One of Betsy DeVos' ten yachts was unmoored in Lake Erie last week.
I have a hard time believing Ed. Secretary Betsy DeVos has much empathy for the so-called “little guy”. While families are losing everything they own in this world to wild fires in California, and people are being evacuated from their homes in Pennsylvania due to flooding, Ms. DeVos’ main headache at the moment is someone unmooring her $40 million yacht last week from its dock on Lake Erie. Not that I begrudge anyone success, but it would make me feel a bit more charitable if DeVos’ policies were geared more to helping those at the lower end of the income scale. For former Obama Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan the yacht fiasco was a perfect metaphor for the department’s policies under DeVos – adrift. "For me that sort of represents where they are in terms of education policy," Duncan said. "There isn’t one. The policy is adrift. There's nothing out there of substance."
I personally don’t think “adrift” is an accurate description. It seems to me DeVos knows precisely what she’s doing, and not all of it is good. Two weeks ago in a blog entitled, “Look for the helpers”, I wrote about how recent reversals in Obama-era protections for students are de rigueur at the department. This week we’ll take a closer look at what’s going on with student loans.
Last month DeVos announced a proposal due to go into effect in 2019 that would reverse Obama administration policies which made it easier for students to get loan forgiveness on debt incurred from enrollment at for-profit colleges that knowingly deceived and mislead attendees with false advertising. The new proposal would leave student borrowers without protection by changing debt relief rules.
Under the “borrower defense to repayment” statute, students were given an easier way to file for debt relief from for-profit schools that engaged in predatory practices like touting unrealistic claims on job prospects after graduation. DeVos’ new policy will make it more difficult for borrowers to file such claims. The burden will fall on students to prove that the school intentionally defrauded them. Another option would be to go into default before being allowed to file for loan forgiveness. The proposal also eliminates a ban on mandatory arbitration clauses, which allowed students to take a school to court. Even worse, students will no longer be able to make group filings and would have to file individually.
Another change that has happened under DeVos is that unlike the Obama administration, which fully forgave the debts, the Trump administration has only been granting partial forgiveness. Forgiveness of debt is being based on how much a graduate earns in comparison to others in similar jobs. If it’s less than 50% then their debt is fully forgiven.
“All these things together add up to a rule that is shifting the liability for bad actions from bad actor schools to students,” says Clare McCann, former senior Education Department policy adviser under Obama. “It seems to be about letting schools off the hook for their actions and leaving students to shoulder the debt.”
Some other changes that have occurred:
Death and Disability Student Loan Discharge *
Under the Trump tax plan tax liability will be eliminated on student loans discharged due to death or disability. This went into effect in January of 2018. This change seems to be a fair one but is set to expire in 2025.
Tuition and Fees Deduction
This deduction has been eliminated under the Trump tax plan. Previously it allowed borrowers to reduce taxable income by up to $4,000.
More proposed changes:
Eliminating Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
PSLF is one of the number one ways to currently get loan forgiveness. This program grants loan forgiveness after ten years if the borrower has worked in a public sector job, such as with a state or federal agency or a not-for-profit organization. Trump called for defunding this program in his 2018 budget. He is bringing it up again for 2019.
Subsidized Student Loans
These loans go to students with financial need. In addition, under these loans the government pays the interest accrued while the student is in school. If the administration eliminates these loans it will be more expensive for those with financial need to borrow.
Income-Driven Repayment Plan
The administration wants to move to a single income-driven repayment plan as opposed to several plans that exist now. Monthly payments would be capped at 12.5% of income. Student loan forgiveness would happen after 15 years for undergrads and 30 years for graduate students. This proposal has pluses and minuses. For some borrowers 12.5% would be an increase, and the 30 year term is also longer than it is currently. For others 12.5% would be more favorable and the 15 year term could benefit undergraduates.
After 1998 student loans could not be discharged in bankruptcy unless undue hardship was evident. In many cases, undue hardship is difficult to prove. DeVos’ Ed. Department is looking to define undue hardship. The change could help some people, but it could also make loans more expensive.
The Trump tax plan originally would have eliminated the student loan interest deduction. The deduction stayed in the final version. The jury is still out on whether this deduction is beneficial or simply costs tax payers money.
Almost 45 million Americans have student loan debt totalling almost $1.5 trillion. To them and their families this is not a trivial matter. America's students would be well-served if Betsy DeVos would get her bearings and set student loan policies on a straight course.
*Source material: The College Invester: Trump Student Loan Forgiveness Changes and Proposals. July 23, 2018
posted by Amy Levengood
Paul Eaken, contributor
I haven’t seen the current film about Fred Rogers, but I’m reminded of a story he often related about advice his mother gave him when something terrible or catastrophic happened in the world. She would say, “Always look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Betsy DeVos is not a helper-at least not to the average American. In fact what she’s done since she took over at the helm at the Department of Education has been a whole lot of harm. Here are a few recent examples that deserve our attention.
Rescinding Obama-era School Discipline Guidance:
The guidance was meant to prevent schools from disproportionately punishing minorities. This particular guidance dates from 2014 and clarifies how schools should interpret civil rights laws to make sure schools aren’t discriminating. The guidance recommends the disciplinary tactics like expulsions and suspensions should be scaled back if certain groups of students are receiving harsher punishment than others. In March after the Parkland shooting, when Trump asked DeVos to lead a Federal Commission on School Safety, part of the commission’s mandate involved revisiting the Obama policies. Administration critics of the guidance argue it makes schools less safe to keep disruptive students in the classroom. Other groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) see the guidance as key to protecting vulnerable minority populations which are frequently pushed out of school as a result of disciplinary action.
Title IX Guidelines:
I wrote about this last year in a blog entitled, “Dear Colleagues”, so I won’t elaborate here. At the time, DeVos released new Title IX guidelines that replaced Obama administration requirements about fighting sexual misconduct on college campuses. Organizations like the National Women’s Law Center complained, saying that DeVos’ actions protected a culture of sexual violence on college campuses rather than protecting the victims.
Team Investigating Abuses by For-profit Colleges:
Members of this team under the U.S. Dept. of Education have recently been re-assigned or instructed to focus on other issues. What this has done is essentially stopped investigations into abuses by the for-profit colleges. Many of the investigations involve schools where some of DeVos’ appointees once worked. What the team was tasked with looking at were advertising, recruitment practices, and job placement claims on the part of the schools. One institution being examined was DeVry Education Group. In fact, the DeVry investigation stalled when DeVos named Julian Schmoke as the investigative team’s supervisor. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry. Many of the institutions that were under scrutiny are accused of misrepresenting enrollment benefits, job placement rates, and program offerings. Leading the charge against shutting down the inquiries was Senator Elizabeth Warren who said, “Secretary DeVos has filled the department with for-profit college hacks who only care about making sham schools rich and shutting down investigations into fraud.” This leads directly into the next category.
Gainful Employment Rule:
Secretary DeVos has been delaying the Gainful Employment Rule’s disclosure requirements. The requirements compel relevant educational institutions to provide prospective students with accurate information about educational programs, including total cost, average debt load, student loan default rate, and average earnings of program graduates. The requirements are supposed to prevent aggressive and deceptive marketing and are supposed to be provided to students in promotional materials prior to that student committing to attending one of these for-profit schools. June marks the third time the department has delayed disclosure of the required information in promotional materials from going into effect.
On July 18 the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sent a letter to DeVos that was co-signed by 16 other attorneys general including Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro. In the letter, the AGs object to the delay in the required disclosures of the Gainful Employment Rule saying, “Students count on the Department to protect their interests and ensure that schools participating in the federal student loan program treat them fairly and give them accurate information to assist them in their decisions. In addition, taxpayers count on the Department to ensure accountability from schools that receive federal funds.” In issuing the letter New York’s attorney general, Barbara Underwood stated, “Over and over again, the Trump-DeVos Department of Education has put special interests before the students they’re supposed to serve. The Gainful Employment Rule is critical to ensuring students can make informed decision about their education – and the Department’s continued delays only leave students vulnerable to exploitation and fraud.”
My grandparents were not wealthy people, but they would often say with pride that they were able to put all four of their children through college unaided, at one point all at the same time. How many families can say that today, even with 529 plans, student loans, and financial aid?
For so many, the price tag makes higher education prohibitive. Even if you don’t think it’s the federal government’s role to provide free higher education for its citizens, surely you would agree that certain protections need to be kept in place for our young people, who today are leaving college with not only a degree but crippling debt.
Let’s look at a snapshot of the student loan debt situation in the U.S.
General student loan debt facts:
To many this is a familiar picture. With so much at stake, one would hope our government had our backs. And remember the stated mission of the Dept. of Ed. is: “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Unfortunately for many students, DeVos is failing in that mission. One complaint has come from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is accusing the Dept. of Ed. of blocking its suit against one student loan giant, Navient. The suit charges that the company, “caused borrowers to struggle unnecessarily by steering them towards repayment plans that weren’t in their best interest and ignoring borrowers’ instructions about how their payments should be allocated.” Earlier this year, DeVos seemed to side with the company when she released a memo saying the states couldn’t regulate student loan companies hired by the federal government because those fell under the jurisdiction of federal regulations, not state laws.
However, once again state attorneys general have stepped in to try to at least get some accountability. New Jersey and Washington State AGs sent a letter to DeVos on July 13th also co-signed by Josh Shapiro and 17 others in response to the department’s decision to limit the disclosure of certain student loan information to protect borrowers from predatory practices. Since 2000, the Department of Education regularly disclosed this information. Without it, it will be harder for states to identify unlawful conduct and take the legal action necessary to protect students. Part of the letter reads: “Unfortunately, the Department has stopped sharing the information that State Attorneys General have used in these efforts without providing any rationale for its decision. And now, with the formal elimination of its policy on routine disclosures of information for use by law enforcement agencies, the Department risks further hampering the ability of State Attorneys General and other law enforcement officials to protect students from predatory practices and to secure relief for students victimized by fraud and other unlawful activities. The Department’s policy change seems to send a signal: law enforcement agencies working to combat crime, fraud, and other unlawful conduct can no longer count on the Department as a reliable partner.”
In these instances and in many others not only related to education, state attorneys general have stepped up to hold the administration and Betsy DeVos accountable. Maybe they’re the helpers Mister Rogers’ mother was talking about.
Click here for more data on the student loan debt
posted by Amy Levengood in collaboration with Paul Eaken
Video by Kadida Kenner, Why Courts Matter
If you haven’t yet seen the video above it begs the question, “Have you been living under a rock?” (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) There are many crazy solutions being put forth to solve the problem of gun violence in schools besides arming kids with rocks-think asking teachers to pack heat. In the fervor of the moment, it’s no surprise we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first step in solving a problem is to identify it, which believe it or not isn’t as easy as it would seem.
One would have thought and many certainly hoped that after the events at Columbine and Sandy Hook we as a country would have a better handle on addressing school shootings; gun laws would have changed, people would be more vigilant for signs of distress in individuals prone to violence, and incidents of mass shootings would decline. Unfortunately the answers remain as clear as mud. What exactly is the number of school shootings since Sandy Hook, for example? Why isn’t there a definitive answer to this question?
A large part of the problem boils down to data. Is anyone out there tracking and analyzing data on shootings? We know that the CDC has had its hands tied by the Dickey Amendment, so it’s often up to outside groups to collect the necessary information-groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and the Gun Violence Archive, which relies on volunteers.
If we use Everytown’s statistics, there have been 17 school shootings in 2018 (remember we’re only 3 months into the year) and 290 since 2013. These figures include suicides and fights between adults which occurred on school property.
Not long after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas event, Time magazine published an article that examined the statistics reported by Everytown.* Time came up with a definition of a school shooting that includes the following:
*The statistics Time examined were based on reports from 86 attacks since 2013 and excluded events occurring on college campuses.
63 out of the 86 reports from Everytown, met Time’s definition of a school shooting as outlined above. Out of the 17 that Everytown reported since the start of 2018, 4 met Time’s criteria. Time concluded that “6 adults and 35 children killed in these types of school shootings, as well as 12 adults and 92 children injured” since 2013.
In a similar vein, the New York Times did an article based on data from the Gun Violence Archive and came up with 239 school shootings (including those on college campuses) with 138 deaths.
The Washington Post took a different angle. The Post found that although the media and lawmakers tend to focus on predominantly white schools when it comes to mass shootings, children from minority groups are much more likely to experience gun violence on school campuses. “Nearly twice as much for Hispanic students and three times as much for black students,” The Post reports. The Post had its own definition of what constitutes a school shooting that was far more narrow than the parameters used by Everytown and the Gun Violence Archive.
Source: The Washington Post
“The Post counted only incidents that happened immediately before, during or just after classes to pinpoint the number of students who were present and affected at the time. Shootings at after-hours events, accidental discharges that caused no injuries, and suicides that occurred privately or didn’t pose a threat to other children were excluded, though many of these can be deeply disturbing. Gunfire at colleges and universities, which affect young adults rather than children, also were excluded.”
The Post found that there have been an average of 10 shootings per year since Columbine with 130 kids, educators, and staff killed and 234 injured. But what stands out in their analysis is that even though we’re barely into 2018, there have already been eleven shootings-meaning this year is among the deadliest on record.
It quickly becomes apparent after looking at the discrepancies in the numbers between the reports and the subsequent journalistic analyses, that there is a dire need for common language and common criteria for any reliable study to be completed. Based on these studies alone, one can conclude that when it comes to data, there’s a long row to hoe.
So far we’ve learned that identifying the problem isn’t going to be simple. Now let’s take a very cursory look at some of the symptoms and causes of school shootings and what some more level-headed people than those who populate our State House are suggesting should be done.
One thing that was surprising in the Washington Post analysis was that most people’s conception of schools shootings as some random act of violence is mistaken. Targeted shootings with a specific victim in mind are by far the majority. The Post points out that these types of shootings are often the hardest to prevent, because the gunman usually knows exactly where the victim will be and the event is over in a matter of minutes or seconds.
Source: The Washington Post
While the cause of targeted shootings is often apparent, such as domestic disputes or gang-related fights, what we often hear is that the perpetrator has been a target himself. One case study found in looking at 15 separate school shootings that the gunmen experienced “acute or chronic rejection—in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection” in all but two cases. The study also found three additional risk factors that the assailants had in common, “an interest in firearms or bombs, a fascination with death or Satanism, and psychological problems involving depression, impulse control, or sadistic tendencies.”
So what can be done? We know that “zero tolerance” policies are ineffective. We also know that teachers overwhelmingly reject the idea of carrying guns into the classroom. In a Gallup study of K-12 teachers, 3 out of 4 said they opposed arming teachers. Other measures that may seem effective are often times harmful. Take metal detectors, for example. “Metal detectors are seen as a symptom of a stigma that already exists”, said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan's Racial Justice Project. "There is a presumption that urban schools — particularly those with students of color — are violent places and security demands you have procedures in place that are intended to protect the safety of the students. But metal detectors, property searches, security guards and police in schools create conditions similar to those found in prisons,” he said. "Students, themselves, internalize these things. If you create a school that looks like a prison, the people who go there will pretty much decide that's what is expected of them."
The National Association of School Psychologists suggests conducting Threat Assessments. These assessments are done by a team which would include mental health professionals, school administrators, and local law enforcement. The idea behind it is that individuals prone to violence often telegraph their intentions in some manner. Threat Assessments would seek to provide a preventative measure for schools to adopt.
Law enforcement officials have their own recommendations on how to prevent school violence:*
a. develop trusting relationships with students to help them feel that someone cares
and is willing to listen
b. law enforcement should be visible and maintain a presence in the school
c. minimize tolerance for bullying (which is often a precursor to school violence)
d. encourage non-violent ways of resolving conflict
e. provide safety related training such as “Run, Hide, Fight”
*Excerpted from Violence Prevention in Schools: Enhancement Through Law Enforcement Partnerships, March 2017. Compiled by the FBI from interviews of school resource officers, law enforcement executives, and the U.S. Department of Education
Retired educator, Paul Eaken, points out that all five of the above goals are applicable to school counselors and administrators. Research has demonstrated that a student who feels that someone in the school cares about them is less likely to display violent behavior in school.
Voltaire wrote, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” That certainly applies to the challenges of gun violence, but this is a problem that requires intellect combined with action. If you agree that’s the case, then we should all be encouraged. Look no further than Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Reading Senior High School. Maybe the solution is not so elusive afterall.
posted by Amy Levengood with research by Paul Eaken
While we are busy ping-ponging between Trump’s latest Twitter assaults, Roy Moore’s sexual exploits with minors, and Jared Kushner’s recurrent bouts of amnesia, something over at the Department of Education has flown under the radar that deserves attention.
One of Trump’s campaign promises that he has been relentless in keeping is rolling back regulations (a.k.a. protections) across all policy spheres. On February 24th Trump signed Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which established a Federal policy “to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” on the American people. Being the good little sycophant that she is, vapid Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has dutifully fallen in line-first in February when she reversed the guidance that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity, saying it should be left to states to decide. Then in September she did it again when she overturned the Obama administration rules that advised schools on how to investigate allegations of sexual assault, arguing those rules didn’t take into sufficient account the rights of the accused. But why stop there? On October 20th, with little fanfare, DeVos quietly rescinded 72 guidance documents which served to clarify the rights of students with disabilities.
The guidelines, which fall under the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), are purportedly being voided because they are “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective”. Although it is too soon to judge the ramifications of this action, Lindsay E. Jones, chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said she was especially concerned to see guidance documents outlining how schools could use federal money for special education removed.
“All of these (guidelines) are meant to be very useful … in helping schools and parents understand and fill in with concrete examples the way the law is meant to work when it’s being implemented in various situations,” said Jones.
The department asked for input from advocacy groups and held hearings during which, according to Jones, many disability rights groups and other education advocates pressed officials to keep all of the guidance documents in place.
Was DeVos’ move just housekeeping or was it a part of a larger plan to undermine and weaken public education as a whole? Let’s face it; the GOP has blatantly sought to abolish the Department of Education for decades. It was part of their platform in 1980 and in 1996, and part of Reagan’s budget in 1982. Here’s an excerpt from the 1996 platform:
"The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning."
As I’ve noted, there hasn’t been enough analysis done to determine the impact of these policy reversals. I would simply advise us to, in the words of Rachel Maddow, “Watch this space!"
Click here to read more about DeVos' impact on the Dept. of Ed.
Sadly, the attack on public education is not only coming from the direction of Betsy DeVos. Although all eyes and ears have been on the tax scam Republicans are desperate to see into law, you may have missed another low-flying missile launched from their arsenal.
Provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the tax plan contain not only freebies for the rich but something more insidious-tax schemes that could cause a flight from public education
Let’s take a closer look at two of them-one regarding higher education; the other having to do with 529 plans.
The Senate version would retain the tax benefits for undergrads and graduate students that the House bill wanted to chop. However, the Senate’s bill continues to include provisions opposed by higher ed groups, namely an excise tax on private colleges with large endowments and also eliminates some state and local tax deductions. The Senate wants to impose a 1.4% tax on investment income at some private universities, which would affect some 70 schools and raise $25 billion for the coffers of the federal government over a decade. But there is no accounting in the bill for how this will benefit ordinary Americans. The Senate version would also eliminate state and local tax deductions. This would pressure high-tax states like CA, NY, and NJ (which also happen to be blue states) to cut taxes. In turn, this could endanger state investment in public colleges and universities. The Senate’s plan is a bit less stingy than the House’s bill. It retains the exemption grad students receive on tuition waivers received when they work as research or teaching assistants, and the Senate version would keep the tax credit for student loan interest.
Another give-away to wealthy Americans in both the Senate and House bills has to do with 529 College Savings Plans. One provision gives an incentive to families to withdraw money from 529 plans to fund K-12 education up to $10 K a year for private elementary and high school tuition without paying tax on any previous growth. This could save families who already possess substantial build up in their 529’s (think $200 K plus at inception) up to $30,000 per year. The conservative leaning Heritage Foundation, a school choice advocate, praised the proposal saying it would give families more access to schools.
Below is an example of what adding private school benefits to 529 plans actually means from Ron Lieber’s Your Money column in The New York Times:
"Take a wealthy family in the highest tax bracket. It has a newborn baby, and through some combination of gifts and its own savings, it opens a 529 plan with $200,000 and never deposits another dime.
If the money grows at 6 percent annually, that family could take out the $10,000 each year, avoiding $2,380 in taxes annually. If it did that for 13 years (kindergarten through 12th grade), it would save $30,940 in taxes. Plus, according to numbers that Vanguard ran for me, it would still have enough left over after high school ($370,717) to pay for many pricey private colleges in full, as long as tuition inflation there ran no more than 3 percent annually."
The Joint Committee on Taxation says this provision will reduce federal revenue by $600 million by the year 2027. Plus current income limits of existing K-12 savings plans ($220,000 for joint filers) would be eliminated entirely. How does spending billions of federal funds to subsidize private school education for high-earning families help the middle class? (Besides, how many people do you know who start out their 529s with $200,000???)
Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, cites three major problems with the Senate’s proposal.
It also seems no coincidence that one of the key provisions of the tax bill, eliminating state and local deductions hurts blue states like CA, NJ, NY, etc the most. Many upper-middle class families in such states use public schools because they’re well funded, have good teachers and adequate teacher salaries, offer a rich curriculum and extensive extracurricular programs. Their taxes support their schools. If deductions are taken away they may not be willing to support future school spending. Public schools would decline in quality. Tax incentives for families who can afford it would move their children to private schools. There would be a flight from public schools, creating a vicious cycle. Remember 90% of all students are in public education. The Republican tax bill is aimed at undermining it as an institution.
Betsy DeVos has praised the tax plan, saying it will further the cause of school choice. What it will do in reality is help the rich and harm public schools which are already hurting financially. The M.O. here is fairly obvious and eerily similar to what Republicans are trying to do to destroy the Affordable Care Act: Say public schools are failing. Pass legislation to make sure they fail. Then present this manufactured evidence to show public schools failing. Wash. Rinse. Repeat! It's quite simple but very devious. Like I said before, we need to "watch this space"!
posted by Amy Levengood
Call me crazy but I kind of like things like roads and bridges, parks and libraries, and driving on plowed streets in the winter. When I hear people complain about taxes I just can’t seem to summon the same ire. Maybe it stems from my time living in Canada where the majority of people I knew preferred the peace of mind that came with not having to worry about going bankrupt when they were sick in exchange for paying a healthy share to the Crown. More than anything else I feel comfortable with the fact that our tax dollars go to something in America that was once known as “the great equalizer”-public education. But guess what, folks, people on the right and the Betsy DeVos’ of the world would like you to believe that an educated populous is coming at too high a price.
Two weeks ago on our Democracy blog- Did you get your invitation?- I wrote about an initiative that will appear on the ballot next Tuesday, November 7th, regarding amending the PA Constitution to allow up to 100% of a home’s assessed value to be tax exempt. A “yes” vote on the resolution would pave the way for SB 76 to inch closer to being passed. SB 76, sponsored by Senator David Argall, is the actual bill that would eliminate school property taxes.
Here’s the essential question: if property taxes are eliminated how will public schools be funded? That money has to come from somewhere, right? What SB 76 does is shift school funding sources from property taxes to a combination of an increased Personal Income Tax (PIT) and an increased and expanded Sales and Use Tax (SUT).
Like so many of the ideas from the people on the right, what you’re being offered is not always what it seems. There is no better example of a trick rather than a treat than the perennial pushes for property tax elimination, so since it’s Halloween, let’s tear the mask off this baby!
First of all, let’s look at the core of the property tax elimination argument-that Pennsylvanians are unduly burdened by this tax. In reality, compared to other states, property taxes in PA are not that high. The real problem is that they aren’t uniform across the state. According to U.S. Census data, local property taxes in PA are slightly lower than the national average. In fact, PA ranked 26th highest prior to the last census. The average percentage that individuals pay in property tax as a percent of personal income in the U.S. is 3.3%. In PA, the average was 3%. Furthermore, PA residents don’t pay tax on Social Security income or pensions. In 13 other states they do. Arguing that Pennsylvanians are paying too much compared to their neighbors simply isn’t supported by the data.
Speaking of other states, many have experimented with eliminating property taxes with not so promising results. In 1978, California rolled back property tax assessments to earlier levels, limited taxes to 1% of assessed values, and also limited annual assessment increases. Just as Senator Argall wants to do in PA, funding for education got shifted to state income tax. After a 2001 recession, there occurred a budget shortfall which continues to this day in California. Schools were forced to cut programs and services. In Michigan in 1993, something similar happened when property taxes were temporarily suspended. Voters were given a choice to increase sales tax or income tax to fund schools. The voters chose to raise the state sales tax. When the Michigan economy faltered in the early 2000’s, schools were left in the lurch. Is this what we want for Pennsylvania?
One of the most concerning aspects of the education system in Pennsylvania is the egregious disparity which exists between school districts in terms of funding. Eliminating property taxes will do absolutely nothing to address this. In fact, funding disparities would be locked in.
Many proponents of doing away with property tax argue that it’s unfair to seniors who no longer have children in school. They claim that the elderly are even losing their homes due to this burdensome tax. While there is no denying that many seniors struggle to make ends meet, there is little evidence to suggest that this is a pervasive problem. Statistics from the PA Budget and Policy Center show that less than 0.2% of homes in PA are lost due to the inability to pay taxes. The state should have a responsibility address this issue, and there are better ways to do it. So do we really want to dismantle our entire school funding system over a problem that affects a handful of people?
Remember what I said-the money has to come from somewhere. One proposal is to raise the state income tax from 3.07 to 4.95%. That will only make up part of the lost revenue from eliminating property taxes. Another idea is to raise state sales tax from 6 to 7% and remove some of the exemptions we now enjoy on items such as clothing, food, and nonprescription drugs. But for the average Pennsylvania family, property taxes are less regressive than the existing sales tax. “The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that families in the lowest income bracket spend over five times as much of their income on sales taxes as the top 1%. For property taxes, the difference is 2.7 times more. Adding many new goods and services to the sales tax base could make this disparity worse.” Property tax is a fixed amount that households can plan for and schools can count on in their budgets. What happens if there is a downturn in the economy? Or worse-a recession? This sounds extremely risky to me.
“What’s important to note is that, in addition to raising taxes overall, school property tax elimination provides no increase in overall education funding. If the aim of this legislation is to provide tax relief to middle class Pennsylvanians, while also increasing the quality of public education in Pennsylvania, our analysis shows it fails on both accounts,” said Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center.
Perhaps the biggest pipe dream of the legislators trying to push this scheme is that it’s going to help the middle class. First of all, everyone will still have to pay municipal and county taxes and pay off any outstanding school debt a district may hold. Therefore, your property tax bill will not be a nice round zero.
Eliminating property taxes will be a huge windfall for one portion of the population-corporations-paid for by shifting the burden to individuals like you and me. While seniors will pay more taxes on essential items like food, home care services, and health-related items, corporations would benefit, since business to business transactions are often tax exempt. P.S. There are no plans in SB 76 to increase the corporate income tax rate.
I’ll leave you with this. Nobody loves paying the taxman (not even me), but what property taxes buy benefits the community as a whole in less tangible ways than those I mentioned earlier like roads and bridges. It’s not just about building better schools which in turn increase property values-it’s about investing in something far more precious-the future of our children.
Want to get into the weeds on this issue?
Click here to learn more. And even more!
posted by Amy Levengood
Val Monroe-Myers, contributor
In responding to Sen. Bob Casey's questions regarding Title IX during her confirmation hearing, then nominee Betsy DeVos vowed to work together to "find some resolutions".
We shouldn’t be surprised that an administration whose titular head was caught on video bragging about sexually assaulting women and later dismissed it as “locker room talk”, would appoint an Education Secretary who’s stance toward sexual assault on college campuses is basically a “boys will be boys” approach. We also shouldn’t be surprised based on her answers to questions from our own Senator Casey during her confirmation hearing that Betsy DeVos was not going to be a champion for victims’ rights. But lack of surprise doesn’t make Betsy DeVos’ recent pronouncements any more palatable.
In another act from the current administration of what I like to call, “Deconstructing Barry” (Barry, aka Barak Obama), DeVos is looking to rescind protections for victims of sexual assault guaranteed in Title IX and clarified by a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) from the Obama administration to public institutions in 2011. At an event on Thursday at George Mason University that was invitation-only (i.e. closed to opposition voices), DeVos declared that the Obama administration had gone too far in protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors.
But two survivors, Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, in their Friday Washington Post article, “Betsy DeVos’s Title IX interpretation is an attack on sexual assault survivors”, describe the DCL this way:
“The 2011 letter set out specifically that ‘sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.’ It empowered campus sexual assault survivors like us to walk into meetings with school officials knowing that colleges couldn’t push us to withdraw from school until our perpetrators graduated. (One of us was told to drop out of school until her rapist finished his degree.) Our schools had to provide us the accommodations we needed to stay in school, such as free counseling, and help students switch out of class sections shared with the individuals charged with assaulting them. The letter outlined our right to learn alongside our peers, making clear to our schools that they could no longer count on our ignorance keeping us in the shadows.”
At the Thursday event, DeVos went on to misrepresent what was outlined in the Dear Colleague Letter, saying the law unfairly denies due process rights to those accused of sexual assault. This in spite of the fact that as Laura Dunn, a rape victim and founder of SurvJustice, points out, “Courts have repeatedly found minimum due procedural safeguards sufficient under the 14th Amendment for disciplinary matters handled through campus-level hearings.”
When asked in a recent interview if she plans on rescinding the Obama administration guidelines, DeVos responded by saying that that is her intention, but it’s going to be “a process not an event”. DeVos plans to hold a public comment session regarding the issue, which is laughable at best, since it seems her mind is already made up. Part of her “process”, which she calls a “notice and comment” is to listen to input from both sides. But Bolger and Brodsky point out in their article:
“In DeVos’s only meeting with sexual assault survivors, which one of us attended, we spoke about the importance of the Dear Colleague Letter for student survivors like us. DeVos’s office has been flooded with comments urging retention of the policy outlined in the Dear Colleague Letter. When she spoke Thursday, she misled, saying ‘Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved’ — making it clear that her listening tour was for show and that she plans to make policy based on an unrepresentative portion of the feedback she’s received."
Further underscoring DeVos’ apparent bias, Senator Casey presciently pointed out during her confirmation hearing (at which point, like a reverse Cheshire cat, DeVos’ smile disappeared faster than her collegial demeanor) that DeVos had personally donated to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an institution which supports a bill that among other things would force a victim to go to police to report an incident and would change the standard of evidence as it exists under the Obama administration guidelines.
Apparently the opinion of PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro hasn’t swayed DeVos either. In July Shapiro sent a letter co-signed by 19 other state attorneys general to DeVos urging her not to undermine the protections of the DCL. "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," Attorney General Shapiro said in a statement.
"Violence on America's campuses must be taken seriously," New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, one of the co-signers, said. Balderas noted that, "rolling back the guidance (Obama's DCL) would amount to turning back the clock on the progress some states have made when it comes to improving reporting and implementing programs aimed at curbing sexual assaults."
Ed. Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to turn back the clock? Are we surprised?
What is Title IX?
Why schools have to respond to sexual violence:
Both Title IX and the Clery Act require educational institutions that receive federal funding to address reports of sexual violence independent of any criminal process. While sexual violence can sometimes constitute a crime, it is also a form of misconduct that institutions must internally address as well. Therefore, victims always have the option both to go to law enforcement to make a criminal report and to go to campus to have it respond to the misconduct. Under the Clery Act, victims have the right to decline to report to law enforcement so institutions cannot require it.
Unlike the criminal system, campus processes offer more immediate support and remedies for victims to ensure they can continue accessing educational opportunities and benefits. Another key difference is that campuses are limited in their ability to address misconduct to ultimately removing perpetrators from campus (i.e. expulsion, no trespass orders) as a final sanction, whereas the criminal system can impose severe criminal penalties, such as arrest, jailing, prison sentences, and criminal fines.
What are a school's obligations under Title IX?
Who was Patsy Mink?
Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (D) Hawaii, was a third generation Japanese American and the first Asian woman elected to Congress. She was also the first Democratic woman to deliver a State of the Union response in 1970. In 1972, Mink sought the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. She co-authored the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act. Mink authored introduced the Early Childhood Education Act and authored the Women's Educational Equality Act. In 2002 the Title IX Amendment was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
posted by Amy Levengood
It’s the time of year we all recognize. Leaves are starting to turn, school supplies are on the shelves, and kids will soon be writing about what they did on their summer vacation. It’s also a good time to do a check-in on what’s happening in the PA Department of Education (PDE).
There’s a bit of activity going on quietly that deserves more vociferous attention. First up, Governor Wolf made an announcement yesterday that will sound like music to the ears of most educators across the state. PDE plans to reduce the length of time for PSSA testing for students in grades 3 through 8. Starting next spring, the math test will be 48 minutes shorter, the English exam 45 minutes shorter, and the science test 22 minutes shorter. This could eliminate up to two full days worth of testing. Governor Wolf believes these changes will allow teachers to provide students with a "complete education rather than preparing for one exam."
Indivisible member and retired school administrator Debbie Noel, Ed.D. says, “Any legislation that lessens the burden of standardized tests on our students will be welcome by the majority of educators. She pointed to a recent study that revealed, “public school districts in the Midwestern and Eastern United States spend between 19 and 45 days each year preparing students for and administering standardized tests. That means a minimum of 114 and as many as 270 instructional days are sacrificed to testing if students take the exams in grades three through eight as they do in Pennsylvania.”
Noel says, “These numbers cannot begin quantify the level of stress for students, parents, and teachers in our commonwealth. Forever burned in my memory will be the female student struggling to get through a test she knew she would not score Proficient on as the tears rolled down her cheeks and fell to the standardized test below.”
Lawmakers are also looking at changes in two other areas - standardized testing for high school students and teacher evaluations. The specific bill involved is Senate Bill 756, which moved out of committee on June 19th. The bill would do away with the Keystone Exams which are used as part of high school graduation requirements in exchange for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), an aligned vocational test, GED, or military entrance exam. When asked, Debbie Noel explained, “It is my understanding this legislation would swap out the Keystones for the PSAT and SAT and scores would be compared to demonstrate growth. In addition to returning hundreds of hours of instructional time to the teachers there would be a great cost savings to the Commonwealth.” Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, who sponsored the bill, said the savings could be 8 to 10 billion dollars. The switch would take effect in the 2018-2019 school year.
Currently the Keystone Exams make up 90% of a school’s School Performance Profile (SPP) score, which measure a school’s effectiveness. PDE itself has stated that the “Keystone Exams are not a good predictor of college and career readiness.” Eliminating the Keystone Exams is a move that has been applauded by many, but some critics argue that replacing one standardized test with a different but equally inappropriate metric is pointless.
But there are two other provisions of SB 756 that are even more troubling. Under SB 756 a teacher could get an unsatisfactory evaluation based on parent and student opinion. Currently under state law 50% of an educator’s performance evaluation is based on principal evaluation and 50% on student performance on the Keystone Exam. If the Keystones are eliminated, the evaluation system must be revamped. If SB 756 passes, the principal evaluation portion would be reduced to 30%, 10% would come from parent and student input, another 10% from peer review, and the remainder would be made up of student scores on the SAT. I don’t think I need to enumerate the flaws inherent in this system.
Furthermore, under SB 756 a teacher could get an unsatisfactory evaluation based on a student’s score on the SAT, a test which the Pennsylvania State Educators Association (PSEA) says is not aligned with Pennsylvania’s curriculum.
No one is arguing that as professionals, teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for their job performance. But in my former life as an ESL teacher in the Reading School District, linking standardized testing with teacher evaluation was always a sticky subject. It was a concern of teachers like myself that our performance would be judged by an unfair standard where students learning English were asked to take the same exams as native English speakers. Exams which expected proficiency in their reading and writing portions, for example, after only a year or two of instruction when scientific research in the field showed proficiency in those areas could take second language learners on average 5 to 7 years seemed unfair to the student and teacher both. Given this experience, what I would argue is that evaluating teachers based on one-size-fits-all testing is bad practice and bad policy.
School may be out for summer, but summer is waning and when report cards are in
SB 756 gets a failing grade.
posted by Amy Levengood
The PA House and Senate Education Committees will hold a joint public hearing on Wednesday, May 24 at 9:00 am regarding Education Savings Accounts or ESAs.
Proponents of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), such as The American Federation for Children (founded by Betsy DeVos), argue that voucher programs empower parents by giving them more choice, provide students with a more customized experience, and improve education by encouraging competition between schools. Sounds good on the surface, but there are many holes in these arguments, the main one being that ESAs leave the accountability piece off the table. Accountability in terms of quality of education and appropriate use of funds is sketchy at best in these types of alternative education scenarios. Critics of ESAs call them “Betsy DeVos vouchers on steroids”, claiming that the term ESA is simply a rebranding of the school voucher program. Many worry that, like traditional school vouchers, ESAs will improperly funnel tax payer dollars into religious institutions and divert money from already struggling public schools.
Currently there are four states (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee) which have some version of Education Savings Accounts. Here’s how they work: States issue to participating parents what is called a restricted-use debit card with a defined grant amount loaded onto the card. States decide who is eligible for the grant. Arizona offers them to various students, such as those in foster care. In Florida, only students with disabilities are eligible. States choose whether the full grant amount is added up front or periodically throughout the year. Parents can spend the funds on state-approved “vendors”. The money can also be used for home school supplies, tutoring, or private/religious school tuition. The value of the grant is determined by the individual state. In Arizona, for example, the amount received is 90% of what the state would have paid for the child to attend a charter school. In Mississippi, parents receive $6500, with the amount adjusted yearly based on changes in baseline per-pupil spending statewide. States can decide how the ESAs are managed and are permitted to contract with private, for-profit financial services to manage the accounts. Here again, with this kind of outsourcing, questions of accountability and transparency arise. What happens to any unspent funds you may ask? That decision is also left to the states. In Arizona, unused funds get deposited into college savings accounts. In Mississippi on the other hand, upon high school graduation, any money left on the debit card goes back to the state.
So how can we measure whether students making use of ESAs are receiving a quality education? States (are you sensing a theme here?) can use some sort of assessment tool, perhaps the same one given to public school students in the state. But many private providers argue that these assessments limit the flexibility of their curriculum and choose alternative assessments. If schools take the latter route, there is no way to objectively compare student performance across educational settings. Other states, like Arizona and Mississippi, have no assessment requirements at all. What if the provider doesn’t measure up? States can impose penalties on those schools by not allowing them to receive the ESA funds, but there are no current laws governing ESAs which tie performance to funding.
Click here to read one educator’s perspective on school vouchers.
Below is a list of questions on the subject compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Key Questions for Legislators Considering Education Savings Accounts
1. How will eligible students be defined? How many students will qualify for the program? What is the current capacity of private schools statewide and in areas with the highest concentration of eligible students?
2. How does your state measure private school quality? Are there accreditation standards? Will participating schools be required to meet additional quality standards?
3. How does your state regulate assessments in private schools? Will participating schools be required to administer state assessments? Will they have the ability to offer alternative assessments? If so, who will pay for it? If not, how will the state track the program’s academic effectiveness?
4. In what ways, if any, will your state evaluate the performance of participating education providers? Will there be any consequences for those not meeting performance expectations?
5. How will your state manage parent accounts and verify parent transactions? Will a state agency manage the accounts or will the state contract with private financial institutions?
Click on the following link if you are interested in attending the hearing in Harrisburg.
posted by Amy Levengood
attribution: Getty images
The mainstream media has been abuzz the past few days over the House’s vote on Thursday to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Most of the coverage has been focused on two issues: 1.) the impact “Trumpcare” will have on individuals with pre-existing conditions and 2.) the political repercussions for those who voted, whether it be “aye” or “nay”. What has garnered little notice, although it has huge consequences for the most vulnerable among us, is the effect Medicaid cuts will have on students with disabilities and the schools which serve them. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 73% of students with special needs are from low or middle income families. Schools rely on Medicaid dollars to provide such students with services like physical and occupational therapy, equipment, and preventative care such as hearing and vision screenings.
With zero Democratic support, Republicans in the House voted as part of their plan to cut $880 billion in Medicaid spending by the year 2026. These cuts would remove the federal expenditure guarantees and push the burden to the states in a capped payment system. States would be given a fixed dollar amount that would in no way account for increases in healthcare costs.
“Trumpcare creates a system in which children with disabilities will be pitted against elderly nursing home residents in a fight over state Medicaid funding that is inadequate to pay for necessary services,” writes Susan Spicka, Executive Director of Education Voters of PA, in a recent blog post.
Members of Congress will be coming home for an 11 day recess. Now would be a good time to put them on notice.
Click here to read Ms. Spicka’s post, “Trumpcare savages funding for students with disabilities”.
posted by Amy Levengood
Reposting from Education Voters of Pennsylvania:
It has been 20 years since the law that established charter schools in PA was enacted. Significant flaws in this charter school law have surfaced over the past two decades and legislators are now making what appears to be a serious effort to improve it.
On Tuesday, April 18th, the House Education Committee will begin fast-tracking HB 97, comprehensive charter school reform legislation. Unfortunately, HB 97 is a tremendous disappointment.
Call your state lawmakers now. Tell them that HB 97 is NOT charter reform that was worth the 20-year wait.
HB 97 increases transparency and holds charter schools to similar standards as other publicly funded entities. These are important nd necessary changes to the law. Unfortunately, however, these changes aren’t enough to make HB 97 a bill lawmakers should support in its current form.
Lawmakers must substantially change HB 97 in order to address critical funding and academic performance issues, ensure that charters will serve all students equitably, and ensure that communities are able to plan and exercise appropriate fiscal and academic oversight over their public education system(s).
Call your state legislators to urge them to work toward charter school reform that will address all of the significant problems in the current charter law and improve PA’s system of public education for all students.
HB 97 fails to address critical funding problems with the current law.
HB 97 does not address cyber charter school quality. Over the course of nearly two decades and after receiving billions of taxpayer dollars, cyber schools have consistently demonstrated they are incapable of meeting minimal academic performance standards set for public schools in PA.
HB 97 creates separate performance standards for charter schools and district schools, allowing charter schools to play by different rules than district schools. This is unacceptable. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that must be held to the same academic performance standards as district schools. Creating separate performance standards for charters prevents parents and taxpayers from knowing if charters are performing better or worst than their district schools.
HB 97 allows for different evaluation systems for charter and district school teachers, creating a system where charter and district teachers are held to different standards of accountability.
HB 97 allows charters and cyber charters that fail to meet academic quality benchmarks to be renewed for five years by a school board or the Charter Appeal Board, significantly reducing local control and accountability for academic quality. The longer the term of a charter, the longer it takes for true accountability for charter school performance.
HB 97 fails to ensure that charters will equitably serve all students and does not address student “push out” in charters.
HB 97 fails to ensure charters will equitably serve the most vulnerable students in their communities, including those who are experiencing homelessness, living in foster care, and returning from juvenile justice placement.