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Elizabeth Warren Education Plan Pushes Huge Funding Boost, More Union Power

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — October 21, 2019 10 min read
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Massachusetts senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is proposing a K-12 education plan that includes $450 billion in new federal aid over 10 years to disadvantaged students, changing the way that money is allocated in order to ensure underfunded schools get more, and more than doubling funding in special education grants by increasing aid by $20 billion a year.

In addition, Warren’s plan would direct billions of dollars a year in federal money to promote public school integration, and aims to help 25,000 public schools transition to the community schools model, which provides health and other wraparound services to help students and their communities. She also wants to eliminate “high-stakes testing” and authorize new legal requirement that teachers can organize and collectively bargain in every state.

Her campaign released “A Great Public School Education for Every Student” on Monday. In this plan, Warren also reiterated her previous pledge to appoint a person with public school teaching experience to be education secretary. She also wants to end federal funding for charter school expansion, and to allow only local school districts to authorize charter schools.

On the technology side, she wants to revamp federal law to “ban the sharing, storing, and sale of student data that includes names or other information that can identify individual students.” She also takes a shot at tech giants like Facebook and Google by saying she’ll “crack down” on data mining practices that take place in schools.

Warren’s plan would require huge changes in how the U.S. Department of Education does business, and Congress would have to sign off on key elements. Politically speaking, it’s hard to see how much of want she wants gets over the finish line; lawmakers would have to agree to revise several key elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, for example. But it sends a clear signal to Democratic voters and key power players in the party, especially the teachers’ unions, about her intentions and how much she would depart not just from the Trump administration, but from the Obama administration as well.

“As public school teachers across the country know, our schools do not have the financial resources they need to deliver a quality public education for every child. That’s why my plan invests hundreds of billions of dollars in our public schools—paid for by a two-cent wealth tax on fortunes above $50 million,” Warren said in a statement accompanying the plan. The blueprint also has five objectives in mind:

  • “Fund schools adequately and equitably so that all students have access to a great public education.”
  • “Renew the fight against segregation and discrimination in our schools.”
  • “Provide a warm, safe, and nurturing school climate for all our kids.”
  • “Treat teachers and staff like the professionals they are.
  • “Stop the privatization and corruption of our public education system”

More Funding, Charter Crackdown

One of the signature elements of Warren’s plan is the quadrupling of Title I aid, so that the program for disadvantaged students would get $450 billion in additional federal cash over a decade. For the sake of comparison, a spending bill passed by House Democrats last spring would increase Title I funding by $1 billion, or 6.9 percent. So needless to say it’s a long shot.

But Warren wants to do more on Title I than just give it more money. The plan says Warren is “committed to working with public education leaders and school finance experts to improve the way the federal government allocates this new Title I funding.” The four formulas that dictate Title I spending have long been scrutinized by everyone from school administrators to the federal government itself. One of the main concern is that the funding in many cases does not actually reach the students it’s intended for.

In 2015 before the Every Student Succeeds Act became law, Congress considered changing the four formulas that undergird Title I but ultimately chose to leave them alone. The $450 billion hike Warren wants will get lots of headlines, but changing those formulas (while also a difficult task) would also be a huge shift in K-12 policy. Warren also wants more transparency around Title I spending to track how the money is being used.

If Title I would be a major winner under Warren’s plan, charter schools would be a big loser, just like in the education plan proposed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of her Democratic primary rivals. (More on that below.) In addition to cutting off the federal funding for charter expansion that’s provided in Charter School Program grants, Warren wants a ban on “for-profit” charter schools.

Making both of those proposals a reality, however, would be a tall order. The charter school community denies that arrangements in which for-profit companies that help manage charters make those schools “for-profit.” Roughly 15 percent of charters have such arrangements, according to charter advocates, and it’s been left up to states to determine such arrangements.

And although House Democrats have proposed cutting those federal grants to charters by nearly 10 percent for the federal fiscal year, cutting or eliminating them altogether to choke off federal support for charter expansion might be a bridge too far.

In a sign of how aggressive she wants federal oversight of charters to be, Warren said she would have the Internal Revenue Service target “nonprofit schools” (meaning charters) that she says are violating federal statutes for nonprofits.

“My administration also will crack down on union-busting and discriminatory enrollment, suspension, and expulsion practices in charter schools, and require boards to be made up of parents and members of the public, not just founders, family members, or profit-seeking service providers,” Warren said.

‘Drivers of Residential Segregation’

Warren’s education plan doesn’t just deal with public school policy, however.

“By investing more money in our public schools—and helping ensure that every public school is a great one—my plan will address one of the key drivers of residential segregation,” Warren says in her blueprint.

In addition to overall boosts in school funding, her plan calls for expanding states’ and districts’ ability to use Title I funds for local integration efforts.

Warren also proposes addressing neighborhood segregation through a down-payment assistance program for residents of historically redlined areas and a $10 billion competitive program, through which states and cities could win grants to build parks, roads, and schools in exchange for eliminating “the kinds of restrictive zoning laws that can further racial segregation.”

To address racial discrimination in schools, Warren wants to expand the ability of students and families to sue schools for racial discrimination if policies disparately impact students of color, not just for instances of intentional discrimination.

She would beef up the Education Department’s office for civil rights and instruct federal investigators to crack down on school policies and practices that disproportionately affect students of color. (Disparate impact was at the heart of the debate over Obama-era guidance on school discipline, which the Trump administration rescinded this year.)

Like other Democratic candidates, Warren pledges to restore guidance on the rights of transgender students that the Trump administration rescinded. She wants to to expand policies that call for fair treatment of students with disabilities by ensuring they are fairly identified, provided with services and accommodations, and disciplined. Her civil rights promises also extend to immigrant students and English-language learners.

Several other candidates have proposed similar returns to more aggressive civil rights enforcement. Warren’s civil rights plan adds to those commitments by pledging to scrutinize efforts by wealthier, whiter communities to break away and form their own school districts, and by working to cut down on the time it takes to gather and release federal education civil rights data.

Collective Bargaining Power

Teacher pay, preparation, and support have been a key element of many candidates’ education plans, and those issues also make up a big portion of Warren’s proposals.

She reiterates her previously stated pledge to boost teacher pay—which is largely set at the state and local levels—by encouraging states to better fund teacher pay through their funding formulas.

She calls for more federal funding for ongoing teacher training and for studying effective models of professional development.

And Warren calls for the enactment of the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2019, which she has co-sponsored. That bill would assert the right of all public employees to collective bargaining.

Warren’s plan says an additional $50 billion in federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions and plans to forgive student debt will help a broad swath of teachers financially and also serve to promote diversity in the profession, which is largely white.

From ‘Transformational’ to ‘Unfortunate’

Two responses to Warren’s plan sum up the views of both its supporters and its critics.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hailed the blueprint, calling it “a stark reversal of years of austerity and failed quick-fix reforms,” and said it represented the kind of ideals behind the current Chicago teachers’ strike. (As it happens, Warren weighed in on Twitter over the weekend to support those striking teachers.)

“Warren’s plan would provide a much-needed jolt of investment in America’s public schools. It is focused, first and foremost, on creating and cultivating the vibrant, safe and welcoming environments kids deserve, and on providing educators the voice and supports they need as professionals to help their students learn and thrive,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Charter school advocates reacted very differently. Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Warren’s plan would “starve” charter schools of funding and “destroy the dreams of a quality education for the families who need it most.”

“Elizabeth Warren’s unfortunate rejection of the Obama legacy on public charter schools is fundamentally at odds with her party,” Wilkins said.

Warren’s Personal Story

On a personal level, Warren’s teaching career has been in the news recently, although not for her classroom work. Her recent statements that she was forced out of her New Jersey teaching career by her principal because she was visibly pregnant have been called into question. Warren has stood by her story.

If elected, Warren would be the first president with K-12 teaching experience since President Lyndon B. Johnson. Teachers we talked to about Warren had mixed views about the value of her time in the classroom. Some said that even one year of teaching gives her a certain credibility when discussing education. Yet others say Warren’s short-lived time as a teacher, which was well over 40 years ago, may not give her much insight into the challenges teachers face today.

Among top-tier Democratic presidential candidates, the Massachusetts senator is relatively late in releasing a K-12 plan. Up to this point, her education focus has largely been on early-childhood education as well as student-debt relief and college affordability.

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have pledged to provide a massive funding boost to Title I, for example. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have also released plans focusing on public schools.

Read her plan below:

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waves to supporters at the SEIU Unions For All Summit on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

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