Category Archives: Education / Youth

How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.

Vouchers, Discrimination And Corruption

Indiana has the largest, most costly school voucher program in the country.

How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds have been diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.

Now we also find that the lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson has written the best summary of that problem.

The joke is that dead people vote in Chicago. Apparently they go to school in Indiana. Stephanie Wang, reporting for Chalkbeat Indiana, has an article about the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathway Academy which, among a number of other abuses, kept a dead kid on their claims for state money for two years after he died.

Five years after two students moved to Florida, they reappeared on enrollment records for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school.

And nearly every one of the more than 900 students kicked out of Indiana Virtual School and its sister school in the 2017-18 school year for being inactive were re-enrolled the next school year, included in per-pupil funding calculations that netted the two online schools more than $34 million in public dollars last year.

These were among the ways that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy allegedly inflated their enrollment to at least twice its actual size, according to the findings of a state examiner’s investigation released Monday.

As Doug points out, heads would roll if it was discovered that a public school was manipulating its Average Daily Membership (ADM).

The virtual school superintendent responded by reminding everyone that these weren’t great students and also freedom.

In a written response to the state education board, Clark did not address the enrollment discrepancies but defended the online schools for serving “last-chance students” who have dropped out of or been expelled from traditional public schools — even if they weren’t active.

He accused state education officials of trying “to remove educational choice and force students to remain in school environments in which success has evaded them and where hope has abandoned them.”

“The beacon of hope has just been doused,” Clark concluded.

Doug’s response to this asinine defense was a perfect bit of snark: “Also, I’d add that if you make public money for voucher schools contingent on providing actual services to actual students, then the terrorists win. Obviously.”

Initially, many people who favored vouchers truly believed that such programs would “rescue” poor children trapped in failing schools. (In true American style, it didn’t occur to most of them to advocate fixing those schools.) They pointed to better outcomes in private schools, conveniently overlooking sociological differences between families sending children to private schools and others. (Studies controlling for those differences found no statistically significant differences.)

However well-meaning those initial supporters were, the evidence is in: in addition to the consequences enumerated above, vouchers are yet another wedge between America’s tribes, separating children of different religions (and in many places, races, as their use increasingly re-segregates school populations) from each other.

In addition to providing academic instruction, public schools serve as a “street corner” for children from different backgrounds. Given residential segregation based on income, that street corner is admittedly imperfect, but it nevertheless fosters more civic integration than the religious institutions that separate the theologically acceptable from the “others.”

Let’s face the facts: vouchers were a (very clever) “work around” allowing tax dollars to flow to religious schools despite the Establishment Clause–part of the continuing fundamentalist assault on separation of church and state.

And they haven’t even improved children’s education.

 

 

The Disaster That Is Betsy DeVos

There’s a reason that living under the Trump Administration is so exhausting;  citizens don’t know where to look first. We wake every morning with the same question: which of Trump’s incompetent/corrupt Cabinet members is doing the most damage today?

The EPA is headed by a former coal lobbyist who is busy eviscerating environmental protections. The  Secretary of the Treasury is refusing to honor a request for Trump’s taxes, despite a statute that specifically requires him to do so. At Commerce, Wilbur Ross was (fortunately) too incompetent to follow the rules for adding questions to the Census. Mike Pompeo is using the State Department to further fundamentalist Christian interests. Alex Acosta has joined the exodus of Trump Administration officials ousted for improper/corrupt behaviors….

And speaking of corrupt, don’t get me started about William Barr.

However, we can’t allow these scandals to obscure Betsy DeVos and her continuing effort to cripple the Department of Education and sabotage public education.

Recently, DeVos installed Diane Jones, a veteran of “for-profit organizations that operate low-quality education programs,” as chief architect of her education policy.

“President Trump’s Department of Education is stacked with former for-profit executives whose companies got rich by ripping students off,” said Charisma L. Troiano, the press secretary for Democracy Forward, a government watchdog organization that has accused Ms. Jones of several conflicts of interest. “For decades, Diane Auer Jones has advocated for this predatory industry.” (Link unavailable)

DeVos  is the first Secretary of Education to come to that post having zero experience with public schools. She has never worked in a public school, has never been a teacher, a school administrator, nor a member of a public board of education. Not only that, she didn’t attend public schools herself, and she didn’t send her children to public schools. In Michigan, she’d been an implacable foe of public education and a generous funder of vouchers and for-profit charters.

When she was nominated for the position, the Washington Post ran an article titled “A sobering look at what Betsy DeVos did to education in Michigan.” It documented the troubling decline in student achievement in the private and religious schools she supported.

Her confirmation hearings were a disaster, revealing her monumental ignorance of DOE’s mission and legal responsibilities, and lack of familiarity with important education policies. It took Mike Pence’s vote to confirm her–the first time in history a Vice-President had to cast a deciding vote for a cabinet nominee.

And what has she done since she was (barely) confirmed?

  • rolled back protections for transgendered students.
  • proposed a nine billion dollar cut in education funding
  • repealed federal protections against predatory for-profit colleges
  • rescinded college-level sexual assault guidelines
  • stripped DOE employees of collective bargaining rights
  • endorsed a plan to place guns in schools, and to purchase them with federal grant money intended for academics and student enrichment
  • eviscerated the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows public workers to apply for forgiveness of their student loans after 10 years of service and on-time loan payments.
  • pushed to expand federal vouchers by $50 billion dollars over ten years
  • refused–and  continues to refuse–to enforce laws requiring that federally funded services be provided only by public employees or by contractors independent of private schools and religious organizations. (It is unprecedented for a federal agency to announce it won’t enforce the law as written.)

There’s more at the link.

Even if Democrats sweep this abysmal crew out in the 2020 elections, it will take decades to repair the damage.

It turns out that handing the government over to people who know absolutely nothing–either about government in general or the work they are being asked to do in particular–is a really bad idea.

Promises Promises…

Trump promised to revive coal mining. Bernie is once again promising to eliminate student debt. Bernie’s goal is a lot more attractive, but his strategy is equally delusional.

Trump, of course, is too dumb–and unconcerned–to know how energy markets work; he just throws red meat to his equally-uniformed base. Is that what Bernie is doing, too? Playing to his core voters without realizing how unrealistic/unworkable his promises are? I doubt that. Unlike Trump, he’s pretty smart–and he actually knows how government works.

And that’s worse, because it means he has to know his plan is an absolute non-starter.

Student debt is admittedly an enormous problem, both for the students who spend years burdened by it and for the economy, where it constitutes an enormous drag on consumer spending and economic growth. Policymakers definitely should do something to alleviate the burden, but the pertinent question is: what sorts of proposals make sense?

What would a workable solution look like?

Economists point out that simply canceling all student debt ends up helping high-income families most, which seems like a less-than-prudent use of tax dollars. Estimates are that the top 40 percent of earners would receive about two-thirds of the benefits.

Sanders has made a similar proposal before, and David Honig, a friend (who is an exceptional lawyer), took a “deep dive” into that previous plan. I am appending his analysis. It’s long, and it’s legalistic/technical, but it also demonstrates why political promises sound so much better when they aren’t closely examined.

I’ve bolded language that I think is particularly important…Here’s David’s summary.

________________________–
Time for a breakdown. Here we go:

TITLE I—FEDERAL-STATE PARTNERSHIP TO ELIMINATE TUITION

SEC. 101. GRANT PROGRAM TO ELIMINATE TUITION AND REQUIRED FEES AT PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION.

That’s our first title, and what it tells you is that this isn’t a Federal program alone, it’s a State and Federal program. In turn, that means that States have to sign on. The King v. Burwell precedent from the ACA litigation is going to still control, and that means we’re not talking about free tuition everywhere, just in blue States.
 
(a) Program Authorized.—
(1) GRANTS AUTHORIZED.—From amounts appropriated under subsection (f), the Secretary of Education (referred to in this section as the “Secretary”) shall award grants, from allotments under subsection (b), to States having applications approved under subsection (d), to enable the States to eliminate tuition and required fees at public institutions of higher education.
(2) MATCHING FUNDS REQUIREMENT.—Each State that receives a grant under this section shall provide matching funds for a fiscal year in an amount that is equal to one half the amount received under this section for the fiscal year toward the cost of reducing the cost of attendance at public institutions of higher education in the State.

That’s your formula — 2/3 Fed, 1/3 State. So if Sanders’ own estimate is right, that the cost to the Feds is $750B over 10 years, that means the States are going to have to come up with $375B, and they can’t tax Wall Street.

So how much do they get? Well, that’s interesting, and the legislation quite clearly institutionalizes the vast differences in education spending from State to State:

(b) Determination Of Allotment.—

This is how the dollars are determined.

(1) INITIAL ALLOTMENT.—For fiscal year 2016, the Secretary shall allot to each eligible State that submits an application under this section an amount that is equal to 67 percent of the total revenue received by the State’s public system of higher education in the form of tuition and related fees for fiscal year 2016. For each of fiscal years 2017 through 2019, the Secretary shall allot to each eligible State that submits an application under this section—
(A) an amount equal to the allotment the State received for fiscal year 2016, plus
(B) if the State provides additional funds toward the cost of reducing the cost of attendance at public institutions of higher education in the State for any of such fiscal years that is more than the matching funds requirement under subsection (a)(2), an amount equal to such additional funding provided by the State, which amount provided by the Secretary may be used for the activities described in subsection (e)(2).

Ummm, wow. So the State gets 2/3 of the revenue it received in the form of tuition and related fees? That, by the plain language of the statute, would exclude money spent by the State from general funds, lottery funds, special education funds, etc., and include only tuition and related fees. So States that subsidized education the most would get the least? That’s how it reads. If so, this is a total non-starter, and the legislation is a complete sham —  a promise written in unrealistic numbers to make it seem possible. If that is really what is intended, kill it now. Just forget it, and stop even pretending it was realistic.

But, in the interest of fairness, let’s assume it doesn’t really mean what it says, and that what it is really intended to do is replace all State spending on higher education. Okay? Is that fair, at least for the sake of discussion?

Even under that reasoning, there are problems. California’s budget is $10.5B, while Vermont’s is $84M. More important, New Hampshire is $104/capita, while Wyoming is $606/capita. So we start with that spending (assuming it’s not really tuition, which would make the whole thing a farce), and see right away that the new Federal program would instantly endorse unequal spending decisions made State-by-State, and pay for those decisions with Federal money. How long do you think that would last without challenge, either in Congress or in the courts? Yeah, not very long. If the money is coming from DC, paid via New York, what justification is there to spend so much less in one State than another?

And for years after 2016, while the States can increase their spending, they only get a one-to-one match in Federal funds, rather than the initial two-to-one match, making future State spending far more expensive than past State spending.

(2) SUBSEQUENT ALLOTMENTS.—Beginning in fiscal year 2020, the Secretary shall determine the median allotment per full-time equivalent student made to all eligible States under this section for fiscal year 2019 and incrementally reduce allotments made to States under this section such that by fiscal year 2025, no State receives an allotment under this section per full-time equivalent student that exceeds the median allotment per full-time equivalent student made under this section for fiscal year 2019.

Oh look, starting in 2020 there is an “evening out” of the money. Except, it comes down, instead of going up. So a State that was spending a lot of money on education gets a whole lot less, dropping the median, while a State that was spending less doesn’t get more. The median just keeps dropping to the lowest common denominator.

Do people really think this is a good idea?

(c) State Eligibility Requirements.—In order to be eligible to receive an allotment under this section for a fiscal year, a State shall—

Okay, so what does a State have to do to stay in the system?

ensure that public institutions of higher education in the State maintain per-pupil expenditures on instruction at levels that meet or exceed the expenditures for the previous fiscal year;

You have got to be kidding me! So one-half of the States, the ones actually trying to fund their higher education, get less starting in 2020, but the State has to keep paying just as much? So now the funding will go down from 2-1 to perhaps 1-1, or even less? This is insane. In the meantime, they have to do just as much with even less than they had before? So the University of California system is going to have funding from the feds that matches funding to Missouri, but has to put just as much California money into it, while trying to maintain their standards? Interesting.

ensure that tuition and required fees for in-State undergraduate students in the State’s public higher education system are eliminated;

Hey guys, we get less money, but we can’t charge tuition. Terrific!

(3) maintain State operating expenditures for public institutions of higher education, excluding the amount of funds provided for a fiscal year under this section, at a level that meets or exceeds the level of such support for fiscal year 2015;

Okay, this one’s not a big deal. Except, it hints that when it said “tuition” up above, it really meant “tuition.” And that’s nuts.

(4) maintain State expenditures on need-based financial aid programs for enrollment in public institutions of higher education in the State at a level that meets or exceeds the level of such support for fiscal year 2015;
(5) ensure public institutions of higher education in the State maintain funding for institutional need-based student financial aid in an amount that is equal to or exceeds the level of such funding for the previous fiscal year;

Huh? Why do they have to spend just as much on need-based student financial aid if students don’t have to pay tuition? Somebody please explain this one.
 
(6) provide an assurance that not later than 5 years after the date of enactment of this Act, not less than 75 percent of instruction at public institutions of higher education in the State is provided by tenured or tenure-track faculty;

A lovely goal, but the money just dropped through the floor for the highest-paying half of the States in the country.

(7) require that public institutions of higher education in the State provide, for each student enrolled at the institution who receives for the maximum Federal Pell Grant award under subpart 1 of part A of title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070a et seq.), institutional student financial aid in an amount equal to 100 percent of the difference between—
(A) the cost of attendance at such institution (as determined in accordance with section 472 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1087ll)), and
(B) the sum of—
(i) the amount of the maximum Federal Pell Grant award; and
(ii) the student’s expected family contribution

So in addition to the funding discussion above, now they have to make up the difference between costs and Pell grant money? This is starting to sound like a whole lot of new unfunded mandates, the kind the Supreme Court doesn’t like.
 
and
(8) ensure that public institutions of higher education in the State not adopt policies to reduce enrollment.

Same enrollment, less money.

(d) Submission And Contents Of Application.—For each fiscal year for which a State desires a grant under this section, the State agency with jurisdiction over higher education, or another agency designated by the Governor or chief executive of the State to administer the program under this section, shall submit an application to the Secretary at such time, in such manner, and containing such information as the Secretary may require.

Only States that want to participate will need to submit applications. Guess which States will want to participate? The Democratic States that spend low amounts of money on higher education. The higher-paying States, even if they’re blue as blue can be, won’t want any part of it, for the reasons noted above. 
 
(e) Use Of Funds.—

How do they get to use the money?

(1) IN GENERAL.—A State that receives a grant under this section shall use the grant funds and the matching funds required under this section to eliminate tuition and required fees for students at public institutions of higher education in the State.

First, reduce tuition. Okay, got it.

(2) ADDITIONAL FUNDING.—Once tuition and required fees have been eliminated pursuant to paragraph (1), a State that receives a grant under this section shall use any remaining grant funds and matching funds required under this section to increase the quality of instruction and student support services by carrying out the following:
(A) Expanding academic course offerings to students.
(B) Increasing the number and percentage of full-time instructional faculty.
(C) Providing all faculty with professional supports to help students succeed, such as professional development opportunities, office space, and shared governance in the institution.
(D) Compensating part-time faculty for work done outside of the classroom relating to instruction, such as holding office hours.
(E) Strengthening and ensuring all students have access to student support services such as academic advising, counseling, and tutoring.
(F) Any other additional activities that improve instructional quality and academic outcomes for students as approved by the Secretary through a peer review process.

Second, you have to put any additional money back into education. Savings may not be spent elsewhere. Not even State money. So the Feds are now controlling the State use of its budget, even if the State is meeting all its obligations. Interesting. How long do you think that will last in court?

(3) PROHIBITION.—A State that receives a grant under this section may not use grant funds or matching funds required under this section—
(A) for the construction of non-academic facilities, such as student centers or stadiums;
(B) for merit-based student financial aid; or
(C) to pay the salaries or benefits of school administrators.
 
Oh for ____’s sake! Do we really think school administrators, the people who enroll students, who handle disciplinary issues, who manage dormitories, and a thousand other things, aren’t part of running a successful university? Is there some imaginary university where the kindly professor meets the students under the ol’ oak tree to impart knowledge, while they nibble their brown-bag lunches?
 
(f) Authorization And Appropriation.—There are authorized to be appropriated to carry out this section $47,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2016, and such sums as may be necessary for each of the fiscal years 2017 through 2025.

And the cost? $47B the first year, and whatever is necessary for the years to follow.

Conclusion

There you go. That’s Sanders “free college” plan.

It doesn’t sound quite as great to me when you look at the details as when you put it on a bumper sticker.

That reminds me–how are all those new coal mines doing?

 

Sex And The State

Indianapolis’ Pride Celebration gets bigger and better every year–this year, the parade was so crowded with people enjoying the lovely day and the multiple marchers and floats that the “usual subjects”–with their signs proclaiming the sinfulness of “homo” sex– almost escaped notice.

Those “usual subjects”–the scolds who come out of the woodwork to tell LGBTQ folks that God disapproves of them, and the “good Christians” who scream invective at women entering Planned Parenthood clinics–are reminders that Americans have always had a real problem with sex. Not just gay sex, either. Any sex.

Residents of more laid-back countries (no pun intended) have found both America’s excessive religiosity and famous prudishness puzzling, and both of those elements of our political culture are barriers to reasonable policymaking. Most of the country has finally  recognized that statutes forbidding fornication, sodomy and the like didn’t prevent those behaviors, but simply allowed police who were so inclined to harass marginalized folks with what lawyers call “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement.

The gratifying disappearance of these silly statutes, however, doesn’t mean we Americans have lost our obsession with sex. The fights have simply moved to other venues, like abortion, transgender bathrooms and especially sex education policy, where “family values” warriors continue to insist that only abstinence should be taught in the classroom.

Sex education has been a controversial subject for decades as public school officials and parents have debated the best ways to help teenagers avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Not all states require schools to teach sex ed. But many states require sex education instructors to discuss or stress abstinence from sexual activity, with some schools offering abstinence-only programming, which urges kids to wait until marriage and often excludes information about contraceptives.

So-called “comprehensive” sex education programs teach students about abstinence, but (in a nod to hormones and reality) also teach about contraception, sexual health and how to handle unwanted sexual advances. Such curricula are gaining ground in some states.

In 2019, sex education continues to make headlines even as teen pregnancy rates continue to fall. Policymakers in Colorado, California and Alabama have pushed for big changes in the way sex education is taught there. In Colorado, a bill that would ban abstinence-only education in public schools awaits the governor’s signature. The legislation, which also requires that sex education be inclusive for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ), was “one of the most contentious battles of the 2019 legislative session,”according to the Colorado Times Recorder.

In Alabama–home of the recent law banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest– the state’s sex education law requires teachers to emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” (A bill has been introduced that would change that requirement, but as this is written, it’s still on the books.)

As of 2016, abstinence was a required topic of instruction in states such as Arkansas, South Dakota and Texas…. 29 states, including Florida, Montana and Pennsylvania, did not require their sex education curricula to be based on medically accurate information. In some schools, teachers have been accused of inflating condom failure rates to discourage use.

I know that basing policy on evidence is out of favor in the Age of Trump, but the research is instructive: abstinence-only education results in higher teen birth rates. (And those “virginity pledges” that fundamentalist dads brag about? Researchers found that girls who took pledges were more likely to become pregnant outside of marriage when compared with girls and young women who did not take abstinence pledges.)

Facts are such inconvenient things.

I know it’s heresy, but maybe–just maybe–schools should teach kids medically-and-age appropriate information about their bodies, rather than inaccurate, incomplete or counterproductive information intended to mollify prudes and religious fundamentalists.