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The Conservative-Libertarian Federalist’s Analysis is ALMOST Correct… Offers Some Possible Avenues to Undo “Reform”

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The Google feed that provides me with articles on public education from the entire political spectrum offered up an op ed piece by Federalist writer Stella Morabito with the click-bait title “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids“. After reading the article, I came away convinced that libertarian-conservatives and progressives share many of the same perspectives about the ways public schools function in an adverse way for many students… but clearly do not share a common perspective on how to address the defects.

As I read through the list of thirteen ways public schools create a negative environment for most children, I found myself nodding in assent in most cases, particularly in large urban schools where test-driven “reform” has taken root:

  • The size and model of mass schooling IS alienating
  • Public schools are abnormal settings that feel like prisons
  • Public schools are breeding grounds for hierarchical cliques
  • Giant public schools are breeding grounds for aggression
  • Public schools are increasingly politicized
  • Schools are becoming more repressive
  • Public Schooling stunts personality development
  • Kids with special needs are especially judged as different

In most cases I could have written (and maybe HAVE written) similar observations, albeit coming from a completely different perspective. The school-to-prison pipeline, which is not referenced at all in Ms. Morabito’s article, is the result of schools becoming more repressive. The next four “ways schools incubate mental instability” are arguably accurate, but for completely different reasons than Ms. Morabito offers:

  • School bureaucracy tends to reinforce social pecking orderThe social pecking order is reinforced more by the way school attendance zones are established than by “the school bureaucracy”. Moreover, the “school bureaucracy” doesn’t SET “the social pecking order”, it mirrors “the social pecking order” that parents want to see in place. 
  • Reduced content knowledge promotes conformity: Ms. Morabito attributes the “reduced content” to “identity politics, fads, and political activism” instead of the true culprit, which is the slavish adherence to standardized tests as the means for measuring whether schools are “successful”. This has narrowed the curriculum so that the topics Ms. Morabito values— like “history, geography, and classics”– are pushed out. 
  • Public schools disregard students’ family and non-school lives: This is true but NOT for the reasons Ms. Morabito contends. While she sees that “Parents and families are increasingly treated as nuisances to the collectivist agenda of training children to conform to politically correct attitudes and emotions”, I see the problem as schools disregarding the needs of single-parent families and/or families where both parents work. And where Ms. Morabito laments the hours children spend in school, I would focus on the hours many children spend before schooling begins sitting in front of screens.  

 

Then there are two completely groundless assertions:

  • Public schooling is increasingly hostile to Christianity: Ms. Morabito writes: “Growing and intense aggression against any form of Christian prayer in the schools has a further alienating effect. It teaches any child who is emotionally hurting that he can’t even seek solace in a private and silent conversation with God without knowing he’d be ridiculed if his peers knew. The hostility towards religion also leads us on a path to utter lawlessness, since the rule of law evaporates when left to the devices of elites.”  While Ms. Morabito professes to desire that we do a better job of instructing children about the Constitution, she chooses to ignore that part of the Constitution that provides freedom from religion in government… the basis for precluding prayer in school. While many teachers, administrators, and “bureaucrats” may wish to allow prayer in school, those who work for the government are required to follow the laws of the land as interpreted by the courts. 
  • Enforced conformity promotes peer victimization: This somewhat confusing statement makes the point that the anti-bullying initiatives in schools are falling short of the mark, which may be the case in some school districts. But Ms. Morabito’s analysis of anti-bullying is off the mark. She groundlessly asserts that “…A bully is free to target with the taunt “bigot” any child who comes from a traditional Christian home, and the curricula will back them up”, but fails to suggest that additional counseling and direct instruction on the teaching of tolerance might be helpful in addressing the bullying behavior that is arguably a part of human nature that needs to be controlled if we want to live under a rule of law as opposed to a rule of vigilantism. 

As I read about the libertarian thinking on education, I am struck by how often I find myself agreeing with some of their principles, many of which are grounded in common sense and research. But too often their anti-establishmentarian ideas ascribe intent and power to bureaucracies that do not exist. Ms. Morabito’s belief that the “school bureaucracy” sets the pecking order in schools is a case in point. For better or worse, there is no monolithic “school bureaucracy” that exists in our country. Our public education system is radically decentralized and immune to edicts from the Supreme Court. If that were not the case we would have fully integrated and equitably funded public schools and adhering to a “Common Core” curriculum that would would have been in place for decades. Instead our schools operate democratically under the control of local boards elected at the levels established by each state. It’s a cumbersome system that is exceedingly difficult to change… but it better than any alternative… especially an alternative that is based on religion.

 

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Kansas Legislators’ Resentment for Public Schools Grossly Inappropriate

February 17, 2018 Leave a comment

An article by AP reporter John Hannah appeared in the Virginian-Pilot with this headline: “Kansas Public Schools Face Backlash on Endless Money Crisis”. The article describes the resentment Kansas legislators feel toward public schools for their insistence that they get the lions share of funding, which is forcing them to abandon their “pro-business” low taxation stance in order to fund things like schools, prisons, and infrastructure. As one legislator complained:

“It’s like the schools are the grain truck. Instead of sharing the grain, they just keep raising the sides on the bed and keeping it all for themselves,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican. “They’ve been able to keep themselves at the front of the line for a long time.”

What Mr. Masterson knows, I believe, is that the grain truck was replaced by a pick-up truck for years and the result if a long-standing deficiency in funds. As a public school advocate noted:

“You can’t blame schools,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union. “You can lament it all you want, but it’s a problem of your own making.”

And the problem will require lots of money to fix because Kansas avoided spending nearly enough money for decades. As Mr. Hanna reported:

Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year — more than half of its general revenues — on its public schools. But the state Supreme Court ruled in October that even with a funding increase approved last year, it’s not sufficient under the state constitution.

The state has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for decades, and the current one was filed in 2010 by four school districts. The Supreme Court has issued five rulings in the past four years requiring new spending on public schools.

In its last ruling in October, the court did not set a specific spending target but hinted that it could be $650 million more a year.

According to the GOP who passed the pro-business tax package that slashed spending in all areas, Kansas was supposed to be rolling in revenue by now since the new businesses they attracted would increase the tax base everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the tax cuts did nothing of the sort and so schools— especially schools serving low income children— suffered deep cuts and compromised programs. And now, the legislators who created this problem, are trying to turn taxpayers against the “greedy” schools who only want what is best for their students. The main reason for this desire to stir up resentment is the unflagging faith that taxes and government are bad… which means that any notion of increasing either is off the table.

“Maybe we say, ‘We’ve got to live within our means,'” said Senate budget committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a moderate Wichita-area Republican. “Maybe we need to reassess the direction we’re going.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said lawmakers are right to expect to squeeze other parts of state government if they increase spending on schools.

“That is the math of it,” he said. “There’s only so much taxpayer money.”

If the legislature is unwilling to contemplate higher taxes even though the lower taxes did not result in the anticipated stimulus to the businesses in the State, “the math of it” is immutable. But if the reassessment in the direction Kansas is going included an openness to higher taxes to provide superior government services, there would be more taxpayer money to spend and the schools, prisons, and infrastructure in the state would improve. And who knows? If those improved maybe some businesses might consider locating to their state. Lower taxes and crappy services didn’t work… Maybe it’s time to try something different.

 

Blogger Peter Greene Notes that Neo-liberals and Friedman-ites are Kindred Spirits

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment

In many previous blog posts I’ve lamented the fact that neither Presidential candidate in 2016 offered much in the way of hope for change in public education policy… and when I read Peter Greene, who’s blog Curmudgucation, post yesterday about the Center for American Progress’s (CAP’s) latest white paper celebrating the fact that under ESSA many states are continuing the “reform” initiatives I was even more convinced that was the case. CAP is often help up as a counter to the right wing think tanks funded by the likes of the Koch brothers. But, as Mr. Greene points out, there isn’t much difference between what the neo-liberal “reformers” beloved of CAP want to do to public schools and what the pro-voucher Friedman-ites want to do.

Mr. Greene described the CAP’s leadership under John Podesta as “…a holding tank for Clinton politicians and bureaucrats who were biding their time, cooking up policy advocacy, while waiting for Hillary to take her rightful place in DC”, citing the unyielding support for the Common Core, for state intervention when a district “fails” based on successive standardized tests, and/or the imposition of “alternative governance structures” if the struggles seem to emanate from Board mismanagement. Mr. Greene has particular scorn for the SIG grants that were embraced by the Obama administration, grants that imposed solutions from the top down and prescribed how funds would be used in schools:

We have the results of the School Improvement Grants used by the Obama administration to “fix” schools, and the results were that SIG didn’t accomplish anything (other than, I suppose, keeping a bunch of consultants well-paid). SIG also did damage because it allowed the current administration and their ilk to say, “See? Throwing money at schools doesn’t help.” But the real lesson of SIG, which came with very specific Fix Your School instructions attached, was that when the state or federal government try to tell a local school district exactly how things should be fixed, instead of listening to the people who live and work there, nothing gets better. That same fundamental flaw is part of the DNA of the takeover/turnaround approach.

The “takeover/turnaround” model— like the voucher model— implies that educators and elected community members are incapable of solving the “problems” in a school, “problems” that are defined by stagnant scores on standardized tests that often vary over time. This just in, CAP: the problems children bring with them school have an impact on their schools and need to be addressed in tandem with the academic program.

 

What Inequitable Funding Looks Like On the Ground… and How it Diminishes Opportunities for Change

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss posted an open letter from the faculty of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a high school modeled after Outward Bound’s approach to learning. The title of Ms. Strauss’ post was “This is What Inadequate Funding at a Public School Looks Like and Feels Like— as Told by an Entire Faculty“, and it was sobering to see just how spreadsheet analyses play out in real life.

The budget cuts in large districts like NYC have to be administered in as fair and evenhanded basis as possible, which inevitably requires someone in a business office to use staffing ratios to serve as a proxy for “equity”. But an unconventional program like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School requires more teachers tone successful because it requires teachers to have time to collaborate with each other, to confer with small groups of students, to accompany students on field work projects in the city, and to mentor students one-to-one. Each of these programs became increasingly difficult to sustain as the city budget cut its per pupil allocations to schools four out of seven years since the school opened. But the problems for the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School go beyond per pupil cuts. Reading between the lines, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School was effectively penalized for not being a traditional high school, as these paragraphs illustrate:

When we appealed this year’s budget cuts, the city audited our budget and told us that we had a dozen more teachers than we needed. We were dumbfounded: with 34 students per class and 100-120 students per teacher, we have too many teachers?

We have cut the planning time among teachers that permits us to work together and bring our best to classrooms. While we thankfully remain well above the contractual standard of 45-minute-a-day planning periods, we have seen the time diminish steeply some years. Our special-education teachers, who manage a caseload of students with individual needs in addition to providing differentiated instruction in classrooms, have increasingly asked: “How can we adequately serve our neediest students when we already feel like we’re spread too thin?”

This year we can no longer afford to provide free after-school programming, despite our belief that all students deserve access to a rich after-school program.

Since we began charging students to participate in after-school activities, our 30 clubs from last year plummeted to nine. Gone are Model U.N., Jazz Ensemble, Photography Club, Yoga, Outdoor Club, Live Poets Society, Dance Club, Flag Football. Saddened by the change, one eighth-grader innocently asked, “Can’t everyone just keep the school open for free?”

The truth is, many of us are doing just that.

The city’s audit speaks volumes about the expectations when it comes to changing from the traditional format. Thou shalt operate school within a seven hour time frame,  thou shalt avoid any variances from the standard CBO, thou shalt stick to academics and forget about “clubs” unless you can find a way to raise money for them. The letter was published in the context of the recent federal cuts, which are going to hurt city schools serving children raised in poverty even more! As the faculty’s open letter indicates:

In the wake of debates over the latest federal tax bill passed in December, we also wish to point out that the fate of our schools is tied to our taxes. Our school lost Title 1 funding when school funds tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were not renewed. In New York City, 60 percent or more of a school’s students must come from households whose incomes qualify them for free lunch before the school receives a single cent of additional funds.

The latest tax plan gives families a tax cut to attend private schools, a proposal that caters to our wealthiest families while harming investment in public schools. Likewise, the controversy over the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), absent from the original Senate bill, has enormous implications for schools: a 2011 report from the Center on Education Policy estimated that the complete elimination of state and local tax deductions in 2009 would have slashed public school funding by at least $16.5 billion.

At some juncture the dedicated teachers in the Metropolitan Expeditionary School will see a want ad for a job in the suburbs that would offer them the chance to develop a similar program at a much higher wage and with assured funding for the foreseeable future. Teachers want to teach and don’t want to do so under a perpetual cloud. Don’t be surprised to read a de facto obituary for schools like the Metropolitan Expeditionary School in the years ahead. Their replacement? No excuses high school that schedule six classes of 40 students a day plus lunch for students and at least 200 students per teacher. It works well on a spread sheet….

 

Virginia Superintendent Describes Plight of School Districts Across America: High Needs and Lower Funding

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a Virginia Pilot Online column written by James Roberts, the Chesapeake (VA) Superintendent of Schools, that could have been written by any superintendent in our nation. The specifics of Mr. Roberts’ plight might vary from state to state, but the basic outline of his description of the funding challenges his district faces are the same anywhere. Here’s the problem he faces in Virginia:

=> From 2009 to 2017, the total state operating budget increased by 40 percent. During the same period, the funding Chesapeake Public Schools received from the state decreased by 2.7 percent.

=> Thanks to the recession, we have a backlog of capital projects — HVAC projects, roof replacements, other modernizations and replacements, new tracks, and yes, stadiums.

=> The state doesn’t provide any money for capital needs to school divisions. That funding falls completely on each locality.

=> Now that there is some recovery in local funding, we can work on some capital improvement projects, but we must prioritize. We can’t put the need for a new football stadium ahead of the large backlog of HVAC repairs and roof replacements. That wouldn’t be the best use of the money we have available. However, as long as we depend only on local funding, we will never catch up with all our needs.

=> Now local school divisions, including Chesapeake, are facing a major shortage of teachers. Competition among divisions is fierce. We have had only minimal solutions at best. The real problem with low pay for teachers in Virginia lies with state funding. Without realistic, sustainable state funding, our teacher pay won’t attract quality candidates into the profession, and good teachers are key to the success of our core responsibility.

=> And…. competition between our own operating needs (mainly pay for teaching and support staff) and our capital needs (such as roof, HVAC systems and stadiums) will only increase.

Unfortunately, this algorithm for internal competition among local needs is nothing new. I wrote a similar column to this when I was Superintendent in rural Maine in the early 1980s, in the Seacoast region of NH in the mid-1980s, in Western MD in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in Upstate NY in the late 1990s though early 2000s, and in the Upper Connecticut River Valley in the early 200os. But I did see a major difference among the districts I led. The districts I led in NH and the one in Upstate NY I led were more affluent than those in ME and MD. Consequently the operating needs (pay for teaching and support staff) were not as urgent and, as a result, the districts did not have the same kinds of staffing shortages as many of my colleagues encountered. Moreover, as the burden for facilities upgrades fell increasingly to local districts, the tax base in the relatively affluent districts was able to fund building improvements for more easily than the less affluent districts. Finally, in the affluent districts there was a core of parents and community members who rallied the importance of maintaining high-quality schools, and that cadre would help the local board persuade voters to support bond referenda when they were needed to ensure that facilities were kept in good shape and support budgets that kept our operating costs relatively high on a per pupil basis. This phenomenon of local support for schools in affluent districts being greater than local support in less affluent districts results in the rich getting richer and the poor falling further behind. And when the state fails to offset this phenomenon, the result is an ever widening economic disparity.

There was a time when state legislatures and the Federal government took steps to address this by adjusting state formulas for the distribution of funds and by providing “compensatory education” funds. But as money for public education diminished at the state and federal level, the funding formulas did not have the same impact. And once President Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem” and “taxes are confiscatory” took hold in both political parties, funding equity was no longer seen as a priority… and the algorithm for internal competition among local needs became a reality for all districts in our country.

Mr. Roberts’ solution to this is to call for an increase in state funding for the infrastructure needs his district has. It seems obvious to me that there is another solution: an influx of federal dollars to help districts address unarguable needs like the upgrade of HVAC systems, the replacement of roofs, and the installation of the infrastructure required to provide all students with equitable access to technology. If a local or national business wants to make a name for themselves, they can offer to fund tracks, stadiums, and gymnasiums. But the notion that a local or national business will offer to fund core infrastructure needs is far-fetched at best…. and the notion that local taxpayers in poor districts will ever be able to find local funds to fix their facilities is downright delusional…. and the panacea of “choice”? Don’t get me started!

Atlantic Article Underscores Dis-equalizing Forces in “Tax Reform”, Offers Little Hope for Change

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Clint Smith’s Atlantic magazine article describing the “subtle subversion” of public education embedded in the new tax code fittingly features a picture of West Philadelphia University City High School with a fallen tree blocking the entrance: a great metaphor for the situation Philadelphia and ALL cities serving children raised in poverty face.

As one who lived in University City for three years, attended the two colleges that border University City, student taught at West Philadelphia HS, and lived in Philadelphia itself for a total of seven years I remember reading about West Philadelphia University City High School and how it would draw on the expertise of the colleges and nearby tech firms to help motivate the students in that part of town to work hard, stay in school, and aspire to college. In reading the Wikipedia entry about the school, it is evident it was doomed from the start, despite its high-minded goals and good intentions:

The district, community, and universities of West Philadelphia argued to make UCHS a math and science magnet school. The most gifted (mostly white students at the time) students were eligible to attend. UCHS was created to represent a new approach to learning in urban education, new in the sense that it would utilize the latest education, technology, and community resources to provide a meaningful individual program for each student, regardless of race or economic background. It aimed to create a college-based environment before entering college.

But complications with the school construction delayed the opening, the teachers assigned to the school “were not ready”, and, after three years the “Individualized Study Program” that was to be the hallmark of the program was abandoned. As Wikipedia described it: “The school’s mission was lost due to gang-related crimes. There was no structure or discipline from the beginning, allowing the students to get out of control.”

After a tumultuous time period when fights, drugs, and racial strife wracked the operation of the school and it’s test scores failed to meet the standards set by the district governed by an agency established by the State, and charter schools housed in the school facility fell short of the mark, it’s doors closed and in 2013 the 31 year old facility was leveled. Oh, and the declines in state funding didn’t help at all! Here’s data from Wikipedia:

In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55 percent of school funding statewide; in 2001 it provided less than 36 percent.[19] An analysis determined that increased district spending was limited by a state system which relies heavily on property taxes for local school funding. As a result, wealthier school districts with proportionately more property owners and more expensive real estate have more funds for schools. The result is great disparities in school system expenditures per student. In 2000, the Philadelphia school district spent $6,969 a year per student. Seventy percent of Philadelphia’s students are at or near the poverty line. This contrasts with expenditures per student in wealthier suburban school districts: Jenkintown, $12,076; Radnor, $13,288; and Upper Merion, $13,139.[19

Given the arc of this urban school serving children raised in poverty and aspiring to provide them with the tools needed to roll in college, one would hope that any tax legislation passed at the federal level would help provide equitable funding for the Philadelphia schools and provide sufficient revenues to address the issues that face urban schools— issues like drug addiction, the lack of before and after school programming, and support for parents struggling to make ends meet. As Mr. Smith notes in his article, the new tax code not only does nothing to help public schools, it works against them by encouraging affluent parents to enroll their children in private schools. And the new tax code not only does nothing to help address the needs of children raised in poverty, it diminishes the revenues available for those programs and, until the last stalemate, was not going to fund health care for those children. As I write this post, community health centers that serve poverty stricken areas are being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the budget.

By expanding the use of 529 savings plans for K-12 education, capping tax deductions for local and state taxes at $10,000, and slashing education spending at the state level in the 30+ states governed by the GOP, K-12 education will be starved for revenues and the funding formulas used to allocate funds will not have the marginal amounts needed to fund property-tax poor  school districts. It will, in effect, put all the schools in the nation in the same death spiral as Philadelphia schools encountered in the 1990s and 2000s.

 

Koch Brothers Warning Redux: Voting in ALL Elections, ESPECIALLY Primaries, Is Essential!

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

On of Diane Ravitch’s posts early yesterday included a link to an article by Jeff Bryant, a politically progressive and reliably insightful blogger on public education issues that covered the meeting the Koch Brothers heard recently that placed public schools in their cross hairs as a major target for “reform” in the coming year. Unlike Diane Ravitch, who often sidesteps criticism of the Democratic Party, Jeff Bryant is not reluctant to criticize the party for it’s failure to stand up to the “reformers” who advocate anodyne sounding initiatives like “choice”. Pulling no punches, he writes:

Democrats, over the years, have pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers and have gradually embraced the language of “reform” and “choice” Republicans use. Many Democrats have turned against teachers union, joined the Republican chorus to “bust” the public school “monopoly,” and embraced numerous alternatives to traditional public schools that sap the system of its resources.

The Koch brothers’ 700 cronies contributed $100,000 each PER YEAR. That’s $70 million dollars… more than twice the $32 million the AFT and NEA gave to campaigns in 2016! And while that list is not available to the public, I’m guessing that some on that list might own newspapers and TV stations… I’m guessing the Sinclair broadcasting group and Rupert Murdoch might be on the list…

The unions DO need to push back harder against the neoliberals in the Democratic Party, but they will never have a megaphone as big as the Koch brothers…

And one other problem unions face is resentment among taxpayers that translates into a lack of support for their efforts to provide decent wages and working conditions for their employees. Teachers and school district employees who are union members, unlike most employees in the private sector, receive good health benefits, leave time for illnesses, and defined benefit pensions. The fact that these wages and benefits are underwritten by taxes leads to resentment and that, in turn, reduces the public’s support for public education. As long as the public sector wages and benefits mirrored that of the private sector, support for school district employees was relatively strong. Now that the private sector has embraced the private sector’s concept of employees as “free agents” and former President Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” there is less support for school district employees compensation packages.

And last but not least, all who read this blog need to be vigilant at the state and local level. Formerly non-partisan school board races and GOP primaries are places where a small investment by the Koch’s will go a long way toward tilting state legislatures toward the ALEC mindset! Laurence Lessig cautioned in a talk I heard a few years ago that the real damage inflicted on democracy by Citizens United was in the primary elections where small bands of voters could be activated to nominate candidates who hold extreme views on either end of the political spectrum. This has contributed to the polarization as much as the echo chambers on Facebook and other social media. Informed voting in ALL elections is the only cure for this malady.