Goldstein describes the challenges facing the West Virginia teachers who have been on strike: “Almost every major (teachers’) strike… has come as teachers have been asked to shoulder society’s biggest challenges, from disease to racial inequality, and today in West Virginia, a drug crisis on top of a growing nationwide fear of bloodshed in the classroom.”

Goldstein quotes a high school English teacher from Martinsburg: “In West Virginia we deal with high levels of poverty and the opioid epidemic, but then there are the smaller things, like kids who come in and they don’t have support at home and they just need someone to care about them and love them.”

Jay O’Neal, a seventh-grade English teacher from Charleston, tells Goldstein: “I can’t tell you how many students we have being raised by grandparents because of parents’ drug addictions…  It’s just part of a broader problem teaching here, dealing with the effects of poverty.”

Goldstein adds: “While the state’s cost of living is in the middle of the pack, the state is poor. Its (2016) median household income of $43,385… placed it 49th in the nation, ahead of only Mississippi. West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and an opioid overdose death rate that is more than three times the national average. All of this plays out in the classroom.”

Goldstein believes one of the important accomplishments of the West Virginia teachers’ strike is that it has, once again, made the essentials visible to us: “Today in West Virginia, policymakers have their own ideas about how to improve schools. The state Department of Education has revamped vocational education, while the Republican-controlled Legislature has debated weakening teachers’ seniority protections and providing parents with tax incentives to pay for private school tuition. But striking teachers are asking that first, the state Legislature consider the basics: the salaries and benefits that they say will keep them from fleeing the state.”