Elizabeth Warren’s K-12 Plan Spotlights Funding, Charters

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — October 29, 2019 5 min read
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.

Massachusetts senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a K-12 education plan that includes $450 billion in new federal aid over 10 years to disadvantaged students, increasing special education aid by $20 billion a year, and launching a crackdown on charter school expansions and so-called “for-profit” charters.

In addition, she would direct billions of dollars a year in federal money to promote public school integration, and aim 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 a new legal requirement that teachers can organize and collectively bargain in every state.

In “A Great Public School Education for Every Student” that her campaign released last week, 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.

Political Lift

Warren’s plan would require huge changes in how the U.S. Department of Education does business. Lawmakers would have to agree to revise several key elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. It also sends a clear signal to Democratic voters and key power players in the party, especially the teachers’ unions, that Warren is all in for traditional public schools. Warren says she’d pay for her plan through a new two-cent wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million.

“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,” Warren said in a statement accompanying the plan.

In proposing a four-fold increase in Title I aid for disadvantaged schools, Warren is upping the ante on two of her top primary rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden. Both of them have proposed tripling Title I funding. To put it all in perspective, Title I will get about $16 billion this year; a spending bill passed by House Democrats last spring would increase that by $1 billion, or 6.9 percent.

See Also: Education in the 2020 Presidential Race

But Warren wants to do more on Title I than just give it more money. The plan says she 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 concerns is that the funding in many cases does not actually reach the students it’s intended for. Warren also wants more transparency around Title I spending.

Warren’s call for more special education funding touches on a long-standing sore spot: For decades, despite a requirement for the federal government to pay for 40 percent of the additional costs of providing special education to students, Congress has not done so.

Charter schools would be a big loser under Warren’s plan, just like in the education plan proposed by Sanders. 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, a reference to some charters that work with for-profit organizations to help manage schools.

Making those proposals a reality, however, would be a tall order. Some charter critics say arrangements in which for-profit companies that help manage charters make those schools “for-profit.” Roughly 15 percent of charters are managed that way, charter advocates say, and it’s been left up to states to determine such arrangements.

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.

Civil Rights Issues

Her plan also calls for expanding states’ and districts’ ability to use Title I funds for local integration efforts.

And she would address neighborhood segregation through a down-payment assistance program for residents of historically redlined areas (neighborhoods in which people have been denied services, such as bank loans, on the basis of race) and a $10 billion competitive program states and cities could use 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.

Like other Democratic candidates, Warren pledges to restore guidance on the rights of transgender students that the Trump administration rescinded. Her civil rights promises also extend to immigrant students, English-language learners, and those with disabilities.

Collective Bargaining Power

In the teacher arena, Warren 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.

And she 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 and also serve to promote diversity in the profession, which is largely white.

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.

The teachers’ union president said Warren’s plan is focused on both children and “on providing educators the voice and supports they need as professionals to help their students learn and thrive.”

But 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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Education Week as Elizabeth Warren’s K-12 Plan Spotlights Funding, Charters


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