Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

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Reduce Poverty and Ensure Equity: The Key to Education Reform Is Not the Common Core

Last week three prominent education and civil rights leaders confronted what has appeared to be a civil rights establishment defense of annual standardized testing as the necessary centerpiece of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act.  John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Pedro Noguera of New York University, and Judith Browne Dianis, director of Advancement Project—a national racial justice organization, published an op-ed in The Hill in which they declared: “In recent weeks, a few national civil rights organizations including the National Council of La Raza, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League have vocally opposed efforts to highlight the dangers of high stakes testing by students and parents opting out of annual assessments.  United under the banner of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, these groups are urging parents to comply with annual testing requirements.  We strongly disagree with their position.”

Jackson, Noguera, and Browne Dianis call Congress to focus the reauthorization of the federal education law on eliminating the opportunity gaps that federal policy in education was originally designed to address: “We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty….”  “We should all remember that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty.  The measure was designed to compensate for disadvantages in learning opportunities between low-income and middle-class children.  While it was never adequately funded, ESEA was envisioned as an ‘anti-poverty’ bill.”  “Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

In his commentary for the Education Opportunity Network last week, Jeff Bryant proclaims the same theme in, Dumb Arguments About the Common Core Distract from What Matters Most.  Bryant writes: “While it’s refreshing to see K-12 education become a prominent issue in the very early stages of the 2016 election campaigns, it’s unfortunate to see support for the Common Core—the contentious new standards adopted by most states—become the focus of the debate… For sure, inequity is a problem—if not the problem—in American schools.  Inequities related to students’ race, ability levels, English language proficiency, and income characterize nearly every aspect of the outputs and inputs of the system.  The achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers has been at the center of education policy discussion for years.  Students with learning disabilities experience a similar gap when compared with their mainstream peers.  Racial discrimination also plagues school discipline policies resulting in black and brown students disproportionally being targeted for punishments, expulsions, and push-out into a school to prison pipeline.  And many states discriminate against students on the basis of income by giving richer school districts more money than poorer ones.”

Suggesting that Democrats running for office should focus on other educational issues instead of the Common Core, Bryant writes: “If Democrats want to present real arguments for education equity, they should propose what the federal government should do about the 23 states who give richer school districts more money than poorer ones.  They should call for measures to ensure the federal government fulfills its original promise to fund 40 percent of special education services (it has historically provided only 18.5 percent or less).  They should explain how a federal administration rededicated to equity would intervene in the twin crises of black males and females being pushed out of education into the criminal justice system. They should propose plans for federal support of community schools that can provide the range of education, health, counseling, and cultural services needed in communities traumatized by poverty.”

I urge you to read both articles carefully (here and here) and circulate them.

On ESEA’s 50th Anniversary, Jack Jennings’ New Book Traces History of Federal Education Aid

Tomorrow, April 11, 2015, is the 50th birthday of the federal role in education. On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  I decided to honor this important anniversary by spending yesterday and last evening reading Jack Jennings’ new book about the federal role in public education, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform.  Jennings knows his subject.  During much of the history of ESEA, from 1967 until 1994, Jennings served as subcommittee staff director and then general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.  In 1995, he founded the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which he led until his retirement in 2012.

In his book, Jennings suggests a new way to conceptualize the role of the federal government in a renewed ESEA.  He calls his proposal a “United for Students Act” that would be designed to address: needed preparation for schooling; improvement of teacher quality; extra resources for difficult schools; the need for more challenging content; and adequate and fair funding.  I encourage you to read Jennings’ book and consider his proposal.

In this post, however, and in honor of tomorrow’s ESEA birthday, I want to share some of the story Jennings tells about ESEA’s origin and its changes over the years.  Jennings explains: “The congressional creators of federal aid in the 1960s believed that the obstacle to better schooling was a lack of money: once sufficient funding was provided to equalize expenditures among school districts, it was assumed that educators would know what to do to improve education.  In contrast, the architects of the standards/tests/accountability reforms of the 1990s and 2000s believed that student academic achievement could be improved by setting high academic standards, using tests to measure attainment of those standards and holding teachers and schools accountable for poor results.  Providing more money to assist with this job was not necessary in the minds of many proponents of this second reform.  Neither of those two extremes has proved to be correct in its assumptions.  The past fifty years’ experiences have shown that education is too complex to have easy answers.” (pp. 4-5)

In every chapter, however, Jennings reminds all of us who have spent the past fifteen years trying to swim in a  sea of rhetoric about  accountability that ESEA’s original goal was very different from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB’s) goal: expanding educational opportunity for poor children through federal investment in their schools which were also underfunded.  The realities of funding inequity continue today: “First, per-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be.  Students from families of higher socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children in low-income families… Second, most of the increased spending over the last several decades has gone toward the extra costs of services for children with disabilities and to school lunch programs and other indirect expenses.  Only a fraction of the increases has gone toward improving regular instruction for the majority of children.” (pp. 179-180)  A primary flaw in Title I, according to Jennings, was not its strategy of focusing on funding so much as the meager level at which Title I was funded: “Providing a little extra help for disadvantaged students, while laudable, is not nearly enough in a school system that permits spending far more money on advantaged students than it does on those who are disadvantaged… The current (Title I) policy of inserting a little extra help for students into an inequitable system of schooling has not brought about the quality of education we need.  The other current federal strategy—demanding extensive testing of students—has not resulted in a broad increase in student achievement.” (pp. 7-10)

Quoting from David Cohen and Susan Moffitt’s history of Title I, Jennings acknowledges the contributions of Title I despite its limitations: “If we consider where America was in 1965 with respect to the education of disadvantaged children, Title I had made significant progress by the end of the 1970s.  It delivered funds that were reasonably well targeted to schools with disadvantaged students.  It helped to make better education for disadvantaged students a new educational priority.  It moved local use of federal funds from diverse and non-instructional services to instruction…. Despite its modest size and grave weaknesses, it also stopped the relative slide in achievement for many of its students and enabled them to make small relative gains in the early grades.” (Jennings, pp. 44-45) (Cohen and Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality, pp 97-98)  In the early 1980s, before President Ronald Reagan’s administration reduced education revenue from federal sources by roughly 30 percent, the Title I program served more than 4.75 million children, provided 3.5 million children with supplementary reading instruction and 2.2 million with supplementary math instruction, and paid for 160,600 full-time equivalent staff. (pp. 45-47)

The recent NCLB version of ESEA, in contrast, has made enormous demands on already underfunded schools without providing commensurate federal funding, despite a small bump in federal funding in NCLB’s very early years:  “The New America Foundation, which monitors federal appropriations, concluded that since NCLB was enacted in 2002, ‘federal appropriations for Title I have remained fairly flat.’  They suggest that the (funding) increases immediately after the passage of NCLB did not amount to much.  Therefore, states and school districts were left to foot the bill.” (p. 149)

Jennings goes beyond presenting ideas for his United for Students bill.  He adds up the costs he believes it would be necessary for the federal government to cover—$35 billion. “The federal contribution to public elementary and secondary education would thus be doubled, from $35 billion to $70 billion…. The federal government now provides about 10 percent of the country’s total costs of elementary and secondary education.  This proposal would increase that amount to 20 percent.  The federal government has the fiscal capacity to make this increased contribution because it has broad taxing powers and a national taxing base.” (pp. 199-201)

While Jennings willingly describes the shortcomings of Title I as a relatively small, unregulated funding stream, he tracks the urgent need for greater federal financial investment in educational equity through every single chapter of this book.  We must ask more from Congress—as it considers the reauthorization of ESEA—than merely cutting back on test-and-punish. Even as Jennings sets some new goals for the federal role in education, he insists that the federal government must do more to help pay for a system that prioritizes expanding opportunity for America’s poorest children.

Public Education: Have We Lost Our Bearings?

Maybe this time Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went too far.  At least I hope our broad amnesia will abate for once, and we won’t forget that in his proposed 2016-2017 biennial budget, Wisconsin’s governor tried to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin. In Ohio we have a name, “logrolling,” for hiding major changes in state law inside the fine print of the budget.  Logrolling is actually unconstitutional in Ohio, though it’s done all the time without people filing lawsuits to get the changes thrown out.  But Wisconsin’s governor Walker just tried to take logrolling to a whole new level.

Walker’s proposed budget bill declared that Wisconsin’s university system should meet “the state’s work force needs.”  Though Walker said later the removal of the old-fashioned language about the mission of the university—called by those who value education for its own sake “the Wisconsin Idea”—was a mere drafting error, that is hard to believe if you consider what Walker removed.

The NY Times editorial board describes the change: “It was not enough for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin suddenly to propose a destructive 13 percent cut in state support for the University of Wisconsin’s widely respected system.  His biennial budget plan… reached gratuitously into the university’s hallowed 111-year-old mission statement to delete a bedrock principle: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth’… Brazenly deleted as well from the mission statement…were the far from controversial goals ‘to educate people and improve the human condition’ and ‘serve and stimulate society.’ It was as if a trade school agenda were substituted for the idea of a university.”

I am encouraged that Governor Walker felt compelled to notice public opinion, and that after massive public outcry he un-logrolled the changes to the university’s mission statement by removing these changes from his proposed budget.  I am especially encouraged that the public noticed Walker’s outrageous substitution of the principle of job preparedness for the university’s historic mission.  It isn’t really fashionable these days to think about public policy in terms of ideas and principles.

Today instead we are usually satisfied with an appeal to “studies prove,” even when the other side has studies that prove something entirely opposite. Studies, for example, prove that school funding matters, but if we want to, we can believe the Hoover Institution economist who has said for years that school funding levels don’t change student achievement at all.  Or maybe we just know the name of the celebrity who is pushing a particular education policy—Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who is now leading the charge to curtail teachers’ unions—Andre Agassi, the tennis star who has his own charter school—Cathie Black, the magazine executive at Cosmopolitan, who became for a few weeks the chancellor of the New York City schools—Reed Hastings of Netflix, who wants to eliminate local boards of education.  But I think the principles are worth considering.

Sometimes principles are important because they describe things there is no way to measure.  Consider the statement that sits permanently at the top of this blog.  It is from a lecture the late senator Paul Wellstone delivered fifteen years ago at Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  “Rights of our democracy.”  “Common purpose.”  “Common bond.”  Wellstone appeals to our sense of fairness, our understanding of human rights, and our society’s long commitment to the common good—all qualitative—all immeasurable.

Sometimes when politicians gloss over principles, the purpose is sinister, but we fail to protect ourselves when we don’t consider the principles.  Think about the change being discussed right now in a long-running Constitutional Modernization Commission in Ohio.  The chair of this commission’s education committee is determined to remove the education clause from Ohio’s constitution.  This clause was inserted into the constitution in 1851: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”  In testimony he presented to the commission’s education committee, Charles Wilson of the college of law at the Ohio State University explains why the original constitutional language really matters.  The “thorough and efficient clause” provides the basis by which the judicial branch of government can protect Ohio’s citizens under law:  “Checks and balances are part of the wisdom of our system.” “I’m not sure I’d want to live in a society where there weren’t checks and balances.  It would open the door to tyranny.”  As a matter of fact, the people trying to remove Ohio’s education clause from the state constitution want to slash public school funding and move the money to the charter sector, and they don’t want the citizens to have a right under the constitution to bring a lawsuit to protect the public schools.

Then there is the debate going on right now in Congress about protecting the rights of America’s poorest public school students.  When I blogged on this issue last Thursday, the post predictably attracted few hits.  After all, it’s about the threat to a principle—educational equity.  If Congress were to adopt “Title I Portability” by ceasing to distribute weighted funding by formula to districts where masses of children are very poor, such a policy shift would sabotage the principle that federal funding for education should compensate for serious funding inequity that states refuse to or cannot afford to address. The principle, enshrined in the Title I formula of the federal education law since 1965, is threatened because not enough people really understand it.  Why pay attention when the issue is grounded not in what “studies prove” but in an ideal?

Finally there is the whole issue of privatization.  Public schools are more likely than privatized alternatives to be able to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.  Whether marketplace school choice is a good idea has attracted some attention lately because Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution and Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington have been raising concerns about widespread lack of regulation of charter schools. Both have admitted they are worried that school choice isn’t working, even though both are long supporters of privatization. Lots of the discussion has focused on test scores (metrics).  Then Margaret Raymond tried to argue that if parents were given more accessible information, they would make better choices and schools would improve through competition. But the real question is neither about test scores nor the information available to drive the choices of parents. The issue is about the principle.  The more I learn about marketplace school choice in practice, the more I appreciate political philosopher Benjamin Barber’s thoughtful juxtaposition of public vs. private:

“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…. 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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Right now in the debates about so called school “reform” we talk a lot about what studies prove and we note the celebrities who are promoting one or another kind of school or ideology.  I think we ought to pay much closer attention to the principles underneath the conversation.

Ravitch: Let’s Try “No Child Left Out”

Recently I found myself at a meeting where the discussion starter was the first half hour of a wonderful video that was made here in Ohio about twenty years ago: Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers.  The DeRolph school funding lawsuit was at the time making its way through Ohio’s court system, and the film portrayed the outrageous disparities in Ohio’s school facilities—that ranged from deplorable buildings covered in coal dust in Appalachian small towns to leaky buildings in the inner cities of Columbus and Cleveland to the gorgeous new school campus out in Perry, where a nuclear power plant had just come on-line to explode the value of the tax base.  Watching this old film was an emotional experience for me because I know many of the dedicated educators who appeared including some who are now gone.

But the other thing about the film that affected me is the irony.  The DeRolph lawsuit made its way through our courts, and the Ohio Supreme Court found our school funding unconstitutional four times; but the last time, the elected court had now become dominated by a different political party, and the court released jurisdiction in the case.  Our legislature was never made to reform our funding system.  The film and the DeRolph litigators did accomplish one goal, however.  Money was invested in school facilities.  That one inequity has now been addressed in Ohio.

In one of the film’s memorable scenes, a stalwart music teacher leads a school orchestra rehearsal—string instruments and classical music, I think—in a rural high school where the music room is directly under the gymnasium and where the basketball team is practicing at the same time.  The cameraman stood somehow on the stairway and let the camera catch both activities happening simultaneously.  As we hear the music,  we watch the ceiling of the band room shake and feel the blows as the athletes’ feet hit the floor and the basketball bounces.  Today here in Ohio the facilities would be better, but the school would likely not have a music program.  Cuts in state funding in recent years would likely have left the district without elementary school instrumental music, which means that even if the high school tried to have a complete band or orchestra, not enough children would have learned to play the instruments needed to make up a full ensemble.  And the pressure to raise test scores in the required language arts and math would likely have reduced the time for music and art.

I thought about the film—which was made years prior to the (2002) No Child Left Behind Act and the (2009) Race to the Top—as I read Diane Ravitch’s profound blog post yesterday, My New Paradigm for Accountability.  Ravitch says she wrote the post after watching the band play at Southold Elementary School on Long Island.

About America’s school accountability laws—that all came in the decade between 2000 and 2010—Ravitch writes, “We did not leave no child behind.  The same children who were left behind in 2001-2002 are still left behind.  Similarly, Race to the Top is a flop….  RTTT has hurt children, demoralized teachers, closed community schools, fragmented communities, increased privatization, and doubled down on testing.”

Her new plan, she writes, would be called No Child Left Out.  It would hold schools accountable for expanding opportunity instead of raising test scores.  In fact Ravitch would simply eliminate standardized testing.  But to please our society that worships counting and measuring, she would continue to count—how many children learn to play an instrument, become part of the band, sing in an ensemble, perform in a play, make a video, do a science experiment, design a robot, write a story, investigate a subject and write a research report.  Her list goes on, and she  writes, “Setting expectations in the arts, in literature, in science, in history, and in civics can change the nature of schooling.  It would require far more work and self-discipline than test prep for a test that is soon forgotten.”

I am certain that Ravitch’s blog post will be dismissed by the advocates of metrics-driven, test-based accountability, but I agree with her that the  “paradigm would dramatically change schools from Gradgrind academies to halls of joy and inspiration.”

Her plan is radical in another way.  If states were to be held accountable by the federal government for actually creating schools that brought opportunity for all, state governments would have to figure out a way to invest more in enriching educational experiences for children in poverty—the children who attended school in Appalachian coal bins and urban schools with leaking roofs back when Bill Moyers made the film Children in America’s Schools.  Restoring the arts and music and libraries filled with enticing books, expanding and deepening academic course offerings, and hiring enough teachers to ensure that all children have a personal connection to an adult would be a lot more expensive than merely making school buildings safe and dry.

School opportunity in the poorest communities would no longer be conceptualized as getting savvy parents to fight their way into a charter school lottery.  The responsibility would be on voters and the politicians they elect to spend some money on programs to enlarge opportunity for all of the children who desperately need a chance.  I always like to quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson on this particular topic, because I believe he is very clear about what we ought to be striving for:  “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  “Lift from the bottom” is what Diane Ravitch is advocating in her very profound little blog post.  We would all have to be responsible for doing the lifting.

The Koch Brothers Are Part of What’s the Matter with Kansas

Since when does school funding legislation have to come with a quid pro quo legislative tidbit for the Koch Brothers?

Here is some background for what happened in Kansas last weekend.  The legislature had been warned by the state’s supreme court that the state’s school funding had slipped far from parity.  The Court gave the legislature until July 1 to allocate more state money to the poorest school districts in Kansas.  After all, one of the primary functions of a state school finance formula is to produce at least some movement toward equity—to ensure that funding in property-poor school districts doesn’t fall so far that poor children are denied basic services.

The formulas are rarely generous, which is why Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond pointed out that in 2010, the ratio of spending between property rich and property poor school districts was over 3:1.  Darling-Hammond wondered, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Today in Kansas, they are still arguing and fighting, and it’s not just in Kansas.  In the four years since Darling-Hammond published her book, the rhetoric across our states has retreated from the idea of equity.  Today we talk about school choice (privatization) and we punish teachers, which is what the Kansas legislature just did as a condition for raising the state’s distribution of funding to poor school districts to the bare minimum.

At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas.  The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding, for the plaintiffs and against the state, on Friday, March 7.

Last weekend the legislature responded to the court.  Brad Cooper reports for the Kansas City Star that late on Sunday night, “The House and Senate passed a bill that spends $126 million to bridge wealth-based disparities in the school funding formula,” and, according to Cooper, “strips teachers of due process rights and promotes school choice.”

Basically the bill eliminates the tenure protections public school teachers in Kansas earn at the end of three years.  In Kansas, what it will mean for teachers to lose job protections is described by John Hanna for the Associated Press:  “Starting in July, teachers who’ve been in classrooms three years or longer but face dismissal would lose the right to have their cases heard and decided by independent hearing officers….”

The new school funding law also promotes privatization by setting up tuition tax-credits.  According to Cooper in the Kansas City Star, “The reforms would foster school choice by allowing corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds so children with special needs or who come from low-income households could attend private school.”  Tuition tax-credits are really just another form of private school vouchers.

There is widespread agreement that the anti-teachers union provision and the tax credits were added to the bill by legislators supported by the Koch Brothers through Americans for Prosperity.  Cooper writes, “Urged on by conservative special interests such as Americans for Prosperity, Republican leaders pressed hard to eliminate due process rights for teachers.”

Jeff Glendening, the director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity was quoted—framing the legislation as part of a fight between those who stand for children and those who stand for “adult” interests—by the NY Times : “We appreciate the willingness of the Legislature to place the interests of Kansas children over the welfare of the teachers’ union.”  This kind of rhetoric is widely promoted by far-right groups such as StudentsFirst and Stand for Children. These groups try to imply that teachers, who have committed their lives to nurture children, are somehow a class of people working purely out of self interest.  The rhetoric also fails to acknowledge that public school due process merely grants teachers the right to a hearing. Under the law passed over the weekend, in Kansas teachers can now be fired at will.

Scapegoating school teachers and promoting vouchers are at the core of the far-right attack on public education.  In states like Kansas where austerity budgeting has become the norm, attacks on teachers unions have become a regular part of a national movement to reduce government expenditures and have education on the cheap.  If teachers can be fired at will, it is possible to eliminate the more expensive, experienced teachers, cut costs, and reduce taxes. Tuition tax-credits promote privatization.

Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 federal budget includes a new $300 million Race to the Top Opportunity initiative described as promoting equity in public schools.  While funding is frozen for the Department of Education’s large and important programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the budget, if passed by Congress, would create a new competitive grant program by which states could apply for federal funds, “to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.  It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students non-cognitive skills,” according to Education Week‘s Alyson Klein.

Late last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a brand new study to bolster the need for the new Race to the Top Opportunity proposal.  According to Michele McNeill (Education Week‘s other expert on federal policy in education), the new “federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators…. Minorities and students with limited English proficiency are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, attend a high school with limited math and science offerings, and be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers….”  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reported striking facts documented in last week’s report:  approximately 40 percent of school districts fail to offer preschool and usually for only a few hours each day; Black, Latino, and Native American students lack access to a full range of courses, particularly math and science; one fifth of high schools do not provide a school counselor; and serious disparities exist in punitive discipline policies and grade retention by race.

It is definitely a good thing that President Obama and Arne Duncan are bringing attention to the need for equity in public schools, because opportunity gaps due to poverty, segregation, and tragically inadequate and unequally distributed school funding are the heart of what is wrong with public schooling in America.  Tragically, however, most of the substantive programs coming from Duncan’s Department of Education fail to address these very real problems and instead push punitive sanctions for the schools that struggle—school closure, transformation to a charter school, punishments for teachers who can’t quickly raise scores.  It is important that Obama and Duncan are finally discussing the deep and seemingly intractable challenge of inequality, but the programs they have been promoting for over five years now have little to do with remedying inequality.

Another problem is that the new research merely replicates an enormous body of existing research that already documents these problems. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to point out that the states (where the responsibility for school funding primarily rests) are spending less on public education than in 2007, before the Great Recession.  Due to the lingering effects of the recession in some states and the popularity of low taxes and austerity budgeting, 34 of the 50 states are spending less today.  The Education Law Center has just released the third edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, which examines the condition of the 50 state school funding systems and rates the states on the basis of funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school ‘coverage.’

Then  just a year ago a Congressionally convened Equity and Excellence Commission released a report that not only documented massive inequality of opportunity across our nation’s public schools but also suggested exactly what the President and Congress could do to address it: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education.  It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national k-12 spending is a matter of custom, not a mandate.  The federal government must take bold action in specific areas.”  Here are the first four of the Commission’s twelve suggestions:

  • “Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students….”
  • “Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist….”
  • “provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty, because schools without concentrated poverty cost less to run than schools with concentrated poverty.”
  • “Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity….”

Notice that the Commission is speaking of the need for an enormous federal investment—far more than $300 million— and that the Commission is suggesting that the Office of Civil Rights do far more than a research study on inequality.  According to the Commission, the Office of Civil Rights must enforce equity, perhaps by conditioning federal assistance on states’ efforts to ameliorate injustice.

Beyond expanding the federal goverment’s capacity to enforce states’ move toward equity, there, ironically, already exists the ideal federal program by which the federal government could invest significantly to help school districts serving very poor children.  This is the Title I formula program, frozen in the President’s proposed 2015 federal budget.  Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children. Title I is a formula program that distributes federal money to all schools whose children qualify.  It is a program that has never been fully funded.  The President and Congress could fully fund Title I and could even adjust the formula to do a better job of targeting money to schools that face enormous challenges in communities where poverty is highly concentrated.

Pursuing equity through Race to the Top instead of the Title I formula is a virtual impossibility.  Race to the Top, like Arne Duncan’s other competitive grant programs, is a competition.  Races with winners always create losers.  There are millions of poor children spread across the fifty states.  When five or ten states win a Race to the Top competition in any one year, the poor children  and their schools in all the rest of the states are the losers.  And it is essential to remember that the money for Race to the Top comes right out of the Title I program, thereby reducing the formula program that was designed with equity as its very foundation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes the moral implications of the substitution of competitive programs like Race to the Top for the Title I civil rights formula program:  “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”