School Funding Inequity and Overreliance on Local Property Taxes Have Their Roots in the Jim Crow South

In a powerful new article, Legacy of Jim Crow Still Affects Funding for Public Schools, constitutional law professor, Derek Black and Axton Crolley expose the largely unexamined racist past of the kind of school funding inequity we observe today across many of the fifty states.

Derek Black’s Schoolhouse Burning is the best and most complex history of American public education I know.  While the history of our public schools is generally traced back to New England and Horace Mann, Derek Black’s book examines progress toward equity in the South during Reconstruction, its reversal in the Jim Crow era, the corrections attempted during the Civil Rights Movement, and a period of reaction against the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A year ago, a local school advocacy group here Cleveland, Ohio sponsored a three part ZOOM discussion of the book. The first discussion attracted over a hundred participants from across our state, and most of them came back for the final two evenings. Again and again people commented on how fascinated they were to explore a history they had never fully understood and how poignantly relevant this history is to the problems our schools face today.

In their new article Black and Crolley describe how, after the collapse of Reconstruction, Southern states devised policies to perpetuate inequality: “Some… used ‘racially distinct tax’ policies that reserved separate funds for white and Black schools. Other states… moved school funding responsibility and control from state officials to local communities. Local officials could then ensure inequality without any specific law mandating it… (D)uring the Jim Crow era, localism became the tool to reverse… progress and equality.  States increased reliance on local taxation, gave local white officials discretion over state funds, and constitutionally secured segregation. Some went so far as to craft color-coded funding systems where white taxes funded white schools exclusively… The development of Northern local school systems was historically distinct. Yet even in some Northern states, racial antagonism and concerns over segregation prompted pushes for local decision-making.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was intended to address this long history of inequality, but there was a serious omission: “Nearly 70 years ago—in its Brown v. Board decision—the Supreme Court framed racial segregation as the cause of educational inequality… That framing rightly focused on segregation’s immediate horror—excluding students from schools based on the color of their skin—but obscured an important fact.  In addition to requiring school segregation, many states also had long segregated school funding. Some had used ‘racially distinct tax’ policies that reserved separate funds for white and Black schools. Other states had moved school funding responsibility and control from state officials to local communities. Local officials could then ensure inequality without any specific law mandating it. Brown’s focus on physical segregation inadvertently left important and less obvious aspects of local funding inequality unchecked.”

Following Brown, subsequent important U.S. Supreme Court decisions perpetuated the problem by emphasizing local control: “Later court decisions did not even recognize that a problem with local funding might exist. To the contrary, they put a preference on local funding over remedying inequality… In the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court rejected a challenge to the inequality local school funding causes, reasoning that ‘local control’ over school funding was ‘vital to continued public support of the schools’… A year later, in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court blocked a desegregation remedy that would have spanned multiple districts…. ‘No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools.'”

But school funding matters and unequal funding from school district to school district privileges some children and diminishes opportunity for other children: “A large body of evidence shows ‘money matters.’ Increased spending improves college attendance rates, graduation rates and test scores. But, as a 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Black and Crolley conclude: “(D)uring the South’s Reconstruction, Black people and progressive whites saw state control as the solution to inadequate and unequal education. They adopted policies to that effect, many of which were enshrined in state constitutions rather than laws reversible by the legislature… An important step in remedying entrenched school funding inequalities is to first recognize that they are rooted in the history of Jim Crow segregation.  Another potential step is to return to the more centralized approach of Reconstruction—an approach that states during their progressive eras have long recognized. And this step makes good constitutional sense, too. After all, every state constitution places the ultimate obligation to fund and deliver public education on states, not local governments.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Begins to Take Action Against Governors Blocking School Mask Mandates

On September 20, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education published a notice in the Federal Register of a new Project SAFE Grant Program to “provide grants to eligible LEAs (Local Education Agencies, which is the Department’s name for local school districts) to improve student safety and well-being by advancing strategies consistent with CDC guidelines to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools… The priority is: Supporting LEAs’ and local education leaders’ efforts to improve student safety and well-being in LEAs that have been financially penalized by their State Education Agency or other State entity for adopting and implementing strategies consistent with CDC guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The first federal SAFE Grant to a school district harmed by a state ban on a school district’s mandatory mask mandate was awarded on September 23rd.  NPR‘s Cory Turner reports: “The U. S. Department of Education announced Thursday that it would send roughly $148,000 to one Florida school district, Alachua County Public Schools, reimbursing it for money that has been withheld by the state. The award is the first under the department’s new… Project SAFE grant program and the latest salvo in an escalating fight over masking in schools between Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and President Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel Cardona.”

CNN‘s Chandelis Duster quotes Secretary Cardona justifying the need to confront governors who are blocking school districts’ requirements that their students wear masks to prevent the spread of the Delta Variant of COVID-19: “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities… We’re making sure schools and communities across the country that are committed to safely returning to in-person learning know that we have their backs.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education seems to be moving forward to investigate Civil Rights Violations in states where governors have banned mask mandates, with the possibility of withholding of federal funding as a penalty. Last Thursday evening, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has stated he is willing, by withholding federal funding if necessary, to punish states whose governors have banned mask mandates in public schools. The federal government is investigating whether the governors’ bans on mask mandates are violating the federal rights of students with disabilities.

Meckler describes Secretary Cardona’s remarks: “Cardona’s department continues to wage a battle with a half dozen Republican governors who have barred their school districts from requiring masks. This week, the department’s Office for Civil Rights added Texas to the list of states being investigated for these policies. The department argues these states may have violated the rights of students with disabilities…. The agency typically comes to settlement agreements with states and school districts under investigation, but it has the power to withhold federal funds from them. Cardona declared in an interview that he is willing to hold back funding if necessary. ‘I am prepared to do it. I don’t want to do it, but I am prepared to do it… The last thing I want to do to the students in Texas and Florida is to withhold resources that support them. That’s not something that I would do lightly.’ He added he would prefer to work with the governors, but also acknowledged that the governors do not appear interested in working with him.”

Late last month Meckler reported that letters had been sent to warn the governors of Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah that their states were under federal investigation: “(T)he Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights ‘will focus on whether… students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law.'”

Then last Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported that the federal Department of Education has also notified Texas that it is being similarly investigated: “The letter sent to Texas, like the ones to the other states, said the bans on mask mandates ‘may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities….'”

Last week in a moving profile of several disabled Tennessee students, the NY TimesErica Green described legal challenges which have also been filed locally on behalf of disabled students whose conditions make COVID-19 especially dangerous for them:

“Tennessee is one of seven states that the federal Education Department is investigating to determine whether governors’ orders allowing families to flout school mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities by restricting their access to education. Even though many local school boards, including Williamson County’s, have voted to require universal masking, an executive order issued by Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, allows parents to send their children to school maskless, no questions asked… Parents of special education students in two Tennessee counties covering the eastern and western parents of the state have sued to block the governor’s order; one lawsuit has succeeded. A third, covering Williamson County, had a hearing before a judge this week. In the most recent complaint, three lawyers argued that the governor, the Williamson County school board and a carve-out district within the county called the Franklin Special School District, are violating the rights of special education students by allowing parents to opt their children out of the mandate.  The suit was filed on behalf of a student with Down syndrome and another with Type I diabetes, but seeks protections for all ‘similarly situated’ students. ‘Defendants’ actions have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger,” the complaint said.”

On September 15, two of the nation’s prominent experts in education law challenged Secretary Cardona to use the power of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights to withhold federal funding in states where students’ rights are clearly being violated by governors banning masks at school.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, and Derek Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina, explain several ways governors are violating federal law by banning masks at school: “No policy that ignores CDC guidance and deprives schools of the most important tool available to protect the health, safety, and lives of students under the age of twelve can be said to conform to Congress’s express direction to reopen schools safely. No policy that substantially increases the risk that schools will again be forced to go virtual can be said to carry out the Congressional mandate to ensure the continuity of in-person instruction. And no policy that denies students with health-related disabilities the reasonable accommodations necessary to receive equal educational access can be said to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sciarra and Black charge Secretary Cardona: “When states act willfully under color of law to put their children in harm’s way, the Secretary has no other choice. Federal funds should only flow to states that follow the law and actively provide students a safe place to learn.”

Legal Experts Challenge Secretary Cardona to Withhold COVID Relief Dollars from States Blocking Mask Mandates

On Wednesday I noticed a stunning new proposal for confronting the governors who are blocking uniform mask mandates in their states’ public schools. The authors of the proposal are shocked that “governors and legislators in eight states—the very states with the lowest vaccination rates and highest number of COVID infections—have taken the audacious step of blocking uniform mask mandates on schools.”

Here is the proposal: “The time for pleading with politicians to reverse course has run short. The Biden Administration has a tried and tested tool for protecting the nation’s children from politicians who persist in elevating ideology above the interests of their citizens—the power of the purse. The Administration also has a duty to use that power… When states knowingly put children in harm’s way and openly defy federal law, the federal government has no alternative but to use all available authority to protect them. This means withholding federal COVID relief money from states until they lift or rescind anti-mask policies and allow local districts to comply with the CDC’s universal mask guidance.”

The proposal’s authors are David Sciarra, a nationally known authority on school law and Executive Director of the Education Law Center, and Derek Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina. These are legal experts who know federal education law and who believe it is time for Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education to do what he must.

Here is their charge to Secretary Cardona: “No one should envy Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for the situation he faces. He can count on one hand the number of times prior administrations have held back federal funds owed to states. But when states act willfully under color of law to put their children in harm’s way, the Secretary has no other choice. Federal funds should only flow to states that follow the law and actively provide students a safe place to learn.”

How are governors violating federal law when they refuse to follow CDC guidance requiring that children wear masks at school?  Sciarra and Black explain: “These actions directly violate the letter of the law on multiple levels. No policy that ignores CDC guidance and deprives schools of the most important tool available to protect the health, safety, and lives of students under the age of twelve can be said to conform to Congress’s express direction to reopen schools safely. No policy that substantially increases the risk that schools will again be forced to go virtual can be said to carry out the Congressional mandate to ensure the continuity of in-person instruction. And no policy that denies students with health-related disabilities the reasonable accommodations necessary to receive equal educational access can be said to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sciarra and Black compare today’s federal responsibility to protect children’s health to steps the federal government took during the Civil Rights Movement to protect children from state imposed racial segregation: “These anti-mask policies parallel southern states’ response to Brown v. Board of Education…. Like politicians decades ago, today’s governors and legislators insist that individual rights somehow trump the law of the land. When the federal government hit schools where it hurts—their pocketbooks—they begrudgingly began to heed Brown‘s command to dismantle segregation.”

Sciarra and Black conclude by challenging Secretary Cardona: “Everything now rests on the Secretary. He must act to protect our school children.” Surely Secretary Cardona will feel called to fulfill what these experts define as his obligation under federal law.

Why We Need to Remember to Name the PUBLIC in Public Education

Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning, published in the autumn of 2020, is essential reading for all of us who care about public schooling. Beginning with the educational vision of the founders of our nation who understood public education as the center of the social contract, the book is a history of the institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to form citizens who will actively participate in our democratic experiment. Black’s book is hopeful about our history; he traces how the meaning of the guarantee of public education as a right for every child has become more inclusive in the over two hundred years since our nation’s founding—for the children of former slaves, for disabled children, for American Indians, and for immigrants. Those who conceptualized a system of public schools did not view education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual child. Why does it matter that our system of education in the United States is public—publicly owned, publicly governed and operated, publicly funded, and protected by law?

As Derek Black winds down his history of the impact of Reconstruction on the states’ constitutional promise of public schooling, the threats to equal access for all during Jim Crow, the long fight for civil rights protections against racial segregation, and decades of lawsuits brought to demand that state supreme courts protect adequate and equitable public school funding, he muses about today’s threats to our public system of schooling:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil right movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.  If it comes down to it, can public education persevere once again, or is it something different this time?” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

The threat today is widespread school privatization—the transformation of public schooling in many places into a school choice marketplace at public expense. As we watch this scenario play out, it is clear that meager state budgets cannot sustain three education sectors: a public sector, a charter school sector, and widespread public funding for vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Black writes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures… cross the Rubicon for our democracy.  As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… (S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states.  Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

I thought about Black’s concerns on Friday as I read a briefing fact sheet released by the White House: How the Biden-Harris Administration Is Advancing Educational Equity.  This is, I think, intended as the framing document many have been waiting for.  President Biden and his Education Secretary Miguel Cardona filled the American Rescue COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March with funding to support our public schools, and the President’s proposed FY22 budget would, if successfully negotiated through Congress, significantly increase funding.  The briefing fact sheet frames all this as an equity agenda:

“For too many Americans—including students of color, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ students, students from low-income families, and other underserved students—the promise of a high-quality education has gone unfulfilled for generations… Dramatically unequal funding between school districts means some children learn in gleaming new classrooms, while students just down the road navigate unsafe and rundown facilities. Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, high-poverty school districts struggle to attract certified staff and experienced educators.  And students of color and children with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of school discipline that removes them from the classroom, with lasting consequences. With 53 percent of our public school students now students of color, addressing these disparities is critical for not only all our children, but for our nation’s collective health, happiness, and economic security.  Consistent with the President’s Executive Order, the Administration is committed to advancing educational equity for every child—so that schools and students not only recover from the pandemic, but Build Back Better.”

In Friday’s fact sheet, the Biden White House names many of its progressive and worthy proposals to fund education reform—providing high-quality universal early childhood education and pre-school, increasing access to affordable child care, addressing the current shortage of well-prepared teachers, upgrading school facilities long deemed deteriorating in too many communities, investing $20 billion in Title I schools and incentivizing states to improve school funding equity, radically expanding the number of Full Service Community Schools, increasing access to broadband in underserved communities, and increasing funding for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by $2.6 billion.

Of course, Congress will have to agree to fund this needed investment.  It is definitely not a sure thing, but Biden and Cardona’s proposal deserves credit for going to the heart of the gaping inequality across America’s public schools.  The document does speak directly to issues in America’s public schools, the institutions that continue to serve around 90 percent of our nation’s children and adolescents.

There is something not quite right, however, in the narrative frame of the document, which consistently addresses equity in “education,” but not equity in “public education.” In what I compressed into four single-spaced pages, I find the word “public” only a handful of times. Perhaps this is mere carelessness, but I don’t think so. The Biden Administration has chosen not to address what public school parents are watching all over the country as their public schools run short of money for the basics, and what we all watched during the recent state budget debates when legislatures slipped more and more public dollars to charter schools and vouchers.

The framing of this document is consistent with another of the administration’s recent choices. While, in its FY 22 budget resolution, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to ban funding from the federal Charter Schools Program for charter schools operated by the huge, for-profit Charter Management Organizations, the President’s FY 22 budget proposal is silent on this much needed reform at the same time the U.S. Senate is receiving massive pressure from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others in the well-funded charter school lobby.  (It is worth noting here that charter school supporters always do remember to frame their schools as “public” even though charter schools are always privately operated). President Biden and Secretary Cardona need to weigh in on behalf of the public schools against any form of for-private educational contracting.

By failing to confront the impact of ever expanding school privatization at public expense, the Biden White House and Department of Education have, perhaps understandably, chosen to avoid controversy. But by neglecting to name and confront the impact of the enormous problem of school privatization, the administration is tacitly supporting what is happening across the states.

Here is Derek Black’s response: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

Black continues: “But it is not just what today’s leaders have said and done. Also telling is what they haven’t said. Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they miss is that charters and vouchers… involve an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 233)

School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

Introducing a column by the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris on the explosion this year of legislation across the 50 state legislatures to expand school privatization, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss begins: “While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the ‘Year of School Choice’ by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos. Anyone who twas thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again. In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.”

In the piece that follows, Carol Burris examines the contention by Paul Petersen, the Harvard government professor who Burris reminds us is “a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms,” and Jeanne Allen who runs the Center for Education Reform, and who, “has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools,” that the legislatures considering school choice are doing so because parents are angry that public schools shut down during the pandemic.

Burris demonstrates that Petersen and Allen are wrong.  The states most active in promoting privatization are instead places where legislatures have tipped toward Republican majorities and in some cases Republican supermajorities.  And they are states where well-funded ideological lobbies for school privatization are working hard.

Burris describes today’s legislative climate for expansion of vouchers and charter schools: “Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.” She adds that despite what Petersen and Allen say, “red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed.”  So… this is definitely not a swelling of parents’ displeasure with public schools in the midst of a pandemic.

Burris covers several states according to a Burbio.com index which tracks the number of students who have been attending fully-open public schools. She explains that in Arkansas, whose legislature just passed a huge tuition tax credit voucher program, Burbio says that 96.8 percent of students were in school full time.  In Wyoming, where school districts have had the capacity to authorize charter schools but where, this spring the legislature created a new process (not yet signed by the governor) to expand charter school authorization to the state level, Burbio says 100 percent of students have been in full-time in-person schooling.  In West Virginia, where the legislature just expanded the number of charter schools, established state authorization of charter schools, permitted new virtual charter schools, and passed the biggest and most expensive Education Savings Account neovoucher program in the country, Burbio says 78 percent of students have been in full-time, in-person schooling.

If the pressure for expansion of vouchers and charter schools did not come from parents, who did it come from?  Burris lists the movers and shakers in four states:

  • In Arkansas, a group called the Reform Alliance (which operates another state voucher program paid for with state money) paid Trace Strategies $180,000 to lobby for the new voucher program. And the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,644,280 to the Reform Alliance.
  • In Wyoming, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools “bragged about how it lobbied for” passage of the new statewide authority to open charter schools.
  • In West Virginia, lobbyists included ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s organization); Stride (the new name of K12Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice Inc. (formerly the Friedman Foundation for EdChoice); Americans for Prosperity; and ACCEL (a for-profit charter chain run by Ron Packard, who formerly ran K12 Inc).
  • In Kentucky, lobbyists were Stride (formerly K12 Inc); the National Heritage Academies (a for-profit charter school chain); American for Prosperity; ExcelinEd; and Edchoice Kentucky (which Burris describes as a local branch of EdChoice Inc).

Burris concludes: “The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills…. (T)he long-term goal is to undo public education—not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”

It is a good time to review the ideology underneath the drive for school privatization and to contrast the values articulated by the privatizers with the values that have historically been the foundation of our system of public education since John Adams declared in 1785, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Here are four statements of principle that define the parameters of this debate:

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, an important book published last autumn, education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire characterize the belief system of the promoters of marketplace school choice:  “An unquestioned faith in markets is at the very heart of the push to unmake public education. Just as consumers choose from a vast array of products in the marketplace… parents should be able to choose where and how their children are educated… Give consumers the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children and the woes of our public schools will finally be fixed…. ‘Bad’ schools will be forced to close as consumers flee them, while ‘good’ schools will proliferate to meet burgeoning consumer demand… Unlike the public education bureaucracy, the market is seen as a paragon of efficiency.  Rather than being directed by some central power, individuals in the market need only seek their own benefit… In this view, markets are a form of natural democracy—one in which individuals express their preferences and those preferences shape outcomes.  Consumers vote with dollars, and the aggregation of those individual votes produces a collective decision.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 15-17)

What’s wrong with this idea? The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber warns that while individuals may serve the needs of their own children, society loses, and the children of the least powerful parents lose the most: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber clarifies how the ideology of school privatization compromises the basic values that have historically been our society’s bedrock: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In Schoolhouse Burning, another important book published last autumn, Derek Black more precisely defines what public education was imagined to accomplish: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Groups like Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ExcelinEd, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not be determining the fate of public education in America.  The 50 state constitutions give citizens the responsibility, through the democratic process, of ensuring that their legislators provide public schools which are adequate, equitable, and accessible for all.

Public Schools Need the Modest Dollars in Current Fiscal Relief Package, But Addressing Educational Injustice Will Take Much More

Happy Holidays! This blog will take a break. Look for a new post on January 4, 2021.

On Sunday, the leaders of the nation’s three largest school districts—Richard Carranza in New York, Austin Beutner in Los Angeles, and Janice Jackson in Chicago—published a column in the Washington Post demanding financial help to enable their school districts to function adequately as they try reopen in person in upcoming months:

“It’s time to treat the dire situation facing public school students with the same federal mobilization we have come to expect for other national emergencies, such as floods, wildfires, and hurricanes. A major, coordinated nationwide effort—imagine a Marshall Plan for schools—is needed to return children to public schools quickly in the safest way possible.”  These school leaders seek funds for sanitizing buildings and providing additional protective equipment for teachers, school-based coronavirus testing and contact tracing, mental health support for students, and funding for extra summer school next year. They estimate that $125 billion in additional relief funding is needed right now.

It would appear that some of that money has been included in the modest relief package Congress is said to hope to pass before shutting down for Christmas. On Monday night, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim reported on a bipartisan, two part emergency economic relief package: “The bipartisan group unveiled one $748 billion package that includes new unemployment benefits, small business aid and other programs that received broad bipartisan support. The second bill includes the two provisions most divisive among lawmakers—liability protections for firms and roughly $160 billion in aid for state and local governments… The second bill could end up falling out of the final deal if lawmakers don’t rally around it….”  That the second bill could simply disappear without being considered seems to be the reason Congress separated the relief package into separate bills.

The Post‘s reporters explain that the first relief bill includes urgently needed economic protection for desperate families as unemployment grows: “16 weeks of unemployment benefits at $300 per week for jobless Americans, as well as 16-week extensions in base unemployment benefits and the unemployment program for gig workers and independent contractors. The plan also devotes $300 billion in small-business relief…. Additionally, the legislation includes $82 billion for schools; $13 billion in emergency food assistance; $25 billion in rental assistance; $35 billion for health-care providers; and $13 billion for farmers, ranchers, growers and fisheries; among other measures.  The bill will also have an extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, at which point lawmakers hope the $25 billion in rental assistance would alleviate pressure on renters.”

The bill does allocate some emergency relief for public schools—about two-thirds of what Carranza, Beutner, and Jackson insist school districts across America need in immediate assistance. The Post‘s reporters cover the politics in the Republican dominated U.S. Senate, which is unlikely to support the second bill containing longer term assistance for state and local governments.  Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) is reported to have castigated the idea of “rewarding Democrats’ fiscal management (in blue states) with more taxpayer money.” Even conservative Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman apparently felt compelled to push back against Rick Scott in favor of assistance for desperate states whose legislatures will begin taking up budget negotiations after the new year: “The economy is not getting better in most of our states.”

Why does the deepening recession across state and local governments matter so much for public schools? It is because, for example, as school districts plan staffing for the remainder of the current school year and for next school year, the condition of state budgets will be the determiner.  In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire remind readers that roughly half of all school funding comes from state budgets: “The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,, p. 34)

In a commentary for CNN on Monday, the author of the new Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains that the problem is not merely the need for short-term emergency relief for school reopening, but instead a much longer term and more urgent shortage of revenue across the states compounded by inattention to equity in the distribution of state funding: “The federal government covers less than 10% of it—far from enough to counteract the inequalities that states structurally ingrain in their funding formulas. Nearly half the states provide less money to districts serving students from low-income households than they do to other districts. Studies have shown that a low-income student needs at least 40% more funding to be educated at the same standard of a student who is not low-income. Over the years, you can count on one hand the number of states with funding formulas that come near to providing low-income students with the resources necessary to achieve at reasonable levels. None of this is an accident. In my research, I found that states intentionally gerrymander their formulas in ways that advantage politically powerful communities and relieve them of the burden of supporting a statewide system of education that serves everyone.”

Black continues: “Drastic cuts during the last recession made the funding dilemma worse. A decade after the recession, roughly half the states had still failed to restore public education budgets to pre-recession levels. Now, the pandemic’s economic effects threaten a double dip in disadvantaged schools that can’t stand to fall any further. If that weren’t enough, the teaching profession has suffered a decade of trauma that included flat salaries, larger classrooms, higher expectations, and lower benefits.  Political leaders, like former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, justified the shifts by targeting teacher unions as the problem, if not the enemy,”

President Elect Joe Biden has promised to triple Title I funding, and pay for more wraparound Community Schools as well as increasing the investment of federal funds into the very expensive programs the federal government mandates for disabled students, but Black believes the Biden administration and the next education secretary, will face overwhelming challenges: “The solution to these problems will be hard to find in Washington, D.C.  No doubt the federal government has the money to eliminate unequal funding. Quadrupling the federal investment in low income students, for instance, would close half the existing funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools and create the leverage to insist that states close the remaining gap themselves. That money could shrink classrooms, increase teacher salaries, expand pre-Kindergarten, hire reading specialists and mental health counselors and improve the overall school environment.  But the charter and voucher coalitions would cry foul or demand additional investments for themselves.”

Before real reform can move forward, however, Black believes the next Secretary of Education will need to help America better understand the needs of the poorest children in public schools and more fully appreciate our public responsibility to rectify injustice: “The most this next secretary might reasonably hope for is not a grand solution but to lower the temperature… And it would take a good secretary, not an average one, to mind those relationships, open lines of communication, and listen for long enough….The right pick might educate the nation, help its people understand our logjam and mediate differences until there is a middle ground on which to accept solutions to a few problems.  That is reality and, unfortunately, no solace to the children who suffer in the meantime.”

Will President Biden Support Public School Teachers and Abandon Awful Obama-Duncan and Trump-DeVos Education Agendas?

There is widespread anxiety about President Elect Joseph Biden’s choice of a Secretary of Education and his public school policy priorities. Yes, we are bidding farewell to Betsy DeVos, which certainly must be celebrated, but something much more consequential may be happening. Two excellent articles this week explore where education policy has been lodged for two decades and what kind of change seems possible with a new administration.

In a interview for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant poses an important question to Derek Black, the constitutional scholar and author of the new book, Schoolhouse Burning: “You write in the book’s introduction that the nation is in the middle of a battle for the long-term viability of public education. How might this battle continue under a Biden presidency?”

Black responds: “It’s going to be great to be rid of Betsy DeVos, at least psychologically, if nothing else. In some respects, she was more of a cheerleader than an executioner (of public schooling) but she cheered on the executioners, especially on the state level. It’s going to be nice that those folks don’t have a friend in Washington, so when they attack public education, they have to do it on their own political capital not hers or the president’s. The other layer to this is that it’s not as though the Obama administration was good. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, had problematic charter school policies and policies that were part of the war on teachers. Biden hasn’t sounded like he plans on resuming Obama policies, but we will see.”

Looking back to Arne Duncan’s tenure under President Barack Obama, The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss picks up the same theme. She even tried to interrogate President Obama’s views about his own public education policies by exploring Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land: “On one important issue that proved to be a flash point—education policy—he doesn’t have much to say.  The memoir’s index shows references to education policies on only four of 701 pages—and none are more than a few sentences. What he doesn’t address says at least as much as what he does… Is it possible Obama didn’t know the full consequences of his education policies when he was writing the book? Did he know and think the criticism has been unfair? Did he just not want to deal with it?  What we do know is that his memoir says almost nothing about his education legacy—and there’s no clue as to why.”

Like Derek Black, Strauss, who publishes regular commentaries on education policy, realizes that Biden’s presidency follows not only four pro-privatization, pro-religious education, pro-family–anti-government years of Betsy DeVos’s ranting, but also the pro-charter, anti-schoolteacher years of Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan. Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration elevated what the No Child Left Behind Act had already established in 2002 as necessary for holding schools accountable—a massive regime of standardized testing.  Strauss diagnoses why educators and parents worry about the direction of Biden’s education policy: “Biden has so far laid out an education overhaul agenda that does not resemble Trump’s or Obama’s, and he has promised to be a friend to public educators—but many are waiting to see what he actually does after they were disappointed by Obama.”

Strauss summarizes the ways President Obama damaged education policy: “Obama’s education agenda surprised many of his supporters, who had expected him to address inequity in public schools and to de-emphasize high-stakes standardized testing, which had become the key metric to hold schools accountable under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law. But Obama did not. Instead, he allowed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push a strident education overhaul program that made standardized testing even more important than NCLB had…. Critics called it ‘corporate reform’ because it used methods more common in business than in civic institutions, such as using big data, closing schools that underperformed, and eliminating or weakening teacher tenure and seniority rights.”

Strauss believes Obama’s policies failed because they were based not on solid research but instead on misguided ideology:  “Some of the policies had no chance of working to improve schools. For example, the effort to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers was slammed repeatedly by assessment experts as being neither reliable nor valid.  It led to a continued narrowing of the curriculum, which had started under No Child Left Behind, and to some cockamamie teacher evaluation plans where some educators were evaluated by students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach… In 2011, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina spent $2 million to field test on students a new testing regime that included 52 new standardized tests, one on every subject so that all teachers could be evaluated based, in part, on the test scores of their students. In New York City, standardized tests were only given in English Language Arts and math, and so schools were allowed to assess teachers in other subjects on students’ math scores or English Language Arts scores.  In Washington, D.C., public schools, the star schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, decided that every adult in every school building should be, in part, graded by student test scores—including the custodians and lunch workers.”

Strauss concludes: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones.  It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

One of the most damaging policies accelerated during the Obama-Duncan years was the intentional growth of privately operated charter schools at public expense.  In his interview with Derek Black for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant asks Black about school choice, specifically whether poor and African American and Latino-Latina parents who feel their children have been left behind shouldn’t have the right to choose a privatized alternative. Black responds: “I do not second-guess minority low-income families who feel they need to try an alternative to public schools. Schools have failed a lot of these communities… But there’s a flip side… We will never fix (public education) by abandoning the system. There is no private system of education out there waiting to save all of our children…. The further away we get from the public system, the less equipped we are to protect our children.  Although there is the right to enroll in a private school regardless of race, children do not have protection from racial discrimination once they enter those doors. The same for students with disabilities. And in a privatized system, children have no protection from sexual orientation or identity discrimination. If somehow we think that we can solve the problem of discrimination and inequality by throwing children to the wolves, that’s the most fantastical thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Betsy DeVos has looked to her religious tradition as a guide for her education priorities along with a long libertarian distrust of government itself.  Arne Duncan looked to standardized testing and corporate accountability to enforce the establishment of national standards and as a check on teachers who were expected to work harder and smarter.

It has fallen to teachers themselves—the educational professionals who work with our children all day, every day in buildings most of us never have an opportunity to visit—to expose the absurdity of these policies. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public on what had happened to education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)  “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden has said he trusts public school educators themselves as the best guide to what is needed in America’s public schools.  He has pledged to begin using federal dollars to support the nation’s most vulnerable public schools with added Title I and IDEA dollars.  And he has pledged that high stakes standardized testing will not be the centerpiece of education policy during his tenure. We must give him a chance to do that work and hope that he can muster support in Congress for his declared educational priorities.

Will the Biden Administration Provide Leadership to Address Long School Funding Crisis?

Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.),  but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory.  How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.

The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.

The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.

In  2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.  Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.

Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery.  I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)

How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  p. 34)

Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 35-36)

Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)

Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade.  Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues…  The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)

The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative.  His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.

Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.