ESSA + Trump = Need to Take Vouchers Seriously… And Wisconsin’s Shows Why Vouchers Undermine Public Schools
The on-line version of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel featured an op ed essay by WI congressman Mark Pocan outlining the findings of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on vouchers across the country… and the findings are deeply troubling given the direction Congress and at least one Presidential candidate and political party want to take our country. Outlined below in bullet form are the findings on taxpayer funded voucher schools. They:
- lack high educational standards for students and teachers
- discriminate against certain students, particularly students with disabilities or those who speak English as a second language
- fail to demonstrate true academic achievement
- deplete funds from public schools and reroute them to the comparatively few students in private schools
- go to families of students who were already attending private schools
- can mandate religious requirements for students as a part of admissions criteria
- can be directed to for profit schools that persistently fail to meet state standards
Congressman Pocan is especially troubled about the use of vouchers because of what has happened in his State, where a voucher program has been in place in Milwaukee for nearly two decades:
According to a report from the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this year, funding for voucher school students across the state was up 14% while funding for our public school students is down by 4%. This marked the first year in which school districts experienced a drop in state aid in order to pay for students living in district boundaries but attending private schools.
Mr. Pocan concludes his op ed essay with these paragraphs:
In its report, GAO recommends that the federal Department of Education issue guidance on how taxpayer-funded voucher programs affect federal education dollars and public school systems. I agree the Department of Education should provide additional guidance but I also believe taxpayers must demand accountability from taxpayer-funded private voucher schools that do not have the same level of accountability as public schools.
It is unconscionable for taxpayers to continue funding these profit-making schemes disguised as schools. It is time for the Department of Education to protect students and further clarify the steps to ensure oversight. After all, this should be about quality education for our kids.
Mr. Pocan may be a voice in the wilderness if Congressman who seek to include portability in ESSA prevail or Mr. Trump enters the White House and places a pro-privatization “educator” to head the Education Department. He is probably a vote in the wilderness already in Wisconsin, where the legislature is clearly on the road to dismantling public education in favor of privatization. Here’s hoping his warnings do not fall on deaf ears.
Neuroscience Demonstrating What We Already Know: Poverty Impacts Learning and Early Intervention is Essential
A cover story by Mike Kemp in Newsweek earlier this month reported on the findings of neuroscience researchers in CA who found that “…children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.” Given that test results have manifested this for decades, the results are unsurprising. But here’s what researchers MAY be able to impress on policy-makers IF the policy-makers are swayed by science:
“We have [long] known about the social class differences in health and learning outcomes,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. But neuroscience has now linked the environment, behavior and brain activity—and that could lead to a stunning overhaul of both educational and social policies, like rethinking Head Start–style programs that have traditionally emphasized early literacy. New approaches, he says, could focus on social and emotional development as well, since science now tells us that relationships and interactions with the environment sculpt the areas of the brain that control behavior (like the ability to concentrate), which also can affect academic achievement (like learning to read). “We are living in a revolution in biology now,” Shonkoff says, one in which new findings are finally giving us a real understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture.
For decades educators have attempted to offset the effects of poverty by immersing disadvantaged children with books and manipulative and engaging them in intellectual activities analogous to those that more affluent children experience on a daily basis. But researchers are finding that the intellectual stimulation is less important that the social and emotional stimulation. After recounting the trend toward oversimplification of the research findings, Mike Kemp concludes with this potential means of addressing the impacts of poverty on the development of a child’s brain:
Schools could add social and emotional learning courses to their elementary through high school curricula, designed to help children recognize and pay attention to their feelings, especially while coping with trauma and stress. Such courses could become requirements, like reading and math. That would require a massive re-evaluation of the priorities of our educational and development institutions—and some way of funding any new programs and tools deemed necessary.
Getting that to happen could take the kind of power wielded by Congress, local governments, school boards or the U.S. legal system. In 2013, Clancy Blair of the New York University Neuroscience and Education Lab, led a study that found the time a child spent in poverty, and in a household filled with chaos, was significantly related to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Blair says similar findings could be leveraged the way research in the past linked detrimental health outcomes to tobacco, sugar-filled drinks and junk food, and ultimately changed policies and regulation of those industries. Similarly, findings like those in Blair’s study could be used support legislation or even a landmark lawsuit targeting overcrowded living conditions, or unaffordable housing and child care.
Other systems that reinforce the cycle of poverty—inferior schools and community infrastructure; poorly protected neighborhoods and unchecked child abuse; environmental pollution; or lack of health care, public transportation and green space—could face legal challenges or new laws.
As one who is swayed by research findings and who believes that public education can make a difference, I would readily support any legislation that addressed the findings of researchers like Clancy Blair. But as one who witnesses legislators who deny climate change, who demonize teachers instead of making investments of any kind in public schools, and who want cheap, fast, and easy fixes to the complicated problems cited in this article, I fear that nothing will happen…. and the results of doing nothing will be an increase in the kind of heartless children like those described at the beginning of the article: ones who can witness a videotape of Malala Yousafzai and feel “nothing”. If we spend nothing on the improvement of social development we will get children who feel nothing.
As readers of this blog realize, I have long been dismayed over the passage of the misnomered “Every Student Succeeds Act” or ESSA. My primary concern over the passage of the bi-partisan bill was that it took public education off the table in the 2016 election and, for all intents and purposes, ensured the continuation of the test-and-punish reform movement that has dramatically increased the number of for-profit charter schools. But having read blurbs about the forthcoming change in Committee Chairs in the House like the one I read earlier this week in my daily Politico feed and countless articles about Senate Education Chair Lamar Alexander’s take on the rules proposed by the Obama administration I am getting the sickening feeling that the Republicans have once again hoodwinked the Democrats in crafting this bill… and if Mr. Trump gets elected it is conceivable that the gutting of public education will proceed at a breakneck pace.
Here are examples of the issues that are subject to different interpretations depending on who’s in the White House:
- Portability of Federal Funds: Some of the Republican legislators seem to think there is a way the Education Department could give a green light to the use of federal funds for private schools— including those with Religious affiliations. After reading about Mr. Trump’s ideas about the Federal role in public education, it is evidence that should he be elected and the House and Senate remain in the hands of his party we can expect an interpretation of the ESSA bill that allows for vouchers… and if there is any pushback, he’ll make sure that such a clarifying bill is passed with or without the support of the Democrats.
- Supplement versus Supplant: It is abundantly clear that the Republicans believe the ESSA law does NOT mandate that federal funds be used to supplement local funds. They do not see the federal role to be one of providing equalized opportunity. Rather, they are comfortable with federal funds being used to replace local funds and if that results in lower per pupil spending in districts serving poor children so be it.
- Regulation of For Profit education enterprises: Appallingly, Virginia Foxx, the House Education Chair in Waiting, saw nothing wrong with ITT’s behavior and thought the Obama administration was wrong to close them down to be “totally arbitrary”.
- More Tests, More Privatization, Less Regulation: This quote from Virginia Foxx gives me the idea that we will have more tests, more privatization, less regulation: “Having a Trump administration would be akin to having heaven on Earth” compared with “what we’ve gone through the last eight years” under the Obama administration.
I am not completely pleased with Ms. Clinton’s neoliberal “reform” record on public education but I absolutely dread what will happen to my colleagues who work in public education should Mr. Trump’s “heaven on earth” agenda ever see daylight. His interpretations of ESSA are different from those perceived by the Democrats who supported ESSA and the actions he takes to impose his will on public education once he is in office will be irreversible for years to come. The election in November won’t be about ESSA: it will be about how ESSA is implemented… and as bad as it will be for those states where the legislatures are beholden to privatizers, it will be even worse if Mr. Trump is elected.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article by Carolyn Y. Johnson that featured two maps that illustrated why the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) failed to help reduce the rate of uninsured Americans. One showing the percentage of individuals in a State who are covered by health insurance:
The other map showed the states who chose to expand Medicaid, which was the means the ACA intended to use to expand health coverage:
I offer these maps to show what is likely to happen should the Republican’s notion of allowing federal funds to supplant local spending as compared to the Democrat’s notion of using federal funds for education to supplement local spending. I would expect many states to continue the practice of using Federal funds to increase the per pupil spending in the districts serving children raised in poverty, which would have the effect of increasing overall per pupil spending. Other States, though, may seize on the opportunity to supplant State funds to provide “relief to taxpayers” and thereby reduce the per pupil spending.
There was a time when a Republican President— Nixon, believe it or not— provided States with supplementary block grants to help them address problems like infrastructure. Schools also received these grants, some of which were competitive and open to all districts and some of which were targeted to lower income districts. Then President Reagan bundled these together into “block grants” and diminished their overall amount on the theory that STATES could make the better determination on how those funds should be apportioned. Over time, these supplementary block grants have, for the most part, disappeared entirely or diminished to the point where applying for them cost more than their value. In many cases the grants were implicitly designed to underwrite the costs of State Departments of Education, which had been decimated in most states.
When I look at these maps I imagine that in a few years IF the supplant concept is implemented we’ll see that spending for schools has diminished in the same states where Medicaid has been denied and we’ll see a decline in NAEP scores in those same states.