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President Trump’s Supreme Court Pick Will Support the Tearing Down of the Wall Separating Church and State

July 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Politico education post written by Kimberly Hefling provided an analysis of the views of the potential nominees for the Supreme Court in terms of public education policy. Ms. Hefling’s synopsis of Brett Kavanaugh, the judge now nominated to fill the vacancy created when Justice Kennedy retired, reads as follows:

Kavanaugh, who has one of the more lengthy legal records of all the candidates, cheered the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s efforts to reverse what Kavanaugh deemed the Supreme Court’s attempts at “erecting a strict wall of separation between church and state” — especially when it comes to schools — in an essay Kavanaugh wrote for the American Enterprise Institute in December.

He wrote that “a majority of the Court throughout his tenure and to this day has sought to cordon off public schools from state-sponsored religious prayer. But Rehnquist had much more success in ensuring that religious schools and religious institutions could participate as equals in society and in state benefits programs, receiving funding or benefits from the state so long as the funding was pursuant to a neutral program that, among other things, included religious and nonreligious institutions alike.”

Kavanaugh noted that “without the line of Rehnquist cases … we never would have seen” last year’s ruling in Trinity LutheranChurch of Columbia vs. Comer, which said that states cannot exclude religious institutions from state programs that have a purely secular intent.

He also predicted in 2000 that school vouchers would one day be upheld by the court. That came during an appearance on CNN’s “Burden of Proof,” in which he said a Supreme Court ruling that year that said federal funds could be used to buy computers for religious schools would lay the groundwork for such a future ruling, according to a transcript of the show.

The essay referenced in the first paragraph was a paean to former Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist, who Mr. Kavanaugh viewed with admiration, particularly when it came to his interpretation of the wall separating church and state. In his essay Mr. Kavanaugh wrote:

William Rehnquist… persuasively criticized the wall metaphor as “based on bad history” and “useless as a guide to judging.” Rehnquist said that the true meaning of the Establishment Clause can be seen only in its history…

…Rehnquist was central in changing the jurisprudence and convincing the Court that the wall metaphor was wrong as a matter of law and history. And that Rehnquist legacy continues, as we see in recent cases such as Town of Greece v. Galloway, which upheld the practice of prayer for local government meetings. And without the line of Rehnquist cases beginning with Mueller v. Allen, we never would have seen last term’s seven-to-two decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. In that case, only two justices found an Establishment Clause problem in a state program that provided funds to schools, including religious schools, for playgrounds. There again, the Rehnquist legacy was at work.

Given Mr. Kavanaugh’s track record on issues involving separation of church and state and the mindset of the current Secretary of Education and Attorney General, it would not be surprising to see a case involving vouchers for religiously affiliated schools finding its way to the Supreme Court… and given the bent of many State governments when it comes to vouchers such a case will not be difficult to find.

Unlike Mr. Kavanaugh and his cohorts and the prevailing trend to erode the wall separating church and state, I do not believe the wall metaphor was based on bad history but rather common sense and the Founders antipathy for any unification of church and state. Indeed, many of the original settlers of our country were refugees from countries whose governments banned their religious liberty. In writing the constitution the last thing any of the Founders sought was a government that espoused any specific religious affiliation.

I fully expect Mr. Kavanaugh to be appointed. A former clerk for Justice Kennedy, Mr. Kavanaugh does not appear to be radical enough to warrant rejection and his views on church-and-state, while different from mine, are increasingly seen as “mainstream” for as Mr. Kavanaugh noted in his speech, Mr. Rehnquist did alter the prevailing sentiment on the wall metaphor. The only hope for reversing this trend is when a madrassa sues to seek equal protection under the law when a xenophobic state legislature denies them funding.

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A Former Trump Administration USDOE Official Makes Sense on School Violence

June 22, 2018 Comments off

I was pleasantly surprised to read an article I agreed with regarding school violence in Real Clear Education, a right-leaning publication… especially when I discovered that the article was written by a former official from the DeVos/Trump Administration! Unlike most of the politically charged information that emanates from USDOE, this op ed piece by Stanley Buchesky avoids any politicization of the slaughters that occurred in public schools over the past school year. Instead of offering costly, impractical and unrealistic solutions to the problems of school shootings, Mr. Buchesky focussed on the real issue behind gun violence: the lack of an emphasis on social-emotional instruction in public schools. He opens his op ed piece by suggesting that gun control and profiling of potential shooters are both dead ends. he gun control issue is deemed a dead-end because “...the country is so divided that no changes will realistically reduce school violence” and profiling hasn’t worked because even when the signs are clear and unequivocal that someone might be a shooter nothing can be done to prevent them. Mr. Buchesky concludes his opening section with this:

Numerous studies by the CDC, the Department of Education, and even the Secret Service havedetermined risk factors correlated with school violence. They’ve found that there is no “typical” profile for a school shooter. However, one finding stands out: Most violence in schools is committed by students or former students with mental health problems.

A common knee-jerk reaction is that we should find these people and prevent them from access to guns. But, that doesn’t address the underlying mental health problem or tendency toward violence. In fact, such an approach might prevent people from seeking help if they know they will be tracked.

If we really want to prevent violence, we need to address mental health and work toward healing and social-emotional development.

Typically this kind of “soft” issue is left for families and churches to address. But Mr. Buchesky implies it should fall within the responsibilities of schools. Writing under the heading of “Social Emotional Learning (SEL)”, Mr. Buchesky offers the following:

SEL is the best tool we have available for violence prevention. It teaches relationship-building and fosters connectedness — protective factors that counter the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). And research shows that teaching SEL alongside traditional academic skills significantly improves overall academic performance.

As common as it is to see a therapist or take anti-depressants, mental health treatment remains a stigma, especially for children. But SEL is mental health by a different name, and because it can be beneficial for all students, it removes the stigma. I call it “surreptitious mental health.”

If we can teach children to express their thoughts and feelings, ask for their needs and wants, and resolve conflicts verbally, we can dramatically reduce violence.

The Left and Right can easily coalesce around this issue. If SEL can prevent violence and improve academic performance, why isn’t every school district making it a top priority?

Unfortunately Mr. Buchesky dodges the elephant in the room on this topic: money to pay for these services…. and that may be the reason that the Left and Right are NOT coalescing around this issue…. especially when his boss and the POTUS seem enamored of solutions that harden schools instead of providing “surreptitious mental health.”  The fact that an individual who was the “Managing Partner of The Edtech Fund and was the Trump Administration’s “Beachhead” team CFO for the U.S. Department of Education from January to June, 2017” is making this kind of suggestion is heartening… but the fact that he is a former member of the USDOE makes me think it may not become the policy of the current administration.

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Full Court Press on Illegal Immigrants Has Schools, Children Living in Fear

June 19, 2018 Comments off

There is a large group of students who are very happy and relieved that school is ending… and a large number of school officials who are equally happy and relieved. According to a recent NYTimes article by Erica Green, immigrant students in many parts of the country have lived in a state of constant fear and vigilance for the past year. Why? Because in those states a referral to ICE by the SROs in the school could mean immediate arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. And in the uncertain political climate today, federal policy could put even more public schools in the crosshairs of this issue. As Ms. Green explains in her article that used the case of Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento as an example of how public schools with SROs and ICE can “team up”, an infraction by a student who is in the country illegally can result in imprisonment and potentially deportation:

The agency (ICE) still classifies schools as “sensitive locations” where enforcement actions are generally prohibited. But immigrant rights groups point out that the designation has not stopped ICE agents from picking up parents as they drop their children off at school, nor has it prevented school disciplinarians from helping to build ICE cases.

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seemed to open the door to more such referrals (in mid-May) when she initially told members of Congress that ICE enforcement decisions should be left to local officials, not established federal policy that prohibits it.

Though Ms. DeVos later corrected herself, assuring children that she “...expected schools to comply with a 1982 Supreme Court decision that held that schools cannot deny undocumented students an education“, her assurance rang hollow because her actions betrayed her words. Ms. Green writes:

But as she offered that reassurance, Ms. DeVos moved toward rescinding an Obama-era policy document on student discipline that could make undocumented students vulnerable. That 2014 policy encouraged schools to revise discipline policies that disproportionately kicked students of color out of school.

Data shows that students of color are disproportionately arrested at school, and advocates and educators contend that schools will increasingly rely on law enforcement to manage disciplinary issues if the guidance is rescinded.

And in some states where SROs are present and the laws mandate that arrested immigrant students get referred to ICE, a small infraction could conceivably lead to deportation.

School officials do not want to be tied to ICE because if they do so the immigrant students entering our country seeking political asylum or a better life will not attend… and if they are not in school their opportunities will be more limited setting up a vicious circle where a virtuous one might be in place.

From my perspective, legislators have this summer to figure out how they are going to deal with the immigration issue going forward. If the status quo is maintained, it appears that the current administration and the majority of GOP legislators will use the crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, many of whom are children, as political leverage to show their base that they mean business when it comes to sealing the borders. If that is the case, teachers, counselors, and administrators will be in a quandary when schools open in September.

Betsy DeVos’s Message to Bilked College Students: Caveat Emptor

June 13, 2018 Comments off

As noted in earlier posts, the USDOE under Betsy DeVos’ leadership seems ready, willing, and capable of throwing those students who enrolled in fraudulent degree programs under the bus in the name of the free market. Evidence of this reality was presented earlier this week when Ms. DeVos reinstated the so-called “watchdog” agency that accredited bogus educational enterprises. As reported in an article by Erica Green in yesterday’s NYTimes, Ms. DeVos used a flimsy bureaucratic procedural argument to distance herself from the decision to reinstate the formerly discredited “watchdog” group, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or Acics. As Ms. Green reported, this agency was stripped of its power in the waning months of the Obama administration:

Acics was stripped of its powers in December 2016 amid the collapse of two for-profit university chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, where students were encouraged to take on debt based on false promises, including jobs after graduation. The accrediting body was held responsible for allowing the schools to employ predatory recruitment practices.

The scandal rocked the for-profit college industry, which became a target of the Obama administration. And taxpayers are still covering the fallout as the DeVos Education Department manages more than 100,000 applications for debt relief totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. On Monday, a judge in San Francisco was set to hear arguments that the department should grant full loan relief to Corinthian students. On Wednesday, an Indianapolis court is set to approve a $1.5 billion settlementfor aggrieved ITT students.

But, according to her spokesperson, Ms. DeVos is powerless in this case because of a procedural snafu in the Obama administration’s decision to suspend Acics:

Education Department officials said that despite the March report (which condemned Acics), Ms. DeVos was obligated to reinstate Acics as an accrediting body for colleges and universities because of a federal court order that had faulted the process the Obama-era department had used to terminate its recognition. A federal judge sent the decision back to Ms. DeVos for reconsideration.

“The secretary did not make the determination to reinstate Acics,” Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This department can’t operate on or enforce a decision that was found invalid by the court.”

Many critics strongly disagree with this assertion:

Advocates say that Ms. DeVos is using the court order as a convenient excuse.

They note that the judge did not vacate the 2016 decision, and that Ms. DeVos was not compelled to reinstate Acics. The report provides the most up-to-date evaluation of the organization, which still oversees dozens of colleges. In March, Acics was accused by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, of accrediting “visa mills,” used by foreign students to come to the United States with minimal scrutiny.

“This report makes clear that Acics is a wholly unfit and unreliable evaluator of higher-education institutions,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former Obama Education Department official. “Betsy DeVos may be content with ignoring the overwhelming outside consensus on Acics’s performance, but she cannot deny the expert opinions of her own staff.”

If this was the only time Ms. DeVos saw fit to overlook experts it might be possible to accept her decision. But like her predecessors, she has ignored evidence that VAM is invalid, that test-and-punish reforms have not improved public education, and that equitable funding is needed to close the performance gap between students attending affluent schools and those attending poverty-wracked schools. In this case, Ms. DeVos appears to be acting in the best interest of for-profit diploma mills that issue worthless degrees. It may just be coincidental that the man who appointed her led such an enterprise.

Bad Metrics Not Limited to Education: Employment Rates Mis-measure Our Economy Too

June 9, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this week, President Trump effectively released the employment figures before the official announcement and, in so doing, reinforced the notion that low unemployment rates are a sign of economic well-being. But, as Paul Constant wrote in Civic Skunk Works immediately after the release of the employment figures, that is not necessarily the case and, of late, has increasingly NOT been the case. Here’s the nub of his argument:

…if you just report on numbers, it’s very easy to fall into a Trump-friendly video-game mindset, in which larger numbers are an unalloyed good to be accrued at all costs…all these… journalists didn’t ask the most important question of all: we know the quantity of jobs. But what about the quality of those jobs?

Mr. Constant then produces reams of evidence that the quality of jobs in the “new economy” is awful:

As Derek Thompson argued at The Atlantic back in 2012, America’s postwar economy has shifted dramatically. Since the 1950s, he reports, “The manufacturing/agriculture economy shrunk from 33% to 12%, and the services economy grew from 24% to 50%.” And as most anyone who’s worked in the service economy knows, there are an awful lot of awful jobs—low-wage, part-time, no-benefit kinds of jobs—in service.

But this is not just about Walmart. Service jobs don’t have to suck—and many don’t. But I could sit here and list stats all weekend long proving that quality jobs in America are disappearing:

And on and on and on.

The fact is, sometimes in the 1970s America made the switch from high-quality, high-wage employment to low-quality, low-wage employment—and the shift is getting progressively worse.It’s gotten so bad that Axios recently revealed that CEOs openly admitted that the American worker isn’t getting a cut of the economic prosperity anytime soon: “executives of big U.S. companies suggest that the days of most people getting a pay raise are over, and that they also plan to reduce their work forces further.”

The report that Donald Trump touted today only counted the number of jobs created, not the quality of those jobs.

The truth is, this isn’t a jobs story at all. It’s an inequality story.

Mr. Constant concludes his essay with this compelling insight:

By blindly promoting economics numbers as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is being employed. Never mind if you have to work two or three part-time gigs to pay the rent. Never mind if none of your employers provide health insurance. Never mind that workers are too tired and stretched too thin to find a new job, or to get training that might improve their conditions. Never mind that jobs which were once considered good careers are now paid a pittance.

When we blare the news of a great new jobs report—no matter which party is in power—we are advancing the narrative that as long as we hit our marks, nothing else matters. A job is a job is a job is a job.

Except that’s not true. Gradually, over the last half-decade, and without our consent, the deal has changed. Eventually, no amount of deft media manipulation will be able to hide that fact.

What does this have to do with public education policy? A paraphrase of that first paragraph answers that question:

By blindly promoting standardized test scores as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is doing well on those tests. Never mind if you forfeit art, music, PE, and play for test preparation. Never mind if none of your school excludes students who score poorly on tests. Never mind that students are taught only what can be tested and fail to learn the soft skills that are needed in a well functioning democracy. Never mind that in the quest for high test scores we sacrifice childhood completely. 

Gradually, over the last decade-and-a-half we have made a decision to conflate good schools with high test scores and no amount to deft media manipulation can hide that fact.

 

Is Betsy DeVos Clueless About Immigration… or… Does ESSA Imply States Ability to Set Immigration Standards

June 4, 2018 Comments off

One thing is abundantly clear after months of leadership by the Trump administration: every agency head believes that they are free to interpret the laws of the land in the fashion they believe to be true.

Betsy DeVos was recently chastised by the Washington Post editorial board for her declaration that  “…individual schools and localities can decide whether teachers or principals can report undocumented students to immigration authorities.” The editorial board cites a Supreme Court decision in 1982 as evidence that they can’t. But… what if Ms. DeVos and the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, insisted that ESSA gives states the right to do just that? In the Alice-in-Wonderland political world we live in today, such an interpretation would not be illogical, the Supreme Court decisions and USDOE pronouncements of the past notwithstanding. The editorial concludes with these paragraphs::

It’s hard to know whether the secretary, whose gauzy pronouncements on policy in the past have raised questions about the breadth of her expertise, is ignorant of the law or knows it but is loath to endorse it, given the administration’s distaste for any policy favoring illegal immigrants. Either way, the effect is likely to be the same: a chilling effect on parents who would send their undocumented children to school.

That’s senseless, given the cost identified by the Supreme Court in the Plyler ruling: “the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

In Mr. Trump’s world, the solution to having “…a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries” is easy: send them back to the country they came from. From all evidence, Ms. DeVos lives in the same world. 

Too Good to be True: DeVos Contemplating PBIS as Means of Intervention in Schools

June 2, 2018 Comments off

As readers of this blog realize, I am strongly opposed to the idea of solving the problem of school shootings by “hardening” schools. Especially when “hardening” means spending millions of dollars providing more armed guards, more surveillance, introducing airport-like screening, invading the privacy of children by monitoring their on line posts and reading, and building higher fences and installing better door lock. The “hardening” ideas seem to have gained traction, particularly among those who are opposed to any gun control whatsoever and particularly among the GOP. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to read this description of the latest thinking of the “School Safety Commission” in Politico:

SCHOOL SAFETY COMMISSION TO FOCUS ON SCHOOL CLIMATE: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ school safety commission will be in the national spotlight for the first time today. As part of the commission’s work, DeVos is visiting Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Md., with a press pool in tow.

DeVos is set to visit a classroom and hear from experts, teachers, school administrators and students on “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” a term for a framework of interventions tailored to the individual needs of students, including those from disadvantaged groups, and designed to support better behavior and more equitable academic outcomes.

The topic of school climate is notable because the White House has said one topic the commission is exploring is whether to repeal Obama-era policies aimed at ending racial disparities when it comes to school discipline. House Republicans have said the Obama policies contributed to law enforcement’s failure to identify and stop the school shooter in Parkland, Fla., who killed 17 — an assertion adamantly denied by school officials.

Investing in PBIS or other structured behavioral management systems would be a far more effective use of dollars than hiring SROs or creating school police forces. As the title of this post indicates, the notion that Betsy DeVos would advocate PBIS seems too good to be true… I am not ready to exhale just yet, however.

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