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Presidential Education Platform – Part 1

September 26, 2014 1 comment

I live in New Hampshire, the state that holds the first presidential primary in the nation. The presidential election is two years from November, but because we hold the “first-in-the-nation” status NH is already being visited by potential presidential candidates from both parties who are making an effort to differentiate themselves from each other and from the candidates running on the opposite party. After working in public education in six different states for over 35 years, serving as a consultant in several VT and NH districts for the past two years, and writing this blog for nearly three years, I have some thoughts on what an ideal education platform might look like. I also have some ideas on where the funds might come from to pay for the ideas incorporated in these “planks”, which I will include at the conclusion of each of the three posts. 

Over the next three days I will publish my ideal education platform, written as if it were being presented by the candidate. I welcome any feedback or editorial comments you might want to offer. In a recent blog post Jeff Bryant asserts that “Both anecdotal information and empirical data drawn from surveys confirm that voters don’t just value public education; they want candidates who will support classroom teachers and oppose funding cuts to public schools”. If that is true in November 2014, I have reason to believe it will be even more so in 2016. With that in mind, I share the first section of my ideal presidential platform, printed below: 

Overarching Messages

  • Return governance of public schools to state and local school boards: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have stripped state and local boards of their ability to define their curriculum and establish accountability measures. They mandated a de facto national curriculum and de facto national standardized tests. These national tests are designed so that most local schools will be defined as “failing”, paving the way for them to be taken over by for-profit charter chains. If elected I will appoint a Secretary of Education who will immediately suspend Race to the Top and all standardized tests mandated by the federal government. This will help restore governance to State and local school boards and diminish the impact of standardized tests on public schools.
  • Restore dignity to the teaching profession: By increasing the number of for-profit charter schools and supporting de-regulation, the US Department of Education has effectively expanded the number of untrained and non-certified teachers in our classrooms. If elected I will insist that States and local boards employ only highly qualified teachers by penalizing states that fail to do enforce regulations requiring certified teachers in every classroom so and offering scholarships to teachers who seek certification in areas where highly qualified teachers are scarce.
  • Eliminate all public funding to for profit and religiously affiliated K-12 schools: Public education was never intended to be profit driven. Nor was public education intended to incorporate religious training. Boards of education who oversee public schools funded by taxpayers are answerable to the public and, like all public institutions, cannot make a profit or advocate for religion. That is how it should be. For-profit schools do not answer to the public: they answer to shareholders. Religiously affiliated schools do not answer to the public: they answer to an unelected governing board who share a common religious perspective. We should not allow taxpayers dollars to line the pockets of shareholders or teach our children that one religion is superior to another. If elected I will stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to shareholders and to religious instruction of any kind.
  • Give EVERY child a chance to succeed in public schools: Our current education system punishes students born in the wrong zip code. Some of my opponents want to offer vouchers to students so they can choose better schools than those found in their neighborhood. But those same opponents want to make sure those vouchers cannot be used to attend a school in a nearby town or neighborhood where wealthy children live. We cannot sustain the American Dream of economic advancement for each succeeding generation unless we make sure the most financially challenged school districts in our nation have the same services, courses, and facilities as the most financially blessed school districts in our nation. If elected, I will advocate that we allocate federal funds in such a way that we can restore the American Dream.
  • Reinforce the notion that public education is a right and not a consumer item. My opponents want to provide parents with vouchers and a wealth of “data” so they can “choose” a public school they way they choose laundry detergent. Our President and my opponents want to provide college bound students with “data” on public and private college costs so they can choose a college the same way. Here’s what’s wrong with that idea: public education is NOT a consumer item. It is a right that every citizen should have. Over the past three decades have redirected public funds away from education and toward businesses. If elected I will recommend legislation that creates incentives for state legislatures to restore public education funding and post-secondary funding to 1980 levels.

    How Can This Be Funded?

     People ask me how we can possibly pay for these initiatives. Here’s the truth of the matter: The funds we need for education are being spent elsewhere. We must use dollars now going for wars and tax breaks for businesses to fund education for the next generation of Americans. We are paying billions of dollars a year for wars and we haven’t raised a dime to cover their costs. We are currently offering millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and then allowing them to locate offices overseas to avoid paying income taxes. If we can raise billions for wars without raising taxes and allowing businesses to increase their profits, we should be able to raise billions for school districts to provide modern facilities, modern technology, high-speed internet connections, and MOST OF ALL, well qualified and highly dedicated teachers.  

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Protests Over Anti-Protest Curriculum

September 26, 2014 Comments off

I was disheartened to read the NYTimes report about the events that took place in Jefferson County, Colorado on Tuesday where a 3-2 conservative majority on the Board is calling for a re-write of the K-12 social studies curriculum. The three conservative members of the board proposed the board create “…a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” The wording of the mission for the curriculum review committee is revealing: it assumes that a student who exhibits “patriotism” would yield to authority, not question the adverse consequences of unfettered free enterprise, and would not be exposed to educational materials describing various anti-government, labor and civil rights movements. Which begs the question of how social studies teachers will present the American revolution against England, a revolution fought by many of the founding fathers so beloved by the conservatives. And evidently the committee wants the social studies review to include AP History! Here’s hoping that ETS isn’t getting IT’S funding from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that helped underwrite the election of the three conservatives on the Jefferson County School board.

I found this report to be disheartening because I want to believe that informed voters will elect forward thinking and open minded board members who want to see students question the status quo in all subjects and witness a high functioning democratic institution taking action to improve their schools. I would hope that longstanding superintendents like Jefferson County’s Cindy Stevenson would be respected and heeded by newly elected board members. I would hope that when a superintendent resigns or retires that boards would conduct extensive searches for new superintendents and not appoint a district leader without public engagement.

The only good news I read: the first amendment has not been repealed in Colorado and democracy MAY be alive. The students decided to show the newly elected Board member that sometimes it is necessary to protest in order be heard and they seemingly organized and carried out a peaceful and relatively orderly demonstration. After getting feedback in the form of the student walkout, the board put off their discussion of the curriculum-review committee proposal, and Ken Witt, the board president,

…suggested that some of its proposed language about not promoting “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” might be cut.”

A lot of those words were more specific and more pointed than they have to be,” Mr. Witt said. He said that the school board was responsible for making decisions about curriculum and that the review committee would give a wider spectrum of parents and community members the power to examine what was taught in schools. He said that some had made censorship allegations “to incite and upset the student population.”

I would hope that the “wider spectrum” promise is kept and that they will be able to work collaboratively— or at least civilly– to develop a social studies curriculum that aligns with the one ETS uses to develop its AP tests.

College Students Lose, Colleges Win

September 26, 2014 Comments off

Distressing news today for college students as reported in Huffington Post: the USDOE has decided NOT to punish colleges for “questionable servicing practices” that resulted in students being punished for loan defaults while colleges whose loan servicing caused the defaults allowed to remain open and free of any financial penalties.

Here’s the way it works for college students who need to borrow money to attend college: They can get a federal loan or grant through their college. Over the course of their education, the school they attend might change the companies that service their loans, making it conceivable that a degreed or non-degreed student might have multiple collectors seeking paybacks for the money they borrowed. This phenomenon is called “split-servicing”. As recently as November 2011 USDOE reported that “…some 500,000 borrowers with federal student loans were being forced to make multiple monthly payments to different loan companies.” If one or more of the servicers is negligent in collecting the funds, the student is penalized.  How?

Borrowers in default on at least one of their federal student loans face high collection fees, damaged credit scores, an inability to secure home mortgages or auto loans, and garnishment of their tax refunds and Social Security payments, said Cochrane of the Institute for College Access & Success.

recent federal audit revealed that the Education Department is demanding so much money from seniors with defaulted student loans that it’s forcing tens of thousands of them into poverty. At least 105,000 Americans had a part of their Social Security benefits garnished last year to the point that their monthly benefits were below federal poverty thresholds, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Here’s the way it works for colleges: as long as less than 30% of the college’s student/borrowers do not default on a loan within the first three years they are required to make payments, the government will continue to guarantee the loans. If, however, the default rate is 30% or greater, the college could lose access to taxpayer-provided student aid, and that “…would be the equivalent of a death sentence for most colleges.” 

And here’s what’s happening: at least 20 institutions should have gotten the so-called “death penalty” but they dodged a bullet because the federal government did not include students who were current on payments for ONE loan but made no equivalent provision for the students. This decision had the effect of lowering the percentage of “default students” giving the institutions a reprieve from the “death penalty” but maintaining the penalties applied to students.

Borrowers aren’t getting any relief or similar consideration from the Education Department,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates affordable education. “If the school isn’t held accountable for the default, then the borrower shouldn’t either.”

“Borrowers have no control over who services their loans. So why not remove the defaults from the borrowers’ records as well?” Cochrane said.

Of course the real winners in this are the servicers who collect the fees and the banks who collect the money even if the students default. “WHAT???”, you ask?

Jeff Baker, a senior official at the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office, says the Education Department

…has tried to ensure that all student borrowers only deal with one company when making their loan payments. For example, it has put an emphasis on borrowers with Direct loans and FFEL loans owned by the Education Department, which it purchased under a 2008 financial crisis-era law that amounted to a $110 billion bailout of the student loan industry, according to figures cited by Baker.

I’m not a financial expert, but I BELIEVE that $110,000,000,000 did not go to colleges and did not go to students who couldn’t make loan payments… it went to banks. Oh, and where exactly did that $110,000,000,000 come from? I think my tax returns helped a little bit. Oh… and if I’m wrong and someone wants to set the record straight, please do so…