Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Childcare & School

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part III: A right to free and high-quality childcare and education, by Maria.

Education – and the possibility that it means your children can and will do better than you have been able to do – is what drives nearly all American citizens and citizens-to-be to believe in the dream of America. However, to realize that dream, both quality public education and quality early childcare/pre-K must be considered an unquestioned public right for all Americans. Access to both must be guaranteed to all, regardless of means or geographic location, to secure that right.

A need to act

Childcare and education are often intertwined. In order to spend an 8 hour day working, parents drop off their kids at a Pre-K, Daycare Center, or Day Camp that promises an enriching learning environment. Recently it was reported that childcare costs more than college in 24 states. An impressive and depressing statistic when you consider that college tuition “…has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation”.

Study after study shows that children who receive pre-school education do better than their less fortunate peers; progress begets progress for the rest of their lives. Competition for Pre-K programs can be so fierce that many schools operate by lottery.

We shouldn’t have to stage a Hunger Games for tots to decide who gets to learn the numbers and colors. We are failing our children and our own futures by not addressing this burden.

Uneven funding

Adding to this challenge is the inherent inequality in the way schools are funded in the United States, through local property taxes. What you and your community can afford to pay (or how much your local government prioritizes educational investment) will determine what kind of education your child receives over a lifetime.

Some parents are fortunate enough to be able to navigate and afford systems that may require applications for a child even before he or she is born. Others are financially secure enough to be able to move to better school districts. Clearly, not everyone can do this.

Should a child be denied a chance at a better life due the geographic circumstances of their birth? Should the quality of their earliest years of school be determined on their parents’ incomes? A meritocracy cannot emerge from such inequalities. These inequalities rob a certain share of our population’s youngest members of the opportunity for a decent start, for arbitrary reasons.

If the core of the American Dream is believing that your children will do better than you did, every child must be provided with at least a baseline of quality education and childcare. For our society to have any hope of realizing a meritocracy to, neither of these can be beholden to rich or poor, urban or suburban, etc.

The right of the people

State constitutions or the federal constitution should be amended to include a free public childcare and schooling provision along the following lines:

“Every person has the right to access high-quality, free education and early childcare regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

Those who wish to supplement public offerings with private options would continue to have that ability, but everyone would have access to a strong starting point before reaching adulthood. The fresh slate promised by the American Dream currently does not exist for a poor child, but it could.

Countries the world over have enshrined the right to a free, high standard of education in their constitutions. If America truly wishes to remain one of the most highly educated countries, we must focus on making education freely accessible to all, while also highlighting quality.

Ensuring free public education and childcare for all children not only increases their chances at fulfilling their parents’ dream of a better future, it would also make sure the future of the parents – and our entire society – is well cared for.

Protecting children and students by empowering them

Promoting the rights of children, youth, and students is vitally important for keeping them safe. We’ve seen the footage this week from Spring Valley High School of a girl being body-slammed and seriously injured by a police officer in her school — an all-too-common occurrence. While this itself is a grave abuse (➚) and clearly one escalated by racism and misogynoir (learn more➚), one additional element we need to be aware of is how many schools (including in Massachusetts) have adopted policies that may limit our ability to find out about these incidents in future.

Such measures include monitoring students’ internet communications on campus and restricting or confiscating cell phones. While some of this is ostensibly to reduce distractions, its secondary (and I hope unintended!) effect is to reduce the ability of students to record authority figures or otherwise get the word out about abuses or inappropriate behaviors by adults who are supposed to be keeping them safe.

This doesn’t just apply to inappropriate uses of physical force to contain situations, but also to other types of abuse. There have been more than enough institutional sex abuse scandals erupting in recent years to learn from. These often occurred in eras where children and youth were neither respected nor readily empowered to document illegal actions (of any kind) by adults in positions of power. We now know that young people are endangered when they are unable to advocate for themselves against powerful adults or institutions and are unable to prove what is happening.

It would be a serious mistake to move toward policies that prioritize omnipresent surveillance and policing while deprioritizing student rights and student privacy. Such an approach doesn’t foster a culture of being willing to constructively stand up to authority or institutions when there are abuses or illegal activity. (And reportedly, a student who tried to intervene physically in this case to protect his or her classmate from abuse was also disciplined by the school, which should raise some similar questions too.)

In immediate terms, while we always hope these things won’t happen in our schools, if they do happen, it’s much better that we know about them quickly so we can stop them and act against those responsible. For that to happen, students must feel comfortable about coming forward and be empowered to do so. Part of a safe learning environment is not just taking a “public safety in schools” approach but also ensuring students can advocate for themselves when something isn’t right.

In the bigger picture, I believe that the latter approach – respecting the rights of young people and protecting their ability to blow the whistle on abuses of power without fearing recrimination – also helps promote a generally more engaged and empowered civic attitude for a lifetime. Part of our education system should be to encourage people to defend each other and themselves from abuses of power wherever it may occur. It should never be to teach our children that they are powerless to stop injustice, illegal activity, or abuse.

Pell Grants made available for prisoners

Of the 700,000 prisoners who are released each year, more than 40% will be pack in prison within three years. Each prisoner costs the taxpayer $35,00-40,000 each year. You don’t need to know very much math to know that this isn’t a good deal for the United States — not to mention the loss of human potential of those stuck on a path of cyclical prison visits.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to do something about it. Duncan’s plan encourages colleges and universities to offer classes in prisons by providing prisoners Pell Grants of $6,000 to pay for the classes. The plan is only a 5-year experiment to gather data on the outcomes of prisoners who participate in the program.

A Rand Corp. study estimates that every dollar spent on prison education saves the US taxpayer $5 and notes that when a prisoner takes a college course, they are 16% less likely to return to prison.

Of course, not everyone agrees with providing Pell Grants to prisoners, which is why 20 years ago, Congress voted to cut off access to the grants to state and federal prisoners.

So, for now, Secretary Duncan’s efforts remain a small-scale experiment, but he remains hopeful:

“We think this is a small, small investment that will pay extraordinary dividends. Not just financially. But in terms of making our streets and our community safer.”

 

MA legislature blocks Gov. Baker’s painful education cuts

massachusetts-statehouse

Last week the State Senate voted to restore much of the education funding to the Massachusetts State budget, including: $5.25 million to the University of Massachusetts, $217,000 for Quinsiggamond Community College, and, perhaps most importantly, $17.6 million in kindergarten grants. The House followed along the same lines.

By July 30, lawmakers had restored 60% of Governor Baker’s $162 million budget cuts (via line-item veto) to the $38.1 billion Massachusetts budget originally sent to his desk. As to be expected in Massachusetts, a state consistently ranked as having one of the country’s best public education systems, it was the cuts to education that drew the most attention and ire.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg (D) spoke strongly about the need to keep funding for education:

“If we’re serious about closing the income inequality gap, expanding educational opportunities for working families must be an important priority. By overriding the governor’s ill-advised education vetoes, we’re helping middle-class kids get the tools they will need to prosper in a demanding and competitive economy.”

 
Governor Baker, who ran and won his seat as Governor as a moderate Republican in a deeply blue state, has been evasive when it comes to his true opinion of early childhood education. While running for governor, he insisted:

“We need to make sure there’s a runway here between pre-k into strong elementary and middle school and high school education.”

 
However, as a candidate, he refused to pledge to shrink the waiting list of 17,000 low-income students hoping to get a spot in a subsidized pre-kindergarten program.

As governor, Baker has frequently pointed to the cost of pre-Kindergarten programs, but vetoed a program to establish best practices for cost-control in pre-K programs. Baker also frequently sites a Brookings Institute study, which notes the disappearance of benefits of a pre-K program by the third grade if students are in under-preforming schools. This seems like a thin defense for cutting pre-K programs, but an important reason to figure out how to improve pre-K programs.

Governor Baker points out that the $17.6 million of kindergarten grants he planned to cut was part of a program originally intended to help school districts establish full-day kindergartens and with 90% of MA towns now providing full-day kindergarten, the grants no longer fulfill their original purpose. Many school leaders say their kindergarten programs rely on this funding and if it is to disappear, it should do so gradually, not all at once, leaving school districts in the lurch.

The cut of these kindergarten grants was overridden unanimously in both the House by a vote of 155-0 and the Senate by a vote of 38-0.

The truth is that Baker governs a state where 73% of residents support early childhood education and 53% would support raising taxes to support it. With polls like this one, it is easy to see that Baker’s values may not match up with the state he is governing. It is hard to believe that short-sighted budget cuts like this one will not come back to haunt him.

We occupied Afghanistan for years (& all we got was nothing)

For those who have followed the situation even somewhat more closely than the average media outlet — which ignored the war in Afghanistan almost entirely after 2002 — there is (sadly) no surprise whenever another pillar of moral justification for the lengthy war and occupation effort collapses or becomes too tenuously thin to make the case anymore.

The twins of propaganda and profligate budget fraud have been skipping hand in hand for years around the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. We have not made the country better and most “evidence” that we did has been fabricated, exaggerated, or erased immediately by local forces we can’t control (including our own political allies).

We don’t want to talk about that because then we would have to admit that thousands of troops died and three-quarters of a trillion dollars were spent over the course of more than a decade…for nothing. Literally nothing. It was a giant, heartbreaking waste.

Now read the details from BuzzFeed News, which sent journalist Azmat Khan and others all over Afghanistan to check just the $1 billion worth of USAID and DOD funded schools alone. And weep.

Here’s a quick summary of the massive report:

The United States trumpets education as one of its shining successes of the war in Afghanistan. But a BuzzFeed News investigation reveals U.S. claims were often outright lies, as the government peddled numbers it knew to be false and touted schools that have never seen a single student.
[…]
a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.

BuzzFeed News exclusively acquired the GPS coordinates and contractor information for every school that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have refurbished or built since 2002, as well as Department of Defense records of school constructions funded by the U.S. military.

BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, most of which were battlefield provinces — the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money.
[…]
Over the last decade, report after report has chronicled the corruption and waste that squandered taxpayer dollars across many U.S. programs in Afghanistan. But American education efforts — long seen as a shining success — have gone mostly unexamined, a truth acknowledged even by one of the U.S. officials who has investigated corruption in Afghanistan.

 

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan in November 2001. (US Marine Corps Photo)

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan in November 2001. (US Marine Corps Photo)

8 years late, Congress ready to revisit No Child Left Behind

When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law in 2002, it was intended to last only until 2007, when lawmakers would revisit and improve the law. Instead, our country’s lawmakers allowed the bill to expire, forcing states to continue to abide by it until another law replaces it (or, after 2011, seek a conditional waiver from the Obama Administration).

Finally, with both sides of the aisle dissatisfied with NCLB, Congress has decided to take note of the lessons learned in the past 13 years and begin debates to replace the law. Meaningful changes in the law are far from a slam dunk; those on the left are calling for reforms as progressive as universal pre-kindergarten and those on the right wish to see more decision-making power reside in the states. If an agreement is to be struck, it will surely come at the end of impassioned and tumultuous debate.

The bill that has been brought to the Senate floor is sponsored by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) — both of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where the bill passed unanimously in April. The proposed bill calls for the continued use of mandated math and reading tests, but would allow states to decide what to do with their results. Furthermore, in direct response to the debate over Common Core, the bill would prohibit the federal government from requiring, or even encouraging, a nationwide set of academic standards.

The House of Representatives is set to debate their own version of the bill, sponsored by John Kline (R-MN), which includes giving states control over school accountability and a controversial school choice provision. This bill was set to be voted upon in February, but that vote was withdrawn because there was not enough support, even within the Republican majority, for it to pass — and the White House announced that it would be vetoed, should it reach the President.

Here’s a primer on some of the key issues set to unfold during the debate:

Veto Power. The White House has announced that it does not support either the House or Senate bills in their current form due to a lack of accountability. While they haven’t said that they would veto the Senate’s bill, they have made it clear that they hope to see improvements. Namely, they would like to see a plan for failing schools. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pointed out, “To simply label a school as failing, that doesn’t change a kid’s life.”

It’s a civil rights issue. Although a school and its students are far more than a number, testing has allowed for a quantitative way to highlight the differences in quality of our country’s schools and has been particularly effective in bringing the black/white achievement gap out of the shadows. When the President and his Secretary of Education refer to accountability, they are, in many ways, referring to the federal government’s responsibility to figure out which of its citizens it is failing and fix it.

Testing, testing, and, oh wait, more testing. The country’s largest teacher’s union, The National Education Association, has long been calling for the elimination or severe reduction of standardized tests. Banking on a renewed anti-testing fervor stemming from frustration with the Common Core, their voice is sure to be heard in this debate. While testing is disruptive, wildly unpopular, and known to distract school systems from the true mission of educating children, another viable accountability option would have to be brought forward to see the elimination of testing. In the meantime, there’s a real chance the testing could be limited and the scores used in a different way.

Wish lists. It is impossible to overstate the importance of public education, and everyone wants to leave their mark on the issue. Bob Casey (D-PA) seeks to provide universal pre-kindergarten and believes he can fund it by closing a corporate loophole allowing US companies to move part of their business overseas in order to become foreign corporations for tax purposes. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) will ask for more detailed background checks of all school personnel. Other lawmakers are sure to add their opinions and addendums to the bill.

In the words of John F Kennedy, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” Nothing short of the fate of our country rests upon the education we provide to its children. Let us insist that our lawmakers take this opportunity to make sound, effective, and significant improvements to our education system.

School Desegregation and Its Effect On Black Neighborhoods

In 2012, in her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, Condoleezza Rice talked about what life was like for her growing up in Birmingham, Alabama before and during desegregation. In it, she paints a very different picture from what is usually presented when you look into the history books. Condoleezza paints the picture of her life before desegregation as a middle class dream — complete with ballet class, music lessons, and charm school. She talks about a tight-knit Black community that was determined to make sure their children were well educated and prepared for a world that would be hostile towards them.

What’s often glanced over in history books is that many Black people opposed desegregation of schools. While most people’s view of the pro-segregationist is that of the White people we see in pictures, holding signs that say “Keep N—–s Out Of [Insert School Here],” there were many Black neighborhoods that weren’t eager to send their children off to school somewhere else.

A major downside to school integration is that it meant many schools in Black neighborhoods would be shut down. It seemed as if the majority of children being forced to move from one school to another were the Black students. In Tulsa, Oklahoma more Black students were being sent to predominantly White schools than White students were being sent to predominantly Black schools. This led to Carver Middle School being shut down for a year. As recently as 1997, well-performing but predominantly Black schools like Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky were in danger of being shut down because they didn’t have enough White students — due to geographic location — for the school to be considered properly integrated.

The experience of segregation wasn’t exactly the same from state to state after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and other laws desegregating public facilities, housing, private businesses, and more. In Los Angeles, California (as well as in many other Western and Northern states across the US) people of color — who were now free to live in any neighborhood they wanted — still preferred to live in neighborhoods largely populated by their own race, ethnicity or culture. Many Black people moved to the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, which, during the 60s and 70s, became the hub for African-Americans in the area.

This kind of segregation, known as de facto segregation, wasn’t illegal, but it meant that the schools in the Crenshaw district (and many others like it) had predominantly African-American students because the students living in those districts were predominantly African-American. It became the norm for school districts with this particular problem to employ busing as a means to desegregate these schools. Children in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles were bused out to the San Fernando Valley, at the time a majority-White area that was also a one hour bus trip each way for the children.

In 1981, the US Supreme Court halted the mandatory busing system stating that it was unconstitutional to enforce busing when the segregation in schools was unintentional — meaning it was based on where people chose to live, de facto segregation rather than de jure segregation.
Read more