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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Universal Public Education and the Common Good

President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education has been a wake up call.

You may disagree with some of the particulars raised by the Senators who have been debating the DeVos nomination, but the hearings have diminished talk about the smaller issues and highlighted one thing: our universal public education in the United States is a primary civic institution of great value.

In Tuesday’s hearing, when the Senators on the HELP Committee took a vote and decided to send the DeVos nomination on to the full Senate for consideration, just about everybody talked about the public outcry—the volume of phone calls, e-mails, unusual requests for meetings, crowds and rallies pushing the Senators to protect public education. Many Senators declared their insistence that our education secretary at least value the public schools, understand the terms of the debate that has been sweeping around public education now for two decades, and realize that the U.S. Department of Education’s fundamental mission is protecting the rights of children who have historically been marginalized. It became clear that the party loyalty of some of the Republicans on the committee was being tested by the outcry of their constituents, and it became clearer yesterday afternoon when Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski promised they will vote against the DeVos confirmation when the full Senate votes.

The federal policy debates about public schools over the past twenty years have been largely shaped by our society’s computerized capacity to produce and analyze huge data sets—the test scores produced by the mandates of No Child Left Behind—and a drive by many policy makers to increase schools’ accountability for the test scores of their students. Data have demonstrated that schools in poor communities, on average, do not “produce” the same kind of high test scores as the schools in very wealthy enclaves, and the Bush and Obama administrations have demanded a punitive accountability system to try to pressure schools quickly to raise test scores.  The accountability debate is unresolved.  It must remain among our society’s highest domestic priorities to find a way to support the communities, schools, and teachers where our nation’s poorest children are educated. But it is also true that in the midst of the raging  fight about accountability not enough of us have remembered to consider the role of a universal public school system itself for shaping a society. The prospect of an Education Secretary who fails to value public schools has reminded us that the presence of a widespread public system is important.

Here is some history, beginning with the point of view of Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz: “By the middle of the nineteenth century the United States had the most educated youth in the world. Mass elementary schooling had swept through much of America and came to many states even before it was fully funded by local governments. The citizens of other industrializing nations would have to wait another three to four decades to attain elementary school enrollment rates comparable to those in 1860 America… But just as Europe began to narrow the educational gap with America at the elementary school level, a second great educational transformation started to gather steam in the United States… The second educational transformation that catapulted the United States to another peak in mass education, and one that would last for much of the twentieth century, was known then and today as the ‘high school movement.’… The high school movement rapidly changed the education of American youth. The typical young, native-born American in 1900 had a common school education, about the equivalent of six to eight grades. But the average young person in 1940 was a high school graduate. Outside the South, the transition was more rapid: as early as 1930 the median youth in the New England states and parts of the West was a high school graduate.”  (The Race Between Education and Technology, pp. 163-164)

Goldin and Katz conclude: “The American system can be characterized… as open, forgiving, lacking in universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum. The European system, in contrast, was generally closed, unforgiving, with uniform standards, and an academic curriculum for some and an industrial one for others. One system was egalitarian; the other was elite.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 28)  “At the end of the twentieth century almost all nations have discovered what America knew at the beginning of the century. Human capital, embodied in one’s people, is the most fundamental part of the wealth of nations.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 41)

One of the most graphic contemporary depictions by a writer of life with what Goldin and Katz call an elite rather then inclusive system of public schools is fictional—Elena Ferrante’s runaway best selling series of novels about mid-twentieth century Naples. The four novels trace the life trajectories of two Italian girls—the one “brilliant friend” whose parents won’t pay for the tutoring for the exam that would secure her admittance to an academic high school—and the other a diligent girl whose teachers push her and parents permit her to soar academically beyond the limits of the neighborhood. The lives of both women involve troubles and sorrow, but the novels clearly identify the role of educational opportunity and its absence in a society that does not provide universal education. One of the books is titled “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.”

Goldin and Katz, economists, write about public schools’ contribution to human capital and the wealth of nations. Others consider the importance of public education  more broadly.  Here is education historian David Tyack: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin. And one way to begin that impoverishment is to privatize the purposes of education. The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

How does privatization of education affect society?  Jonathan Kozol described what he imagines would be the consequences in a Boston Globe commentary last October, as voters in that state prepared to vote on a statewide ballot issue to remove a cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The measure failed overwhelmingly on election day, perhaps because many in Massachusetts agree with Kozol’s concerns: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”

In the United States, expanding opportunity for marginalized populations of students in our so-called universal education system has involved two centuries of political struggle —securing admittance and equal opportunity for girls, for American Indians, for African American children of former slaves, for immigrant students, and for disabled students—many of them formerly institutionalized. In the words of the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, “We’ve come too far to go back now.”

Our public schools are a reflection of the society in which they are set. They reflect our geographic and cultural regions and our society’s economic and racial segregation. While they cannot possibly be utopian institutions, public schools—universally available, publicly funded, amenable to public oversight through the democratic process—remain the best system for ensuring that our society can serve the needs of a broad range of students and communities and for protecting the human rights of our nation’s young people.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, has spent her life and her fortune pursuing one goal—to privatize the public schools. All Senate Democrats have pledged to vote against her confirmation, and yesterday afternoon, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski pledged to vote “no” as well.  Her confirmation would be defeated if one additional Republican Senator would vote “no.”  Please continue to call your Senators. Ask them to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation when the full Senate votes. Or if you prefer to write, you can do so on your Senators’ websites. Or the Network for Public Education has a new action alert letter ready for you to use.

Jonathan Kozol and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh Warn About Danger of Expanding Charter Schools

Massachusetts Question 2 is the ballot issue that would lift that state’s cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The debate about Question 2 has attracted wide attention beyond Massachusetts this autumn because expanding charter schools in Massachusetts would create many of the same problems charter schools are posing in other states.

In a stunning commentary for the Boston Globe, education writer Jonathan Kozol, also a Massachusetts voter, seized next week’s vote on Question 2 as an opportunity to reflect on the public role of the state’s public schools: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”

Kozol continues: “This commonwealth has been an exemplar of democratic public education ever since the incubation of the common school idea at the midpoint of the 19th century.  For all its imperfections and constant need of diligent repair, it remains a vision worth preserving. The privatizing forces from outside of this state have wisely recognized the powerful symbolic victory they’d gain by turning Massachusetts against its own historic legacy.”

Who are these privatizing forces?  Kozol points to the New York hedge fund billionaires who have invested in Families for Excellent Schools, a dark money organization that has underwritten the rapid expansion of charter schools in New York City, and that, as of last week, had spent $13.5 million to support Massachusetts Question 2.  He also points to the Walton billionaires in Arkansas: “The Walmart heirs have every right to pour their money into causes they support. But voters also have the right to get some sense of what those causes are.  The Waltons have for decades been standard-bearers in attempts to undermine support for public education—which they and their allies have derided as ‘the pubic school monopoly’….”

What does Kozol mean when he writes about the parents with the greatest social capital?   These are the “parents who, no matter what their economic status, are most likely to command the social skills involved in navigating application processes, learning about deadlines for a lottery, seeking interviews, and handling those interviews effectively.  More importantly, they also tend to have the literacy skills and English language fluency to meet the terms of those demanding ‘contracts’ that most charter schools require in order to be sure that parents can provide a back-up education in their home.” Kozol warns about “draining-off parents who no longer have a stake in advocating for the schools from which they’ve chosen to depart… Who will stand up for the children at the schools they’ve left behind?”

Kozol shares a primary concern with Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh—that expansion of charters will, as it has most devastatingly in Chicago and Detroit, take urgently needed dollars from the public schools that continue to serve the students whose needs are greatest.  Here is Mayor Walsh: “Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts—not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them. This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question… (O)ur charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning. If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high needs students are concentrated in district schools—and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements—the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.”

In a 2012 book about the growth of charter schools, New York education professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine summarize the concerns raised this month by both Boston’s mayor and Jonathan Kozol: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas… The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p. 87)

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders 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….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Education Funding Equity: A Technocratic Justification vs. Jonathan Kozol’s Rationale

In a memorable keynote address fifteen years ago I heard Jonathan Kozol declare, “People say that spending money on education is just throwing money at the problem. We ought to try that. It might work.”

Certainly investing in public school equity and improvement has not been the trend in recent years.  About ten years ago, New York set up a new school funding formula to send more money to poorer school districts to remedy the lawsuit in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, but when the Great Recession hit, New York’s general assembly stopped funding the plan it had created.  At about the same time the legislature of Pennsylvania created a formula for the purpose of equalizing school funding, but in came Governor Tom Corbett who cut a billion dollars out of the state’s education budget, and the new formula died.  Kansas has radically cut taxes and slashed education funding accordingly; it is mired in a lawsuit to try to force the state to fund education.  And last Friday the state supreme court in Texas agreed to hear an appeal of what the Associated Press calls “the gargantuan school finance ruling” that found “the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional, saying funding levels are inadequate and are unfairly distributed around the state.”

For extremely sensible advice on public policy around budgets and expenditures, I recommend the reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which last October released a paper on climbing investment in prisons across the states and an accompanying drop in state allocations for public education.  “Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods.  At least 30 states are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states the reduction exceeds 10 percent.  Higher education cuts have been even deeper: the average state has cut higher education funding per student by 23 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.  Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than higher education in 2013.  And some of the states with the biggest education cuts in recent years also have among the nation’s highest incarceration rates. This is not sound policy.”

Noting that while crime has dropped overall, the share of offenders arrested who are subsequently sent to prison has dramatically risen at the same time the length of stay in prison for each offender has also risen, the report suggests, “If states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

As for spending priorities for education, “Unfortunately, a number of states provide less funding for high-poverty schools than for low-poverty schools, while some others provide about the same funding to high-and low-poverty districts.  As of 2011, only 14 states provided at least 5 percent more funding per student for high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts. Further, many states provide inadequate funding for schools overall… None of the states with the ten highest incarceration rates ranked in the top half of states for school funding per student in 2011.”

Surely it would seem that in a compassionate and just society—a society whose citizens believe in equality, fairness, and the American Dream—these numbers would be an adequate motivator for reform.  But in case a commitment to the common good isn’t enough to motivate us these days, there is a new opinion piece by Noah Smith for Bloomberg View—a sort of plutocrats’ justification for public school spending, Throw More Money at Education.

Smith references a longitudinal economic paper, just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that justifies school funding by demonstrating a correlation with children’s future earnings.  The paper comes from economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Ricker Johnson and Claudia Persico. “The economists find that spending works.  Specifically, they find that a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher, and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.  These are long-term, durable results.  Conclusion: throwing money at the problem works.  Here’s the hitch: The authors find that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: ‘Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?’ After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?”

To convince such a skeptic, Smith counts the ways increasing spending might be worth the investment: “When poor Americans become better workers, it doesn’t just boost their wages.  It also boosts the profitability of the companies where they work.”  “The more industries can use U.S. workers instead of Chinese workers, the more industries will base their production in the U.S.”  “If you own a business, you might need to hire some low-income people.”

Later in his piece, Smith adds some non-business benefits to his list.  “Having more educated poor people makes for a better civil society… It might also be nice not to have to live behind the isolating walls of a gated community. One way to reduce crime, of course, is to pay for more police and increase incarceration rates.  But another way is to improve education.” “At the risk of sounding grandiose, let me go even further: Education is really the difference between a cohesive society and a collection of people who happen to live next to each other.”

Ah… we learn that Noah Smith and Jonathan Kozol really agree, but Smith imagines that Kozol’s old-fashioned approach—preaching ethical public policy—is too dated for a technocratic, efficient America.

In case you are moved by the old fashioned way of presenting the case, here is what Jonathan Kozol writes: “In paying taxes for the sustenance of public schools, we’re not just buying something for ourselves. We’re buying something for the benefit of the community in which we live, and for the state and, ultimately, for the nation. In other words… with all the serious challenges they face and all of the inequities they bear… (public schools are) instruments of an intended decency—a decency that is, admittedly, not realized now in many sectors of the public system as it stands, but one that generations of Americans have ardently believed, and most believe today, to be worth striving for.” (2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 147)

Jonathan Kozol: A Prophet Calling Us All to Account

It was fitting that a huge crowd packed into the pews of Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College last Friday night to hear Jonathan Kozol, for while the 78-year-old Kozol is a quiet prophet with a Boston accent and a sense of humor, his life work has been to name the deepest sins of our society and call us to do something about them.  He writes and speaks about public policy—especially as it shapes education and the other institutions that embody the way we value or devalue our children, but he isn’t really a policy wonk.

Kozol does not arrive with a list of the perfect policy solutions.  Rather he writes from a location of privilege to challenge the blindness of privilege.  His purpose is to make us all see and feel responsible for how our society’s injustices are experienced by real people who share the same values and needs and humanity as those who have been positioned to shape public policy for their own benefit.  That Kozol is a prophet and not a policy wonk is why his 50-year-old Death at an Early Age is still read and his 25-year-old  Savage Inequalities remains timely despite the passage of a quarter century, despite that No Child Left Behind created another set of under-funded programs, and despite state-by-state policy changes that have rearranged the inequality.  Underneath the savage inequality in school finance is a moral failure: our society’s willingness to tolerate alarming inequality as long as those of us who have the power to move to farther suburbs can be sure our own children are protected and as long as we can allow ourselves not to see the children who have been left behind.  All this blindness, Kozol shows us, is possible because we are increasingly a society segregated and disconnected by race and class—even more so than when Kozol published Savage Inequalities in 1991.

For me Kozol’s most memorable words were part of a keynote at a Providence, Rhode Island church convention in 1999.  Kozol’s topic was welfare reform. Although Kozol is Jewish, he went to the New Testament for words that would touch an audience of mainline Protestants.  Here is what he said:  “When Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep,’ he didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who dwell in the green pastures.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose mothers please us by acceptable behavior.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose fathers have good jobs and mothers come to PTA.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose parents make smart choices.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep that have two parents in the pen.’  He just said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.'”  Kozol is calling to account a society that would blame and punish individuals unable to pull themselves up even as we citizens have blinded ourselves to the role of the structural factors that are deepening poverty and intensifying inequality in America.  We are even willing to punish children for the perceived sins and failures of their parents.

So… what did Kozol tell us on Friday night?

Segregation continues to dehumanize us.  “Black and Hispanic children are more isolated intellectually and segregated geographically than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement.”  “Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a dream that we’ll have more efficient, test-driven, anxiety-ridden schools.'”  On top of the segregation and inequality, “The pestilence of standardized testing is sucking the beauty and spontaneity out of the lives of children.”

As we permit ourselves to dehumanize education—focus on standards and rubrics, ratings and test scores; manipulate data to shape technocratic policy; value competition and efficiency and forget that it is all about shaping children—we lose sight  of our human connectedness and our mutual responsibility for our children.  “The education reform business is a business now,” with all the cold language of competition and accountability.  Teachers “deliver” the lessons at prescribed times of the day to achieve “the outcome mandated for that moment of the morning.”  In the 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol explains the danger of language that transforms the experiences of children and their teachers into abstractions: “By giving every particle of learning an official name, we strip it of uniqueness.  By forcing it to fit into the right compartment of significance or meaning, we control its power to establish its own meanings or to stir the children to pursue a small exhilaration in directions that may lead them to a place that experts haven’t yet had time to name.  Fascination and delight, no matter what lip-service we may pay to them, become irrelevant distractions.  Finding ‘where it goes’ and what it ‘demonstrates’ and how it can be ‘utilized’ become the teachers’ desolate obsessions.” (p. 77)

We have limited our dreams to the relatively tiny group of children we can save through a particular program, or one charter school, or even our favorite brand of charter management organization, but by definition justice must be systemic. Our education system cannot be reformed for a few exceptional children who earn a spot at a selective school or those whose parents are sophisticated enough to secure a place in a school choice lottery.  Kozol elaborates in the 2007 Letters to a Young Teacher, “The Hebrew prophets and the followers of Jesus did not make a false god out of elbow-pushing skills and hard-nosed competition.  ‘Savviness’ was not their ministry.  We ought to remind Americans of that.” (p. 148)

Public morality must be about shaping the institutions of our society to provide access for all.  Here is how Kozol explained it last Friday evening:

Competitive programs, whether in private schools or charter or voucher schools or public magnet programs, reward individuals with exceptional prowess or luck, but, “Charity has never been a substitute for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education.  Public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance.  Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”

A New Name in the Tired, Old No Child Left Behind Debate

I urge you to read This Is Only A Test,  Jonathan Kozol’s review in yesterday’s NY Times of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, and then, of course, I encourage you to read (and master the information in) Ravitch’s excellent book.

But having recently read his excellent book review, I am thinking today about Jonathan Kozol, the writer who has again and again created a lens to help us see the plight of America’s children.  Kozol brought us “savage inequalities” and “apartheid schooling in America,” for example, terms that have been adopted into common parlance to depict our society’s growing inequality and racial segregation.

In yesterday’s review, Kozol coined a new phrase that stopped me cold.  He begins the second paragraph of his book review with this simple declaration: “The pressure intensified in 2002 with the enactment of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind…”

Most of us who write about public education, anxious to be scrupulously precise about the historical facts, have described, “No Child Left Behind, the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”  I have recently forced myself to feel comfortable shortening it to, “the current version of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind.”

But of course, as I realized when I read Kozol’s book review, No Child Left Behind has very little to do with education.  How thoughtless of me to have called it an education law.

Kozol’s new name—the federal testing law No Child Left Behind—has given me a whole new way of seeing.  Notice that calling it “the federal testing law” leaves no way to confuse the law with real school accountability or school reform or any kind of civil rights.  It is about massive standardized testing piled on top of more testing.  “The federal testing law” describes what the law does: prescribe annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school—and then prescribe outrageous consequences for school teachers and school districts and particular schools if scores don’t rise quickly.

The new name also keeps our minds from wandering to the hopeless logjam in Congress.  If we call No Child Left Behind “the federal testing law” instead of “the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” we are less likely to think about  the seeming impossibility and hopelessness of a reauthorization that has been languishing since 2007.  More direct possibilities  for protest and organizing come to mind.  Throw Out the Federal Testing Law.  Overturn the Federal Testing Law.  I Opted My Child Out of the Federal Testing Law.  The Secretary of Education could not possibly defame anyone with such a bumper sticker as a “defender of the status quo.”

Of course it is also important to understand why all the testing has been such a dismal failure.  For a pithy review of the issues, I recommend Bob Shaeffer’s piece last week in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Flawed Exams Support Phony School Accountability.  Bob works with Monty Neill at FairTest, which helped sponsor a national resolution against high stakes testing.  If you are a parent, FairTest would urge you to become part of the movement to opt your child out of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind.

I plan to take a very simple step to intensify my protest: I will be adopting Jonathan Kozol’s phrase, “the federal testing law No Child Left Behind” whenever I refer to this law.  I challenge you to do the same.