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Republican pushback could stunt Biden’s universal pre-K plans

Several hurdles at the state level could keep proposed universal pre-school legislation from having its full impact.

Students lead in green advocacy with environmental education

With schools impacting climate change, teachers focus on environmental education, and student advocacy efforts lead to a green future.

Congress raises concerns about allocation of COVID-19 education funds

Schools received government funding to improve learning loss from the pandemic, but some policymakers raised concerns on where this money is going.

UNICEF launches plan to pay Afghan teachers, if agency gets funding

UNICEF launched a plan this month that aims to pay teachers’ salaries in Afghanistan without going through the Taliban-run government.

Classmates lend a hand to welcome Afghan refugees

After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, refugees escape, and for those arriving in the United States, students adjust to schools with a little help from their classmates and communities.

NCAA advocates for student-athlete licensing rights

WASHINGTON —- For years, the NCAA has governed itself. Now, NCAA President Mark Emmert is turning to Congress.

Speaking at a House Consumer Protection and Commerce subcommittee hearing, Emmert called for quick congressional action Thursday to standardize legislation allowing amateur athletes to profit from use of their “name, image or likeness” nationally and protect athletes from unfair contracts.

In July, the NCAA announced all athletes would be able to profit off their name, image and likeness by accepting brand partnerships, teaching lessons and signing autographs.

Twenty-eight states have enacted NIL laws, but schools in states without legislation have to navigate on their own. Further, many schools do not have the resources to provide financial advising to their athletes, Emmert said.

“The NCAA alone cannot address this,” Emmert said. “We need to do it together.”

(This is a developing story.)

Good’s critical race theory bill ignites passionate protest

WASHINGTON — On a sunny Wednesday outside the Capitol, Republican Rep. Bob Good began a news conference about his bill to block federal funds for schools that teach critical race theory by saying Congress must be “diligent” in uncovering and eliminating such teaching in schools.

“It sees things through a racial lens, and it’s dangerous. It’s dishonest, and it’s very divisive to us as a nation. It ignores the tremendous history that our country has made,” Good said. “The progress that we’ve made as a nation was facilitated by our founding principles and increasingly realized over the past 245 years.”

His bill, co-sponsored by 17 Republican, lawmakers, all Republicans, would amend the Civil Rights Act to say that any use of federal money to teach critical race theory would be a violation of that law.

Good said he’d been called a racist during an Education and Labor Committee hearing for his opposition to CRT.

“Well, what if you are a racist?” yelled a bystander from across the street as the press conference was sidetracked by protesters. More soon joined in with shouts of “shame, shame, shame,” “what about my history,” and “Black history matters” — drowning out the voices of Good and others supporting his bill.

One of the protesters, Maria Perez, a state senator from New Hampshire, emigrated from El Salvador. Having put her kids through U.S. schools, she said teachers should be allowed to teach history without interference and that bills like Good’s give people an excuse to be racist.

“They have to leave the history alone. The teachers, they’re not calling kids bad names. We’re not calling white supremacy to the kids in school,” Perez said. “We don’t do that. We have respect for everyone. No matter how they look or how they speak. We expect them to do the same thing for us.”

“We want to make sure we have the dignity and right to teach our kids about our history,” Maria Perez, a New Hampshire state senator, said. (BAYLOR SPEARS/MNS)

Capitol Police eventually stopped protesters’ yells, threatening to remove people if they continued.

Anne Wilson, another protester, expressed frustration with lawmakers who support banning critical race theory from schools.

“It’s essential that voices that have basically been suppressed in traditional ways of teaching in the United States be brought forward,” Wilson said. “An opposition to looking at history through the lens of race is basically trying to suppress a whole history and that’s not what America is about.”

The debate over critical race theory started in state legislatures and schools curriculums as states like Utah, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas and others started passing laws that restricted discussion of critical race theory in classrooms. Laws like one in Tennessee threaten to withhold aid from schools that promote concepts that teach that the U.S. is inherently racist or an individual because of race or sex is inherently privileged.

Good’s bill is one in a series of bills that have brought the critical race theory debate to the federal level. In September alone, House Republicans introduced three bills relating to the restriction of teaching critical race theory or mentioning white supremacy in schools.

Mary Kusler, director of advocacy at the National Education Association, said these bills are unlikely to go anywhere because school curriculum is more the purview of local and state governments and boards of education than of Congress.

But, she said, the consequences of the debate are felt in the day-to-day that teachers now have to deal with.

“This is a manufactured controversy designed to divide our communities, our families, our students along racial lines for purely political purposes,” Kusler said. “We are now seeing educators in local communities being targeted, simply for doing their jobs and teaching our full history.”

School closures or COVID safety: House committee debates on health equity initiatives

WASHINGTON — Health inequities and vaccination strategies were the topics of debate at today’s House Education and Labor joint subcommittee hearing. The witnesses and committee members discussed ways to protect vulnerable communities from COVID-19, such as schools.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, black, indigenous children of color under the age of 19 are two to three times more likely to be hospitalized than white children, based on data as of August 31st.

School closures also disproportionally affect underfunded school districts, which is why the U.S. Department of Education started Project SAFE grants, federal funding rewarding COVID safe in-person learning. Congress hopes to work on initiatives to encourage more vaccinations.

How the coronavirus pandemic is impacting America’s youngest students — and their families

WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be a rather ordinary hearing, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee about her department’s budget request for the next fiscal year. But in her opening remarks, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, turned the conversation to the big issue of the day.

“I want to talk about coronavirus,” Murray said. “It’s an issue that families and students and teachers and educators across the country are obviously worried about, especially in my home state. This is truly a serious crisis, and we need every agency in this administration to respond quickly and thoroughly.”

This hearing was held on March 5, when there were only 11 reported coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, 10 of which had taken place in Washington state. In the two weeks since, the crisis has exploded, disrupting nearly every aspect of American life and forcing schools across the country to close or move to online learning.

As of March 19, 41 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have shut down all public schools to help slow the spread of coronavirus, while 16 of those states have shut down private schools as well.

Elementary school teachers say they face two challenges — they must prepare to hold classes online while making sure their students understand the situation at hand. Melissa Morse, chief of learning and performance at Henry County Schools in suburban Atlanta, said it is most important to make sure kids are staying calm and know the facts. The district’s schools have been closed since Monday and will remain so through at least March 31, at which point they are prepared to begin a remote learning plan.

“We’ve had a few kids come to school (before the closing) with masks, with parents who are hyper-vigilant,” Morse said. “Teachers and educators are pretty good at diverting attention away from that stuff and back onto other things.”

Morse said parents have been reacting a lot more strongly to coronavirus developments than students have. Moreover, they’ve frequently been reacting to the reaction — to what they’ve seen on social media rather than facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other similar bodies.

Henry County Schools have been in constant contact and communication with public health experts, from federal officials to local emergency management teams. And being in the Atlanta area, they have close access to the CDC, which is headquartered there.

Morse said her district has sent several letters to parents that have emphasized the latest credible information about the virus.

“People react to things like this very emotionally, and it’s hard not to get caught in responding to their emotion with emotion,” Morse said. “But the reality is, you’ve got to respond with facts. Our job is to educate kids, but it’s also to help communities.”

Private schools may not be as encouraged to take their guidelines from public health experts as public schools are, but for the most part, they too have shut their doors in the past week as the COVID–19 crisis has escalated. Francis W. Parker School, a private K–12 school in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, moved operations online this week and will keep them there until at least March 30.

Mike McPharlin, a fifth-grade teacher at Parker, said the uncertainty is causing students particular anxiety — things that used to be predictable are no longer so. He said science teachers have taken entire class periods to talk about what students thought they knew about coronavirus.

“Helping reassure them of the unpredictability of what’s going on is the tough piece,” McPharlin said. “That’s where you can see it ripple out into their anxiety, their behavior. Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen that unease settle in as things seem to be ramping up.”

He said Last week’s developments made the crisis feel much more real to McPharlin’s students, from actor Tom Hanks’ announcement to college and professional sports being put on hold.

McPharlin had a conversation with his class last Friday, the last day of in-person instruction, about the importance of maintaining a sense of humor even though coronavirus is a serious matter. He said humor is still good as a distraction and to keep things in perspective.

Two of his students, he said, made their “news of the week” presentations that morning, and both presented lighthearted stories completely unrelated to COVID–19.

“It was really needed. It was a great thing that that came in today,” McPharlin said. “Everything you know is getting flipped upside down, so humor comes into it more to make sense of things.”

At the subcommittee hearing, Murray mentioned another consequence of the outbreak — bullying, harassment and discrimination against students of Asian descent. She said the Department of Education needs to make sure school districts understand their responsibility to prevent and address the behavior.

Murray also echoed Morse’s argument about emphasizing the facts and ensuring students, parents and educators do not get caught up in misinformation. She called on DeVos and her staff to ensure the millions of families who rely on school meals still have access to nutrition programs while schools are closed.

“Parents, students and teachers have to have the facts,” Murray said. “They need to know what to do so they can respond effectively.”

DeVos explains proposal for fiscal year 2021 budget at Senate subcommittee hearing

WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promoted the Trump administration’s school choice program and criticized America’s “antiquated approach to education” Thursday before a Senate subcommittee while defending her department’s proposed $66.56 billion budget request for fiscal 2021.

The budget request is a reduction of 8.4 percent from fiscal 2020.

DeVos said the federal government cannot continue to increase spending for primary and secondary education while shifting power and control back to teachers.

“The achievement gap has not closed one little bit,” DeVos said. “By multiple measures, it’s widened. How can you make the argument that putting more money behind the exact same approach is going to yield different results?”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, challenged DeVos, calling public education “the great equalizer” and questioning why the federal government would cut nearly $5 billion in funding for it.

But the subcommittee chair, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, called DeVos’ proposed budget a “bold request.”

“No matter how much we spend, we don’t seem to be making the improvements we’d like to make,” Blunt said. “Average math and reading scores have been mostly flat for a decade now.”

During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump promoted Education Freedom Scholarships, which would give students in low-performing public schools the opportunity to attend the schools of their choice. DeVos supported the program Thursday, saying money for the scholarships would not divert funding from public school students or teachers.

The budget also includes a proposal to consolidate 29 federal elementary and secondary education programs into a single $19.4 billion block grant program. DeVos said this will be beneficial for charter and magnet schools, two education systems for which she has long been a proponent.

“It’s a budget that recognizes that no student and no state, no teacher and no town are the same,” DeVos said. “Students of all ages need the freedom to find their fit.”

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said schools across Washington state, which has had more coronavirus-related deaths than any other, have had to cancel classes and the Trump administration’s response has “not inspired confidence.”

Murray said her daughter messaged her in the middle of the night saying her school will be closed for at least two weeks. Murray called on DeVos to make sure children who receive reduced-price school meals will still have access to them if schools close, and to ensure that school districts address bullying, harassment and discrimination against students of Asian descent.

“Parents, students and teachers need facts. They need to know what to do so they can respond effectively,” Murray said. “So I want to make certain today that you are doing everything you can to support school districts, colleges, teachers, other school staff and students during this time.”

DeVos said her department has been in contact multiple times daily with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has information on coronavirus as well as an email address that will respond to specific questions.

Across South Carolina, college campuses find ways to get out the vote for Democrats

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — During his freshman year at The Citadel, Matthew Miller went to events with the College Republicans — because they were the only political activists on campus. Then he decided to create an alternative option.

The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina, has long been a common stopping point for Republican presidential candidates and is considered one of the most conservative college campuses in the United States. But Miller felt the College Republicans did not align with his values, so he co-founded The Citadel’s College Democrats in October 2018.

“By the time senior year happened I had found my own voice and found there’s a large portion of students who do think alternatively to the Republican mantra,” Miller said. “They wanted to engage in a different level of conversation.”

The group had between five and 10 members at its founding, and by the end of the 2018-19 school year had an email list of 60 students. Miller graduated in 2019, but the chapter has remained strong, with current sophomores Ron Prince and Tyler Mitchell taking over as co-presidents.

Although The Citadel is overwhelmingly conservative, some of its most politically active alumni have been Democrats, including Fritz Hollings, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, and Joe Riley, a former longtime mayor of Charleston.

The chapter was involved in one of the biggest upsets of the 2018 midterm elections, when Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham flipped a district that includes Charleston and most of the South Carolina coast. The district is now represented by a Democrat for the first time since 1981.

Prince said The Citadel’s College Democrats aim to reflect the school’s values of honor, duty and respect.

“I’ve found that when you look at the people in government who honor America and what her values are, fulfills its duties to the fullest and is respectful toward all other people, you’ll find most of those people are Democrats,” Prince said.

* * *

Even in a conservative state, The Citadel is an outlier when it comes to the political leanings of college students. The University of South Carolina in Columbia, the state’s flagship university with more than 26,000 undergraduate students, is much more politically diverse, with well-established student organizations supporting both Democratic and Republican causes.

More than half of the university’s students come from within South Carolina, including Hayden Blakeney, a senior from Greenville County who serves on the executive board of the USC College Democrats. Blakeney said at such a large school, many students have little interest in politics and knew next to nothing about Saturday’s presidential primary or even how to vote.

USC’s College Democrats set up tables on campus in the run-up to the primary with information on registering to vote. Blakeney said although most students passed by their tables without a glance, it was worth it if even one person signed up to register.

“That’s one more person who’s engaged. And that one more person who’s engaged can engage other people,” Blakeney said. “Even though the mass of college students wearing hoodies and sweatpants with their AirPods don’t care, there is a group of people that are open enough to come up. Even though it may seem futile in some spaces, any positive impact is good.”

Blakeney said USC leans more progressive than South Carolina as a whole, but a number of political organizations exist on both sides of the spectrum. The College Democrats and College Republicans host a formal debate every semester. They have also hosted joint meetings in the past, which Blakeney said can turn messy but can also lead to genuine, productive debate.

College Democrats and College Republicans are far from the only political organizations at USC. On the left, there are groups like the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Planned Parenthood Generation Action and Students for Justice in Palestine, and on the right are Turning Point USA and the Advocates for Life.

Those groups do not always get along so well. PPGA has refused to debate the Advocates for Life because PPGA members do not see abortion as an issue up for debate — they see it as a basic human right. Turning Point also backed out of a debate with the YDSA.

Laceasar Sherrod, a senior from Sumter, South Carolina, and the former treasurer of the YDSA, said his organization hosts events where they put up signs reading “Ask a Democratic Socialist” because many students do not understand what being a Democratic Socialist means. Although the national organization has not endorsed a candidate, Sherrod said nearly his entire chapter was involved in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

“When we say we’re Democratic Socialists, we specifically say our only goals are to make people who are out there and working, make their lives better,” Sherrod said. “So our focus is trying to get things like increased minimum wage, affordable college and universal health care.”

* * *

Historically black colleges and universities in South Carolina, such as Columbia’s Benedict College, tend to have a more liberal and engaged student body. Freshman Janaisha McMillan, a political science major from Aiken, South Carolina, said Benedict students were encouraged to vote in Saturday’s primary — there was even a polling site on Benedict’s campus.

Benedict hosted the Presidential Criminal Justice Forum, which featured eight Democratic presidential candidates, in October. The university also held a workshop titled “African Americans and Why They Vote” on Feb. 18, with panelists who tried to convince the students of the importance of voting.

While former vice president Joe Biden, who picked up a much-needed win in South Carolina on Saturday, was the most popular candidate among the black community in the state, McMillan said Sanders had the most support at Benedict.

“There’s been so much, ever since we got here in August,” McMillan said. “It’s been a lot of push (to get out the vote). It’s the community, it’s the faculty and staff, and there’s also students who are advocates for voting. There’s a voter registration drive, (and) we also use social media as an outreach.”

* * *

Politically active students at all three schools underscored the importance of voting — and of educating their peers on how to vote. Mitchell said at The Citadel, which attracts roughly 70 percent of its students from South Carolina, many students do not realize they can vote without going to a polling place. He said his chapter has been sharing links on social media to get people registered.

“Some people have never voted before, and they’ve been in college three or four years,” Mitchell said. “You ask why have they not voted, and they say, ‘I don’t know how.’”

Prince added that although The Citadel skews Republican, many of the issues that affect its students tend to be winning issues for Democrats, including climate change — Charleston frequently experiences sunny-day flooding — as well as student debt and health care.

Benedict has a program called “BC Vote, BC Voice,” which has been handing out T-shirts to students to encourage voter registration. Kymm Hunter, assistant vice president of communications and marketing at Benedict, said the student government has been holding debate watch parties and that many of the candidates have visited campus.

At USC, several left-leaning groups have made efforts to increase turnout at the polls. Blakeney worked for a nonprofit called the Welcome Party, which reaches out to independent voters. South Carolina is one of just seven states to hold its primary or caucus on a Saturday rather than a weekday, which Sherrod said should make college students more likely to vote.

Blakeney said apathy is a major problem among college students — they frequently would like to vote, but feel they don’t have time, see themselves as uninformed or feel like their vote doesn’t matter.

“I wish I had a thousand clones of myself so I could go up to everyone to shake them and say, ‘this is what a primary is,’” Blakeney said. “A lot of it is a lack of education, and I wish I could run through the streets and be like, ‘Please vote, you have to vote.’”

Flexibility or rollback? Experts clash on impact of USDA’s proposed changes to school meal regulations

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed sweeping changes to school meal regulations, overturning key pieces of former first lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, worries public health experts who fear an increase in childhood obesity while some school officials applaud the increased flexibility of the plans.

Under the Jan. 17 changes proposed by the USDA, schools would have more flexibility in the types of foods that fall under the umbrella of vegetables. The regulations would also give states more time to review school districts’ meal programs, from the current requirement of once every three years to five years.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said for many students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, school lunches are their only chance to eat a nutritious meal during the day.

Benjamin said the impact of the changes will be seen in the next few decades, when he predicted obesity and cardiovascular disease rates will spike back up.

“As responsible adults, we have the responsibility to give children food options that are nutritious as often as we can,” Benjamin said. “This will have a significant impact, because it will provide kids with less fresh fruits and vegetables, less healthy options and more junk food. Kids will gravitate toward the junk food, so they will fundamentally be more unhealthy.”

But the School Nutrition Association applauded the proposal for more time between reviews.

“Our state agency contacts were saying that they were very stressed trying to keep up with that three-year review cycle,” said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner. “If they can switch back to the five-year cycle… they’re able to spend more time responding to questions and providing training for the school districts that really need help.”

This is not the first time President Donald Trump’s administration has made changes to the federal school meal guidelines. Soon after he took the job, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue vowed to “make school meals great again,” saying meals that met the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act often ended up in the trash.

In December 2018, the USDA gave food service providers the option to offer flavored low-fat milk and nonwhole grains and provided more time for schools to reduce the sodium levels in their meals. Colin Schwartz, a deputy director of legislative affairs at the CSPI, criticized the decision to push back sodium level reductions.

“Salt is a silent killer,” Schwartz said. “Kids who consume too much salt are at risk of elevated blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease later in life.”

The changes proposed last month would go even further, lowering the fruit requirement in school breakfasts from a full cup to half a cup. More drastic, though, is the expansion of vegetable subgroups. Pasta made of vegetable flour could count as a vegetable, even when not served with another vegetable.

The total vegetable requirements would remain the same, but the required amount of red and orange vegetables would drop from 1.25 cups per week to just 0.5 cups. This opens the door for other types of vegetables, especially potatoes, to take the place of veggies like carrots, bell peppers and squash.
National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said he approved of the proposed changes and that the guidelines they are trying to replace were unfriendly to potatoes, which he noted are the only vegetable routinely eaten for breakfast.

“The philosophy was because (potatoes) potentially could be prepared in a single unhealthy way, therefore, the entire commodity is to be excluded,” Quarles said. “That’s way there was this big pushback. Our industry wasn’t happy about it, but it was the people who were being completely handcuffed in creating these school meals who were the most upset by it.”

But under the new guidelines, potatoes in any form — including French fries — could be considered vegetables. Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, said this is a major loophole and one that could have dangerous consequences.

“There’s nothing wrong with potatoes in and of themselves,” Henchy said. “But French fries have a lot of fat in them. We’re not saying no potatoes, we’re saying it’s supposed to be a variety (of vegetables), and these complex rules really don’t help.”

The proposed regulations also would allow students to buy entrées à la carte, separate from prepared meals that offer an entrée and side dishes. A student might be able to have pizza one day as part of the main meal, then buy a piece of pizza again the next day as an à la carte item.

Schwartz said that because students would choose less healthy à la carte meals rather than the healthier, unified meals, they are spending less and schools will end up generating less revenue.

“Instead of buying the turkey burger and salad and fresh fruit, they’re just going to buy the pizza and French fries and a cookie,” Schwartz said. “A lot of schools think this is a money-maker, that if they just sell more french fries and pizza, they’re going to make more money, but actually the research shows the opposite.”

Schools should instead focus on making their meals programs healthier and more appetizing, Schwartz said, so that more students would buy the full meal rather than the á la carte snacks.

But Chris Rogers, a policy analyst at The School Superintendents Association, said having more à la carte options saves money by reducing waste.

“Under current regulations, schools can’t sell pizza, for instance, á la carte as a single option for two days after it’s already been provided as part of the unitized meal,” Rogers said. “We think (the changes) are going to streamline some of these strategies that schools are using to sell these competitive foods as well as maintain their nutritional value for students.”

Experts advocate for national childcare reform, subsidies

WASHINGTON – Several Democrat and Republican members of the House agreed Thursday that current federal child care policies have set families back, hurting children and disproportionately affecting poorer families.

At the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, policy experts advocated for federal subsidies for child care providers and caps on family payments for child care.

Last year, a report conducted by the Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan advocacy group, found that gaps in America’s child care system cost roughly $57 billion a year “in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.”

Taryn Morrissey, an associate professor at American University, said the high costs of early care programs make children from low-income families less likely to attend than other kids. She said the resulting differences in cognitive development perpetuate the income and achievement gap.

Democrats in Congress have proposed a bill that would place a cap on the amount working families pay for child care. No parents earning less than 150% of the median area income would have to pay over 7% of their annual income towards child care programs. Families earning under 70% of the area median income wouldn’t have to pay anything.

The bill would also raise the salaries of child care professionals to a living wage. The Economic Policy Institute, which studies ways to improve the lives of working and middle class families and has funding from labor unions, reported in 2015 that the average hourly salaries of child care workers are 23% less than those of workers in similar occupations. Child care workers are also less likely to receive benefits and pensions. Morrissey said these factors have led to high rates of professional turnover.

“As a result, too many children spend their days in mediocre or low quality care, or across a patchwork of arrangements, a missed opportunity for providing their school readiness, and their long term educational economic and health outcomes,” she said.

But Linda Smith, director of the bipartisan think tank Early Childhood Initiative, said the bill is a one size fits all solution that would leave out many low-income families. She said the majority of child care centers in America operate on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, failing to meet the needs of the roughly 50% of Americans whose hours don’t match up.

Smith suggested a revamp the entire child care system, prioritizing low-income families whoare raising infants, operating at flexible hours, and encouraging subsidies for home-based child care. Smith also said the government should encourage businesses to partner with employees to implement customizable child care options.

“I think that parents know their children best,” Smith said. “And all children don’t fit in one particular setting.”

SOTU: Family Leave and Education

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he will prioritize supporting working families by mandating paid leave and lowering barriers to education. Members of Congress from both parties said they agree with the sentiments, but disagree on how to implement the policies.

Trump’s statements on family leave came in the wake of a December 2019 law that guarantees up to 12 weeks of paid leave to roughly 2.1 million federal employees. The law was the first update to the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, which protects workers from being fired for taking unpaid family leave.

Trump called on Congress to pass the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, a bipartisan bill that offers a loan to new parents, repayable through reductions to their Child Tax Credit.

Critics say the bill only provides leave to new parents, though over 70% of those who use paid leave need it to care for loved ones who are ill or injured. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. said a tax credit system would disproportionately hurt the working class.

“The problem is for certain folks, who are at the lower end of the income spectrum, tax credits aren’t going to be as useful,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Democrats have instead proposed the FAMILY Act, which would levy a 0.4% payroll tax on all families to fund paid leave programs. This would apply to new parents or those taking care of sick family members.

Trump also called on Congress to enact school choice legislation, which would allow parents to send their children to alternative public schools or private schools if they feel the traditional public schools in their area are not meeting their needs. Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has long been a proponent of school choice.

Philadelphia resident Stephanie Davis and her fourth-grade daughter Janiyah were in attendance Tuesday night. According to a White House statement, Janiyah has been assigned to a “low-performing school” and is one of an estimated 50,000 students on a waitlist for a tax credit scholarship.

Trump says Janiyah is an example of a student who he believes has been harmed by anti-school choice policy — Pennsylvania Gov.Tom Wolf vetoed a school choice bill in June 2019.

“For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools,” Trump said. “The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”

At a White House “school choice roundtable” in December, Trump said children who were “trapped in failing government schools” would be “forgotten no longer” in his administration.

In February 2019, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., introduced the Education Freedom Scholarship bill, with backing from DeVos. The policy would direct $5 billion annually into locally controlled scholarship programs that promote school choice policies.

Trump touted the bill Tuesday night, saying it would give 1 million American children the opportunity to attend the school of their choice.

Critics of school choice, however, argued that such policies would deprive public schools of the resources they need to be successful.

“Remarks about how schools are failing is tragic because when you’re defunding schools,” former Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., said. “Calling it school choice is a misnomer. It’s just another way of saying we want to hand over a public service to for-profit communities.”

House Education and Labor committee approves bill to protect pregnant workers from discrimination

WASHINGTON –Despite concern from Republicans that a bill would force religious organizations to make employment decisions that conflict with their faith, the House Education and Labor Committee on Tuesday approved the measure prohibiting discrimination against pregnant workers.

The bill is meant to eliminate discrimination and promote women’s health and economic security by ensuring accommodations for women who are limited performing in certain tasks due to pregnancy, childbirth or other related medical conditions. Before the vote to recommend House approval of the measure, the committee debated whether to incorporate a long-standing provision from the Civil Rights Act that protects religious organizations. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., argued that despite significant improvements, the bill still “encroaches upon religious institutions’ rights,” a concern echoed by numerous Republicans, including Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.

Roe said he favored protecting pregnant workers as well as requiring reasonable accommodations. However, the congressman warned that should the committee exclude a provision that would protect religious organizations, the bill could eventually face a constitutional challenge.

“We should be mindful of protecting religious liberty and maintaining a protection in this bill like those found in other, similar laws,” Roe said.

Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., pointed out that the goal of the bill is to accommodate the temporary needs of pregnant women to ensure their health and the health of their baby.

“It makes absolutely no sense that a pregnant woman who works for a religious organization should face a riskier pregnancy,” Schrier said. According to A Better Balance, a legal team that previously testified before the committee, 75% of women will be pregnant while employed sometime in their life.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, more than 60% of women have experienced some sort of pregnancy discrimination. Both of these statistics were referenced by committee members to emphasize the need for pregnant workers to receive adequate protection under the law. Current federal law does not require that pregnant workers have access to reasonable workplace accommodations.

Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the accommodations being asked of employers are neither complex or costly. They are things like water, seating, more restroom breaks or even temporary lifting restrictions. Accommodations like these would prevent pregnant workers from potentially enduring “tragic health risks.” Scott also called attention to the way these risks disproportionately affect Black and Latina workers who are overrepresented in low-wage, physically demanding jobs.

Rep. Lucy Kay McBath, D-Ga., said the committee’s decision to endorse the measure without providing an exception for religious organizations tells women they never “have to choose between maintaining a healthy pregnancy and [their] paycheck.”

CALLS TO FIX SCHOOL INFRASTRUCTURE LED BY BALTIMORE, CONGRESS

BALTIMORE, Md. — Public school principal Rachel Brunson has seen every infrastructure problem that a large urban school can have. But only one stumped her — the “dirt room.”

“It’s just nothing but dirt,” said Brunson.

A Baltimore native, Brunson has been principal for the last six years at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Middle School, a nearly 50-year-old school that has had poor air and water quality, mold, broken toilets, rusted elevators, leaking pipes and rodents.

But the “dirt room” is one problem she inherited that hasn’t been solved. When she arrived at the school, the room, about the size of two large classrooms, was covered with wall-to-wall dirt in piles that almost reach the ceiling in many areas and were dotted with corroded pipes. She said the costs of clearing out the space to create a “functional, safe classroom” were too high.

So, Brunson just closed the door and locked it. But the room, it still harms the school by destroying the flooring and causing corrosion to pipes. The “dirt room” is an extreme example of the types of pressing maintenance needs with year-round impact on students and teachers that plague many Baltimore City Public Schools.

Last year, all 188 Baltimore City Public Schools closed for four days as emergency maintenance crews were sent to 60 Baltimore City Public Schools to solve heating and flooding problems in early January.

Because of the “dirt room” and a slew of other maintenance failures, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Middle School will be closing in June 2020, joining 75 schools in the Baltimore school system that have closed since 2004.

With over 80,000 students, the district has a massive maintenance backlog that would cost $3 billion to fix, nearly double the district’s annual operating budget, said Dr. Lynette Washington, interim chief operations officer of Baltimore City Public Schools.

For many education advocates, Baltimore schools epitomize the broader national problem of crumbling schools nationwide.

Stories of rats, roaches and mold in Detroit public schools or toxic asbestos in Philadelphia schools have led educators and parents to question the state of education infrastructure. A 2014 Department of Education study estimated that it would cost $197 billion to bring all public schools into “good condition.”

The “dirt room” has been locked up by Principal Rachel Brunson for six years to limit the safety and health risks in the school. (Samantha Handler/MNS)In Maryland, the ACLU of Maryland and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court two weeks ago to reopen a case against state leaders to improve the education quality of Baltimore schools. (Samantha Handler/MNS)Since 2004, 75 schools in Baltimore City Public Schools have closed due to the $3 billion maintenance backlog. (Samantha Handler/MNS)The Rebuild America’s Schools Act was introduced into Congress in late February and would provide over $100 billion to schools in low-income communities to rebuild infrastructure. (Samantha Handler/MNS)The school suffers from a myriad of infrastructural issues, including corrosion and flooding to stairs. (Samantha Handler/MNS)Eighty schools need of repairs in Baltimore City Public Schools for issues such as leaking pipes. (Samantha Handler/MNS)

“Baltimore is a perfect example of crumbling schools in lower-income communities,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. “It’s a product of how we treat education. These are the kids, the future. It’s worth investing in where they learn.
Filardo said most educators are not trained to advocate for infrastructure issues that hurt education equity.

“If you’re living in a house built in the 1940s or 1950s, it’s obvious to upgrade that house. Why don’t we do the same with all schools throughout the country?” said Filardo.

Federal gridlock stunts education funding

Federal lawmakers are gridlocked in discussions about funding for education, although in a December 2018 poll conducted by POLITICO and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, over 65 percent of Democrats and Republicans said increasing K-12 funding is an “extremely important priority” for Congress.

In late February, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2019 to provide $100 billion for school modernizations, with priority given low-income communities.

“I think that if you don’t have, for instance, air that is fit to breathe, it’s hard to see how people can learn,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the committee. “At the end of the day, schools are about learning.”

The bill is expected to pass in the Democratic-controlled House. The Republicans prefer the issues be addressed on a state-by-state basis, pointing to the success of opportunity zones, which focus on private investment in low-income communities in exchange for preferential tax treatment.

“Refocusing our efforts on community development and local innovation will rebuild our communities far more effectively than the federal government can,” said a spokeswoman for Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House Education and Labor committee.

The GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass a companion bill, introduced in late January.

Two weeks ago, President Trump unveiled his budget that would slash funding for the Department of Education by more than 10 percent.

A 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers’ report found that the federal government contributes little to no funding despite education infrastructure being the second largest infrastructure sector in the country.

“The federal role is really important to support states to ensure low-wealth districts, like Baltimore, aren’t penalized in terms of the quality of school facilities,” said Filardo.

State and local communities rally to repair Maryland Schools

The Maryland State Department of Education said its public schools are underfunded by $2.9 billion every year, according to a 2016 report.

Washington, of the Baltimore City Public Schools, said that she does not anticipate state or local funding to significantly increase in the next year. “Without having additional resources, it means the district continues to piecemeal and grapple with infrastructure issues for our students,” she said.

Because local funding is obtained through property taxes, schools like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Middle School have become advocates for more equitable distribution of state funds to schools in impoverished communities.

Two weeks ago, the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court to reopen a landmark case against state leaders. Last week, thousands of teachers and educators marched in Annapolis, Maryland, the state capital.

Many education advocates in Maryland support the lawsuit and the state’s Kirwan Commission, which is tasked with proposing new education standards, policies and funding formulas for Maryland.

The commission recommended an injection of $1.5 billion into the state’s education budget in 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022. By 2030, the proposed funding would increase to $3.8 billion.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Maryland Stadium Authority, the city and state have committed to pour $1.1 billion toward improvements or reconstruction of over 20 schools building in the next decade.

For Rachel Brunson of Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary Middle School, though, the funding isn’t coming soon enough to save her school.

“The students of Baltimore City deserve 21st century buildings,” said Brunson. “They deserve structures, the same types of buildings that any other district is getting or has. Unfortunately, this is urban education.”

Maryland schools tackle funding disparities and infrastructure problems

 

BALTIMORE — Disparities in funding for education infrastructure are evident in Maryland. In Frederick, the school district was able to raise money through state and local funds to build a new $114 million high school. But 50 miles away, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Middle School in northwest Baltimore will close in 2020, joining 75 other schools in the city that have shut down due to infrastructure issues since 2004. Baltimore has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and the district cannot afford to maintain, renovate or reconstruct all of its schools in need.

Because of their inability to raise funds locally, schools like MLK have to look for state or federal government action. Dr. Lynette Washington, the interim chief operations officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, said she doesn’t see state funding increasing any time soon. Congress is currently considering a bill that would provide $100 billion to address school infrastructure issues across the country, particularly in low-income communities.

 


 

Medill Today // December 2, 2021