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Why Public Schools Have Become The Epicenter Of Rebellion

The revolution may not be televised, but it is happening in public schools. This is evident in the growth of student and teacher actions across the country, from walkouts to strikes.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. Public school communities – students, teachers, parents, and citizens – have seen their institutions targeted with deeper budget cuts, greater inequities in the system, harsher penalties for “underperforming” on arbitrary standards, and deadlier gun violence.

Is it any wonder that these constituents are starting to stand up and say they’ve had enough?

Students Demand Freedom to Learn

This week, mass walkouts of students in middle schools and high schools spanned the nation to protest school shootings and lack of sensible gun control. Actions in nearly 3,000 schools were planned, and news organizations and social media users reported thousands of students participating in the demonstrations in countless cities and towns. Many of the events were captured on a nationwide “snap map” using the SnapChat social media app.

The walkouts, billed as the Enough National School Walkout, took place one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and educators. The organizers, the Youth Empower branch of The Women’s March organization, called for students to leave the classroom at 10:00 a.m. and stay out of class for 17 minutes: one minute for each person killed in the shooting.

Students haven’t only kept their protests on campus. In Washington, D.C., thousands of students descended on the White House and Capitol Hill. An estimated 60,000 students flooded the streets across New York City.

School boards, administrators, and teachers were generally supportive of the student actions; although there were isolated incidents of schools preventing students from walking out, or threatening suspensions.

The students demand the right to attend school in an environment where they don’t have to worry about being gunned down. “Protect lives, not guns” was an oft-observed sign held aloft in the demonstrations.

Teachers Want to Teach

The mass student walkouts came close after another headline-grabbing story born from the public school community: the successful teacher strike in West Virginia.

In defiance of state laws making public employee strikes illegal, nearly 20,000 teachers and about 13,000 school service personnel in all 55 counties of the Mountain State shut down schools for nine days. School boards and administrators across the state expressed strong support for the teachers and took no actions to end the walkouts.

West Virginia lawmakers buckled to all five of the teachers’ demands including a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, a realistic commitment from the state to address a broken public employee health insurance program, limits on charter school expansions, a continuation of seniority privileges for teachers and the ability of unions to deduct dues through payroll collection.

The successful action of the West Virginia teachers is inspiring similar actions in other states.

Teachers in Oklahoma have set an April 2 date for a statewide strike, if their demands for better pay and working conditions aren’t met by state lawmakers. Like West Virginia, Oklahoma is also a “right to work state” where collective bargaining is outlawed. But the teachers are defiant none the less, and once again, school boards and administrators are backing the teachers.

In Arizona, two public school advocacy groups are planning a march on the state capitol for March 28. Their chief complaints are lousy teacher pay, college student-loan burdens, a shortage of qualified teachers, and cuts to classroom resources.

In Kentucky, hundreds of teachers are protesting cuts to their benefit programs. Local media are reporting the actions are a “precursor to a statewide strike.”

Why Schools?

It’s not surprising that school communities have become a breeding ground for dissent.

People who rely on public schools have a lot to complain about. Government officials at all levels have been underpaying teachers and making their lives miserable, wielding budget cuts that close learning opportunities for students, and pushing schools toward more prison like conditions instead of doing something meaningful about gun violence.

Policy leaders and lawmakers have also remained largely deaf to the demands of those in the public education system.

Even as students were out in the streets calling for sensible gun control, President Donald Trump was reversing himself once again, backing off meaningful steps for gun control and increasing funds for arming teachers instead.

This is opposite of what public-school students and teachers say they want: meaningful gun control. A new bill passed by the House funds new school safety measures without directing more money for guns in schools. That’s progress, but it does nothing to control the proliferation of guns that menace schools.

Kate Doyle Griffiths, writing in Viewpoint Magazine, puts her finger on another key reason public schools are at the epicenter of a new populist rebellion.

In explaining how the West Virginia teachers won, she argues the teachers were successful because “the strike was socialized because of its location at a concentrated point of reproduction: schools.” As occupations increasingly drive employees into cubicles and career niches, schools are one of the few remaining institutions where employees “interface with more people than most other workplaces do, at least in an immediate sense. That these workplaces are connected to other ‘kinship networks’ mean that there’s an imminent possibility that they can be activated politically, becoming a privileged site of class organization.”

Schools are America’s most collaborative endeavor, by far. They’re the places we’ve entrusted to teach the values of democracy. They’re working.

West Virginia Teachers Tell Us Why Public Schools And Unions Matter

Striking public school educators in West Virginia overcame all odds in getting lawmakers to agree to a five-percent pay raise and a realistic commitment from the state to address a broken public employee health insurance program.

Equally remarkable is how the West Virginia strike is already inspiring similar actions in other states. Teachers in Oklahoma recently set a strike date of April 23 if their demands for pay increases aren’t met by the state legislature. [UPDATE: Oklahoma teachers have pushed the strike date forward to April 2.] Kentucky could be next, as teachers warn of a statewide strike to protest changes to their retirement benefits. And Arizona teachers are organizing a “day of protest” to express their grievances over lousy teacher pay.

But the West Virginia teachers’ strike is not only a startling victory for labor rights; it’s also a reminder of the important role public schools and public school educators can and should play in progressive populism.

Left Behind

For years, prominent progressive voices have been weak in their support for school teachers and public schools. But the West Virginia teachers may have started to change that; at least progressive activists in the Mountain State seem to think so.

“The teacher power on display in West Virginia aligns with the other progressive movements that are speaking truth to power,” Gary Zuckett, the Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, told me in an email. “Everyone, from the across the justice movements – environmental, social, economic, racial, and gender – were totally inspired by the throw down of the teachers and the way they stood their ground without backing down.”

“Through the strike, West Virginians learned the power of their voice and ability to move policy,” said Ryan Frankenberry, Executive Director of the West Virginia Working Families Party, in an email. “Now, we’re going to harness that energy and turn it into progressive wins at the state and federal level in this year’s elections.”

Odds Against Them

Make no mistake, the statewide walkout that shut down schools in West Virginia for nine days was a brazen act of mass civil disobedience.

West Virginia prohibits collective bargaining, and all teacher contracts are controlled by the state. So getting an agreement from Republican Governor Jim Justice and the GOP-controlled legislature seemed like a longshot at best.

At one point, state officials threatened to take legal action against the teachers, but teachers didn’t back down.

When union leadership accepted the governor’s preliminary proposal, they told teachers to report back to work. Rank and file teachers went wildcat, and refused to cooperate, noting the state legislature had yet to vote on the raise and the settlement did not include a fix to the health insurance program.

Yet, the solidarity of nearly 20,000 teachers and about 13,000 school service personnel in all 55 counties remained solid. County school boards and district superintendents unified behind the teachers. And parents and students expressed widespread support for the strike, with many of them joining in the raucous demonstrations at the capitol. When a group of students formed a solidarity group to support teachers, their effort quickly spread to at least 12 other counties.

Not a Typical Union Strike

“This was way beyond a typical union strike,” retired West Virginia school teacher Paul Epstein told me in a phone call. Epstein was a third-year public school teacher in West Virginia in 1990, the last time the state’s teachers went on strike.

In that strike, according to Epstein, not all teachers walked out, and not every school closed. Many parents chose to cross picket lines to take their kids to schools.

What’s different now?

Teachers’ lives in West Virginia and nationwide have gotten considerably worse.

When teachers won a pay increase as a result of their 1990 action, Epstein recalled, it added $5,000 over the next five years and lifted his meager salary of about $16,000 by nearly thirty percent.

Things are much worse now, he noted, as West Virginia teachers are near bottom of the barrel in teacher pay, ranking 48th compared to other states and the District of Columbia – with a minimum salary of only $32,000. Teachers haven’t had a statewide pay increase since 2014.

Further, spiking costs of premiums in the state-supported public employee health insurance program have made small increases in salaries almost irrelevant.

West Virginians know the dismal condition of their state’s teacher pay. A recent survey found over 70 percent of them think teacher pay is too low.

West Virginia teachers aren’t alone. Their peers in the U.S. are paid 17 percent less than  similarly educated professionals. Their average weekly wages have declined by $1,122 to $1,092 in the past 20 years, while weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416.

A second factor to note, according to Epstein, is the impact of President Donald Trump’s ascendency, especially on women. About 75 percent of West Virginia teachers are women, which closely matches national percentages.

Anecdotally, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement would seem to indicate that public school teachers may becoming a fertile ground for populist dissent. Empirical analysis would support that conclusion too. Recent polls show that college educated women nationally are increasingly turning against Republicans and the Trump administration, especially in financially downtrodden states like West Virginia.

The Importance of Unions and Schools

Without a doubt, union organizing was instrumental in generating the West Virginia teachers’ successful action. But the strike may illustrate the changing nature of union power in the progressive movement.

Some have pointed to the strike as the future of labor organizing, because the teachers transcended the constraints of right to work laws and political party lines.

Many argue an imminent Supreme Court decision that could marginalize unions of their ability to collect dues through employee paychecks will result in more wildcat strikes like the one in West Virginia, because well-funded unions and collective bargaining actually have led to less contentious labor conflicts.

What also makes the West Virginia Teachers strike similar to other effective acts of solidarity against entrenched right-wing power is that it was borne in the democratic cauldron of public schools.

It was public school students reacting to a horrific school shooting in a Florida high school who staged spontaneous protests across the country to demand sensible gun control and call out the National Rifle and politicians who accept their donations for opposing any gun control bills.

The students have been joined by teachers who are also calling for an end to gun violence. The upsurge shows no signs of withering.

These protests from public school teachers and students are mere baby steps for what is needed to overcome the powerful and unjust entrenched forces in society. But those who support progressive change must embrace them.

Where From Here?

Some observers have accused West Virginia teachers of settling for “toxic terms,” because Republican Senators in the legislature have vowed to make up the cost for the 5 percent raise by gouging funding for general government services and Medicaid. Spokespeople in the governor’s office disagree, saying money for the raise could come from cuts in executive branch spending or from new appropriations resulting from expected revenues increases.

A deal on the state’s broken state employee health insurance program, a driving concern in the negotiations, also has yet to be worked out. But the teachers persuaded the governor to create a bipartisan task force, including current and former state employees, to hammer out the details.

In the meantime, the strike’s results, and the organizing and communications effort that brought the results about, seem to be galvanizing a movement for progressive change that could carry into November elections.

“Communicating via social media was empowering because everyone could watch hearings and share information without an intermediary,” Frankenberry told me. “Pictures and videos of communities supporting workers, teachers taking care of their students during the strike, and massive mobilizations in the state capital inspired and powered solidarity.”

“This massive action has gotten more voters to pay attention to what happens at the statehouse and how it directly affects their lives,” wrote Zuckett. “‘We’ll Remember in November’ was a common chant in the halls of the capitol.”

Will Lawmakers Again Make Schools The Sacrificial Lamb For Gun Control?

Democratic Senators were positively “giddy,” according to the New York Times, when President Donald Trump, during a live televised meeting, declared his strong support for gun control and urged Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that would expand background checks, keep guns from mentally ill people, and raise the age limit for purchasing guns to 21.

No doubt Democratic lawmakers will seize on the president’s sudden conversion to their side and try to rush through Congress new legislation to address gun violence. But there’s a part of what the president is pushing that should caution Democrats against acting too hastily to embrace his proposals.

In addition to acting on guns, Trump also wants to “harden our schools against attack,” Education Week reports, by adding more “security” apparatus to schools and arming more school personnel, including teachers.

School security measures are all the rage with lawmakers right now because of the horrendous shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That tragic event is what has put the issue of gun control and school safety on the Beltway’s radar in the first place.

Real action on meaningful gun control should get the happy support of Congressional Democrats. But if precedent holds, the likely outcome of any “bipartisan” action on guns and school safety will be that the gun lobby will convince enough Republicans to suppress any meaningful control of firearms and ammo while legislators in both parties will let new “security” measures for schools sail through, and teachers and students will be worse off for it.

The Media’s Big Lie

The media’s big lie is that “we’ve done nothing” to address school shootings that continue to plague the nation. More accurate is to say we’ve done the wrong things.

After the appalling slaughter at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, Congress took up legislation to address school shootings. But nothing meaningful about gun control made it out of the Senate, while plenty of new laws got passed, in Washington and in state capitals across the country, that turned school buildings into harsher, more punitive environments – all for the sake of “security.”

Using the Sandy Hook narrative as a rationale, lawmakers proposed dozens of new bills to either allow educators to carry weapons, add armed guards to public schools, or take other steps to make it easier for school personnel to carry guns on school and college campuses.

The Obama administration helped incentivize the arms race in schools with lots of new federal grant money for school cops, commonly called “school resource officers.”

Since Sandy Hook, over 101 bills have been proposed to increase school police forces, 84 to arm school personnel, and 73 to ease restrictions on guns in schools, according to Education Week. Only 51 bills targeted gun control, and 81 addressed school climate and support.

Meanwhile, there have been 63 school shootings during the same time period, and cops now outnumber counselors in the nation’s largest school systems. Nationally, the ratio of school counselors to students is 1:491 – almost two times the recommended ratio.

Witness recent events in Florida, following the Parkland shooting, where state lawmakers voted against a bill to ban assault weapons while eagerly pushing forward a bill appropriating $67 million to arm school teachers – all done in defiance of the vehement criticism of Parkland survivors who looked on. Did these Florida officials not know Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did have a sheriff’s deputy on duty at time of the shooting, but he never discharged his weapon?

The Florida measure to arm teachers resembles a bill enacted in Texas in 2013. There have been 25 school-related shootings in the Lone Star State since then.

Research studies overwhelmingly show teachers don’t want guns in schools and the proliferation of guns correlates with increases in shootings.

Guns and Guards Don’t Help Kids

Not only has the school arms race been ineffective in addressing school shootings; but turning our institutions for teaching and learning into environments that more resemble prisons is having a severely negative impact on students and teachers.

“The most striking impact of school police officers,” the New York Times reports, “has been a surge in arrests or misdemeanor charges for essentially nonviolent behavior …. that sends children into the criminal courts.”

“Every day in our nation’s schools, children as young as five are charged with “crimes” for everyday misbehavior: throwing a paper airplane, kicking a trashcan, and wearing sagging pants. In the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, schools reported over 223,000 referrals to law enforcement,” according to the ACLU.

The ACLU’s study found increased police presence in schools added “an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in schools, police presence often results in physical harm when children are body slammed, tased, pepper sprayed, choked, or placed in handcuffs.

“The psychological impact of school policing on children has lifelong consequences,” the ACLU stated, including increased feelings of alienation, anxiety, and rejection and a heightened perception of education institutions as negative places.

“There is no routine place for police in our public schools,” the study concluded.

Do the Right Thing

There are alternative to guards and guns. The Advancement Project, a civil rights coalition, that has proposed a “Gun Free Way to School Safety” plan for schools calling for preventing crisis situations “through creation of a positive school culture” and enacting “appropriate security measures” that don’t involve law enforcement personnel.

So yes, Democrats should embrace any efforts on meaningful gun control proposed by President Trump or any other Republicans. But let’s not make public schools, and in turn students and teachers, the sacrificial lamb continually slaughtered for the sake of saying we’re “doing something.”

[This article has been updated with additional research.]

 

Student and Teacher Leadership Will Change the Politics of Gun Control

This time is different.

After the horrendous shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students are taking over the debate on gun control that politicians in both parties have so horribly botched for decades.

The protests are not confined to the courageous survivors of the Parkland atrocity, as walk-outs, rallies, “die-ins,” and other forms of mass demonstration have broken out at middle and high schools and in communities across the country. Teachers are joining in the widespread dissent, not as instigators but as collaborators in raising a unified message that “enough is enough.”

Parkland student leaders have called for a March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24 to end gun violence and mass shootings schools. On March 14, Women’s March organizers are urging students, teachers, and their allies to walk out of schools to protest gun violence. On April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, a coalition of teachers and public school advocates, including two national teachers’ unions and the Network for Public Education, is calling for nationwide sit-ins, teach-ins, walkouts, marches, and other actions to show their determination to keep students safe from guns.

This push for meaningful gun control seems more promising than efforts in the past for numerous reasons, including the leadership of the students and teachers and the moral clarity they speak from. Students and teachers are intent on making politicians who ignore their demands pay at the ballot box in November. And although the policy agenda has not fully formed, those engaged in the movement are clear about the results they want – laws enacted to end mass shootings.

Republican lawmakers are falling back on old rhetoric and policies to uphold their entrenched positions on guns. But Democrats should be forewarned the half measures and false solutions they’ve supported in the past aren’t going to pass muster with this new movement.

Why This Is Different

Of course, the outrage over children being gunned down in schools, parks, and city streets did not start with Parkland. For years, students and families in Black communities have brought attention to gun violence plaguing their public spaces and called for new laws to stem the flow of firearms.

But as Phillip Bump explains, this new mass movement for sensible gun control come from a whole generation who has seen the horrors of school shootings become “an endemic problem” – from Columbine to Sandy Hook and the more than 400 shootings since Sandy Hook.

Also, the expertise today’s students have with social media and online organizing comes at a time when political orthodoxies are more vulnerable to disruption and dissemination of messages is less reliant on broadcast media.

Most important, the students have yanked the dialogue defining the debate about guns out of the passive voice of “thoughts and prayers” and “nothing will change.” Instead, they are directing their anger at the opponents of sensible gun control: political leaders and the National Rifle Association.

Finally, these protests seem well-timed with public opinion. According to a recent survey, a strong majority of Americans say Congress is not doing enough to stop mass shootings. Over half, 58 percent, think stronger gun restrictions would have stopped shootings like the one that occurred in Florida from occurring.

Let Students and Teachers Lead

Students and teachers have both the moral and practical authority to lead the drive for gun control.

First, they’re the ones being shot at.

Students lose their friends in horrendous ways and have their feelings of security shattered. They understand all too well that guns and shootings have helped make America the most dangerous wealthy nation for children in the world, while it doesn’t have to be that way.

Teachers are the ones who have to tell their spouses and families they may have to take a bullet for their students.

Both understand their lives have become more perilous and uncertain because congress has done nothing since the Sandy Hook shooting, and they feel the only people who don’t care are the people making the laws.

From a practical standpoint, students and teachers more clearly see the consequences to schools when lawmakers fail to act on gun control or choose ineffective remedies because of their unwillingness to take on the tough work of legislating real solutions.

Both students and teachers know school security measures are a band aid on the cancer of gun violence in America. The school cops they see every day in their schools do not reassure them they are safe.

Teachers feel the pain of making children as young as four years old go through active shooter drills that traumatize students, add stress to the school environment, and take away from instructional time.

Teachers know all too well their schools do not have the resources and staff specialists they need to identify and monitor troubled teens who could turn into shooters.

Also, from a movement standpoint, having students and teachers at the head of gun control advocacy is a huge advantage.

As Andre Perry points out, “No one can ignore millions of students out in the streets as they might ignore op-eds and interviews with grieving families. There are an estimated 3.6 million teachers and more than 50 million public school students in the country.”

“Neither the NRA nor their legislative puppets will be able stand up to” 3 million teachers who are the “nurturers and guardians of our youth” calling for sensible gun laws, says university professor and education research expert David Berliner in an interview for Slate.

Real Consequences to Those in Power

“Lawmakers say they are feeling more pressure than ever to act on gun control,” reports The Hill, largely because of the “emotional pleas from students” and the “new type of organic outcry” represented by the students’ movement.

So far, Republicans are staying firmly entrenched in the positions dictated to them by the NRA. In the Florida legislature, they voted on a strict party line against reviving a bill to ban assault rifles while aghast Parkland students looked on from the gallery.

Florida GOP senators also may increase spending on mental health programs for schools, expand law-enforcement power to “involuntarily hold someone considered a danger,” and “deputize a teacher or someone else at school so they are authorized to have a gun.” In other words, anything but meaningful gun control.

Florida Republicans took these actions while students flooded the capitol grounds in protest and chanted “shame on you” to the lawmakers.

Democrats can’t fall back on old ideas either.

After Sandy Hook, Democratic lawmakers generally supported measures to address school shooting by boosting the classroom security industry.

Many states enacted legislation that made it easier for school personnel, guards, and volunteers to carry guns on campus. The Obama administration helped move this effort along by providing incentives for schools to take these actions. These measures helped turn school buildings into harsher, more punitive environments for the students while doing nothing to decrease the incidents of gun violence.

The result was more high-security school environments that intensified stress levels in schools, increased school suspensions, and pushed more students into the school-to-prison pipeline.

While politicians struggle with how to respond to the new phenomenon of mass student actions against gun violence, the walk outs and other demonstrations will likely grow into a mass movement.

Falling back on worn out ideology, bumper-sticker arguments, or self-serving strategizing likely won’t work. This is different.

 

DeVos Denies Students’ Civil Rights, Locks Out Teachers. But She’s The Victim?

A favorite tactic of the rightwing political establishment is to claim they are being victimized when those who’ve had their civil rights or their political voices stifled by rightwing policies make their grievances known and advocate for change.

It’s a clever way to turn blatant discrimination into a “freedom” and undermine the right to protest.

It appears US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been well schooled in this rhetorical trick.

Shortly after news reports that long-time Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz had been brought in to school DeVos on how to talk about controversial education policies without igniting the ire of parents, teachers, and voters, she played the “victim” card in saying criticisms of her actions as secretary have been “hurtful.”

“[It’s] hurtful to me when I’m criticized for not upholding the rights of students, the civil rights of students,” she told Politico. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For someone who is one of the wealthiest people in America and who is so influential of the ruling party to express vulnerability seems disingenuous, to say the least. It becomes all the more preposterous amidst the recent actions of the department she leads to undo progress in civil rights and undermine democracy.

In her first year as secretary, DeVos has established a consistent pattern of first delaying then eventually curtailing her department’s duties to uphold the civil rights of students. And despite her role as a government official, she’s demonstrated little interest in hearing what the public thinks about these actions. Teachers, parents, and students who recently showed up at the Department of Education to express their dissent were locked out.

Denying the Rights of Transgender Students

Victims of DeVos’s education department include transgender students who want the freedom to use school bathroom facilities that correspond with their gender preferences.

This was their right under the Obama administration, and courts in at least three states – Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maine – have ruled that federal codes enforced by Title IX protect the rights of these students.

But beginning a year ago, DeVos’s education department decided it didn’t like these laws, began to deny their enforcement fell in its jurisdiction, and dismissed complaints from students who claimed arbitrary school rules were forcing them into situations that made them feel uncomfortable or subjected them to bullying.

Now, the department has officially announced it “won’t investigate or take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity,” BuzzFeed reported.

While protecting transgender students when they are “penalized or harassed” is still “prohibited,” according to a department spokesperson, those prohibitions apparently no longer extend to bathrooms.

Since when did people’s rights end at the bathroom door?

Leaving Minority Students Unprotected

DeVos and her department have also signaled their intentions to ignore their duties to take on racial disparities in special education and school discipline policies.

Numerous studies have shown that black and brown school children are disproportionally identified as “learning disabled.” Other studies have found the opposite is true. But it seems reasonable that given the evidence that discrimination – of some kind – against nonwhite students in special education occurs, schools should devote resources to identify and address racial bias in their programs when it shows up.

That is what the Obama administration ruled when it required states to look for racial disparities in special education programs and devote a portion of their federally funded resources to ensure fairness in the identification, placement, and discipline of those students.

The new guidelines were to go into effect this month, giving states a full year to prepare, but DeVos and her department have now issued a two-year delay for “public comment.”

State leaders overseeing special education, who have been preparing to comply with these rules for months, say “they want the rule kept in place,” according to Education Week.

But much in the same way DeVos and her department first delayed and then dropped enforcements of transgender student rights, before eventually announcing a complete denial to enforce them, it’s not hard to imagine this “delay” in special education guidance is the forerunner to eventually abandoning the rules altogether.

Blocking and Locking Out Dissent

DeVos’s troubling history of political influence and her actions as secretary have made her President Trump’s most disliked cabinet member, and she’s constantly confronted with protests wherever she goes.

To shield her from public interaction, DeVos is escorted by federal marshals, an unprecedented security measure at great cost to the taxpayer. Her publically released schedule routinely omits many of the events and meetings she participates in. A recent trip she took to Indianapolis was completely “covert.” And many of the public events where she speaks have been before audiences that align with her political views.

The latest tactic to guard DeVos from the public was to lock the doors of the Department of Education.

Recently when leaders of two national teachers’ unions and 50-odd members representing a coalition of education and civil rights groups tried to deliver 80,000 report cards assessing DeVos’s performance, they were locked out.

Close to 90 percent of the report cards filled out by educators and public school activists gave DeVos an F, according to Education Week.  “A common theme: that DeVos was not doing her job because she appears not to care about public schools.”

“We were locked out,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers told Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. “We asked for an appointment, but they locked us out instead.”

The doors are normally open 24 hours a day, Strauss reported.

DeVos Threatens Our Democracy, Our Future

A year ago, shortly after DeVos took office amidst a storm of controversy, a well-known conservative cartoonist depicted her as a victim of civil rights abuse by inserting her image substituted for Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend racially integrated schools in New Orleans in 1960, in a cartoon rendition of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

The false equivalency of a billionaire white woman able to buy her way into a US Cabinet position to a six-year-old black girl who helped desegregate New Orleans public schools sparked a firestorm of media outrage.

But it’s business as usual for Republicans.

People like DeVos are not victims of anything. She and the rightwing political machine funded by the Koch Brothers want to get rid of public education because they don’t believe in civil rights and democracy. These radical factions have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.

Speaking before the locked doors of the Department of Education, Keron Blair, co-director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, declared the protestors were there to speak out against DeVos’s “deliberate and stated purpose” to undermine her department’s mission and dismantle public education.

“Betsy DeVos and her agenda are a legitimate threat to our democracy,” Blair said, “We will not stand idly by while she dismantles public education and threatens our future.”

Puerto Rico Braces for Wave of School Privatization

The warnings came right after the storm: A devastating Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico would be used as an opportunity to transfer management of the island’s schools to private operators of charter schools and introduce voucher programs that would redirect public education funds to private schools.

Sure enough, with nearly a third of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 schools still without power and hundreds more plagued with crumbling walls, leaky rooves, and spotty Internet, Governor Ricardo Rosselló recently announced he will propose to create charter schools and voucher programs as a recovery strategy for the island’s education system.

That announcement followed shortly after a new fiscal plan from Rosselló that included closing over 300 schools.

The rationale for the school closures relies mostly on the fact that in Maria’s wake at least 22,350 students, or one out of every 13, have left the island, and the education system was shackled by an estimated $120 million debt and pension crisis before the storm. Student enrollment had already dropped significantly in recent years, and 179 schools were closed last summer.

The argument for charter schools and vouchers, on the other hand, is much less supported by statistics and more reliant on rhetoric. Currently, there are no charter schools or voucher programs on the island. But in an interview with The 74, a charter school-favoring media outlet started by former NBC news anchor and public school critic Campbell Brown, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said these “options” are now needed to “have individual schools competing, striving to be the best, to make sure they can maintain their population so they continue to be economically feasible.”

It’s that kind of language that reminds Julian Vasquez Heilig of a pattern of “education reform” policy he has seen elsewhere. “The education privatization playbook uses politics to open the door for more privately controlled schools that are funded by tax dollars but are not democratically controlled,” he tells me in an email.

Pattern of ‘Education Reform’

Heilig, a professor at University of California – Sacramento, has written about Puerto Rican education policy before, saying in an article for The Progressive in 2015 that “Politicians in Puerto Rico are seeking to solve decades of fiscal mismanagement by adopting the same education reforms that are hurting children and starving school districts in the mainland United States. The disaster capitalism coming to the azure waters of Puerto Rico is very similar to the school privatization and private-control education reform causing an uproar in Chicago and Detroit.”

Heilig’s reference to disaster capitalism matches what others are saying about Puerto Rico after Maria.

A week after the storm made landfall on the island, and with most of the island still in darkness, author and journalist Naomi Klein warned in The Guardian that “vultures” circling the devastated landscape were advocating the only way for the island to get the lights back on was to sell off its electricity utility, a phenomenon of what she calls the Shock Doctrine: “the exploitation of wrenching crises to smuggle through policies that devour the public sphere and further enrich a small elite.”

Education Week’s correspondent on the ground in the island reported that Secretary Keleher, whose tenure started just nine months before the storm hit, was “diving deep into the lessons of loss and opportunity in previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005.”

Recall that then-US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” After Katrina, New Orleans schools were shut down, over 7,000 teachers were fired, and the school board lost its power. Today, nearly all schools in New Orleans, but a handful of very elite schools, have been converted to privately operated charter schools.

Keleher’s Plans for Closed Schools

Keleher, who leads the biggest government agency on the island, is a former management consultant, according to her LinkedIn page.

She initially arrived in the Island in 2007 from Washington, DC, as part of the team that would oversee the development of programs and use of Title I funds, according to Puerto Rican news outlet El Nuevo Dia. Title I funds are the federal government’s largest allocations to K-12 schools and are intended to bolster the resources of schools serving low-income children, which makes them the largest source of federal funds in Puerto Rico.

Afterwards, she worked with the Risk Management Service on the island, which monitored the use of all federal funds. She was appointed to be education secretary in December 2016 just a week prior to the new government led by Rosselló taking office.

After her appointment, El Nuevo Dia reported, Keleher also finagled a dual contract with Rosselló that awarded her with another nearly quarter million dollars, giving her a total salary of $300,000 per year. As a new advisor to the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), she would have the authority to gather information about the way empty school buildings would be used, including buildings that she herself may have just closed with her authority as education secretary.

Her FAA position would also allow her to meet with mayors to determine what “innovative projects” could be launched in those closed school buildings. Perhaps even the “innovative” charter schools she now wants to see rolled out across the island?

The Pastorek Connection

Either through her work with the US Department of Education or her “diving” into the history of New Orleans schools after Katrina, Keleher reached out to get advice from Paul Pastorek.

When Katrina hit, Pastorek was Louisiana’s superintendent of education. He saw the storm’s aftermath as a clean slate to remake schools around his desires for privatization, and he is now viewed as the “architect” in designing the district’s nearly all charter school make up.

What’s often left out of the New Orleans school reform “success” story is that converting the district to charter schools gave parents and citizens little to no voice in determining school policies and governance. Most parents lost the ability to have their children attend a school in close proximity to their homes, which resulted in student having to spend more hours in transit to schools across town. Schools now open and close with greater frequency, creating more disruptions in family routines and students’ learning, and more schools weed out difficult students in their enrollment processes. And the district’s teacher corps has grown way more transient and inexperienced after the mass firing of mostly Black teachers after the storm.

Defenders of what happened to NOLA schools point to rising test score results and graduation rates. But these defenses often grossly overstate the progress in the city or fail to acknowledge the many complications that confound clear conclusions about the reforms – including Louisiana’s shifting school performance metrics, the billions of dollars poured into the city by the federal government and philanthropies, and the huge demographic changes in the district’s student populations.

More recent analysis finds that 12 years after Katrina, 34 of the city’s 84 schools that the state is able to assess (not all schools have grades that take state tests) were rated D or F in the state’s A-F ranking. Eighteen of the schools have had D or F three years in a row. The trend is negative, as 65 percent of New Orleans schools have seen their state rankings slide three years in a row.

Something Other Than Privatization

An article at The 74 is already soft-peddling the announcement of school privatization rollouts in Puerto Rico as a sort of New Orleans-light.

“Although comparisons to New Orleans are perhaps inescapable,” the article states, “Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana state superintendent who led reform efforts after Katrina, said Puerto Rico is actually more akin to Denver or Washington, D.C., where reform efforts have simultaneously focused on traditional public schools and charters.”

Regardless which style of privatization Puerto Rico rolls out, educators and parents are bound to protest. As the article mentions, Keleher’s first target for charterizing are 14 Montessori schools. The article quotes a spokeswoman for the government agency that works to expand the island’s public Montessori schools who reportedly said, “Leaders at the existing Montessori schools … are not interested in converting their campuses to charters.”

We’ve already seen how privatization has proven to be a disaster in Puerto Rico. Shortly after Maria hit, an Atlanta entrepreneur working as a one-woman company was awarded a $156 million contract to deliver 30 million meals. Only 50,000 were delivered and those were rejected for not being in compliance with the contract.

Similarly a tiny family utility-contractor operating out of his home in the ski town of Whitefish, Montana, was awarded a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to rebuild 100 miles of power transmission lines across the island’s shattered electric grid. This arrangement also proved to be disastrous.

Could it be that something other than privatization is the answer?

How Public Schools Became The Koch Brothers’ ‘Lowest Hanging Fruit’

Despite his campaign promises to transform American education, President Donald Trump had almost nothing to say about the subject in his first State of the Union speech, and his controversial education secretary Betsy DeVos has not made national headlines for some time. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are pausing their assault on the nation’s public schools.

As James Hohmann of the Washington Post reports, GOP fat cats who make up the powerful donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch recently met in California and declared their intention to “fundamentally transform America’s education system,” including the K-12 sector.

“The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said one of the attendees, a wealthy Texan who co-founded Texans for Educational Opportunity, a lobbying group behind the effort in the Lone Star State to create vouchers that let parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private or religious schools. “I think [K-12] is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”

“The vast network has pledged to devote around $400 million” to influencing political campaigns in the upcoming November elections, reports Annie Linskey of the Boston Globe, who also dropped in on the affair. “That’s 60 percent more than the network spent in 2014, when Republicans picked up nine seats in the Senate and 13 seats in the House of Representatives.”

A “major focus” for those pledging these staggering sums, according to Linskey: referendums and new state laws “to remake the nation’s education system.”

The revelation of a huge, influential network of wealthy conservatives determined to remake public schools into their own vision should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Leading scholars of the conservative movement have been warning for years that radical factions in the Republican party have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.

What’s not certain though is whether Democrats will recognize the onslaught and rise to the challenge of defending public schools and public school educators.

What the Right Wing Wants

Participants at the Koch Network gathering spoke of “disrupting the status quo” in education in order to remake the system around policies that enable more of what they call “choice.”

“The Kochs are particularly enthusiastic about education savings accounts,” Linskey writes, “a mechanism that upends traditional K-12 education by, in some cases, giving parents lump sums they can use to pay private schools or even online institutions to educate their children.”

Currently, five states allow for Education Savings Accounts: Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee. But legislation to create new ESA programs is pending in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere.

ESAs have been called “the next generation of school vouchers,” and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called ESAs “the driver behind school choice of the future.”

The programs vary somewhat from state to state, but generally the programs allow qualifying parents who withdraw their children from public schools to get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The accounts come with debit cards families can use to pay for education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, private lessons and therapists, and tutoring services.

The programs tend to pose significant risks to parents, as states release funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.

Advocates for these programs often begin by targeting ESAs to disadvantaged student groups, such as those from low-income households or those with special needs. But then, invariably, ESA proponents want to expand the program to entice other families to leave the public school system.

Participants at the Koch Network gathering, Hohmann reports, spoke of ESAs being instrumental in redirecting public school funding to an array of privately-controlled alternatives to public schools, including “technologies” that let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors, teacher-less computer based instructional programs often called “personalized” or “customized” learning, and “micro-schools” that substitute computer software platforms for the traditional shared-space of a public school led by professional educators.

ESAs further the conservative cause to transform collectivist endeavors, like public education, into consumer enterprises that give the wealthy the upper hand in maintaining their privileges. The amount of money ESAs provide per student rarely covers the full cost of tuition, fees, uniforms, books, transportation, and other expenses at private and religious schools.

During one session at the Koch Network meeting, the audience was harangued by Doug Ducey, a Koch acolyte and former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery who now serves as governor of Arizona. Ducey offered his state as a model for how to remake public schools.

Last year, Arizona enacted a universal, statewide ESA program that is now being threatened by a citizen-led repeal effort, which voters will decide in November. The Koch Brothers, through their Americans for Prosperity and Libre Initiative organizations, have already spent millions to derail the recall effort in the public forum and in the state courts. A Superior Court Judge recently tossed out their effort to stop the referendum, so now the Koch Network is drumming up more money to defeat the recall at the ballot box.

In his reporting of the discussion, Hohmann incorrectly cites “teacher unions” as the leaders in the decidedly broad-based effort to collect signatures and put the statewide ESA recall to voters. Nevertheless, participants in the Koch Network called “breaking the teacher unions” an essential to getting their education ideas enacted.

The Right Wing’s Long Game

The group gathered at the Koch Network event are not your run-of-the-mill right-wing conspirators. Members of the network, some 700 of them, have to contribute a minimum of $100,000 annually, and they hold huge sway with Republican candidates and elected officials.

They’ve been working on building this influence for a long time.

As Jane Mayer recounts in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Charles and David Koch and other conservative billionaire families have orchestrated a decades-long effort to influence U.S. politics. She makes a convincing case that, after years of careful planning and generous funding, the Kochs have succeeded in spreading their antipathy toward government and progressivism and establishing themselves at the center of conservative Republican politics.

While Trump may have initially distanced his presidential campaign from the Kochs and their network, once in office, he quickly hired Koch allies, like DeVos, and pushed new legislation, such as the recently enacted tax plan that the Kochs now pledge $20 million to “sell” to the American public.

Trump also continues to be, as he was in his presidential campaign, an ardent proponent of the Koch network’s top education initiative: school choice.

in David Koch’s losing run for political office in 1980, Mayer recounts, he campaigned on a platform that called for ending an array of federal programs that make up the social-economic safety net, including welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security; closing numerous federal agencies, including the EPA, SEC, and FBI; and getting rid of public schools.

Mayer calls attention to other wealthy, influential right-wing donors who have targeted public education for transformation, including John M. Olin, Art Pope, Richard Mellon Scaife, Harry and Lynde Bradley, and Richard and Betsy DeVos (yes, that Betsy DeVos).

Among the many campaigns waged by these wealthy individuals and their foundations, Mayer describes numerous examples of their support for “the early national ‘school choice’ movement” and their desires to dismantle teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. The effort aims to “‘wean’ Americans from government” by making it easier for parents to use public funds to send their children to private and parochial schools.

Similarly, Nancy MacLean, in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, details how the right’s vast network, including the Kochs and the academic institutions they’ve sponsored, erected a formidable campaign to dismantle government, with public education being among their chief targets. Their hatred for all collective endeavors – including schools, Social Security, voting rights, taxation, and government supported healthcare – drove them to propose the most radical ideas by using prosaic, positive language of “choice” and “reform.”

MacLean sources much of her documentation of the radical right’s ascension to the “school crisis” in the South, principally Virginia, where court-ordered desegregation sent wealthy white Southerners into a panic over the prospect of seeing their children in the same classrooms with black students.

With the Koch Network’s announcement remaking public education is now a chief cause of the right wing political machine, we are seeing the fruition of the decades-long campaign carefully planned and crafted by wealthy conservatives.

Will Democrats Fight Back?

How much money are wealthy Republicans in the Koch Network planning to spend on their education initiative?

“The network declined to offer exact figures,” according to Hohmann, “but said it will double investment in K-12 this year, with much more planned down the road.”

What is even less clear is how Democrats intend to respond.

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.

“To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory,” writes Jennifer Berkshire for The Baffler.

Berkshire traces the Democrats’ turn against public schools back to the Clinton administration and up through Obama. But the course mainstream Democrats chose to follow when talking about public schools sounds not much different from what the Kochs and their kind have been selling, Berkshire argues. “Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix.”

With the deeply unpopular duo of Trump and DeVos leading the Republicans’ campaign to dismantle public schools, Democrats have an an opportunity this November to offer a very different message and policy choice for education that turns it into an effective wedge issue for the vast audience of voters who genuinely want support for education to be on the ballot.

As Republicans are poised to go after public schools as “the lowest hanging fruit,” it would be a shame, and ultimately a tragedy, if Democrats let them pick it.

Largest Charter School Fail Ever Doesn’t Faze ‘School Choice’ Fans

In the run up to what was billed as “record breaking celebrations” of charter schools and other forms of “school choice,” there was a serious bump in the road when news outlets in Ohio reported the largest charter school closure ever in that state, and perhaps the nation, had suddenly sent over 12,000 students and their families scrambling to find new schools midyear.

The school, an online charter called the Electronic School of Tomorrow (ECOT), owed the state nearly $80 million for inflating its enrollment numbers and overcharging the state for thousands of students that never attended full time. Negotiations on a payment plan with the state fell through, and the school’s sponsor, which it needed to operate legally, decided it couldn’t carry the school.

“My kids went to bed last night crying,” said a Cincinnati mom whose children attended the school.

“To just rip them out of the environment they are most used to,” complained another mom whose children had attended the school for eight years. “They have relationships with their teachers,” she said in a news video posted on the ECOT Facebook page.

Older students seem to have it the roughest, especially those nearing graduation, who must ensure credit hours and courses align to their college plans. “A nightmare” one student called the mad scramble for transcripts and other paperwork. “Twelve-thousand people yelling for records all at once.”

The fallout is all but certain to continue as a wave of abandoned charter students washes up in public schools across the Buckeye State, where they may be ill prepared for classwork due to the online school’s poor academic standing.

Yet in kicking off the school choice events – an annual event called National School Choice Week – President Trump, said nothing about the unfolding charter school disaster in Ohio, proclaiming instead, “School choice helps alleviate common hindrances to success and creates the space necessary for students’ aspirations to flourish.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump’s biggest proponent of charter schools and all things choice, addressed a School Choice Week rally in the nation’s capital, the first Secretary of Education to do so, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “I hope you will go out from here and you will tell your stories,” DeVos exhorted the crowd. Yet no one at the event, including DeVos, appeared to want to tell the stories from Ohio.

And as scheduled school choice events rolled out, news outlets across the nation happily reported one unbalanced story after another about the raucous events and speeches at school choice events, with nary a mention about the debacle in Ohio.

Only one prominent charter school enthusiast, Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, addressed ECOT’s closure. She praised it, calling the state’s actions “a good day for those who believe in the importance of closing poor-performing schools.”

Both Rees’s comment on the Ohio charter school failure and the inattention to ECOT’s collapse in School Choice Week events seem to confirm that school choice fans and the charter school industry are convinced things are working just swimmingly and their business model that implies the need for some schools to fail and be closed down actually proves choice is working.

But in a public education system guided by choice, what happens to the parents who choose wrong?

A Billion Dollars for What?

The failed Ohio online charter school, which operated for 16 years, likely cost the state over a billion dollars, estimates former state education administrator Bill Phills in the Columbia Dispatch.

The school got into trouble for inflating attendance at the outset, according to the article, while using an aggressive marketing campaign, with taxpayer dollars, to keep consumer interest high.

Few state leaders seemed to care when a district superintendent reported some students in the online charter hadn’t received computers deep into the school year, weren’t required to report to a central computer lab, or could “go in once every 20 days, log on, do nothing and then go away for another 20 days.” The superintendent surmised the lack of response was due to the generous campaign donations the school’s owner, William Lager, who grew rich from the school, gave to GOP politicians protecting the school.

Longtime Ohio charter school watchdog Stephen Dyer agrees. “Lager himself gave more than $1.2 million to primarily legislative candidates since 2000, less than 5 percent of which went to Democrats,” he writes on his blog for progressive think tank Innovation Ohio. “And while the school is now shut down, what is clear is that the reason it remained open as long as it did was because the school had powerful allies and protectors in state government,” he concludes.

“Until very recently ECOT seemed untouchable,” writes James Pogue in a long form article about ECOT for Mother Jones. But now that the school has seemingly been shut down, “Many of the Ohio students and parents who got caught up in the ECOT experiment already feel like they’re living with the consequences,” he concludes.

For many of those students and parents, especially those now sent scrambling to find a new school, the consequences are likely not good.

Public Schools to the Rescue

The largest charter school closing before the ECOT debacle was the mass exodus from Imagine charter schools in St. Louis. As I reported for the Washington Post, in 2007, Imagine Schools, a for-profit chain of 69 brick-and-mortar schools currently operating in 12 states, moved into the city and opened four new charters. By 201i, Imagine had six schools enrolling nearly 4,000 students, over 10 percent of the district’s student population.

District officials and local reporters noted Imagine’s students performed consistently worse than city and state averages on standardized tests, yet the company was reaping huge profits from its real estate business.

Missouri state officials, alarmed at Imagine’s fiscal stunts and persistently low performance, closed all six schools in 2012, sending 3,800 students from closed schools to district schools that needed millions in new funds to upgrade and outfit buildings to accommodate the influx.

It’s fortunate, those students had public schools to take them in. The same is true in Ohio.

“About 95 percent of Ohio’s 600-plus school districts have students at ECOT,” an Ohio news outlet reports, with the Columbus and Cleveland districts topping 1,200 and 800 students, respectively.

It’s impossible to estimate how many of ECOT’s former students will decide to enroll in a different online school. But these schools are not likely good choices either. Ohio’s online charters tend to preform far worse than their counterpart brick-and-mortar schools do, with students losing between 75 days to a full year in academic learning, according to a new study.

Also, the number of the ECOT students who will end up in Ohio’s brick-and-mortar charters isn’t clear because many charter schools do not have to accept student transfers at midyear even if they have room, a process known as backfilling.

Many of the receiving public schools braced to accept these students already struggle with overcrowding. No doubt, districts will be taking in students who have never attended one of their schools, and will therefore need to have screening for learning disabilities, English language proficiency, and other special needs. Many schools may have to hire new specialized staff to meet these students’ needs.

And the fact these transferring online charter students are used to taking classes online and not in classrooms will pose new problems for acclimating them to a traditional public school.

At least one district, Cleveland, has set up a special task force to meet the challenge.

“We adjust,” a public school administrator from another district is quoted in a local news outlet. “That’s what we do.”

The public schools’ response to the charter closure disaster in Ohio is reminiscent of stories and images from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California recently, where public schools were some of the few institutions to stay open in the disastrous wake of hurricanes and wildfires, and public school teachers were on the frontlines to help desperate families.

Yet, school choice proponents declare public schools the problem with American education.

Whose Choice

No doubt, many parents who chose ECOT strongly believe it was the best choice for their children. That may be true for many of them. And those are the only parents you’re going to hear from during National School Choice Week. But what about the parents whose stories aren’t so happy?

Of course, public schools sometimes close too. But we don’t expect them to. In fact, public schools have long been the default backstop in communities everywhere.

Charter schools, on the other hand, which are driven by market-based principles, seem to guarantee a certain portion are expected to fail. Do you really think that is something to celebrate?

Trump Fills The Swamp To Exploit College Students

President Trump ran on promises to “drain the swamp” of special interests and corporate lobbyists in Washington, DC, but higher education policy in his administration is a quagmire of Okefenokee proportions.

Just to review the latest developments to emerge from the dismal places in his administration:

• His Department of Education contracted with a college student loan service company with financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,

• His Department of Justice sided with a college loan service firm that a state attorney general says has violated college student loan debt forgiveness rules, and

• His Department of Veterans Affairs gave a reprieve to a for-profit college that also has ties to personnel deep in the muck of DoEd headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza.

These developments continue the trend in the Trump administration, and with Republicans on Capitol Hill in general, to favor the interests of the predatory college loan and for-profit college industries at the expense of students, families, and the American taxpayer.

Filling the swamp with higher education exploiters has severe negative financial consequences not only to college loan holders, but also to the public treasury, and according to a new report, the fallout to taxpayers is likely worse than what’s widely understood.

College Debt Collector Tied to DeVos

The Trump administration didn’t start the sordid business of contracting with for-profit companies to help the federal government collect overdue student loans.

But the Obama administration at least made an effort to be more selective in choosing collection firms with clean records and taking steps to prevent them from charging high fees and abusing debt holders. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has reversed those policies and abandoned safeguards that could prevent bad actors from getting federal contracts.

Officials in the education department say the reversals were enacted to cut “red tape,” but it doesn’t add to the department’s credibility that a loan service company chosen to receive one of these lucrative contracts happens to have financial ties to Secretary DeVos.

As the Washington Post reports, the company, Performant Financial Corp., “is linked to LMF WF Portfolio, a limited liability company that DeVos as an investor.” The contract is worth up to $400 million.

During her confirmation, Senate Democrats grilled DeVos about potential conflicts of interest arising from her overseeing contract bids worth millions of dollars to companies she had financial connections to.

DeVos was required to divest her holdings with Performant, but the decision to award a contract to the firm seems even shadier due to the “marginal” management rating Performant has for its previous work under the Obama administration.

Other loan firms that applied for contracts are now suing the department for exhibiting bias in its selection process.

Trump Doing Loan Servicers’ Bidding

An even bigger concern is that DeVos and her department are awarding new loan service contracts at all without adopting any new reforms to prevent these companies from gouging loan holders and running up the bill to the federal government.

In reporting about the Performant deal, a journalist for Dow Jones quotes student loan borrower advocates who compare student debt collectors to firms working for the Internal Revenue Service that, in 2017, collected $6.7 million in tax payments but invoiced the government $20 million for their services.

While the Trump administration puts into place personnel and procedure that benefit the college student loan industry, his Justice department is actively engaged in preventing any other branches of law enforcement from holding the companies accountable for cheating borrowers and running up expenses to the public.

As Reuters reports, the Trump administration recently intervened in a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Attorney General that accuses a company that handles over a quarter of the nation’s outstanding college student debt for “deceptive practices” and overcharging students.

Massachusetts accuses the loan servicer, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, of causing public workers and teachers in the state to lose benefits and assistance provided by the federal government, including a program that forgives student loans after 10 years of public-service employment.

In defense of the loan company, Trump’s DoJ filed papers telling the judge to dismiss the charges because Massachusetts doesn’t have standing to pursue claims against the company. Should the judge comply, this would establish a terrible precedent for future actions against abusive college loan debt collectors.

Favors for For-Profit Colleges

When the Trump administration isn’t sticking up for college loan servicers, it’s doing all it can to help for-profit colleges – the sector that benefits the most from federal college loans – avoid accountability for breaking rules and pushing disadvantaged students, many who are military veterans, into taking out huge loans for degree programs they mostly never complete.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, during the Obama administration, for-profit college Ashford University, that relied heavily for its revenues on GI Bill benefits, was threatened with losing its eligibility to obtain millions of dollars from the federal program because of noncompliance with licensure requirements. But Trump’s Veteran’s Administration recently gave Ashford a reprieve, pending legal action that could resolve the noncompliance.

The VA’s decision could be on the up-and-up, but it doesn’t help that Ashford’s parent company, Bridgepoint Education, has run into trouble for illegal practices before, including deceiving students into taking out loans that cost more than advertised, collecting federal loan money even though the vast majority of students drop out, and rewarding corporate executives and shareholders with huge profits reaped from public funds.

The VA’s decision looks all the more suspect based on the presence of former Bridgepoint employees in DeVos’s education department. As David Halperin writes in one of his many investigative reports on the for-profit college industry, DeVos has in her department two employees with Bridgepoint connections – Robert Eitel, who was Bridgepoint’s chief compliance officer before joining the department as senior advisor, and Linda Rawles, an attorney chosen to help craft rules to govern student debt relief. Talk about foxes attending the henhouse.

This recent action by the VA extends the Trump administration’s reputation for favoring the for-profit college industry, a perception demonstrated last year when DeVos and her department suspended rules that would have allowed student-holders defrauded by Corinthian College, and other for-profits, to have their loans forgiven. In retaliation, more than one-third of states have filed lawsuits.

It Gets Worse

The Trump administration’s efforts to fill the higher education swamp in Washington, DC has dire consequences not only for the students who are shackled with crippling levels of debt but also for the American taxpayer.

A new comprehensive assessment of student debt and default over a 20-year span finds disturbing trends that indicate student debt burdens and the consequences from those debts are worse than what previous studies have found.

This analysis by Brookings finds, for instance, that as many as 40 percent of student loan holders are likely to default, and the cumulative rate of default over the 20-year span analyzed is far higher than previously measured.

The default rate is far worse for students who take out loans for degree programs offered by for-profit colleges. The default rate for students entering for-profit programs is nearly four times the rate of those students entering public programs – 47 percent versus 13 percent. This discrepancy between the two sectors is getting worse. For a cohort of 100 students who began attending a for-profit college in 1996, 23 defaulted within 12 years of starting their programs, compared to 43 for the cohort entering a for-profit program in 2004.

The loan default rate among black students is at “crisis levels,” the analysis finds. The default rate among black graduates is more than five times the rate of white graduates (21 versus 4 percent). Here again, the for-profit sector makes the problem worse. Black students who drop out of for-profit colleges default at a rate of 67 percent compared to only 4 percent for white graduates who never attended a for-profit and complete their degrees.

Default rates are accelerating across nearly all sectors of college entrants – for-profit or public, dropouts or degree holders. But when the results of the for-profit sector are separated out, default rates have risen at only “modest” levels.

For this reason, and others, the analysis recommends “robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector.” Yet the Trump administration is doing the exact opposite.

Because the Brookings analysis is confined only to college loan holders who default, there is an even bigger problem with student loan debt being overlooked here.

All those students who haven’t defaulted deserve attention too. Student debt levels have reached nearly $1.4 trillion and now have become the second-largest source of household debt, after housing, and the only form of consumer debt that continues to grow since the Great Recession.

But the most important point here is that the cost of student loan debt and the malfeasance of the for-profit college industry hurt everyone by bleeding the public treasury, directing huge amounts of economic capital to unproductive ends, and diminishing the opportunities for a whole generation of young adults to realize their life goals.

The Trump administration is hard at work doing everything it can to make this situation worse.

Why America’s School Funding Crisis Is A Race And Gender Justice Issue

Two news stories that recently went viral tell an important story about America today and the nation’s misbegotten values.

The first image comes from Baltimore, Maryland, where students and teachers recently had to wear coats, gloves, and blankets in classrooms because their schools weren’t adequately heated for winter weather. Pipes froze and burst and boilers broke down. About a third of schools were initially affected, and when an intense winter storm sent temperatures plunging further, the city had to close all schools.

The second image is a video from Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, showing a school teacher who politely questioned her school board about teacher pay and working conditions was escorted out of the meeting by an armed guard and then thrown to the floor, handcuffed, taken into police custody, and charged with a crime.

What each of these images has in common is a story about money and priorities.

In a nation that can afford to give businesses a $2.6 trillion tax cut and spend at least $4 trillion on endless wars in the Middle East, we can’t seem to be able to guarantee students that their classrooms will be heated nor promise teachers that they can depend on decent wages and reasonable working conditions.

That’s shameful for sure. But what these two images also convey is that the targets for the systemic abuse are blatantly selective.

Look closely at the images from Baltimore and you’ll see the skin colors of the school children are generally not white. Eighty percent of Baltimore city schools students are black, 10 percent are Latino, and only 9 percent are white.

Watch the video from Louisiana and you can’t help but notice the autocratic board members are predominantly male while the teacher and her colleagues speaking out in her support are mostly female

At a time when wildly popular hashtag-driven campaigns are whipping up intense public fervor for the rights of black lives and women, now might be a good time to address how nonwhite children and women are being treated in our public school system.

It’s About Race

It’s neither a mischaracterization or an exaggeration to point to the unheated Baltimore classrooms and claim their conditions are a national concern.

“Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it,” reads the headline of a recent article in The Washington Post. The reporter, freelance journalist Rachel Cohen, points to a study way back in the 1990s that told us millions of students attended schools with structural problems, and thousands of students were in buildings with poor air quality. A more recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a “D+” grade on it’s A-F national report card on the conditions of public school buildings. And a 2016 report estimated, “In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent.”

Not only is the problem national in scope, but as Cohen points out, “These problems disproportionately affect poor communities,” especially in older cities, where schools tend to be 60 to 70 years old. “Low-wealth jurisdictions such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit face far greater challenges borrowing money and accessing capital investment,” she writes, “making it even harder to address needed repairs. And when repairs are deferred, the costs increase. As a result, students in affluent communities can enjoy higher-quality school buildings than those in lower-income districts.”

The blatant inequity of school facilities funding extends beyond buildings to programs and personnel.

A 2011 report from the federal government found, “More than 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get a fair share of state and local funds.” Consequently, as a more recent article from The Atlantic reports, “High-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do,” which translates to “fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities, and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts.”

And Gender

In a district like Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, where the teacher, Deyshia Hargrave, was forcibly ejected from a board meeting, lack of funding adversely affects teachers’ working conditions too.

Listen closely to what Hargrave said, and you’ll hear her complaints are very specific. As Education Week reports, Hargrave questioned why the board increased the salary of the current superintendent by $38,000 while teachers and other district employees remained underpaid and overworked. “The teachers of this parish have not received a raise in ten years,” the local teachers’ union reports, and Hargrave tells the board her class sizes have swollen from 21 students to 29.

Press accounts of the incident differ on whether or not board president Anthony Fontana signaled for the officer to escort Hargrave out, and there’s so far been no explanation for why the officer threw Hargrave to the floor once they entered a hallway, but Fontana stated he was “100 percent” behind the officer’s actions, even though the video convinced city and board attorneys Hargrave was completely innocent of wrong doing and deserved no formal charges.

The video sparked widespread outrage, including some threatening violence against the board, according to USA Today. But one observation worth noting, by female board member Laura LeBeouf, was that, “What happened here tonight – the way the females are treated in Vermillion Parish … I have never seen a man removed from this room.” USA Today quotes LeBeouf saying, “When [Hargrave] realized she had to get out, she picked up her purse and walked out … Women in this parish are not getting the same treatment.”

It’s no secret that women across America have to deal with lower pay than men, for doing the same job, and women are vastly under-represented in political and business leadership.

This is especially true in public education where the vast majority of classroom teachers are female, while administration is dominated by males, and teachers receive salaries that are much lower than what other professionals with similar levels of education earn.

Not an ‘Education Only’ Issue

The problems that plague student learning conditions and teacher working conditions have become chronic and are growing more acute. But the issue shouldn’t be siloed as an “education only” concern.

This is not to say there aren’t important education ramifications at stake. Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement. Studies also show that higher teacher salaries tend to correlate with better student outcomes. And smaller class size reductions often correlate with improvements in student achievement.

But issues related to school funding should not be confined to dry statistical analysis but deserve also to be lifted to the higher ground of what is moral and just. If white male leaders need to be challenged about their views on race and gender, they also must be required to address the worsening conditions in our public schools and the plight of our classroom teachers.