DeVos Locks Out Teachers Demanding that Education Department Address Inequity, Protect Civil Rights

Last week Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, marked her first year in office with a news conference where she announced that her greatest accomplishment has been diminishing the role of her department.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed Wednesday that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking he role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations… She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large.  She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.  ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said… She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.”

Worse, last Thursday, DeVos locked the doors of the U.S. Department of Education and left Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), along with teachers and parent activists, standing on the sidewalk outside. Eskelsen Garcia, Weingarten and a group of pro-public schools activists had tried to make an appointment personally to deliver 80,000 report cards rating DeVos’s accomplishments this year as a failure.

The report cards were created by a coalition of education, civil rights, community organizing, religious and labor organizations—The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The Alliance released its report card in conjunction with a strong statement about DeVos’s failure to implement the Department of Education’s defined mission to rectify economic and racial justice in the nation’s 90,000 K-12 public schools. School teachers and school support professionals in public schools around the country had added personal comments on the 80,000 report cards Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten attempted to deliver. Together NEA and AFT represent the majority of the nation’s more than 3 million public school teachers.

By rejecting a meeting with leaders of the nation’s school teachers and other public school supporters, DeVos lost the opportunity to listen to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ substantive critique: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

The Alliance explains: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.”

The Alliance’s most serious charge is the Department’s failure to fulfill the mission of Title I and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights: “(A)cross the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

Last week Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling and Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos has been taking lessons from the prominent “Republican messaging expert” Frank Luntz—“to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.”  Hefling and Emma report that a notation appeared on DeVos’s calendar last June: “Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”  According to  Politico, DeVos wants to avoid explicit mentions of school choice and instead talk about “coming together and finding solutions’ with words like “innovation” and “blended learning.”

Politico‘s reporters describe recent speeches in which DeVos uses softer language: “The new message was… on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s  ‘choice chief.’  Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as  ‘Why do we group students by age?’ and ‘Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?’  ‘We must answer these questions… We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.'”

Hefling and Emma continue: “DeVos herself described her focus on ‘rethinking school’ and innovation as a ‘broadening of the message’ during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday.  And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said. ‘We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,’ she said.  ‘We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results.'”

If DeVos wanted seriously to engage such issues, she would have responded to the questions for which NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been demanding answers as the condition for setting up a conversation with the head of the National Education Association.  You’d think she might also have politely received Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and their group of pro-public schools advocates when they tried to make an appointment to talk with her on Friday about the Alliance’s serious critique.

That DeVos locked the building to avoid meeting with Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia last Thursday sends a perfectly clear message that cannot be obscured by Frank Luntz’s fuzzy linguistic framing. Betsy DeVos considers the nation’s teachers unions her enemies.

That’s too bad because, while Betsy DeVos herself has never worked in a public school, the NEA and the AFT represent the millions of professionals who are devoting their lives to that very endeavor. They might have some things to teach our inexperienced U.S. Secretary of Education.

Educating Ourselves About Betsy DeVos—Three Essential Articles

Tim Alberta’s profile of Betsy DeVos at POLITICO Magazine humanizes the Secretary of Education. I encourage you to read it, but only if you also read two other recent articles—Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s piece on public education’s real purpose (that Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand)—and Jack Schneider’s analysis of what Betsy DeVos fails to grasp about why the marketplace cannot improve education.

Alberta traveled with DeVos on her beginning-of-school tour in September and has interviewed her on several occasions. He describes two principles on which DeVos has, “fought and funded a generation’s worth of education wars… that parents should be free to send their children wherever they choose, and that tax dollars should follow those students to their new schools.”  He explains that DeVos believes bureaucracy in the Department of Education “smothers creativity, blocks innovation, and slows change to a glacial pace.”

He tells us that DeVos blames her poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing on those who coached her: “I think I was undercoached… In hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.” Her thinking on this matter makes it all the more puzzling that in her seventh floor office at the U.S. Department of Education, “The towering bookcases lining the rear walls are nearly empty, save for a few scattered trinkets.”  Maybe we all ought to send Betsy DeVos our favorite book on public education—something to help her get up to speed—maybe Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities—or Mike Rose’s Possible Lives—or Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement—or Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children—or Jack Jennings’ book on Title I, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools—or Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade. There is plenty of material to help her out.

We learn, not surprisingly, that her old school-privatizing friend, Jeb Bush, had the idea for her nomination as Education Secretary: “It was Bush who, in the days after Trump’s stunning victory, asked DeVos whether she had considered serving as education secretary—and who then contacted Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to recommend her for the job. ‘He was really the only person I knew in the transition. He was the best person because he was running it,’ Bush tells me, chuckling. The two ex-governors were on the same page: Bush had worked closely alongside DeVos to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Pence forged a similar alliance with her in Indiana. ‘He made it clear that he was already thinking about Betsy, too,’ Bush says.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, just reviewed Betsy DeVos’s recent speech at Paul Peterson’s think tank—the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This pro-privatization think tank featured DeVos, who adheres to a libertarian, pro-school choice agenda, as a recent keynoter. Eskelsen-Garcia distinguishes the principles DeVos described in her Harvard speech from the values endorsed by the nation’s largest organization of school teachers.

To DeVos’s endorsement of schools that seek to appeal to select groups of students who might choose them for a special program or service, Eskelsen-Garcia answers: “She doesn’t understand the concept of ‘public’ schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door….”

To the Education Secretary’s comments that schools shouldn’t be overly controlled by government, Eskelsen-Garcia defends the role of government: “protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve. We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools…. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher… (schools) undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.”

Eskelsen Garcia castigates DeVos for complaining that supporters of public schooling want to protect a ‘system’ of schools instead of prioritizing children one-by-one as individuals: “Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some ‘systems’ are pretty darned important.  The ‘circulatory system,’ for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The ‘skeletal system’ supports and protects us. The Secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.”

Like Eskelsen-Garcia, who decries DeVos’s comparison of school choice to the growing lunchtime choices as more and more food trucks have been parking in front of the U.S. Department of Education, Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores and an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross, is fascinated with the food-truck metaphor.  He quotes DeVos’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants… But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options.”  Here is Schneider’s analysis: “In other words, a monopoly became a competitive marketplace and, as hungry staffers flocked to nearby food trucks, the overall food improved for everyone… The moral of the story: everyone wins in a system where people can choose.”

Schneider offers a complex analysis of the reasons parents choosing schools may not be able to make discerning decisions. Parental choice, for the reasons Schneider describes, cannot be counted on to improve schools: “DeVos maintains a relatively unsophisticated view of how markets actually function. The flaws in her vision aren’t just a matter of politics; they are a matter of fact. Start with the fact that school quality cannot be evaluated through a single experience—the way a food truck can be. Products that can be evaluated this way are referred to by economists as ‘experience goods.’ How much do I like this grilled cheese? Give me one minute and I’ll tell you. Education, on the other hand, is largely invisible and reveals its efficacy over time making it a ‘credence good’–more like a surgical procedure than a sandwich. It can often take several months just to get a sense of a new school. In fact, some of us who are decades out of school are still sorting through our thoughts about how much we learned, how positive the social experience was, and whether we benefited in the ways we might have wished.”

Schneider continues—explaining the complexity of education: “(E)ducation is a socially-supported process for cultivating human improvement—an ambitious and multifaceted enterprise that takes place over many years.  This grand scope presents a measurement challenge….”  There’s also a problem with attribution. A child may love reading because his parents read to him. Or her preschool teacher read to her. Or maybe there was a wonderful story hour at the public library. Or perhaps the child’s love for reading can be attributed to one particular teacher or a school as a whole. Nobody can accurately attribute each child’s learning to any particular influence.

Schneider describes another “principal-agent” problem: “Parents are the agents for their children, who are the principals who attend the school: “Such a problem occurs when one person (the agent) has the power to decide on behalf of another person (the principal) who will bear the impact of that decision. In a choice-based model, parents are the agents, acting on behalf of the child.  Yet is is important to recall that parents do not spend their days inside schools….”  Hence parents are vulnerable to all the marketing that is integral to school choice—over the airwaves, in brochures that arrive in the mail, on the back of city buses.

And, Schneider reminds us: “education is a positional good. While some of the fruits of education are absolute—students either know how to read or do not—its usefulness in promoting social status is completely relative. As a result, parents can be drawn into anxious competition against each other for comparative advantage, and in the process may overlook the issue of school quality entirely. To make matters worse, this competitive approach ensures that however many winners the system produces, there will be far more losers, even if quality is the same across all schools.”

If you read all three pieces—Tim Alberta’s at POLITICO, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia’s, and Jack Schneider’s, you will discover that Schneider’s concluding paragraph sums it all up: “Betsy DeVos may be portrayed by critics as an ill-informed billionaire naif. True, her knowledge of the public education system is incomplete, and she has revealed her ignorance on more than one occasion. But it must be remembered that DeVos is a hardnosed adherent to free market ideology. When she compares schools to food trucks, she isn’t committing a gaffe—she is communicating her dogma to non-believers. Thus, as DeVos continues to make her appeal, we have a duty to take her seriously and to think critically about what she’s selling. A choice is coming, and the future of public education hangs in the balance.”

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)

Forgetting to Address the Cause of Educational Injustice

Teachers’ unions are criticized all the time for putting the needs of teachers first. Far-right astro-turf organizations like Students First and Stand for Children have made sharing this myth their raison-d’etre.  But in my long work as an advocate for justice in public education policy at the federal level, I discovered again and again and again that the myth isn’t true.  Teachers’ unions work assiduously for laws that help children; the teachers who belong to the teachers’ unions fund these organizations well enough that they hire expert policy analysts; and the teachers’ unions do more than almost any other organization to reach out to the broader community on behalf of public schools.  I have come to believe that far-right ideologues trash teachers’ unions because those same ideologues believe in cutting taxes, and they want cheap labor in the classroom because their persistent tax slashing makes it impossible to afford expert professionals.  This is all designed to destroy teachers’ unions as part of a race to the bottom.

Over the weekend the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union provided another piece of evidence that teachers’ unions are intent on keeping us focused on what matters for the children in our public schools.  On Saturday, the National Education Association pointed out that, while the new bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act may eliminate some of the most horrible aspects of test-and-punish school policy, its authors forgot about the federal government’s primary role for addressing vast educational inequality in school resources that exists across the states.

NEA is the only national organization, so far at least, to have noticed this egregious hole in the proposed law.  It is a very serious omission from Senator Alexander and Murray’s bill.  After all, the law being reauthorized has Title I as its centerpiece—the program designed in 1965 to address the needs of poor children and the schools that serve them with federal aid to education.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The head of the country’s largest teachers union said that her organization does not support a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to replace the nation’s main federal education law because it does not go far enough to create equal educational opportunities for poor children.  ‘We keep asking ourselves, ‘Does this move the needle for kids?  Will a child see something better in his or her classroom?’ said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. ‘And this bill in the Senate doesn’t do it. We’re not at ‘better’ yet.'”

Layton explains that new data demonstrates persistent inequality of opportunity: across the states, less money—often far less—is spent on the education of children living in poverty than on children in wealthy communities.  And federal funding is so meager that it fails to come close to making up the difference.  Layton links to Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post article that describes new data from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts.  Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.  But in 23 states, state and local governments are together spending less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts… In some states the differences are stark. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts.  In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent. Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts… than they are in the most affluent… In general, wealthier towns and counties are able to raise more money through taxes to support their schools than poorer localities can.  Many states have developed school-finance systems that send extra dollars to poorer areas in an attempt to mitigate those inequities.  But state aid is often not enough to make up the difference.”  Title I helps, but it is not enough.

Layton explains NEA’s new advocacy effort for equalizing opportunity in the reauthorization of the federal education law: “No Child Left Behind has judged states and school districts based on student outcomes, largely by relying on test scores.  But they should also be evaluated based in inputs—whether they are evenly distributing resources from school to school.”  Eskelsen-Garcia explains: “We’ve been talking about this to every senator we can.  It is time for accountability to mean that all kids are getting what they need.”

NEA is asking Congress to make “any new federal law hold states responsible for reducing the resource gap between schools.”  NEA is also asking for more transparency to raise awareness about the size of opportunity gaps by asking that Congress require school districts to publish “opportunity dashboards” to “disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators.”

When a national Equity and Excellence Commission appointed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the request of Representatives Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Mike Honda (D-CA) reported on federal policy in public education, the members declared: “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… 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…. Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity…. Ensure that its dollars are not used to perpetuate or exacerbate inequities.”

Fifty years ago, the federal education law that now faces Congressional reauthorization was created primarily to address the injustice of unequal opportunity for children. As Congress considers the reauthorization of this law, thank you, National Education Association, for reminding us that poor children most often live in school districts without small classes and without enough counselors and enough sports and debate teams and enough music programs—the very privileges middle and upper class children in the suburbs and in smaller cities and towns across America take for granted.

Jeff Bryant Interviews New NEA President Who Is Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power

In its new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the National Education Association (NEA) has a gifted spokesperson for school teachers and for public education.  Eskelsen Garcia knows the issues, connects the dots, and frames a pro-teacher, pro-public education agenda that puts into words the kind of commitment to children and public schools that I have observed over many years to be the priority of the NEA.  In an extensive interview with Jeff Bryant, Eskelsen Garcia discusses her priorities.

When Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about the resolution passed at NEA’s recent convention, a resolution to demand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s removal, she replies: “I will own this; I share in their anger.  The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests.  We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department’s policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don’t even teach… But he (Arne Duncan) needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so.  When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students’ standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up.  And it’s stupid.  It’s absurd.  It’s non-defensible.  And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing.  It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over.  That’s indefensible…  The testing is corrupting what it means to teach… They still don’t get that when you do a whole lot of things on the periphery, but you’re still judging success by a cut score on a standardized test and judging ‘effective’ teachers on a standardized test, then you will corrupt anything good that you try to accomplish.”

Eskelsen Garcia clearly connects the dots between today’s federal demands and state legislative policies that are undermining public schools.  Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about a conversation she had with Arne Duncan after the recent NEA convention. She reports that Duncan suggested NEA is not giving the Department of Education enough credit for its efforts to promote preschool and to make college more affordable.  Then she describes, “how I put it to Duncan.  We now have bad state policies that insist, for instance, a child can’t go to fourth grade because he didn’t hit a cut score on a standardized reading test, and the state legislature did this in order to get Race to the Top money.  You can say you didn’t require the state to do that.  But when you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with ‘OK, we’ll just do this,’ you encouraged bad policy.  You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eskelsen Garcia speaks about the necessity that NEA, the nation’s largest union, defend the future of public education itself.  “We also know the stakes have changed.  We always had to fight legislators in order to fund us.  Now we have legislators who want to dismantle us brick by brick.  The existence of public schools was always something you could take for granted… Now we know we’re fighting for our existence.”

These days it too often seems to much of the public as though policy just sort of happens—because it really wasn’t the federal government that passed it—but instead it was a response from a state legislature whose members did it to please Arne Duncan and his staff—all  for the purpose of making federal money flow to the state.  It is difficult for the public to parse all this out, particularly because the press can’t seem to sort it out either.  With his friendly handshakes, aw-shucks manner, and federal policies that control laws and programs enacted by state legislatures (due to federal requirements), Arne Duncan is accustomed to deflecting criticism.

Now NEA has a president willing to get the details straight and place responsibility squarely where it rests: in the policies of the department and the implementation of programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers negotiated between states and staff at the U.S. Department of Education.  And she is willing to tell us we had better pay attention.

Good for Lily Eskelsen Garcia for telling the truth and assigning responsibility for what has to change.  I urge you to read Bryant’s interview with NEA’s new president.