A program that helps millions of hungry kids is about to expire

Originally published in Vox.com on June 1, 2022.
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One of the most fundamental and intuitive facts about learning is that it’s hard to focus, or really do much of anything, if you’re hungry. There’s a hierarchy of needs, and stomachs come out on top.

Yet youth advocates are staring down a chilling deadline. June 30 is the last day for Congress to reauthorize a series of waivers that have allowed public schools to creatively deliver meals to students during the pandemic.

Originally passed in March 2020, the waivers granted schools the flexibility to navigate not only the challenges of remote learning and Covid-19, but also the supply chain crisis, the school labor shortage, and steep inflation at the grocery store. The waivers also expanded eligibility for school meals, enabling an additional 10 million students to access free breakfast and lunch each day.

Education leaders assumed Congress would re-extend the meal flexibility for one more year. The waivers, which expire at the end of June, were extended twice before on a bipartisan basis. In February, Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko introduced the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act to extend them one last time through June 2023, but when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion spending bill in March, the language for school meals was missing. Advocates were stunned, and say this decision alone has already jeopardized access to summer meals for nearly 7 million children.

“There is no urgency and political appetite to even have this conversation,” said Jillien Meier, director of the No Kid Hungry campaign. “Frankly this is not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on having a ‘return to normal’ … folks aren’t talking about it and they have no clue that this crisis that is looming.”

Many people would certainly like to see the waiver authorizing universal free meals made permanent, reducing the stigma for children and administrative burdens on parents and school districts. But advocates say that’s not what this fight is about. Instead, they’re seeking just one more year of flexibility to help schools weather the inflation and supply chain crises, and to contact the millions of families who have not filled out school meal application forms for the last 2.5 years.

“Usually that outreach starts in the fall and you get the sign-ups going for the following school year,” said Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which works with large school districts. “How do you educate these millions of families that that needs to be done again, and over the summer? It just won’t happen.”

Decades of research have shown how child nutrition programs aid academic achievementschool attendance, and student health outcomes. But the consequences of not extending the waivers will not be limited to families penalized by paperwork. Schools will also have less money to meet rising food prices and will face steeper financial penalties for not meeting all federal nutrition requirements, a challenge amid widespread product shortages. Some schools may decide to cut back on food offerings and even stop providing meals altogether. Others may slash budgets for their classrooms.

School lunches are not immune to the supply chain and inflation crisis

In normal times, the federal nutrition standards serve as important guidelines to ensure healthy options are available to students. Schools can only be fully reimbursed for the meals they serve if said meals meet those quality standards.

But these are not normal times, and school nutrition directors nationwide say they’ve never had so much difficulty stocking their cafeterias with basics like milk, meat, and vegetables. It’s become common for food orders to simply not arrive, or to be only partially filled.

A survey from the US Department of Agriculture released in March found 92 percent of School Food Authorities reported supply chain challenges, with products like chicken and bread among the most difficult products to procure. Nearly three-quarters of SFAs also reported staffing challenges, with acute shortages of cooks, drivers, and food prep employees.

Nutrition directors have had to get creative in finding emergency substitutes, including making shopping trips at 4 am to Costco and Kroger. Other school districts have cut back to one meal option, instead of the three or four they used to have. Without the federal waivers, schools could face financial penalties for all these decisions, if they opt to continue providing food at all, and would be under more pressure to hound families for unpaid school lunch debt.

Thanks to the waivers, the federal government has covered more of the cost of school meals than usual. This reimbursement flexibility has still just barely allowed school districts to tread water. “Ninety percent of schools are using the waivers and only 75 percent of them are breaking even,” Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary, told the Washington Post in March.

Without an extension, the average reimbursement could drop by nearly 40 percent. And this drop would occur as schools continue to face higher costs for food and labor. Grocery prices were 10.8 percent higher year-over-year than in April 2021, and are expected to increase substantially this year.

“We literally believe we’re going to go off a cliff June 30,” said Wilson. “And we simply don’t have the labor to go back to doing what we did [pre-pandemic]. We have school districts that are missing hundreds of people, so to expect them to account for every kid and what their family income is ridiculous.”

Congress could extend the waivers easily

Hundreds of advocacy groups, school districts, and elected officials have urged Congress to reauthorize the waivers for the next school year, at a price tag of roughly $11 billion.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told Politico that the last-minute opposition to including school meal waivers in their March spending bill came from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A few weeks following this surprise, Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to extend the waivers, but so far, it has formal backing only from Democrats, plus Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Even moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support the extension.

But Republican support might be higher than co-sponsorship suggests. Senate Agriculture Ranking Member John Boozman told Vox that he’s been meeting with school nutrition professionals, child hunger advocates, and other leaders about ensuring access to healthy meals at school. “Both sides of the aisle in the Senate want that outcome, and we remain engaged in good-faith talks about the best path forward,” he said, adding that he appreciates “the frequent input I receive from those on the front lines working tirelessly to feed children in need.”

McConnell has declined to comment publicly on the issue, and his office did not return Vox’s request for comment. But a GOP leadership aide told Politico that they do not see pandemic-era flexibilities as necessary anymore, and blamed the Biden administration for failing to include an extension of the meal waivers in its formal Covid spending bill request and 2023 budget request. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he had been personally pressing Congress to extend the waivers for one more year.

Some child hunger activists suspect a crisis is being orchestrated to hurt Democrats in the midterms.

“It’s political. [Republicans] know this is going to explode in the summer, and there’s an election in November,” said Wilson. “So people are going to get outraged, families are going to have huge lunch debt, and they’re going to blame the legislators. No one is going to know Senator Stabenow submitted a bill to avoid this; they’re going to want to know why their kids are starving.”

Summer meal programs have already been affected

The federal summer meals program, established in 1975, operates in places where at least 50 percent of children in a geographical area have family incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the regular school year. As the American Prospect noted, this program was designed with concentrated urban poverty in mind, and has always been less accessible to low-income children living in rural areas.

But the pandemic waivers exempted meal providers from this density requirement. Even in urban communities, the waivers have allowed providers to distribute summer meals to families in bulk, sparing parents from having to make daily trips to pick up food for their kids.

Thousands of sites that distributed federally subsidized meals last summer have already backed out from participating in the coming months, due to Congress’s dithering on extending the waivers.

“Many, many small, particularly faith-based organizations have said, no, we’re not going to go from ‘feed all children until June 1’ and then after that say now we need to know your family’s income to serve you,” said Wilson. “If the groups have to start identifying kids, that’s a nightmare.”

According to USDA data, there were 67,224 open sites providing summer meals in 2021. The No Kid Hungry campaign estimates that 1 out of every 5 of those sites will be unable to serve meals to all kids this coming summer, jeopardizing access for nearly 7 million children.

“Congress could fix this through so many avenues,” said Meier. “They don’t need a big relief package like Build Back Better. Congress can increase the flow of food to families and right now is just refusing to pull those levers.”

Why Teachers Are Afraid to Teach History

Originally published in the April issue of the New Republic magazine, and online March 28.
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For a decade, Jonathan Greenberg, a social studies teacher at the Center School in Seattle, taught an advanced placement course for high schoolers called Citizenship and Social Justice. A broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes and a warm manner, Greenberg brought in speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and invited his students to share, too. Sometimes, he separated them by race so they could consider questions more privately. In an exercise known as “affinity-based caucusing,” he might ask white students, “What’s the role of a white person in fighting racism at school?” Students of color, meanwhile, might share how they cope with discrimination they’ve faced.

Greenberg shaped his curriculum according to guidelines developed by Courageous Conversation, a group founded in 1992 to help teachers facilitate dialogues about race. The organization intends its discussions to be structured by four agreements: to stay engaged, to expect discomfort, to tell the truth, and to accept a lack of closure. Frank talk about encounters with racism, Greenberg believed, would help bring attention to the struggles of underrepresented populations at his majority-white public school, and help all his students link their present lives with the historical realities of race.

In December 2012, the parents of a white student in Greenberg’s class filed a complaint with the principal. Greenberg, they alleged, had not only created “an emotionally-charged classroom environment” and a “climate of fear,” he had fomented “racial hatred and prejudice.” The complaint made its way to the school district, and, within a month, Seattle Public Schools launched an HR investigation and told Greenberg that he could not teach the racism curriculum or a planned unit about gender before the investigation concluded. Besides the teen whose parents initiated the complaint, officials interviewed no students about their experience in the class. By mid-February, the superintendent wrote Greenberg that his lessons had created an “intimidating” atmosphere for the student and “disrupted the educational environment” for others. Students began circulating a petition demanding that the curriculum inspired by Courageous Conversation be reinstated; ultimately, they gathered more than 1,000 signatures. One day, as another teacher supervised Greenberg’s class, some students signed the petition. The parents who’d originally objected filed a second complaint, this time for harassment. Within months, the district transferred Greenberg to another school.

Nine years later, as states rush to pass laws banning “critical race theory,” a term that in popular usage on the right has come to mean nearly any curriculum that refers to systemic or structural racism, teachers around the country are wondering whether they’ll meet similar fates. By the end of January, more than 35 states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict classroom discussions of race and gender, and at least 14 had passed laws or directives. The content of the laws varies somewhat from place to place. In Tennessee, for example, legislators banned 11 “concepts” from public school instruction. Educators aren’t allowed to promote “division between, or resentment of, a race” or suggest that individuals should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race. In Iowa, lawmakers prohibit describing the state or the country as “systemically racist or sexist.”

For teachers, one of the most concerning aspects of the bills is their vagueness. Oklahoma’s law, for example, bans teaching the concept that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, but lawmakers declined to clarify how educators can teach about individuals who subscribed to these supremacist views. Texas’s law says any controversial issue must be taught “in a manner free from political bias” but doesn’t define what counts as controversial. Violating the new rules can bring about steep consequences: Teachers may be fired or lose their licensure; schools’ funding may be cut. Doubtless because the bills offer scant clarity about how one might comply, teachers have already begun self-censoring their lessons out of fear.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. In New Hampshire, the state’s education department created an online form to assist parents and students in filing complaints. The conservative group Moms for Liberty even pledged to pay $500 to the first person who “successfully catches” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the state’s new statute. Incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin announced 10 days into his job that Virginia would offer a tip service for parents “to send us reports and observations” of teachers they believe are misbehaving. A group called Save Texas Kids—dedicated to “fighting CRT and any other form of woke politics”—emailed Dallas teachers asking for names of colleagues promoting critical race theory or “gender fluidity.” In December, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts that permit lessons allegedly rooted in critical race theory, and collect attorney fees for doing so.

For years, the school culture wars were waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. But over the last decade, the fights have turned more toward how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterize America’s histories of racism and colonization, and their relevance to today. In many ways, these debates are much harder to adjudicate; the law provides more clarity on the separation of church and state than on history curricula, and evolutionary theory offers more certainties than the vagaries of historical interpretation. For example, how should educators describe U.S. expansion of the West? Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers? And is it possible for schools committed to anti-racism to embrace “color blindness,” or is that a contradiction in terms?

Public school theorists have long worried about the consequences of bringing heated matters into class. As far back as 1844, the famed educator Horace Mann warned against it. “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it,” he wrote. Indeed, if there’s been one constant in the history of U.S. schooling, it’s the suspicion with which local communities respond when their teachers tackle controversial issues.

Parents’ fears notwithstanding, administrators stress that critical race theory is not taught in public schools; they are technically correct. As an academic field, CRT is a relatively obscure discipline that examines how laws and institutions harm or benefit people according to their race and relative power; its study is largely reserved to graduate programs. Yet parents who sense that change is afoot are also not wrong. Certain longstanding assumptions about identity and opportunity are being contested in K-12 classrooms around the nation—the same assumptions contested today in workplaces, in media organizations, and in the halls of Congress. The way these struggles shake out will have everything to do with how much control certain parents are able to exert in school districts and how well teachers can protect their autonomy.

Progressive groups and teacher unions have largely responded to critical race theory attacks with pleas that the public should trust educators to teach honest and accurate history. The appeal sounds reasonable enough, but what it means in practice is far from clear. Should teachers teach all perspectives on every issue? Is such a thing remotely possible within the constraints of a school year? What do young people need to know to thrive in a diverse, globalized, and democratic society? And who should get to decide?


On a Saturday morning in mid-November, just weeks after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election by campaigning on “parents’ rights” in education, an earnest and avuncular Colorado Springs high school history teacher named Anton Schulzki addressed a group of fellow teachers at the one hundred and first annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Schulzki, the president of the council, acknowledged that the social studies curriculum has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly since The New York Times Magazine’s publication of The 1619 Project, a compilation of articles and essays asserting the centrality of slavery to any accurate story of the nation’s founding. “Time and time again,” Schulzki said, “teachers, administrators, and school boards have been accused of somehow indoctrinating their students.”

He noted the irony of history curricula dominating public debate around K-12 schooling when the hours of class time actually afforded to it—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—have decreased precipitously over the last two decades. The primary result of the new rules passed by states and school boards, Schulzki argued, has been that teachers avoid certain topics altogether. But, he implored, they should try very hard not to. It is a time “for us to stand together in solidarity for social studies,” he said, “to use our collective voices in solidarity against ignorance, injustice, and indifference.”

The pressures around critical race theory shaped many other panel discussions throughout the weeklong virtual conference. One presentation—“Decentering Whiteness: One School District’s Approach”—explored the changes the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota, is making to the history curriculum to reflect the needs of its changing population. Like many other suburban areas, Anoka-Hennepin, which serves a large geographic region just north of Minneapolis that includes liberal inner-ring suburbs, conservative exurbs, and rural countryside, has grown markedly more diverse over the last 15 years; nonwhite students now represent a third of its student body. Some pockets of the district voted for Trump in 2020, others leaned toward Biden. Both the leftist Ilhan Omar and the far-right Tom Emmer represent parents from this area in Congress.

Dan Bordwell, the thick-bearded teaching and learning specialist in his mid-thirties who led the “Decentering Whiteness” presentation, described the work educators have done in his district since 2017 to incorporate more diverse voices into their social studies lessons. When students learn about Brown v. Board of Education, Bordwell asked, do they also learn about Linda Brown, the student who inspired the case, and her family? When they learn about the antebellum period, do they hear perspectives from Black lesbians? With the help of Keith Mayes, a historian of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Hennepin teachers worked to identify where they could “infuse” new discussions of race and racism into their curriculum, while still following Minnesota’s social studies standards, last updated in 2013. Anoka-Hennepin also established an honors-level Black history elective and ramped up professional development aimed at helping teachers incorporate narratives from underrepresented populations. It’s about “telling a more complete picture,” Bordwell explained.

Helping students see themselves in the curriculum, leaders in a growing number of school districts say, will lead to higher academic achievement and deeper learning for all. In 2019, Anoka-Hennepin issued an Equity and Achievement Plan, lending more support to the work its social studies department was already doing to bring perspectives of underrepresented groups to the forefront.

But not all families saw these changes as developments in the right direction. And over the last two years, as parents began mobilizing against the specter of critical race theory, much has changed in the district. In the Anoka-Hennepin Better Together Facebook group, which has more than 550 members, parents fulminate against excessively “woke” teacher trainings and other aspects of student learning. Krissy Erickson, the founder of the Facebook group, told me she started it after the principal of her kindergarten-age son’s school signed a “Good Trouble” pledge with other school principals in the Twin Cities metro. The pledge committed to “de-centering Whiteness” and “dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority,” such as tracking students. Erickson, who had never been involved in parent activism before, joked that “the mama bear just recently came out.” At a school board meeting in late August, she announced that she and her fellow parents were “done being bullied into silence” and criticized the “CRT-related ideologies” that have been presented to staff and “directly trickle down into students’ assignments.” Erickson stood “in full support of teachers,” she said, but insisted that “the only real privilege we need to reflect on is the privilege we all have to live here in the United States of America.”

Thousands of other, mostly white, parents across Minnesota have similarly been protesting proposed state social studies standards that for the first time would include ethnic studies as a core component for all students. The standards—which would take effect in 2026—reflect “a relentless fixation with Native American history” and replace “objective historical knowledge … with a fixation on ‘dominant and non-dominant narratives’ and ‘absent voices,’” according to a petition led by the Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank. This past November, Anoka-Hennepin residents elected a school board member, Matt Audette, who ran on a fiercely anti-CRT platform.

Bordwell, whose emails have been subject to FOIA requests by suspicious members of his community, has felt the increased pressure acutely. He submitted the idea for his “Decentering Whiteness” panel in February 2020; had he crafted the pitch a year later, he said, he would likely have proposed a different name for his presentation. “We have teachers who are walking on eggshells worried that they’re going to have a picture taken by a student or parent, that they are going to be unfairly targeted for the work that they’re doing.”

At my request, Erickson asked other parents in her Facebook group what they make of teachers’ fears about retaliation. Some teachers, she told me, are “obvious activists who will stop at nothing to promote their own OPINION.” But she believed that most parents would be satisfied so long as educators are “presenting facts and multiple viewpoints.” Members of her group, she explained, feel that issues of race, sex, and gender have “been thrown at our children from every angle”; they want “to simplify things and get back to education and academia.” As a compromise, Erickson proposed making certain subjects elective, or providing families with a heads-up about unit discussions and allowing them to opt out if they disapprove. In this, she echoed a call common among the anti-CRT cohort, who argue that teachers should alert parents of any plans to include controversial subjects in their curriculum, and even let them review teaching material ahead of time.


If the members of Erickson’s group—and similar parents—are to be taken at their word that they would support the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, they should be reassured by the work of some nonprofit education groups aiming to help teachers tackle controversial issues. One such group is Close Up. Founded in 1971 initially to bring high school students on trips to Washington, D.C., Close Up encourages “deliberation” on heated policy questions as a way of helping students build consensus. A study of its model, published this past summer by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, found that high school students felt more respected in classroom political discussions designed as deliberation rather than debate.

A class using Close Up’s approach might ask, for instance, what policies, if any, are needed to reform police practices. Students would read about the disparities between Black Americans’ encounters with the police when compared to other groups, explore different policy proposals to address the issue—banning the use of neck restraints, for example—and review the arguments supporters and opponents make for each idea. At the end, students would be asked to write about which proposals they favor, which they would change, and which they would reject, and could suggest other proposals.

At least in theory, it’s possible to imagine such an approach satisfying people across the political spectrum. But on certain deeply polarizing issues, such as rights for undocumented immigrants or the place for transgender students in school sports, some on the left have argued that it’s harmful even to have those discussions; normalizing certain perspectives, the thinking goes, can be destructive to the vulnerable people they’re about. And on the right as well, many parents find certain points of view too dangerous to debate; talking about transgender athletes, for example, legitimizes the gender categories these parents patently reject and believe could corrupt their children. Sante Mastriana, a curriculum design manager for Close Up, said the group doesn’t support deliberating on everything; certain topics, like white supremacy or the efficacy of fascism, are off limits. “There are certain arguments which we are not going to entertain as valid,” he told me. Of course, if some subjects are out of bounds, it’s impossible to claim that ideology doesn’t, at some level, govern the choice of study; some administrator somewhere is choosing what to include and what not to. Mastriana said that Close Up’s solution is to rely on multipartisan resources and facts. “Unless it’s the sort of argument that just categorically makes a supposition about the nature of things without actually providing any grounding,” he said, “then it is something probably worth addressing.”

Chris McDuffie, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Heathwood Hall, a private school in South Carolina, uses Close Up materials in his classroom. He likes their “fact-based, middle of the road” format. “I tell kids to wait at least three days, check at least three sources, and to enter a conversation with three pieces of information or three questions before they form an opinion about a current event,” he told me. “No one knows where I fall politically, and I pride myself on that.” But McDuffie, who has been teaching for 21 years, including 12 in public schools, acknowledged that it’s easier to tackle political issues in a private school, where he’s afforded a great deal of autonomy over lessons. When he worked at a public school, some administrators, wary of backlash, didn’t even support teaching current events.

Like the nonprofits, some state school board associations have been encouraging local school districts to better support educators teaching contentious issues, a risky move given the intense politicization of the National School Boards Association in 2021. Last year, the national group compared parents protesting critical race theory at school board meetings to “domestic terrorism,” which led 21 mostly GOP-controlled states to withdraw membership, participation, or dues from the organization. Nevertheless, in late November, in Loudoun County, the northern Virginia region that became a national epicenter of parents’ protesting CRT, school administrators recommended that their school board adopt a policy called “Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues,” based on a model promoted by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Examples of such controversial topics, said Ashley Ellis, Loudoun County’s deputy superintendent for instruction, are slavery, colonization, immigration, and the Holocaust. “Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching,” Loudoun Now, a local paper, quoted Ellis as saying. “Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence.” A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the proposal.

Teacher unions, too, have been exploring ways to support educators who tackle controversial issues. The three million-plus–member National Education Association has been organizing to pass a model school board policy that affirms the value of Black and other ethnic studies courses and pledges to defend teachers who use materials “that incorporate diverse perspectives.” The unions have also been organizing to back candidates in school board elections. “We are preparing and training our educators to be involved in elections of those who have the power and authority to make the decisions,” Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA, told me.

But parents opposed to CRT have likewise stepped up their school board efforts. In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC, a national right-wing group, formed to elect school board members who are committed to “abolishing” critical race theory and The 1619 Project from public school curricula. The group backed 57 candidates across seven states, 41 of whom won. In 2022, its sights are set on 200 additional races.


Some of the current disputes over curricula can be traced to the beginning of the Obama period. The election of the nation’s first Black president led to new cultural and political backlash, including fights over how to teach about American identity in schools. As the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has observed, critics began labeling ethnic studies courses as “divisive” and “un-American,” and by 2014, groups were lobbying against the College Board’s revised A.P. U.S. history course, which opponents alleged cast U.S. history in too harsh a light. For example, the revised guidelines described the idea of manifest destiny—the nineteenth-century doctrine that said the expansion of the United States throughout North America was both justified and inevitable—as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that year blasting the framework for its reduced focus on the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. military victories. The framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” the RNC said. (A year later, the College Board issued yet another revised framework, filled with edits that successfully quelled its conservative critics.)

Last spring, after state lawmakers began introducing bills banning critical race theory, the left-leaning Zinn Education Project sponsored a Teach the Truth pledge, garnering thousands of signatures from teachers. The National Education Association has its own Pledge to Support Honesty in Education. Both groups argue that CRT critics want teachers to avoid addressing topics like slavery and redlining, but conservatives insist that charge is a lie. Regardless, mainstream history textbooks do cover the nation’s disturbing history of racial violence better than they used to. A content analysis led by education historian Jeffrey Snyder found that leading contemporary texts depict in detail “everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race riots and church bombings.” According to Snyder, “it is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.”

Perhaps the fiercest debate is over whether to teach that the United States has overcome its dark legacy of racial discrimination, or whether, as The 1619 Project suggests, slavery’s harms continue to oppress Black Americans in the present. “White supremacy affects every element of the U.S. education system,” argues Learning for Justice, a national social justice nonprofit that provides free resources to educators and school districts, on the cover of its spring 2021 magazine. In a sponsored session at the National Council for the Social Studies conference—entitled “Teaching Honest History Through Critical Inquiry”—Learning for Justice facilitators asked participants, “How comfortable are you teaching about American enslavement, including the idea that it shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness?” They encouraged educators to avoid interpreting historical texts through a “white, Eurocentric” lens that would perpetuate stereotypes, and instead to teach students “resistant” readings, which in their definition lend themselves to anti-racist interpretation and challenge dominant cultural beliefs.

Part of what makes the fights over how to teach history and social studies so tricky is that, while virtually everyone says they oppose racism, enormous disagreement exists, within the broad left as well as between left and right, about what an ­anti-racist education should look like. Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential writers on anti-racism, argues against standardized tests, calling them “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds.” Others see testing as a key tool for leveling the playing field for marginalized students, allowing them to access opportunity and compete on merit, and they view moves away as discriminatory against Asians, who tend to perform better on the exams. Still others see the very ideas of competition and meritocracy as by-products of white supremacy. Tema Okun, a popular consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes “a sense of urgency,” “perfectionism,” and “individualism” as values inherent to white supremacist culture. In Learning for Justice’s spring issue, an educator describing anti-racist teaching voiced a similar opinion: She sees white supremacy wherever there’s a “sense of urgency to meet particular deadlines that don’t necessarily speak to actual student growth.”

The Seattle parents who complained about Courageous Conversation, the curriculum Jonathan Greenberg was punished for incorporating, were not the last family to object to the ideas it encouraged. And even people who broadly agree with including discussions of racism in the classroom might object to certain arguments of Courageous Conversation’s founder, Glenn Singleton. One New York Times Magazine article, for instance, quoted Singleton as saying that valuing writing over other forms of communication is “a hallmark of whiteness” that harms Black students. (Brooke Gregory, the president of Courageous Conversation, argued that most critics of the program haven’t participated and misunderstand its goals. The point, she said, “is not to demonize anyone, it is not to create good and bad or right and wrong, it is to say that all of these voices have a need to be heard and understood.”)

Most parents organizing against critical race theory have been white, but not exclusively. Last spring, Shawntel Cooper, a Black mother of two, testified at a Loudoun County school board meeting that was picked up by national news, and has since spoken out in the media about teacher training materials she finds offensive, like one obtained via FOIA that contrasted “White Individualism” with “Color Group Collectivism.” Cooper said she did not identify with the values ascribed to the “Color Group” side, which didn’t include things like private property and independence. The trainings also asserted that “culturally competent professionals” do not embrace color blindness, and they “accept responsibility” for their own racism and sexism. “I don’t understand how you would not want to ban anything that is this divisive and divides each other because of color,” Cooper said.

When I asked Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Learning for Justice, how her group is contending with the possibility that educators will face political backlash if they incorporate their more radical resources, she said her members have been talking with teachers about how to develop materials that won’t get them in trouble. “We’re being really practical about what teachers can and can’t say, and can and can’t do,” she said. “We don’t create a finished product and say ‘This is what teachers need’…. They know what they need, they’re on the front lines.”


The claims of parents in Erickson’s Facebook group notwithstanding, the idea that concerned communities might be satisfied by teachers presenting multiple viewpoints on thorny subjects is not borne out by history. Even before the wave of anti–critical race theory bills, most public schools throughout our nation’s past have shied away from teaching controversial issues. In The Case for Contention (2017), co-authors Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, a philosopher of education, note that, in general, communities have not wanted their schools to present “both sides” of an issue, much preferring teachers to reinforce local norms. Indeed, “the most significant restriction” on public school teachers tackling controversial issues, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude, has always been the public itself. Educators, who keenly feel this distrust, have generally chosen to stick to topics they believe will agitate no one.

The law offers K-12 teachers who do suffer backlash little protection. It’s been more than 50 years since the high point for teachers’ free speech. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision concluding that loyalty oaths, including anti-communist pledges, violated educators’ First Amendment rights. In 1968, the court ruled in favor of Marvin Pickering, a teacher who had written a letter to his local paper opposing a tax levy decision made by his school board and criticizing the board’s tendency to allocate funds to sports over academics. The board fired Pickering, but since his letter didn’t criticize the school employees with whom he worked on a daily basis and pertained to a matter of public concern, the court said his speech should be protected. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Tinker v. Des Moines decision that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Since then, however, the courts have largely retreated from protecting teacher free speech at the K-12 level, both inside and outside the classroom. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that when public employees speak in the context of their jobs, they’re “not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes,” and thus should not be insulated from employer discipline. Less than a year later, the Seventh Circuit upheld the firing of an Indiana schoolteacher who told her class that she had honked in response to a HONK FOR PEACE sign protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and she believed in peaceful solutions to conflict. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the court ruled, asserting that she could not cover topics or advocate perspectives in class that depart from what the local school board approves.

There are nearly 14,000 K-12 public school districts across the United States, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. Turnout in these elections is notoriously low, often just 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters. Nonetheless, these representatives are legally empowered to set policy on virtually everything related to their schools, from budgets and bus schedules to curriculum and enrollment boundaries. The major limitation on their authority comes from state lawmakers, who can impose obligations on local districts to do with school vaccinations, standardized testing, or, of course, new rules curtailing discussions of race.

“The fact of the matter is we work with a captive audience,” said Steven Cullison, a high school economics teacher, in a National Council for the Social Studies presentation he led about free speech. “That is, the law requires students to come to school, and what’s more, we require the community to pay for it. That means that the community has a right to far greater say in what occurs in a public K-12 school than, say, in a college or in a private school.” Speaking this fall on a podcast, Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the National Education Association, told educators that if they work in a state that passes a law against teaching that the United States is systemically racist, they must be particularly careful about how they craft curricula and answer student questions. “I wish I didn’t have to say that,” she said. “But the fact is we do have members who have gotten in trouble for appearing to promote a viewpoint in their classroom that is at odds with that prohibition.”

If educators cannot deny the stake lawmakers, parents, and other community members have in shaping school curriculum, political leaders certainly question parents’ interest at their peril, as Terry McAuliffe discovered this past fall in his failed Virginia gubernatorial bid. In a late September campaign debate, McAuliffe said a few words he would never live down. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” he announced. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the closing weeks of the race, Youngkin’s campaign made those remarks a centerpiece, running ads and circulating petitions proclaiming that “Parents Matter.” Post-election public opinion research showed that McAuliffe’s comments were highly influential, including among Biden voters who cast their ballots for Youngkin.

Though the fact often gets lost in contemporary media coverage, it’s never been only conservative parents who have disputed what’s taught in schools. Throughout the twentieth century, Black parents, with the assistance of the National Urban League and the NAACP, challenged school boards and book publishers about racist passages that they found in textbooks. The advent of ethnic studies courses, too, was driven by families pressuring their local leaders for more equitable representation in the classroom.

Perhaps surprisingly, not just parents think parents should have a say in curricula. In November, in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district administrators and teachers, 63 percent of respondents said local parents should be involved in selecting the curriculum and materials, even though just 31 percent said parents are involved. And while it may be because they are so eager to avoid fights and criticism, more than 50 percent of educators said they supported letting parents opt their children out of classes, curricula, or units they disapprove of; 25 percent even said they “completely support” the idea.


In 2013, following the news that Greenberg would be transferred to another Seattle school, fellow teachers and former and current students rallied to his defense, shocked by how quickly administrators had caved to the grievances of a single family. More than 100 of his supporters showed up to a Seattle school board meeting decked out in green clothes, and at the school’s graduation ceremony that year, a senior delivered a speech demanding Greenberg’s reinstatement, after which his peers opened their gowns to reveal shirts with the letter “G” on chest plates. Although Greenberg was forced to spend the next year working at a middle school, an arbitrator eventually ruled that the school district had inappropriately used a transfer to punish him, and permitted him to return to his old job.

Greenberg, who still teaches high school civics in Seattle, has noticed changes in his two-plus decades in the classroom. “Students are so much more aware of systemic oppression than they used to be,” he remarked. When he used to ask his classes why people were poor, teens tended to invoke individual choice. “Now there’s a reluctancy to even mention individual choices,” he said. “I credit Black Lives Matter with so much of that. Back in the day, I might have just been happy to even discuss the concept of ‘white privilege’ with my class—now I feel like it’s not even a debate.”

Few teachers today, though, feel confident that they’d get their jobs back if they got on a parent’s bad side, and Greenberg himself suspects that his own race and gender played a role in the community’s defense of him. “I certainly feel like educators of color who get persecuted don’t get that showing of support,” he told me.

Keith Mayes, the University of Minnesota historian who helped Anoka-Hennepin social studies teachers include more Black history, sees community backlash to critical race theory as just a “foot in the door,” the first step in a project to eventually go after ethnic studies courses, racial equity initiatives, and broader discussions of racism. While he recognizes that the fear educators experience is real, Mayes thinks that what is most needed is backbone. “The real question will be how well-meaning white teachers and administrators stand up to this opposition,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question, and I’m always watching that.” Teachers, after all, are members of their communities, too; they can elect candidates for school board, testify at meetings, and advocate collectively for their interests.

In the end, as communities continue to spar, it will be students who pay the price for the laws, rules, and cultural pressures that deter educators from tackling so-called divisive subjects. A wealth of research, from both nationally representative samples of schools and individual schools, has shown that students who are encouraged to discuss controversial issues are more likely to develop civic tolerance, political interests, a sense of civic duty, and expectations of voting than their peers without similar classroom experiences. Teachers “cannot simply be mouthpieces for the state nor conduits for the majority beliefs in the local community,” Zimmerman and Robertson argue. But are we willing, on the left or the right, for teachers to be anything else?

Student Vaccine Mandates Are The Next Political Crisis

Originally published in The Intercept on February 6, 2022.
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IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to take this long to fully approve Covid-19 vaccines for the nearly 17 million U.S. adolescents ages 12-15 and the 28 million children ages 5-11.

Back in early August, Lee Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to move faster and questioning its request for extra follow-up data before emergency authorization. “We urge the FDA to carefully consider the impact of this decision on the timeline for authorizing a vaccine,” Beers wrote. “There is no biological plausibility for serious adverse immunological or inflammatory events to occur more than two months after COVID-19 vaccine administration.”

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put the situation more bluntly. “The problem is that the F.D.A. won’t be blamed for avoidable Covid cases the same way it would be blamed for unexpected vaccine side effects,” she wrote. “All of its institutional incentives therefore point toward excessive wariness.”

That excessive wariness has dragged on as summer bled into fall, fall into winter, and winter into a new Covid spike from the omicron variant, which infected school-aged children at a much higher rate. The FDA finally granted emergency authorization for Pfizer shots for those ages 5-11 in late October, but the vaccines are still not fully approved. Groups fighting vaccine mandates have taken advantage of the regulatory stall, preparing legal battles that heighten doubt not only in Covid-19 shots but also in public health and government more broadly.

The slow-walking by the FDA has also set the stage for student vaccinations to become the next major Covid-related crisis for the Biden administration. Schools have mandated pediatric vaccinations for hundreds of years, but states and school districts have been fearful of provoking yet another polarized debate around public schools, following pandemic battles over school closures and masks. While the FDA maintains the vaccines, including those under emergency authorization, are safe and effective for children, many parents now say they worry about the expedited process and question whether it’s worth it for kids not at high risk of severe disease. Republicans, looking ahead to the midterms, are taking note.

Most states have avoided calling for students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and those that have, like California and Louisiana, have said rules won’t take effect until next school year, and then only if the vaccines receive full authorization by the FDA. Already 17 states, mostly GOP-controlled, have passed legislation banning student Covid vaccine mandates — and one piece of litigation challenging vaccine requirements in California is now a contender for Supreme Court consideration. The hope among vaccine proponents is that by September 2022, more youth vaccines will be fully approved and communities will have had more time to build buy-in from hesitant families.

Public health experts have watched this hesitancy with dread, worried about the opportunities vaccine skeptics have now to undermine other routine mandatory vaccinations, as opponents insist that inoculation should be about personal choice and autonomy. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, supports student vaccine requirements and fears those opposed to vaccines — who have been heartily embraced by conservatives — are getting emboldened by the Supreme Court striking down President Joe Biden’s employer mandate. “Over the last two years we’ve seen a lot of movement with the anti-vaccine movement, and we’re going to see spillover to other vaccines,” he said. “I think we’re already seeing that with the HPV vaccine for teenagers.”

Biden, meanwhile, has avoided taking a clear position on student vaccine requirements and nonpartisan state health officials have largely stayed quiet, even as a patchwork of conflicting new local policies have emerged. This represents a departure from his support of school staff vaccination requirements; in September, he called on governors to mandate vaccines for all school staff, and he’s also endorsed vaccine mandates for workers across the country. But thus far, the Biden administration has demurred weighing in, endorsing instead voluntary strategies like encouraging schools to host their own vaccine clinics. In December, Biden announced new plans, including allowing parents to schedule family vaccination appointments at pharmacies, and establishing mobile family vaccine clinics through FEMA.

The White House’s efforts to avoid clarifying its position on student mandates have grown more conspicuous, accentuating a general void in leadership on Covid-19 response. The Intercept asked the White House if it would support schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students if the vaccines had received full FDA approval. Matt Hill, a Biden spokesperson, said the question should be directed to the FDA. An FDA spokesperson told The Intercept the question “about the Biden administration is best suited for the White House.” Hill did not respond to additional requests for comment. The Department of Education did not return requests for comment.

BECAUSE HARDLY ANY student Covid vaccine requirements have gone into effect, no one quite knows what will happen when they do. Policymakers feel understandably hesitant to impose any rules that could keep vulnerable students — particularly Black and Latino students — out of in-person learning for even longer than they’ve already endured.

Like school reopenings and mask requirements, many local policymakers have been waiting to see what neighboring jurisdictions do on student vaccines before taking action themselves. Recently New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced he would consider a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students to take effect by the fall, a move that would affect the largest public school district in the nation and surely add pressure on states elsewhere. “In this country, we do vaccinate for smallpox, measles, and other things,” Adams said on CNN. “And so, we need to engage in a real conversation of how to educate, use the time before the fall to educate our parents to show the importance of it.”

Some individual school districts tried to impose vaccine mandates that would take effect this winter rather than next fall, but nearly all have pushed their deadlines back under pressure. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, was one of the earliest to issue a Covid-19 vaccine requirement for students, saying in September that students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by January 10 or switch to online schooling.

Yet while 87 percent of eligible LA students had at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-December, the school board voted to delay its vaccine deadline to the fall, given that 30,000 eligible students were still unvaccinated. Shifting all of those young people to virtual learning at once, district officials reasoned, would have been too difficult to manage — not to mention the racial equity concerns. LAUSD Board President Kelly Gonez said their decision was “not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers.” Still, those who oppose mandatory Covid vaccines hailed the delay as a major victory for their movement.

Up north in Oakland, California, the school board passed a similar vaccine requirement in late September for eligible students — about 15,400 of the district’s total 34,000 students — with a deadline of January 1. But by early December, the school board announced it would delay its requirement to January 31 to give parents more time to comply. Officials began ramping up efforts to get shots in teens’ arms, yet by mid-January, more than 6,000 students remained unvaccinated. School board members have since pushed back the mandate a second time, to August.

In late December, Washington, D.C., councilmembers voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation requiring all eligible students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, one of the few such mandates on the East Coast. The bill sets a vaccination deadline for March 1, though enforcement is delayed until the start of the next school year, a concession to help keep students in school this spring uninterrupted. At the time, just over 40 percent of D.C. children ages 12-17 had received their two shots.

“For so long with Covid we’ve been playing catch up, trying to catch up to a virus that has wreaked havoc on communities and families,” said Councilmember Christina Henderson, the lead sponsor of the bill. “If we know vaccines can really be part of what keeps people out of the hospital, why wouldn’t we add this to the list of other things we do?”

Henderson acknowledged that passing new rules means there will have to be more counseling and conversations, particularly with vaccine-hesitant communities between now and next school year. “Passing mandates pushes responsibility on us and community leaders,” she said. “That means we have to step up to the plate.”

STUDENT VACCINE MANDATES that do take effect at the start of next school year will come head-to-head with Republicans looking to capitalize on parent frustration before the November midterms. Recent polling shows that by a 2-to-1 margin, parents oppose schools from requiring Covid-19 vaccines for eligible students, and conservatives may aim to campaign on that opposition, particularly targeting those suburban voters who have protested the continuation of pandemic-related restrictions in schools. Social scientists have found many parents — particularly, though not exclusively, white Republican and Independent mothers — now avoid reading news about risks Covid could have for children, satisfied with earlier information they consumed about low risks. Republican Glenn Youngkin recently won the governorship in Virginia campaigning hard on a message of “parents rights,” and GOP strategists nationwide have been crafting plans to replicate his victory in the midterms.

Roughly two weeks after D.C. approved its student vaccine requirement, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced his intent to overturn it, following up with a tweet blasting Covid mandates, “Schools have no right to FORCE you to get your 5-year old vaccinated.” A Cruz spokesperson declined The Intercept’s request to clarify the Texas senator’s position on mandated pediatric vaccines.

On the eve of the January 6 anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot, Donald Trump blasted Biden for “talk” that his administration might enforce a vaccine mandate for school children and urged “MAGA nation” to rise up against any such requirements. (Again, the Biden administration has not discussed any student vaccine requirements.)

A national conservative Catholic law firm with ties to Trump’s legal team and which filed multiple lawsuits challenging the results of the 2020 election is also now helping to lead an anti-vaccine fight that could reverberate for schools across the nation. A 16-year-old San Diego high school student and her family filed a lawsuit in October over the district’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, which did not allow for exemptions over religious belief. The San Diego school board president said they didn’t provide an exemption for personal belief because families may abuse the option.

The student claimed her opposition to abortion means she can’t take the vaccine, because the vaccines approved for emergency use allegedly used materials from stem cell lines in aborted fetuses. Her case is being litigated by Paul Jonna, an attorney from the Thomas More Society.

In a 2-1 panel ruling in December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district’s mandate, ruling that requiring the vaccine was a legitimate health measure that didn’t interfere with the student’s religious practice. The plaintiffs appealed for a review by all the 9th Circuit judges but failed to get majority approval from the 29 active judges. However, 10 judges and one jurist dissented, an unusually high number which could set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. Jonna has already asked the high court for an emergency injunction, while California state lawmakers are now considering eliminating religious exemptions altogether.

Parent organizations have also taken up the anti-mandate cause, filing lawsuits with mixed success. In Los Angeles, a judge denied two parent groups’ request to block the school district’s vaccine requirement, but out in San Diego, Let Them Choose — a parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — won a recent court victory, as a San Diego Superior Court judge confirmed in January that San Diego public schools cannot proceed with its student Covid-19 vaccine requirement, even for sports and extracurriculars.

ENCOURAGINGLY, PUBLIC OPINION for the youth vaccines has ticked up over time. After several stagnant months, Kaiser Family Foundation found the share of parents who say their 12-to-17-year-old has gotten at least one Covid shot increased from 49 percent in November to 61 percent in January. A third of parents of 5-to-11-year-olds now also say their child is vaccinated, up from 16 percent in November. Far fewer people in both groups now report they need to “wait and see” before making a decision, and of those who haven’t vaccinated their children, some say they just haven’t been able to find the time. Black and Hispanic parents were about twice as likely as white parents in KFF’s research to say they worried about missing work to get their child a shot or deal with side effects.

More discouragingly, significant partisan splits have emerged, with about half of Republican parents saying in December they would not get their teen or child vaccinated. And even few Democratic politicians have so far been willing to go to bat for requiring the shots, aware that many of the liberal and moderate parents who elected them have been ambivalent themselves. The emotionally charged battles around masks, vaccines, and remote instruction partly reflect the more libertarian drift of public school politics.

Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent who founded OpenSchoolsCA last winter to pressure elected officials to reopen California schools for in-person learning, told The Intercept her organization doesn’t have a clear position on student vaccine requirements and that for now her approach is to encourage parents to talk to their pediatricians. She understands school board members’ rationale for requiring student vaccines but believes comfort level among parents will go up over time and, given the low risk of severe illness among children, worries the consequences outweigh the immediate benefits.

“This is a really complicated issue, and I think you have to meet those vaccine-hesitant people with strategy rather than force,” she said. “While I think a lot of us parents got vaccinated really quickly and got our kids vaccinated quickly, and I fall into that boat, I think a mandate could potentially do more harm than good right now. I don’t think it’s right to kick those kids out of in-person school.”

Omicron cases have been spreading rapidly among young people: The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that of the 11.4 million child Covid-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic, 3.5 million child cases were reported in January alone. Yet some parents say they don’t feel pressure to get their kid vaccinated, since omicron cases tend to be less severe.

“People have different perceptions of risks, some people who look at the data say, ‘only 800 children have died,’ while others look at the same date and say ‘but 800 children have died,’” said Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. Hotez, of Texas Children’s Hospital, also warned of “more subtle morbidities” and the fact that long-term risks to neurodevelopment are still not clear. He pointed to a large U.K. study released in September led by University College London and Public Health England, which found as many as 1 in 7 children may have symptoms linked to Covid-19 months after testing positive.

Let Them Choose — the parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — has been encouraging families to send letters to their school district leaders, saying, “I am not anti-vax, but I am pro-choice when it comes to this very new vaccine for a virus that our children are extremely resilient to.” The letter falsely claims “there is no reason” to vaccinate kids to protect more vulnerable populations and maintains that parents want to see more long-term studies before making any decisions.

The Biden administration, for its part, is just hoping everything all works out.

New School Year, Same Old Covid Chaos

Originally published in The New Republic on August 17, 2021.

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The dust had seemed to settle on questions of school reopenings—one of the most polarizing political debates of the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, as vaccine shots were administered into arms, and with Congress having authorized billions of new funds for K-12 budgets, it seemed that, for the first time, parents, teachers, and staff could breathe a bit easier. Hope was here, and safe in-person learning was in reach.

Yes, millions of students had opted to stay remote in the spring even when their schools reopened (many parents reported that their child was doing well with virtual school, that it was safer than in-person, or a combination of the two), but leaders were optimistic about autumn, where real normalcy was on the horizon. Some politicians, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, even came out early to proclaim there would be no virtual option in the fall—a decision some cheered for its confident signal that the end was near. 

Yet recent weeks have reintroduced uncertainty, with the delta coronavirus variant; conflicting guidelines on the local, state, and federal levels; and warring politics that seem to escalate by the day. For the millions of students who have already returned to school, and for those still waiting for the school year to start, signs unfortunately now point to continued chaos with quarantines, closures, and fast-changing rules. In other words, we’re looking at a new school year that could look a lot like last year. To make sense of all, here’s an accounting of where things stand, what we know, and what we have yet to learn.


By mid-May, the CDC announced new masking guidelines, emphasizing that fully vaccinated people no longer needed face coverings outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidelines took many by surprise, and it wasn’t clear how institutions would determine who was vaccinated or not. But such details were largely waved aside. “We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a press conference. 

By early July, the CDC went further, releasing new guidance for schools that said while young children should wear masks, vaccinated teachers and students can learn safely in school buildings without them. The agency recommended three feet of distance where possible, but said if that was infeasible it need not stop a return to in-person learning.

At the time of the new schools guidance, Covid-19 cases were fairly low, and the majority of educators had been at least partially vaccinated. President Biden missed his goal of 70 percent of American adults having a shot in their arms by Independence Day, but his administration said not to worry, that there still had been amazing progress. Yet it was hard to ignore that vaccination rates had slowed nationally, and a new, more transmissible variant loomed.

Nearly three weeks later, the mood around the pandemic was far less sanguine, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were spiking. Some companies began to push back their return-to-office start days out of an abundance of caution, but there was no similar move to delay school reopenings. Even as some business executives decided it was not yet safe for workers to return, political leaders continued to emphasize that returning to classrooms in August or September would be fine. They pointed to studies from earlier in the pandemic, while acknowledging that the delta variant may complicate those findings. Few were ready to consider any alternative.

On July 27, citing new research on delta, the CDC issued new school guidance, recommending that all students and staff—even if fully vaccinated—wear masks. Only 30 percent of young people ages 12–17 were then fully vaccinated, said Walensky, and the CDC’s data suggested even vaccinated individuals were spreading the virus. 

Still, the CDC’s new warnings came at a time when millions of Americans had lost confidence in the agency’s leadership, and many conservatives saw railing at the CDC as good politics to boot.

On July 29, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring local governments and school districts from requiring masks. Not to be outdone, the next day Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued his own executive order forbidding schools from requiring students to wear masks, going so far as to say it was a matter of “parent rights.” His order, which hinges on one study from Brown University, dismissed the larger body of research showing masks significantly reduce the risk of Covid spread. DeSantis also said Florida would deny funding to districts that defied him. 

Some school districts are indeed defying state bans on masks, and the Biden administration has said it will look to support superintendents who risk retribution. Still, according to data collected by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, currently about half of the nation’s 100 largest school districts are requiring students to wear masks this fall. As of Thursday, just seven were requiring regular testing of both students and staff.  

Vaccinations are adding yet another layer of complication to school reopenings. After months of encouraging voluntary inoculation, the federal government, private employers, and school districts are now moving slowly toward requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Last week, California became the first state to announce that all teachers, school staff, and even parent volunteers would need vaccination. Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district, announced Friday that all staff must be vaccinated—a move also endorsed by its local teachers union.

In late July it seemed unclear whether unions would stand in the way of more aggressive vaccination rules, given their reluctance to overriding collective bargaining agreements. When Biden announced on July 29 his new rule that federal workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, some unions, including the left-leaning American Postal Workers Union, expressed opposition to the top-down dictates.

But public opinion remains strong behind teacher vaccinations, and union leaders quickly came around. (Among parents with school-age children, 60 percent say they think all teachers should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.) On August 8, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came out in favor of Covid-19 vaccine requirements. “As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates,” she said on Meet the Press. Four days later, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, came out in favor of vaccine mandates. Individual local unions have also started to pass resolutions in support.

But student uptake remains spotty among those eligible for the vaccine. As of August 11, in six states, over 60 percent of children ages 12–17 had received at least one dose, while in seven states, 30 percent or fewer had gotten their first shot. Yet many school districts have decided not to require students to inoculate themselves against Covid-19, despite long requiring student immunizations for other diseases. 

In Washington D.C., for example, just 14 percent of Black youth ages 12–15 had received one dose of the vaccine as of August 4, as compared with 51 percent of white students in the same age group. Among 16- and 17-year-olds in the district, just 21 percent of Black students had been vaccinated, while 47 percent of white students had. City leaders say they worry a new mandate for students could inspire backlash, and instead want to incentivize voluntary shots. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced the district would distribute up to 1,200 free AirPods to teens who got vaccinated, as well as award college scholarships to vaccinated students in a raffle. 

After months of stressing that children are not at risk of severe Covid-19 or death, and that the vaccines are good at preventing severe Covid-19 and death, leaders should not be too surprised that some families are hesitant to conclude that vaccinating their kids is worth it. Still, with low youth vaccination rates and the delta strain being more than twice as contagious as previous variants, pediatric cases and hospitalizations have been increasing, and more experts are warning about the risks to children of so-called long Covid.

New research about the potentially waning efficacy of the vaccines is throwing yet another wrench into school reopenings. Experts are seeing much more spread among vaccinated individuals, and one preprint study published last week by the Mayo Clinic suggested the mRNA vaccines may be significantly less effective in protecting against delta infection—as low as 42 percent effectiveness for those inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine.

On Friday, the FDA approved booster shots for certain immunocompromised individuals, a positive step, but many children live with adults who are immunocompromised and not yet eligible for third doses. While parents worry about the health and safety of their children, they’re also weighing the health and safety of their own parents, themselves, their siblings, their co-workers, and their neighbors. Some families will want to wait until their young children are eligible for the vaccines, or until more vulnerable groups are eligible for boosters. 

It’s not hard to see why. In Mississippi, nearly 1,000 children and 300 school staff tested positive for Covid between August 2 and 6, with roughly 5,000 quarantining from exposure. One Arkansas district had an outbreak of 43 cases, leading more than 800 students and staff to quarantine. In Florida, the Palm Beach County district superintendent reported that two days into the new school year, more than 400 students were in quarantine and the district had 134 confirmed cases, with 108 students and 26 staff members infected.

Given the uncertainty around the delta threat, a growing number of families have called for assurance that their children can learn virtually this fall. Even with experts warning that children risk falling behind academically if they continue to learn remotely, some families believe the harms do not outweigh the benefits in a pandemic, especially when many districts plan to be even more lax about testing and contact tracing than they were in 2020.

According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 80 percent of the nation’s 100 largest school districts will now be offering a virtual option; that share doubled in the first two weeks of August alone. However, New York City, the nation’s largest public school district, has not yet agreed to make remote learning available.

Getting kids back into the classroom and easing the burden on working families (especially mothers, who still shoulder most of the child-rearing duties) remain top policy goals, and leaders hope that the new vaccine mandates, the pressure to ramp up mitigation measures, and forthcoming FDA full approval for Covid-19 shots will help limit the spread of the highly contagious strain and ease lingering concerns.

But for those hoping we were finally at the end of the tunnel and could now enjoy calm and relaxed in-person school, the coronavirus has wrought yet another rude awakening.

School Insecurity

Originally published in Democracy Journal on December 11, 2019.
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In September, in a small school district located in the Missouri Ozarks, computer printers started mysteriously shooting out ransom letters. The pages instructed their recipients to send an email in exchange for a code, which would then show that hackers had taken control of their files. The district would have to pay up, the hackers said, to get the data back.

That same month, a small school district located in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania was hit by a different ransomware attack, forcing schools to close and the district’s 3,000 computers to shut down.

The damage from these attacks turned out to be relatively limited, but it came on the heels of bigger cybersecurity breaches this past summer, like when computers in the Syracuse City School District—one of the largest in New York—were also crippled from a ransomware attack. The school district was locked out of its own computer system, and ended up paying the hackers a $50,000 insurance premium to get back in. The same month, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency after a malware virus attacked several schools, knocking out their computers. This declaration enabled the state to pool experts and resources from the Louisiana National Guard and the Louisiana State Police, among others.

Cybersecurity attacks on schools are new, coming with increasing aggression and frequency, and schools’ ability to withstand them varies dramatically across the country. Sometimes it’s criminals looking to make easy cash or simply inspire fear—capitalizing on schools’ lack of sophisticated defenses. Sometimes it’s members of a school community carrying or causing the data breaches themselves.

The risks presented are not just mild inconveniences. Recognizing schools’ dependence on computers and Internet access, administrators have grown acutely aware that their institutions are now extremely vulnerable to lengthy closures, crippled operations, and costly litigation. According to the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, U.S. schools reported 122 cybersecurity incidents in 2018, resulting in the theft of millions of taxpayer dollars, stolen identities, tax fraud, and altered school records. Experts believe this figure significantly understates the real number of attacks, as many incidents are not even reported publicly.

“Is it as bad as it sounds?” said Lee McKnight, a cybersecurity expert and professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. “It’s worse. It’s a complete mess, and anyone in IT who hasn’t been hit is not sleeping well because they know there’s a target on their backs.”

While the available data is not great, experts know the problems have grown even more severe in the last twelve months. Doug Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, and author of the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report, told me when I spoke to him in September that he’s already tracked more than twice as many incidents this year as compared to 2018, with a particular increase in third-party vendor breaches and a spike in ransomware attacks.

When it comes to the risk of a mass shooting in school, politicians and the media have been known to greatly exaggerate the chances of future attacks. Despite the wall-to-wall panicked coverage, particularly following the horrific Parkland, Florida massacre in 2018, a study released this year from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found multiple-victim school shootings are still extremely rare events, accounting for less than 2 percent of all youth homicides in the country.

But that’s not the case with school cybersecurity attacks.

Amelia Vance, director of the Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C.-based think tank, agrees the “risk is definitely not exaggerated.”

Vance started working on student privacy issues about six years ago, and says she observed a real shift in the school cybersecurity conversation around fall 2017, when rural school districts in Iowa, Montana, Texas, and Alabama were all attacked by an international cyberhacking organization called The Dark Overlord. A few months earlier The Dark Overlord earned national attention for releasing forthcoming episodes of “Orange Is The New Black,” a popular Netflix show, after Netflix refused to pay their ransom demand. The Dark Overlord took to Twitter after this incident to suggest other television networks would face similar fates. “Oh, what fun we’re all going to have,” it wrote.

By autumn, the international cybercriminals had moved on to public schools. Parents in the Johnston Community School District in Iowa suddenly began receiving threatening text messages, sent by the hackers who had stolen student data. Examples of texts included “I’m going to kill some kids at your son’s high school” and “Your child is still so innocent. Don’t have anyone look outside.” Other texts sent to the parents went further, citing their children by name and school.

Nobody knew who was behind this harassment at first, and the Johnston school district shut down the following day. One day after that The Dark Overlord claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, and dumped student names, addresses, and telephone numbers online so as to make it easy for “any child predator to easily acquire new targets,” they claimed. The data had been compromised by a third-party vendor that worked with the school district.

Around the same time in Montana, more than 30 schools in the Columbia Falls School District closed after data was stolen, with parents again receiving graphic threats on their phones. The hackers demanded $150,000 in bitcoin in a seven-page ransom letter, and told a local reporter that they attacked the school district to rouse fear and make the government look bad. “The quaint, small, backwoods region of the US like yours is prime hunting grounds,” The Dark Overlord said. “This incident is the last thing you will expect to happen here.”

Their motivation for this particular attack appeared, in part, to be an effort to punish the FBI. “We’re escalating the intensity of our strategy in response to the FBI’s persistence in persuading clients away from us,” a Dark Overlord hacker told the Daily Beast at the time.

Like in physical kidnappings, the FBI discourages schools and other institutions from paying ransom in response to cyberattacks, noting it’s no guarantee an organization will even get its data back, and it can embolden other criminals to target more places. But sometimes school districts feel they have no choice but to pay up in order to resume operations.

Levin of EdTech Strategies has worked in education technology for upwards of the last 25 years, doing jobs like helping connect schools to the Internet, developing digital textbooks and tests, and serving as executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, which represents technologists working in state education agencies. “Cybersecurity never came up,” says Levin. “in the 1990s and 2000s, not at all.”

“I used to talk to superintendents and they’d say, ‘All we have is student names and email addresses, and how children scored on this quiz, nobody cares about that information,’” added Vance.

“They’d think because they didn’t have credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, nobody would try and steal it. That attitude has changed dramatically.”

Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a national nonprofit that represents technology leaders working in U.S. public schools, agrees. “We’ve administered a national survey to district technology leaders for the last seven years and cybersecurity was never on the list of top priorities,” he tells me. “About three years ago it became a number 3 priority, last year it became number 2 priority, and this year it was the number one stated priority.” For people in charge of technology in schools, Krueger stressed, “Cybersecurity has become front and center, and is no longer seen as something we should maybe do, but something we have to address.”

Levin started noticing more local news stories about school cyberattacks near the end of 2016—stories like hackers posing as superintendents and sending phishing emails to business office staff. The fake superintendents would claim there had been an emergency and that they needed to be sent a PDF of all the school employees’ W-2s as fast as possible.

Levin grew more curious, and soon he realized there was no comprehensive data available on how common these attacks actually were. He started to compile the incidents he could find in the news and other public sources, and today he manages an interactive map of nearly 700 reported cybersecurity-related incidents dating back to January 2016.

While international cybercriminals tend to generate headlines, unknown actors cyberhacking for malicious purposes actually comprised just about a quarter of all the data breaches Levin tracked. By contrast, in 2018, he found that just over half of all digital data breach incidents in public schools were directly carried out or caused by members of staff or students in the affected schools.

“Mostly when staff are involved it’s because they made a mistake, but occasionally it’s because they have an axe to grind, like sometimes you have disgruntled employees who were fired so they release or take data they shouldn’t,” he says. “Sometimes you have more sophisticated hacking from students, who break in to access, review or change student records.”

Levin thinks what he has tracked is much lower than the actual number. Local news coverage has declined dramatically, and even if school districts report an incident to a state agency, that doesn’t mean that incident is ever reported publicly. In North Carolina, for example, Levin noticed that the state’s Department of Justice had released a report on 2017 data breaches and its figure was ten times greater than what he had counted in the news. But when Levin’s colleague filed a Freedom of Information Request to learn about the other incidents, they were largely stonewalled.

In the last two years, Illinois, Texas, and Missouri have passed laws requiring states to notify parents if there has been a school data breach, but most states don’t have such disclosure mandates.

Despite a growing recognition that cybersecurity is a real issue, addressing cybersecurity concerns is not so easy—particularly for strapped, small school districts.

“If you look at this issue over time, hospitals were getting hit by ransomware several years ago,” said McKnight of Syracuse University. “You don’t hear about that so much anymore. You know who has money to improve their security systems and has the funds to hire and train staff? Hospitals.”

Schools, by contrast, are typically much more constrained in how they can afford to respond. This basic reality is also what makes schools such easy targets for hackers looking to make a quick buck, even if schools may be less likely to have the kind of credit card information that cybercriminals typically go for. “School districts are often a city’s largest employer, and many times they lack technical expertise while managing a lot of staff and data,” said Krueger. “In a lot of ways schools are just low-hanging fruit,” adds Vance.

The challenges are particularly acute for smaller districts, most of which lack the funds to hire an individual or a team of experts dedicated to cybersecurity. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts serve fewer than 2,500 students.

Another challenge is simply getting tiny, rural districts to accept that they, too, could be attacked. “Why this little school in Akron, Ohio?” asked Kelly Kendrick, the technology director for the Coventry Local School District, after its schools closed in May due to a malware virus. “It has really opened my eyes to how data of any kind is marketable, sellable.”

This realization Kendrick describes is key, Vance agrees. Yes, a criminal might not be able to run off with your bank account information if they hack a school district server, but “a lot of information is private because we don’t want our neighbors to know it,” she said. “Like maybe I don’t want my friends to know that I have trouble reading, or back in the second grade I slapped someone.”

Could part of the problem be that schools just have too much data? Is our data-driven policy culture leaving schools overly and unduly exposed?

It’s certainly true that schools, under real pressure to be innovative and forward-thinking, often adopt new education technology tools that some families fear are too invasive, or too vulnerable to hacking. For example, some schools use e-Hallpass, which digitally tracks student visits to the bathroom, the nurse’s office, and elsewhere. The company emphasizes that it is a more sanitary and efficient way to administer hall passes, that it is committed to student privacy and does not use GPS or other locating tracking services. But those assurances haven’t put everyone at ease.

Some parents have been organizing across the country to stop states from sharing personal student data with for-profit data-mining vendors. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy was founded in 2014 by two parents in New York and Colorado, and advocates have since written letters to Congress to strengthen federal student privacy rights, disseminated resources to parents, and developed student privacy principles for schools, education agencies, and third-party vendors.

Yet while student privacy concerns around ed tech tools add more complexity to the cybersecurity situation, experts say they are overlapping but distinct issues. Even with strong student privacy laws and enforcement, and even if schools cut down or eliminated the use of apps that store chat logs and other student data, school districts would still have serious cybersecurity concerns to deal with.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of collecting too much information,” says Eva Vincze, a faculty member in the cybersecurity and police and security studies programs at George Washington University. “It really just goes back to that issue of people thinking we’re not big enough for anyone to care about us, because we’re small.”

That’s not to say there aren’t safer measures schools can take with the data they collect. Cybersecurity experts like McKnight say there should be basic “cyber hygiene” such as data backups and storing information on cloud servers.

“Data collection is important, but schools should only be collecting the information that they need to answer particular questions, and some of that is mandated by federal law,” says Vance. “Basically schools should figure out what data is so sensitive that they shouldn’t have it at all, figure out at what point data should be deleted, and figure out who in a district should have access to what information.”

Another challenge is figuring out how to get the right advice. It’s not easy for districts to attract and retain skilled cybersecurity experts, since those professionals can usually earn much more money out in the private sector. “It’s not unusual for technology leaders to cut their teeth in education and then go get a better paying job elsewhere,” said Levin.

And even if all districts did somehow find the funds to hire cybersecurity experts at top dollar, there aren’t actually enough trained people in the country to take those jobs on. “We’ll never have a Chief Technology Officer for every school district, the private sector can’t even do it,” said Levin. “It will have to be some sort of coordinated response, sort of like what Louisiana did this summer but not as an emergency.”

“Not every district needs a cybersecurity expert,” Vance agrees. “What is needed is useful resources and templates and almost like plug-and-play supports that outside organizations and the government can provide.”

Lan Jenson, CEO of Adaptable Security, a nonprofit, is trying to be part of that plug-and-play vision. She founded her organization in 2017 with the goal of helping governments, schools, and small businesses navigate cyber-threats without breaking the bank. Unlike the school IT specialist who then goes to work for the private sector, Jenson started her career handling cybersecurity for a well-heeled financial institution.

“But financial companies have major resources, and governments and small businesses and schools are left behind,” she explained. So Jenson and a group of similarly motivated experts started Adaptable Security with the hope of providing assistance to more vulnerable institutions. “A lot of these leaders have some money, but they don’t have so much money, and they are trying to figure out what it would look like if we pool our resources,” she said. “They are willing to do something bigger, something shareable, and even though they may have that vision, everyone is so busy and wears multiple hats, so they don’t have anyone to be the coordinator. We’re trying to be that.”

So far Adaptable Security is working with 12 counties and a few core cities in the Bay Area, and Jenson hopes to scale the public-private model up nationally if it proves effective. In early October, her group sponsored the second annual Cybersecurity Symposium for Smart Cities, a free-to-attend, volunteer-led conference hosted in San Jose for school districts, small businesses, nonprofits, and local governments. Last year 250 people turned out, and this year more than 500 did—reflecting the growing awareness and concern.

McKnight of Syracuse University thinks public-private partnerships are the best way to move forward, especially since federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are not the most popular with all communities across the country.

“We need more federal investment, but in partnership with nonprofits,” he said. “This is a democracy issue, a civil society issue. Things have to change because there’s no way every little school district will be able to do it on their own, and there’s no way to channel help from the federal level directly down everywhere—you need some new pluralistic entities to come in the middle.”

And there has been recent movement on the federal level. In the fall of 2018, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the more than 50 New York school districts that were hit that year with a type of cyberattack known as Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). These attacks caused Internet outages within schools by overloading the systems with traffic, though no information was actually released.

In June, House lawmakers passed a bill—the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Incident Response Teams Act—to establish a permanent team of security specialists that agencies could call on when their technology gets hacked. A Senate version was approved in late September. Senator Schumer, who backed the bill, also recently called on the FBI to help school districts and local governments better respond to attacks. “It’s time to hit ‘control-alt-delete’ on ransomware and take a megabyte out of hackers,” he said in a particularly corny statement.

Also in September, the Consortium for School Networking submitted public comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting a change to the Schools and Libraries Program, more commonly known as E-Rate. At nearly $4 billion annually, E-Rate is the biggest federal subsidy program to help public schools and libraries manage the cost of connecting to the Internet. But cybersecurity is not among the list of eligible E-Rate discounted services, and the Consortium for School Networking argues that the requirements and limitations of E-Rate heavily influence how schools then deploy basic cybersecurity tools.

The organization told the FCC that while the federal government should not be expected to cover all aspects of cybersecurity, “several simple changes to the E-Rate program would have a very profound impact on the ability of school systems to protect and defend their networks and systems from cyberattacks.” For example, the Consortium for School Networking requested an expansion in the range of firewall services that can be reimbursed through E-Rate. Right now schools can reimburse for “basic firewall” services, but that category excludes a number of features typically found under the banner of “standard firewall” services—like anti-virus and malware protection, and data loss prevention.

As school districts move forward, leaders will have to be on guard for security grifters who are looking to sell expensive, ineffective products that capitalize on communities’ growing fears.

“There will always be markets for that, and there are always security services out there to scare you or just to convince you to buy things,” says Vincze of George Washington University.

“My fear is that without real leadership support, without IT staff with capacity, these security tools will probably not be put to their best use, and will be expensive,” says Levin.

While cybersecurity experts have been stressing that the problems are serious and demand action to mitigate risk and damage—at the end of the day, they say, no school should expect to be completely risk-free.

“Bad things happen,” says Vance. “We need to be humble. If Target and Wal-mart and big credit card companies can be hacked, so can a school district.”

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 18, 2017.
—–

The Houston teachers union scored a legal victory in May when a federal judge found that the Houston school district’s system of evaluating teachers could violate due process rights. The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM), a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating a teacher’s effectiveness based on their students’ standardized test scores.

United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have “no meaningful way to ensure” that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are “subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it “flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination ‘in sufficient detail to enable [the teacher] to show any error that may exist.’”

It’s unclear whether the Houston school district will now negotiate a settlement with the teachers union or end up back in court, but either way, the decision comes at a significant time for the test-based accountability movement, which has faced a number of legal and political challenges over the past several years. The outcomes of the court battles have so far been a mixed bag: Teachers challenging VAM have scored some wins, lost other big cases, and a few major suits are still pending. Outside the courtroom, states have begun implementing the new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—which imposes far less pressure on the states to use VAM or similar measures than what they faced during the Obama administration.

Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has also signaled she’s less interested in using test scores to define school performance. (“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” she said in March, in response to a question about measuring school success. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”) Considering all this, some experts have gone so far as to say that regardless of what ends up happening in the judicial system, the political momentum for using test-based accountability measures is all but over.

 

THE MOVEMENT FOR teacher accountability isn’t much older than many schoolchildren. In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread “institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.” TNTP reported that less than one percent of teachers in their study received “unsatisfactory” performance reviews, with most teachers receiving ratings of “good” or “great.” TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement”—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests.

The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 43 states revamped their teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” by 2013, up from just 15 states in 2009.

Many of these policies had the effect of shifting accountability systems away from the school level (where it was emphasized under No Child Left Behind) to the teacher level. Advocates for this shift cited research showing the importance of teacher quality, though critics argued that measuring student growth at the school level was a fairer and more reliable way to use the statistical tools. Not surprisingly, teachers overwhelmingly opposed the shift. A 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly nine in ten teachers felt linking teacher evaluations to student test scores was unfair, and 78 percent felt that all the testing was taking too much time away from teaching.

By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.

Not only does ESSA reduce standardized testing, it also voids some of the Obama-era waivers that incentivized states to adopt test-based teacher evaluations. In 2016, pro-test education reformers were also frustrated to learn that despite the widespread implementation of new evaluation systems under Obama’s tenure, the overwhelming majority of teachers were still receiving high ratings. Reformers had hoped these measures would help identify “ineffective” teachers and lead swiftly to their removal, in addition to rewarding “effective” teachers with new incentives. They held up Washington, D.C.’s reforms as a successful model to emulate, though it’s become clear that the nation’s capital is something of an outlier.

Even before the testing wave had begun to recede, though, some experts had been warning of the legal risks associated with VAM and similar statistical tools. In 2012, education law professors Preston Green and Joseph Oluwole, and education finance professor Bruce Baker, published an article outlining specific legal and policy problems with VAM and teacher evaluations, focusing on due process challenges, equal protection challenges, and disparate impact firings.

Major litigation against VAM quickly followed. Unions brought lawsuits arguing that the measures were arbitrary and capricious, that they unfairly penalized teachers who taught more disadvantaged students, and that they were being inappropriately used to measure things they were not designed for.

The lawsuits have partly been fueled by debates within the academic community over whether it’s even scientifically valid to use these measures to evaluate teachers. These debates have not been settled. Some researchers say the statistical growth measures fail to adequately control for all the disadvantages students face outside their classrooms, meaning evaluative scores may be less “objective” than some supporters claim. Other researchers found evidence that the same teachers could receive different value-added scores depending on what types of tests their students took, and others found that scores could vary significantly from year to year for no discernable reason. A complicating factor for VAM supporters has been that even when high-quality research studies showed that VAM could be theoretically used in ways that reduce some critics’ concerns, many states implemented their test-based systems in ways that ignored these recommended practices.

ONE LESSON THAT TEACHERS and their unions have learned over the past several years is that the courts are unlikely to overturn school district policy, even when they agree it’s unfair. If a teacher sues on the basis that a policy unconstitutionally denies them “substantive due process” or equal protection, a judge will consider their complaint under what’s known as a “rational basis analysis,” meaning the judge will look to see if the policy can be shown to have any kind of rational relation to a legitimate government issue. If it can, even if only vaguely, the courts are unlikely to intervene.

“These testing cases are always hard for teachers to win,” says Preston Green, an education law professor at the University of Connecticut. “A ‘rational basis analysis’ is a low bar for the government to satisfy, and a very hard one for plaintiffs to overcome.”

Take this major VAM case in Florida: In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach. For example, one plaintiff was a first-grade teacher evaluated based on the third-grade test scores of students she herself never taught. Another was a high school math teacher who mostly taught juniors and seniors, but had her VAM score calculated on the basis of freshman and sophomore reading scores. Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights.

But in 2014, a federal district judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. “Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to [teachers in non-tested subjects], let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” the judge wrote. “This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.” A federal appeals court upheld the ruling in 2015.

More failed legal challenges against value-added measures took place in Tennessee. In 2014, two of the state’s teachers, Mark Taylor and Lisa Trout, filed federal lawsuits, later consolidated, arguing they were unfairly denied performance bonuses because so few of their students took the tests used to generate their VAM score. In Taylor’s case, for example, just 22 of his 142 students took the exams that formed the basis of his VAM score. Trout and Taylor argued the measures were arbitrary and irrational, and violated their due process and equal protection rights.

But in 2016, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Knoxville dismissed their case. Though the judge recognized the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ concerns, saying the teachers’ criticisms “are not unfounded,” he cited the Florida precedent, and concluded that it would be up to the Tennessee legislature to make any changes to the system, as it “survives minimal constitutional scrutiny.”

Still, there have been some wins. In addition to the recent legal victory in Houston, last year a Long Island fourth grade teacher named Sheri Lederman won her lawsuit against New York state officials, with a judge concluding that her VAM score for the 2013–2014 school year was indeed arbitrary and capricious and needed to be vacated. During the 2012–2013 school year, Lederman scored 14 points out of 20, the next year she scored 1 out of 20 (considered “ineffective”), and during the 2014–2015 school year she scored 11 out of 20. “It’s the variability and volatility of this model that makes it so arbitrary,” Lederman told The Wall Street Journal.“There’s no reason to suggest that my performance with my children has varied that much year to year.”

Another major suit is playing out in New Mexico. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state’s VAM system in February 2015, arguing that it violates state law and is arbitrary and capricious in design. A state judge issued a temporary injunction in December 2015, blocking New Mexico from using its VAM measures for high-stakes personnel decisions until a later trial could be held. (That trial is scheduled for October.) Notably, the judge said that while value-added modeling can generally be sound, it’s not clear how much New Mexico’s system conforms to those best practices, given that the inner workings of the model “are not easily understood, translated, or made accessible.”

“Courts aren’t really good at parsing statistical details, but if they see something is a blunt instrument, and that information is unstable and unreliable, those are concepts judges can understand,” says Rutgers education finance professor Bruce Baker. “And if it’s being used in an arbitrary way, in a way that requires a precision that can’t be achieved, judges can look at that and say, ‘Well, I can understand those due process issues.’”

AFT president Randi Weingarten told The American Prospect that in addition to working on the legal and legislative fronts to “defeat VAM,” the AFT is fighting for more constructive evaluation systems that actually help teachers improve their practices.

“VAM is an unjust, unreliable, and unconstitutional method of evaluating teachers in America’s classrooms, and the AFT and our affiliates are leading—and winning—the fight against these systems,” she says. “We are heartened by recent court victories in which judges agree with us that VAM does not work for students, teachers, or schools as an evaluation tool.”

OUTSIDE OF COURT BATTLES, one clear sign of how the political winds have shifted is the rhetoric of education reformers. Just a few years ago, prominent leaders were calling to publish teachers’ VAM scores, so that parents and taxpayers could better hold public school teachers accountable.

“Parents and community members have the right to know how their districts, schools, principals, and teachers are doing,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010. “It’s up to local communities to set the context for these courageous conversations but silence is not an option.”

Duncan’s comments came a few months after the Los Angeles Timescontroversially published the value-added scores for Los Angeles teachers, and posted names of individual teachers rated as effective or ineffective on their website. The New York City Department of Education wanted to follow suit, insisting that doing so was in the public interest. “These are public schools and public dollars,” said a spokeswoman for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at the time.

Not all education reformers supported publishing VAM scores. Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, spoke out against it. “I just thought it was an absolutely shameful practice,” she told me. “If VAM were 100 percent accurate I would still have a problem with it—but it’s not, there are a lot of false positives and false negatives.” Bill Gates also published New York Times op-ed urging against disclosing the scores. “At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper,” he wrote.

And while New York did end up publishing teachers’ scores, along with other states like Ohio and Florida, you don’t hear VAM supporters championing such disclosures anymore. (Even Arne Duncan walked back his initial support.) One reason for the retreat is that making the scores available enabled the public to see how biased and error-prone they could be.

“After New York did it, people started realizing it was not a great thing to do,” says Baker. “Researchers reanalyzed the LA Times data and came up with different results, and I analyzed the NYC data, and even though NYC uses a pretty rich value-added model that controls for lots of stuff, eliminating much of the bias, that means you’re left with relatively noisy estimates, that jump around a lot from year to year.”

On top of growing doubts about how states are using VAM, some academics have even begun to challenge the idea that boosted test scores are a reliable proxy for improved life outcomes. This position is most prominently espoused by Jay Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who has argued the evidence for a correlation between test scores and life prospects is weak, especially with regards to high-stakes testing.

In an interview with the Prospect, Greene also said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen,” he says. “Their fantasy is an undemocratic fantasy, that benign dictators will scientifically design the correct evaluation, impose it on an unwilling workforce and population, and then it will stay forever. They always end up sounding a little bit like the ‘communism has never been tried’ argument. You know, once we get the details right, everyone will see how good it is.” Still, Greene thinks that even though reformers have not succeeded in really transforming teacher evaluations, they have effectively narrowed public discourse around education, defining “achievement” down to mean, merely, gains in reading and math scores.

“If you tell me that Chicago public schools are producing greater gainsamong disadvantaged students than other disadvantaged students across Illinois, it might be that Chicago students have figured out how to focus more narrowly on tests,” he says. “I don’t even know if the information we’re getting now [from tests] is a proxy for school quality anymore, or if it’s gaming.”

 

WHILE THE FUTURE of using value-added measures in teacher evaluations is unclear, some researchers have been advocating alternative ideas. One would be to use the statistical growth measures as a diagnostic tool, a preliminary screening test to help identify which districts, schools, and classrooms warrant closer attention. The idea would be to think of using VAM like a doctor who diagnostically screens for major diseases. If patients fail the screening test, they are given another, more careful measure. “As in medicine, a value-added score, combined with some additional information, should lead us to trigger classroom observations to identify truly low-performing teachers and to provide feedback,” Doug Harris, a Tulane education economist, wrote in 2012. Bruce Baker and Preston Green have also voiced support for this idea. Some reformers oppose this, saying that using it merely as a diagnostic tool would “water down the metric.”

In an interview, Harris told me that he’d rather see teacher evaluations be based on peers and experts observing teacher practice and coming to a professional judgment. He says he hopes the backlash against VAM will at least motivate people to think more seriously about alternative ways to evaluate teachers.

Though some are worried the country will move entirely away from holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores—and thereby hurt academic opportunities for historically underserved students—Baker thinks we’ll see continue to see more incremental shifts in test-based accountability over the next few years. But some states, he says, will shift to growth measures that are no better than what states were already using.

Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says she’s inclined to be a pessimist, and the pessimist in her doesn’t see much progress happening on the test-based evaluation front over the next few years. “But then again,” she says, “the winds change pretty quickly.”

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 19, 2017.
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When it comes to education reform, perhaps no city has inspired more controversy and acclaim over the last decade than Washington, D.C. Even today, uttering the name “Michelle Rhee”—the city’s first schools chancellor appointed in 2007 after a major shakeup in the district—still evokes heated reactions from local residents. Following the dissolution of the local school board and the centralization of education decision-making within the mayor’s office, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty commanded an unusual amount of power to change D.C.’s schools.

Over the past ten years, the policies undergirding the national education reform movement—offering more school choice, weakening teacher union power, and creating new accountability systems (with incentives like pay-for-performance and teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores)—have taken hold in the nation’s capital. Some see these moves as encouraging proof that education reform is working. Proponents point to positive benchmarks: District enrollment is growing; D.C. scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved (in some cases at a much faster rate than students in other large urban districts); and teachers who left the district after receiving low marks on D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system were replaced with higher-scoring teachers who boosted student achievement.

Research suggests that D.C. charter schools have made strides in student learning compared with the city’s traditional public schools, and the city’s overall test gains cannot be explained by demographic changes alone. In 2016, Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine (whose wife helped craft some of D.C.’s new policies and now works for a local charter school), declared, “The dramatic improvements registered in places like Washington show the revolutionary possibilities of education reform.”

For others, these gains have been overstated. Critics point to large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, misleading claims made by the school district’s public relations department, uncritical press coverage, a precipitous decline in black educators, and funding that has been inequitably distributed to some of the city’s most impoverished schools.

“I know that too many of the successes boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores,” a D.C. charter teacher wrote recently. “Too much of what I see in my school today is exactly what I saw ten years ago.” After a decade working in D.C. schools, she is calling it quits.

Subsequent D.C. mayors (Vincent Gray, elected in 2011, and Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014) and schools chancellors (Kaya Henderson, appointed in late 2010, and Antwan Wilson, in late 2016) have largely continued to promote the school reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee. Though it’s been more than two months since Wilson took over as D.C.’s new schools chancellor, it is unclear how he will steer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) between these competing narratives of success and hype. A better understanding of D.C. school reform, which was long heralded by the Obama administration as a national model, matters even more now that Donald Trump’s administration aims to expand school choice policies across the country—likely beginning with the nation’s capital.

 

THOUGH PEOPLE REMAIN starkly divided over education reform in D.C., the one thing both critics and supporters agree on is that the old way of evaluating teachers had to change. Removing bad teachers from the classroom had been too difficult. Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent, says it was well-known that some teachers shouldn’t have been there, but they were hard to fire.

“There was peak enrollment in the late 1960s, and after that [the district] just abandoned their gatekeeping test and started hiring anyone who was breathing so long as they had a degree,” Levy says. “My older daughter had one of those teachers, and she was unbelievably bad. So the district had an older workforce to whom no standards had been applied, and when enrollment started going down, and there were big layoffs in the 1980s, every elementary teacher with less than ten years in the system lost their jobs, and the older ones got to stay.”

“The union contract in D.C. was awful,” says Mark Simon, an Economic Policy Institute research associate and a former president of the Montgomery County (Maryland) teachers union. “It was an example of the kind of contract that existed in some school districts where the limitations placed on teachers’ time and the specificity of what administrators had to do [for] an evaluation [to] hold weight was so rigid that more often than not, teachers could not be evaluated out of the school system.” Simon added, “If a principal did not get the right documents filled out the right way on just the right line, then the whole thing was thrown out by an arbitrator.”

An American Prospect review of a 2006 D.C. teacher evaluation handbook corroborates these observations. One byzantine rule stipulated that to terminate an ineffective teacher by the end of the school year, the administrator had to make a decision no later than the first week of January. If the process began with less than 90 days remaining in the school year, “the educator must be granted permission to return to the same site the next school year” as the process continued.

Simon opposes D.C.’s new system, IMPACT, which ranks teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, minimally effective, or ineffective, arguing that it de-professionalizes teachers. He contrasts IMPACT with the system he helped pioneer in the 1990s as union president for Montgomery County, D.C.’s suburban neighbor. Simon wrote in 2012, “The focus of teacher evaluation in Montgomery County is professional growth—the nurturing of good teaching, not the sorting and ranking of the teacher workforce.” He added: “Although an evaluation system must be able to weed out people who never should have entered teaching, that objective only applies to a tiny percentage of the workforce and must not be the system’s main purpose. Good teachers are not found through some magical recruitment pipeline. They are made, over time.”

Simon says that in 2008 he approached Jason Kamras, the D.C. school official charged with developing a new teacher evaluation system, and suggested that the district craft a system similar to Montgomery County’s. “[Kamras] ran it up the food chain, said other people had suggested the same thing, but that the response was that it takes too long, costs too much, we’re not interested, we want to use a rubric to hire and fire,” says Simon.

There had been some innovative teacher evaluation models at the time—Toledo, Ohio, was experimenting with peer review and others were exploring so-called professional learning communities. Even though Simon was critical of IMPACT, he agreed that policymakers had not been focusing much on improving teacher quality through feedback and evaluation.

“I think the reformers are right that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to teacher evaluation, and in a lot of places the systems were pretty pro-forma,” says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California, Berkeley public policy and economics professor. “But there were places that were doing it better, and that typically involved things like mentor[ing] teachers and careful classroom observations.”

One reason D.C.’s education reforms attracted significant attention across the country was their timing: DCPS started using IMPACT to evaluate teachers during the 2009–2010 school year, just as the education reform organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report recommending that districts develop evaluation systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.”

IMPACT and TNTP’s report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

By January 2010, 40 states had applied for the first round of competitive Race to the Top grants. The first two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants of $500 million and $100 million, respectively. Tennessee’s proposal notably included a teacher evaluation system that looked just like D.C.’s.

Since Tennessee won the first and biggest prize for a proposal modeled on IMPACT, D.C.’s program garnered even more notice. There was little research on its actual effectiveness, but many states nevertheless looked to D.C. as a leader to emulate. “All of these states were in the middle of a financial crisis, where their revenue declined dramatically, and to get this grant money they had to pretty quickly come up with new plans,” says Matt Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. “I certainly think there is a tendency, an understandable tendency, to look around and see what other people are doing who were successful winning funds.”

 

FOR YEARS, THE D.C. public schools have been known as factious battlegrounds for education reformers of all stripes; new plans and policies would be implemented every few years, only to have new leaders and competing agendas ushered in shortly afterward. The day before Rhee was appointed, The Washington Post traced this trajectory, noting: “The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. … Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.”

In 1989, a coalition of more than 60 business and community leaders published a report calling for sweeping changes to D.C. education, including closing and rehabilitating schools, lengthening the school day, and drafting new curriculum standards. “There have been countless studies, task forces, and five-year plans for the District’s schools, but few come close to the size and scope of this effort,” the Post reported at the time. The coalition spent six months and $500,000 on the effort, yet like those that came before it, their recommendations bore little fruit.

By 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority issued another report declaring the city’s public schools to be in crisis, and called for urgent changes. By 2004, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national nonprofit, published its own report, noting that D.C. remained one of the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation. They recommended a series of reforms that had been floated over the past five decades—new accountability systems for student achievement, more standardized curricula and instruction, and incentives to attract high-quality teachers to work in the most challenging schools.

Unlike other places, elected D.C. officials must compete with federal leaders for authority over the city’s public schools. Congress can overturn laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and the District’s two members of Congress cannot vote on legislation. The introduction of an elected school board in 1968 and the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973 were attempts to increase local political representation, but the school board and council lacked independent taxing authority. It was no small sacrifice for residents when city leaders voted to dissolve the school board in 2007—dismantling one of the city’s only elected bodies. But local officials felt drastic action was needed given DCPS’s poor outcomes.

Rhee’s tenure as chancellor was controversial, both locally and across the country. In addition to pushing forward a new teacher evaluation system, she fired hundreds of teachers, replaced principals, and closed schools. Her brash style of leadership frustrated even those who backed her policy ideas. Following Rhee’s resignation in 2010 after Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic mayoral primary, the new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, continued to promote her predecessor’s policies—albeit in a less polarizing way.

MEANWHILE, D.C.’S REFORMS continued to attract glowing praise. In 2013, The Washington Post editorial board concluded that there was “unassailable” evidence that the city’s reforms, based on “high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice” worked. In 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said D.C. was “by every measure the fastest-improving big city school district in the nation.” New America called D.C.’s teacher evaluation “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get.”

All the talk of success and failure led Steven Glazerman, a Mathematica Policy Research fellow, to coin a new phrase—“misNAEPery”—which describes how leaders and pundits wrongly attribute the rise and fall in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to the success or failure of specific education policies. “D.C. [NAEP] scores [rose] faster than other cities—that part is basically true, but if you want to say it’s because of school reform, that’s a harder case to make,” says Glazerman. Alan Ginsburg, a retired 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Education, published a report in 2011 that found that D.C. NAEP scores were already steadily improving before Michelle Rhee took over in 2007, and that “the rates of D.C. score gains under Rhee were no better than the rates achieved under [the prior two superintendents].”

Another thorny issue is demographics: Some critics charge that any documented learning gains can be attributed to the increase in white, affluent students who now enroll in DCPS. Yet when controlling for demographics, about two-thirds of the city’s ten-year gains in math persist for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students. However, controlling for demographics does make the ten-year reading gains for eighth graders almost entirely disappear. In late February, Levy, the independent D.C. budget analyst, went before the city council to testify about the district’s low academic performance. She noted that the lowest achieving groups are black males, at-risk students, and special education students. Achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students have narrowed somewhat since 2003, but white proficiency rates still run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates, and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates. Socioeconomic gaps have widened.

“We have an ever-worsening achievement gap in this city, that has been spun into the D.C. miracle,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Were a teacher to perform in this manner for their students, they’d have long since lost their jobs.”

Critics have raised other concerns about the way D.C school reform has been cast as an example of “clear progress.” School funding advocates have criticized DCPS for inequitably distributing financial resources to the neediest schools, and last September, the Washington City Paper published a cover story on Kaya Henderson’s failure to deliver on her five-year strategic plan. A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project explores the city’s heavily segregated schools.

But if there’s one reform that supporters of D.C.’s school policies point to as evidence of success, it’s IMPACT. In 2013, two education economists published a working paper suggesting that D.C.’s teacher evaluation system induced teachers with low evaluation scores to voluntarily leave DCPS, and improved the performance of teachers who stayed. In 2016, the researchers published another working paper that found DCPS teacher turnover between 2011 and 2013 led to a net positive effect on student test scores—suggesting that turnover is not necessarily bad if low-performing teachers can be replaced with higher-quality ones.

These were encouraging results, but DCPS officials went on to exaggerate the findings. School administrators falsely said the research showed teachers and students improved because of IMPACT, and that IMPACT caused low-performing teachers to leave. The researchers had repeatedly emphasized that their work was not an evaluation of IMPACT, per se.

“DCPS has one of the best publicity operations I have ever seen,” says Levy. “I think, unfortunately, they go beyond spin, and into some areas of half-truths.”

DCPS was not alone in spinning the IMPACT studies. Supporters of VAM, a controversial statistical tool that uses student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness, tried to frame the positive IMPACT studies as proof of VAM’s merit. “People looked at the study and concluded it must be the VAM-based firing that did it, and that’s not supported by the evidence,” says Jesse Rothstein, who has raised concerns about using VAM in teacher evaluations.

The real issue with attributing the researchers’ results to IMPACT is that there’s no proof that other new teacher evaluation systems wouldn’t have also worked. Dee and Wyckoff also caution that despite the positive results of their research, IMPACT might not work as a national model, given that D.C. is a particularly attractive location to live in (thus it has an unusually robust labor pool). The high salaries and bonuses DCPS teachers earn would likewise be difficult for many struggling school districts to adopt.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Dee adds that the leadership in D.C. was very strong and thoughtful, and that a system like IMPACT might not thrive under different political conditions. “When I present the IMPACT work, I say, yes, it does seem extremely promising but I worry it won’t be a proof point,” says Dee. “You had certain planets in alignment politically, and capable, entrepreneurial leadership.”

Indeed, one factor that worked in DCPS’s favor was that the 4,000-member Washington Teachers Union was significantly weakened, and unable to successfully fight against using test scores to evaluate teachers. The WTU has been under siege since the Rhee years, and teachers have been working under a contract that expired in 2012.

According to Davis, the union president, DCPS educators still strongly oppose the new evaluation system. “IMPACT does little to seed improvement in practice,” Davis says. “Our professionals don’t believe teaching every year should be a scene out of The Hunger Games, fighting for survival against what could best be considered arbitrary standards.” She adds, “WTU teachers believe that educators should have an evaluation system that focuses on supporting and assisting those who work in the classroom and holds the whole system accountable, not one that obsesses on points, ratings, and consequences solely for teachers.”

David Grosso, a city councilmember and the chairman of the education committee, tells me that while he respects the teachers union, when they “testify or complain or say things are awful, it’s hard to believe” based on his personal conversations with educators. “Nine out of ten teachers I speak to are pretty happy and feel like they’re making a difference,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re a teacher in the District of Columbia, you have the support that you need and when you are successful, you will get paid a lot of money and be treated with a lot of respect, and that’s just a reality.”

For what it’s worth, schools located in the poorest areas of the city have the smallest percentage of teachers rated “highly effective” under IMPACT. Teacher turnover districtwide also remains very high. Levy, the budget analyst, finds almost half of all newly hired teachers, whether experienced or new to the profession, leave the classroom within two years; and 75 percent leave within five years. There is similar turnover among principals: Levy finds most schools have had two or three principals in the last five years.

ONE REASON IT’S become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.

When D.C. passed its 2007 education reform law, one provision required the mayor to produce annual evaluations on new school reforms, such as academic achievement and personnel policies. The law also allowed the mayor to skip the annual reports and produce a five-year independent evaluation by September 2012. Fenty opted for the latter—but his two proposed evaluators, Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Kenneth Wong of Brown University, had both supported the DC mayoral school-takeover plan. Then-councilmember Vincent Gray objected to Fenty’s picks, arguing that they involved conflicts of interest.

Gray also objected to the mayor’s desire to have the $750,000 evaluation paid for by an entity known as the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private organization launched and run by a former Fenty aide, which solicits private-sector donations to support education reform. Gray believed that the evaluation should be publicly funded. Yet three years later, when Gray himself ran for mayor, his tune on rigorous evaluations changed. “Adrian Fenty refused to carry out the evaluation, and when Gray ran against Fenty, he also lost interest,” says Levy. “Gray’s attitude changed a lot when he became mayor.”

Levy thinks that incentives for oversight worsened after the switch to mayoral control. Before the change, the city council would sketch out the school district’s finances, but the body could not control how those funds were actually spent. This dynamic frustrated councilmembers who were often blamed for the public schools’ struggles, but had few tools to address the problems. This issue led the council to enact tougher oversight measures. “The public would come down and say, ‘You need to give us more money,’ and the city council wanted to justify not coming up with all of it,” Levy explains.

But after the move to mayoral control, DCPS failures were no longer pinned on the city council. “Now the mayor comes up with a budget number for the school system and that’s pretty much it,” says Levy, who thinks the city council is not interested in rocking the boat. “They too have gotten all this good publicity,” Levy says, in regards to the supposed successful turnaround of DCPS.

D.C. finally produced a publicly funded independent evaluation of its school reforms in 2015. The National Research Council, an organization chartered by Congress, conducted the review and found some promising evidence of improvements, but the evaluators identified many persistent disparities, and noted a lack of comprehensive, accessible data. They said they were often unable to obtain important information for their research effort, and recommended the creation of a data warehouse for ongoing, independent studies.

After the NRC issued its report, a group of education advocates and public policy researchers gathered in 2016 to discuss creating an independent think tank to evaluate D.C. education policies. Inspired by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has access to a broad range of Chicago Public School data, the D.C. group envisioned their think tank serving a similar function as the Congressional Budget Office.

Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. “The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,” he says. “Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”

He thinks the idea of a publicly funded research organization akin to the CBO is a good one, but that it could be a heavy lift to get off the ground. It would take real leadership, and right now, the mayor and the city council have few incentives to poke holes in the narrative that D.C. school reform has been a tremendous success.

“We met for about six months and put together a proposal,” says Mark Simon, who was involved in the 2016 effort. “Initially we got good, positive encouragement from David Grosso, and he basically promised to put money in the budget, but when we got to the actual budget hearings we were iced out.”

The Prospect asked Grosso why he withdrew his support for the independent research organization. “I hadn’t heard that much about it, but I do support the idea for third-party analysis and review of what we’re doing in DCPS, but I was not convinced that what they were offering at the time was the best approach,” he said. “It seemed like it was a purely academic thing. There was a desire to do something similar to what was done in Chicago and, in the end, I decided I did not want to do that. I thought it would confuse governance in the city more than it would help.”

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, DCPS’s new schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, took over. Prior to coming to D.C., he spent two years as the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California and worked as a public school administrator in Denver. He also participated in a superintendent training academy funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which finances education reform efforts. “The candidate [Mayor Bowser] has selected appears by résumé and reputation to have the same kind of forward-thinking passion for excellence that has helped make D.C. schools the fastest-improving urban school district in the country,” The Washington Post editorial board said in November.

Wilson declined the Prospect’s request for an interview through DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. Lerner is a former communications manager for several reform-driven organizations, including the Fordham Institute and the advocacy group American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. secretary of education.

Looking to the future, Councilmember Grosso says D.C. will need to invest more heavily in wrap-around services for poor students, including basic health care, housing, and resources for coping with trauma. He says that he’s spoken with Antwon Wilson and that the new chancellor “absolutely understands” this.

The bipartisan political forces that shepherded D.C.’s education policies may shift in the coming years, as the election of Trump and the ascendance of the controversial DeVos threaten to fracture some of the Obama-era coalitions. New leadership, both in the district and the mayor’s office, could also portend greater changes for D.C. public education.

Though Glazerman is skeptical that a publicly funded research agency committed to robust, independent evaluations will be created, it is possible that Wilson may be more open to the idea, since his outsider status might shield him from the fallout from any negative findings—at least at the outset. Mary Levy also thinks the independent think tank idea could resurface, citing the new influx of upper-middle-class families who send their children to D.C. public schools.

“They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “These are city parents behaving like persistent suburban parents. So in the future, this idea may grow.”

Betsy DeVos Alarms Special Education Advocates, Parents

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 18, 2017.
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At an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos’s financial disclosures.

So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent. But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos admitted “she may have been confused” about the 42-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), one of the nation’s most fundamental civil rights laws.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA provides nearly seven million children in the U.S. with special education services. Special education oversight is one of the most significant responsibilities of the education department that DeVos has been nominated to lead. “The fact that she doesn’t understand the basics about federal education law is just appalling,” says Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a national organization that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities. “It was pretty clear to us that she is not, and never has been, an advocate for students with disabilities.”

“Even around vouchers, which she supposedly does have a lot of experience with, she just talked about them writ large, as if they could solve every family’s dilemma,” Marshall adds. “She gave no indication that she understands that students with disabilities very often have to give up their legal and civil rights to use vouchers.”

One of DeVos’s most stunning blunders came when she challenged the very notion of federal disability mandates, suggesting that it’s best for individual states to decide how to educate students with special needs. “That would turn back the clock by 40 years,” Marshall says. “IDEA was passed out of the recognition that students with disabilities are a group that requires greater protections. If states want to receive those federal funds, then they have to accept higher responsibilities, and provide those necessary supports.”

Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Opportunity to Learn Program at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, says that an education secretary nominee who does not understand how IDEA benefits children of color is especially alarming. “If we know nothing else about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that black and brown students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline policies that push them out of school and into the criminal-justice system,” she says. “These students still need the protections of IDEA because they are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, more likely to be referred to law enforcement and more likely to be arrested in school.”

Parents of students with disabilities also had strong reservations about DeVos’s performance, saying that her lack of rudimentary knowledge and experience should disqualify her from the position.

Dustin Park, who lives in Tennessee with his six-year-old diagnosed with Downs syndrome, told The American Prospect that DeVos’s testimony troubled him. “At best, she doesn’t know about the laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst she doesn’t care,” he says. Park has been organizing and educating other parents about state and federal special education laws and noted that the Supreme Court heard a case just last week that will have massive implications for students with disabilities across the United States.

David Perry, a parent living in Chicago with a disabled child could not understand why a nominee did not have a good answer for such a softball question. “It’s either ignorance, or arrogance, or apathy,” he says. “Either way, I’m even more concerned about her nomination.”

Edward Fuller, a Penn State University education policy professor, told The American Prospect about his experience living in Texas, where his daughter, Jade, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, had been routinely denied special education services. In 2016, The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas had arbitrarily decided that only a certain percentage of students would get special education, while denying thousands of other children their lawful services. The newspaper’s investigation has since prompted federal intervention.

“The debacle in Texas is a perfect example of what could happen if states are allowed control over special education and are allowed to interpret the laws around IDEA from their own perspective,” says Fuller. “States can adopt policies that leave huge swaths of kids without access to a free and appropriate education [and] many southern states would adopt the same strategy as Texas in order to reduce education spending.”

Tom Wellborn, a south Jersey parent of two children with special needs, says he can’t imagine how miserably his kids would be doing without the techniques they’ve learned from specialists in their schools. “DeVos is obviously unqualified; painfully so,” he says. Citing the grizzly bear comment, Wellborn says he can’t even fathom “whether she’s serious or thinks we’re all idiots.”

Freshman Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, and a parent of a son with cerebral palsy, challenged DeVos last night on the federal disability statute. In a statement provided to The American Prospect, Hassan said, “The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities—a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing—is unacceptable. I will review Mrs. DeVos’s written responses but at this point she has done nothing to convince me that she’s a suitable choice to serve as secretary of education.”

Education Reformers Reflect at 25

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 29th, 2016.
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It’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding. And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40.

But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work.

But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two main camps of reformers—market-driven advocates and accountability hawks—have been butting heads increasingly over goals and political priorities. For a long time, these two groups seemed to be one and the same—“choice and accountability” have always been buzzwords for the movement. But over time, the divisions between Team Choice and Team Accountability have grown more apparent. Today, some veteran choice advocates, those who have been pushing market-driven reforms for the last 25 years, have expressed feelings of being hemmed in, and in some cases crowded out, by others who are demanding formal checks and balances.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, is one such frustrated choice advocate. “Reformers have become our own worst enemy,” she declared at an event at the National Press Club earlier this month. Her group organized the event to release its new manifesto, outlining challenges Allen sees within education reform, and steps allies must take to get their movement back on track. “If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts to drive change have hit a wall,” she said. In Allen’s view, reformers saw more progress during their first nine years, than over the last 16.

Her manifesto cites a declining interest in Teach for America, decreasing enthusiasm for the education technology sector, and slower overall charter school growth. She says that officials who authorize charters have grown too overbearing, stifling flexibility and innovation. And she calls on the reform movement to get back on offense—to focus on “opportunity and upward mobility”—so they can begin rebuilding momentum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus at the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, tells me he thinks Allen is correct to note that reformers have not looked ahead to the future enough. He worries that the current partisanship in the country threatens to splinter the reform coalition. But he says he thinks certain gains and accomplishments—like judging schools on whether students are learning, improved graduation rates, better tests, and more rigorous standards—are ones to be proud of. “She doesn’t really give them enough credit,” he says.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, tells me that while he felt many of Allen’s observations were accurate, the overall tone of her manifesto was too cynical and pessimistic. “In the places where we have a lot of charter schools, they won’t disappear,” he says. “The fight now is how many more are there going to be, and what are the regulations around them going to look like.”

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Some groups, like the Center for Education Reform, remain committed to the idea that parents should be able to choose the schools they think best meets the needs of their child. While all reformers still generally use this type of rhetoric, many have actually moved away from the more corporate “parents as customers” language that leaders like Allen still regularly employ. From the perspective of the Center for Education Reform, if a parent is satisfied with a school, then that is reason enough to assume it’s successful and working. If enough parents want to leave a school, and have the freedom to do so, the thinking goes, then bad schools will be inevitably shut down, just as bad businesses close if they can’t sustain demand for their products.

In her manifesto, Allen says that while charter authorizers have a role to play in terms of opening schools, it should be parental choice that determines whether or not schools close. “No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers,” she writes.

“Well, we just fundamentally disagree with that,” Richmond tells me.

Chester E. Finn Jr. says he’s also less willing to leave school accountability up to parents, and believes student outcomes have to be part of the conversation. “Jeanne is a little more willing to settle for a market test, and I want something else besides that. I’m also pretty fussy about achievement.”

Nowhere is this divide more evident than within the ongoing debates surrounding virtual charter schools, which more than 180,000 students attend full-time in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Last fall, multiple research studies found that virtual charter schools yield significantly worse academic results than traditional public schools. Building on those findings, this month, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Richmond’s group), and 50Can, an education reform advocacy group, jointly released a report with recommendations for states to hold virtual charters more accountable for student performance. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” their report said.

As Matt Barnum, an education policy writer for The 74 observed, that reform groups opted to say ‘self-selection’ –rather than “choice”—highlights some of the tensions of this particular moment. For so long, reform advocates argued that schools should be measured on the basis of whether parents choose them. (Or “self-select” them.) But now more groups are saying that perhaps unfettered choice is not the best policy after all.

“What most of the folks in the charter world realized after ten years was that having an unfettered market produced some great schools, but also a lot of bad ones,” Richmond says. He notes that groups like the Walton Family Foundation used to be very generous in terms of who they would fund. “There was a period of time where it was as if almost anyone who wanted to open a charter school could get a grant of $100,000 from the Waltons. It ran like that for a number of years, until eventually they looked at the results and decided this wasn’t working.”

“As supportive as I am about entrepreneurialism and private sector engagement,” says Finn, “there’s also been a lot of greedy behavior—a lot of ‘to the heck with the kids’—and we reformers didn’t really pay enough attention to that.”

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement sharply critical of the three groups’ report, saying it “exemplifies precisely why the education reform movement is at risk—its conclusions endanger the ideals of opportunity and innovation that are so desperately needed in education today.” At the National Press Club, Allen went further, saying there’s been a “death march” around research studies, with too many reports and academics critiquing various aspects of reform, which then inhibits a culture of risk and innovation.

Efforts to transform public education aren’t going away, but what shape they will take going forward remains unclear. A growing number of people, including both school choice advocates and education reform opponents, say there’s little evidence that standardized test score gains in math and reading lead to improved long-term life outcomes. This has further fueled debates over how students should be tested, and how schools should be held accountable for test scores. There are also growing disputes among reformers over the role of for-profit companies, and what type of regulation and accountability a choice-based system really needs.

“I don’t feel that charters are going to go away, but I do believe they will become so hamstrung they will become like the traditional school system,” said Donald Hense, the founder of one of D.C.’s largest charter networks, at the National Press Club earlier this month. Richmond tells me that while he whole-heartedly agrees some authorizers have gone too far in regulating charter schools, many don’t go far enough.

In late May, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a provocative post warning of a narrowing space for conservatives within education reform; its “increasingly aggressive” social justice rhetoric, he said, has served to marginalize Republicans and conservative ideas. A fellow conservative, Fredrick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, followed up, lamenting what he described as growing “groupthink” within the movement. “It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas,” Hess said. “It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy.” These and other critiques have sparked a flurry of internal discussion and debate about the future of the coalition—a fairly healthy conversation as reformers work to grow a more diverse movement, but one that has also left people divided over just how existential these problems really are.

As education policy devolves back to the states, as it’s set to do through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in December, we’re likely to see much more school variation across states and communities. Teacher unions and market-driven reformers have cheered these developments, but many civil rights groupsand accountability hawks worry about what a decreased federal role will mean for struggling students. As reformers continue to mobilize, so do their critics. The discussion around school integration has grown louder over the past two years, and more community advocates are exploring models like full-service community schools as ways to boost student success.

Needless to say, the next quarter-century will require close attention.

 

Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.