Widespread Attacks on Voting Rights and Attempts to Privatize Public Schools Together Threaten Democracy

In Friday’s NY Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie reflected on Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s first speech on the Senate floor:

“Warnock is the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and only the second elected from the South since Reconstruction. His presence on the Senate floor is historic just on its own.  It represents progress—and yet it is also evocative of the past. A Black lawmaker from the South, urging his mostly white colleagues to defend the voting rights of millions of Americans is, to my mind, an occasion to revisit one particular episode in the history of American democracy: the fight in Congress over the Civil Rights Act of 1875.”

Bouie summarizes what was in this bill, proposed by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in a Reconstruction Congress right after the Civil War: “As originally written, Sumner’s bill would, ‘Secure equal rights in railroads, steamboats, public conveyances, hotels, licensed theaters, houses of public entertainment, common schools, and institutions of learning authorized by law, church institutions, and cemetery associations incorporated by national or State authority; also on juries in courts, national and State.'” In 1871, the bill was repeatedly blocked in committee, but Senator Sumner reintroduced it in modified form in 1873: “This revised bill added a clause that stated that ‘no citizen of the United States shall, by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, be excepted or excluded from full and equal enjoyment’ of ‘common schools and public institutions of learning, the same being supported by moneys derived from general taxation or authorized by law.'”

School integration held up the bill’s passage, however, and when it finally passed in 1875, “It did so without the schools clause.” “It was the schools clause that proved especially controversial… (O)pponents saw school desegregation as collapsing a distinction between public rights that would allow the government to invade all provinces of an individual’s life.”

Senator Raphael Warnock addressed his colleagues last week not about the denial of educational rights but about the attack on voting rights during the recent election and in a rash of new attempts to block legislation which would guarantee access to the ballot box: “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era… This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Here in Ohio right now, we are in the midst of a three part discussion of Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning. Black, a professor of constitutional law, views denial of the protection of each citizen’s right to vote and the denial of the protection of each child’s right to education as tightly woven threats to our democracy: “Two hundred years ago our founding fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown to the world at the time. The first was democracy—what they called a republican form of government. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined… Our founding ideas, though flawed in their initial implementation, were compelling enough to take root and bear fruit for generations to come. The contradiction between our democratic ideas and practical reality was also strong enough to spark a Civil War and then constitutional change. The post-war Constitution prohibited racial voting restrictions, and then later gender and wealth restrictions. Another century later, the nation doubled down on those ideas through the Voting Rights Act…. The story of public education goes hand in hand with democracy and voting. That story, however, is not as well told… This book mines that history to help us better see who we are and have been—for better and for worse.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 10-11)

Black devotes two chapters to the urgent demand for public schools from freed slaves and a few years later during Reconstruction constitutional conventions when African Americans represented their constituents across the South.  He quotes a resolution passed by an African American Freedman’s convention in Arkansas in 1865: “Clothe us with the power of self-protection, by giving us our equality before the law and the right of suffrage, so we may become bona fide citizens of the state…. That we are… the foundation on which the future power and wealth of the State of Arkansas must be built… we respectfully ask the Legislature to provide for the education of our children.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 99)

Just as Senator Warnick worries that attacks on voting rights in 2021 are reminiscent of the years after the collapse of Reconstruction as Jim Crow state legislatures undermined voting rights, Derek Black worries that today’s trends in public education threaten protection of the public educational system that has been central to preparing citizens for the responsibilities of democracy.  Black explains: “The last decade aligns better with the darker periods of our history than the brighter ones.  The trend is alarming not just for public education. It is alarming for democracy itself.”(Schoolhouse Burning, p.12)

Black examines what has happened to public schools across the states during the Great Recession which began in 2008 and in the years since: “The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Jim Crow and the civil rights backlash saw attacks on public education, too. But those attacking public education did not claim public education was the problem. Rather, black people and the cost and inconvenience of extending equality to black people were the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Black summarizes the trends that concern him: “Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened. Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 226-227)

Black concludes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement.”  And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…. (W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education. (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-243)


AFT Sums Up Ten Years of Public School Underfunding and Neglect with Details from Each State

The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states.  It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.

The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures.  The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”

Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed.  Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage.  Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.”  The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.  And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”

Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough.  California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report.  But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended.  Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”

One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’  Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”

Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment.  To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts.  For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”

The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state.  It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.

What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities?  The report paints a worrisome financial picture.  What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.

Tax Slashing Predictably Reduces Government’s Capacity to Do Its Job

Commenting for the NY Times yesterday on the tax reform bill being rushed through Congress, Peter Goodman and Patricia Cohen explain: “The tax plan has been marketed by President Trump and Republican leaders as a straightforward if enormous rebate for the masses, a $1.5 trillion package of cuts to spur hiring and economic growth. But as the bill has been rushed through Congress with scant debate, its far broader ramifications have come into focus, revealing a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care.”

This warning about the persistent effort to reduce government should frighten those of us who worry about government’s capacity to educate the 50 million children and adolescents who fill public schools across our states. Perhaps you are taking comfort in the fact that fiscal responsibility for schools is shared by local, state, and federal governments, but it isn’t really that simple. What happens at the top—the federal level—or at the middle level, in your state—or in your local school district’s passage or failure of your most recent school levy is tightly woven together with the funding at other levels. On Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released A Punishing Decade for School Funding, the latest in its annual bird’s eye surveys of what is being spent across the United States on K-12 public education.  This latest report comes a decade after the Great Recession caused tax collections to collapse across many states. The report examines whether and to what degree states and their public schools have been able to recover.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) emphasizes the essential concept of interconnectedness. Public education is primarily a state function; schools are established by the 50 state constitutions, not the federal constitution. Forty-seven percent of money for public schools is provided through taxation by state governments; 45 percent of school funding comes from local school taxes; and only 8 percent is currently provided by the federal government. The number of students enrolled has grown in the decade when the Great Recession hit in 2008: “(W)hile the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers has fallen by 135,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,419,000.”

So… what has happened to cause the number of teachers to fall even as the number of students has risen?  “When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times. Raising rates was particularly difficult during a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.  As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, exacerbating the even steeper fall in state funding.”

State funding has not caught up (when adjusted for inflation): “In 29 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2015 school year (the most recent year for which data is available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 17 states, the cut was 10 percent or more.  In 19 states, local funding per student fell over the same period. In the other 29 states for which we have data local funding rose, but those increases usually did not make up for cuts in state support. In 29 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2015 school years.”

And even before we learn what will happen with the current tax-reform bill being considered by Congress this week, we learn from CPBB that, “Federal policy makers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. The part of the federal budget that includes most forms of funding for states and localities… known as non-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy. Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Authors of CBPP’s new report cite peer-reviewed research by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico, scholars at Northwestern University and the University of California at Berkeley, who tracked the long-term impact on children of their school district’s funding level: “As common sense suggests—and academic research confirms—money matters for educational outcomes. For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.” Here are the learning essentials the CBPP report attributes to adequate school funding: recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers; trimming class size; and expanding learning time. Nothing fancy here: These are basic but very expensive fundamentals.

Why has spending on K-12 public education in many places never caught up to where it was in 2007?  The CBPP reports: “States disproportionately relied on spending cuts to close their large budget shortfalls after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases… State revenues have been hurt this year and last by a variety of factors, including falling oil prices, delayed sales of capital, and sluggish sales tax growth.”

Finally and not surprisingly, “Some states cut taxes deeply. Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but some enacted large tax cuts, further reducing revenues. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have also cut income tax rates in recent years.”

Austerity government and tax slashing—the reality in too many states in recent years—ought to serve as a warning to us all as Congress considers big reductions in federal taxes. There will inevitably be serious consequences for people who depend on government for things like healthcare and education.

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.”

Two Election Results That Hinged on Support for Public Education and School Teachers

There wasn’t much for progressive supporters of public schooling to be pleased about in the results of Tuesday’s election.  In two races, however, public education became the pivotal issue, and in both, the candidate who won had shaped the campaign around support for public education and public school teachers.

Tom Corbett will be remembered as the governor committed to starving the poorest of Pennsylvania’s school districts—most notably the state’s largest school district in Philadelphia but also places like Allentown and Reading.  This blog has extensively covered the tragedy in Philadelphia, where Corbett’s appointed School Reform Commission recently tried to cancel the teachers’ contract (The case is currently under appeal.) after the legislature allowed the district to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax instead of raising the state’s contribution back to where it was before the recession in 2008 or equalizing school funding.

Here is the analysis of  Thomas Fitzgerald and Angela Couloumbis, writers for the Philadelphia Inquirer:  “In January 2011, with the effects of the recession lingering, the new Pennsylvania governor needed to find billions of dollars in his first budget.  He had promised not to raise taxes, though. So he cut.  State funding for public education took a $1 billion whack, amid the expiration of federal stimulus money. That may have sealed Gov. Corbett’s fate, according to political analysts sifting the wreckage of the Republican’s historic loss. ‘Signing the Grover Norquist pledge ruined Corbett, just killed him,’ said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman, referring to the Washington antitax activist who is influential in the GOP.  Corbett could have levied a severance tax on natural gas, or moved money from other programs to soften the blow. He did not, while he reduced business taxes an estimated $400 million and placed more than $600 million in reserve.”

In a race where the Philadelphia school funding crisis, the state’s cuts to public education overall, and Corbett’s attempt to blame Philadelphia’s teachers and save money by cancelling their contract were extensively covered by the press, Corbett secured only 45 percent of the vote on Tuesday, compared to Democrat Tom Wolf’s 55 percent.

Then there was the race none of us would have expected to learn anything about—the battle between incumbent and former high school biology teacher Tom Torlakson and darling of the plutocrats, Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction in California.  Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post reported on Monday that recent spending in what is a traditionally quiet contest had brought the expenditure total in 2014 up to $30 million, three times more than was spent in the race for governor of California. After Torlakson’s victory,  Layton analyzed the result: “In a white-hot battle in California that is considered a proxy fight for deep national divisions in the Democratic Party over education, Tom Torlakson was narrowly reelected as the state’s schools superintendent, beating back Marshall Tuck by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.  The $30 million downballot contest generated three times as much spending as the race for governor, with money pouring in from around the country.  Torlakson was heavily supported by teachers unions while Tuck had the backing of billionaire philanthropists such as former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.”  This blog covered spending in the race for California state superintendent here.

The Vergara lawsuit against job protections for school teachers became the primary issue in this race.  A judge found for the plaintiffs and against due process for teachers early in the summer, and Torlakson, as state superintendent, filed one of the appeals in the case.  Tuck said he would cancel the appeal, if elected.  Analyzing Torlakson’s victory for the Sacramento Bee, Alexei Kosell writes: “Much of the debate centered on Vergara v. California, a lawsuit alleging that the state’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws protect bad teachers and disproportionately deprive low-income and minority students of a quality education.  Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June.  He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the ‘status quo’ and get behind the decision.  His position made Tuck an enemy of the California Teachers Association, which also opposes other policy changes Tuck advocated, such as using student test scores in teacher evaluations.”

The fact that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has launched a new organization, Partners for Educational Justice, to attack due process rights for teachers and to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states adds to the national implications of the recent Tuck-Torlakson race in California.  The Washington Post‘s Layton explains the nationwide implications of the race: “Their differences symbolized the national tensions within the Democratic Party over the best way to educate kids.  Torlakson pushed for more investment in public schools, does not believe teachers should be judged by student test scores, and said charter schools need more oversight.  Tuck wants to expand public charter schools, argued for more accountability for teachers and said California’s teacher tenure laws are an obstacle to improving schools.”

In California, after absorbing the contents of 30 million dollars’ worth of brochures and TV ads and after listening to both candidates over many months, the voters chose Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and the supporter of public education and public school teachers.

The Koch Brothers Are Part of What’s the Matter with Kansas

Since when does school funding legislation have to come with a quid pro quo legislative tidbit for the Koch Brothers?

Here is some background for what happened in Kansas last weekend.  The legislature had been warned by the state’s supreme court that the state’s school funding had slipped far from parity.  The Court gave the legislature until July 1 to allocate more state money to the poorest school districts in Kansas.  After all, one of the primary functions of a state school finance formula is to produce at least some movement toward equity—to ensure that funding in property-poor school districts doesn’t fall so far that poor children are denied basic services.

The formulas are rarely generous, which is why Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond pointed out that in 2010, the ratio of spending between property rich and property poor school districts was over 3:1.  Darling-Hammond wondered, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Today in Kansas, they are still arguing and fighting, and it’s not just in Kansas.  In the four years since Darling-Hammond published her book, the rhetoric across our states has retreated from the idea of equity.  Today we talk about school choice (privatization) and we punish teachers, which is what the Kansas legislature just did as a condition for raising the state’s distribution of funding to poor school districts to the bare minimum.

At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas.  The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding, for the plaintiffs and against the state, on Friday, March 7.

Last weekend the legislature responded to the court.  Brad Cooper reports for the Kansas City Star that late on Sunday night, “The House and Senate passed a bill that spends $126 million to bridge wealth-based disparities in the school funding formula,” and, according to Cooper, “strips teachers of due process rights and promotes school choice.”

Basically the bill eliminates the tenure protections public school teachers in Kansas earn at the end of three years.  In Kansas, what it will mean for teachers to lose job protections is described by John Hanna for the Associated Press:  “Starting in July, teachers who’ve been in classrooms three years or longer but face dismissal would lose the right to have their cases heard and decided by independent hearing officers….”

The new school funding law also promotes privatization by setting up tuition tax-credits.  According to Cooper in the Kansas City Star, “The reforms would foster school choice by allowing corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds so children with special needs or who come from low-income households could attend private school.”  Tuition tax-credits are really just another form of private school vouchers.

There is widespread agreement that the anti-teachers union provision and the tax credits were added to the bill by legislators supported by the Koch Brothers through Americans for Prosperity.  Cooper writes, “Urged on by conservative special interests such as Americans for Prosperity, Republican leaders pressed hard to eliminate due process rights for teachers.”

Jeff Glendening, the director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity was quoted—framing the legislation as part of a fight between those who stand for children and those who stand for “adult” interests—by the NY Times : “We appreciate the willingness of the Legislature to place the interests of Kansas children over the welfare of the teachers’ union.”  This kind of rhetoric is widely promoted by far-right groups such as StudentsFirst and Stand for Children. These groups try to imply that teachers, who have committed their lives to nurture children, are somehow a class of people working purely out of self interest.  The rhetoric also fails to acknowledge that public school due process merely grants teachers the right to a hearing. Under the law passed over the weekend, in Kansas teachers can now be fired at will.

Scapegoating school teachers and promoting vouchers are at the core of the far-right attack on public education.  In states like Kansas where austerity budgeting has become the norm, attacks on teachers unions have become a regular part of a national movement to reduce government expenditures and have education on the cheap.  If teachers can be fired at will, it is possible to eliminate the more expensive, experienced teachers, cut costs, and reduce taxes. Tuition tax-credits promote privatization.

Why Is NY Times Worrying about School Funding in Kansas?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thirteen states have cut per-student education funding by more than 10 percent since the recession began five years ago.  The top four school finance slashers are Oklahoma, which has cut funding for K-12 public education by 22.7 percent, Alabama by 20.1 percent, Arizona by 17.2 percent, and Kansas by 16.5 percent.

In a 2006 decision, Montoy v. State, the supreme court of Kansas “ordered cost-based, sufficient, and equitable funding,” “based upon actual costs to educate children,” according to the Education Law Center (here, here, and here).  However, the legislature failed to fund the remedy fully, and as the economy of Kansas began to recover from the 2008 recession, Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature passed a five-year $3.7 billion tax cut instead of increasing the amount of money for public education.

In response, in 2010 plaintiffs pushed back, filing Gannon v. State, and leading to a unanimous trial court decision early in January 2013 in support of more funding for K-12 public schools.  The trial court demanded  that the state immediately increase investment in  education by at least $440 million.  The state, of course, appealed , and last week the supreme court in Kansas heard oral arguments.

Because Kansas is so very far in every way from New York, I was stunned to see the New York Times take the unusual step of editorializing in this case: “The court should quickly put priorities in order by affirming a lower-court ruling last January that found the state ‘completely illogical’ in using the new revenues to provide tax cuts while arguing it had inadequate resources for educating schoolchildren.”

Because all the states have different education funding formulas and because it all gets to seeming like an arcane bunch of numbers, I think it is easy to gloss over the school finance inadequacy and inequity in other states where the cuts don’t affect my own children or  neighbors or community.  Problems for those other places can seem pretty far away.  But when there is school finance trouble in my own state, the issues feel more personal than almost anything else. The school funding formula determines whether we have a school nurse, a school librarian, a middle school orchestra, a class in Calculus, Advanced Placement chemistry.  Will the kindergarten class have 21 or 32 children?  Will high school English teachers teach four classes of 25 or five classes of 35, a difference that will likely determine whether the teacher can assign and read enough essays to teach adolescents how to write.  Will I as a parent have to spend months trying to pass a local school levy merely to replace programs eliminated when the state legislature cut the funding?

It should be a cause for concern everywhere in America that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year (2013-2014) with less state funding than they had last year.” I am delighted to see the New York Times speaking to disturbing threats across the nation to K-12 public education, threats that derive not only from the lingering impact of the 2008 recession, but also from tax cuts by Tea Party-dominated legislatures and governors and the implications of the federal sequester for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

City of Philadelphia Borrows $50 Million to Enable School District to Open School Year

Tonight the New York Times reports that the City of Philadelphia will borrow $50 million through general obligation bonds to help the school district open the school year on time. The city will risk its own credit rating, “taking on medium-term debt to pay for day-to-day operations — a practice that is widely seen by municipal analysts as a sign of desperation.”

Helen Gym, parent of three children in the public schools said, “The concept is just jaw-dropping.  Nobody is talking about what it takes to get a child educated.  It’s just about what the lowest number is  needed to get the bare minimum.  That’s what we’re talking about here: the deliberate starvation of one of the nation’s biggest school districts.”

The financial crisis of the school district follows not only several years when the district has been under state control, but also serious cuts in state funding to the district just this year.

Commented Ms. Gym: “I just don’t know where this ends.  There is no bottom to this situation.”

Philadelphia Teacher Explains Concessions Teachers Have Already Had To Make

Earlier this week I tried to tease out the issues in what has become such an urgent financial crisis that may delay the opening of the school year for students in the School District of Philadelphia. The Superintendent of Schools, William Hite has said he will refuse to open school without enough adults adequately to supervise children and ensure their safety.  Hite set a deadline: unless an additional $50 million can be guaranteed from the state and city by tomorrow, August 16, the opening of school must be delayed.

The School Reform Commission, an agency of the state of Pennsylvania that retains ultimate control of the district, closed 23 schools last March and forced Superintendent Hite to lay off thousands of teachers and other school personnel.  These actions were intended to close a $304 million projected deficit that has been growing for years as the state has failed to design a funding system that adequately addresses equity.

I’ll reprint this pithy summary by Rutgers school finance expert Bruce Baker of some of the causes of the Philadelphia school finance crisis :

“1) Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country, and Philly bears the brunt of that system.

2) Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia.

3) And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding also to Philly’s disadvantage.”

What is clear as Superintendent Hite’s Friday deadline draws near is that Governor Tom Corbett is using the crisis as leverage to demand concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Is it really up to Philadelphia’s school teachers to make further concessions to alleviate a crisis created by the state’s legislature and Governor Corbett?  This morning, thanks to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, we have the point of view of a Philadelphia teacher.  Daniel Ueda is a physics teacher and volunteer coach of the winning robotics team at Central High School. He recently published this letter on the website of the robotics team.  Ueda’s letter explains the facts of his life as a teacher today.

What he is being asked to give up in the school district’s financial climate is the heart of the professional contribution he can make to his students.  He is being asked to switch from teaching physics to teaching math and to sacrifice all preparation periods all while taking on “at least three different kinds of classes, all in violation of the current contract and all due to layoffs and budget constraints.”  He describes his work with the prize-winning robotics team, and notes that he was neither paid for robotics coaching last year nor will he be in the coming school year.

Ueda’s plea is emotional, but it also paints a picture of what teachers are being asked to sacrifice in this crisis: the time, energy, and peace of mind that make it possible for them to help students surmount the barriers presented by concentrated poverty in an urban school system.  As he notes, 90 percent of the students in his robotics team last year went on to college undergraduate engineering programs.

Is There Any Way to Understand the Funding Crisis in the School District of Philadelphia?

Yesterday, Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite wrote to the entire staff of the School District of Philadelphia to announce that the district’s financial crisis would delay the opening of school, due to take place in just four weeks, unless additional funds of $50 million can be found by Friday, August 16th.

After what was called a “doomsday budget” was passed last spring by the state appointed overseer of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission, Trip Gabriel, a New York Times reporter visiting Philadelphia’s Andrew Jackson School wrote: “Under a draconian budget passed by the Philadelphia School District last month, none of these supporting players–aide, counselor, secretary, security monitor–will remain at the school by September, nor will there be money for books, paper, a nurse, or the school’s locally celebrated rock band.”  Gabriel continued: “Principals are contemplating opening in September with larger classes but no one to answer phones, keep order on the playground, coach sports, check out library books or send transcripts for seniors applying to college.”

According to Hite’s August 8 letter to staff, the situation is little changed despite requests to the state, the city (which is involved in school allocations under Pennsylvania law), and the teachers union for help.  Here is what Hite wrote yesterday in a plea for $50 million:  “$50 million allows us to tell parents that when their child is walking through the hallways, eating lunch or at recess, an adult will be supervising them.  It allows us to tell parents that counselors will be available to serve children in our largest and neediest schools, and that an assistant principal will be on hand to resolve any disciplinary issues that keep children from learning.  It will allow the principal to leave the office to support staff and address issues in other parts of the school.  No principal can run a 3,000-student high school—much less a 400-student elementary school—on their own.”

The state-appointed School Reform Commission, the governor, and the mayor of Philadelphia have been asking for concessions from the teachers union, and it is likely that Hite’s letter yesterday is a ploy to gain concessions.  However, this is not merely a matter of political jockeying. Here are some realities.  According to a June 20 analysis by Daniel Denvir, a Philadelphia City Paper reporter who has extensively researched and reported on the long and ugly politics of Philadelphia school reform, “The School District is demanding $133 million in labor concessions to plug its $304 million budget gap. That is more than twice as much as it requested from the city and $13 million more than what it’s seeking from the state—which cut nearly $1 billion from school funding statewide (that’s you, Gov. Tim Corbett) despite its constitutional obligation to fund public education, and, critically, its direct control of city schools for the past decade.”

Bruce Baker, the school finance professor and expert at Rutgers University also spoke to the fiscal crisis in the School District of Philadelphia on June 20.  Here is his assessment:  “1) Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country, and Philly bears the brunt of that system.  2) Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia.  3) And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding also to Philly’s disadvantage.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a constitutional responsibility to provide public education to children and adolescents in Philadelphia.