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What happens to a 13-year-old boy who witnesses the murder of his uncle, then, just days later, loses his father to suicide? What happens when he sees his great grandmother, his sole caregiver, lost in an ocean of grief over her two grandsons and filled with worry because she can’t afford their funeral expenses?
If the family is forgotten or disregarded by their community, that boy could harden against the hurt. He could withdraw, become self-destructive and face a future as grim as his father’s and uncle’s. Fortunately, he goes to a community school, which made all the difference in what happened next.
“A community school wraps its arms around a family, providing services that extend far beyond academics,” says David Greenberg, the coordinator for Community Schools for the Las Cruces Public School District.
“These kinds of services can make or break a crisis situation. If we had no way to support that student, he’d have no chance.”
The boy is an eighth grader at Lynn Community School in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which offers mental health services to students who are in crisis, so that they can cope and not fall through the cracks. The boy was able to talk about his grief and his anxiety rather than swallow it or face it alone. What’s more, the full-time community school coordinator spent hours researching and applying for a grant to pay for his father’s and uncle’s funerals, a time-consuming effort that would be impossible for staff at a regular public school to handle on top of regular workloads.
The funeral costs were covered, the great grandmother received an outpouring of support from the community. Later that fall, she came to the school to pick up a full Thanksgiving dinner to serve at home—one of 150 holiday dinners provided by the school to families who would have otherwise gone without.
At its core, a community school is a network of partnerships offering services that remove barriers to learning, like trauma, hunger, homelessness and the myriad of other problems faced by families living in poverty. Research consistently shows that the problems of students in school and the problems of the community they live in are intertwined. One can’t be addressed without the other. The community schools model aims to tackle these problems together.
The idea of a cohesive community school goes back more than 100 years. The school house has traditionally been a social center where everyone gathered to celebrate or to grieve. Into the mid-20th century, the school-as-social-center continued. Families and neighbors came to enjoy musical performances, to cheer on the basketball team, or meet for spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts. When a crisis struck, the community joined together to face the crisis with the affected family, arm in arm.
Then the winds shifted toward individualism. Families moved for better jobs, then moved again, becoming more isolated. Communities became more fractured. Meanwhile the problems of society, particularly low-income society, persisted. Students whose basic needs weren’t met couldn’t focus on learning while struggling under the weight of
poverty. Enter the community school model.
Assess Needs, Offer Services
Up and down the halls of Lynn Middle School is evidence of the community- oriented mission. In a room near the front office, community schools coordinator Sylvia Chavez maintains racks of donated clothes. “We always need shoes. We have boys who wear size 11, 12, 13. I’m constantly looking at men’s feet and asking, ‘What’s your size?’” she laughs. Nearby, “the family computer center,” which includes a pair of computers, printer, and array of office supplies, can be used by parents to update resumes, print documents, sign up for community programs, or whatever they need, says Chavez.
Sylvia Chavez (photo: Mary Ellen Flannery)
During the school’s “assets and needs assessment,” a necessary precursor to the development of a community school, teachers and parents pointed most frequently to hunger and mental health issues. One in four children is food insecure in New Mexico and, as any educator can tell you, hungry children can’t learn.
A new food pantry, supplied by local non-profit Casa de Peregrinos with daily snacks and take-home bags of food, tackles hunger. Between the various agencies involved, some Lynn Community School students eat three meals a day at school, and many take home food for the weekend.
Farther down the hall, in a space now occupied by a teachers’ lounge, a mental health clinic will open later this year with visiting counselors from a community health center. “Our social workers are super overworked. They can do crisis care, but they can’t do the kind of ongoing, sustained behavioral care that parents want,” says Chavez.
These kinds of services can make or break a crisis situation. If we had no way to support that student, he’d have no chance.” – David Greenberg, Las Cruces Public School District
In the adjacent room, a school-based dental clinic will open, too. Being a community school mean inviting the community into the school, but also reaching out, says Chavez. “I meet with teachers and ask them, ‘How can you teach science and also engage with the community? How can you teach social studies and also engage with the community?” One media teacher started a student-run newspaper for and about the community, she says. Others are growing vegetables in their courtyard and sharing them.
Chavez, who was a teacher for 20 years before coming to Lynn last year, calls it a work in progress. “The struggle is to get parents to change their mindset and realize that this is truly their space. This school is for the whole family,” she says.
In essence, all community schools are works in progress as school personnel identify different needs and new partners while looking for additional funding streams and strategies to bring the community back to the schools with an “It takes a village” view.
Educators Focus on Education
Across the country in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., Walt Whitman Middle School became the second community school to open in the Fairfax County Public School district this academic year, along with Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School.
The schools were chosen based on the high needs of their students who live along what’s known as the Richmond Highway Corridor, a busy four-lane street lined with strip malls and check-cashing stores, low-rent apartment buildings and trailer parks.
It’s a pocket of disadvantage in a sprawling county that is also home to some of the most affluent families in America. At Walt Whitman, more than half of families live below the poverty line. Their most pressing need: food.
Walt Whitman students can pick up clothing in the community room. (Photo: Luis Gomez)
There are hungry students all over the country and educators do everything they can to help, but without someone to help coordinate efforts to reduce hunger on an ongoing basis, those attempts are stretched to the breaking point.
“There is no end to what educators want to give,” says Karisa Gearheart, the social worker at Walt Whitman who used to juggle feeding hungry students on top of her caseload, while helping homeless families find housing, or connecting uninsured students to free medical and mental health services.
“But in a community school, the silos are removed and helping meet students’ needs is more streamlined and sustainable,” Gearheart says.
Now, if someone at the school notices that a student has no warm coat or is wearing shoes with holes, they don’t have to make a weekend trip to Target. They can bring them to the community room to pick something out from racks of clothing brimming with coats, shoes and kid’s attire in every size, including infants. There’s also a food pantry in the community room, stocked by the Capital Area Food Bank, where students and their parents can grab whatever they need for weekday and weekend meals.
The community room, a converted classroom now furnished with sofas and tables, is also a meeting space for parents who gather every Friday for workshops on managing household finances, saving for college, and drug, alcohol, and gun violence prevention.
Once a month, the school opens a fresh food market where families can get free fruits and vegetables—even whole chickens and other fresh meats.
It’s enough food to feed a family for at least two weeks. Students and staff work together to set up the market each month, bagging vegetables and carrying groceries for “customers.” The market brings together students who don’t regularly hang out and it builds comradery among educators.
“I like having the opportunity to help other people in my community,” says fourteen-year-old Mario Pineda.
“The first time I carried so many boxes to cars I was really sore the next day!”
“There is no end to what educators want to give. But in a community school, the silos are removed and helping meet students’ needs is more streamlined and sustainable.” – Karisa Gearheart
Mario is a student in Beverly Wong’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class, a college readiness course that focuses on writing, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership.
Wong, who has taught at Whitman for 17 years, brings her AVID class to the market every month so they can volunteer, earn community service hours and practice leadership skills.
“When my own kids were young, we volunteered at the food pantry and they learned so much from that experience,” says Wong. “I really appreciate being able to volunteer right here at school and involve my students in the process so they can help each other and learn what it means to contribute to their community.
Students give, students receive, and all of this allows us to do our jobs better.” The community schools coordinator, Delia Montecinos, makes it all happen.
She is the conduit between the school, the community, and the services provided through a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax County Government and Neighborhood Services, the United Way of the National Capital Area, and United Community Ministries, Inc., a community advocacy organization that has worked with low-income residents of Fairfax County for more than 50 years.
By connecting the students and their families to the services they need in the community, Montecinos allows educators to focus on educating.
The hope is that all schools in the district will become community hubs—centers of learning that offer food, clothing, and classes, plus on-site laundry, medical, and dental facilities.
Their lens will widen from focusing only on students in a classroom to focusing also on the needs of a student’s siblings, parents, grandparents, and neighbors. The idea is that lifting up a student isn’t possible unless her community is lifted up, too.
According to Wong, there is one simple reason for the critical work of community schools: “We need to do this,” she says. “We’re raising the future.”
When a school district is $30 million in the hole, the effects are evident.
In Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish School District, some students are crammed into classrooms that weren’t built to accommodate large class sizes. Older buildings are cleaned and patched, but floods and vandalism have taken their toll.
“Conditions in some of our buildings are deplorable,” says Dr. Tia Mills, an elementary special needs educator and president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators (EBRPAE). “Schools are underfunded and employees are not getting paid what they deserve.”
Teacher salaries in East Baton Rouge have gone down by more than $9,000 since 2008 (accounting for inflation). So many educators have left the district that in recent years, there have been classes with no permanent teacher all year.
Louisiana ranks 49th in the country for teacher salaries and pay in East Baton Rouge Parish is in the bottom third of school districts in the state, according to the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE).
That’s why Mills, like many of her colleagues, works a second job. In addition to teaching at Eden Park, the district’s alternative elementary school, Mills is an adjunct professor of history—“another salary I can’t live off of,” she says.
But Mills—working with LAE—found a way to fight back, after pinpointing a glaring source of their funding troubles: corporate tax breaks.
Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) offers an extreme example of the subsidies that states routinely lavish upon corporations.
For more than 80 years, local governments in Louisiana have lacked control over their own tax-break decisions. Instead, one state body, the Board of Commerce and Industry, has routinely granted petrochemical giants like ExxonMobil long-term property tax abatements. This program alone costs public services throughout the state about $1.7 billion per year, and schools lose the most: about $600 million annually.
EBRPAE members spent well over a year organizing, stayed vigilant during several 7-hour school board meetings, and endured some nasty name-calling from those who oppose their campaign.
“I tell everybody, this is not sexy work,” says Mills. “It’s not. But it has to
LAE members’ perseverance paid off: This year, the East Baton Rouge
Parish School Board denied Exxon-Mobil a $2.9 million abatement—a
story so big it dominated the New York Times business section on February 5.
A Lot of Dollars, No Sense
The original purpose of such corporate tax subsidies was economic development. Starting in the 1930s, Southern states created incentive programs to lure companies from the Northeast and Midwest. Now, it happens everywhere.
When companies can credibly threaten to move jobs, they stage secretive tax-break auctions. That is why the high-profile competition to land Amazon’s second headquarters, or HQ2, gained so much attention; it
was a rare public auction.
28,000 Teachers - Corporate Subsidies - YouTube
Residents of Queens, New York, and Arlington, Virginia, were not uniformly thrilled to discover they had been chosen at a cost of $2.8 billion and $796 million in incentives, respectively. Community groups in Queens organized to successfully block Amazon’s arrival; the company abruptly cancelled its New York plan mid-February.
Another high-profile corporate tax abatement drama is playing out in Wisconsin, where former-Gov. Scott Walker awarded $4.8 billion to Foxconn Technology Group in 2017 for a massive flat-panel display factory—the largest subsidy ever awarded to a foreign-based corporation.
(Since the deal was announced, the number and nature of promised jobs has been repeatedly revised downward, and Foxconn recently admitted it may never manufacture anything in Wisconsin.)
Walker lost his re-election bid to now-Governor Tony Evers, who is working to minimize the financial fallout. As the Wisconsin Education Association Council agree has said, even if those jobs do materialize, they would come at far too great a cost to schools. The job creation incentive alone will cost the state $300 million per year between 2022 and 2026, drawing down the funds available for K-12 schools and the public university system.
Dr. Tia Mills (center) and colleagues pushed the school board to use its new power to deny corporate tax exemptions. (Photo courtesy of East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators)
The analysis shows that Hillsboro School District in Hillsboro, Oregon— where Intel and several cloud computing data farms enjoy big tax breaks—lost more to corporate subsidies in 2017 than any other school district in America: $96.7 million.
Under Oregon’s school funding formula, that tremendous loss is not absorbed only by Hillsboro; all 197 school districts take a proportional hit.
But that’s not easy in a state with limited revenue sources, where schools have been underfunded for decades.
“Our biggest struggle is class sizes,” says Hillsboro Education Association
President Jill Golay. “We have numbers that are really off the charts.” She’s referring to lower elementary classes of 30-plus and middle school
classes over 40.
“When I moved from Idaho to Oregon in 2010 I went from 18 to 32 first-graders,” Golay says. “That’s a lot of kids when you’re trying to teach them to read. I know the school district is committed to reducing class size if the funding is there.”
That $96.7 million would surely help.
Golay credits companies like Intel for their contributions to local schools in the form of donations and employee volunteers.
“They do a lot for us. But that’s not the same as revenue that you can count on every year,” she added.
If the goal of economic development incentives is to strengthen a local economy, then these lavish corporate subsidies are failing, says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First.
“When tax abatements cause school districts to have fiscal stress and reduce school quality, they actually undermine the local business climate,” LeRoy adds.
That’s because school quality is an important factor in location decisions both for companies seeking well-educated workers and for those hoping to convince key managers and their families to relocate.
Knowledge is Power
Educator unions have long known that corporate subsidies drain resources for schools. But now they have a better idea by how much.
The study by Good Jobs First was made possible by a new accounting standard known as GASB Statement 77, which (finally!) requires state and local governments to report the amount of revenue they lost to corporate tax abatements each year.
That’s good news for NEA members and everyone who cares about great schools. Leaders can steer the conversation away from austerity and terrible choices to how much taxpayer money is given to corporations and whether it is too much.
Maybe some of these incentives made sense 80 years ago, but these huge corporations that make billions should not be taking this kind of money out of the local schools.” – Alexandra Clark, school psychologist
The work the East Baton Rouge local has done to organize against subsidies provides a promising example.
First, Gov. John Bel Edwards—whose election was strongly supported by LAE because of his support for public education—issued an executive order in 2016 empowering local taxing authorities to vote for or against industrial tax exemptions.
EBRPAE educators seized the moment and joined forces with Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of faith and community groups, to inform citizens about how collecting these taxes could boost their local school budgets.
EBRPAE energized its own members by connecting the subsidies to the cuts in school resources and low pay. More members became regulars at union meetings. They circulated information and “Call your school board member” action alerts to all school employees, and showed up to school board meetings wearing bright red in honor of the #RedForEd movement.
School psychologist Alexandra Clark has not only become more active in her local, but outspoken on economic issues.
“I finally understood that if Louisiana would quit giving away our wealth, we would have money for raises and support staff and could retain people,” says Clark.
EBRPAE educators have had a series of meaningful victories. They stopped one request by announcing their intention to take leave and storm the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry meeting to speak out against ExxonMobil’s latest exemption request—for facility upgrades that were completed two years ago. The issue was dropped from the meeting agenda.
“Our state is one of the richest in resources but has some of the lowest test scores and worst health indicators,” said Clark. “Can this go on?”
“Maybe some of these incentives made sense 80 years ago,” she said, “but these huge corporations that make billions should not be taking this kind of money out of the local schools.”
Bargaining for the Common Good
Bargaining for the Common Good is an organizing approach where public sector unions use contract fights as an opportunity to organize local stakeholders around a set of demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit, but the wider community as a whole.
In these campaigns, labor and community groups are equal partners who work together to build public support for revenue solutions—including curbing excessive corporate subsidies.
Now, educator unions can demonstrate exactly how much local schools lose to corporate subsidies.
Access the full report from Good Jobs First.Use their subsidy tracker to find out about corporate tax giveaways in your state.
It’s a well-known fact that many public school teachers enter the profession only to leave a short time later. The U.S. Census Bureau says teachers are leaving the profession at a rate that has continued to climb for the past three years.
First-grade teacher Michelle Usher stays. Currently in her eleventh year of teaching, and her second year at Brentfield Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, Usher says she considered the statistics on teachers who leave while attending last summer’s NEA Representative Assembly, and wondered, “Why aren’t we also talking about the people like me who stay?”
Her musings inspired this story about the motivations that encourage Usher and other teachers to stay.
Usher was raised by a mom who this year entered her 39th year as an educator. But it was really her third-grade teacher, Robin Johnson—with whom Usher continues to maintain contact—who inspired her to teach.
While she was a student in Johnson’s class, Usher’s grandmother died. “It was really hard on me,” she says. Johnson assured her they would weather Usher’s grief together.
Johnson’s support led Usher to understand early that teachers provide more than academic instruction. They also provide care—the lesson Usher says she most wants her students to receive: “I’m not just here to teach you something. I really care about you.”
Usher’s first teaching experience was in an Arkansas county where the number of students from families with low incomes was high. In the neighborhood surrounding her current school in Texas homes average $300,000, compared to a state-wide average of $185,000. The only difference between the two sets of students, says Usher, “is what their parents can provide.”
She says students enter school carrying with them an invisible suitcase filled with whatever is going on in their lives, and they can’t set it aside. “Even though I don’t know what’s going on, I can help them unpack their suitcase.” At day’s end, she helps pack it back up, hoping that she has helped to make the contents a bit “fluffier and brighter,” she says.
Michelle Usher (Photo: Hoyoung Lee)
And that’s why she remains. “I stay because I want to make change. Even when I started teaching, there were laws and policy procedures that didn’t fit with what is actually happening in the classroom. I could have left five years ago, but my drive is if I keep teaching in the classroom, [and] keep talking to parents, we can get the votes we need.”
She adds, “I think now, we are seeing what we decided earlier isn’t going to work. If I can impact students every day, teach them how government works, I am impacting what we will see in 20 years.”
Jennie Campbell, a special education teacher at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Aurora, Colo., has a similar experience and agrees with Usher’s sentiment about how educators help to shape the future.
“For our kindergarteners today, the world is going to look completely different by the time they’re in twelfth grade,” says Campbell, who adds that educators strive to “help best meet the needs of our kids so that the world is accessible to all of them.”
Campbell is a fifth-generation educator and says teaching runs in her blood. Her mom was a teacher of students with severe needs. Her grandmother was an English teacher whose mother and grandmother were one-room schoolhouse teachers.
Campbell also has aunts and cousins who teach. But when NEA Today asked Campbell why she decided to teach, she, like Usher, credited her third-grade teacher.
“There are always one or two teachers in your life who stand out because they did something to help you or they connected with you on a personal level,” Campbell says. “Ms. Harper was my inspiration [to become] a teacher. There was something about her that made learning fun and magical.”
Campbell has been a special education teacher for 12 years, and has worked with students with severe autism and Down syndrome. Her student caseloads have been, at times, overwhelming. Yet, she remains in the classroom.
“Every kid is like a puzzle and I’m trying to figure out what pieces I can give him or her to make learning a whole picture,” says Campbell, explaining that one of her students at the beginning of the year was reading 31 words a minute at grade level. Today, this student reads 85 words a minute.
“This is tremendous growth for a kiddo to read more fluidly and to more accurately comprehend,” she says. “And, to have the kids have the ability and the skills to be functional citizens within our world—however that may look—is why I’m still in it.”
Not every teacher comes from a family of educators or instantly recalls that one special teacher.
Goodbye Private Sector, Hello Public Education
California’s Jayson Chang, who teaches tenth-grade world history and twelfth-grade government and economics at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, Calif., held an unfulfilling marketing position for two years before entering the classroom.
He recalls a staff meeting during which his manager explained how it was cheaper for someone in India to buy a TV from their U.S.-based company and have it shipped from their warehouse (also U.S. based) to India, than for the person to buy a TV from China and have it ship from China.
Why Do You Teach? - YouTube
“China and India are right next to each other!” Chang recalls thinking that day. “It makes no sense to ship a TV back and forth across the Pacific. I made a comment about ‘That’s not good for the environment.’ My manager replied, ‘I’m here to sell TVs, not save the world.’ That’s when I knew I had to leave.”
After he resigned, Chang did some soul searching. He reflected on his love of history—how, as a high school student, he often thought of wanting to teach history so other students, like him, would love the subject, too. He thought about his undergraduate studies, which focused on being a global citizen and making human connections. He thought about making a difference in the world.
In 2016, Chang stepped into the classroom recognizing that while all students may not end up loving history, they can at least understand its importance.
“Teaching history, and why it matters—especially now that the country is so divided—is where I can make an impact,” he says. “Students are our future and they can shape it as they see fit. It’s important to teach them about community.”
While he does enjoy his students’ “aha” moments, Chang finds it most rewarding when his graduated students come back to visit.
“It’s these moments that reinforce why I teach. Students share how I made a difference in their lives or how they used the lessons learned from my class in real-world situations,” he explains. “These are the kinds of connections and the type of community experiences that get me pumped and ready to go the next day.”
From Volunteer to School Secretary
For JaTawn Robinson, a secretary at Thomasville Heights Elementary in Atlanta, Ga., the power of community is strong.
Several years ago, Robinson was a frequent volunteer at her children’s school, Slater Elementary. Robinson was a lunch monitor, volunteer reader, and a field trip chaperone.
She made copies and assisted in the office. “Whatever needed to be done, I was there,” says the mother of three sons.
The seed for JaTawn Robinson’s commitment to her children’s school was planted long ago when Robinson herself was in elementary school.
“My mom volunteered a lot at my school,” she fondly remembers. “Attending PTA meetings was a requirement for us, and I always appreciated the sense of community and family in school when I was a little girl.”
One day, while she was working as a volunteer monitor in the cafeteria of her children’s school, the principal approached Robinson, said, “I need to talk to you in my office,” and then walked away.
“It made me nervous,” Robinson says, “I thought, ‘Did my children do something?’”
The principal had asked Robinson about her background. She explained how she held an associate degree in education and was affiliated with the Georgia Association of Educators and the NEA.
They discussed opportunities within the school, but nothing concrete.
By the end of the school year, Robinson was offered a position as the school’s parent liaison.
Two years later, she became the school secretary. Robinson spent two years in that role, and then moved to Thomasville Heights—the elementary school she attended, and where her mother spent countless hours as a volunteer.
Robinson has been the secretary at Thomasville since 2017. Remembering her time there as a fourth and fifth grade student, she says that while the surrounding community struggled with poverty and drugs, she felt safe when she arrived at school.
“You knew you were loved here. You knew someone was going to care for you. Our babies still battle some of the things we battled when I was in elementary school, and I want to provide that same love and the same sense of safety I felt when I was a student here.”
A Teacher For Life
Erika Navarro-Dix also teaches at the school she once attended. She is a first grade teacher at Carnation Elementary School, in the small, rural town of Carnation, Wash., about 30 minutes east of Seattle.
The reason she continues to teach? “I’ve always enjoyed being around kids,” she says.
Navarro-Dix says her first year of teaching was hard. She she was young and new to the profession, and says she didn’t emerge from her preservice with a developed classroom management style.
Still, she adds, “I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life..”
Navarro-Dix sought help. She went to her principal and asked for additional classroom observations. She watched other teachers. She looked for mentors.
Ten years later, she is still in the classroom.
“For me, it’s teaching first grade because that’s a really big ‘aha’ year for kids. School starts to make sense and their light bulbs turn on and just geting to see their love for learning has made me want to stay in this profession.”
Navarro-Dix, Usher, Campbell, Chang, and Robinson are hardly alone in their decision to step into—and remain—in the classroom. Nationwide, and day after day, millions of educators step into school settings with a willingness to share love and commitment with their students. And although they use different words to describe why they stay, it all boils down to the determination to make a difference in students’ lives—one that will last a lifetime.
Spring is in the air! Which means, in public schools across the U.S., classroom mess is reaching full bloom.
If you’re an educator who is allergic to disorder, take inspiration from the current master of de-cluttering: the star of the new 2019 Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Like millions of Kondo fans, NEA members are using the KonMari method to put their homes and classrooms in order and focus on what “sparks joy” or engagement or curiosity in their students.
Not only do they end up with less cluttered, more tidy and organized physical spaces, KonMari’s fans say they also gain more mental clarity and purpose.
“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton, an Oregon kindergarten teacher who applied the KonMari method to her home and her classroom this year.
“I feel like my mind is clearer and that I can focus better on what is truly important to me,” says Christy Bishop, a Florida third-grade teacher. “Keeping in mind the experience I have had so far with using the KonMari method in my home, I suspect that using this same method in my classroom will force me to define—or redefine—who I am as a teacher now and going forward. I believe that reflection will help me to grow and to be a better teacher.”
What is a KonMari?
Kondo, a Japanese author and self-described “tidy freak,” grew fans a few years ago with a best-selling book, “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.” But the “cult of Marie Kondo,” as The New York Times calls it, hit a peak this year with the New Year’s release of her Netflix series that takes her into American homes. Across the country, donations to thrift stores spiked as Americans re-examined their relationship to their stuff.
A few highlights of the KonMari method are these:
First, empty your drawers, closets, boxes—take it all out and make a big pile!
Then, hold each object in your hand and ask yourself, does it spark joy?
If the answer is no, then thank the item for its service—and toss or donate it. Often art teachers will want your “useless” crayons, magazines, storage boxes, and other detritus!
If the answer is yes, then find a correct place for it. Everything should be “easy to see and easy to access without making a mess,” says Bishop.
Kondo loves to organize items by size. Categories are important. She also wants you to be able to see the items that you place into storage containers.
Is every aspect of the KonMari method relevant to educators? Well, you can’t toss the students who don’t spark joy….and often there are district policies about retaining paperwork, curriculum, and other classroom items. The decluttering guru’s much-imitated method of folding socks and T-shirts may not have much applicability either.
But the essential (and often mocked) Kondo question—does this thing spark joy—is adaptable to a classroom environment, say Kondo’s educator fans.
“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton.
KonMari In Our Classrooms
Middleton started the KonMari process in her kindergarten classroom during a recent teacher workday by taking everything out of her classroom’s storage areas and piling it on the kids’ desks. “I open everything!” she says.
Then, the questions start. “The first year, I asked myself, ‘Is this something I would ever use?’” says Middleton, who has taught kindergarten for three years—and KonMari’ed her classroom each year. “Now I throw away more. It’s easy to say that, if I haven’t used it in the past three years, out it goes. As far as sparking joy, some things aren’t worth it. If it takes a lot of energy or mind space to keep a project organized, I’ll probably try to give it away and replace it with something more organized.
“I like thinking about whether something sparks joy. I think, in a classroom setting, some things do spark joy in my students!”
For Bishop, the question may be modified for an educational setting: “I think many, if not all, good teaching materials do spark joy in children (and teachers, too!) However, I think the guiding question I will use will be something like, ‘Does this spark engagement?’ Or, if ‘engagement’ is too much of a buzzword for some people’s liking, it could be replaced with ‘curiosity,’ ‘excitement,’ ‘interest,’ or whatever seems important to them.”
Examining every classroom resource also will help identify what you don’t have, says Bishop. “I may find a particular area of study for which nothing I have seems to engage students. Going through this process will help me better spot those gaps in my resources and be as prepared as possible for the following school year.”
Something else important happens while you KonMari your stuff, and it’s more powerful than a clean closet, says Bishop. “Really taking the time to ask myself if items bring me happiness or not forces me to define not only who I am right now, but who I want to be going forward. I can’t tell you how many times over the past month and a half I have asked myself, ‘Do you want to be the kind of person who owns and uses this?’ and ‘Why have I kept this so long?’”
This is guest post by NEA Today staff writer Cindy Long.
On a chilly February day, I snuck into my son’s kindergarten classroom a few minutes before story time when I’d be reading to the kids. I opened the door and quietly hung up my coat, eager for a rare look at my boy interacting with his teacher and classmates. The children were gathered around tables laughing and chatting while coloring dragons for a Chinese New Year craft. No worksheets, no sight words, no math problems—just crayons and laughter. I was delighted.
At the kindergarten orientation last fall I’d been surprised (okay, aghast) to learn that the five- and six-year-olds would be given homework folders with nightly assignments, receive 90 minutes of language arts and 45 minutes of math each day, and would even use a computer and mouse to take an assessment test. My son thinks a mouse is a cute, furry rodent with a taste for cheese.
Some fellow kindergarten parents were equally puzzled and concerned, others seem gratified that their children would hit the academic ground running, convinced that early reading and math instruction pay off in higher achievement in later grades. There’s research to back them up.
A new study finds that students in kindergarten classes with more academic content not only show higher math and reading ability, in some cases they have better social-emotional skills.
“The results bolster the stance of researchers who believe that challenging academic content is not necessarily at odds with children’s healthy development,” the five researchers wrote in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal study.
Not necessarily, they say, but what about when my son asks me why some of his friends can read and he can’t? I didn’t learn to read until the end of first grade, I tell him. I didn’t read for fun until third or fourth grade, but now I write for a living and read voraciously, with books stacked on my coffee table and nightstand. “You’ll read when you’re ready,” I say.
“Yeah, okay,” he sighs, and I wish his worries were more about a wiggly tooth and a missing matchbox car than his reading ability.
Fortunately, his teacher, Sharon Collier, works hard to strike a balance between the required kindergarten curriculum and just plain kindergarten fun.
When they’re working on numbers, for example, she has them dance the number five. When they’re learning about letters and words, they act like alligators that begin with “A” or snakes that begin with “S.”
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Collier says. “I know when they’re learning, and children this age simply won’t like learning if it’s not fun.”
She has different stations in her room for play and creativity, like an art station and a house station, but there’s often not enough time for that kind of kid-directed free play except during indoor recess.
The Reading Rush: What Educators Say About Kindergarten Reading Expectations
Despite the national push to get them to read and write by year-end, most kindergartners aren’t ready.
“We have a lot of students and not enough time even with a full day versus a half day,” Collier says. “Everyone in kindergarten struggles with this.”
We asked our NEA Today Facebook fans if kindergarten has become too academic. The overwhelming response: Yes!
Shawnee Wood teaches kindergarten at Oakview Elementary in Stoneboro, Pennsylvania, but she says over the last decade it’s become more like second grade disguised as kindergarten. The rigor and academic expectations increased dramatically with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the barrage of testing that came with it.
Wood has noticed that even though the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB and reduces the amount of required testing, has helped turn the tide, kindergartners are still “in desperate need for appropriate amounts of social and play time.”
For the first time in 12 years, Oakview’s kindergartners have a morning recess break as well as afternoon, and Wood has noticed the difference in their growth.
“When they have time in the morning and afternoon to have free play without me dictating their activities, their little bodies and minds are better able to focus on the academics,” she says. “They’re learning their sight words as well as learning how to play appropriately.”
Like Collier, Wood has been teaching for 20 years, and remembers when she a taught a letter a week and students still managed to learn how to read. But with more rigorous expectations, students who have learning issues are buried further by the strident expectations, and their behaviors worsen with the frustration.
“Over and over I say, let me teach them to be kind little citizens, to walk and take turns, to learn to love reading and writing, and the rest will come when they are ready,” she says. “Due to state standards, standardized testing, and the demands of society, it is a fight to keep the joy in kindergarten.”
Other educators have joined the fight. Becky Adrian works with first and second grade English Language Learners and believes we need to shift back to play-based education. She says some educators forget that many students are learning sight words as a second language.
“Play lets them interact as equals and gives them crucial linguistic skills necessary for academic development,” Adrian says. “Until early childhood educators have the training to develop language-neutral academics, play is the savior of language learners. Kindergarten should be a welcoming experience for all students.”
Sharon Collier’s classroom is a safe, welcoming environment where students are introduced to basic math and language arts, but also learn to do a mean hokey pokey and to “fill each other’s buckets” with kind words and actions.
“Whether or not they read by year’s end, I want all of my students to be safe and happy,” says Collier. “My job is to bring out their best.”
Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? Without a Doubt, Say Researchers
A 2016 study tracked the level of academic focus in kindergarten from 1998 to 2010. While the researchers expected to find some degree of increased attention on the reading and math skills emphasized by the now-replaced No Child Left Behind, they were somewhat surprised by the magnitude. “We’ve seen the kindergarten experience essentially transformed,” said one researcher. “Academic skill-building has really taken center stage in today’s kindergarten classrooms in a way that just wasn’t the case” in the late 1990s.
Thanks largely to a nationwide campaign by educators, the country is finally talking about how we can recruit, support and retain teachers. This is an important discussion, says Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, because “the teaching force has been transformed over the last 30 years, with significant financial, structural, and educational consequences.”
“Too often, researchers, school leaders, and policymakers are still operating under false assumptions about who goes into teaching and how teaching careers unfold,” Ingersoll said. “If we want to improve student performance, we must understand this new reality.”
Here are Ingersoll’s key findings:
A Growing Profession
Since 1987, the size of the teaching force, says Ingersoll, has “ballooned.”
Student enrollment and the number of teachers peaked in the 1970s, then leveled off before climbing again in the late ’80s. The teaching force has been on the uptick ever since (except for the period following the Great Recession), even outpacing the rate of increase for students.
From 1987-88 to 2015-16, total K-12 student enrollment in the nation’s public schools went up by 24 percent. During the same period the teacher workforce increased by 65 percent.
Pinpointing one decisive factor to explain the growth of the profession is difficult. Ingersoll cites the demands for more math and science teachers and more special education teachers. In particular, there has been dramatic increase (225 percent since 1987) in the number of bilingual/English-as-a-second language teachers.
Gender Imbalance Wider
Teaching in public schools has aways been a predominantly female occupation. Over the past 30 years, the gender gap has only grown. Both the number of women entering the field and the percentage of female teachers has increased. In 1987, 67 percent of teachers were women. By 2016-17, that number had risen to 76 percent.
Despite the dramatic increase of women employed in the U.S. labor force overall – 36 percent growth between 1988 and 2016 – the number of women who entered K-12 classrooms increased by 80 percent during the same period.
If the trend continues, soon 8 of 10 public school teachers in the nation will be women, and more students will encounter few, if any, male teachers during their elementary or secondary school careers.
Moreover, Ingersoll wrote, “an increasing proportion of women in teaching may have implications for the stature and status of teaching as an occupation. Traditionally, women’s work has been held in lower esteem and has paid less than male-dominated work. If the feminization of teaching continues, what will it mean for the way this line of work is valued and rewarded?”
Grayer and Greener
Overall, the teaching force is older than it was in 1987 and retirements are increasing. But Ingersoll notes that this trend is coming to an end. The number of teachers age 50 and over hit a peak in 2008 with 1.74 million. By 2016, the number had declined to 1.13 million.
At the same time, another trend is occurring, which Ingersoll calls the “greening” of the teaching force, driven by a dramatic increase in new hires.
In 1987-88, there were roughly 65,000 first-year public school teachers. 30 years later, there are more than 190,000. In 2007-08, the most common age for a teacher was 55. In 2015-16, the most common age ranged from the mid-30s to mid-40s.
While new teachers can help revitalize a school, the report noted that a large number of beginners also has its downsides.
“A sufficient number of experienced teachers makes a positive difference for beginning teachers,” the report said. “A solid body of empirical research documents that support, including mentoring by veteran teachers, has a positive effect on beginning teachers’ quality of instruction, retention, and capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement.”
Progress on Diversity But How Much?
In what Ingersoll calls “something of an unheralded victory,” the public school teaching force has seen a bump in racial diversity.
Numerically, there are far more minority teachers than ever before. In 1987-88, there were about 305,200 minority public school teachers. Today, there are over 760,000.
Ingersoll says growth in the number of minority teachers over the past several decades outpaced growth in minority students and was about three times the growth rate of white teachers.
Still, a slightly more diverse teaching profession hasn’t done much to close the wide teacher-student racial gap. It’s also worth noting that the increase in teachers of color is primarily due to an uptick in the number of Hispanic teachers – 3 percent to almost 9 percent. The share of African American teachers, on the other hand, has actually declined, from 8.2 percent to 6.7 percent.
Michael Hansen and Diane Quintero of the Brookings Institution project that in the near future, the change in student demographics will evolve at a higher rate than any expected shift in teacher diversity. “This means the underrepresentation of teachers of color will likely persist or even grow in the coming decades,” he wrote in a report issued last week.
Where Instability is Concentrated
Teachers of color also have particularly high turnover rates, more so than their white counterparts. This departure rate is increasing and is driven in large part by where they work.
Newer teachers, regardless of their race, have among the highest rates of turnover of any group of teachers.
The teaching professions has always been hampered by a high attrition rate, but, as Ingersoll points out, it’s not spread out evenly. Half of all turnover occurs in 25 percent of public schools, predominantly in high-poverty urban and rural areas.
Indeed, there is an “asymmetrical shuffling of significant numbers of employed teachers from poor to not-poor schools, from high-minority to low-minority schools, and from urban to suburban schools.”
Ingersoll notes that while demographic characteristics of schools do factor in a teacher’s decision-making process about where to work, later decisions about whether to stay or depart are driven by other issues.
“What does impact their decisions, our analyses show, are school working conditions, in particular the degree of autonomy and discretion teachers are allowed over issues that arise in their classrooms, and the level of collective faculty influence over school-wide decisions that affect teachers’ jobs,” the report said.
What Happens When a Teacher Leaves Mid-Year? U.S. teachers leave the profession at higher rates than other countries, but the debate and discussion over teacher attrition – reflected in research and in the media – focuses on educators exiting the profession before the beginning of a school year, based on the assumption that’s when turnover occurs. Little is known about teachers leaving mid-year.
A Growing Recruitment Strategy for a Diverse Teacher Workforce “How do we help those who should be in classrooms working with students who look like them, sound like them, and will connect with them?” asks NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. An answer may rest within grow-your-own programs, which recruit local community members and help them become teachers, creating a workforce that’s reflective of the full diversity of the student population.
Shielding her students against a storm of gunfire is something Andrea Beeman hopes she will never experience. It is gut-wrenching to even ponder, says Beeman, a paraeducator at Maple Heights High School in Maple Heights, Ohio.
Contemplating such a deadly scenario is tempered, she says, by knowing her school’s crisis response team includes administrators, teachers, and education support professionals (ESP) who participate in active shooter drills and have specific roles and responsibilities.
“The more collaboration among school staff during a drill, the better prepared we are to keep students safe,” says Beeman, who also serves as a building monitor. “My students will need to listen to my directions and trust me in an emergency.”
In today’s school climate, active shooter drills are as common as fire drills. Nine out of ten public schools currently conduct active shooter drills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
To prepare for an armed assailant on school grounds, it is advised that schools create a safety team that includes an administrator, mental health professional, nurse, security officials, educators, and even parents, according to the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers, who jointly published a guide book titled, “Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills.”
Planning for an active shooter situation should include the adult experience, personal skills, and professional knowledge of food service workers, custodians, and other ESP, says Dan Kivett, a security officer at Citrus Valley High School in Redlands, Calif., and president of the Redlands Education Support Professionals Association (RESPA).
“Trainings and drills must be all-inclusive,” says Kivett, an NEA board member. “For example, if bus drivers are parked on campus during an emergency, do they stay or go?”
Whether mandatory or not, Beeman advocates for staging an active shooter drill within a month of starting school while communicating policies and procedures with parents.
“The start of the school year is when everyone in the education community is reviewing rules and procedures,” she says. “Parents attend open house events and meet with staff. Conducting a drill early on will show our emergency preparedness.”
With ESP located in all areas of a school campus, even during non-working hours, it is vital that they be included in school crisis plans, Kivett adds.
The NEA 2018 School Crisis Guide includes cafeteria, transportation, maintenance, and health and student service professionals among staff who are vital to a comprehensive approach in preventing unnecessary violence during an emergency, though this is not the case at some schools.
“Unfortunately, some ESP may not know what to do because they aren’t trained or fully involved in drills,” says Kivett. “It’s a safety issue that concerns me.”
Kivett trains security officers and helps to conduct emergency operations planning for the Redlands United School District. He’s particularly concerned about playground supervisors and building monitors who may not have been prepared for responding to a range of emergencies, whether caused by humans or by a natural disaster.
“People may reactively know what to do in a crisis, but do they know what to do when they’re responsible for dozens of children,” he says. “With a shooter or earthquake or chemical spill, for example, every second lost can be the difference between living and dying.”
Any School, Any Time
The Educator’s School Safety Network estimates that threats or actual violence happen about 10 times a day in U.S. schools. The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado heightened the need for schools to be better prepared to respond to armed assailants and other forms of violence, such as bomb threats. About 16 campuses lock down daily, with nine of those incidents related to gun violence or the threat of it, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. More than 6,200 lockdowns occurred during the 2017-2018 school year.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Department of Education recommended expanding the lockdown-only approach for schools, which confined students and staff to their rooms. Instead, the department now recommends an options-based approach that allows school staff to make more independent decisions about how to protect their students depending on evolving circumstances, such as to evacuate a building rather than stay locked in a classroom.
These approaches include adapting the “run, hide, fight” model that was originally developed for adults in response to workplace violence. This expansion has spurred an increase in the number of school districts conducting drills.
“Drills really help staff consider the “what if” scenarios,” says Kivett. “If it’s a hurricane or fire, what do you do? If it’s a shooter, where do you go?”
While lockdowns may save lives during a real crisis, the drill itself can inflict “immense psychological damage on children convinced that they’re in danger,” according to the Post study. More than 4.1 million students endured at least one lockdown in the 2017-2018 school year.
A report from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence indicates that some drills “foster fear and anxiety” and “can intensify the fear of gun violence children already suffer.”
“We encourage immediate access to a counselor in a safe space to ease any stress or anxiety caused by a drill,” says Beeman, who works with high school students with developmental disabilities.
Should the need arise, NEA encourages schools to work with local hospitals and mental health agencies to aid students experiencing trauma.
Beeman faithfully meets students in the morning as they exit buses and stays with many of them until they are picked up after last bell and head home.
“I escort them to breakfast, lunch, electives, and help them develop soft skills needed to maintain a job after they graduate,” says Beeman, an NEA board member. “I can sense when they are experiencing undue stress. We are there for them.”
Says Kivett: “The point is not to scare students but to do all that is humanly possible to keep them safe in this era of violence.”
‘School Hardening’ Not Making Students Safer, Say Experts
“Protests by teachers and others helped drive substantial school funding increases over the last year,” writes Michael Leachman, Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at CBPP and co-author of the paper.
The funding gains were signifincant, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 19 percent, adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also saw significant gains, ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student, again after adjusting for inflation.
“Oklahoma became the poster child for the funding crisis that led to teacher walkouts in numerous states and cities,” said David Blatt, executive director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, in a conference call on Tuesday with Leachman and reporters. “For the first time since 2013, we’re no longer No. 1 among states making the deepest cuts to education.” (That would be Texas, where funding per student is now 20 percent below 2008 levels.)
Whether it is Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, or most recently in Oakland, CA., educators are hitting the picket lines to demand a reinvestment in public education, says NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia,
“Educators all over the country are #RedforEd,” said Eskelsen García. While specific issues vary state to state, “there are some issues they all share: The concern that public education has been chronically underfunded in state and local budgets for decades, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, too few counselors and nurses, tattered textbooks held together by duct tape, broken computers and outdated materials, and buildings that have fallen into disrepair.”
Although the news is encouraging, the CPBB study makes it clear that states have a long way to go before they dig themselves out of their hole. Per-student formula funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia is still well below pre-recession levels.
“While the funding hikes enacted in teacher-protest states last year allowed for teacher pay increases and other improvements, those gains may be reversed in coming years unless the states take additional steps to boost their school funding,” the report said. “Three of the four teacher-protest states that increased formula funding last year used revenue sources that may prove unsustainable, leaving them vulnerable to back-tracking in coming years.”
For example, the #RedforEd protests in Arizona forced lawmakers to approve a budget granting significant salary increases for educators. What’s not clear is where the necessary revenue to finance this and other improvements is coming from. Furthermore, Oklahoma’s new education spending is being financed by cigarette and gasoline taxes – revenue streams that, according to CBPP, “typically fail to keep pace with state revenue needs over time.”
“Funding sources for these boosts are not stable enough,” concludes Leachman. “And thus far in 2019, leading policymakers in these states haven’t proposed new revenues for school investments.”
The funding crisis that has gripped these states is due in large part to the reckless tax-cutting policies that their governors and legislatures enacted over the past decade. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in school funding since 2008 ― Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma ― cut income tax rates in recent years, making it almost impossible to adequately public education.
In contrast, Minnesota in 2013 raised new revenue from high-income earners to generate almost $500 million in new education spending.
The deepest-cutting states – Arizona, North Carolina, and Oklahoma – “can reverse course on the tax cuts as part of a broader effort to improve their educational systems,” the CPBB report said.
Technology and the connected world put a fork in the old model of teaching: instructor in front of the class, sage on the stage, students madly taking notes,
textbooks opened, homework as worksheets, and tests regurgitating facts.
Did I miss anything?
This model is outdated not because it didn’t work (many statistics show students ranked higher on global testing years ago than they do now), but because the world changed. Our classrooms are more diverse. Students are digital natives, in the habit of learning via technology. The “college or career” students are preparing
for isn’t that of their parents.
What is slow to adjust is the venerable lesson plan. When I first wrote these teaching maps, they concentrated on aligning with standards and ticking off
required skills. Now, with a clear-eyed focus on where students need to be before graduation, they must build on the habits of mind that allow success not only in
school but life.
Here are sixteen concepts you may not think about—but should–as you prepare lesson plans:
1. About a third of high school graduates go to work rather than college so they must be prepared for what they’ll face in the job market. This includes knowing how to speak and listen to a group, how to think independently, and how to solve problems. Lesson plans must reflect those skills.
2. Lesson plans must be platform-neutral, not a cheerleader for the school’s favorite tool. For example, spreadsheets should teach critical thinking and data analysis, not Excel or Sheets. What students use at school may not be what their future employer requires.
3. Conflate ‘knowing’ with ‘understanding’. Students must understand why their project is better delivered with a slideshow than word processing.
4. Transfer of knowledge is key. What students learn must be applicable to other classes—and life. For example, vocabulary isn’t a list of words to be memorized.
It’s knowing how to decode them using affixes, roots, and context.
5. Collaboration and sharing is treated as a learned skill.
6. Real life allows for do-overs. School should respect the process of review, edit, rewrite, and resubmit by allowing it to happen.
7. Student projects are shared with all, not just the teacher. The entire community of learners can benefit from each student’s work.
8. Self-help is expected, such as using online references and how-to videos. These are available 24/7, empowering students to work at their own pace, to their
9. Teachers are transparent with all stakeholders. Here, I’m thinking of parents. Let them know what’s going on in class. Welcome their questions and visits. Respond
to their varied time constraints and knowledge levels.
10. Failure is a learning tool. Assessments aren’t about finding perfect. In life, failure happens. Those who thrive know how to recover from failure and continue.
11. Differentiation is the norm. Different methods of showing knowledge are welcomed as long as students stick with the lesson’s Big Idea.
12. The textbook is a resource, supplemented by a panoply of books, online sites, experts, virtual chats, and anything else that supports the topic.
13. Problem solving is integral to learning. It’s not a stressful event, rather a life skill. Students attempt a wide variety of solutions before asking for help.
14. Digital citizenship is taught, modeled and enforced in every lesson, every day, and every class. Just as students learned to survive a physical community of strangers, they must do so in a digital neighborhood.
15. Since keyboarding benefits all classes, all stakeholders—parents included—are partners in ensuring that students can type efficiently, quickly, and without stress.
16. Play is the new teaching though it’s been relabeled ‘gamification’. The power of games makes learning fun. I know—this is a lot. Don’t feel like you have to rework
every lesson plan immediately. Do a few. Prove to yourself this approach works. Then, spread the word to colleagues that lesson planning has changed.
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K–18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K–8 technology curriculum, K–8 keyboard curriculum, and K–8 Digital Citizenship curriculum.
DeVos has floundered, however, in advancing her pet cause: the federal expansion of school vouchers. Even with GOP majorities in the House and Senate and the strong backing of President Trump, Congress in 2017 and 2018 rejected DeVos’ efforts to create federal vouchers to attend private schools.
Despite this setback and the recent 2018 elections that sent a pro-public education majority to the House of Representatives, DeVos’ enthusiasm for school vouchers hasn’t dampened. This was evident last week with the introduction of something called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.
In a USA Today op-ed touting the proposal, DeVos, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne, the bills’ sponsors in Congress, called it “a historic investment in America’s students.”
The majority of Americans who reject vouchers know better. DeVos’ proposal, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is just the “latest attempt to push an agenda that is academically ineffective, fiscally irresponsible and that funds discrimination at the expense of student opportunity.”
The good news is that Congress – who soundly rejected a similar proposal during the 2017 tax debate – isn’t likely to give this reboot a serious look.Still, the corporate interests who have doggedly pursued school privatization for more than a decade are nothing if not persistent, which is why public education activists aren’t about to let down their guard.
Whether they’re called “Education Saving Accounts,” “Tuition Tax Credits” or “Opportunity Scholarships,” the result is always the same: directly or indirectly, less money for public schools and more for private schools.
The Education Freedom Scholarship is a tax credit program, similar to what 17 states already have on their books.
Under such a plan, individuals and companies earn tax credits by donating money to nonprofit scholarship funds. Students then can use the funds to attend private schools, including religious schools.
Carl Davis, research director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, calls the DeVos proposal a “supersized” version, because it offers a dollar-for-dollar credit, meaning that every dollar given takes a dollar off the donor’s tax bill.
“The contributors to these programs wouldn’t have to put up a dime of their own money because the federal government would reimburse them in full,” he adds.
So what DeVos wants is the federal government to reimburse wealthy taxpayers with tax credits in return for providing funding to private schools on the states’ behalf.
“It’s a brazen effort to distort the tax code into a tool for funding private and religious schools with public dollars,” Davis said.
The Cost to Public Schools
In their USA Today column, DeVos and Cruz claim that “this program won’t take a single cent from local public school teachers or public school students.”
That is simply false. Tax credit vouchers will drain public funding from public schools. Under these plans, potential taxes are never paid, which in turn decreases the overall amount in the coffers. This makes less money available for public schools.
“While this bill isn’t likely to be enacted during this Congress, it sends a worrisome message about the direction that some private school advocates would like to go. They’re hoping to set the table for a major federal voucher plan the next time the political stars align in their favor.”- Carl Davis, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy
“The voucher proposal peddled by Betsy DeVos will divert already scarce funding away from neighborhood public schools – where 90 percent of children go – and give it away to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers,’ said Eskelsen García.
“Allowing certain taxpayers to opt out of funding an institution as fundamentally important as the nation’s public school system erodes the public’s level of investment in that institution–both literally and figuratively,” the repot states.
Furthermore, “expanding these programs at the federal level would lead to a loss of federal and state revenue directed at public schools that would weaken the ability of public schools to serve increasing numbers of students in poverty as well as students with disabilities and English-language learners.”
The Bill is Likely Going Nowhere But…
Soon after DeVos unveiled her proposal, U.S. Senator Patty Murray immediately declared it “dead on arrival.”
“Secretary DeVos keeps pushing her anti-public school agenda despite a clear lack of support from parents, students, teachers, and even within her own party,” Murray said in a statement. “Congress has repeatedly rejected her privatization efforts and she should expect nothing less here.”
With DeVos’ push to expand vouchers stymied (so far), the shift in momentum away from privatization may be modest but its’ unmistakable.
Still, by attempting to pry open the federal tax code to enable school voucher expansion, privatization advocates are demonstrating how relentless they are and will continue to be.
“While this bill isn’t likely to be enacted during this Congress, it sends a worrisome message about the direction that some private school advocates would like to go,” Davis warns. “They’re hoping to set the table for a major federal voucher plan the next time the political stars align in their favor.”