RAND Study Affirms the Importance of Ameliorating Family Poverty as a School Reform Strategy

New research from the RAND Corporation confirms that Community Schools—schools with wraparound social, medical, and enrichment services right in the school building—support children’s well being and enhance their engagement and progress at school.

The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler describes RAND’s new study of New York City’s extremely ambitious expansion of full service Community Schools: “The Community Schools program…. seeks to use the school as a community gathering place where children can get counseling, eyeglasses or dental care; where after-school programs help with homework and keep kids engaged; and where parents can get involved with schools, take a class or pick up extra groceries… The program costs about $200 million a year and is funded with federal, state and city dollars… Studies have generally found modestly positive effects. But the idea has never been tried—or evaluated—on the scale found in New York, where some 135,000 students attend a Community School. Over three years, RAND studied 113 New York schools and measured their results against similar schools not in the program. The program found several statistically significant improvements and no areas where things got worse.”

The RAND report itself describes the program in NYC: “There is a growing body of research suggesting that Community School interventions are a promising strategy to improve student outcomes through coordinated services and collaborative leadership practices… The Community School strategy entails an integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services and community development with strategic partnerships among the school and local organizations and community members… To date, the largest implementation of the Community School strategy occurred in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 designated $52 million to create 45 Community Schools just after taking office. By the 2018-2019 school year, the New York City Community Schools Initiative… expanded to include more than 200 Community Schools with a total budget of $295 million… The NYC-CS builds on the existing framework of the Community Schools model, which includes the four core evidence-based features—(1) collaborative leadership and practices, (2) family and community engagement, (3) expanded learning time and opportunities, and (4) integrated student supports… The initiative has adapted those features to meet the unique needs of New York City students, families, and communities at a scale that is unprecedented in the United States thus far.”

For 20 years, “school reform” theory has posited that schools can be quickly “turned around” with rapidly rising test scores.  The idea has been that schools can quickly make up for the effects of family and concentrated neighborhood poverty. We now realize such hopes were naive and misguided.

Research to date has found that Community Schools have a positive impact, and the new study in NYC confirms previous findings: “We found that the NYC-CS (NYC-Community School) had a positive impact on students across various outcome measures with some notable exceptions… (W)e found that the NYC-CS had a positive impact on student attendance in all types of schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and across all three years that outcomes were measured… We also found positive and significant impacts on elementary and middle students’ on-time grade progression in all two years for which we have data and on high school students’ graduation rates in two of the three years.  Our analysis suggests that the NYC-CS led to a reduction in disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students but not for high school students. Finally, we found that NYC-CS had a positive impact on math achievement in the third and final year, but the impact estimates on reading achievement in all three years and on math achievement in the first two years were smaller and not statistically significant… Although all Community Schools experienced reductions in chronic absenteeism, we found that Community Schools with higher levels of implementation of mental health programs and services saw a stronger impact on this outcome, compared with community schools with lower levels of mental health implementation… The positive findings of the impact of the NYC-CS suggest that the strategy can be a promising approach to support student success in traditionally disadvantaged communities.”

Researchers add: “Finally, our analysis of program impact over time suggests that the impact of NYC-CS has increased for some outcomes over the three-year period we examined… This finding is consistent with prior research indicating that the Community Schools strategy is particularly impactful after several years of program implementation… Therefore, we encourage program developers and policymakers to think about implementation timing when considering evaluations of their programs in the future.”

Education Law Center attorney and columnist for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker suggests the new RAND study and related research point to a new and very different strategy for school reform than the kind of test-and-punish accountability that continues to prevail across the states: “A new study of New York City’s Community School program contributes solid evidence that successful education reform entails attending to a broad range of student needs—both academic and non-academic.” “So-called education ‘reformers’ have had a stranglehold on state and federal education policy for almost 20 years. They imposed a myopic focus on student performance on narrow academic outcomes—measuring school and teacher ‘effectiveness’ based on annual standardized test scores in math and English. The solutions to low scores were blaming and firing teachers, and sanctioning schools with reorganization, takeover and/or privatization. These reformers charged that educators who recognized the effect of out-of-school factors on learning were merely using poverty as an excuse. The status quo needed to be disrupted with their brand of innovation. They claimed that their test-based reforms would achieve excellence for every student no matter what their life circumstances.”

Lecker continues: “None of these reforms were based on any evidence they would work. And, after two decades, the reform house of cards is crumbling… It turns out that those folks accused of using poverty as an excuse were right all along. Reforms that do not ignore the factors in students’ lives outside school are the ones that actually work… (W)hen schools can provide resources that respond holistically to student need, they can affect outcomes that matter for students’ lives—staying in school, learning what they need to in each grade, and graduating.  Looking beyond test scores enables schools to serve all children and helps children succeed.”

Dem. Candidates Call for Equitable Public School Investment. Can the New Narrative Be Sustained?

Is our society beginning to realize that we must invest in helping instead of punishing the school districts which serve our poorest children?

Clearly the conversation about public education among the Democratic candidates for President has turned away from what has been a quarter century of bipartisan test-and-punish, pro-privatization education policy.  No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law 18 years ago, formalized the strategy.  But in a remarkable commentary on Wednesday in USA Today, Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders declared a very different agenda: “Under NCLB, standardized tests were utilized to hold public schools and teachers ‘accountable’ for student outcomes. As a result, some schools that underperformed were closed and their teachers and unions blamed.  The long-term effects of this approach have been disastrous.  NCLB perpetuated the myth of public schools and teachers as failing, which opened the door for the spread of school voucher programs and charter schools that we have today.  Some of these charter schools are operated by for-profits, many of them are nonunion and are not publicly accountable… The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing, however, is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.”

And all the leading Democratic candidates have also taken notice. In Pittsburgh on December 14, at a Public Education Forum 2020, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President all endorsed tripling or quadrupling the federal investment in Title I.  They spoke for helping instead of punishing the schools in our nation’s poorest communities.

The Devastation Wrought by Accountability-Based, Test-and-Punish, Pro-Privatization School Reform

Federal and state governments have imposed school closures, state takeovers, and the transformation of low-scoring public schools into charter schools, but I don’t know of any school district serving mostly poor children with enough money to do the things wealthy school districts are able to accomplish by investing local property tax dollars they can collect on high-end real estate.  Money enables wealthy school districts to develop high school symphony orchestras; make English classes small enough that teachers can assign in-depth writing about students’ research or reading or experience; rehire professional librarians and turn elementary schools into places where excitement about reading dominates the school culture; and accelerate and enrich math classes so that every child is on a path to take advanced math in high school.

A primary problem has been a chronic shortage of state and federal investment in public education.  After tax revenues collapsed in the 2008 recession, many states made the problem worse by continuing to cut taxes. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

In a short, profound analysis last fall, the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker summarized what teachers and administrators had reported to Education Week are their greatest challenges: “A new Education Week national survey of school districts reveals disturbing gaps between state and federal policy and the reality in American public schools… The most serious funding problem districts report is convincing elected officials to sufficiently fund public schools.  They give both state and federal officials poor marks for their ability to understand school spending, and cite state legislators as the biggest obstacle to making spending decisions that best address student needs.”

Lecker continues: “Recent research highlights the failure of federal and state leaders to grasp the reality facing public schools. The most pernicious failure is the refusal to recognize the connection between poverty, funding and educational opportunity… Rather than recognize that high-poverty schools need more tools, and thus more funding, to best serve their students, federal and state leaders mandate intervention strategies that are proven failures: school turnaround, school closures, and state takeovers of school districts… Federal and state policies repeat a toxic cycle of disinvestment, punishment, then further disinvestment.”

Are Public Attitudes Shifting?

For two years now, striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions in their schools created by collapsing revenue—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.

On December 14 when candidates were asked about their education policies—after months when moderators in televised candidates’ debates failed to ask even a single question about public education—the candidates went on record to declare that underinvestment in our public schools has become the education imperative of our times. We owe enormous thanks to the sponsors of the December 14,  Public Education Forum 2020, which brought leading Democratic candidates face to face with teachers, parents, public school students, and community advocates who pressed candidates publicly to commit to increasing federal funding to ensure opportunity for our nation’s poorest children in their public schools. The event was a collaboration of the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.

Professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, David Knight explains the significance of the Democratic candidates’ new consensus on significantly expanding Title I: “Funding increases of this scale would transform the federal role in education policy, making it easier for school districts to pay teachers higher wages while reducing class sizes. This focus on funding would mark a departure from previous administrations which instead emphasized policies intended to increase accountability and strengthen teacher evaluation.”

Derek Black, the school funding expert at the University of South Carolina School of Law, attended the December Democratic candidates’ forum in Pittsburgh. Black concurs with Knight on the importance of the shift among leading Democrats away from accountability and toward equalizing the opportunity to learn: “With few exceptions, the various Democratic plans for public education share a common theme: more funding, less privatizing… The way taxpayers do or do not fund public schools goes to the core question of the role of government in democracy.  Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of the state and local tax dollars. No other single program comes close. Many of the earliest statewide tax systems came into existence for the express purpose of funding schools. And later major expansions of state taxes, like the state income tax in New Jersey, were solutions to unequal funding across school districts. Education holds this special status because state constitutions specifically require legislatures to fund uniform and adequate systems of public schools…. Public education has suffered steep funding declines over the past decade. Even once the Recession passed and tax revenues fully rebounded, states failed to replace those funds… The longstanding research consensus shows that fairly funding public schools is key to boosting student achievement for low-income students—and the precise connection between funding and student outcomes rows stronger and more detailed with each passing year… (T)hese new Democratic proposals try to do something that the nation has never before attempted, much less achieved: fully funding the educational needs of every poor, disabled, and English language learner student in the nation.”

Two Additional Encouraging Developments

The first involves efforts by state governments to address the school funding challenge. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill to increase school funding across the state by $1.5 billion annually. And Maryland is set to consider a new plan developed over three years by a 25-member Kirwan Commission. The commission’s chair, William Kirwan declares: “Kids growing up in poverty need more resources, and so a major portion of our recommendations are aimed at putting the resources into the schools where there are lots of low-income kids and providing them support.”

A second development is at least mildly encouraging. In the federal budget President Trump signed just before Christmas, Congress did not cut funding for public education as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had proposed. The new federal budget does not, of course, move toward the transformational changes being suggested by the leading Democrats running for President, but it does at least protect Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from deep cuts.  And Congress neglected once again to enact DeVos’s annual proposal for federal tuition tax credit vouchers.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “The fiscal 2020 spending bill Trump just signed provides $72.8 billion in discretionary funding to the Education Department, a $1.3 billion increase that stands in stark contrast to the 10 percent cut Trump proposed in his blueprint from March. The spending bill he signed includes a $450 million increase for Title I spending on disadvantaged students, a $410 million increase for state special education grants, and more money for programs covering enrichment and educator training.” Increasing Title I by $450 million and funding for mandated IDEA programming by $410 million—once these dollars are spread across 50 states—is a tiny and relatively meaningless investment. But it is a statement of continuing Congressional rejection of Trump’s policies.

A change is emerging, but if we want to transform every public elementary school, middle school and high school into a model school, and, on top of enriching the academics, to transform the schools serving the poorest families into full-service wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, there is still a long way to go.  It is time to keep on keeping on.

It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.