Biden’s Education Plan Addressed Lagging School Funding: Now with a Democratic Senate Majority, He Needs to Act

President Elect Joe Biden prioritized public school funding as the center of his education plan during his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President.  Why did he prioritize public school finance and why is it so urgently important in 2021?

Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, in their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, explaining the problem: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

In August of 2018, the late Jim Siegel at the Columbus Dispatch summarized an important report by Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter: “Nearly 77 percent of the total revenue increase from state funding and local taxes in the past 20 years occurred before 2009, according to a new analysis by the Ohio Education Policy Institute… State funding increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2009, but in the past 10 years it has actually fallen nearly 2 percent below inflation… Fleeter points to three key reasons why state funding slowed, starting with the great recession in 2008 and 2009, causing unprecedented drops in state tax revenue.  GOP leaders also eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out…. And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year.”

It has seemed as though there was hope for better public school support in the Ohio Statehouse. The Ohio Legislature spent the biennium that ended on December 31, 2020, working with experts to design a more adequate and equitable formula.  On December 3, 2020, the new plan passed the Ohio House by a margin of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate killed the bill by failing to schedule a vote before the end of the session. It is extremely unlikely that the plan will be reintroduced and passed in the next legislative biennium without changes that will reduce its cost and reduce its attention to the needs of Ohio’s poorest school districts.

The problem is not merely in states like Ohio with a history of long struggle to fund public education.  The executive director of New Jersey’s Education Law Center, which litigated the extremely successful legal challenge, Abbott v. Burke and ensured that New Jersey’s school funding has been a national leader, David Sciarra reports that right now New Jersey is falling behind the funding guarantee established through the lawsuit: “In 2018, upward of 196 New Jersey school districts were funded below ‘adequacy,’ that is, the level required by the state’s school funding formula to deliver a thorough and efficient education. That year, the state owed public school students close to $1.5 billion… The governor and legislators made some modest progress in 2019 and 2020, when they increased state school funding by $355 million and $191 million, respectively.  While the increase lowered the number of underfunded districts to 166, half of New Jersey’s students still attended underfunded schools, many in districts intensely segregated by poverty and race.  And the progress was short lived. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, (Governor) Murphy scrapped a planned $335 million funding increase, and lawmakers jumped on board with ‘flat’ state aid reminiscent of former Gov. Chris Christie’s consecutive state budgets from 2010 to 2017.  In short order, the state’s debt to public education is now back up to $2 billion, and lawmakers have abandoned their high-sounding rhetoric promising to close the funding gap by 2024.”

State and local school districts share over 90 percent of the responsibility for public school finance, with the federal government providing less than 10 percent. But funding even for the federal portion of public school finance has lagged.  The Committee for Education Funding provides this chart which demonstrates that while, in December of 2020, Congress appropriated a small increase for FY 2021 in U.S. Department of Education Discretionary Funding, the appropriation remains $7 billion below the FY 2011 amount in inflation adjusted dollars.

But the bigger problem remains in the states, which increasingly have reneged on their responsibility. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes what has happened in too many states in the past decade: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

In over 40 states, another problem has arisen.  The tax dollars that states once invested in the public schools have been divided up into three separate education sectors: traditional public schools, publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, and private and religious schoosl which accept tuition vouchers paid for with public tax dollars.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the school finance implications of the expansion of school privatization at public expense: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

In a groundbreaking 2018 report about California, political economist Gordon Lafer exposed the net loss of $57.3 million local school district dollars diverted from the Oakland Unified School District to charter schools every year.

Public vouchers to pay private school tuition have likewise expanded, with the financial impact too often felt in the school districts serving poor children.  In November, 2020, for example, the incoming Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman introduced and rapidly passed without public hearings a revision of Ohio’s EdChoice private school tuition voucher program. Huffman rammed through changes which make the vouchers—which are fully extracted through local school district deductions—available only to students living in Title I districts.  Wealthy districts are now protected from losing any of their school district budgets to this voucher program. Now, Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers undermine not only the adequacy of school funding, but also inequitably impact the state’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children.

The authors of both Schoolhouse Burning and The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door agree that the 2018-2019, Red4Ed teachers’ walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland to Chicago exposed the deplorable school funding conditions across many U.S. states.  In some cases, those problems were addressed as the strikes were resolved, but the danger is that state budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 business shutdowns and layoffs will reduce state budgets further in this budget year and perhaps for several years to come.

Clearly, as Candidate Joe Biden and his advisors drafted an education plan, they were aware of the school funding collapse so carefully documented in each of these new books and in press coverage from state to state. Now that Georgia’s run-off election last week has provided our incoming President with a Democratic Senate majority, advocates for children and public schools must hold President Biden to his promises.  First, Biden and Congress must immediately pass another COVID-19 relief bill that finally includes funding relief for state budgets and provides immediate help to ensure that children and their teachers are safely back to school as soon as possible. Then our new President needs to turn his education plan into a federal budget that triples funding for Title I, takes the first steps fully to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years, increases the number of wraparound Community Schools, and significantly expands enriched pre-Kindergarten for children living in poverty. Biden also needs to use federal policy to incentivize the states to provide enough funding to cover the real cost of educational services and to ensure that the school districts serving concentrations of poor children can begin to address long-standing opportunity gaps.

Will President Joseph Biden Lead Us Toward Equity and Opportunity in the Public Schools?

Betsy DeVos, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education, has been complaining about the public schools again. The public schools are, of course, the schools she is supposed to be supporting through the operation of her federal department. But as a lifelong promoter of vouchers for private and religious schools, DeVos clings to the idea that “Government really sucks.” Last week Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa described DeVos’s attempt during this lame duck transition period to condemn states and school districts for failing fully to spend federal CARES Act relief dollars allocated last March for states to help their public schools cover the expenses of serving children during the pandemic.

Happy Thanksgiving! This blog will take a short break. Look for a new post on Monday, November 30.

Ujifusa quotes DeVos condemning school districts for failing to reopen fully in-person: “States that neglected their obligations to provide full-time education, while complaining about a lack of resources, have left significant sums of money sitting in the bank… There may be valid reasons for states to be deliberate in how they spend CARES Act resources, but these data make clear there is little to support their claims of being cash-poor.”

Last week DeVos set up a new data tool through which CARES Act spending can be traced. Ujifusa quotes some of the data DeVos’s department released as part of an obvious attempt to sow distrust of state departments of education and public school districts: “From the enactment of CARES to Sept. 30, the department said, $1.6 billion of the $13.6 billion provided for K-12 schools—or 12 percent—has been spent. And of the $3 billion in a governor’s education fund that can be spent on K-12 and higher education, $535 million—or 18 percent–had been spent.”

While DeVos seems dedicated to seizing every opportunity to condemn the operation of public schools, Ujifusa reports that DeVos isn’t being fair. Ujifusa quotes a response from Carisssa Moffat Miller, who leads the Council of Chief State School Officers: “The Education Department’s figures do not tell the full story of how CARES Act funds are being used… Many states and school districts have obligated funds beyond the levels described in the Department’s figures—that is, they have placed orders or entered into service contracts that must be paid in the future.”  Ujifusa adds: “She noted that states and districts have until September 2022 to enter into obligations to spend CARES money, and added that CCSSO estimates schools will need between $158 billion and $245 billion in new federal aid to cover various costs related to the pandemic.”

Derek Black, author of the wonderful new book, School House Burning, worries that America’s belief in public schooling has wilted and not only because of DeVos’s incessant attacks on the public schools over the past four years. For the previous two decades, under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, school reform rhetoric grounded in business school competition and efficiency, test-and-punish accountability, and the active promotion of school privatization undermined our collective capacity to consider the public role of public education.

Black, like other advocates for the nation’s public schools, understands the current era as a pivotal moment in federal education policy: “Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else… This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education (funding) cuts initially looked like a response to the (2008) recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable.  In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened.  Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.” (School House Burning, pp. 225-227)

Black explains how conversations about education policy have been hijacked: “(Y)ou will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess.” By contrast, continues Black, “Education decision-making—and thus policy—has always been part of a much larger historical and constitutional framework. That framework has long defined who we are as a nation, what type of democracy we want, and how far we have to go.  That history and constitutional framework represent the hopes and dreams of a nation where all men and women might be equal citizens and participants in this thing we call democracy… Education has always been at the center of those ideas and commitments.”(School House Burning, pp. 49-50)

Black continues: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy.  As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.  One of the nation’s foremost school funding scholars, Bruce Baker, led a national study of what it would cost for students to achieve ‘average’ outcomes… They (Baker and his colleagues) found that when it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need… but only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.”(School House Burning, pp. 238-241)

Black’s book—published in September—provides helpful background for a presidential transition that has a chance to change the course of education policy. Candidate Joe Biden presented a very different kind of education agenda, one that seems once again to embody America’s traditional understanding of public schooling as a force for equal opportunity: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the IDEA, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

We need to press our new President to fulfill his promise to lead us away from an obsession with standardized testing and school privatization. His first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

This blog has recently covered President Elect Biden’s education plan here, here, and here.

Biden Offers Hope for Turning Around Awful DeVos Education Policy

This summer some people have said it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2009, right after Barack Obama was elected President, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used over $4 billion of the public education dollars Congress had appropriated as part of a huge federal stimulus package and attached rules that made states adopt Duncan’s own pet programs in order to qualify for the money.  Now Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have distributed CARES Act dollars in a way that favors DeVos’s favorite charter schools and private schools at the expense of what she calls “government” schools—the ones our society counts on to serve 50 million of our children.

The Secretary of Education—and in the case of Payroll Protection Program dollars, the Small Business Administration—can control the distribution of education stimulus dollars, because dispersing relief money is administered by the administration without direct Congressional oversight unless prohibitions for particular practices are written into the enabling legislation.

You will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Arne Duncan administered a $4.3 billion Race to the Top Program, a $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, and a $650 million Innovation Grant program. Duncan and  the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grants on getting states to change their own laws to adopt what were later recognized as the most controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify for Race to the Top, for example, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization, and adopt “college-and-career-ready” standards, which, in practice, meant they were agreeing to adopt what became the overly constrictive, unwieldy and expensive Common Core and accompanying tests.  Underneath all of these programs was also a big change in the philosophy underneath federal education policy. Despite that races with winners always create losers, Duncan modeled his trademark education programs on the way philanthropies award funds: through competition. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the Title I Formula, which is designed to supplement state and local funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children, the Duncan programs enhanced education only for the children in the winning states and school districts.

Now Betsy DeVos has set out to divert some of the CARES Act relief funding, passed by Congress last March, to support privately operated charter schools and private schools instead of the public schools tor which most of the funds were intended by Congress. Public schools need federal stimulus relief to compensate for big budget cuts in state school funding as state budgets collapsed in the COVID-19 recession, and public schools need to make all sorts of expensive adjustments to ensure safety during the pandemic. But all over the country charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated were allowed to take advantage of their public/private status and take CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration and intended to help small businesses maintain employment. The Network for Public Education recently reported: “The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informed its members via email in March that it had successfully lobbied for charter schools to receive PPP funds and provided instructions on how much funding could be obtained.” “More than 1,300 charter schools and their nonprofit or for-profits and management companies secured between $925 million and $2.2 billion through PPP.”

In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created guidance that redirects a disproportionate amount of a school district’s CARES Act public school relief assistance to the private schools located within the geographic boundary of the school district.  Congress distributed CARES Act education aid through the Title I Formula—which targets assistance to school districts with concentrations of poor children and ALSO provides that a school district will provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within the district boundaries. However, DeVos set up CARES Act guidance to insist that the private schools would receive a portion of the CARES Act dollars proportional not just for the poor students enrolled in a private school, but instead for the private school’s full enrollment.

All this is, of course, extremely worrisome, because billions of CARES Act dollars needed in America’s public schools right now have found their way into charter schools, charter management organizations, and private schools. But there is an important difference in the way Arne Duncan was able to manipulate states to adopt his policies and what is currently happening.

Betsy DeVos has not been able to create the political to leverage to promote her policies in a way that they will survive her tenure.  Most of us hope Betsy DeVos’s effort to use CARES Act dollars to support charter schools and private schools is her final push, her final personal opportunity to expand and support privatized schooling at public expense. When, in 2009, Arne Duncan used federal stimulus to set up Race to the Top and his other grant competitions, he had just been appointed. He served as education secretary until December of 2015, when Congress finally got fed up with his top down intervention in the nation’s public schools and when his policies and the No Child Left Behind policies on which they were based had begun falling out of favor. Duncan’s signature strategy during his six year tenure was basically to use federal grants to bribe states to embed his pet programs into their own laws, a strategy which gave his programs lasting power because rescinding them would require action by each of the state legislatures which had adopted Duncan’s policies. For example, some states are still evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, even though the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association have shown students’ test scores are invalid and unreliable for evaluating teachers.

If President Trump is re-elected and Betsy DeVos is re-appointed as education secretary, all bets are off.

But—and I’ll admit it is still a long time until November—I believe it looks increasingly unlikely that DeVos will be our education secretary beginning in 2021.  Further, there is no evidence that Congress has bought into her policies and no evidence that, apart from diverting CARES Act dollars and  making annual startup and expansion grants to particular charter schools and chains of charter schools under the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, she has been able to inject her own favorite policies across the states. For four years President Trump has included her $5 billion Opportunity Scholarship tuition tax credit idea in the President’s proposed federal budget, and every year Congress has ignored the request.

If Joe Biden is elected in November, I believe we can look forward to an abrupt reversal of education policy. Biden will work to get the pandemic under control; then he will prioritize supporting the safe opening of public schools. He has also pledged to address what COVID-19 has shown us is the greatest challenge for our nation’s children: extreme inequality.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan prioritizes equity in the public schools: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals.  Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden would expand full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building.

Last week, when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed a virtual AFT biennial convention, she bragged about Biden’s agenda for public education: “Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding, expanded Community Schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.”

Joe Biden’s education plan differs radically from Betsy DeVos’s priorities. Biden, whose education plan aims to strengthen our nation’s 98,000 traditional public schools, supports neither expanding privately operated charter schools nor diverting money out of public school budgets to pay for private school vouchers or tuition tax credit programs. Although Betsy DeVos may have used the CARES Act to reward privatized charter schools and private schools and although she may try the same tricks in the rules for distributing any further stimulus dollars, I am increasingly hopeful that Betsy DeVos will be replaced next winter, and a new administration will be far more attentive to addressing the urgent needs in the nation’s public schools.