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Betsy DeVos’ Message on Capitol Hill: Parents Decide; Equity Doesn’t Matter

May 25, 2017 Leave a comment

In her article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Valerie Strauss described “five startling things” Betsy DeVos told Congress when she presented her budget… items that were startling but not surprising given her advocacy for school choice at the expense of equity and opportunity. The five items are summarized below:

  1. States can allow schools receiving federal money to discriminate based on race and gender issues
  2. States can decide if schools that do not provide funding for IDEA students can receive federal money
  3. Currently, ALL high poverty schools receive more federal money than ALL low poverty schools
  4. The Trump-DeVos choice plan does not shift money away from public schools
  5. Schools receiving federal voucher funds may not be required to meet the same standards as public schools

Ms. Strauss’ article does an artful job of capturing Ms. DeVos’ dodging of the questions by repeating two mantras: parents are the ones who should decide where their child attends school and states should be given more leeway in determining which schools receive federal funds. Evidently Ms. DeVos is prepared to turn back the clock to the era of segregation based on race, warehousing of special needs children in the name of economic efficiency, and wholly inequitable funding…. all in the name of providing funds for religiously affiliated schools whose values match those of the parents.

Ms. Strauss concludes the article with a verbatim transcript of Ms. DeVos testimony which outlined the five principles she used to define the budget she was presenting. Those principles, with my highlights added, are:

  1. “…giving parents more power and students more opportunities”
  2. “…maintaining strong support for public schools through longstanding State formula grant programs focused on meeting the educational needs of the nation’s most vulnerable students, including poor and minority students and students with disabilities.”
  3. “…strong support for the research and data collection activities of the Department.”
  4. “…reduces the complexity of funding for college while prioritizing efforts to help make a college education accessible for low-income students” (see a later post on this blog for what is going to happen to 400,000 students who were bilked by for-profit colleges) 
  5. “…eliminate or phase-out 22 programs that are duplicative, ineffective, or are better supported through State, local or philanthropic efforts.”

So much for the government that opened doors for black children, provided access to public education for handicapped children, and provided supplementary funding to communities who have neither the tax base nor the wherewithal to offer creative and innovative programs.

I will note, though, that Ms. DeVos “startling” testimony does jibe with her “principles” and those of the GOP. Here’s hoping that those principles are roundly rejected by Congress when they enact the budget.

 

Diane Ravitch Identifies Root of Problem: BOTH Political Parties are Beholden to Wall Street… and Wall Street LOVES $$$

May 24, 2017 Leave a comment

In a New Republic article published yesterday, Diane Ravitch savages the Democratic Party for its adoption of an educational policy that mirrors that of the conservative Republicans. And this “inconvenient truth” makes it difficult for them to push back on the Trump-DeVos voucher agenda:

Democrats have been promoting a conservative “school reform” agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of “accountability” and “choice” as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because “choice” has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons. Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education. In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.

While the “sell out” for campaign contributions is listed last, it rightfully gets the most play in her article as she describes the many candidates who rely on donations from hedge funders who love the idea of replacing publicly governed schools with deregulated privately operated charter schools, emphasizing the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that these charters improve educational opportunity at all.

Her article concludes with a challenge to the Democratic Party: change their position on public education NOW!

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.

And here’s the challenge for all of us who value public education— AND democracy: we need to find a political means of achieving the agenda Ms. Ravitch lays out if the Democratic Party does NOT take on the fight against privatization.

Are Racism and Economics the Cause of White Flight… or is it Greed and Politics

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

This weekend the NYTimes published an op ed article by Leah Bouston, a professor of economics at Princeton, titled “The Culprits Behind White Flight”.  In the article Ms. Boustan posed this question: “Did whites leave cities for racial reasons or for economic ones?” Her unsatisfying answer, which she elaborates in detail, is that both played a role…. and while her answer is somewhat glib given the space provided in an op ed article, it is, alas, accurate.

The article might be seen by some as being too dismissive of racism. Those who leave the city because “those poor people” moved in could just as easily be leaving because “those BLACK people” or “those HISPANIC people” moved in… It is difficult to disentangle the economic issues from the race issues but it is clear that when businesses abandoned cities and towns their tax base erodes… the erosion that takes place when neighborhoods flip is more subtle but equally consequential.

In my lifetime I watched entire neighborhoods in Philadelphia “flip” from white ethnic enclaves to black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods as a result of “good ideas” like urban redevelopment, interstate highways, and “public goods” like new stadiums for professional sports teams. In some cases politicians, banks, and real estate agents and magnates worked collaboratively or in a mutually beneficial fashion to determine which neighborhoods would benefit from government and private investments and which neighborhoods would, consequently, be marginalized. In all cases of this “redevelopment”, those with money benefitted in the end. Gentrification is the latest anodyne term for this practice of “transforming” the city to make it “more livable” and, thus, more attractive to the middle class be they black or white. But gentrification has arguably contributed to the economic and racial stratification of neighborhoods within cities, creating racial and economic enclaves that isolate poor and racial minorities in the same way that city boundaries did in the middle and end of the 1900s.

Sadly, I think that our country has a notorious history for failing to accept or assimilate immigrants no matter their race or religion. It took the Irish several generations to be accepted as equal even though their skin color was the same as those who identified themselves as “American”… and the self-evident difference between blacks and whites compounds the problem of assimilation. And hate groups, like the Klan, opposed Catholics as well as Jews and blacks and Mormons… Despite these organizations inspired by hate and the racism that seemed impermeable, our country banded together in the early 1960s to enact legislation to remedy racial and economic inequality and groups seeking racial and economic justice brought cases to court that overturned laws and previous cases that were based on racial prejudice. Those legislators and jurists changed the laws… but the hearts of some have not been transformed as yet and we are now at a point where our darkest instincts are being reinforced.

So what is the answer? I think that idealistic urban dwellers MIGHT be able to facilitate integration by advocating higher taxes that would be directed strengthening neighborhood K-12 schools. If every neighborhood that was gentrified had strong neighborhood schools the whole choice apparatus would be unnecessary and the whole arcane application process that goes along with it would be unnecessary. For example, gentrification in Brooklyn has added appreciably to that borough’s tax base making it possible to provide the services needed to support the transformation of neighborhoods, setting up a virtuous circle for those who can now afford to live in the better neighborhoods. But does the borough or city do enough to help those who have been forced to reside in marginal neighborhoods or less affluent boroughs because of their race or lack of economic wherewithal? Has the borough or city thought of the upgrade of public education in the same way they’ve thought of the upgrade of public spaces and/or public transportation? Would borough or city residents be willing to pay a surtax to help upgrade neighborhood schools?

I know this: businesses and/or commuters from the suburbs who benefit from the businesses located in urban centers are VERY reluctant to pay surtaxes despite a strong moral argument that can be raised to do so. Moreover, it’s likely that requiring businesses located in an urban center to pay a surtax would result in those businesses leaving the city altogether. This has happened to many small cities up and down the east coast as businesses fled the Northeast for regions that offered tax incentives and workforces willing to accept lower wages…. before fleeing the country altogether. 

Last but not least, politicians hove failed to advocate for more government spending. I contend that their unwillingness to make a case to raise taxes to provide assistance to those who need it most contributes to the dis-integration of our public schools and the consequent disintegration of the unity that we presumably value as a country. It fuels our basest instinct— selfishness– and undercuts the moral imperative to help those who cannot help themselves. Consequently, we’ve created a system that perpetuates racial and economic segregation. 

This is not an optimistic outlook given where we are now— especially given the news of President Trump’s budget that promises to shred an already tenuous safety net.  But I remain optimistic because most of the people I know want to see a change in direction and are working locally to make change happen. A small band of Sierra Club members got our town to vote to become free of fossil fuels by 2050 and a small band of people stand on the corner of the town common on many evenings waving signs that read “Black Lives Matter”. They might be voices in the wilderness but I see them as harbingers of what will come next. 

The Religious Privatization Prophets OK with Profits from Public Funds

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s blog yesterday also included a link to “The Privatization Prophets”, Jennifer Berkshire’s post in Jacobin describing the cast of characters who are stealthily supporting the spread of vouchers as a means of simultaneously expanding the reach of for-profit charters and enabling public funds to be used for religious schools. And who do we find on that list? Not the multi-billionaires who underwrote the LA campaign… but some ultra-right wing pro-Christian donors whose names are emerging from the shadows at a national level. And Ms. Berkshire’s description of the rationale for the expansion of vouchers is chilling:

The ultimate aim of the project of which DeVos is now the most visible face is to remove education from the public system. Those “buildings” of which she speaks so disdainfully, the disparaging “status quo” never far behind, represent the entire architecture of public education, and more importantly, its democratic control.

Diminishing this is key to reaching the promised land of privatization. Stodgy school boards are standing in the way of getting there; so are superintendents and parent teacher associations and teachers unions — above all, the teachers unions.

Unfettering the markets is only part of the vision. Control over the process of socializing children, the near-monopoly domain of a system that is both secular and, as the libertarian right deridingly characterizes it, collectivist, is another prize. And if there is some money to be made along the way, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.

As Ms. Berkshire notes, Ms. Devos’ vision appeals to both prophets and those who seek profit. In her post she describes state level efforts to expand vouchers through back-door mechanisms like scholarship funds, and in so doing offers some historical insights on the roots of the antipathy between the affluent and public education and the fundamentalists and public education:

Go back a century and a half and you land roughly in the time of Horace Mann, who ushered in the Prussian model of universal, secular education paid for by the public themselves something that irked the wealthy even back then. They could smell higher taxes coming, and besides, they sent their own children to private schools. The rich have grown no fonder of footing the bill for public schools over the years, but the 150-year-old shift away from the family as the locus of education and to the secular state still rankles.

“There is a segment of the conservative evangelical world that has never accepted public education as a legitimate enterprise to begin with. They think public education is ‘secular,and they are therefore hostile to it,” says Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club, which examined efforts by the religious right to infiltrate and undermine public education. For DeVos and her ilk, enabling the flow of public money into schools with conservative religious and ideological programming comes with an added benefit, says Stewart. “It weakens so-called ‘government schools’ that they assert tilt liberal and secular.”

The major donor to the cause of vouchers, in addition to the DeVos family, is the Mercer family, recently profiled in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer. Ms. Berkshire describes others who have benefitted from the Mercer families’ largesse, who include fringe candidates for office and, most notably, Steve Bannon and Breitbart News. 

But Ms. Berkshire’s most scathing indictment is reserved for the Democratic party:

Long before anyone outside of Michigan had heard of Betsy DeVos, Democrats like Dwight Evans (PA) had enthusiastically joined the war against the teachers unions. And it is Democrats who have pushed to redefine public education in one city after another as an individual parent choice to be exercised in a competitive marketplace rather than a collective, community good.

School choice has been legitimized, not by DeVos et al, but by the likes of Corey Booker, Rahm Emanuel and other reform-minded Democrats. If saving public education is to be a key plank of the #resistance, Democrats will have to join the fight or be swept aside.

In that concluding paragraph, Ms. Berkshire lays bare the stark choice we face if we want to preserve democratically operated public schools: we either need to get the Democratic Party to embrace the traditional democratic governance model of education or create a REAL Democratic Party.

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Who Benefits from Political Polarization? The Donors to the Campaigns of Extremists

May 18, 2017 Leave a comment

“Why Republicans are Always Looking Over Their Shoulders”, Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s NYTimes, describes the bind that GOP house members and Senator find themselves in because the demographics in their party require them to tilt to the right in order to survive challenges from the extreme right in the primary campaigns.

A few years ago I heard Laurence Lessig, who is working to repeal Citizens United, speak. He made the point that dark money can have a particularly powerful and pernicious impact on primary elections, particularly on those elections that can exacerbate the polarization in our country.

This leads to this question: Who benefits when polarization occurs? Those who want to cripple the government, those who want fewer regulations, those who want to suppress the wages of workers and/or compromise their working conditions. and those who are happy to see a government that is divided and dysfunctional. The anti-government profiteers are happy to support candidates who focus on transgender bathrooms instead of focussing on issues of real import. Maybe a future column can look at who is funding these right-wing primary candidates and why.

By compelling GOP party members to skew rightward, those elected by the GOP are endorsing concepts like school vouchers and the complete and total elimination of any benefits that might help those who are disadvantaged in any way. The Democratic party, in response to this tilt, is fearful of skewing leftward for fear that they might lose moderate voters and so they have increasingly endorsed “centrist” neoliberal policies that favor “market driven” solutions to social problems. This leads them to support “school choice” in the form of for-profit charters… for profit charters that are underwritten by their political donors.

Here’s the bottom line from my perspective: when profiteers drive elections the rank and file voters have no choice. Neither party today espouses government solutions to social problems and both parties are beholden to profiteer donors. If our nation hopes to engage voters in the future, we need a REAL choice about the direction of our economy and a REAL debate about the role of government.

 

Los Angeles School Board Election, Most Expensive in History, Won By Pro-Charter Candidates Supported by Arne Duncan

May 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the past several weeks, Diane Ravitch has devoted several posts to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s election, which pitted two anti-charter candidates funded by teachers’ unions against two “reform” candidates who want more school choice. It shouldn’t be too difficult to guess who Arne Duncan supported. But if you need help figuring it out, this article from the March 29 LATimes will help…. and, yes, Mr. Duncan supported the “reformers”, support that should come as no surprise to anyone who watched what the Obama administration DID as opposed to what the Obama administration SAID. These two paragraphs tell the story:

Like President Trump and his Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, Melvoin and Gonez (the pro charter candidates) strongly support privately operated, publicly funded charter schools. But so does Duncan. And so did the administration of President Obama, who also maintained close ties with leaders of teachers unions critical of charters.

The union message to liberal Los Angeles voters has been that Melvoin and Gonez will pursue the Trump education agenda. But the candidates insist the more apt association is with Obama.

And here’s the question for those who supported Hilary Clinton: would SHE have changed directions at USDOE? My hunch is that she would have continued the “privatization lite” plans Obama launched: privatization that favored for-profit non-sectarian charter schools and omitted any support for vouchers that can be used by homeschoolers ad those attending religiously affiliated schools. That’s the “third way” of neoliberalism: support the spread of capitalism (i.e. free markets) at the expense of democracy (i.e. locally controlled “government schools”). 

Here Comes the Chocolate Milk, Salt… and the Profits!

May 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I read with dismay that the latest budget under review in Congress includes a rollback in the school lunch standards set by President Obama in 2012… a rollback in the name of  de-regulation. As reported by McClatchy writer Lindsay Wise:

Chocolate milk is coming back on the school lunch menu.

So are white bread and saltier food.

Several paragraphs tucked into a massive 1,665-page government spending bill released Monday would relax Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunches.

On page 101 of the bill, due for congressional votes later this week, the secretary of agriculture is directed to allow states to grant schools exemptions so they can serve flavored low-fat milk and bread products that are not rich in whole grains.

The bill, which keeps the federal government funded through Sept. 30, also would push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels. It would bar federal funds from paying the salaries of any government officials to implement the nutrition standards.

The problem, according to legislators, was that the regulations were creating a problem for cafeterias who couldn’t make ends meet and the fact that children weren’t eating the foods the cafeterias offered. According to the GOP legislator who oversees the lunch program as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee the government has been using the wrong standards to measure school lunch. Nutrition is less important than consumption!

Some school districts and cafeteria workers complained the rules are too costly and restrictive. Without more flexibility, they warned, they’d keep throwing away whole grains, fruits and vegetables that kids refuse to eat.

“All the way through this, the yardstick on the school lunch program was whether or not the kids were eating,” said Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

Given that guideline, I’m surprised the GOP wants to restrict the grocery items people on food stamps purchase. Shouldn’t the yardstick for that program be “whether or not the merchandise is consumed” and if that is the yardstick why shouldn’t those receiving government benefits for food be allowed to purchase snack foods and beer? The real reason behind this shift was identified in the article:

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House domestic policy council under Obama, said that the language in the omnibus is a legislative attempt to dismantle rules that can be hard to undo once they’re in place.

This looks like something that’s being done for the sake of industry at the expense of kids. It’s much harder to revoke a rule, and it’s especially hard to revoke a rule when you’re fighting the science here. It just opens your rule-making up to litigation, because you have to prove there’s a rational basis. … It’s going to be interesting what the rationale is going to be for adding more salt to foods or moving away from whole grains to more refined grains.”

It’s clear what the rationale will be: schools should yield to the marketplace and allow profiteers to flourish at the expense of the well-being of children. That trade-off is important for children learn… more important than learning how to eat a tasty and well-balanced meal.