Public Schools “Flush with Cash”?

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” That phrase confirms something I’ve always suspected. President Trump has never been inside a public school.

The public schools I know generally have old fashioned waxed tile floors—work done by a custodian after the children leave at the end of the day.  The trash is emptied, and the cafeteria tables are set up for the free breakfast provided these days for hungry children who qualify. Then the tables are folded up and lined tight against the wall to allow the children to have gym class in the all-purpose room before lunch is set up. The stale aroma of fish sticks lingers through the afternoon gym classes and, if the school is in a bit wealthier community, into the band class that is also set up some days every week in the same all-purpose room.

“Flush with cash” describes the people crowding the sidewalk in front of Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue and the people in tailored overcoats we keep watching while they ride down the escalator in the gilded Trump Tower.  But referring to any public school as “flush with cash” is one of those falsehoods Kellyanne Conway has taken to calling “alternative facts.”

In his speech Trump trumpeted one of the classic anti-public school talking points of those who want to trash and privatize public schools—that although we are dumping tons of money into our schools, our schools haven’t moved the needle on test scores.

It’s true that overall on the one test that is trusted, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), scores have not risen astronomically. While the black-white test score gaps have narrowed, the huge gap in achievement among children whose family income is in the top ten percent and those in the bottom ten percent is now 40 percent wider than it was in 1970.  That is surely consistent with the real fact—documented in academic research—that children’s standardized test scores are affected in the aggregate by the wealth or poverty of their families and the economic conditions in their communities.

What about school spending?  Richard Rothstein studied this back in the 1990s in reports published by the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is what he explains in Where’s the Money Gone?, his report on school spending between 1967 and 1991: “(T)he share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%.  Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Rothstein later updated his study to cover the years from 1991-1996.  In Where’s the Money Going?, Rothstein documents that,”(R)eal per pupil spending across the nation was roughly stable over the 1991-96 period, growing by only 0.7% (or 0.14% on an average annual basis).  This was a significant slowdown from the growth in per pupil spending of 61% (0r 2.0% on an average annual basis) from 1967-1991.  In the most recent period, some districts have actually had to reduce regular per pupil education spending in response to the combined pressures of enrollment growth, inflation, and shifting priorities toward spending on special populations… The share of spending on regular education is shrinking. By the 1996 school year, regular education accounted for only 56.8% of all school spending, down from 58.5% in 1991.  Special education spending grew to 19.0% of all school spending in 1996, up from 17.8% in 1991.  School lunch and breakfast programs grew to 4.8% of total school spending in 1996, compared to 3.3% in 1991.  Bilingual education programs grew to 2.5% of total school spending in 1996, up from 1.9% in 1991. The shift of spending away from the regular education program continues a trend observed over the 1967-91 period. However, in an era of stagnant overall school spending, such as the 1990s, this shift has translated into an actual reduction in regular education spending per pupil in several school districts.”

These numbers, now 20 years old, reflect that after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, a significant percentage of school funding was used to create programs for children the schools had not previously served.  And as the number of English learners has grown, significant funding has shifted into programs to serve these students.

But what do more recent numbers tell us about trends in the funding of schools?  Last October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its regular reporting on trends in state-by-state expenditures.  While federal funding for schools makes up only about 10 percent of all school finance, the states contribute over 40 percent, which means that trends in state funding significantly affect local school programming. Here is CBPP’s most recent conclusion: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008… Eight states have cut general funding per student by about 10 percent or more over this period.  Five of those eight—Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding… Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 27 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period, adding to the damage of state funding cuts.”

Finally, in a recent November 2016 report, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert, warns that rapidly expanding privatization through the authorization of new charter schools is destabilizing a number of urban public school districts where the education marketplace is rapidly growing. Privatization is President Donald Trump’s proposed cure for what he believes are the financial and academic woes of our public schools.

Here is Baker’s warning: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves.  They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light…  Of particular concern are those cases in which revenues are declining rapidly with enrollment decline, putting the squeeze on districts to reduce expenditures more rapidly than costs (potentially leading to significant annual deficits)… Of particular interest here is whether the reduction of enrollments from students transferring from district to charter schools leads to a manageable decline in total revenues, given declining enrollments of host districts.”

Baker concludes with a warning we should take seriously: “At the very least, federal and state policies intending to stimulate further charter growth must no longer be quality or integrity blind, assuming that market forces will induce necessary corrections.  The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes.  The federal government has also through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense… There may come a time when policymakers and the public at large tires of the recent wave of charter expansion, becoming (even) more wary of tradeoffs that have been made.  Any significant reversal of course, reemphasis on district schools, tighter restriction on and mass closure of charter schools, is now encumbered with major logistical and financial barriers.”

In less technical terms Moody’s Investor Services has warned that charters threaten to destabilize their public school disricts—parasites destroying their hosts—particularly in big cities that were devastated by the foreclosure crisis.  for the Washington Post describes Moody’s conclusions: “While charters are everywhere — in at least 41 states — they tend to make up a bigger share of total enrollment in urban areas. And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.”

Our society has historically been distinguished from many others by our aspiration to educate all of our children. Hiring real live, professionally credentialed teachers to educate 50 million children is likely to be pretty expensive.  Of course some tech entrepreneurs dream we can find a way to do it all online with scripted curriculum, and politicians like Donald Trump imagine we can find a way to save money by undermining teachers unions and ceasing to pay adequate salaries to the over 3 million teachers who now serve in our public schools.  Beware, because both of those ideas are really part of the agenda behind the lie that our public schools are “flush with cash.”

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Richard Rothstein to Bank Street College Graduates: Make Your Ethical Dilemmas Public

In a mid-May commencement address at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Richard Rothstein reflected with the graduates about the ethical choices they will face as school teachers and principals.  Ethical choices for educators are something many of us have continued to consider since the tragic Atlanta trial that concluded early in April.  For the Atlanta  judge the ethics were so clear: the teachers and principals were cheaters who deserved to be sentenced to years in jail for changing their students’ answers on standardized tests.  But many of us following that trial also realized that the teachers and principals whose careers were at stake had been asked by society and their school superintendent, Beverly Hall, to accomplish the impossible: turn around the trajectory of their students’ aggregate test scores in just a few months.  Hall had promised she could turn around the whole district, and she threatened to fire educators who couldn’t immediately make their students’ test scores jump. (Here are this blog’s posts tagged Atlanta cheating scandal.)

Rothstein reminded  Bank Street College’s graduates about the teacher who told the Atlanta judge she had cheated to keep her students in school instead of dropping out: “The Atlanta judge, expressing moral outrage, claimed that his harsh sentences—including years of jail time—were justified because the victims of cheating were students, denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures.  But we all know that in practice, their failures would not likely have resulted in special help; holding them back would make them more likely to drop out, not less so.  One teacher told the judge that she believed that changing a young man’s score to passing would make his staying in school, and graduating, more likely, and would enable him to participate more fully in American society.  Was she right?  If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity?  Perhaps you think this is an easy question to answer (although I’m not sure what the answer is), but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face are more complicated.”

In his address Rothstein enumerated just a few of the moral conflicts teachers face in these times of “legal corruption that inevitably results from using tests not to guide instruction, but to punish educators… encouraged in the name of ‘reform’ by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government—that is driving the breakdown of our education system.”  Rothstein described the narrowing of the curriculum as one form of corruption: “It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical fitness, or even mathematical reasoning.”  Another kind of corruption takes place annually, “At the beginning of the school year, (when) principals nationwide gather teachers to review prior year scores, so that students just below the passing point can be identified for special attention.  Because classroom time is limited, this widely-employed strategy necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing.”   Then there is this: “Today, teachers learn to study prior tests, or the textbooks published by test-making companies, so they can prepare students for questions that are more likely to be asked, questions unrepresentative of the full curriculum.  Coaching that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique, or guessing strategies is now called good teaching by unintimidated school administrators….”  In every one of these instances, Rothstein reminded the Bank Street graduates, “It is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?”

Rothstein concluded his remarks by asking Bank Street’s newest school teachers to examine a reality that is far more complicated than the thinking of the judge in Atlanta: “Ethical choices do not consist either of civil disobedience that refuses to participate in an unjust system, or of obsequious compliance with corrupt orders. Ethical lives are comprised of compromises, of considering where to take stands and where not to make waves.  Throughout the careers on which you are about to embark, you will frequently have to decide when to resist, in both tiny and big ways, when to compromise, in both tiny and big ways, and when to capitulate in both tiny and big ways.  You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career… If I can… make any recommendation to you, it is to consider how you can make your anguish more public.”

I urge you to read Rothstein’s stunning Bank Street commencement address.

Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest.  A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools.  The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South.  Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. xix) “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference.  It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

Educators Convicted in Atlanta Test Cheating Scandal: Part II

On Friday this blog examined the Atlanta test-cheating scandal and the convictions last Wednesday in an Atlanta courtroom of eleven educators under a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law designed to try those engaged in racketeering and criminal conspiracy.  It is easy for us to jump to judgement and assign blame in cases that appear sensational, but when their superiors demanded that they cheat, many of those involved struggled with the values that caused them to become teachers, with their professional commitment to the subjects they were expected to teach, and with their commitment to the children in their schools.  And their dilemmas were not ethically clear cut.

This blog declared last Friday: “As a society we haven’t spoken forcefully enough to stop the process when we’ve been told that educators can, in a year or two, magically turn around the school achievement of all children in a class or a grade level or even a whole school or school district. Atlanta’s school superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall promised she could do that and then set out to prove it.  ‘Turnaround’ is the code word for what we have been demanding of public schools for over a decade now…  And by a federal law in 2002 we demanded that all schools raise all students’ test scores to the level of proficiency by 2014.  This is, of course, a matter of ‘just pretend’…  Statistically there are always means and medians and modes; people range in their abilities and each one has special talents and weaknesses. But school policy in America has been blindly denying reality.”

Today’s post is a follow up on the subject of the Atlanta cheating scandal—to recommend two additional articles that examine what happened in the schools in Atlanta from different points of view.  The first is an in-depth profile of Atlanta educators trapped under pressure to change students’ answers on standardized test answer sheets. In  Wrong Answer, that appeared in the New Yorker magazine last summer,  Rachel Aviv explains, “After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a ‘culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.’ They wrote that data had been ‘used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.’ Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination.  At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.”  Aviv tells the stories of several teachers and school principals who found themselves caught what felt like an impossible moral dilemma in which they felt pressured to cheat to protect the students in their classes, to protect stability in their school (they and their colleagues risked being fired if scores remained low) and to keep the school itself open.

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) also examines the ethical dilemma faced by teachers who were expected to meet impossible demands.  In Taking the Fall in Atlanta, a piece published last Friday on EPI’s website, Rothstein examines the impossibly utopian assumptions imposed by the distant policy makers who created No Child Left Behind’s sanctions-based accountability system: “Certainly educators can refuse to cheat, and take the fall for unavoidable failure in other ways: they can see their schools closed, their colleagues fired, their students’ confidence and love of learning destroyed. That would have been the legal thing to do, but not necessarily the ethical thing to do. As one indicted teacher told the judge before the trial, ‘I truly believed that I was helping these children stay in school just one more year,’ something from which they would have benefited far more more than being drilled incessantly on test-taking strategies so they could pass tests legally.”

Rothstein concludes: “Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education.  Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results… Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance.  But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.”

Please do read Aviv’s and Rothstein’s fine articles and Friday’s blog post at this site. In a piece published yesterday on the opinion pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (a piece behind a paywall and available for subscribers only) Bob Schaeffer of the National Center & Open Testing provides a bit of additional context for what happened in Atlanta: “Nearly four decades ago, acclaimed social scientist Donald Campbell forecast today’s scandals.  He wrote, ‘When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.'”

Something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy.  What happened in Atlanta last week should cause us all to stop and pay attention.

Helen Ladd: A-F Letter Grades for Schools Hide What We Must Do to Support School Children

Helen Ladd, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and her husband, Edward Fiske, a former education editor of the NY Times, recently published an analysis of the meaning of North Carolina’s new A-F rating system for public schools.  They write: “Whatever their limitations… the letter grades sent a clear message about what North Carolina needs to do to improve outcomes for kids.  In a nutshell, we need to figure out how to break the link between poverty and achievement in our schools… The most striking pattern that emerged from the letter grades from the NC Department of Public Instruction was the near-perfect correlation between letter grades and economic disadvantage.  The News & Observer reported that 80 percent of schools where at least four-fifths of children qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch received a D or F grade, whereas 90 percent of schools with fewer than one in five students on the subsidized lunch program received As or Bs.”

Ladd and Fiske believe that public policy ought to treat the conditions social scientists have identified again and again as the reasons, in the aggregate, that students struggle at school: “When it comes to making effective education policy, the issue is not whether family background is correlated with educational achievement. The question is how we choose to deal with this empirical reality. The ideal policy response, of course, would be attack poverty itself.  Achievement gaps did narrow in the years following Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” in the 1960s.  But doing so would take a long time. A second possible response would be to put one’s head in the sand and simply ignore the relationship. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the dominant federal policy initiative of the Bush and Obama administrations’ No Child Left Behind policy has done.  NCLB sets the same high—and ultimately unreachable—achievement expectations for all students, and it then holds schools accountable for assuring that all students meet them.  The inherent futility of this approach—echoed in the criteria that guide North Carolina’s system of letter grades for schools—helps explain why the administration has had to grant waivers to so many states.”

Ladd and Fiske suggest that while our society grapples with how to address the challenges of family poverty, federal and state education policy should, “address the particular challenges that disadvantaged children face as they pursue their education,” with three strategies currently being implemented by the East Durham Children’s Initiative: locate health clinics and social services at school, institute high quality early childhood and pre-school programs, and provide stimulating and fun summer programs to prevent “summer learning loss.”  These are the programs at the heart of full-service, wrap-around Community Schools and Promise Neighborhoods, of which the East Durham Children’s Initiative is an example.

Imposing an A-F school rating system is more stylish these days, however.  Such a plan is being formally launched in Ohio next fall as school begins.  Here is what Richard Rothstein, who, like Helen Ladd has studied the ways poverty makes it harder for children to post high standardized test scores, told the Cleveland City Club last week: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools, that are rated A because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents, may add less value to their students than schools rated F, where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those F schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the A schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with A-F ratings, people who attend a C school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an A school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these A-F ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine explained the same issue very succinctly just last year.  They said that school accountability based on high-stakes standardized tests merely disguises class and race privilege as merit.

Richard Rothstein Tells Cleveland Audience: Public Policy Created Segregation and White Flight

In a 2004 book, Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, examined social and economic factors in the lives of children and in the community that affect the academic performance of children in school.  Rothstein has been examining economic factors that affect student achievement for years, and his observations have recently been substantiated by the large research studies of sociologist Sean Reardon at Stanford University.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas 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.

Rothstein has recently shifted his own focus to the significance of the convergence of racial and economic segregation in public schools.  In the fall, 2014, issue of the American Prospect, Rothstein published a penetrating piece, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping of greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs by structural racism over the decades of the twentieth century. (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Last Friday, Rothstein presented a major address at the City Club of Cleveland.  I urge you to watch his remarks in this video.  Rothstein begins:  “Evidence continues to accumulate that despite our often stated vows to close the achievement gap in educational outcomes between black and white students, we cannot close that achievement gap in segregated schools.  Yet our schools are becoming more and more segregated over time.”

For Rothstein, racial and economic segregation are inseparable.  The challenges imposed by poverty are compounded when concentrated poverty in segregated schools ensures that all the children need special attention to their learning needs.  Rothstein explains, “Let me give you a very recent development… that is having a terrible effect on the achievement of disadvantaged children.  That is the ability of employers of low wage workers to use computers for much more just-in-time scheduling of work. For black hourly workers, 50 percent—half of black hourly workers—now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  And having received these schedules, they’re often sent home early or called in outside their regular schedule.  Among black mothers of children less than 13 years of age, 32 percent now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  What does this have to do with schools?  Well, parents with those kinds of schedules can’t plan regular meal times, can’t plan regular bedtimes, can’t make child care arrangements that require regular drop off and pick up at predictable times. The idea that children in these circumstances (and their numbers are growing because of the way our economy is being reorganized) can achieve at the same level as children who have regular bedtimes, who are enrolled in regular after school or preschool or early childhood programs is absurd.  But it is not only these individual characteristics, and there are many more of them.  What is much more important is when you take children like these and concentrate them together in the same schools… If you have a whole classroom where all the children have these characteristics, the instruction has to be tailored to a different level… Teachers can’t pay special attention to the children with special problems because every child has a special problem.  So the achievement, on-average, of classrooms like that is inevitably going to be lower.”

Rothstein condemns the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Seattle and Louisville—called Parents Involved v. Seattle— in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that when segregation is de facto—determined by accident of history— the factor of race cannot be considered as a legal basis for addressing segregation by race.  “And that decision indicated to me how far we have come from an understanding of the racial history of this country. Our cities—Louisville and Seattle, and also Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Kansas City—have been segregated not by accident but by explicit, purposeful racial policies emanating from the federal, state, and local governments. We do not have de facto segregation in this country.  We have explicit racial apartheid.  And we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”

In his Cleveland address, Rothstein examines federal housing policy to trace the explicit role of government for driving racial segregation.  During the New Deal at a time of severe housing shortage, the Public Works Administration chose the sites of public housing projects according to a “neighborhood composition rule.” Federal law required the race of the inhabitants of public housing to match the race of the residents of the neighborhood where each housing project was built. Three quarters of public housing during the 1930s was built for white families in white neighborhoods, with one quarter of public housing built in black neighborhoods for black families.  After WWII, as the Federal Housing Administration embarked on a program to subsidize the construction of subdivisions in the suburbs, the condition was that homes were sold only to white families.  In Levittown, NY, for example, 17,000 homes were built and sold to white families who could also qualify for the FHA loans from which black families were shut out.  As white families left public housing in the cities, urban housing projects became segregated sites for African American families. “This was,” Rothstein explains, “all the result of the explicit policy of the federal government.”  And, of course, this process fed inequality because white families built assets when the homes they owned appreciated.

In Rothstein’s piece on Ferguson, Missouri in the fall, 2014, American Prospect, he concludes: “A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.” “Although policies to impose segregation are no longer explicit, their effect endures.  When we blame private prejudice and snobishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

In his recent Cleveland City Club address, after his formal remarks and in answer to a question, Rothstein brings the conversation specifically to Ohio when he comments on the likely racial impact of the “A” through “F” school district rating system the state of Ohio will formally launch as school begins in the fall of 2015:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

Structural Racism: A Bleak Educational Future for Poor Children in America’s Metropolitan Areas

In one of the essays in Twenty-First Century Color Lines (2009), Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, confront the idea that our greatest social challenges are the result of the attitudes and behaviors of individuals.  Grant-Thomas and powell write instead about structural racism—the way the primary institutions of our society privilege some groups of people and constrain opportunity for others.  They define structural racism: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (p. 124)

Richard Rothstein has just published a fascinating piece in the fall issue of The American Prospect, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping, over the decades of the twentieth century, of structural racism in greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs.  Rothstein examines the forces that shaped the Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot this summer and where mass protests followed.  Rothstein’s piece is an eloquently engaging story of the growth and aging of a community. He concludes with this summary of decades of public policies—many of them promoted by the federal government—that have supported segregation, inequality and resegregation, not only in Ferguson and greater St. Louis but also across so many of America’s big cities: “St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.  When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses.  African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves. ”  (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Rothstein reminds us that the trends created by all these factors were then interpreted by a society used to personal racial stereotyping in ways that condemn the victims: “Whites observing the ghetto concluded that slum conditions were characteristics of black families, not of housing discrimination. Government policy thus created stereotypes that spurred ‘white flight.'”

Rothstein does not dwell on the implications for Ferguson, Missouri’s public schools, except to acknowledge that in a society where suburban jurisdictional boundaries combine with long-standing housing segregation by both race and economics, it is to be expected that extreme racial and economic segregation in public schools would persist.

We should wonder, however, how history, from the point of view of racial justice, will judge today’s school “reform.”  What will be the long term effects of the massive school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia?  What about the conversion of New Orleans to an all charter school district?  Once America’s big-city school districts are torn apart, how shall we reconstruct the political will for publicly funded mass education in our poorest communities?  Will we ever choose to rebuild institutions as systemic and comprehensive as the public school districts we have destroyed?

And what about today’s federal and state policies that push accountability by test-and-punish, rank-and-rate?  The very highest-scoring school districts—now ranked “A” or  “excellent” from state to state—are school districts in wealthy enclaves where the children bring the effects of their trips to the library and their music lessons and their travels and their computers with them to school.  What does it mean that federal test-and-punish policy, as filtered by the state rating systems, is condemning the schools in our poorest communities and conflating privilege with supposed school quality in places where all the children are wealthy?  Like our twentieth century counterparts, however, we blame the victims—in this case the public school teachers.

Back in 2005, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy warned that the racial and economic implications would emerge as a serious moral concern in the policies prescribed by the federal  No Child Left Behind Act:  “The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as ‘in need of improvement.’ Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.”

While today’s school “reformers” may not have intentionally set out to calcify racial and economic segregation and while as always we are bent on blaming individuals, there is no question that the effect will be to encourage those with wealth to buy homes in expensive, homogenous enclaves with highly rated schools and those who cannot afford to move up or move out to scramble in what is becoming a privatized competitive educational marketplace in poor communities where charters and vouchers are expanding—a marketplace that lacks the capacity to protect the rights of the students. Public education will be increasingly rationed through the metropolitan housing market along with privatized choices in poor communities for the parents who are savvy enough to be able to scramble to secure a place for their children.  Will we permit these markets to become the structures that define the way our society educates its children.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the scenario: “Aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further….  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)