Who Should Decide What Poverty Is?

May 20, 2015

Let’s step back for a moment — oh, lets — from all the budget and other hot-button issues that will make life better or worse for people in poverty here in the U.S. Let’s consider how we decide who those people are.

As I suppose you know, we decide, for official purposes, by using a measure developed more than 50 years ago. This is the measure that becomes the basis for deciding who is poor enough to qualify for most of our major safety-net benefits.

Knowing it’s outdated — and was crude from the get-go — the Census Bureau has developed a “supplemental” measure, which some other analysts now use. Though more complex and sophisticated than the official measure, it still reflects needs experts have decided are essential, e.g., food, shelter and utilities, clothing, health insurance.

This, economist Stewart Lansley and coauthor Joanna Mack say, is a technocratic way of going at what’s essentially a philosophical question: what it means to be poor. What if we instead asked everyday people what they think necessary for an acceptable standard of living in our society?

The team ought to know because that’s what they’ve done for Great Britain, though thus far only as one of several alternatives to the official measure there. That measure, like ours, uses a straightforward income threshold. But unlike ours, it bases the threshold on median household income.

Below 60% of whatever the median happens to be at any given time means a household is officially poor. So the measure is relative, as it also is in other European Union countries, plus some additional countries in the OECD.

The threshold, however, still reflects a line experts and policymakers have drawn — in this case, to identify people whose resources are “so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.”

Lansley and Mack advocate a “consensual” poverty measure. It’s consensual in that it’s based on surveys that ask the public to identify items they think are necessities not merely for survival, but for living in their society.

So the surveys include not only food, “damp free” housing and the like, but some of those amenities the far-right Heritage Foundation cites to trash on our poverty measure — and our public benefits programs. The survey, in fact, goes beyond goods and services of any sort to include “social activities” no one should have to do without.

The researchers then take items and activities a majority of respondents have chosen as necessities of life. Adults who lack three or more fall into the poverty group, as do children who lack at least two. (Basing the counts on multiple lacks is intended to exclude adults who don’t have — or engage in — one thing or the other because they’ve chosen not to, even though they could afford it.)

A  basic premise here is that the deprivation we commonly view as poverty depends on cultural and social conditions. Whatever the type(s) or degree(s) of deprivation our poverty definition entails don’t properly apply everywhere and for always.

A second, related premise is that deprivation includes the experience of being marginalized due to the indirect consequences of not having enough income and/or sufficient public benefits. We see this in the fact that a majority of UK survey respondents view the ability to afford a school trip for one’s children as a necessity.

Beyond this, the method formally recognizes that “[p]overty is a value judgment,” as the inventor of our own official measure said.

So the question becomes who should make the value judgment — experts who define some set of minimal needs and the compute the costs or the public, whose views and everyday living activities set norms that, as Lansley and Mack have said, cause people who can’t afford to meet them “to be regarded as deprived and to feel deprived.”

The team argues that the public opinion methods is “the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty.” In the UK, at least, it’s a standard that has support from “all social groups,” they say, cutting across classes, age groups, gender and “very importantly, political affiliation.”

They view it hopefully as an approach that could “refocus the discussion” — heated debate actually — about the safety net and the government’s proper role in fighting poverty.

Whether such broad support for a poverty definition would make a difference in our public policies is, to my mind, doubtful. We know from polls, for example, that a large majority of American voters view SNAP (the food stamp program) as important for our country.

Has this protected the program from cuts, let alone produced the needed benefits boost and other changes I tend to harp on?

The notion of a poverty definition grounded in the public’s view of the necessities of life in our country is nevertheless intriguing. If nothing else, it gives us insights into rarely surfaced assumptions underlying our poverty measures.

That, in itself, is, I think, worthwhile as the debate over who’s truly poor, why and what’s appropriate for our government to do rages on.


DC Moves Forward on Affordable Housing. House Republicans Pull Back.

May 18, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia, we’re hopeful about prospects for more affordable housing, especially for our very lowest-income neighbors — both those homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The Mayor’s proposed budget largely accounts for these hopes. Meanwhile, our Republican neighbors on Capitol Hill have decided to put a damper on our progress — and the progress of communities nationwide.

National Housing Trust Fund Defunded

The Mayor’s proposed budget would dedicate $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund — our largest source of public financial support for projects to build and renovate affordable housing.

This would double the amount the Fund has for the current fiscal year and probably expand the District’s affordable housing stock by 1,000 or more units, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports.

The District could have counted on a share of the revenues that at long last were to flow to the National Housing Trust Fund. But the House subcommittee responsible for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s appropriations raided those revenues.

A bit of budgetary legerdemain here. Basically, the subcommittee cut funds for the HOME program, which provides grants to state and local governments for a wide variety of activities related to housing and home ownership.

But it then partially offset the cut by allocating to HOME all the funds that were supposed to go to the Trust Fund. And for reasons not altogether clear to me, it tucked into its bill a provision prohibiting any other funding for the NHTF.

The defunding — and the under-funding I’ll discuss below — were approved by the full Appropriations Committee last week, on a straight party-line vote.

So much then, so far as the majority’s concerned, for funds intensively targeted to rental housing for extremely low-income households, as only 40% of the District’s Trust Fund resources must be.

Federally-Funded Housing Vouchers at Risk

The Mayor’s proposed budget would expand the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded version of the federal Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) voucher program.

LRSP would get an additional $6.1 million — $3.7 million for tenant-based vouchers, which go directly to extremely low-income households so that they can afford to rent at market rates, and $2.4 million for project/sponsor-based vouchers, which help cover the operating costs of housing that’s affordable for these households.

But it’s doubtful the DC Housing Authority, which administers both LRSP and Housing Choice, will have more vouchers to award.

The House HUD appropriation reduces the funding local housing authorities will have to renew Housing Choice vouchers. They’d be shy a total of $183 million of what HUD estimates they’d need to sustain all vouchers now in use.

Here in the District, about 280 fewer families would receive Housing Choice vouchers, according to a White House fact sheet. If accurate, this means that DCHA would have to retire even more vouchers than it did after the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

DCHA and other housing authorities may face similar problems with the contracts they’ve awarded to affordable housing projects. The President’s proposed budget included HUD’s best estimate of the cost of renewing all such contracts. The House HUD appropriations bill falls $106 million short of that.

Further Losses in Habitable Public Housing

A nationwide study conducted for HUD five years ago found a $26 billion shortfall in the funds needed to repair and renovate public housing units. DCHA alone figured it would need $1.3 billion to preserve and redevelop all the units it manages.

That was about a year ago, not long before Congress level-funded the public housing capital fund, leaving it with $625 million less than it had when the HUD study produced its shortfall estimate. And level-funding doesn’t translate into the same level and quality of goods and services, as all of us with personal and household expenses know.

The House Appropriations Committee has nevertheless cut funding for the capital fund by $194 million. Hard to see how this wouldn’t further increase the number of public housing units left vacant — or demolished — because they’re egregiously substandard or so damaged by fire, flooding and the like that repair costs exceed available resources.

Squeeze on Homeless Services

The Mayor’s proposed budget includes a range of investments to move the District forward toward the goal of making homelessness in the District “rare, brief, and non-recurring,” as the new Interagency Council on Homelessness strategic plan envisions.

Her budget also includes a more realistic estimate of the costs of providing emergency shelter for families during the winter months — a refreshing change from the past few years, when the Gray administration minimized family shelter needs and then had to shift funds from other human services programs to cover the costs of motel rooms.

As in the past, local funds would supply most of the homeless services budget. But the District also expects a small increase in homeless assistance funding from HUD.

The House Appropriations Committee would, in fact, provide a small, increase for the grants — $50 million more than approved for this fiscal year. For all intents and purposes, however, the grants would, at best, preserve the status quo.

No additional money to help communities achieve the goals set by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — a source for the District’s own ICH goals.

And lest I haven’t rained on this parade enough, the Mayor’s plan to expand permanent supportive housing includes an as-yet unreported number of Housing Choice vouchers supplied by DCHA. So we could be looking here at a robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Not the District’s fault. It’s what the Republican Congressional majority chose when it decided not to lift the caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but instead to boost defense spending through another bit of budgetary legerdemain.

None of this is yet a cause for hand-wringing, though teeth-gnashing seems appropriate. A bill passed by one appropriations committee is a long way from becoming an agency’s budget.

But we’re a long, long way from a HUD budget that would meaningfully support the District’s commitments to more affordable housing and a lot less homelessness.

 

 

 


DC Homeless Count Shows Some Progress, Still Big Unmet Needs

May 13, 2015

On a single night late last January, nearly 7,300 people were counted as homeless in the District of Columbia, according to the Metropolitan Council of Government’s just-released report. Nearly half of them were adults and children together as families.

Both these figures are moderately lower than those reported for 2014. But over the longer haul, we see an upward trend in the homeless total, driven entirely by the sharp spike in family homelessness.

Nearly Twice as Many Homeless Families as in 2008

The count identified 1,131 homeless families, i.e. those in shelters or transitional housing. None reported on the streets, in bus stations or other places “not meant for human habitation.” And as I say virtually every time I report count figures, they don’t include nearly all families (or individuals) without a home of their own.

The latest family total is 100 fewer than in January 2014. But it’s nearly double the number counted in 2008, when the recession had just set in. Looked at another way, family homelessness has increased by well over 92%, despite the 2014 dip down.

High Percent of Homeless Families With Very Young Parents

The MCOG report includes a first-time-ever breakout of “transition age youth,” i.e., 18-24 year olds. For this we can thank the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the data collection rules.

Here in the District, the count identified 1,103 TAY — all but 193 of them in families, i.e., as parents who had at least one child with them, but no parent or guardian of their own in the group. This means that nearly 64% of all adults in families counted were in their late teens or early twenties.

Now, this doesn’t mean that such a large percent of all homeless young adults in the District were parents who had babies and/or toddlers to tend and, insofar as they could, protect.

Far more single, i.e., lone, TAY than counted had probably found friends or relatives to give them a temporary alternative to the streets or the nasty singles shelters. It’s obviously one thing to let a young person sleep on your couch. Quite another to bring a mom and her newborn or understandably fretful two-year-old into your home.

It’s also likely that many single TAY who had no shelter of any sort didn’t get counted because unaccompanied youth generally don’t spend their nights where they’re reasonably easy to find — and often won’t admit they’re homeless when found.

The high percent of youth-headed homeless families is nonetheless striking. The TAY count isn’t the only indicator. MCOG, relying on facts and figures from last year’s count, says the median age for homeless D.C. adults in families is 25.

Fewer Homeless Singles, But More Unsheltered

The latest count found 3,821 homeless single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children with them and thus didn’t qualify as family members, though some undoubtedly had spouses or partners sharing their plight.

The new figure is a tad lower than last year’s, which was somewhat higher than the figure for 2013. We don’t see a clear long-term trend. The latest figure, however, represents a decrease of about 9.2%, as compared to 2008.

Though the vast majority of homeless singles were in shelters or transitional housing, 544 were exposed to the elements or spending their nights in cars, vacant buildings, stairwells and the like. The unsheltered figure is nearly 150 higher than last year’s — and even a bit higher than in 2008.

With such (happily) small numbers, it’s hard to know whether we’re seeing a real uptick or merely the results of a more effective count. The District’s chapter in the MCOG report suggests the latter.

Fewer Chronically Homeless Residents

We do see what seems a genuine downward trend in the number of homeless singles identified as chronically homeless, i.e., those who’d been homeless for quite a long time or recurrently and had at least one disabling condition.

The January count found 1,593 of these singles — only 16 fewer than in 2014. But it’s the fifth year the number dropped, making for a 27% decrease since 2008.

The count also found fewer chronically homeless families, i.e. those in which at least one adult met the HUD definition I’ve linked to above. The latest figure — 66 — represents a marked drop from 2014, but that was a marked increase over 2013.

MCOG didn’t start reporting chronically homeless families as a separate group until 2011, presumably because HUD didn’t require grantees to do so. Looking back as far as we can then, we see a decrease of roughly 51%.

More Residents Not Homeless Because of Permanent Supportive Housing

Singles and families living in permanent supportive housing are rightly not counted as homeless, though most probably would be without PSH. They are, however, accounted for in the MCOG report and its members’ reports to HUD.

And here’s where we see the explanation for the relatively low chronically homeless figures, especially for singles. In January, 4,230 singles were living in PSH units in the Distric — an increase of 730 over 2014. This represents a whopping 115.5% increase since 2008.

We also find more families who’d like as not have been chronically homeless were it not for PSH. The District reported 1,128 of them, somewhat over three times as many as in 2008.

Not Just More Data Points

At this very moment, the DC Council is chewing over the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Both the progress and the challenges the new count indicates should persuade it to support her proposed investments in both homeless services and affordable housing, including PSH — indeed, to make at least some of them bigger.

And I, getting back on my hobbyhorse, see yet further justification for her proposal to extend a lifeline, though thin to the 6,300 families who’ll otherwise lose what remains of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

If they’re not already homeless, they’re likely to be. And as things stand now, a goodly number will have to fend for themselves until the next severe cold snap because the Mayor’s budget won’t cover the costs of sheltering all with no safe place to stay when the multifarious harms they’re exposed to don’t include the risk of freezing to death.

Like I said, some bigger investments needed.

 

 

 


What Raise the Wage Would (and Might) Do at State and Local Levels

May 11, 2015

As I said the other day, Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Bobby Scott have introduced an ambitious bill to at long last raise the federal minimum wage — and at longer last, do away with the sub-minimum tip credit wage.

One might wonder why we need the bill when so many states, plus some local governments have already raised their minimums. The answer lies in part in the higher and uniform wage floor the Murray-Scott Raise the Wage bill would set.

The other part — more speculative — has to do with how the bill could affect further state and local minimum wage initiatives. Assuming, as seems reasonable, that Congress won’t pass it, we’re likely to see such initiatives as we approach the sixth year since a federal minimum wage increase.

And the more we see, the more we could see the bar raised for employers’ quasi-voluntary initiatives to raise the wage floor for their lowest-paid workers. “Quasi” because they’re clearly responding to well-publicized campaigns they rightly view as threats to their brands — and bottom lines.

Direct Effects on State and Local Minimum Wage Rates

As in the past, state and local governments have grown increasingly impatient at the federal government’s failure to raise the minimum wage. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia passed their own increases last year.

None of them, however, now mandates a wage as high as $12 an hour, though minimums in a few major cities will eventually exceed it. And only four of the new state laws, plus the District’s provide for annual cost-of-living adjustments once their new rates are fully phased in.

Eyeballing the rates they’ve set and the full phase-in dates, I doubt that any, except perhaps the District’s will match $12 in 2020. More importantly, we still have 19 states that peg their minimum wage to the federal or have no minimum wage law of their own.

And only seven states require employers to pay their workers the full minimum wage, even those who often earn tips. Not that we haven’t seen efforts to eliminate tip credit wages in other states — and in the District.

All steamrollered by the National Restaurant Association’s state affiliates, allied groups purporting to represent small businesses and the restaurant industry’s hired gun, the Employment Policies Institute (not to be confused with the Economic Policy Institute).

What the Rates Tell Us

The varying minimum wage rates themselves tell us a couple of things. First — and most obviously — workers in some states will be stuck with the current federal minimum and significantly lower sub-minimum unless the federal law is changes.

Second, also obviously, many millions of workers in most, if not all other states would also get paid more under the Murray-Scott bill. As I mentioned earlier, the Economic Policy Institute estimates 37.7 million by 2020, not counting workers paid the $2.13 federal tip credit wage — or as in the District, a slightly higher sub-minimum.

How Raise the Wage Could Raise Wages Without Changing Federal Law

Much as we might wish, Congress won’t raise wages for those 37.7 million workers and the additional uncounted tip credit workers — not at least, until new elections dramatically shift the party balance. Raise the Wage could nevertheless have near-term, real-world effects.

These would arise from the way the bill may alter the framework within which policymakers and we, the voter/consumer public, assess current and reasonable minimum wages.

Essentially, the proposed minimum could become a new reference point, of sorts, for initiatives to raise state and local minimum wages. The proposed tip credit wage phase-out might become a reference point too.

We already see how the fast-food worker strikes — and more recently, some broader strikes — have made $15 an hour seem just and reasonable for more than an outlier city like Seattle.

The movers and shakers behind San Francisco’s recent ballot measure didn’t just pull their $15 an hour minimum out of a hat. Nor, I think, was the overwhelming voter support for the measure unrelated to the fact that $15 no longer seems like mere pie in the sky.

In fact, it’s made $12 an hour five years from now seem like a quite modest proposal — as indeed, it is. Recall that $12 in 2020 won’t be worth as much as it is today. If it were effective today, a full-time, year round minimum wage worker’s take-home pay would still be less than needed to lift a four-person family above the poverty line.

So Raise the Wage is by no means the be-all-and-end-all. Nor would the sponsors and many cosponsors say otherwise. But it would ease the budget crunch for poor and near-poor working families, narrow the yawning gap between them and the highest earns — and perhaps, as some who ought to know say, also prove a benefit to employers who’d have to pay it.

As I’ve suggested, it may do all of these good things in the not-distant future, even if, as expected, the Republican leaders in Congress let it die because they want to spare their members what could be a troublesome vote.

But we won’t see those good things everywhere and for everyone without changes in the federal law.


If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again to Raise the Minimum Wage

May 7, 2015

As you may have read, Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Bobby Scott have introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage. It’s the latest in an ongoing, going-nowhere-now series of Democratic efforts to raise the wage.

The Murray-Scott bill has several major features in common with its recent predecessors, but also several that are somewhat different. What foreseeably won’t be different are the cavils opponents will raise, not to mention the fate of the bill in Congress — this Congress, at least.

But Raise the Wage — the name of the bill, as well as its main thrust — is hardly a futile gesture. For one thing, it gives Democrats a popular, differentiating issue to campaign on.

For another, the bill can further focus attention on the shrinking value of the current minimum wage, the plight of workers who receive it and the safety-net costs higher-income taxpayers cover to keep those workers and their families from utter deprivation.

What the Bill Would Do for the Federal Minimum Wage

The bill would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25, where it’s been stuck since mid-2009, to $12.00 in 2020. The first phase of the increase — 75 cents — would kick in at the beginning of next year. The wage would then rise by $1.00 each year thereafter.

After 2020, the wage would be adjusted annually by the same percent as the national median hourly wage increased. This is one of the differences from the earlier bills, which provided for annual adjustments based on consumer price inflation.

The Economic Policy Institute, which provided analytic support for the new approach, argues that benchmarking to the median wage is fairer because adjusting merely for inflation “assumes that minimum-wage workers should not expect their standard of living to improve relative to the standard achieved by workers 50 years ago.”

In 1968, when the federal minimum wage was worth $10.79 in today’s dollars, it was slightly over half the median. It’s about 37% of the median now and would return to roughly the 1968 ratio, according to EPI estimates.

What the Bill Would Do About the Tip Credit Wage

The Murray-Scott bill would also very gradually phase out the tip credit wage, i.e., the minimum employers must pay employees who receive more than $30 a month in tips. The federal tip credit wage is currently $2.13 an hour, as it has been since 1991. And it’s still the legal sub-minimum in 17 states.

The bill would boost it to $3.15 next year and then increase by no more than $1.05 an hour until it equaled the regular federal minimum. The same adjustments based on the median wage increase would then apply.

This is more ambitious than bills introduced in the last several years, which would have gradually raised the tip credit wage until it reached 70% of the regular federal minimum and then preserved that ratio.

What Opponents Will Say

Quick out of the box, economist/blogger Jared Bernstein anticipates “the same tired arguments” we hear every time anyone floats the notion of a minimum wage increase. He heads his post with a graphic from EPI that dispatches with some of the myths.

No, minimum wage workers aren’t mostly teenagers. Only 11% are under 20 — many considerably older, since their average age is 36. No, they’re not earning some extra spending money for fancy cell phones and the like. On average, their earnings make up more than half their family’s income.

And despite what we will undoubtedly hear again, a minimum wage increase will not hurt those it’s intended to help. A recently-published analysis of more than 200 studies concludes that “increases in the minimum wage … have very modest or no effects on employment, hours, and other labor market outcomes.”

How Many Workers Helped

EPI estimates that the newly-proposed increase would benefit more than 37.7 million workers by 2020 — more than one in four of the entire workforce. This includes not only those who’d be legally entitled to increases, but about 7 million whose wages are somewhat higher. They’d get a bump-up as employers adjusted their pay scales to preserve a differential.

The projected impact is so broad because the Murray-Scott bill would lift minimum wages even in the majority of states and the District of Columbia that now have minimums higher than the federal. And I would assume it’s even broader because the vast majority still permit a sub-minimum tip credit wage — a factor EPI’s estimates apparently don’t fold in.

I’ll have more to say about these angles in a separate post.

In the interim, you can demonstrate support for the Raise the Wage bill by signing a petition EPI has launched.

 


Where Will Funds That Now Support Better Education for Poor Children Go?

May 4, 2015

As I said in my last post, the bipartisan Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seeks to ease the test score pressures created by No Child Left Behind, the latest version of the ESEA. It also tells the U.S. Department of Education, in no uncertain terms, to stop exerting pressures of its own.

But the bill leaves intact core requirements intended to ensure that schools no longer causally and without consequences leave low-income and other educationally “disadvantaged” students behind.

Title I, which sets these requirements, has another very important part — funding for grants to states and the local education agencies that administer regular public and public charter schools. About a third of the funds go to LEAs according formulas that target funds to schools with the most or highest percents of children in poverty.

The intent here, obviously, is to give these schools the additional resources they need to provide genuinely equal educational opportunities to children who would otherwise have a harder time mastering the knowledge and skills expected for their grade level.

The Senate bill preserves the targeting. This might seem such a sensible thing as to merit no comment — let alone a blog post. But it represents a significant achievement on the part of Senator Patty Murray, who brokered the bipartisan deal on behalf of the Democrats.

The original draft floated by HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander would instead have allowed the money to follow the child — in other words, to let states shift a child’s share of the basic Title I grant to any public school s/he enrolls in.

This was a far less radical change than right-wingers like the Heritage Foundation and fellow travelers pushed for — and far less than leading Republican conservatives have sought for decades now.

I (showing her age) recall several efforts to achieve so-called Title I portability during the Reagan administration. They cropped up again in abortive attempts to reauthorize the ESEA in 1999 and 2007, when now-House Speaker John Boehner expressed the view that “the money belongs to the children” and thus should support “true parental choice.”

“Parental choice” — a favorite code phrase — means that the per-pupil Title I funds should follow the child to any school. That’s, of course, a gift not only to charter schools, but to private schools, including those operated by religious institutions.

Simply “a voucher by another name,” says the National Coalition for Public Education. Others have viewed even the modified public school version as a “back door” to vouchers.

Now, there’s surely something attractive in the notion that low and moderate-income parents should have the same chance to send their kids to private schools as wealthy parents. But Title I portability would hardly afford them this choice. A child’s share of the grant funds is too small.

More importantly, it denies Title I funds to high-poverty schools that need the money for the various programs and services that can help level the playing field for children who, for various reasons, often start kindergarten already behind.

Those located in high-poverty districts, as many are, already have less to spend because public schools get, on average, roughly a third of their funds from local property taxes — some least half.

The Center for American Progress contends that some states use funding formulas that make the inequities worse. So even with targeted Title I grants, the highest-poverty districts had $1,500 less per child to spend in 2012 than those with the fewest poor students — this from another CAP report, aimed directly at portability.

Now, no one’s altogether happy with the Senate bill — no one, at least, that I’ve found in my news feeds and Googling around. And no one, of course, can predict what will happen when the bill hits the floor — presumably open to any and every sort of amendment.

What will happen in the House is also a question mark. The responsible committee there has already passed a bill — not even remotely on a bipartisan basis. It includes, among other things, the public school portability provision that Alexander has, at least temporarily, given up on.

And Boehner has apparently given up — at least for the time being — on trying to get the House bill passed. Democrats unhappy with the portability provision, a funding cap that would lock in sequestration and what they perceive, with some justice, as an excess of state flexibility.

Tea Party types unhappy with the remaining degree of federal “control” — and the fact that the bill doesn’t let Title I funds follow children to private schools.

So we might not see the ESEA reauthorized this year — or next, for that matter. We certainly won’t see anything like the House bill become law because the White House issued a veto threat just before the House passed a similar bill in 2013.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But if we see anything, I hope it preserves the targeting because high-poverty schools need more resources to give disadvantaged children the opportunities they deserve.


Bipartisan Senate Bill Tweaks No Child, But Leaves Most of Core Intact

April 30, 2015

As you may have read, we have another genuinely bipartisan bill in Congress. It’s the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee’s legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now named No Child Left Behind.

It’s a big bill and undoubtedly raises many issues. The most controversial — and for the purposes of this blog, most important — concern Title I, originally Education for the Disadvantaged. The bill modifies requirements that have triggered attacks on No Child from various quarters.

But, in my view, it’s as notable for what it doesn’t do as what it does. I’ll deal here with the inflammatory testing issue. Expect a followup on how Title I would — or wouldn’t any more — targeted funding to schools with unusually high concentrations of students in poverty.

Standardized Tests and Consequences

Title I, in its No Child form, supposedly ushered in the testing regime that school districts have imposed — to the vocal distress of many classroom teachers, the unions that represent them and a growing number of parents.

No Child itself doesn’t require all that many tests — reading/language arts and math annually from third through eighth grade and once in high school, plus three science tests during these years.

What got the testing regime — and thus the anti-test fervor — going were the actions the law requires districts to take when a school’s scores fail to indicate “adequate yearly progress” toward full proficiency for virtually all students by 2014.

A four-year shortfall could mean replacing school staff and/or taking control away from school-level administrators. Another year and the school would have to be restructured, e.g., by firing most or all of the staff, turning the school into a charter school.

One can see why schools started testing much more frequently — and gearing curricula to boosting scores on the mandated tests. Why districts started using the scores to evaluate teachers is a bit more complex.

No Child itself doesn’t require this. But the U.S. Department of Education has used its considerable leverage to make test scores an important part of the evaluations that determine which teachers will be rewarded — and which ultimately fired.

It did this first by limiting its newly-created Race to the Top grants to states that agreed to use such evaluations and then by making them a condition of the waivers that a large majority of states and the District of Columbia have had to seek because schools weren’t hitting their AYP targets.

Testing in the Senate Bill

The Senate bill does several things that may result in less frequent testing, “teaching to the test” and the like. It grants states more flexibility. Natch. They can design their own accountability systems, using standardized test scores as they choose. Use them they must, however.

They and the decision-makers in the districts can decide what to do about schools that don’t measure up, rather than having to choose from a menu of increasingly drastic actions.

The federal government will have some grant money to help them, but it’s expressly prohibited from dictating specific steps — just as it’s expressly prohibited from using its leverage to promote cross-state standards like the now-maligned Common Core.

Still Tests, Broken-Out Scores and Public Reporting

Though states would gain some flexibility, the bill preserves the core purpose of Title I — equal education opportunities for low-income students and those, regardless of income, who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, have disabilities and/or are learning English as a second language.

It does that in part by preserving two of No Child’s major advances. One requires school districts to include at least 95% of each of these groups in their mandated testing. The other requires them to publicly report scores separate for each.

The “disadvantaged” students used to be left behind — and their neglect hard to prove, even when known — in part because school districts could report a single score per school.  They could — and in some cases, did — excuse some of the “disadvantaged” from having to take the tests or otherwise exclude them so as to keep them from dragging down the scores.

The bill won’t allow schools to revert to obfuscations of this sort. So anyone interested will still be able to know whether each of the specified disadvantaged groups has learned whatever the standards call for — and how they’re faring in comparison to their white, higher-income, native-born and non-disabled peers.

The bill also preserves a related accountability measure — the requirement that states allow students to take the tests used for the National Assessment of Education Progress. These tests are the same for the same grade levels throughout the country and remain relatively consistent over time.

NAEP can thus report quite reliable long-term trends. And it does so for individual states, with some relevant break-outs, e.g., by race, ethnicity and eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals — a common surrogate for low family income.

What this means is that there will still be a way to gauge the tests states themselves use to test core competencies — and to a limited extent, such progress as they report for some of the disadvantaged groups that President Johnson hoped would get a “passport from poverty” through “quality and equality in … [their] schooling.”

 

 

 

 


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