by Félix Pérez
Amid state education funding woes, teacher shortages, the siphoning of public school funding to enrich voucher and charter school operators, and an education secretary who openly views public education with disdain, there were hopeful markers, stories and news this year that reminded advocates for students, public education and working families that hard-won progress still occurs.
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Here are are top 5 picks for hopeful stories and wins of 2017.
5. Americans really dislike Betsy DeVos.
By now most people know that Education Secretary DeVos called public education a “dead end” and that she has spent her entire adult life and vast family fortune seeking to take funding away from public schools to give it to charter and voucher schools. From her disastrous confirmation hearings (firearms should be allowed in schools to protect students from grizzly bears, was just one of her bizarre responses) to her first visit as education secretary to a voucher school in Florida that asks students with disabilities to waive their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to her misinformed praise of colleges and universities that serve Black students as “pioneers of school choice,” a remark that ignores the ugly realty that those colleges and universities were the only choice for African American students who were shut out of White-serving higher education institutions, DeVos has stumbled from one blunder to another. And her penchant for making ignorant and insulting remarks has been noticed beyond the education community. Only 28 percent of American voters said they had “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” views of DeVos, a school choice lobbyist who had no experience in public education when she took the job in February. Forty percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of her. Her dismal favorability among members of the Trump cabinet was outpaced only by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
4. Colorado school board ends voucher program.
Voters in Douglas County, elected a slate of four anti-private school voucher candidates in November, effectively killing the district’s voucher program. The candidates defeated a slate supported by the deep-pocketed Americans For Prosperity, a voucher advocacy group created and funded by the Koch brothers. Proving that elections have consequences, the newly constituted board, at a standing-room only meeting, voted this month, 6-0, to end the controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court. “Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann. The board’s vote is a resounding defeat for voucher proponents in Colorado and and across the country. “What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”
3. The US Supreme Court deals a setback to voucher proponents.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Missouri violated the constitutional rights of a church when it denied the church’s grant application for a new playground surface. But the court’s narrow ruling represents a setback for voucher proponents, who had sought to use the dispute to undermine state constitutional protections for public education and fuel the expansion of private school vouchers on a national scale. The 7-2 decision leaves intact the Missouri constitutional provision prohibiting state funding of religious actions and leaves undisturbed the similar provisions of 38 other states. These “no aid” provisions were enacted to protect public schools and have been applied for decades to ensure that resources for those schools were not diverted to private religious institutions. Reacting to the decision, Lily Eskelsen GarcÍa, a Utah elementary school teacher and National Education Association president, said:
We applaud the Supreme Court’s refusal to accept the invitation of voucher proponents to issue a broad ruling that could place in jeopardy the ability of states to protect their public education system by refusing to divert public school funding to private religious schools . . . State constitutional provisions and decades of precedent protect our public education system from voucher programs. The court’s ruling is a big setback for those who want to push voucher programs that take taxpayer dollars out of public schools to divert them to private religious schools.
2. State attorneys general keep Betsy DeVos in check.
If there’s one group that has made sure time and again that DeVos doesn’t overstep her legal limits, especially when it comes to student rights, it’s state attorney generals. It began in July, when 19 state attorneys general, led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, sued Secretary DeVos for rescinding federal protections designed to hold abusive for-profit colleges and career training programs accountable for cheating students and taxpayers out of billions of dollars in federal loans. The complaint alleges that DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education violated federal law by abruptly revoking the Borrower Defense Rule, meant to make schools financially responsible for fraud and forbid them from forcing students to resolve complaints outside court. The protections were to have gone into effect July 1, 2017. In May, DeVos announced the department was re-evaluating the Borrower Defense Rule. On June 14, the department announced its intent to delay large portions of the rule without soliciting, receiving or responding to any comment from any stakeholder or member of the public, and without engaging in a public deliberative process. Simultaneously, the department announced its intent to issue a new regulation to replace the rule.
Also in July, 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to Betsy DeVos on Wednesday, urging her to maintain the sexual assault reporting guidelines for college campuses currently found in Title IX. “We’re calling on Secretary DeVos to listen to law enforcement and trust survivors of sexual assault by keeping these protections in place and putting student safety first,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a press release.
The letter states, in part:
While we recognize that there is a great deal more that can be done to protect students and agree on the importance of ensuring that investigations are conducted fairly, a rushed, poorly-considered effort to roll back current policies sends precisely the wrong message to all students. Yet there is every indication that is exactly the approach your Department is taking.
This month, the state attorneys general of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts sued the Trump administration and DeVos for not granting loan relief to thousands of students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit schools that have closed. Their complaint, filed in in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia additionally alleges that DeVos’s Education Department unlawfully declared some of the student loans valid, leading to forced collections from students’ paychecks. California’s state attorney general filed a parallel complaint in the U.S. District of Northern California on behalf of 13,000 Corinthian students waiting for the federal government to forgive their loans.
“Tens of thousands of defaulted borrowers with pending applications for relief are seeing interest charged for the loans mount and their credit scores drop, and are often unable to get additional aid to return to school, said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman,” reported US News.
1. Senate Republicans forced to pull back attempt to repeal and replace Affordable Care Act.
Despite having control of the White House, the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans were unable to muster enough votes to pass a bill that would have done away with Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, admitting his party did not have enough votes, scrapped a vote in September on a repeal bill. The National Education Association, which represents 3 million educators nationwide, sent a letter to lawmakers on behalf of the 50 million students served by its members. It outlined educators’ concerns, including how the bill would cut funding for Medicaid, which provides health care coverage for 40 percent of all children and 60 percent of all children with disabilities. The bill would have resulted in 23 million people losing their health insurance and imperiled the health care of up to 16.5 million children who rely on the federal-state program.
Medicaid provides health coverage for 36 million children and $4 billion per year to schools for special needs students. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Medicaid reimburses schools for mental health care, vision and hearing screenings, diabetes and asthma management, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and more. Capping federal support for Medicaid will shift costs to the states, jeopardizing services essential for students to learn and thrive, especially those with disabilities. With the hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid expected, schools would have had to reduce the number of nurses, social workers, speech therapists, counselors, psychologists and physical therapists. For many children, schools are the primary point of entry to receiving needed health, social services and medical devices.