We’ve got everything backwards on fixing American education

For the last year, we’ve been focused on getting kids back to school. But even before the pandemic, American students’ reading, science, and math scores had flattened at depressingly low levels.

So if our education system is failing to get the vast majority of our kids to even basic proficiency, why are we rushing to get back to what we were doing before? Isn’t the better question how can we move forward and do better? read more

Opinion: Surviving Trump and DeVos: Dr. Jill Biden Brings Fresh Perspective On Education And Labor To White House

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”

This phrase has accompanied many a report on how to improve and reform public education in America and, of course, policy statements from education associations that support the work of teachers.

To a large degree, the phrase is not just pithy but also has the ring of truth. It seems like basic common sense.  If classrooms are not equipped with textbooks, computers, and other technology and supplies necessary for educating America’s youth so they are prepared to take on the work necessary for our society to operate and serve the population’s needs in the 21st century, how can teachers optimally help students learn as they need to?

And, of course, for classrooms to be optimal learning environments, our public schools also need to be able to recruit and retain the best and brightest among us, right? After all, who do you want teaching your children? To achieve this end requires ensuring the profession earns a respectable salary and working conditions are supportive and empowering.

This phrase is effective in reminding us that issues of education and of labor justice, of workers’ rights, go hand in hand.

After four years of Trump’s presidency and the shameful and deleterious antics of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, having Dr. Jill Biden accompany President-elect Joe Biden into the White House will be a breath fresh air, promising a proper seriousness when it comes to educational policy, including a respect for the rights of labor.

Dr. Biden recognizes the interconnectedness of these issues, as exemplified in her tweet from last November:

Linking the right to organize, as well as teachers’ salaries and working conditions, to the fight for quality public education seems like a fresh idea in Washington D.C. because this type of thinking has been not just absent in Trump’s administration, it has been roundly, even savagely, dismissed in favor of a brutal assault on public education, on teachers’ rights, and on the students’ civil rights.

The sounds of Trump’s silence on public education and teachers’ working conditions were audible to the point of being deafening when in 2018 teachers from West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado effectively engaged in mass strikes the likes of which our nation has not witnessed since the 1930s. Trump said not a word to acknowledge or in any way address both the lagging teacher salaries in those states or the woefully low levels of funding for public education which was also a major, if not primary, impetus behind the teachers’ mass actions. The silence continued in early 2019, which witnessed massive teachers’ strikes in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for similar reasons.

Trump’s 2020 proposed budget slashed education funding by $7 billion, and his proposed 2021 budget followed up with a $6 billion cut.  DeVos has repeatedly endorsed policies that enable funding typically channeled to America’s public schools to be diverted to private schools.

And she has fought repeatedly against civil rights protections, or enforcement of protections, for transgender students and students with disabilities as well as for DACA recipients.

Perhaps exemplary of DeVos’ long and damaging four-year reign as Secretary of Education is her participation in Trump’s ongoing assault on the rights of federal workers and their unions.  In 2018, Erica Green reported for The New York Times, federal labor mediators advised DeVos and her department that they were likely in federal violation of law in their curtailing of workers’ protections and their right to access union representation.

David Borer, counsel for the union, stated at the time, “It’s a real spoke in the wheel in the government’s attempt to destroy federal sector unions. This was the first salvo in what’s become a broadening assault on federal unions, the rights of federal workers.”

DeVos’ attack on union rights echoed the myriad anti-union statements riddling Trump’s budget at the time.

It needs to be pointed out that, of course, this attack on unions, on workers having the right to representation in the world and the right to organize, is consistent with efforts to undermine democracy we see being carried on ever more intensely these days by the Trump administration and the Republican Party overall. The attack on unions needs to be understood as an attempt to deprive workers of the right to have a say in their workplace, where they spend a good portion of their time. To suggest that we have democracy-free zones, in this case the nation’s workplaces, in a democracy is just a violent contradiction, a bill of goods Republicans have for too long been selling Americans at steep price.

But more to the point here—pardon my digression—is that in the realm of education, anti-labor policy is actually anti-student, anti-education. In this regard, DeVos is the Secretary of Mis-Education.

On her way out the door, she has been urging the very colleagues she has assaulted to resist changes to her policies, telling agency employees:

“Many of you know well that most everything in this town, when it comes to education, is focused on schools — not students. So, let me leave you with this last plea: Resist. Be the resistance against a familiar force that will distract you from doing what’s right for students.”

And here we see what is either DeVos’ iniquity or stupidity—or perhaps the unhappy combination of the two.  Students are educated in schools by teachers. We must give schools the proper means to meet students’ needs and allow them to excel, and that means also recruiting, retaining, and supporting quality teachers, enabling them to have autonomy and exercise their expertise and creativity in serving students. It means having counselors and nurses on staff to take care of children.

What does she think it means to focus on students, if not make sure they have quality teachers, optimal teaching and learning environments, and attention to their health, mental and otherwise?

Ironically, DeVos’ tenure is best characterized as a constant assault on students. Last January the

American Federation of Teachers read more

Trump Can’t Stop Lying About Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Education

During his recent rallies it seems that Donald Trump has absolutely no idea of who he’s running against. Last week, it really seemed like he was running against Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

And at every one of these rallies, he makes sure to throw in a dig at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As a freshman congresswoman, AOC doesn’t really wield the same kind of power of a Nancy Pelosi or a Chuck Schumer.

Still, since the day she was elected, Trump and Fox News have never been able to lose their focus on Ocasio-Cortez. During an August rally, the president said, “AOC, that’s a real beauty, isn’t it? She knows as much about the environment — do we have any young children here? — as that young child over there. I think he knows more. And she certainly knows nothing about the economy.”

Trump’s latest trick has been questioning the educational background of the Rep. When he took a shot at her recently, she fired back, “I could say yes, but who cares? Plenty of people without college degrees could run this country better than Trump ever has. As much as GOP cry about “elites,” they’re the ones who constantly mock food service workers, people w/o degrees, etc as dumb. It’s classist & disgusting.”

I could say yes, but who cares? Plenty of people without college degrees could run this country better than Trump ever has.

As much as GOP cry about “elites,” they’re the ones who constantly mock food service workers, people w/o degrees, etc as dumb. It’s classist & disgusting. https://t.co/t4FepwyeGl read more

Trump’s Attack on “Failing Government Schools” Reveals Religiously-Repressive, Racist, and Homophobic Attack on Public Education

In his State of the Union Address, Trump took a swipe at what he called “failing government schools.”

Most of us use the term “public school” or talk about “public education,” as we refer to institutions set up by, for, and of the people.

Trump, of course, is talking about public schools, but his choice to re-name them “government schools” is consequential. This phrase is not aimed at making public schools appear as institutions central to supporting the public good, to undergirding any hope for equality and freedom in this country, and to enabling the vast majority of Americans to access education. Rather, he makes these schools sound repressive and imprisoning, not enabling and liberating.  (And I’m not suggesting there aren’t issues of gross inequality in our public school system.)

Certainly, the phrase “government take-over” is never used positively, as when opponents of, say, universal healthcare decry a “government take-over” of the healthcare system.

In short, substituting the adjective “government” for “public” can make any institution sound like a top-down, inefficient messy operation. Sadly, these are just the connotations the word has become saddled with over time, deserved or not.

And in many cases, it is not deserved. Remember when Tea Party activists used to wave signs demanding “Keep your goddamn government hands off my medicare”?  People loved their government-run healthcare; they just didn’t know it because the right wing has trained so many Americans reflexively to hate government (even when the right wing controls it!) and automatically see it as the enemy and as inefficient.

Indeed, the world had been turned upside down for these Americans, as they protested against their own interests, railing against a government that administered the very program they wanted.

The same is true in the case of Trump referring to “failing government schools.”  The phrasing is designed to get folks on board with defunding the public schools on which most Americans depend, promising them more “choice” and better schools.

But what’s really behind Trump’s words?

Let’s listen and then unpack.  Here’s what he said Tuesday night:

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Trump said. “Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

The solution is to pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, legislation proposed by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  This act would provide $5 billion worth of annual tax credits to encourage individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship funds. Families could apply for these funds to send their children to private and religious schools or potentially other kinds of vocational training or certification.

But what’s really behind this proposal? Why not actually have not just “government run” schools but schools that are actually sufficiently—and why not lavishly?—“government funded”?

We can’t separate Trump’s call for an “inclusive society” and attack on public education from his call for what he calls “religious liberty,” which is intimately linked to Attorney General William Barr’s and DeVos’s agenda of dismantling the division between church and state, imposing a right-wing Christian worldview on public institutions (or eliminating them), and de-funding the public sector.

Compare what Trump said in last Tuesday’s address to what Barr said in a speech last October at Notre Dame’s law school.

Here’s Trump:

“My administration is also defending religious liberty, and that includes the constitutional right to pray in public schools,” he said. “In America, we don’t punish prayer. We don’t tear down crosses. We don’t ban symbols of faith. We don’t muzzle preachers and pastors. In America, we celebrate faith, we cherish religion, we lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the glory of God.” read more

Betsy DeVos’ Corrupt Assault on Public Education Continues

The drama of the impeachment of the nation’s president, reports indicate, simply has not captured the interest or concern of the American audience.  Apparently the melodrama of daytime soap operas attracts their attention more than the antics of a corrupt president and administration actively undermining the nation’s security for personal gain at the expense of the people’s interests.

Arguably, Trump’s corrupt behavior and incessant lying should concern the American people. He has misled the people about his support for healthcare policy that ensures coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, his refusal to cut medicare and social security, and hosts of other issues most Americans would tend to understand as “kitchen table” issues, those issues that directly impact their pocketbooks, livelihoods, and ability to take care of their families. It would seem that the corrupt behavior of a president everyday seeking to make American lives worse in the most basic ways would interest voters.

But there is no point arguing. I tried as much when I wrote a piece arguing in a similar vein, titled “Why the Mueller Report is the Kitchen Table Issue of all Kitchen Table Issues,” back when that report was released.

What IS worth highlighting in reporting, though, is the kind of corruption we see in the Trump administration in relation to issues that we actually know Americans care deeply about and which just doesn’t receive as much attention.

I’m talking about issues of public education and the ongoing corrupt behavior of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who continues to work against Americans’ abilities to attain affordable and quality public education. And she does so, like Trump, to line her own pockets.

The magnitude of the impeachment hearings and “trial,” dominating the attention of the American media, provided cover for DeVos’ own more mundane corruption.

Early last December,

DeVos proposed a plan read more

Opinion: Kansas and Kentucky Show Support For Public Education: A Key For 2020 Democrats

Back in 2004, Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? elevated the state as the textbook case of how the Republican party has been able to leverage a platform of conservative social values to sway the electorate to vote against its economic interests.  Railing against abortion, affirmative action, big government, elitism, political correctness, and the like, Republicans surfed the wave of voters’ cultural outrage to election victories and then performed the bait-and-switch.

As Frank tells the story, these officials, instead of delivering on these platforms, engaged in unbridled deregulation and tax cuts, gutting the public sphere on which people depended, such as the educational system, and concentrating wealth in a fewer and fewer hands at the people’s expense.

In 2018, Kansas voters suddenly got “woke,” deciding they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  They elected Democrats Laura Kelly as Governor and Sharice Davids to the House of Representatives.

They felt the reality of Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s Kansas, where it became apparent that, lo and behold, massive tax cuts did not pay for themselves, much less increase state revenues, but rather resulted in severe austerity conditions.   For example, the school year was shortened due to revenue shortfalls attributable to his criminally huge corporate tax cuts, exposing that these Republican fiscal and tax policies were not benefiting the economic health of the state or creating a higher quality of life. Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court. Bobby Jindal wreaked similar havoc in Louisiana back in 2016, granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, leaving the state in economic chaos and facing massive cuts to education and basic social services.  Republican Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner followed the same playbook, razing the state’s public sphere in the name of restoring economic health by lowering taxes and destroying unions.

As I wrote back then, voters paying attention should have seen what the GOP had in store for them should a Republican win the presidency in 2016. And Trump has indeed realized this vision, lavishing exorbitant tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and to corporations, resulting in the accelerating deterioration of the economy as well as gutting the public sphere. His budget cut proposals as well as the

policies of his Education Secretary Betsy Devos read more

Debate makes Clear: Public Education, the Public Good itself, Hang in the Balance in 2020

When asked about his approach to education in last Thursday’s Democratic primary debate, Pete Buttigieg’s response boiled down the difference between his approach and Donald Trump’s to its most  basic element.  “Step one,” he said, would be to “appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.”

Buttigieg’s pithy statement put sharply into focus the stakes the 2020 election holds for the health, indeed the fate, of public education in America—even the fate of the public good itself.

As basic and common sense as this first-step solution is, that someone needed to say it—and that it actually and accurately captured reality—should speak volumes to the American people about how the Trump administration has approached and understood the role of governing overall. For Trump, the role of government is not to support the public good and cultivate a vibrant public sphere that enables and encourages people’s democratic participation in serving each other; rather, for Trump, governing is about using—or abusing—the power of the presidency to help some exploit our national resources to profit off of others–at the severe expense of those others.

Of course, the lawsuit moving forward against Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution alleges this same behavior.

But compelling allegations aside, Trump’s own behavior speaks for itself.

Last August he appointed a labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, who has historically devoted his energy to undermining the rights and conditions of labor in favor of the businesses who profit from exploiting workers.  As Morgan Chalfant reported for The Hill, Scalia “has a career history of representing businesses and fighting to roll back labor regulations. One of his more prominent cases involved representing Walmart as the retail giant fought a Maryland law on employee health care.” Labor unions vigorously opposed his appointment because of his long record of fighting for business against labor.

And, of course, Trump’s appointments to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, previously Scott Pruitt and now Andrew Wheeler, have aggressively sought to assault rather than protect our environment.  Pruitt was instrumental, for example, in convincing Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord; and for a taste of Wheeler’s environmentally destructive antics, just look back to last Thursday when the EPA rolled back Obama-era regulations on clean water.

And just as Trump’s labor secretary and EPA head support business’s profits over the well-being of workers and people generally, as all our impacted by deteriorating environmental standards, it is no different when it comes to the secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos has repeatedly undermined access to education for America’s students and, in her routine yet stalwart support of for-profit education, participated in fleecing Americans of millions of dollars and leaving them, as they earnestly sought degrees to improve their lives and pursue their dreams, without degrees.

At the end of last August, DeVos, reversing policies put in place during the Obama administration to enable students to seek forgiveness for loans they received when for-profit colleges defrauded them, made it more difficult for students to qualify for such loan forgiveness.

She complained students were just raising their hands to get “free money.”

Eileen Connor, legal director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, found these rollbacks so unconscionably egregious that the project has vowed to challenge them in court.   She said, “If Betsy DeVos won’t do her job and stand up for students, then we will fill that void. That is why we will be filing a suit challenge these harmful new regulations that give a green light to for-profit colleges to continue scamming students.”

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin similarly characterized the move “another Trump-DeVos giveaway to their for-profit college cronies at the expense of defrauded student borrowers.”

Indeed, let’s not forget that shortly after the 2016 election Trump settled a lawsuit for $25 million against his own sham for-profit Trump University.

When it comes to education, too, the Trump presidency is all about either enriching himself and his family at the expense of people and the public good or helping others do so.  The overarching policy of his administration is to create conditions, using the authority and resources of the federal government, in which some can reap enormous profits at the expense of the tax-paying American public.

This truth revealed itself with crystal clarity last July when Erica L. Green and Stacey Cowley reported for The New York Times the substantial depth of complicity of DeVos’s Education Department in supporting the fraudulent for–profit Dream Center Education Holdings, a subsidiary of Los Angeles mega-church that was allowed to buy out the collapsing for-profit Argosy University and the Art Institutes chain.

First, the Times underscored the fact that Dream Center had no experience in higher education when it received the blessing of DeVos’ department to buy the troubled for-profit chains.

Second, we learn that the head of higher education policy for the department, Diane Auer Jones, a former executive and lobbyist for for-profit colleges, was pulling strings to help the colleges earn back accreditation, while Dream Center held back the truth from students who were paying tuition, often with federal funding from tax-payers, that the school did not have accreditation and thus the credits for which they were paying were worthless.

When finally Dream Center closed the doors on its institutions, students were left holding the bag, having paid tuition to an institution that could not grant them a degree.

Obviously, DeVos’ leadership enabled incompetence and greed, mirroring Trump’s presidency.

What is clear, though, is that the current administration not only does not value public education as serving the public good but that it simply doesn’t value serving the public good anyway.

The Trump administration is interested only in serving the private interests of the few at the expense of the American public majority.

Buttigieg makes clear that in the 2020 election, much hangs in the balance when it comes to serving the nation’s children through public education.

 

 

Democrats Must Discuss Public Education to Address 2020 Challenges and Russian Interference

In an interview on Morning Joe after two nights of Democratic primary debates, Colorado Senator and Presidential candidate Michael Bennet pointed out that during those two nights not one question was asked of the twenty candidates regarding educational policy. Indeed, he continued, no question was asked of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential debates.

As a former superintendent of Colorado’s public school system, Bennet’s ears are sensitively trained to perk up for conversations about education, or to notice the absolute dearth of such conversation.

His observation is a keen one: education has simply fallen off of the political table of nationally important issues. Arguably, in the now famous exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden regarding the busing of children to enforce integration in the public schools, an issue of education reared its head in the debate. The issue at hand, though, more quickly became a discussion about racial politics rather than educational policy—or, perhaps more accurately, the discussion became one about Biden’s character, political record, perspectives on race, and viability as a candidate. Harris’s strategic pounce did not springboard into a larger discussion about education in the United States.

Certainly, it is notable– and distressing–that issues of education, most narrowly defined, were not addressed, leaving such vital issues as the quality—and equality—of our K-12 public education systems, college access and affordability, and the student debt crisis, unapologetically ignored.
What this lacuna also reveals, perhaps even more significantly, is the extent to which those dominating the political sphere do not understand education, most broadly defined, as playing a key role in transforming our larger culture and in helping to address in meaningful ways all the pressing challenges we face, from climate change, to national security, to income inequality, and so forth.

It’s not hard to see, for example, that educational policy needs to be a key part of moving us forward in the effort to address climate change. People of all generations need to be equipped with a basic critical scientific literacy to accept the reality of climate change, its consequences, and the urgency of addressing it. This means education must take place outside the narrow confines of K-12 and even college educational systems and must be part of a broader cultural initiative and transformation.

Let’s take the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election as an example of this point. Several candidates on the primary debate stage mentioned Russian election interference a chief threat to our national security.

None of the candidates discussed educational and cultural transformation as part of the solution in combating Russian interference.

And yet, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in the pages of PoliticusUsa, perhaps the most successful model on the globe for addressing Russian political interference has centered educational and cultural initiatives in the effort to counteract the proliferation of fake news and other propaganda efforts.

I’m talking about the example of Finland, a nation which, ironically enough, solicited American experts to help them design their educational initiative to defend their democracy against Russian intervention, and this initiative has now become a model for other nations seeking to similarly secure their political integrity.

Having declared its independence from Russia 101 years ago and sharing an 832-mile border with Russia, Finland has a long history of fending off Russian propaganda but has stepped up efforts in the digital age, especially after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

What has the effort been? One that emphasizes educating its citizens in critical thinking, which includes a widespread initiative to train not just students in schools but all residents, journalists, and politicians to recognize fake news and critically question false information purveyed to sow division.

Again, the educational initiative was not limited to schools. As social media attacks escalated in 2015, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, Eliza Mackintosh has reported for CNN, “called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information.” Chief communications officer for the prime minister’s office Jussi Toivanen, while echoing that “it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” also asserts that “[t]he first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

The point to be emphasized is that the initiative was not undertaken in the educational system, narrowly speaking. The effort was to educate the population as a whole, so classes are offered, for example, at adult education centers, where one can take a seminar on how to know if one has been trolled by a Russian army and learn how to detect manipulated videos, false profiles, and so forth.

According to Mackintosh, this initiative, which is “one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today . . . appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.”

Finland is showing the U.S., indeed the world, what it looks like to combat Russian interference.

But that means talking about education in broad ways. Indeed, funding for public libraries and park districts, not to mention public education overall, has been slashed, never recovering from budget cuts made during the Great Recession. And yet these are key sites of public education for our residents.

The first step is actually recognizing the spheres of education and culture as sites of warfare, really, where we must work to defend democracy.

Putting America first might mean following Finland’s example and recognizing that devotion to public education and critical thinking can prove effective in the fight for democracy.

Trump’s education cuts show it’s not the economy, stupid; it’s just mean stupidity

Trump racist chinese

Remember President Donald Trump’s State of the Union addresses last February and in particular in January 2018 amid a wave of teachers’ strikes? Can you recall the talking points he elaborated on the need to support public education?

No?

Well, that’s because since taking office he’s uttered barely a word about our at-risk public education system or the sharply waning fiscal support for public higher education which has led to skyrocketing tuitions as well as exacerbated a student debt crisis that is deleterious to the economy overall.

The sounds of Trump’s silence on public education are audible to the point of being deafening. Indeed, when in 2018 teachers from

West Virginia read more