For Decades America Has Blamed and Punished Public Schools Serving Poor Children: Biden’s Plan Addresses the Underlying Poverty

For over fifty years sociologists of education have documented the correlation between the ravages of child poverty and challenges for children at school. Hunger, homelessness and the family anxiety that accompanies the struggle to survive make it hard for many students to thrive at school. This is why the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill signed into law last week, as “a huge new school reform.” And Strauss isn’t writing merely about the $130 billion included in the bill for public schools:

“President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic—but it is another thing, as well: a major federal school reform unlike those we’ve seen in the past few decades. While the new law is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and helping businesses and schools reopen after a year of turmoil, it includes measures that together have the potential to slash poverty among the 12 million students who live in low-income households.”

Strauss reminds us how, over the past quarter century, public education policy has gone wrong—blaming the schools themselves and failing effectively to address children’s needs: “Policymakers have been focused for decades on improving public schools with a culture based on standardized testing, the expansion of charter schools and other ‘school choice’ measures, and, in some places, the demonization of teachers. Child poverty, they said, was an excuse for poor performance by adults. But the testing/choice/big data approach has not closed the achievement gap, and on some measures, it has barely moved… Many schools nationwide have attempted to address the out-of-school lives of students including ‘community schools’ that forge partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide wraparound services for children. But federal policy has been focused on other things since 2002’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of standardized-testing accountability systems for schools and districts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) documents  the impact of Biden’s new relief package on America’s children. The American Rescue plan will enable nearly 66 million children and adolescents under the age of eighteen to benefit from the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, including 27 million who had been left out until last week. “The Act will lift 4.1 million additional children above the poverty line—cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent—and lift 1.1 million children above half the poverty line (referred to as ‘deep poverty’),  Among the children that the Child Tax Credit expansion will lift above the poverty line, some 1.2 million are Black and 1.7 million are Latino.”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson describes the significance of the expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan… is a watershed moment. That such legislation has become law—that our federal government acted decisively with a bill targeted to aid low-and middle-income families—evokes equal parts inspiration and relief in its radical departure from previous trickle-down approaches that have increased inequality and racial injustice… Now, more than 93% of children in America will receive full or partial benefits under the Child Tax Credit… Because of past policy actions which disproportionately harmed Black, brown and Native children and families, this policy specifically adds unique benefits to those communities.”

The new rescue plan also targets money directly to help public schools. The CBPP reports: “The American Rescue Plan also includes $130 billion in new, mostly very flexible funds for school districts, which they will be able to spend through the 2023-2024 school year to address the pandemic and its effects on student learning. This is the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education, but entirely appropriate in light of school funding needs. Historically, K-12 schooling has been funded overwhelmingly by states and localities; they currently provide 92 percent of funding, with the federal government providing the rest. COVID-19, however, forced states to cut funding and created enormous financial and educational challenges that states and localities will be hard pressed to meet over the next several years without federal assistance. K-12 funding comprises about 26 percent of state budgets, and states will find it very hard to shield that funding while meeting their balanced-budget requirements. Even before COVID-19, schools endured years of inadequate and inequitable funding. Some 15 to 20 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools when the pandemic hit than before the Great Recession a decade ago… When COVID-19 hit, schools were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers while educating 1.5 million more children.”

So what will new relief dollars set aside for public schools cover? According to the CBPP: “Schools need to close the ‘digital divide,’ so all students and teachers have access to devices and connectivity. They need to safely operate in-person schools, which will require … more custodial staff, and more buses and drivers to maintain social distancing. A quarter of schools have no full- or part-time nurse, and most schools lack counseling support to help students navigate the mental-health challenges of returning to school. Many schools will need to add staff/ and/or portable classrooms to reduce class size to meet social distancing guidelines… With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students…. Along with the $130 billion, the Act includes ‘maintenance of equity’ provisions that require states to avert funding cuts to schools and school districts with high numbers of poor children.”

The bill’s specifics are important, but all kinds of journalists and social scientists continue to point to its overall meaning as the harbinger of a major shift in federal economic policy, despite that it is a temporary relief bill whose primary infusions of funding will eventually run out.

The NY Times Jamelle Bouie writes: “The list of new policies goes on. There is money in the American Rescue Plan to expand food stamps, bolster state welfare programs, and increase federal support for child and dependent care. Put all this together and the bill is expected to reduce overall poverty by more than a third and child poverty by more than half. It is, with no exaggeration, the single most important piece of anti-poverty legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, itself the signature program of a man who sought to emulate FDR.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell: “Sure President Biden may be the oldest president in U.S. history.  But in signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, he just delivered the biggest legislative victory for the young in generations. For decades, the general trend in federal fiscal policy, with some limited exceptions, has been to transfer wealth away from the young toward the old. The federal government spends about six times as much per capita on older Americans (primarily in the form of Social Security and Medicare) as it does on children…. It’s no surprise, then, that children have long had the highest poverty rates of any age group in the United States. They also have the dubious honor of notching one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world, largely because other rich countries invest considerably more in children than we do.”

Writing for the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman explains: “(T)he American Rescue Plan Act… reinstates significant aid for children. Moreover, unlike most of the act’s provisions, this change… is intended to outlast the current crisis; Democrats hope and expect that substantial payments to families with children will become a permanent part of the American scene.” This is thanks to a promise by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to bring forward legislation this year to make permanent the expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Krugman continues: “(T)his isn’t a return to welfare as we knew it; nobody will be able to live on child support. But it will sharply reduce child poverty. And it also… represents a philosophical break with the past few decades, and in particular with the obsessive fear that poor people might take advantage of government aid by choosing not to work… (T)hese traditional (Republican) attacks, which used to terrify Democrats, no longer seem to be resonating. Clearly, something has changed in American politics.”

The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner cheers: “Maybe once or twice in a century, you can feel the ground shifting. This is surely one of those moments. After yesterday, Donald Trump looms a lot smaller, and so does mainstream political conservatism. I’ve never seen the Wall Street Journal editorial page so despondent…  Activist government has been demonized for more than a generation. A great many working-class people, who saw government under both parties getting into bed with elites rather than providing practical help… may give government and the Democrats a second look.”

Blaming Teachers Unions for Problems Reopening Schools Is Wrong: Reopening Must Be Done Safely

Right now, after nearly a year since life shut down for COVID-19, things feel like a chaotic mess. Children in lots of places are not in school but are instead learning remotely at home.  Unemployment is endemic. Families face unimaginable financial pressures, and if parents are working, the pressures of managing children out of school have been overwhelming. Some parents have felt obligated to quit work to supervise children learning at home, or if parents themselves are working from home, they may be struggling to manage kids learning remotely while the parents try to do their jobs.

As far as reopening schools full-time, the new Biden administration seems confused. The Washington Post‘s Cleve Wootson and Laura Meckler report: “As the country approaches the one-year mark of the pandemic’s isolation and restrictions, the Biden administration is struggling to give precise, consistent answers to two key questions: when will the pandemic truly be behind us? And short of that, when can children safely return to school? Biden himself has blamed miscommunications for some of the inconsistency, but his administration… is also grappling with the fact that science and data don’t produce answers as tidy or linear as campaign promises… For months, Biden has raised expectations that children would soon return to school… and his press secretary, Jen Psaki, recently suggested that the White House considers schools to be open if students are in school at least one day a week. But at a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, he clarified that he wants students back in school five days a week—while also specifying that his priority is students in grades K-8… It was an attempt to add clarity to an increasingly murky issue at the intersection of safety, education and politics.”

Education policy and politics over the past two decades have outrageously but consistently blamed educators themselves for the so-called “failure” of American public education. No Child Left Behind was designed, its sponsors said, to confront “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—the idea that teachers are not expecting enough from children whose standardized test scores are low.  Congress premised the law on punishments for the educators and the schools with the lowest overall test scores: fire the principal and half the staff, turn the school over to a charter management organization where a private entrepreneur could fire teachers who weren’t working hard enough. Race to the Top went farther by trying to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. None of this policy recognized decades of data which has repeatedly correlated concentrated student poverty with low aggregate standardized test scores. Decades of public policy set out to blame and punish the schools and educators serving our society’s poorest children instead of investing in ameliorating poverty and helping the schools serving poor children.

The idea was that incentives and sanctions would make school teachers and principals work harder and smarter. And embedded in it all was our universal assumption that if we blamed teachers and tried to motivate them with incentives (carrots) and sanctions (sticks), they would solve the problem and let society itself escape the public responsibility for investing in the future of children living in poverty. As usual, we expected schoolteachers to be good sports, and we resented it if they pushed back.

COVID-19 is setting up the same scenario. The pandemic has especially devastated the school districts lacking adequate resources. As Joe Biden, the candidate pointed out in his Education Plan, our society needs to, “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”  In a new report, The Education Law Center adds that state governments collectively cut their funding for local school districts by $600 billion in the decade following the 2008 Great Recession.

It is, of course, the inadequately funded school districts which have struggled hardest to reopen in person during COVID-19. But when the teachers unions in these school districts question whether their large classes crowded into too small classrooms would permit social distancing or whether the school buildings are adequately ventilated, politicians and the general public easily slip into the old pattern of blaming the teachers and their unions.  In an interview last week with the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot clearly continued to blame the Chicago Teachers Union for blocking the reopening of schools even after the school district and the union had settled and agreed to reopen.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss tried to sort out the controversy and clarify that while some teachers unions may have been demanding, feisty teachers unions are not the central problem: “Actually, there is a continued lack of governmental clarity over exactly what proper safety measures are necessary—and plenty of evidence that many school districts already open are not coming close to implementing some of the key measures. Researchers reporting on transmission in schools qualify their results by saying safety measures matter, a point that sometimes gets left out of the reopening debate.” Strauss continues: “In fact, the ‘science’ of reopening schools is evolving—even as more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are starting to spread and presenting new challenges to a country that has done one of the worst-recorded jobs in the world at containing the pandemic. And if a school district is trying to figure out exactly what protocols must be taken, the available guidance is still not crystal clear. ”

Strauss reviews new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control: “On Friday, the CDC released reopening guidance for school districts that rested on five key pillars: masking, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining those exposed. However, those pillars do not include what leading scientists say are other vital measures: well-functioning air ventilation systems and robust testing and screening programs at every school to find people who have the coronavirus but show no symptoms.”

There is some agreement that social distancing means leaving six feet between students’ desks.  However, at current funding levels, classes are usually pretty crowded. Almost no school district has enough teachers and enough empty classrooms to make overall class size smaller by putting smaller groups of children in separate classrooms with additional teachers. That is why many school districts which have brought students back to classrooms are doing so with complicated hybrid systems in which classes are split into remote and in-person sessions as smaller groups of students in each class rotate in and out of in-class and remote learning.

Finally, Strauss points out that, “Many schools are not—repeat, not—taking the appropriate safety steps to allow safe reopenings. Some have little or no testing protocols and poor ventilation.  Teachers report having to buy their own masks—sometimes for students, too—as well as insufficient social distancing and cleaning procedures. Some classrooms have desks inches apart… Many schools were not healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, this is the ordinary: crumbling buildings, unhealthy air quality, bugs and rodents, mold, broken or nonexistent air conditioning and heaters, nonfunctioning toilets, etc… Yet there is no serious discussion about addressing these issues. The debate is increasingly dominated by a refrain from outraged and exasperated editorial writers and columnists and news show hosts who say we must open schools and the monolithic teachers’ unions have to stop fighting it.”

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chose to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and simply demand that public schools reopen. Significant assistance for public schools was finally included in a last minute, December 202, COVID-19 relief package, but I suspect the help, which is to be distributed to public school districts through their states, has not yet made it through the pipeline. And Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains that a good part of the  funding for schools in Biden’s new relief plan now being marked up in the U.S. House of Representatives is for next year: “While Biden has tied the need for more relief funding to his goal of opening a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, the funding estimates in the document cover the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. ‘Funds are included for next year because we know that in order to invest in safely reopening, districts need financial certainty that they will not have to lay off teachers next fall in order to implement consistent COVID-19 safety protocols.’ says the Biden estimate obtained by Education Week.  ‘They do not have that certainty right now. Further, school districts that are already open need more support to implement mitigation efforts that protect students, educators and school staff.'”

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges some patience as the new Biden administration tries to move our society out of the Trump era of COVID denial: “What policymakers are trying to do here is like fighting a war—a war both against the pandemic itself and against the human fallout from the pandemic slump. And when you’re fighting a war, you don’t decide how much to spend by asking: ‘How much stimulus do we need to achieve full employment?’ You spend what you need to spend to win the war. Winning in this case, means providing the resources for a huge vaccination program and for opening schools safely, while limiting the economic misery of families whose breadwinners can’t work and avoiding gratuitous cuts in public services provided by fiscally constrained state and local governments.” Krugman is pushing Congress swiftly to pass Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan, but Krugman knows that it will take time and patience to address the problems that built up as the Trump administration denied the severity of COVID-19 and its attendant health and economic challenges.

There is one step, however, which can be taken immediately to protect schoolteachers—whether they work with 25 or 30 children each day in an elementary school classroom or teach more than a hundred middle and high school students cycling every day through their classrooms. Teachers and other school support staff need to be moved immediately to the front of the line to qualify for the vaccine. Even if school districts are able to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning protocols, not all of the fifty states have prioritized schoolteachers for vaccination. That is wrong and it needs to be corrected.

How Are the Children? U.S. Senate Republicans Don’t Worry About That.

This week a group of so-called moderate U.S. Senate Republicans proposed to negotiate with President Joe Biden about his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill.  But even the ten senators, who profess themselves to be moderates and who came forward with a $618 billion alternative proposal, proved themselves willing to neglect the needs of America’s children. The United States, the world’s richest nation, posts an alarming child poverty rate, but, apart from the voices of a handful of social justice advocates, any level of concern about child poverty is inaudible. Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that one of the great strengths of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is the President’s inclusion of funding for programs that would significantly ameliorate suffering among America’s poorest children.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr did recently recognize the significance of the pro-child provisions in Biden’s new American Rescue Plan: “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan includes a Child Tax Credit expansion that would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line, including 2.3 million Black children, 4.1 million Latino children, and 441,000 Asian American children. It also would lift 1.1 million children out of ‘deep poverty,’ raising their family incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line. To do that, the Biden plan would make the credit fully available to 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children—whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough….”

On Monday, VOX‘s Li Zhou and Emily Stewart reported on the alternative, $618 billion plan released by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Thom Tillis (R-NC). This week, President Biden met with these senators about their proposal, which is described by VOX’s Zhou and Stewart: “Republicans’ plan includes not only substantially less funding for provisions like school reopening, it completely leaves out support for state and local governments, and reduces the amounts allocated to direct payments (aka ‘stimulus checks’) and weekly enhanced unemployment. The area in which the Republican plan is most consistent with Biden’s is the $160 billion in funds that it allocates for testing, vaccines, and personal protective equipment for medical professionals.” In the recent VOX report, you will note that while some of the programs described would address the needs of children, the reporters fail to name ameliorating child poverty as something government should specifically consider.

And, on Tuesday, neither were the needs of America’s poorest children mentioned in the text of the Washington Post‘s major news story on the debate about Biden’s stimulus plan. However, if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that a graphic embedded in the Post‘s story clearly showed you that while President Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan does protect children, the Republicans who brought forth their $618 billion alternative utterly neglect to consider the needs of children living in poverty.

Look at the categories in the graphic.  Biden proposes an investment of $120 billion to increase the child tax credit and make it fully refundable; the Republican proposal eliminates money for the child tax credit from the federal stimulus bill. The Republicans would cut in half Biden’s proposed $40 billion investment in child care. While Biden’s American Rescue Plan would invest $170 billion to support safe reopening of public schools, the Republicans drastically cut that investment to $20 billion.  Finally Biden’s plan would invest $350 billion in relief for state and local governments, whose tax revenues have fallen due to business shutdowns and layoffs in the COVID-19 recession.  State governments provide, on average, 47percent of all funding for K-12 public education. Without federal relief, the projected collapse in state budgets will inevitably result in fewer teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, and arts programs across the public schools that serve over 50 million U.S. children and adolescents. The Republican plan also slashes direct payments to families, unemployment insurance, and rental assistance, all cuts which would directly undermine the well-being of the poorest families with children.

Fortunately, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is preparing to pass Biden’s plan through reconciliation without slashing the programs designed to assist the poorest American families with children. But there is a bigger issue here. Why does America refuse to see child poverty or name overcoming child poverty as a national priority?

For three decades, Republican orthodoxy has disdained government dependency—blaming poor parents and promoting hardship as an incentive to make parents look harder for work, even in an economy with too few jobs that pay a living wage. The focus is on incentivizing poor parents to work harder while the needs of their children are forgotten.

Last fall, economist Paul Krugman explained: “You might think that Republicans would set the plutocratic imperative aside when the case for more government spending is compelling, whether it’s to repair our crumbling infrastructure or to provide relief during a pandemic. But all indications are that they believe — probably rightly — that successful government programs make the public more receptive to proposals for additional programs…  And that’s why Republicans are unwilling to provide desperately needed aid to economic victims of the pandemic. They aren’t worried that a relief package would fail; they’re worried that it might succeed, showing that sometimes more government spending is a good thing. Indeed, a successful relief package might pave the way for Democratic proposals that would, among other things, drastically reduce child poverty.”

In his 1838 novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens exposed the kind of thinking that, this week, underpins the $618 billion stimulus proposal ten Republican U.S. Senators presented as though it is an alternative to Biden’s American Rescue Plan.  In Dickens’ novel, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

President Biden’s Proposed Economic Stimulus Plan Would Help Public Schools and Begin to Alleviate Child Poverty

President Joe Biden has proposed a new pandemic relief package, his “American Rescue Plan,” which includes essential support for public education.

For the clearest overall summary of Biden’s new COVID-19 relief plan, please read the two page statement from Sharon Parrott, the new president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Parrott explains that Biden’s relief proposal addresses the needs of individual workers and families and finally begins to relieve the budget pressures on states, tribal governments and cities resulting from the pandemic-caused economic recession.  You will notice that Parrott pays particular attention to the ways Biden’s plan addresses the needs of America’s poorest children. Here is a very quick extract:

“President… Biden’s emergency relief proposal is a substantial, responsible plan that would significantly reduce the hardship that millions of people across the country are now facing… The President’s proposal would extend a series of important relief measures…. expanded unemployment benefits for millions… the federal moratorium on evictions….  additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program…. (and) the recently enacted increase in SNAP benefits…. Rates of food hardship are particularly high among children.”  President Biden’s plan also temporarily expands the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which would help millions of low-income families with children and workers without minor children at home make ends meet…. The proposal would increase the amount of the Child Tax Credit and make the full credit available to the 27 million children who currently don’t get the full credit (or in some cases, any credit at all) because their incomes are too low… The plan calls for substantial additional child care funding, to supplement the funds provided in the year-end relief package. This funding could help child care providers cope with reduced enrollment due to the pandemic and with increased costs to keep children and staff safe.  It also could provide needed help to families to afford child care as more people are able to return to work.” “The proposal includes much-needed state and local government fiscal relief, including funds specifically to support schools and public colleges, funding to hire more local public health workers, and aid to help states and localities avoid laying off more people. Already, 1.4 state and local workers have lost their jobs since February.”

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit explains that a smaller $900 billion relief package—passed in late December by Congress and signed by former President Trump—allocated $54 billion in assistance for public schools that have struggled to reopen as COVID-19 has ebbed and surged from region to region across the United States: “The nation’s public schools, which collectively serve more than 50 million schoolchildren, are set to get about $54 billion in coronavirus aid, funding that will help them cover steeply escalating costs for paying for personal protective equipment, building renovations and for technology needed to educate children remotely… Schools have been waiting for a funding boost for months.  In the first coronavirus package (the CARES Act), passed shortly after schools shut down in March, lawmakers allocated $13 billion for schools. They have not received any additional funding since.”

Education Week‘s Evie Bladd describes how President Biden’s new proposal would add to the extremely minimal $54 billion relief for public schools Congress passed in December. Biden focuses first on helping public schools reopen with adjustments to make schools safe for students and for teachers and staff: “President… Joe Biden is calling for $130 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, ramped up testing efforts, and accelerated vaccine distribution strategies to help reopen ‘the majority of K-8 schools’ within the first 100 days of his administration…  The education relief funding in Biden’s proposal could be used for a wide range of purposes, including hiring additional staff to reduce class sizes, modifying spaces to allow for more social distancing, improving ventilation systems, providing school nurses for schools that don’t have them, building up remote learning resources, and providing additional academic and social-emotional supports for students when they return to the classroom.”

When, in December, Congress passed the $900 billion relief bill, Senate Republicans insisted the package be lower than $1 trillion, and cut out assistance for state and local governments in order to pass the bill.  Bladd explains that Biden’s new plan finally proposes to allocate $350 billion in aid to state and local governments. Back in the spring when the House passed the HEROES Act, the bill included $915 in direct relief for state, local and tribal governments in anticipation of state budget drops due to a COVID-19 recession. But the HEROES Act was never taken up by the U.S. Senate, where Republican leaders resisted passing assistance for state governments through the end of the Congressional session. Weakness in the economy this winter as the number of COVID-19 cases has grown alarmingly threatens significantly to reduce the tax revenues on which state governments depend.  The inclusion of $350 billion for state and local governments in Biden’s plan is far less than what was contained in the HEROES Act, but important for public education nonetheless, because state governments are responsible for over 45 percent of all public school funding.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges Congress to enact Biden’s plan: “The narrow Democratic margin in Congress means that the most ambitious progressive goals will have to be put on hold. But the rescue package Biden unveiled… already indicates he won’t exhibit the excessive caution that inhibited President Barack Obama’s response to economic crisis… Biden is seeking… (a) major relief package, including a new effort to reduce child poverty, and he may soon move to make the A.C.A. more generous and cover more people.  He should push hard on both fronts: recent experience shows that smart government spending can do a lot to improve American lives…. (T)here is now widespread agreement among economists that debt is far less of a problem than conventional wisdom asserted… (W)hile the level of federal debt may seem high, low interest rates mean that the burden of servicing the debt is actually very low by historical standards.”

In her statement this week on Biden’s economic relief plan, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Sharon Parrot emphatically agrees: “The robust set of measures in President… Biden’s proposal would meet critical needs and is appropriate to the scale of the crisis we face. Given the current environment, the risk of providing too little economic stimulus and hardship relief far outweighs the risk of providing too much. Policymakers should not repeat the mistakes of the Great Recession, when they inflicted substantial human and economic harm on the nation by shifting to a posture of austerity that weakened the recovery….”

Prospects for COVID-19 Stimulus Package Fade: Will We Have to Wait for A New President and New Congress to Negotiate Relief for States and Their Public Schools?

Negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House negotiator Steve Mnuchin and Senate Republicans for a second coronavirus relief bill have collapsed until at least after the election—maybe until a new Congress convenes in 2021 and, perhaps, a new President takes over.  Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has declared that the U.S. Senate will not even be back in session until November 9.

Of immediate urgency is essential assistance for individuals and small businesses now that most of the programs funded by last March’s CARES Act have run out—the one-time $1,200 stimulus checks, the small business paycheck protection program, pandemic emergency unemployment benefits, an eviction moratorium, and support for health coverage. But there is another critically important need—one that is slightly farther removed from families’ immediate crisis.

Through months of negotiations, the two sides could never reach any agreement on one of Nancy Pelosi’s top priorities and something essential for the nation’s over 13,000 local public school districts: significant relief for state and local governments. State funding averages 40 percent of all public school funding, with local funds comprising around 40 percent.  President Donald Trump and some Republican  Senators opposed what Trump called “a bailout for poorly managed ‘blue’ states.”  While Trump and so-called “deficit hawk” Republican Senators have politicized the issue, here is how—last April—Rutgers University education funding expert, Bruce Baker, and Albert Shanker Institute policy expert, Matthew Di Carlo defined the urgent need for relief for state and local governments: “The most terrible and lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic will of course be measured in loss of life. But a parallel tragedy will also be unfolding in the coming months and years, this one affecting those at the beginning of their lives: an unprecedented school funding crisis that threatens to disadvantage a generation of children. It currently is difficult to make any precise predictions about the magnitude of the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, except to say that it has already started and it is likely to be severe. The revenue that funds public K-12 schools—almost 90 percent of which comes from state and local sources—will see large decreases… Making things worse, school districts in many states have yet to recover from the last recession, the so-called Great Recession, which officially began in late 2007 and devastated state and local education budgets.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s Heather Gillers and Gunjan Banerji analyzed how a COVID-19 recession continuing for at least the next two years will affect the states: “U.S. states are facing their biggest cash crisis since the Great Depression.  Nationwide, the U.S. state budget shortfall from 2020-2022 could amount to about $434 billion, according to data from Moody’s Analytics…. That’s greater than the 2019 K-12 education budget for every state combined, or more than twice the amount spent that year on state roads and other transportation infrastructure…. Even after rainy day funds are used, Moody’s Analytics projects 46 states coming up short, with Nevada, Louisiana and Florida having the greatest gaps as a percentage of their 2019 budgets… States are dependent on taxes for revenue—sales and income taxes make up more than 60% of the revenue states collect for general operating funds…. Both types of taxes have been crushed by historic job losses and the steepest decline in consumer spending in six decades… The U.S. economy has steadily recovered since the spring, and more than 11 million jobs of the 22 million lost earlier in the year have come back.  Still, the unemployment rate recently hovered at 7.9%, and there has been an uptick in permanent layoffs.”

One effect will be a reduction in teachers’ salaries, which are already significantly lower in many states than average salaries and benefits for similarly educated professionals.  In mid-September, the Economic Policy Institute showed the long term effects of the kind of government stinginess we see in too many states and which we have watched this summer in the U.S. Senate’s refusal to consider continued federal relief. Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel released their annual report on the long-term teacher pay penalty which is making it hard in too many states to attract enough college students into teacher preparation programs and making it difficult for states to hire enough quality teachers.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,  Derek Black worries about the long consequences of a COVID-19 recession for public school budgets: “If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last (the 2008 recession), the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that spent the two years prior to 2020 protesting shamefully low salaries may simply break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket. No one will take their place. The number of college students pursuing teaching degrees was already shockingly low. Class sizes will continue on their decade long expansion. And the pre-kindergarten opportunities, mental health counselors, and other supports that disadvantaged students so desperately need—but which states wouldn’t fund during good times—might as well be on permanent hold.” Schoolhouse Burning, p. 258)

Last week, Education Week‘s Daarel Burnette II examined the current situation in the context of what happened during the Great Recession a decade ago: “The last recession was financially ruinous for poor and majority Black and Latino school districts, almost wiping out the progress states had made in the last half century in closing funding gaps between property-rich and property-poor school districts.  Many of these school districts, even before the pandemic, had yet to financially recover from recession-era budget cuts. The pandemic has again blown a crater in sales and income tax revenues on which property-poor districts are heavily reliant. Without a substantial federal bailout, low-income districts are expected to lose millions of dollars in the coming years, which will undoubtedly have academic repercussions.”

Describing last week’s collapse of negotiations for a second COVID-19 package between House Speaker Pelosi, White House negotiator, Mnuchin, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate The Wall Street Journal noted: “Administration officials acknowledge that Senate Republicans remain a major roadblock to passing a deal with a high price tag.” Throughout the negotiation process, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reported many Senators were refusing to support assistance for state and local governments. These Senators are the far-right, so-called “deficit hawks,” who are now alarmed about increasing the size of the federal deficit despite that they passed enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in 2011.

Last week, Nobel Prize winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman confronted the deficit hawks’ argument. Krugman assumes that the responsibility for passing COVID-19 relief will be delayed until we have a new Congress in January and a new administration headed by Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump. Krugman directs his advice to the new President: “Given the current and likely future state of the U.S. economy, it’s time to (a) spend a lot of money on the future and (b) not worry about where the money is coming from. For now, and for at least the next few years, large-scale deficit spending isn’t just OK, it’s the only responsible thing to do… (I)t will be crucial to provide another round of large-scale fiscal relief, especially aid to the unemployed and to cash-strapped state and local governments. The main purpose of this relief will be humanitarian—helping families pay the rent and keep food on the table, helping cities and towns avoid devastating cuts in essential services. But it will also help avoid a downward economic spiral, by heading off a potential collapse in consumer and local government spending. The need for big spending will not, however, end with the pandemic. We also need to invest in our future. After years of public underspending, America desperately needs to upgrade its infrastructure… And we should also do much more to help children grow up to be healthy, productive adults; America spends shamefully little on aid to families compared with other wealthy countries.”

While state and local governments are, for the most part, prohibited by law from borrowing, the federal government can borrow. Krugman continues: “When a government can borrow at low interest rates, and in particular when the interest rate on debt is well below the economy’s long-run growth rate, debt just isn’t a major problem. It doesn’t pose any threat to the government’s solvency; it doesn’t in any meaningful way compete with private investment.” “Under these conditions it would actually be irresponsible for the federal government not to engage in large-scale borrowing to invest in the future.”

Our Fading Understanding of the Common Good

At the top of this blog is a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who describes our “nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  Wellstone is defining the idea of public responsibility—the common good.  A quaint notion these days. Think about the verbs in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People… establish… insure… provide…promote… secure… to ourselves and our posterity.”

More and more often today we seem to accept a very different notion: that good people are the ones “who give back.”  They have done well, and so they contribute through their charitable foundations or donate to the many causes or services they choose to support.  Notice that the operative verbs in this transaction are “to give” and “to choose.” A gift is very different than an obligation because giving grants power to the donor who gets to choose the recipient the giver deems worthy.  People who present gifts also get to choose what to give and and how much. The Preamble to our U.S. Constitution defines the recipient a little differently: “ourselves”—all of us—and “our posterity”—all of our children their children.

In Monday’s NY Times, in response to the disaster of Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoned drinking water, Paul Krugman distinguishes between government spending on social insurance programs, Medicaid and Social Security—topics he explains are of understandable public debate due to ideological conflicts about the philosophy of government—and public goods:

“There should, however, be much less debate about spending on what Econ 101 calls public goods—things that benefit everyone and can’t be provided by the private sector.  Yes, we can differ over exactly how big a military we need or how dense and well-maintained the road network should be, but you wouldn’t expect controversy about spending enough to provide key public goods like basic education or safe drinking water.  Yet a funny thing has happened as hard-line conservatives have taken over many U.S. state governments.  Or actually, it’s not funny at all.  Not surprisingly, they have sought to cut social insurance spending on the poor.  In fact, many state governments dislike spending on the poor so much that they are rejecting a Medicaid expansion that wouldn’t cost them anything because it’s federally financed.  But what we also see is extreme penny pinching on public goods. It’s easy to come up with examples, Kansas, which made headlines with its failed strategy of cutting taxes in the expectation of an economic miracle, has tried to close the resulting budget gap largely with cuts in education.  North Carolina has also imposed drastic cuts on schools.  And in New Jersey, Chris Christie famously canceled a desperately needed rail tunnel under the Hudson.”

Michigan, where a state-appointed austerity fiscal manager sanctioned the cost cutting that has poisoned Flint’s children and where a series of fiscal managers have run up the long-term debts of Detroit’s public schools to a total of $3.5 billion, is this week’s poster child for slashing spending on public goods.  But there is another state that is currently very much in the news: Illinois, where conservative Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is embroiled in a state budget fight with a super-majority Democratic legislature—a budget fight that has dragged the state through months without a budget.  In Illinois the political fighting is so ugly that it is hard to parse out exactly what what may be posturing, but it is evident that the students of the Chicago Public Schools and their teachers are the losers. Chicago Public Schools face a deficit that has accumulated over many years: “This year, the district has a $480 million hole to fill in its current budget.” Notice that our society’s sense of public obligation to our poorest children—in cities like Detroit and Chicago—seems to slip away pretty easily.

Last week, according to DNA Info, “The district said it was cutting 433 administrative positions, including laying off 227 employees Friday… ‘We are gonna make Central Office cuts and reforms so we don’t have to impact the classroom, where we’re making significant educational gains for children,’ (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel said.”  Through these and other cuts, CPS seeks to cut $45.1 million.  In the meantime, the school district will have to borrow, despite that its credit rating has been downgraded to “junk” status.

Chicago’s mayor and the CEO of the school system, Forrest Claypool, blame the state and a Chicago teachers’ pension system that has been underfunded by previous administrations and that, unlike the pension system for teachers in other Illinois school districts, receives no state contributions.  And they blame Illinois school finance: “‘The governor is defending a school funding system that is separate but unequal. Our children are facing systematic discrimination.  CPS represents 20 percent of state enrollment, but gets just 15 percent of state funding, even though 86 percent of our children live in poverty.”

Like many other states, Illinois is failing to drive state funding to the neediest school districts serving masses of children in poverty. The Education Law Center’s Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card awards the state of Illinois a grade of “F” for funding distribution.  The report explains, “The level of funding should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty—that is, state finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty… Student poverty—especially concentrated student poverty—is the most critical variable affecting funding levels.  Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that increase the costs of providing equal educational opportunity…”

Of course, in Illinois as in lots of states, the school districts that are in trouble are those that serve masses of poor children.  This reality means that the debate about provision of public goods is affected by what Krugman calls the “values” debate about how much money ought to be spent on the poor:  “In the modern world, much government spending goes to social insurance programs—things like Social Security, Medicare and so on, that are supposed to protect citizens from the misfortunes of life. Such spending is the subject of fierce political debate, and understandably so. Liberals want to help the poor and unlucky, conservatives want to let people keep their hard-earned income, and there’s no right answer to this debate, because it’s a question of values.”

Krugman separates the issue of provision of public goods from the values question about whether and how we protect our most vulnerable citizens, but in real life, what he calls the “values question” gets mixed together with with the definition of what public goods we need to pay taxes to provide.  Our debate about the obligation to provide public schooling—a public good—is very often colored by the political debate about equity.  How much should the state have to add to help the children in Detroit and Chicago where the costs of educating masses of impoverished children are far greater than the costs in middle class school districts?

And in Chicago there is another ideological debate, this time about increased privatization as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school CEO Forrest Claypool continue to post requests for proposals that offer charter school operators the chance to expand the number of charter schools, which then draw children and the state’s per-pupil funding from the city’s struggling public schools.

I worry, however, that underneath all the politics and underneath the clash of ideologies, the understanding of public obligation is fading.  Do we imagine that, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, we all get to choose the way we give back?  Or are all of us—including Gates and Zuckerberg—expected to contribute through progressively assessed taxes for basic public goods?  Are we losing the understanding that the common good—represented in clean water, good schools, sound infrastructure, and good roads— is everybody’s responsibility?

Blaming the Poor… Again

You may have noticed David Brooks’ recent column in the NY Times on The Nature of Poverty.  Brooks is one of those conservatives who prefer to blame the problems of the poor on their character and their culture.  Fortunately the NY Times also employs a more knowledgeable columnist, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who quite regularly corrects the mistakes of David Brooks.  In yesterday’s paper, Krugman undertook to do that in an excellent column, Race, Class and Neglect.

Racism is, of course, wound into this discussion, and Krugman cites Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who explained, “that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities.  His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.”  Krugman continues: “And so it has proved.  Lagging wages—actually declining in real terms for half of working men—and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more,” across all racial groups.  Krugman notes a stunning statistic, that among our poorest citizens of all racial groups, life expectancy rates are actually falling in America, although Krugman points out that the statistics are particularly stark for black Americans: “Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations.”  He continues: “In fact, much, though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.”

Krugman directs significant criticism to statements in David Brooks’ recent column: “So it is… disheartening… to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.  And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)  In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries.  That’s not a lot of money—it’s far less than other advanced countries spend—and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.”

Yesterday’s NY Times also featured a report on new research being released by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a study that demonstrates that children who move away from extremely poor neighborhoods do better in life, especially if they move when they are young.  Chetty and Hendren’s study confirms the impact of the racial and economic segregation of a child’s neighborhood on the child’s life chances: “The places where poor children face the worst odds include some—but not all—of the nation’s largest urban areas…. Many of these places have large African-American populations and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility….”

What about the places that seem to offer greater opportunities?  “These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said.  They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.”

I have read only the NY Times story by David Leonhardt about Chetty and Hendren’s study; I’ve not read the study.  In the NY Times piece, however, there is an assumption that mirrors the tendency in David Brooks’ recent column blaming poverty on the poor.  Leonhardt’s story quotes Hendren in a way that seems to blame the public schools in the communities from which the report’s authors encourage families to move away.  We prefer to blame somebody after all, and if we can’t blame the poor, maybe we should blame the schools that serve the poor or maybe blame the teachers.

Chetty and Hendren are economists. I think it is wise, as one tries to understand the many factors affecting groups of people, to look at the sociological research as well.  And there is a large and deepening body of sociological literature that speaks to the convergence of poverty and struggling schools.  What sociologists are telling us is that extreme segregation by income overlaid on racial segregation affects not only the children but also the schools to which they bring the challenges of extreme poverty.

In a 2010 study of schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues identified what they called “a previously unrecognized subclass” of schools—those they called “truly disadvantaged.”  Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which served relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

Sean Reardon’s research at Stanford University helps explain what is happening.  Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In his recent book, Robert Putnam adds an important factor that affects children’s prospects and the sense of hope or despair that is likely to pervade their schools: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

David Brooks’ assumption is that poor people ought to pull themselves up, and as Leonhardt describes the Chetty-Hendren study, the assumption is that poor people ought to get it together for the sake of their children and find a way to move away from the schools No Child Left Behind has caused us to brand as “failing schools.”  Maybe that leaves the rest of us feeling less guilty, but it doesn’t really provide any way to address one of our society’s most troubling trends: rapidly growing income inequality across America and growing segregation by race and income that affects not only families but also the schools their children attend.  Here are just a few of the ways we could begin to address parts of this problem: more full-time work, a living wage, the significant construction of mixed-income housing across our city and suburban neighborhoods with far more subsidized units included for low-income families, and finally some sort of honest grappling with the fact that our society spends far less public funds for the schools in low income communities than in places that are wealthy.

Instead of taking steps to address poverty and inequality, we too often blame the poor or their schools or their teachers. Our collective failure to act is not only a policy problem but also a moral failure.  We are not the good society we like to imagine ourselves to be.

A Musical Performance: Collaborative Learning, Authentic Assessment, Opportunity to Learn

Earlier this week my husband and I attended a concert that happens in our school district every four years.  It is sponsored by a small nonprofit organization that promotes equity and opportunity to learn across our school district’s elementary and middle schools and that rents Severance Hall, the gorgeous, art deco home of the Cleveland Orchestra, for these quadrennial concerts to showcase our district’s school music program.  This year the concert happened, ironically, during the first-ever week of Ohio’s PARCC (Common Core) standardized test. But the test our students took on Tuesday night at Severance Hall was different.

Musical performance is the definition of authentic learning and assessment, and the recent concert was a test that our students definitely passed (despite that their performance will not affect our schools’ ratings based on state assessments and the PARCC). To use the lingo of the day, musical performance also perfectly exemplifies collaborative learning.  Elementary singers stayed on pitch and instrumentalists and singers came together from both of our middle schools in an honors chorus and an honors orchestra to perform together as they will in a year or two when they get to high school. The high school concert band sounded great playing a tricky piece with complicated percussion and lots of brass. A high school a capella choir sang a moving  “Shenandoah” with such intricate harmony and sensitive dynamics it made us cry, and then different student conductors led the next two selections.  When the high school symphony played a movement from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a girl with blue hair played perfect bassoon solos. A recent graduate returned from Morehouse College to accompany a gospel ensemble on the piano and to sing a solo. I attended the dress rehearsal for part of the afternoon, and watched while the high school symphony and a huge choir prepared selections by John Rutter and Beethoven—adjusting the dynamics again and again in the huge and unfamiliar concert hall to ensure that the oboe was audible in one section and the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the choir in another. A jazz combo played for a pre-concert reception, men’s barbershoppers sang on stage, a harpist played a Beatles tune in the ticket lobby, and a mass choir with pit orchestra opened with a show tune by Frank Loesser.

Contrast all this with today’s dominant myth about education, described by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a column in last Monday’s paper.  Krugman describes what can be called “the world is flat” myth, which casts our nation’s economic future amidst a vast competition in a connected techie world.  This story alleges that the nation’s economic growth—and hence our future—is being imperiled by our public education system, which is mediocre at best.   Krugman explains: “The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change.  This ‘skills gap’ is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated.  So what we need is more and better education.”  Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist as well as a NY Times columnist, rejects this myth: “There’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers…  Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.”

Krugman tells us that corporate profits continue to soar, but something besides education is preventing widespread well being and feeding the rapid growth of inequality:  “As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees—all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance.  Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.”  Krugman suggests some solutions for improving the economy: “Levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families.  We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Interestingly, last Monday the NT Times printed a sort of double whammy with an op ed piece on the same theme as Krugman’s column, an op ed from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.  Mishel rejects tax cuts as any kind of solution to the problem of inequality: “What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in—a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate… Taxation does not explain why middle-income families are having a harder time making ends meet, even as they increase their education and become ever more productive.”  In fact tax cuts are counter-productive because they collapse society’s capacity to respond to rising inequality.  Mishel’s prescription is similar to Krugman’s: raise the minimum wage; protect workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, and keep people on salary instead of turning work over to so-called independent contractors. “Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.”

Narrowing inequality, as Krugman and Mishel tell us, cannot be accomplished merely by improving education,  It will instead require policies that support the people who do the work, not merely the titans who manipulate high finance. But educating our children remains absolutely central to who we are as a people.  Think about that concert earlier this week. What made the evening of music especially important is that the concert presented a public school music program in a school district where the children are not affluent. Sixty percent of the students in our school district qualify for free lunch; they are not the children of the powerful financiers Paul Krugman describes. Enriching their skills to make and enjoy music and their opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something beautiful is our gift to them from the public. Public schools can’t get rid of inequality, but they are one way that our society can expand opportunity for our children.

Stiglitz: Inequality Is Not Inevitable

The NY Times just ended an eighteen month series of commentaries on its opinion pages about economic inequality,  The Great Divide, moderated by the Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz.  I urge you to read the final column in this series, in which Stiglitz declares, Inequality is Not Inevitable.

That economic inequality matters to educational outcomes in public schools has been conclusively demonstrated in research by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, who has shown that in America we are increasingly raising our children in schools where all the children are poor or schools where all the children are rich, with fewer economically diverse communities where children from a range of incomes are educated together.  School achievement has come to track this growing residential segregation by economics, with poor children lagging farther behind as wealthy children leap ahead.  Here is a summary of Reardon’s research:

  1. By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income.
  2. Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods….”
  3. In another report, Reardon demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality 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.

In his recent column, Joseph Stiglitz challenges those who conclude that “violent extremes of wealth and income are inherent to capitalism.”  Stiglitz points to “a wide range of examples… (that) undermine the notion that there are any truly fundamental laws of capitalism… If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it?  The straight forward answer: our policies and our politics.”  “So why,” wonders Stiglitz, “has America chosen these inequality-enhancing policies?”  The answer:  “The American political system is overrun by money.  Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.”  The very wealthy design the rules of the game through the role of money and power in politics.

A fascinating companion piece to Stiglitz’s commentary is another column, published on Monday by another Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman.  Krugman describes the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) whose members draft and distribute model laws across the statehouses in search of legislative sponsors who will tailor the generic models to their own states’ needs. ALEC drafts model laws in a range of policy areas, but Krugman’s focus is ALEC’s ongoing effort to promote state tax cuts.  “And what is ALEC? It’s a secretive group, financed by major corporations, that drafts model legislation for conservative state-level politicians.  Ed Pilkington of The Guardian, who acquired a number of leaked ALEC documents, describes it as ‘almost a dating service between politicians at the state level, local elected politicians, and many of America’s biggest companies.’  And most of ALEC’s efforts are directed, not surprisingly, at privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.”  Krugman agrees with Stiglitz: money concentrated in the hands of powerful interests promotes inequality—in the case of Krugman’s example, through tax cuts that further concentrate wealth at the top while denying the public sector tax dollars that might enable government to pay for basic services like public schools or to address the needs of those at the bottom.

Who are the victims according to Stiglitz?  The young—with nearly 25 percent of children living in poverty.  Those imprisoned: America has 5 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  Those whose homes were foreclosed as the banks were bailed out.  Those who are sick, as 24 states have chosen not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thereby denying coverage to our poorest citizens.

According to Stiglitz: “The problem of inequality is not so much a matter of technical economics. It’s really a problem of practical politics.  Ensuring that those at the top pay their fair share of taxes—ending the special privileges of speculators, corporations and the rich—is both pragmatic and fair… If we spent more on education, health and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy now and in the future… Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.”

Segregation, Poverty and Inequality: What Ravitch Calls the Toxic Mix At School

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch identifies what she believes are the factors that affect academic achievement: “Segregation is most concentrated in the nation’s cities.  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.  Many black students are doubly segregated, by race and by poverty.”(p. 292)

Several important articles published this week explore the issues of poverty—and the related issue, inequality—and racial segregation, the factors Ravitch calls “the toxic mix.” According to all three writers, we misunderstand our history and hence the issues that plague us today.

In a piece memorializing Nelson Mandela, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute remembers that in South Africa, Mandela believed that deep confession—getting at the truth of the history that makes us who we are—is necessary as the path to reconciliation.  Rothstein asks Americans to be more honest about the factors that have segregated our neighborhoods, our cities, and our public schools.  “One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is ‘de facto,’ not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate.”  Explaining the policy choices that caused housing and transportation patterns in the half-century after World War II, Rothstein examines high school history textbooks that make it appear instead as though racial segregation has really always been merely a southern phenomenon, and that today we can’t do anything about it.  Our blindness to the truth of our history is dangerous, writes Rothstein, for,  “If we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.”

Two pieces in the NY Times over the weekend raise the issue of another kind of blindness, the blindness to poverty that may easily come with economic privilege.  Shamus Kahn, a Columbia University sociologist explores how our experience shapes the way we explain the world to ourselves: “We can think of elites as selfish power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it.  Elites understand their own world well enough.  Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status.  But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago.  What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s recent column, Why Inequality Matters, condemns the impact of the kind of attitudes Kahn describes.  Criticizing Washington’s obsession with closing budget deficits through austerity measures like the sequester, cuts to food stamps,  and threats to pare back Social Security and Medicare, Krugman writes: “Surveys of the very wealthy have… shown that they—unlike the general public—consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs.  And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse… Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping—and distorting—the debate.”

While it might seem that these more abstract commentaries on our deepest assumptions about race and class don’t touch on achievement at school, Diane Ravitch believes that honestly recognizing the long held attitudes that shape today’s inequality and racial segregation will be essential  if our society is to lift academic achievement. Schools cannot by themselves change the life trajectories of their students: “If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools… We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of.  We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation.” (p. 9)