Will President Joseph Biden Lead Us Toward Equity and Opportunity in the Public Schools?

Betsy DeVos, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education, has been complaining about the public schools again. The public schools are, of course, the schools she is supposed to be supporting through the operation of her federal department. But as a lifelong promoter of vouchers for private and religious schools, DeVos clings to the idea that “Government really sucks.” Last week Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa described DeVos’s attempt during this lame duck transition period to condemn states and school districts for failing fully to spend federal CARES Act relief dollars allocated last March for states to help their public schools cover the expenses of serving children during the pandemic.

Happy Thanksgiving! This blog will take a short break. Look for a new post on Monday, November 30.

Ujifusa quotes DeVos condemning school districts for failing to reopen fully in-person: “States that neglected their obligations to provide full-time education, while complaining about a lack of resources, have left significant sums of money sitting in the bank… There may be valid reasons for states to be deliberate in how they spend CARES Act resources, but these data make clear there is little to support their claims of being cash-poor.”

Last week DeVos set up a new data tool through which CARES Act spending can be traced. Ujifusa quotes some of the data DeVos’s department released as part of an obvious attempt to sow distrust of state departments of education and public school districts: “From the enactment of CARES to Sept. 30, the department said, $1.6 billion of the $13.6 billion provided for K-12 schools—or 12 percent—has been spent. And of the $3 billion in a governor’s education fund that can be spent on K-12 and higher education, $535 million—or 18 percent–had been spent.”

While DeVos seems dedicated to seizing every opportunity to condemn the operation of public schools, Ujifusa reports that DeVos isn’t being fair. Ujifusa quotes a response from Carisssa Moffat Miller, who leads the Council of Chief State School Officers: “The Education Department’s figures do not tell the full story of how CARES Act funds are being used… Many states and school districts have obligated funds beyond the levels described in the Department’s figures—that is, they have placed orders or entered into service contracts that must be paid in the future.”  Ujifusa adds: “She noted that states and districts have until September 2022 to enter into obligations to spend CARES money, and added that CCSSO estimates schools will need between $158 billion and $245 billion in new federal aid to cover various costs related to the pandemic.”

Derek Black, author of the wonderful new book, School House Burning, worries that America’s belief in public schooling has wilted and not only because of DeVos’s incessant attacks on the public schools over the past four years. For the previous two decades, under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, school reform rhetoric grounded in business school competition and efficiency, test-and-punish accountability, and the active promotion of school privatization undermined our collective capacity to consider the public role of public education.

Black, like other advocates for the nation’s public schools, understands the current era as a pivotal moment in federal education policy: “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… This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education (funding) cuts initially looked like a response to the (2008) 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 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.” (School House Burning, pp. 225-227)

Black explains how conversations about education policy have been hijacked: “(Y)ou will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess.” By contrast, continues Black, “Education decision-making—and thus policy—has always been part of a much larger historical and constitutional framework. That framework has long defined who we are as a nation, what type of democracy we want, and how far we have to go.  That history and constitutional framework represent the hopes and dreams of a nation where all men and women might be equal citizens and participants in this thing we call democracy… Education has always been at the center of those ideas and commitments.”(School House Burning, pp. 49-50)

Black continues: “(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… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.  One of the nation’s foremost school funding scholars, Bruce Baker, led a national study of what it would cost for students to achieve ‘average’ outcomes… They (Baker and his colleagues) found that when it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need… but only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.”(School House Burning, pp. 238-241)

Black’s book—published in September—provides helpful background for a presidential transition that has a chance to change the course of education policy. Candidate Joe Biden presented a very different kind of education agenda, one that seems once again to embody America’s traditional understanding of public schooling as a force for equal opportunity: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the IDEA, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

We need to press our new President to fulfill his promise to lead us away from an obsession with standardized testing and school privatization. His first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

This blog has recently covered President Elect Biden’s education plan here, here, and here.