‘This Is the Reality I Go Home To’: Students at Virtual Town Hall Urge Educators to Talk About Race and Racism. Here Are Some Starting Points for Teachers
The 2020-21 school year will be unlike any other in history, with many students learning online from home, and with those who are in school wearing masks and taking other precautions against the coronavirus pandemic.
After an intense summer of protests for racial justice in response to high-profile incidents of Black people being killed and injured by police, students would like to see another difference at school this year: frank and honest conversations about race and racism.
It’s “insensitive” for teachers to gloss over race in class discussions and history lessons, Shanyce Taylor, a high school senior from Staten Island, New York, said during a recent Virtual Youth Town Hall where she was a panelist. “This is the reality a lot of our students go home to. This is the reality I go home to.”
“This is a big topic that kind of has to shake the table because this is not going away until everyone understands what’s going on,” she said. “And we can’t just keep ignoring it and passing it to the next generation because it’s only going to get worse as time progresses.”
The Aug. 26 town hall, attended by some 500 people and hosted by The 74 and America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports youth, was a chance for students from across the country to share their insights and advice for teachers and education leaders as the school year begins amid a pandemic and a nationwide movement for racial justice.
53% of Students at Youth Town Hall Report Schools Have Not Sought Their Opinions on Reopening. ‘Realize That We Are the Next Generation of Leaders,’ They Urge
Panelist Azariah “Z” Estes, a dual enrollment high school and college student from St. Louis, Missouri, has some simple advice for teachers: Start with yourself.
“Just research, keep yourself knowledgeable about it, especially for the white teachers that aren’t too sure how to approach the conversation, just keep yourself educated and knowledgeable and talk to someone who has experienced those types of things so that you can base it off their perspective and you’re not just basing it off the knowledge that you have received,” said Estes, who is currently taking community college courses online.
Although a majority of America’s public school students are people of color, the teaching force remains about 80 percent white. In an informal real-time poll, about a third of students attending the town hall said their schools never provided the opportunity to discuss race or racism, and another third said their schools “rarely” did so.
Paul Forbes, New York City Department of Education’s director of educational equity, anti-bias and diversity, said he was reluctant to share a list of resources from which people could cherry-pick books and lessons without meaningfully engaging with the issue of systemic racism. No book or resource is a “magic pill” that can replace hard conversations, he said.
“If we want to talk about creating a better tomorrow, … it’s imperative for our force, our profession, the teaching force, to be having these conversations in our classrooms,” whether in person or online, said Forbes, who runs implicit bias training sessions for educators in the nation’s largest school district. “With the challenges of a pandemic, now more than ever, we need to have these conversations and not just read a book, not just get a lesson plan but authentically, genuinely have these conversations.”
Forbes, who spoke to The 74 Thursday — a day after an athlete strike shut down the NBA and canceled games and practices in other professional sports in support of Black Lives Matter — said he’s hopeful this summer will spark meaningful change, if teachers take the opportunity that’s in front of them.
“There are so many on-ramps and entry points for us” to discuss race and civil rights, he said, such as the life of John Lewis, who died July 17 and was a teenager when he first wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. At age 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, whose 57th anniversary was marked Friday by a fresh civil rights demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial.
Lessons From a Global Reckoning: New York City’s Implicit Bias Workshop Goes Remote in the Shadow of Budget Cuts and the Spotlight of Black Lives Matter
Forbes recommended that teachers start with this reading list and compilation of anti-racist toolkits and the #FergusonSyllabus project, a crowdsourced list of news and opinion writing as well as movies, music and academic research. Over the summer, Forbes helped a group of white teachers create a book club, recommending that they read Wes Moore’s book The Other Wes Moore and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. The group also watched and discussed the documentary 13th and the movie American Son.
Here are some more resources to help teachers get started:
Books offer a good starting point for class discussions. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education researcher known for coining the term “culturally relevant pedagogy” in the 1990s, recommended authors Jacqueline Woodson and Angie Thomas. For younger children, she suggested Kenneth Braswell’s book Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside, which describes recent and historical protests for racial justice in kid-friendly terms.
“Anyone who really WANTS to teach about this topic will find no shortage of resources — online, in the literature, newspapers, etc.,” Ladson-Billings said in an email. She also recommended that teachers check out Teaching for Change and Teaching Tolerance.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, echoed some of Ladson-Billings’s suggestions and also recommended that educators visit Socialjusticebooks.org, which offers curated reading lists on a wide range of topics and resources for adults.
74 Interview: Researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings on Culturally Relevant Teaching, the Role of Teachers in Trump’s America & Lessons From Her Two Decades in Education Research
Teaching Tolerance is a project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center that publishes a print and digital magazine for educators and provides lesson plans, social justice standards to guide curriculum development and make schools more equitable, professional development and training for teachers and other resources. The site has a page dedicated to resources for race and ethnicity that includes lesson plans, webinars, articles for students and adults and more.
Facing History and Ourselves provides history lesson plans, professional development for teachers and other content with the mission of using “lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.” The content is relevant even to teachers who don’t explicitly focus on history, said Laura Tavares, a program director there.
“I think there’s a really strong argument to be made that all teachers need to be students of history to understand how did we get to this moment, to understand the ways that race and racism, ideas about race and racism, have really influenced the institution of schooling itself,” she said. That awareness can help teachers “show up for our students, not just with the curriculum we teach but also in the way that we foster equitable and inclusive climates and practices in our schools.”
Tavares recommends that teachers start with these sections of Facing History’s site:
- Facing Yourself, Facing the Past, Facing the Present, an online workshop for educators. (The course is closed now, but Tavares said it will be offered again.)
- Back to School 2020, a collection of ideas for starting the school year, including prompts for teacher self-reflection and activities for establishing a classroom community that’s conducive to learning and social-emotional development.
- The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy, a classroom unit.
- Current Events in Your Classroom, a collection of teaching ideas and strategies for addressing current events with students.
At the town hall, Taylor, the Staten Island senior, noted that teachers often share the classroom with a strong source of information: their students. Her school held conversations over Google Meet this summer for students to talk about their thoughts on the protests and riots.
“We had to school some teachers on a lot of things they didn’t know,” Taylor said.
Watch highlights from the town hall:
A Time of Reckoning for Race & Education in America: 5 Case Studies in How Students and School Leaders Are Pushing for Culturally Relevant Curriculum Amid the Pandemic
The town hall highlighting the perspectives of American youth was sponsored by Pure Edge, Inc., a foundation that equips educators and learners with strategies for combating stress and developing social, emotional and academic competencies, and Sanford Harmony/National University System, which is focused on building supportive learning communities where all students feel connected, valued, and heard through social and emotional learning.
Disclosure: Carnegie Corporation of New York and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to America’s Promise Alliance and The 74.
Majority of Americans Give Trump a Failing Grade on Education Policy Ahead of Re-election Bid, PDK Poll Finds
As President Donald Trump makes his case for re-election and the nation confronts a school system in disarray, the results of a new poll taken in the early days of the pandemic show a majority of Americans giving him a failing grade on key education issues.
While 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance on education policy, there’s a clear partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats, according to the national public opinion poll, which was released on Tuesday by PDK International, a professional association for educators. While 86 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s education performance, just 11 percent of Democrats agreed. Nearly half of independents gave a nod of approval to Trump, who accepted the GOP’s nomination for a second term on Monday on the first day of the Republican National Convention.
In the fourth year of their first terms, disapproval ratings were less stark for former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. In a Gallup poll at the time, 43 percent of voters disapproved of Obama’s education performance; 45 percent said the same of Bush in a similar ABC News/Washington Post poll.
But this year’s PDK poll, the 52nd annual iteration, comes with a major caveat: It was conducted in March 2020, just as the pandemic began to close schools nationwide. The findings suggest a subtle shift in Americans’ opinions on education policies — rather than a sudden, pandemic-induced shock. But Joshua Starr, PDK’s CEO, predicted that Trump’s approval rating on education has only deteriorated since schools shuttered in the spring and people saw “what a disastrous response to COVID has meant for public schools.” As the new academic year begins, the Trump administration has pushed districts to reopen campuses for in-person learning while some parents and many teachers unions have challenged the safety of such a move.
“One thing we’re seeing at the local level is, the absence of a national strategy for COVID mitigation, testing, etc., has resulted in schools not being able to open physically,” Starr told The 74. “That could have been avoided and is something that people — rightfully so — lay at the president’s feet.”
Even before the pandemic, 6 in 10 respondents — and 7 in 10 parents — said public education plays an important role in how they plan to vote come November. Among Black respondents, 79 percent said the president’s performance on education is key to their vote, as did 71 percent of Latinos. Just 52 percent of white voters agreed.
Starr was skeptical that many voters will cast their ballots based primarily on the candidates’ education platforms because the issue “never looms that large in national elections,” yet he acknowledged that the partisan battle over school closures and the pandemic could generate a sense of heightened urgency.
A nationally representative sample of 1,030 adults, including more than 200 parents with school-age children, participated in PDK’s online survey. Digging deeper into the nuts and bolts, a whopping 85 percent said the federal government should place a greater emphasis on attracting and retaining quality teachers, and 77 percent wanted to see more effort on making college more affordable.
The survey was also conducted before George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May, igniting a fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Still, more than two-thirds of respondents said they favor a greater federal focus on protecting students from discrimination in school. While 90 percent of Black and 77 percent of Latino respondents favored a greater emphasis on combating discrimination, just 62 percent of whites agreed. Among Democrats, 85 percent favored greater attention being paid to discrimination, as did about half of Republicans.
As a Racial Reckoning Sweeps the Nation, Parents Still Await a ‘Rallying Cry’ to Change How Race and History Are Taught in Schools
“More and more white people who previously did not seem to be very aware of the racial issues and the institutional racism that exists in our schools are more likely to be aware of those issues now than ever before,” Starr said.
Meanwhile, just 38 percent said they want to see the Trump administration focus more energy on expanding the number of charter schools. Roughly half of Republicans favor a greater federal focus on expanding charters, compared with just 29 percent of Democrats.
But for the 19th straight year, respondents said a lack of money is the biggest issue that their public schools face. With the pandemic already spurring an economic crisis, education leaders have warned of devastating cuts to school budgets.
“We know that state and local coffers will be decimated by the economic collapse that we’ve had during COVID,” Starr said, adding a prediction that the public will put a greater emphasis on school funding in the years to come. “People want more money going to public schools, no matter how you slice that data.”
‘We’ve Got a Real Crisis’: Half of U.S. Teachers Have Considered Leaving Profession, PDK Poll Finds
Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary Faces New Charges in Fraud Case, ‘Special Assistant’ Takes Plea Deal
Updated August 21
Puerto Rico’s embattled former education secretary, Julia Keleher, has been slapped with new federal charges including wire fraud, identity theft and bribery in a high-profile government corruption case that stems from her tenure at the helm of the island’s public school system.
The new charges come three months after Keleher’s former “special assistant” accepted a plea deal in the case.
The new charges offer greater insight into a case that began in July 2019, when Keleher was arrested on allegations that she participated in a conspiracy to steer millions of dollars in government contracts to people with whom she had personal ties. The new superseding indictment, filed on Aug. 10, alleges that Keleher disclosed confidential documents — including names and other personnel information from more than 6,000 Puerto Rico school employees — to help an outside company secure an education department contract related to curricular and administrative restructuring. The indictment identifies the outside firm as “Company A,” whose president is Keleher’s “close friend.”
Complicated Crusader to Accused Federal Conspirator: Ex-Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher’s ‘Surreal’ Journey
Separately, the new allegations add greater detail to a “sham selection process scheme” to steer an Education Department contract to Colón & Ponce, a company run by the sister of Keleher’s ex-assistant. Glenda and Mayra Ponce — the assistant and her sister — reached deals with prosecutors in May and pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy. In exchange, prosecutors will recommend to the court that other charges against them be dropped, according to court documents.
Keleher was Puerto Rico’s education secretary from January 2017 until her resignation in April 2019. Less than a year into the job, Puerto Rico’s schools were devastated by Hurricane Maria, and Keleher seized on the tragedy to close hundreds of schools and usher in new education reforms, including charter schools and private school vouchers. Those reforms — and her unusually high salary of $250,000 a year — were the subject of fierce condemnation.
In total, the first indictment accused Keleher and five others — including the Ponce sisters and the former head of Puerto Rico’s health insurance administration — of schemes to direct more than $15 million in contracts through corrupted bidding, rather than fair and transparent processes.
Exclusive: Ex-Puerto Rico Schools Chief Julia Keleher, Indicted in Corruption Probe, Previously Denied She Was Federal Target
In a separate indictment, from January, federal prosecutors accused Keleher of offering up public school land in exchange for help buying a luxury apartment in San Juan.
Keleher has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Maria Dominguez, Keleher’s attorney, declined to comment, citing a gag order that prevents her from discussing the case. An attorney for Mayra Ponce didn’t respond to a request for comment. Attorney Juan Matos de Juan, who represents Glenda Ponce, declined to comment on the specifics of his client’s plea deal, citing attorney-client privilege.
“I can tell you that whatever is [in] the plea agreement is true,” he said. He denied that Glenda Ponce’s plea prompted additional charges against Keleher. His client is “an extremely small fish in that lake,” he said, and the allegations against her are “a totally different level” than those that Keleher faces.
How Supreme Court’s Recent ‘Bridgegate’ Decision Figures Into Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary’s Defense in Fraud Case
As Keleher’s “special assistant” at the department, Glenda Ponce is accused of collaborating with Keleher to secure a government contract for Ponce’s sister through a corrupted bidding process, according to the indictment. Then, according to the latest indictment, Keleher “did corruptly solicit and demand” Colón & Ponce to subcontract education department work to “Individual C,” who was the campaign manager for a 2016 gubernatorial candidate. In exchange, Keleher increased the Colón & Ponce contract by $50,000, according to court records.
The latest indictment also names a new defendant, accountant Aníbal Jover, the former president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Certified Public Accountants, who faces wire fraud charges related to allegedly corrupted contracting between the island’s health insurance administration and a managing partner at the accounting firm BDO.
Attend Our Student Town Hall Aug. 26: The 74 and America’s Promise Alliance Join Forces to Host Youth Forum on Reopening School Amid the Pandemic and Movement for Racial Justice
Dozens of students from across the country will gather in a virtual town hall Aug. 26 to discuss reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing movement for racial justice. The event is a partnership between The 74 and America’s Promise Alliance to elevate student voices in the national conversation.
The free event will feature six student panelists from across the United States who will share their insights and advice for school leaders about reopening amid the pandemic, involving students in school decision-making and how schools should provide opportunities to learn about race and racism. There will also be time for other students to share their insights about how the pandemic has affected them and how educators and schools should respond.
The discussion will address questions such as: What are young people thinking and feeling about starting the year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic after a spring of disrupted learning? How have the pandemic and school closures exacerbated racial tensions and created greater urgency for addressing racism in school? What advice can young people share with school leaders in this unprecedented moment?
The town hall will start at 2 p.m. ET Aug. 26 on Zoom.
- Middle and high school students, sign up here to participate in the town hall.
- School leaders, educators and other youth-supporting adults, sign up here.
America’s Promise Alliance is a nonprofit organization that brings together other national nonprofits, businesses, community and civic leaders, educators, citizens and young people to amplify the voices of American youth and catalyze change.
The 74 is a nonprofit digital news site covering education in America with an emphasis on equity. See The 74’s rolling coverage of how the coronavirus is affecting students, families and schools across the country.
Pandemic Notebook: 13 Students Across America Write About COVID-19, Their Disrupted School Year and the Disorienting New Normal
This town hall highlighting the perspectives of American youth is sponsored by Pure Edge, Inc., a foundation that equips educators and learners with strategies for combating stress and developing social, emotional and academic competencies, and Sanford Harmony/National University System, which is focused on building supportive learning communities where all students feel connected, valued, and heard through social and emotional learning.
Disclosure: Carnegie Corporation of New York and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to America’s Promise Alliance and The 74.
NYC Teachers Union Issues New School Safety Checklist and Coronavirus Testing Demands, Warns Nation’s Top District Not Ready to Reopen on Schedule
Updated Aug. 20
The United Federation of Teachers announced a new school reopening safety checklist Wednesday that New York City schools must satisfy before teachers are comfortable returning to the classroom. The union also called for antibody and COVID-19 testing for staff and students.
Union president Michael Mulgrew said any school that doesn’t pass the criteria and complete the new “health and safety” report, which spotlights 13 key areas of classroom and campus operations, must open remotely. He then warned that if the city tries to impose in-person learning at any school deemed unsafe by the UFT, the union may move forward with suing the city or authorizing its members to strike. (Under the state’s “Taylor Law,” a strike could lead to the fining of teachers as well as Mulgrew’s imprisonment.)
Mulgrew also said he sees no way that America’s largest school district will be ready to reopen as scheduled in 22 days.
“We don’t believe it is possible for schools to open on September 10th,” he said in response to a question about the feasibility of testing all students and staff for either antibodies or COVID-19 prior to the start of school.
“Even without the testing piece, it is our judgment at this point — as well as the principals union — if you open schools on September 10th, it might be one of the biggest debacles in the history of the city.”
The new safety checklist was created with input from medical experts and community stakeholders, who appeared with Mulgrew during Wednesday’s livestreamed press conference.
“We cannot turn our schools into a biological research facility, where we are asked to expose our children to dangers we cannot measure at this time,” said human rights activist Rev. Kirsten John Foy. “It is time for us to assess where we are, building by building, facility by facility. It is time to instill in parents the confidence that they need, with data and a plan of action.”
Other panelists included the deputy chief medical officer of Northwell Health; Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health; Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference; Gloria Corsino, co-president of the Citywide Council on Special Education, Randi Weingarten, AFT president; and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Click below to see the full checklist:
The health and safety report outlines three phases that each principal must tackle. The first, “Supplies,” addresses whether the school’s ventilation mitigates the risk of spread and whether the school has sufficient PPE and cleaning supplies to keep staff and students safe.
The second phase, “Procedures,” dives into whether or not the school has a “building response team,” composed of a school nurse, a custodial engineer and school safety agents. It also asks whether entry and dismissal protocols have been established for staff and students, about visitor protocols for parents, deliveries and contractors, and about dining protocols.
Third, the plan addresses testing and screening protocols. Each school community should participate in intermittent, random testing, after all staff and students are initially tested for COVID-19 or antibodies.
Exclusive: NYC Teachers Union Launches Its Own Investigation of School Building Air Quality Amid COVID Threat, UFT President Says
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson attended Wednesday’s press conference and said he supported the union’s proposal. “The sounds of nonstop ambulance sirens are still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers,” he said. “Safety must come first, and that means delaying in-person schooling until appropriate safety measures are not just talked about but are actually implemented.
“This is about getting to a place to open schools, not about throwing up obstacles. My hope is that New York City will be a model for the rest of the country to show folks that we can do this safely.”
Later in the day, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s press secretary tweeted video of his reaction to the UFT announcement during a school visit. “We care more about kids and parents than these games,” de Blasio said, deriding Mulgrew’s press conference as a “provocation.” He also appeared to remain adamant about the reopening timeline for the city’s schools: “We’ve been working in good faith with the unions for months … We are [going to] keep moving forward to get schools ready for our kids.”
The Florida Education Association and the state go to mediation Tuesday over the union’s challenge to an order reopening schools for in-person learning.
On Friday, a circuit court judge in Leon County turned down a motion from the state to dismiss the case. The union filed the lawsuit in late July, after Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran stipulated that students and teachers must return to school buildings for the new academic year. Parents are allowed to opt out, and districts are offering virtual learning models to accommodate them.
Corcoran joined President Donald Trump last week at an event highlighting families and teachers who favor in-person learning. Corcoran called the union “disgraceful” and said teachers want to be in the classroom.
“Even if they have an underlying condition, they want to be back, and that’s what we’re seeing in Florida,” he said. “And when we get to Aug. 31 — all the districts open up — we’re going to have probably 70 to 80 percent of students in face-to-face options, and we’ll have more than that percentage in teachers in the classroom with their students. And there’s just no substitute for it.”
The state has threatened to withhold funding for students not in the classroom. Last week, Hillsborough County Public Schools — which had tried to delay the start of in-person attendance for a month — reduced remote learning to one week in the face of resistance from the state.
In the union lawsuit, hearings are set for Wednesday and Thursday should mediation fail. The union argues that rates of positive coronavirus test results are still above the threshold of 5 percent for a two-week period that public health experts recommend. They note that cases among children are increasing and that other states, such as Georgia, have had to close classrooms and quarantine students and staff members soon after reopening.
Also on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said cases of COVID-19 among children “have been steadily increasing” since March and were probably low initially, compared with adults, because schools shut down. Hospitalizations among children are also increasing, the CDC report said.
“Comparing trends in pediatric infections before and after the return to in-person school and other activities may provide additional understanding about infections in children,” the CDC said.
This analysis is published in partnership with TexasTribune.org.
During a pandemic, an economic recession and public protests against racial injustice and police violence, it’s hard to say what Texas voters will be thinking about in this year’s election. Here’s a candidate: reopening schools.
Public schools in Texas are getting ready to open. That might be the most important thing on the Texas political calendar this year.
In some districts, like Collin County’s Celina ISD, high school football players have already reported for the annual agony of August two-a-day workouts. Classes there and in some other districts start in a couple of weeks. Like other districts, they’ve tried to adjust to the pandemic. Parents can opt for virtual instruction if they’d rather not have their kids in schoolhouses. (Not every class will be offered virtually. One listed exception on Celina ISD’s website is welding, which ought to be a relief to the fire department.)
Elsewhere, plans for opening are more cautious. In the Fort Worth ISD and Hays CISD, for instance, virtual and in-person classes — parents’ choice — won’t start until after Labor Day.
Other districts are considering similar postponements, as they work on their preparations for online and in-person learning with a contagious disease in the air.
The Pandemic Is Breaking the Bonds Between Texas Families and Their Beloved Public Schools: Why Some Are Stepping Off the Reopening Roller Coaster and Unenrolling
The results of this statewide lab experiment with 5.5 million student subjects will come in quickly, as Texas educators and parents find out what’s safe for the kids they’re trying to educate during a pandemic.
Everybody wants it to work. If there is a reasonably safe way to put kids back in classes without risking their health or the health of families and school workers, it would be a huge break after the first discouraging months of the coronavirus.
It would be good for the students. It would free parents who have been unable to return to their workplaces because their kids have been at home. It would mark a big step in the direction of whatever is going to be normal after all of this.
And it would be a significant victory for politicians who have been responding to the pandemic and the recession — especially the ones on the November ballot.
The timing has put those candidates — incumbents, challengers and those seeking open seats — in the spotlight.
They’ll be judged, in part, by what happens to those students. And it will happen — good news, bad news or no news at all — as more voters turn their attention to the elections, the candidates and the issues.
The experience in schools will be a proxy for the coronavirus, the most tangible evidence yet of the national, state and local government responses to the pandemic.
It’s a variation on what happens when the economy is suffering, when people “vote their wallets.” Personal experience can trump ideology, party and other issues. Voters looking for change — in an economy, in a response to a pandemic, whatever — can be hard on incumbents or anyone they see as an obstacle to relief.
Safely getting Texas students back to school — virtually or actually — could be the best evidence between now and the election that official responses to the pandemic are working. There are other ways to measure the COVID-19 responses, if they appear in that same time frame, like development of a vaccine, or big drops in the alarming numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Those might happen. Public education will be in the mix no matter what. The schools open or they don’t. They stay open or they don’t. They’re safe or they’re not. Online learning is effective or disappointing, as is in-person learning in this environment. So many complications will affect public perception of what happens in the schools: education, health, transportation, food services, janitorial services, policing and so on.
It’s not just the kids. Public education is the largest employer in many Texas communities. Its biggest single source of funding is local property taxes, a singularly unpopular and politically charged way to raise money.
The obstacles to success are numerous. And for the political class, all of that is compounded by the timing of a big election that starts, with early voting, less than three months from now.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
With Nation Focused on Reopening Schools, Biden’s Choice of Kamala Harris as Running Mate Could Renew Attention on Integration
Their heated exchange over school busing during a Democratic presidential debate last year was one of the more dramatic moments of the primary season. But now former vice president Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris share the ticket and could make education a more defining issue in their effort to unseat President Donald Trump.
The question is whether integration — or any other K-12 issue — can figure into the campaign while grappling with the coronavirus is dominating the education conversation in this country.
Between now and the election, Harris’s past record as a prosecutor, along with the education proposals she presented as a presidential candidate, will be closely examined as both supporters and opponents look for indications of how the candidates will address contentious issues including campus police, choice and improving school quality.
Being Biden’s running mate will “test her seriousness about the segregation issue” at a time when the pandemic has “radically exacerbated achievement gaps,” said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist whose recent research shows increasing racial isolation for children in preschool and elementary school. “Taking a potshot at Biden while trying to win over the left wing [was] in part a tactic, but that’s different than long-term work on an intractable issue.”
During that June 2019 debate, Harris alluded to Biden’s comments about finding common ground with U.S. “senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country” and personalized the event by talking about her experience as part of a school busing program.
Tyrone Howard, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Black Male Institute, said he would like the campaign to focus on the quality of schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods, where most students are not selected for magnet schools and other integration programs.
As a former prosecutor and California attorney general, Harris doesn’t have a background in education. But during a National Education Association presidential candidate forum last summer, she promised to fully fund special education, nominate an education secretary with experience in public schools, and focus on ending gun violence. As a presidential candidate, she proposed to increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 a year.
Harris’s tough position on truancy as San Francisco’s district attorney — which led to the arrests of some parents — also received attention during her run for the nomination.
“She’s going to have to backpedal a bit from her prosecutorial stance in the school domain,” Howard said, adding that “there’s got to be a softer, more sympathetic tone toward parents” hit hard by the pandemic.
Yumeka Rushing, chief strategy officer for the NAACP, added that parents and educators want to hear what the candidates will do to help schools recover from the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is crippling our education systems, and so is poor leadership and decision-making that puts politics before people,” she said. “States need more federal funding to meet the needs of education systems. Education systems need states to direct resources to schools. Schools need to focus on the supports kids need now to realize their potential — and those supports look different in crisis.”
Those interested in what a Biden administration would do on issues such as accountability and school choice, however, aren’t too impressed, and they view Harris as closely aligned with the teachers unions. “It’s hard to see much of a silver lining for education reformers,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
As a prosecutor, Harris sued for-profit online charter chain K12 Inc. over false advertising and unfair business practices. During the primaries, she wasn’t as hard on charter schools as some of her opponents, but it’s unclear whether that topic will resurface.
Steve Zimmerman, former director of the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools and now the executive director of Academy of the City Charter School in Queens, New York, said Biden and Harris have nothing to gain by staking out an anti-charter position.
For them, “What comes first right now is winning the election and not finding new ways to divide the electorate,” he said.
‘The Kamala Harris of the present’
As she has called herself California’s “top cop,” Harris’s career as a prosecutor could play into the conversation over police in schools at a time when several major school districts have cut ties with law enforcement agencies and protests over racial discrimination and the murder of George Floyd continue in cities like Chicago and Portland.
Fuller notes that her background could appeal to the “center of the party,” but Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said he doesn’t expect Biden-Harris to take a moderate position on those issues.
“There’s the Kamala Harris of the past and now the Kamala Harris of the present,” he said, adding that issues related to law enforcement, including school police, are especially polarized. The Republican ticket “is very strongly pro-police. The Biden-Harris ticket can be expected to lean more heavily to the other extreme.”
Enforcing Mask Mandates in Schools Becomes Sticking Point as Students Return to Campus While Pandemic Rages
The national spat over face masks — which have become a symbol of divisive partisanship in the pandemic era — has officially reached the schoolhouse gate. As some students return to in-person learning after months of campus closures, a viral photograph has turned a Georgia high school into the latest culture war battlefield.
The photo, which shows a crowded hallway and many students without face coverings, prompted outrage on social media, and several students say they were suspended. But the students told Buzzfeed News they got in trouble for using their cell phones to post pictures of the crammed campus on social media, not for refusing to wear a mask.
The incident highlights a difficult question that school administrators face as students return to school amid a slew of new health recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages students and teachers to wear masks at school, and many states require them — but should schools discipline students who fail to follow public health mandates?
“There is no question that the photo does not look good,” Brian Otott, the superintendent of Georgia’s Paulding County School District, said in a letter. Although the district encourages students to wear masks on campus, it isn’t a requirement. “Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.”
The photos — and Otott’s refusal to enforce a mask policy — were met with derision by some on social media. Several Twitter users ridiculed the district for its stance on face masks while enforcing a dress code policy whereby students, and girls in particular, can be punished for wearing shirts without sleeves.
But Caroline Durham, the legal and policy director of the social justice group Georgia Appleseed, pushed back on instincts to punish children who refuse to wear masks. Students are more likely to fall behind if they’re excluded from school, she said, and suspending students is “one of the first steps of a child going down what they call the school-to-prison pipeline.”
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“The question is, how do we deal with children who can’t weigh the risk of COVID [or] may not understand the significance of wearing masks?” she said. Rather than focusing energy on discipline, she said, schools should spend their time teaching students about the importance of safety precautions, especially at a time when the face mask debate is so fraught among adults. “If you suspend a child, if you expel a child for behavior they perhaps don’t fully understand, you’re impacting the education that they’re going to get at a time where things are already challenging.”
The issue is also unfolding outside Georgia as cities resume in-person instruction. In New York City, Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced plans to send students home if they refuse to wear masks in class once in-person learning begins in September. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that New York schools could reopen for in-person learning in the fall.
“If you don’t cooperate, you have now elected for remote learning 100 percent until you are willing to follow the safety protocols,” Carranza said, according to Chalkbeat. Students who are sent home won’t be suspended and will be able to participate in remote learning, a district spokesperson told the news outlet, but it remains unclear how officials plan to confront children who refuse to leave. A Department of Education spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In several Iowa cities, including Des Moines, education leaders have imposed their own rules on masks. But Iowa’s education department has declined to instate similar rules statewide because enforcing them could be difficult. In South Carolina, state officials issued a mask mandate for students but declined to impose disciplinary measures for students who don’t comply.
“We’re not putting it in the student conduct, disciplinary matrix,” a South Carolina Department of Education spokesman told The Greenville News. “We don’t want to see it be used to get law enforcement involved or anything of that nature. We’re really counting on people to take this on as a personal responsibility.”
After a summer in which school districts nationwide have reconsidered placing police in schools, officers said they don’t want to enforce mask mandates either. Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said during the group’s national conference last week that enforcing mask rules lands outside the scope of officers’ duty.
“I believe this falls into the arena of the school administration to handle and that [school-based police] should be the responsible adults setting the good example,” he said during the virtual event. “I hope that’s the way that we’re all approaching it. That’s where we preach the issue of ‘don’t get involved in school discipline.’”
Police officers outside the school setting are also reluctant to enforce mask rules, according to a recent survey by Lexipol, a company that sells police policy manuals. Just 3 percent of officers who responded to the survey said they should issue fines to people who refuse to wear masks in public.
Cities have also had to grapple with how to enforce mask mandates. In Denver, for example, officials imposed steep fines for residents who refuse to follow public health guidelines. Children over the age of 3 are required to wear face masks in public spaces, and people who refuse could be fined up to $999 or jailed for up to 300 days.
However, the city has focused primarily on education about the importance of wearing face masks during the pandemic, and officials have said enforcement will be reserved for “truly egregious situations.”
President Donald Trump took action over the weekend to extend unemployment benefits, suspend payroll taxes, prevent evictions and freeze federal student loan payments. But his impatience with Democrats in negotiations over another pandemic relief bill leaves K-12 schools out for now.
“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to hold this vital assistance hostage on behalf of very extreme partisan demands and the radical-left Democrats, and we just can’t do that,” the president said about the House speaker and the Senate minority leader in a press briefing Saturday.
K-12 policy analysts fear that because Trump’s orders addressed the major issues dividing Republicans and Democrats, there’s less urgency to pass another relief package.
“Passing something on unemployment has been the issue that has kept them negotiating,” said Danny Carlson, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “With that taken care of … funding for schools would be left on the cutting room floor.”
And Rep. Bobby Scott, R-Va., who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, said the president’s freeze on student loan payments doesn’t cover as many borrowers and wouldn’t last as long as the relief in the Democrats’ Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions — or HEROES — Act.
“Our education system is facing serious challenges that cannot be solved by an executive order,” he said in a statement. “The Trump administration’s failed response to this pandemic has already robbed students of all ages of the education and growth they deserve.”
Democrats also contend that the president’s move to defer payroll tax obligations hurts Social Security and, without congressional approval, might be illegal. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, suggested that Trump’s order that states pay $100 of a $400-a-week employment benefit could lead to teacher layoffs.
“The executive actions raise serious legal issues and may not withstand legal challenge,” he wrote. “Nor is it clear that the administration actually can implement them — in particular, that it can secure the funding and use the funds as the executive actions direct.”
Another major point of debate is that the Democrat’s’ $3 trillion HEROES Act, which the House passed in May, includes $900 billion in flexible funding for states and local governments to offset declines in tax revenue.
State education leaders and advocacy organizations have said that additional funding for state and local governments will help protect education budgets. Recent research confirms that during the Great Recession, there was a decline in the percentage of state funding going to education.
But Trump argues that funding for states is unrelated to the virus.
“What they really want is bailout money for states that are run by Democrat governors and mayors, and that have been run very badly for many, many years -— and many decades, in fact,” he said at the briefing.
The Senate Republicans’ $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools Act doesn’t include such funding. While it does propose $70 billion for K-12 schools, two-thirds of that amount would be contingent “on meeting certain opening requirements and other criteria.”
In a tweet, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, suggested that negotiations over another recovery bill should continue.
“Democrats should stop blocking common sense proposals to help students going back to school & college & parents going back to work who need child care,” he wrote.