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.”

Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power….  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into… an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)