Elizabeth Warren Gets Her Schoolmarm On
Jonathan Kozol published his landmark exposé of the horrifying gaps in how America funds its public schools, Savage Inequalities, in 1991. That's long enough ago that children born the year it was published have had time to get degrees in education (and accumulate a load of debt), go into teaching, and perhaps become burned out by the very economic and racial inequities Kozol documented, which are still very much with us. In her latest campaign policy proposal, Elizabeth Warren offers a plan to massively overhaul how America funds K-12 public education, to make sure that -- for once -- the kids who start life with the fewest advantages can at least have a shot at an equal education to their peers from wealthier families in "better" neighborhoods. The plan has been getting a lot of attention for its pledge to stop the diversion of public school funds to for-profit schools, but Warren's call for progressively funding public schools is probably far more radical -- and important to get behind, whoever wins the nomination.
Let's just start with this. It is a hell of a thing, and a national disgrace, that in the Year of Our Lord 2019, a presidential candidate even needs to say this:
We cannot legitimately call our schools "public" when some students have state-of-the-art classrooms and others do not even have consistent running water. The federal government must step in.
We're simply not living up to a basic promise of the social contract, says Warren, because funding for public education is "both inadequate and inequitable."
I've long been concerned about the way that school systems rely heavily on local property taxes, shortchanging students in low-income areas and condemning communities caught in a spiral of decreasing property values and declining schools.
Worse, she notes, schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago, a problem intertwined with the segregation of our communities by race and class -- it's a feedback loop, as "good schools" are seen as the measure of desirability, and working class and minority Americans are increasingly priced out of the places that have them. Add in charter schools that siphon funds away from the public schools (and don't have to meet the same standards public schools do), and you have some nasty feedback loops at work. Maybe instead of outsourcing things government does well, we could actually spend public money on public schools, huh?
Warren's plan focuses on a few central goals: Eliminate funding disparities so all kids have a chance to get a solid public education, reverse the factors that lead to segregation and discrimination, and treat teachers like professionals, not fast-food workers churning out a product. (Not that Warren would disparage fast-food workers like that.)
Reliance on local property taxes to fund schools bakes in inequality, even when state and local governments try to supplement funding for poorer areas. That system could use some fixin', she says.
As of 2015, only 11 states used a progressive funding formula — one that dedicates more money per-student to high-poverty school districts. The remaining states use a funding formula that is either basically flat per-student or dedicates less money per-student to high-poverty districts. In a handful of states, students in high-poverty districts get less than 75 cents for every dollar that students in wealthier school districts get.
Federal funding priorities could use work too, she notes, because along with decades of housing policy, we're stuck with a legacy of discriminatory funding, made worse by little political will to change things. Warren calls for a massive infusion of federal funding to equalize spending, by quadrupling Title I funding, aimed at schools serving poor families, with an additional $450 billion over the next 10 years. For starters. On top of that, Warren would use the increased funding as an incentive for states to equalize their education funding, making the new Title I funding conditional
on states chipping in more funding, adopting more progressive funding formulas, and actually allocating funding consistently with these new formulas.
Beyond that, Warren wants to create a new education grant program that would
invest an additional $100 billion over ten years in "Excellence Grants" to any public school. That's the equivalent of $1 million for every public school in the country to invest in options that schools and districts identify to help their students.
Presumably, there'd be some guidelines to make sure the new funding couldn't go to teaching Creation Science or for field trips to the Heritage Foundation. Warren has other stuff in mind:
These funds can be used to develop state-of-the art labs, restore afterschool arts programs, implement school-based student mentoring programs, and more. I'll work with schools and school leaders to develop the best way to structure these grants to meet their needs.
On top of all that, Warren would invest $50 billion in upgrading school infrastructure -- and that's on top of other infrastructure plans she's already announced, like her climate plan's funding to upgrade existing public buildings to be energy efficient -- a goal adopted from Jay Inslee's blueprint for climate action. Most of her plan would be paid for by that Eat The Rich Wealth Tax, which is projected to bring in $1.3 trillion over a decade by taxing fortunes (not incomes) over $50 million.
Oh, hey, on that note, here is an asshole to gaslight us all by insisting that $50 million -- the amount held literally by a tenth of a percent of Americans and your editrix would like to point out her salary for 1000 years -- isn't a lot of wealth.
In addition to funding, Warren would reinvigorate the Education Department's civil rights division, which has been hollowed out under Betsy DeVos. She'd sic both it and the Justice Department on one of the biggest trends driving school and community re-segregation: the splitting off of affluent white communities from existing school districts, leaving the old district even more short of funding than before, a phenomenon sometimes called "district secession" or "breakaway" districts.
Like many of Warren's plans, the proposal aims to fit seamlessly with other proposals, to achieve the most good in building a more equal chance for all Americans. Housing policy is educational policy is child-care and climate and healthcare policy, and it all works together. Teachers need to be free to join unions and have rights at work, so let's talk labor policy, too. Warren also explicitly frames the past few years of teachers' strikes as a feminist issue, too, because look at all those women demanding not just more pay, but decent books and buildings for their students.
More overlap: Her higher ed policy will include student loan forgiveness so new teachers can worry about teaching, not making ends meet. Today's K-12 policy includes an emphasis on college readiness for kids in less affluent districts, where such programs are less common, so everyone can truly benefit from the free college education. And so on. It's an impressive set of interlocking components.
As for the charter schools bit, yep, Warren is tired of all the best parts of the public sphere being sold off to people wanting to make a buck, like Betsy DeVos's family charter school business. She'd ban federal funds from going to for-profit charters, and would have the IRS make sure that charter nonprofits are really nonprofits -- not just shells that contract out educating kids to for-profit companies.
There's just so much more. No more student lunch debt: Just fund breakfast and lunch for all who want it, and coordinate nutrition programs for needy families over school breaks and vacations. Nutrition policy should not be punitive. Jesus, you'd think that was obvious, and that "don't punish people for being poor" would be a no-brainer. But No-Brainers are in charge of programming at Fox News.
Full funding of the federal commitment to educating students with disabilities, reforming discipline practices to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, making sure that if schools have cops, they aren't more familiar parts of kids' school experience than counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers.
And if police officers have to be in schools, they should receive training on discrimination, youth development, and de-escalation tactics, and the contracts between districts and law enforcement agencies should clearly define the responsibilities and limitations of the officers and the rights of the students. And no teacher should be armed — period.
One last big area: Most standardized testing sucks. Forgive the blockquote, but we can't say it any better ourselves:
The push toward high-stakes standardized testing has hurt both students and teachers. Schools have eliminated critical courses that are not subject to federally mandated testing, like social studies and the arts. [...] Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, rather than ensuring that students have a rich learning experience. I oppose high-stakes testing, and I co-sponsored successful legislation in Congress to eliminate unnecessary and low-quality standardized tests. As president, I'll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways. [Emphasis in original]
Just think what schools might look like if they could become more than just the revenue sources for testing firms, huh?
We keep thinking of an old line whose source we forget: "Nobody who says you can't fix the schools by throwing money at 'em has ever really tried it."
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