“Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…”

After reading John Merrow’s reflection on what is happening in the Trump-DeVos Department of Education, I woke up in the night thinking of Bob Dylan. John Merrow covered education for the PBS NewsHour for decades, and he just visited Washington, D.C., where he talked with old friends and contacts who see significant developments at the U.S. Department of Education.

Merrow describes the movement of education policy in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, but he is definitely not depicting a new spirit or a gathering momentum. This is definitely not a “the times, they are a-changin” moment.

I will, however, give Bob Dylan credit for naming what I think John Merrow has noticed: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Here is John Merrow: “In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an ‘education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.’ His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.5% or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives… However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education… I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that ‘Lamar Alexander is really in charge.’… They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy. So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.”

In all this John Merrow is able to derive some optimism: “Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration.  That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department…. even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them. Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that state officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts… So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?”

I wonder what gives John Merrow quite so much optimism about local control.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, there has definitely been a gross imbalance toward federal power, of course, with the test-and-punish strictures of the federal government conditioning the evaluations of school teachers and even the survival of particular schools on schools’ capacity to raise the test scores quickly. Federal law has demanded accountability even though the federal government itself entirely failed to build the capacity of the schools that have struggled.  Congress neglected to demand that funding between rich and poor school districts be equalized and failed as well to address the conditions that concentrated poverty imposes on the schools in our poorest communities.

Restoring some federal-state-local balance would be a very good thing. But it is wrong to imagine that if the federal role fades, school improvement will automatically evolve. The prophetic warning of the late Frederick Douglass should staunch our optimism:“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If the federal government’s role in education policy dissipates into incompetence and in-fighting, other influential factions across the states and within local school districts are still likely to manage public schools in ways that further privilege the children of the powerful unless democratic pressure persists.

Here are merely two examples of how privileged interests are driving school policy.

The first example is  at the local level.  On Wednesday, the NY Times published a column by Damon Hewitt, now the director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hewitt protests the injustice of the way New York City selects the students for its  “eight ‘specialized’ city public high schools that include Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. About 28,000 students took the multiple-choice test required for admission, and 5,078 did well enough to secure a place. This system, while it might seem meritocratic, in fact leads to a shocking inequity. Even though black and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of public high school students in the city, they routinely represent only 10 percent of those offered admission to the specialized high schools. This year the city offered admission to only 524 black and Latino students. The numbers are even lower at some of the most desired schools, such as Stuyvesant, which has space for nearly 1,000 freshmen and offered admission to only 13 black students… The sole criterion is a student’s score on the multiple-choice admissions test.”

Everybody knows, or should know, that test scores, in the aggregate, reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.) In New York City, parents influential enough to do so scramble in Kindergarten and at the middle school transition to get their children into schools that are thought to prepare students for admission to the elite high schools.  And in New York City everybody knows that students whose parents can afford it are tutored for the admissions test for the elite high schools.  Hewitt concludes: “If the (DeBlasio) administration is truly committed to admitting black and Latino students who deserve to be in specialized high schools, it must find the courage to disrupt the status quo and ask the harder questions… What if the school district… and the State Legislature… started from scratch to create an admissions process that rewards those who do well in middle school?  What if school officials and the public actually believed there are many talented black and Latino students who can succeed in an elite setting?”

The second example is the state-by-state policy promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education: the creation of state report cards that award letter grades based on standardized test scores to school districts and individual schools.  Some had pushed that the federal rules for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to create summative ratings (like A-F school grades) for schools and districts in their state ESSA accountability plans.  Even though the Obama ESSA accountability rules were just scrapped by the new Congress, Education Week recently reported that at least 18 states have or are developing some form of A-F grading system for their schools: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.  Because, in the aggregate, test scores are highly correlated with family income and the overall economic level of neighborhoods where children live (See here and here.), such letter grades are currently branding and stigmatizing the schools in poorer communities with lower grades—ratings that are widely advertised on real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia.  The assignment of letter grades to schools is condemning schools and school districts in the poorest rural areas, and redlining school districts in big cities and inner ring suburbs. In metropolitan areas the school district grades—legitimized because they are created by state governments themselves—are incentivizing parents to choose the so-called “excellent” school districts in wealthy outer suburbs whose schools are A-rated. Across cities and their suburbs, the letter grades are driving residential segregation by both family income and race.

John Merrow has called our attention to the reality that in federal education policy, something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. We can be sure of one thing, however.  A vacuum of power—even if it happens due to federal in-fighting or incompetence—is likely to serve the children of the powerful and not children who have historically been left out or left behind. For those of us who care about justice in public schools, it will be essential to figure out exactly what is happening and then to press hard for policies that expand opportunity for the poorest students and children who have long been marginalized by their race or ethnicity.

School Funding: A Moral, Not a Fiscal Problem

Taxes are merely a tool by which governments can fund the services needed in a good society.  Today instead, as the Freedom Caucus dominates the House of Representatives and Donald Trump sets sets the agenda, taxes and government are seen as the enemy—something to eliminate.  Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform and who has convinced a mass of state legislators to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, is famous for his declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In the eyes of many of today’s politicians, tax policy has become not a tool of government but a goal in itself along with the goal of reducing the programs and services the government provides.

Some of the services tax cutters want to eliminate are provided by public schools.  Even before President Donald Trump announced his budget outline last week, federal funding for schools had declined because many in Congress have prioritized tax cutting. In October 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the two largest funding streams for K-12 public schools have been growing smaller. Funding for Title I, the program for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty dropped 8.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2010 and 2016 and funding to support federally mandated programs for special education dropped 6.4 percent (again adjusted for inflation).

If tax reduction were merely a federal malaise, it would not be so serious for schools, for federal funds pay for merely 10 percent of school funding, with the bulk of the money roughly split between states and local school districts. But because schools make up one of the the biggest budget lines in every state, tax slashing by the state legislative endorsers of Norquist’s pledge is definitely affecting public schools. That is why we are seeing more and more reports like this one about school districts in rural and small towns instituting four-day school weeks.  When states cut the budget and federal programs are also reduced, local school districts can either raise millage or cut programs.

School funding problems continue on display during this state budget season. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) released a white paper documenting that again this year Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget fails to fulfill the state’s commitment under the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision to fund schools adequately under the standards of New York’s constitution. AQE condemns Cuomo’s recent budget proposal: “The 2017-18 Executive Budget repeals and does not replace the Foundation Aid formula, and would return New York State to the pre-CFE era when political machinations and arbitrary formulas guided the distribution of school aid—without regard for student need.”  In a new lawsuit, parents in three New York school districts have also just demanded that an appeals court release funds that had already been allocated to their school districts but that have been frozen by another court: “On December 28, 2016, Judge Kimberly O’Connor in Albany found that the budget director exceeded his legal authority in withholding the grants and ordered the funds be immediately released… for distribution to support vital programs at the schools.”  But, “Governor Cuomo decided to appeal Judge O’Connor’s ruling last month. Under New York law, the appeal triggers an automatic stay of the order to release the funds.”  The school districts list the services they cannot afford to provide without the funds: social work and counseling, family outreach, academic interventions, professional development, and extended learning time.”

And in Illinois—where weeks ago Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to send $215 million that had already been promised by the state to help the Chicago Public Schools avert bankruptcy—Rauner has finally agreed to release the funds, but only if legislators will redo the state’s pension system.  Rauner is holding Chicago’s children and teachers hostage.  A reporter for Chicago’s DNA Info describes  Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s response to Rauner’s pension reform ransom demand: “The legislation would require public sector employees to give up ‘pension benefits in return for a one-time fix for CPS and no guarantee the state will offer the same assistance next year or any other year.” While there is politics involved in all this wrangling, experts document that Illinois imposes a structurally flawed funding system on Chicago and other poor school districts. The Education Law Center has identified Illinois school funding as among the nation’s most inequitable and has identified Chicago as chronically among “the most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation.”

Kansas is the state where relief suddenly seems possible. Ironically Donald Trump himself may intervene (sort of) in the school funding crisis. It has been reported that Trump may be appointing Governor Sam Brownback to a post with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where Brownback would coordinate the work of agencies involved in food and agriculture. Yesterday the NY Times editorialized: “Kansas can only hope that reports are true that the Trump administration will let… (Kansas’s) governor, Sam Brownback, escape the disaster he created in Topeka….”  The editorial continues: “Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived. The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30.”  The NY Times describes Kansas families as “experiencing the deepening budget crisis firsthand in shortened school hours and resources as the state suffered two credit downgrades. Public protest led to a number of Brownback loyalists voted out last year, with legislative newcomers igniting a budget revolt against the governor.”

We can only hope for Brownback’s departure through the confirmation of the Trump appointment to Rome. But there is some question about what would happen then. It is to be hoped that if he becomes governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also a fiscal conservative, will not veto—as Brownback last month vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to increase taxes by $1 billion over two years—the necessary revenue to support the state’s schools.

In Final Test, a book written long before our country faced today’s army of tax slashers—President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Congressional Budget Office Director Mick Mulvaney and the members of the House Freedom Caucus—Peter Schrag, the retired editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, ruminated about the decades-long California school funding crisis following the passage of Proposition 13 and the role of the courts in trying to rectify legislative failures to fund schools. In chapters on school finance court battles in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and New York, Schrag ponders a question that is more timely today than it was when his book was published in 2003: “Court decisions—particularly those that seem to require states to provide ever-richer resources to under-performing children—will almost certainly run into increasing political resistance, on both financial and equity grounds. To what extent are middle-income and affluent voters, the people who come to the polls, willing to send their local and state tax dollars to support extra resources for other people’s children, especially if they’re poor, black, or Latino?” (p.238)

Of course, that is what the social contract is all about. School finance is not so much a fiscal as a moral issue.

Congress Has Just Done Away with ESSA Accountability Rules: This Is Not a Tragedy

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a new reauthorization of the 1965 federal education law. NCLB imposed test-based accountability on all of America’s public schools. Because NCLB and its punitive, test-and-punish mechanism became so controversial, it took nearly 15 years for Congress to agree on what was supposed to be its routine five-year reauthorization. Finally late in 2015, Congress came up with a replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it really left much of NCLB intact—including annual high-stakes standardized testing and a sanctions-based—instead of a school improvement, investment-based—strategy for improving public education.

In new 2017 academic evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reports, “Perhaps the most positive aspect of NCLB is that it generated huge amounts of data on student achievement in math and reading… A second positive component of NCLB, especially in the eyes of civil rights groups, is that schools are held accountable not only for the aggregate test scores of their students but also for the average test scores of subgroups of students whom they might otherwise ignore… A third arguably positive element of NCLB was its requirement that all teachers be ‘highly qualified.'”  In reality, however, there were serious problems with all these three things Ladd calls the law’s accomplishments. First another national test without high-stakes and punishments—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—already gathers plenty of data about our schools; second, NCLB never succeeded, as intended, in improving the achievement of the students in the subgroups it was supposed to help; and third, the law’s requirements for teachers, which later under the Obama administration, came to include strategies to fire teachers who couldn’t raise scores fast enough, have left the teaching profession demoralized.

Ladd also summarizes what she believes were the law’s serious flaws: “An initial problem with the test-based accountability of NCLB is that it is based on too narrow a view of schooling… NCLB… has narrowed the curriculum by shifting instruction time toward tested subjects and away from others… Further, NCLB has led to a narrowing of what happens within the math and reading instructional programs themselves… NCLB also encouraged teachers to narrow the groups of students they attend to… A second flaw is that NCLB was highly unrealistic and misguided in its expectations… A third major flaw is that NCLB placed significant pressure on individual schools to raise student achievement without providing the support needed to assure that all students had an opportunity to learn to the higher standards.”

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB didn’t really change most of these problems. It was still a test-and-punish law even though it turned responsibility over to the states to design the sanctions.  States were required to create their own school accountability plans and then get them approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Obama Department of Education under Secretary John King spent last year writing and implementing rules for how the states are supposed to proceed with their required ESSA plans, and currently, a little over a year after the law’s passage, the states are in the process of developing the plans which they are supposed to submit to the U.S. Department of Education either in April or next September.

Except that Congress just threw out the rules. The House acted in February, and the Senate just voted last week, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to eliminate the Obama administration’s ESSA accountability rules.  It is expected that President Trump will sign the legislation.

And actually not a great many people are upset.  That is because NCLB and ESSA have been so misguided and so unpopular.

Here is how Dana Goldstein, in the NY Times, describes some of the rules Congress just eliminated: “The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming.  The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.  Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was the one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.”  I believe the state report cards are a terrible idea, as they are almost guaranteed to produce low rankings for the schools in the poorest communities.  And there are a couple of problems with what’s called “the 95 percent rule.” The rule was very likely designed to prevent schools from sending home on test day the students likely to post low scores—English learners or students lagging academically, for example. But the same rule is also said to be aimed at preventing parents from opting their children out of testing as a protest. ESSA says it permits opting out, but the 95 percent rule seems contrary to what the ESSA law itself says.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, further explains changes in the 95 Percent rule : “Under the NCLB law, schools that didn’t meet that (95 percent) threshold automatically failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress,’ or AYP.  Under ESSA, there’s no such thing as AYP.  So states get to decide how to factor test participation into a school’s overall rating… The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn’t meet the 95 percent threshold.  The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school’s overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement… Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 percent of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don’t meet that target.”

If this still sounds to you like too much worrying about test-and-punish and ranking and rating schools, you are not alone.  Here is Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who blogs under the name Curmudgucation: “Lamar Alexander pointed forcefully at the rules hidden under the desk blotter and said, ‘Get that junk out of here.’ This week featured an assortment of testimonials both in favor of and opposed to the regulations. Conservative voices strongly favored the end of those regulations, finding them too restrictive and not allowing for states to opt out of the whole business. Well, some conservative voices—other conservative voices said, ‘Let’s keep at least some of them.’  Other voices said, ‘Hey, the history of States Rights when it comes to education is not exactly a history fraught with great success.’ And a smattering of voices said, ‘Good God—when Congress changes the rules every six months, it makes it really hard to run actual school systems.’  As I said at the top, there are no heroes to root for in this movie. The Obama regulations were far over and above the actual law and simply attempted to extend the same failed, unsupportable policies of the past fifteen years; they needed to go away. The regulations we get in their place will most likely provide the freedom for wholesale abuse, fraud, and social injustice in education….”

Diane Ravitch used her blog post on this matter to sound like the academic historian that is her identity at New York University: “No Child Left Behind introduced an unprecedented level of federal control of education, a function traditionally left to the states. The federal contribution of about 10% of overall education funding enabled the government via NCLB to set conditions, specifically to require that every child in grades 3-8 must be tested in reading and math every year. Based on test scores, teachers and principals have been fired, and schools have been closed for not reaching unrealistic targets. NCLB was an intrusive, misguided, evidence-free law that was uninformed by knowledge of children, communities and pedagogy. Arne Duncan twisted the screws on schools with his absurd Race to the Top. Education is not a race, and there is no top.  But once again the standardized tests became the measure and the purpose of education. After 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, there is a great deal of wreckage, demoralized teachers, and widespread teacher shortages. And if the point of all that testing was to reach the top of international tests and/or close the achievement gaps among groups it didn’t happen.”

We shall have to wait to see what Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education does about re-creating any rules and also what her staff does about enforcement. Bigger issues remain, however, than the ESSA rules. President Trump has said he will expand military spending with deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.  Programs threatened by these plans may be Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Protecting these programs must be a priority for those of us who worry about serving America’s most vulnerable students. And then there is  Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s other priority: privatizing education. These, not the ESSA regulations, are the key concerns.

Stanford Researcher Presents the Evidence Against Trump-DeVos Voucher Plans

It seems that President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos are looking to tuition tax credits, a form of school vouchers, to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to expand school choice.  (This blog has covered Trump and DeVos’s interest in tuition tax credits here, here, and here.)

Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, published a report on Tuesday for the Economic Policy Institute that questions the expansion of school tuition vouchers. The driving motivation for promoters of vouchers, writes Carnoy, is ideological and is not based on any evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes overall: “The lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement (test scores), coupled with the evidence of a modest, at best, impact on educational attainment (graduation rates), suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs.”

Carnoy explains that voucher programs have met neither of two promises of their proponents— that recipients of vouchers will do better in private schools and that vouchers will drive public schools to improve when competition is introduced: “Voucher proponents argue that offering students the opportunity, through public financing, to attend private rather than public schools produces significant gains at two levels: that individual students gain from attending a more effective (private) school, and that students remaining in public schools gain because increasing private school competition for public school students pushes public schools to improve.”  Summarizing a number of research evaluations of  a range of voucher programs—in Washington, D.C.; Dayton, Ohio; Indiana; Louisiana; Milwaukee; Florida; and internationally in Chile and India, Carnoy concludes:

“Studies of voucher programs in several U.S. cities, the states of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and in Chile and India, find limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance from even large-scale programs. In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school competition, seem to be more likely drivers. And high rates of attrition from private schools among voucher users in several studies raise concerns. The second largest and longest-standing U.S. voucher program, in Milwaukee, offers no solid evidence of student gains in either private or public schools.  In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools—in high school graduation and college enrollment rates—there are no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices.”

Carnoy believes that voucher programs introduce serious risks to our system of public education, most notably a well documented rise in segregation as families choose schools serving families similar to themselves.  Another risk is what Carnoy calls the “free rider’ aspect of teacher costs in voucher and charter schools which are likely to pay so little and offer so few benefits. Carnoy believes an expansion of privatized voucher and charter schools will drive down the entry of qualified people into the teaching profession: “The ‘free rider’ aspect of teacher costs in private schools, whether voucher or charter, means that the supply of young people entering the teaching profession is maintained by the salary structure and tenure system in public education. Without this structure, many fewer individuals would take the training needed to become certified to enter teaching. Since teaching salaries are low compared with other professions, the prospect of tenure and a decent pension provides the option of security as compensation for low pay… Thus, the public education employment and salary system ‘subsidizes’ lower teacher costs in private and charter schools.”  A small number of free-riding charter and voucher schools can hire the well trained teachers at a lower cost without necessarily undermining the profession, but if the number of privatized schools were to increase, society would suffer the consequences.

Support for vouchers, tax credits, and the expansion of unregulated charter schools is ideological and not based on the documented performance of any known program. Carnoy cites Henry Levin at Teachers College, Columbia University who judges the debate about school privatization to be a clash in belief systems, “between those who attach greater importance to individual choice, and therefore education markets, and those who place greater importance on equity, commonality, and public accountability, and therefore support public education.”

Carnoy suggests that if our society were really interested in expanding educational opportunity and improving school achievement, we should model the policies introduced in the public schools of Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas in the 1980s and 1990s—things like better teacher pre-service programs, expansion of high quality early childhood education, more after-school and summer programs, better student health and nutrition programs.  He adds that despite that high school graduation rates reflect many factors, “it would be relatively easy to increase both graduation and four-year college attendance by investing modestly more in the number of college counselors in public high schools and in training them better.”

Trump and DeVos Harp on School Choice, a Lifeboat Strategy to Save a Few Students

Chalkbeat describes President Donald Trump’s Congressional speech Tuesday night, an address in which the President reprised Arne Duncan and called education “the civil rights issue of our time.”  Then President Trump made a leap to school choice—basically calling school choice the civil rights issue of our time: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”  It’s an interesting definition of educational civil rights, to say the least.

In his speech to Congress, Trump then hinted at the type of school choice he is likely to propose, though there was no indication when he and his Secretary of Education are likely to move forward with such a plan. Trump had brought a young, Florida woman to the gallery, a young woman who participated years ago in Florida’s tuition tax credit program—a program Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she admires.  DeVos has served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which developed the model for this program.

Here is what Trump said about his guest last night: “Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather.  As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”

This blog has traced the interest of President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos in tuition tax credits here and explained all forms of vouchers (including tuition tax credits)—public tax dollars diverted to pay students’ tuition in private schools—here.

Back when Arne Duncan was education secretary, a good indication of the Obama administration’s plans for education was in the policies promoted by the Washington, D.C.—Democrat-leaning—think-tank, the Center for American Progress.  Perhaps we can see a similar dynamic operating on Tuesday night, as one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the education ideas in Trump’s speech was the American Federation for Children, the huge lobbying organization—founded, funded, and formerly chaired by Betsy Devos.  The American Federation for Children has promoted the privatization of education through vouchers, tuition tax credits, and expansion of charters in a climate free of “bureaucratic” regulation.

Here is the statement, released on Tuesday evening by John Kirtley, vice-chairman of the American Federation for Children: “We were pleased to hear the President offer strong support for school choice in his address to the joint session of Congress tonight… Now is the time to act with bold conviction. We urge school choice advocates to work with Congress and the Administration to pass a federal tax credit to encourage charitable giving to state non-profits who will provide scholarships for eligible children to attend the school of their parents’ choice… I was incredibly happy to see Denisha Merriweather sitting in the Executive Gallery with First Lady Melania Trump at the joint session tonight. As the President mentioned in his speech, Denisha used a tax credit scholarship in Florida and has become a true American success story due to the program. She exemplifies the power of choice in education.”

Despite that 90 percent of American children and adolescents attend public schools and that many of those students have their own success stories, we are being drilled by the Trump administration on a one-note school policy—freedom of choice for parents. Personal freedom and privatization are the key ideas. There seems to be no recognition that public schools are the system most likely to be able to serve the needs of the whole range of our children. Nor do Trump and DeVos appear to worry about protecting the rights of children by law and through transparent, democratic governance—protections absent from private schools. It is ironic that the people in charge of the federal department designed to support the education of all American children are endorsing a lifeboat strategy—vouchers,  tax credits and charters—that by its very structure can serve only some students. Public schools, of course, are required by law to serve all students.

On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos herself attracted enormous attention in the press for her awkward and ignorant effort to promote her one-note education idea when she complimented historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—as exemplars of school choice.  She failed to indicate that she has any real understanding of the role of these institutions during a period of our history when black students were entirely shut out of higher education at all white colleges and universities.

Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, DeVos’s home state, responded: “Let’s be clear, HBCUs were started because of Jim Crow laws. Black students did not ‘choose’ HBCUs over the all-white colleges—they were barred from attending due to their race.  This statement by Mrs. DeVos reveals either a stunning ignorance of history on the part of the person tasked with overseeing our nation’s education system, or an inability to acknowledge our nation’s shameful history of racial discrimination in education, both public and private… Yesterday’s attempt to whitewash the stain of segregation into an argument for privatizing our public schools is perhaps a new low in her current position.”

Lacking Experience, What Will Trump and DeVos Do to Rural and Small Town Public Schools?

I am fascinated by an article that appeared the Washington Post over the weekend: Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll be Left Behind.  The reporters take us to East Millinocket, Maine, where: “The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night…  This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future. Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one.”

The reporters include a map of the 50 states that identifies six states where over 55 percent of the students attend rural schools: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Maine. The article explores this question: How will the Trump administration—which has promised its priority will be to enhance competition and school choice by expanding vouchers students can carry to private and parochial schools and by expanding privately operated (but publicly funded) charter schools—do that in a town like East Millinocket, Maine?  That is, of course, the question that Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski kept asking during the Senate’s debate on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our U.S. Secretary of Education, and they both voted against the confirmation because they were not satisfied with the answers they received. Jose DelReal and Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s reporters, add that almost 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools.

I am especially interested in this article because, while today I live in inner-suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in a small town in northern Montana, one of the largely rural states identified by DelReal and Brown. My town of 10,000 people isn’t classified as rural, but within a hundred miles in all directions were the tiny communities where fewer than ten or fifteen students made up the high school graduating class every year. Even in my small (not rural) town, the schools were a central institution. High school basketball games were packed on frigid Friday evenings, and the high school football team played on a field surrounded by small hills and a sort of terraced roadway on which fans from the community (not just parents) would park to watch the games in their heated cars. After all, the temperature was sometimes below zero even in football season. While today, my husband and I buy tickets to hear the Cleveland Orchestra and attend plays at the Cleveland Playhouse or Great Lakes Theater, in my hometown, everybody bought tickets to see the plays produced by the high school, and students and the community alike came to the high school, the town’s only auditorium, to listen when Community Concerts brought a musical event to town. One time when I went for my regular checkup, my doctor congratulated me for making the high school honor roll, which at that time was regularly published in the newspaper.

Schools in small towns and rural communities may have trouble offering salaries that will attract teachers to remote areas. DelReal and Brown explain: “Rural schools have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals because housing is so limited, pay is so low and working conditions are difficult… Trump has decried failing public schools that are ‘flush with cash,’ but many rural schools—hobbled by a poor local tax base and weak state support—struggle with tight and often shrinking budgets.”  Neither can rural schools offer the kind of broad curriculum provided in the huge suburban high schools. There are real advantages, however. The students are known and cared for by the teachers who also live in their neighborhoods, and even people in town track students’ accomplishments. The superintendent of schools in East Millinocket, Maine adds another reality in his interview with the Post‘s reporters: “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town… There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”

So… what might a federal administration committed to expanding a school choice marketplace through competition do for a place like East Millinocket, Maine?  It’s not hard to imagine.

The online academies are the first thing that come to mind. These are the schools children and adolescents can attend in the privacy of their own homes on the computer. The U.S. Department of Education might dangle incentive grants for states to create competition in rural school districts by bringing in e-schools—perhaps even encourage states to save money by making online education the only thing available in areas too remote for the schools to be consolidated together or with a larger district. The federal grants would come with baubles—tablets and computers provided to students and enhanced broadband that would benefit not only the schools but also be available to residents in the region. Consider the marketing and branding potential of such a project.

There are a couple of serious problems, however.  The virtual e-schools we have today have proven themselves abysmal compared to other kinds of education. The students are not learning nearly as much, for example. Just a year ago, after several years of support for an experiment with e-school charters, the Walton Foundation’s education program officer announced that based on a major, three-part, Walton Foundation-sponsored investigation by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the Walton Foundation would be seriously reconsidering making grants for online charter schools: “The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading then their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing. ”

Another problem with online charters has been epitomized by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge Ohio virtual school operated by two for-profit, privately held companies owned by William Lager, a powerful Republican political contributor. There is evidence at ECOT of a serious online truancy problem. The Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT, which collected $100 million from the state in 2015 alone to educate about 15,000 students, needs to repay $60 million, because a lot of those students were not logging on for the state-required five hours per day—or even 20 hours per week. ECOT has argued that it is merely required by an old, 2003 agreement with the state to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not required to prove that students are actively engaged with that curriculum for 920 hours. Because the state legislature and the governor’s office and the elected state supreme court are all dominated by the Republican Party, and because ECOT’s operator William Lager has been investing regularly and heavily in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans, it seems that online education in Ohio cannot be regulated effectively. The $100 million dollars, including last year’s $60 million non-recoverable overpayment for ECOT’s phantom students, is coming right out of the state’s education budget and hence reducing funding for the state’s public schools.

We can only hope that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, neither of whom has a bit of experience with public schools as a student or parent or teacher, will spend some time in these public institutions and pay some attention to their mission and their contributions to their students and to the vast array of communities they serve. The UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose has made visiting public schools all across the United States and writing about these visits a centerpiece of his professional career.  In his little book, Why School?, Rose explains that public schools everywhere are embedded in the communities they serve—something impossible for e-schools: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 216)

Rose’s perspective on the broader policy debates about education comes from reflecting on the time he has spent in public school classrooms:

“So much depends on what you look for and how you look at it. In the midst of the reform debates and culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose of the common public school…

“The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning… Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions… Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life…. The free-market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance abut all things public…

“We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education. One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I have witnessed. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language…

“There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good…. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, pp. 201-206)

Public Schools “Flush with Cash”?

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” That phrase confirms something I’ve always suspected. President Trump has never been inside a public school.

The public schools I know generally have old fashioned waxed tile floors—work done by a custodian after the children leave at the end of the day.  The trash is emptied, and the cafeteria tables are set up for the free breakfast provided these days for hungry children who qualify. Then the tables are folded up and lined tight against the wall to allow the children to have gym class in the all-purpose room before lunch is set up. The stale aroma of fish sticks lingers through the afternoon gym classes and, if the school is in a bit wealthier community, into the band class that is also set up some days every week in the same all-purpose room.

“Flush with cash” describes the people crowding the sidewalk in front of Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue and the people in tailored overcoats we keep watching while they ride down the escalator in the gilded Trump Tower.  But referring to any public school as “flush with cash” is one of those falsehoods Kellyanne Conway has taken to calling “alternative facts.”

In his speech Trump trumpeted one of the classic anti-public school talking points of those who want to trash and privatize public schools—that although we are dumping tons of money into our schools, our schools haven’t moved the needle on test scores.

It’s true that overall on the one test that is trusted, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), scores have not risen astronomically. While the black-white test score gaps have narrowed, the huge gap in achievement among children whose family income is in the top ten percent and those in the bottom ten percent is now 40 percent wider than it was in 1970.  That is surely consistent with the real fact—documented in academic research—that children’s standardized test scores are affected in the aggregate by the wealth or poverty of their families and the economic conditions in their communities.

What about school spending?  Richard Rothstein studied this back in the 1990s in reports published by the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is what he explains in Where’s the Money Gone?, his report on school spending between 1967 and 1991: “(T)he share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%.  Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Rothstein later updated his study to cover the years from 1991-1996.  In Where’s the Money Going?, Rothstein documents that,”(R)eal per pupil spending across the nation was roughly stable over the 1991-96 period, growing by only 0.7% (or 0.14% on an average annual basis).  This was a significant slowdown from the growth in per pupil spending of 61% (0r 2.0% on an average annual basis) from 1967-1991.  In the most recent period, some districts have actually had to reduce regular per pupil education spending in response to the combined pressures of enrollment growth, inflation, and shifting priorities toward spending on special populations… The share of spending on regular education is shrinking. By the 1996 school year, regular education accounted for only 56.8% of all school spending, down from 58.5% in 1991.  Special education spending grew to 19.0% of all school spending in 1996, up from 17.8% in 1991.  School lunch and breakfast programs grew to 4.8% of total school spending in 1996, compared to 3.3% in 1991.  Bilingual education programs grew to 2.5% of total school spending in 1996, up from 1.9% in 1991. The shift of spending away from the regular education program continues a trend observed over the 1967-91 period. However, in an era of stagnant overall school spending, such as the 1990s, this shift has translated into an actual reduction in regular education spending per pupil in several school districts.”

These numbers, now 20 years old, reflect that after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, a significant percentage of school funding was used to create programs for children the schools had not previously served.  And as the number of English learners has grown, significant funding has shifted into programs to serve these students.

But what do more recent numbers tell us about trends in the funding of schools?  Last October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its regular reporting on trends in state-by-state expenditures.  While federal funding for schools makes up only about 10 percent of all school finance, the states contribute over 40 percent, which means that trends in state funding significantly affect local school programming. Here is CBPP’s most recent conclusion: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008… Eight states have cut general funding per student by about 10 percent or more over this period.  Five of those eight—Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding… Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 27 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period, adding to the damage of state funding cuts.”

Finally, in a recent November 2016 report, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert, warns that rapidly expanding privatization through the authorization of new charter schools is destabilizing a number of urban public school districts where the education marketplace is rapidly growing. Privatization is President Donald Trump’s proposed cure for what he believes are the financial and academic woes of our public schools.

Here is Baker’s warning: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves.  They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light…  Of particular concern are those cases in which revenues are declining rapidly with enrollment decline, putting the squeeze on districts to reduce expenditures more rapidly than costs (potentially leading to significant annual deficits)… Of particular interest here is whether the reduction of enrollments from students transferring from district to charter schools leads to a manageable decline in total revenues, given declining enrollments of host districts.”

Baker concludes with a warning we should take seriously: “At the very least, federal and state policies intending to stimulate further charter growth must no longer be quality or integrity blind, assuming that market forces will induce necessary corrections.  The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes.  The federal government has also through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense… There may come a time when policymakers and the public at large tires of the recent wave of charter expansion, becoming (even) more wary of tradeoffs that have been made.  Any significant reversal of course, reemphasis on district schools, tighter restriction on and mass closure of charter schools, is now encumbered with major logistical and financial barriers.”

In less technical terms Moody’s Investor Services has warned that charters threaten to destabilize their public school disricts—parasites destroying their hosts—particularly in big cities that were devastated by the foreclosure crisis.  for the Washington Post describes Moody’s conclusions: “While charters are everywhere — in at least 41 states — they tend to make up a bigger share of total enrollment in urban areas. And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.”

Our society has historically been distinguished from many others by our aspiration to educate all of our children. Hiring real live, professionally credentialed teachers to educate 50 million children is likely to be pretty expensive.  Of course some tech entrepreneurs dream we can find a way to do it all online with scripted curriculum, and politicians like Donald Trump imagine we can find a way to save money by undermining teachers unions and ceasing to pay adequate salaries to the over 3 million teachers who now serve in our public schools.  Beware, because both of those ideas are really part of the agenda behind the lie that our public schools are “flush with cash.”