Build Back Better Would Reduce Economic Injustice Among America’s Children

Today, with the Build Back Better Bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, it’s a good time to reflect on the Victorian British attitude that prefigured Americans’ faith in personal responsibility. Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

This blog quoted from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in December of 2017 in a post criticizing an important economic policy: Congressional passage of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. In our culture, even though we profess a commitment to progressive taxation, we like to use tax cuts to reward the enterprising—celebrities, tech wizards, and enormous corporations.

Assuming that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we publicly neglect those who fall behind. The problem has been bipartisan. The 1996 welfare reform law Bill Clinton pushed through Congress was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Its name presumed that the poor are irresponsible and lazy. Welfare’s replacement—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—left our society with alarming poverty and inequality. The law was inequitably administered by state governments.  It also turned out to live up to its name: Temporary Assistance. Many states phased out assistance and cut out the employment training programs that had not been designed well enough to prepare workers for available jobs. And the minimum wage stayed so low that people who did find jobs were paid so little they could not rise above the federal poverty level.  Nobody did anything about the children whose families struggled to survive.

Right now, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Build Back Better Bill which represents a radically different philosophy: President Biden’s commitment to helping children whose families live in poverty instead of punishing their parents.  The U.S. Senate is negotiating its version, which many hope to see passed by the end of 2021.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why a single reform in the Child Tax Credit—making it fully refundable for families with very low income—is for America’s children the most important element in Build Back Better: “Making the full Child Tax Credit available for families with low or no earnings in a year, often called making it ‘fully refundable,’ is expected to generate historic reductions in child poverty compared to what it would have been otherwise. Before the Rescue Plan made the full Child Tax credit fully available in 2021, 27 million children in families with low or no income in a year received less than the full credit or no credit at all.” In the American Rescue relief bill last spring, Congress made three significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  The House version of the Build Back Better Bill extends the first two provisions only through 2022, but the House version permanently makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent.  In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.”  “Until last spring’s COVID relief bill, many children had been excluded because “their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most.  The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

In a new report last Friday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns about what we can expect if the U.S. Senate fails to pass the Build Back Better Bill by the end of December, 2021 and allows to expire the reforms instituted temporarily for this year alone in last spring’s American Rescue Plan: “If Build Back Better isn’t enacted, the Child Tax Credit would revert to providing the least help to the children who need it most — and some 27 million children would once again get a partial credit or none at all because their families’ incomes are too low.”

The First Focus for Children Campaign outlines other urgently needed reforms included in the House version of the Build Back Better Bill: “The Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP, which covers roughly 10 million children would be made permanent, sparing it from serial expiration every few years.”  The bill would also require states to make children’s eligibility continuous over all 12 months for CHIP and Medicaid; would guarantee 12 months (instead of 60-days) of postpartum coverage for mothers on Medicaid; and would provide 4-weeks of paid leave for new parents and expand family leave. Build Back Better would significantly expand access to quality child care and phase in universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. For young adults aging out of foster care, the law would lower the age of eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit from 25 to 18. The bill would also address hunger among children by making meals available during the summer months when school is not in session.

None of these programs directly invests in public education, but together they will improve educational opportunity. Why?  We know that a family’s economic circumstances affect children’s opportunity at school. Recently this blog covered a new report that 101,000 students in the New York City Public Schools—10 percent of the district’s students—were homeless in the past year.  Decades of research show that such challenges directly affect students’ experiences at school.

The Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former president of the American Educational Research Association, David Berliner explains: “It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

in 2013, the Stanford University educational sociologist, Sean Reardon released a massive data report confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and rapidly growing residential patterns of economic segregation in metropolitan areas. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated 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.

For the sake of our children and to ensure they can thrive at home and at school, the United States needs to do better. During the Victorian era, Charles Dickens castigated a society that forgot about the well-being of children and sought to punish their parents for laziness. Today, we ought to notice that, like the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, in Oliver Twist, too many members of Congress have for decades conditioned any sort of public assistance as a punishment for parents’ lack of “personal responsibility.” For too long, Congress has been willing to forget our public obligation to the children who are always the victims of poverty.  President Biden’s approach in Build Back Better instead addresses the vulnerability and distress of too many American children—as a matter of economic justice.

As Privatizers Hone the Rhetoric for School Choice, Public School Supporters Need a Better Message

With Betsy DeVos promoting her one idea—that parents ought to have a right to choose a school—and all the money and politics swirling around the issue today, maybe you’ve forgotten how distorted the conversation about public education has really become. Who and what is really behind the push for school choice? And what are we being asked to forget about the role of public education in America?

First there is all the money being ideologically invested in creating the message that privatized education is better. Here, for example, is Kimberly Hefling’s report for POLITICO on the Koch brothers’ huge anti-public school campaign in the Hispanic community: “One of the newest campaigns is the Libre Inititive, a grassroots drive targeting Hispanic families in 11 states so far, under the umbrella of the Charles and David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity…. While the Koch network has long been involved in school choice battles, the push by Libre represents a new front in the fight by targeting Hispanic families—and a recognition that with Congress gridlocked, it’s on the ground at the state level where the network can disrupt the educational status quo. The Koch message on schools is shared by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime ally… Like DeVos, Koch organizers insist the push isn’t about dissolving public education, but about making more options available to Hispanic and other families. And like DeVos and her husband, Charles Koch has been a longtime supporter of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated for state laws that encourage private school choice expansion.”

Beyond all the money behind privatization, there has been a bipartisan papering over the real purpose of the dogged ideologues. But early in October, the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli exposed the real libertarian foundational principles  underneath school privatization. Ironically he admits that the social justice framing which promoted charter schools as a way to close achievement gaps was just rhetoric—merely a way to co-opt Democrats into supporting privatization: “While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made… (T)he charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall… Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities… But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans… So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump?… A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats… But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days… Most are non-union… It’s hugely important.”

Support for public education has been catastrophically hurt not only by the kind of money being invested by the Americans for Prosperity and by the libertarian rhetoric Petrilli endorses but also by the narrowing of the conversation about public schools to the sole focus on test scores.  Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade (see here) documents our society’s catastrophic adoption of high stakes test-and-punish—a regime that has been in place for nearly two decades—as the sole yardstick to measure the quality of public schools.

Jack Schneider, professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, urges supporters of public schools to insist on a different way of judging schools and a new language for assessment: “The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school.  As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores—about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain.  Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.  Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do.  Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking.  School quality is multidimensional… Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.  One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality.”

There is considerable irony in the fact that, while today the very wealthy far-right dominates the political rhetoric promoting the privatization of schooling, 50 million children across the United States attend traditional public schools. As privatization encroaches, the damage is much deeper than most of us realize.  Jennifer Berkshire just posted a podcast and transcript of her interview with Sally Nuamah, a Chicago political scientist who has been studying the impact on that city’s neighborhoods when the school district closed 50 public schools in 2013, after the rapid growth of charter schools in Chicago had lured many families away from neighborhood schools.  Public schools are core community institutions, and for decades it has been known that school closures have broad and traumatic consequences for neighborhoods.  Nuamah documents similar consequences in Chicago since the mass public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “(Y)ou see these communities are further losing population.  There’s less will, or less faith, in the traditional public school system across this poplulation, because they are afraid they’re going to be betrayed again, they’re going to have to move schools again, and that’s a very volatile situation.”

Nuamah continues: “Then there is the economic piece, and the fact that the number of African American teachers in Chicago has declined by 40%… It was very clear, just from talking to people, that they feared the larger consequences of what the closure of the school means, what it symbolizes, and the direct resources it takes from a community. People would constantly refer to the fact that if this community’s institutions close down, it would affect their ability to have healthcare, it would affect their ability to have employment. It would affect their ability to live in a neighborhood that is safe, because right now, the closed-down structure is acting as an eyesore.”

Nuamah describes the deeper impact on the self esteem among the adults in the neighborhood of the closed school: “I would hear people specifically say that people would think that they failed….  because the institutions that their kids attended were being closed down and they couldn’t protect it.  So (school closings) have to do not just with social and economic issues but also in terms of what people are modeling, what they’re teaching to their younger people.  What they’re able to protect for the next generation to come. They were… (losing) assets that were passed down to them from prior generations, especially because schools have always been at the center of civil rights and the fight for equality… It has more to do with the larger historical, social, and community-based roles that schools have played. In African American communities in particular, public schools had (a) long history of being the first public institutions in which African Americans got access… But not just that: schools historically have been a main social mechanism for the black middle class.  A lot of people end up in the black middle class… through jobs in the education sector.”

Billionaire Betsy DeVos and her friends in the far-right, libertarian sector are actively promoting the privatization of America’s public schools. The Republican and Democratic technocratic politicians have brought us twenty years’ of test-and-punish to discredit public education. It is up to us—parents and teachers who are the core stakeholders in the public schools and citizens who care about public education—to create a more nuanced narrative about the role of our nation’s 90 thousand public schools as an essential public institution.

Ohio’s 2015 School District Report Cards Encourage Economic Segregation

What does it mean when somebody gives you a bad grade for who you are?  That is exactly what the new school district report cards in Ohio do.  School achievement tends to correlate with aggregate family income, and metropolitan areas across the nation are quickly resegregating by income.  Research shows there are fewer and fewer mixed income communities and more very poor and very rich ones.  Ohio gives the schools in very rich communities “A” grades; and Ohio gives schools in very poor and in mixed income communities “Ds”and “Fs.”

In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160) Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)

The Ohio Department of Education released school district report cards and school district summative letter grades—“A-F”—last Thursday based on standardized test scores from 2015. The Plain Dealer reports that among the 20 “A” graded school districts, 8 are white, affluent suburbs of Cleveland; 4 are white, affluent suburbs of Cincinnati; 2 are white, affluent suburbs of Akron; one is a white, affluent suburb of Toledo; and one is a white, affluent suburb of Dayton. Another of these A-rated school districts is Granville, a small town that houses Denison University and that boasted a median family income of $102,885 according to the census in 2000. At that time, according to the census, there were in Granville no children under the age of 18 living below the federal poverty line.

It is not a positive thing that poverty, and institutional and structural racism, and growing residential segregation by income overlaid on segregation by race pose serious challenges for children. But poverty is not a disability. Examples abound of low-income children who excel at school. Aggregate test scores, however, show what sociological research has been documenting for a long time: In the aggregate, school districts that serve concentrations of children in poverty are likely to post lower overall test scores.

The logical question to ask is how better to help such school districts support their students and the teachers who serve them. Since 2001, however, the United States has instead adopted a policy that seeks to motivate staff in those districts to try harder by shaming and punishing them.  Federal policy even provided recommended sanctions—close the school, reconstitute the school, restart the school by turning it into a charter school, rate and rank teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. In the same punitive style, Ohio and other states that have copied the Jeb Bush plan from Florida, now award letter grades on school district report cards based on aggregate test scores. There is wide agreement that these sanctions have not improved student achievement.

Last April, Stanford News summarized new, preliminary research by sociologist Sean Reardon—newer data than what caught Robert Putnam’s attention last year when he published Our Kids.  In the new research, Reardon evaluated a massive new data set —of 200 million test scores—“reading and math test results of some 40 million 3rd to 8th grade students during 2009-13 in every public school district in the country…”

Here are some of the findings, which Reardon explains, document the widespread persistence of both economic and racial achievement gaps: “The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district.”  “The most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart.  Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels.  Achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers, where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment.  The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.”

Stanford News emphasizes that Reardon’s new research remains preliminary: “The researchers stress that their findings do not prove cause and effect, though they do point to promising areas for further study.”

Ohio’s policy of awarding school district grades based on students’ aggregate test scores amounts to educational redlining—castigating mixed-income and poorer communities and urging  parents who can find the means to abandon districts with lower grades and find a way to move to “A” rated schools. Ohio’s school district grades clearly promote economic and racial segregation in the state’s metropolitan areas.

School districts are responsible for educating and improving the lives of the children who live in their communities.  In Ohio, the state’s confusing rating system—this year based on a new and harder test which forced scores down across the state—does a poor job of evaluating what particular schools are doing to ensure their students learn. The grades elevate some school districts and castigate others without identifying or showcasing promising educational practices.

If one views Ohio’s “A-F” school grades through the lens of  sociological research, it’s perfectly clear that the state is  encouraging the public to believe that homogeneous, wealthy communities are the best place to live and raise children. There are lots of reasons to challenge such an assumption, but we rarely question it.