Democrats Recognize Essential Role of Public Schools, Whose Needs Trump and DeVos Don’t Bother to Notice

In a refreshing development this week, as Democrats held their convention to nominate Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate for President and Kamala Harris for Vice President, public education was made visible again as an institution of vital importance to American life.

For President Donald Trump, opening schools matters only to enable parents to go to work.  I have never heard Trump or his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, speak about the needs of children or acknowledge the importance of our nation’s system of universally available public schools in cities, towns, rural areas and suburbs across America.

If you watched the Democrats on Tuesday night, however, you know that Jill Biden spoke from the Brandywine High School classroom where she once taught in Wilmington, Delaware. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reports her remarks: “You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways. There’s no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors… The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen… I hear it from so many of you: the frustration of parents juggling work while they support their children’s learning—or are afraid that their kids might get sick from school. The concern of every person working without enough protection. The despair in the lines that stretch out before food banks.” Ujifusa continues: “Joe Biden appeared at the end of her video segment to underscore his wife’s role in schools: ‘Just think of your favorite educator who gave you the confidence to believe in yourself.'”

And you may also remember that, as she announced Arizona’s votes in the nomination Roll Call, Marisol Garcia, a public middle school teacher and the vice president of the Arizona Education Association, wore a “Red4Ed” t-shirt and spoke about the needs of her state’s public schools.

On Tuesday, the delegates passed a strong, pro-public schools platform that reflects Joe Biden’s priorities. As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports, the Democratic Platform supports “tripling federal aid to disadvantaged students to close funding gaps between nonwhite students and their white peers, ‘more stringent guardrails’ for charter schools, and the idea that education is a public good and not a commodity… pledges to use federal programs to promote school integration through magnet schools and transportation initiatives… calls for a more-diverse teaching workforce… (pledges) to keep K-12 schools free from immigration enforcement… (and) promises to provide universal prekindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds….”  The platform pushes back against for-profit charter school management corporations and says Democrats will encourage states to move away from high-stakes tests.

Kamala Harris, who formally became Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate on Wednesday, is a strong supporter of public schools.  And as California’s attorney general, Harris filed lawsuits to curtail abuses by the nation’s largest, for-profit charter school management organization and to protect students left with enormous debts after the shutdown of the unscrupulous, for-profit, Corinthian Colleges.

These details of the Democratic Convention wouldn’t seem so significant if we had not all been listening to President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pressuring public schools to reopen without passage of an urgently needed additional federal relief package and in the midst of a pandemic raging out of control.

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that Congress and the Trump administration continue to refuse to compromise with Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats by removing the demand that, to qualify for additional federal relief, school districts must open fully in-person: “Senate Republicans aren’t budging from their proposal that schools must have some sort of plan to hold in-person classes in order to tap the majority of new federal coronavirus relief for K-12. The so-called ‘skinny’ coronavirus relief bill from the GOP has not been formally introduced, but as written, the legislation does not change the key elements of the July bill that Democrats rejected immediately.  Since Republicans introduced that July bill, negotiations between White House officials and Democrats have failed to produce a compromise… As with the July bill, the scaled-back, 169-page draft proposal says one-third of $70 billion included in the bill for K-12 would be available to schools regardless of whether they plan to offer a full slate of regular classes, only remote learning, or some hybrid.  But the remaining two-thirds would not be available to schools offering remote-only learning.”

Even if Congress finally reaches a compromise, it will be too late, because schools are currently being forced to make arrangements for the fall semester without being able to count on needed funds.  A significant number of districts which have opened in places where the pandemic is not yet contained have already had to shut down due to spreading infections or to quarantine large numbers of students and teachers. And even the school districts which are being forced to open only on-line for at least the early months of the school year face large expenses.

It is easy to underestimate the expenses school districts face as they get ready to open on-line. The Washington Post‘s Moirah Balngit describes the financial dilemma Baltimore faces: “In Baltimore, the school system helped set up 7,000 families with Internet Essentials, a program that provides low-cost Internet service to qualifying households. The first two months of the program were free.  But last month, the school system realized that if it didn’t pay the $650,000 bill, many of those families would lose service. ‘I was not going to stand by and let 14,000 students not be able to log on because of a bill we knew needed to be paid,’ said Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. ‘It’s yet one more thing that, in serving children and families, schools are being asked to do.’ ”

Balingit points out that perhaps federal restrictions on Internet spending could have been adjusted with a more thoughtful and coordinated federal strategy: “The lack of a national strategy has left superintendents to devise solutions on their own… A long-standing program run by the Federal Communications Commission that subsidizes Internet service for schools and libraries is of little help to students during the pandemic. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told schools they can use the funding only for Internet service at their campuses—even when schools have been shut down.  Pai has said that the law does not allow the money to be used for providing domestic Internet service and that he does not have the authority to do otherwise. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the panel, disagrees—as do congressional Democrats and school leaders across the country. She accused the commission of failing to act to address what she called ‘a national crisis.’… Schools and students have been left to find solutions on their own. The parking lots of schools, libraries, and fast-food restaurants that offer free WiFi have become the de facto classrooms for many students. Other school systems equipped buses with WiFi hot spots and parked them in underserved neighborhoods. In some school systems, such as Baltimore, officials just paid the bills of hundreds of families out of their own budgets to keep the households online. But none of the improvised solutions are sustainable or scalable, and they often rely on the ability of school officials to court philanthropies and negotiate with Internet service providers.”

Democrats put the spotlight on the needs of public schools this week, but this summer Betsy DeVos has managed to keep out of sight.  NBC NewsHeidi Przybyla reported last week: “As public schools grapple with the challenge of reopening during a pandemic, public education advocates are criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for working remotely from Michigan, where she owns a sprawling waterfront estate with a round-the-clock security detail paid for by taxpayers. And while keeping herself largely physically distanced as the coronavirus continues to spread, DeVos has been a forceful advocate for President Donald Trump’s demand that schools reopen in full and in person—potentially placing millions of teachers and students at risk of infection.”

Robert Reich, who served in the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton and who is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, excoriated Betsy DeVos in a column last week for being absent as the public schools her department supposedly serves struggle with impossible decisions in the midst of uncertain funding. Reich writes: “Betsy DeVos is heading the administration’s effort to force schools to reopen in the fall for in-person instruction. What’s her plan to reopen safely?  She doesn’t have one. Rather than seeking additional federal funds, she’s using this pandemic to further her ploy to privatize education—threatening to withhold federal funds from public schools that don’t reopen. Repeatedly pressed by journalists during TV appearances, DeVos can’t come up with a single mechanism or guideline for reopening schools safely. …. Districts need more funding, not less, to implement the CDC’s guidelines. Given that state and local governments are already cash-strapped, it’s estimated that K-12 schools need at least $245 billion in additional funding to put safety precautions in place—funding the Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration refuse to give.”

It will be helpful if, by second semester, there is a new administration in Washington, D.C., an administration willing to coordinate a comprehensive plan to help the nation’s struggling school districts. The Shanker Blog‘s Matthew DiCarlo reminds us that some districts are being hurt much worse than others by the lack of federal financial support as well as the lack of leadership and coordination from the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos: “(A)ll public school districts will feel this pain, but it will not be felt equally. Higher poverty districts are more dependent on state revenue, since more affluent districts generate more revenue from local sources (mostly property taxes). But the situation is even worse: higher poverty districts are already spending far less than they need to be. In this sense, the pandemic is going to be particularly harsh on districts with pre-existing conditions.” DiCarlo is, of course, writing about pre-existing school funding conditions that long ago left school districts which serve masses of our nation’s poorest children far behind.