I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

School Funding Hypocrisy: Presidential Candidate Edition

Fair warning: I'm going to start with Trump, but I'm not going to let Clinton off the hook. Stay with me...

Last night, at the Republican National Convention, the candidate's son took the stage to engage in some good old fashioned teacher bashing. The crowd, naturally contemptuous of anyone who might be complicit in teaching the nation's youth how to think critically, ate it all up. Look carefully and you'll see Chris Christie, our country's foremost teacher basher, standing near the front of the crowd, egging Don Trump, Jr. on as he blamed America's education woes on those hated teachers and their unions.

The fun starts at 7:25:

(7:25) The other party gave us public schools that far too often fail our students, especially those who have no options. Growing up, my siblings and I, we were truly fortunate to have choices and options that others don't have. We want all Americans to have those same opportunities. Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now, they're stalled on the ground floor. They're like Soviet era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers. For the teachers and the administrators and not the students.  
You know why other countries do better on K through 12?* They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That's called competition. It's called the free market. And it's what the other party fears. They fear it because they're more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.
Like so many other scions of wealth and privilege who have thrust themselves into education policy, Don Jr. wants "all Americans to have those same opportunities" he and the other Trumps enjoyed. OK...

How did a reality-television star, now the presumptive G.O.P. nominee, raise such normal kids? On some level, he did it by outsourcing the job. Trump and his first wife, Ivana, left their young children in the care of two Irish nannies and, for a time, their maternal grandparents, before sending the kids off to boarding school (Eric and Donald Jr. to the Hill School; Ivanka to Choate). “My father is a very hardworking guy, and that’s his focus in life, so I got a lot of the paternal attention that a boy wants and needs from my grandfather,” Donald Jr. told New York Magazine in 2004. [emphasis mine]
The Hill School is on a beautiful campus in Pottstown, PA.

Here are a few fun facts about Hill (edited for brevity; emphasis mine):
  • Student/teacher ratio: 7-1; Typical class size: 12-14 students; Largest class size: 20 students
  • Advanced Placement subjects offered: 28. 
  • Each college adviser has approximately 35-40 advisees. College advisers are assigned during the winter term of the fifth form (junior) year.
  • The Hill has 72 teaching faculty members; 71% hold or are working toward advanced degrees. Nearly all reside in dormitories serving as dorm parents, or in homes on campus.
  • Students will have the opportunity to take several new academic courses, including Engineering 1, the first of three progressive, year-long courses in engineering and robotics; the Quadrivium Capstone, which combines math, science, engineering, and technology into a culminating experience for The Hill’s new interdisciplinary science curriculum; and AP Economics and Calculus courses that will use college-prep pedagogies by combining large lecture format with smaller discussions in an effort to replicate the most common college model. Additional new or significantly revised courses include Introduction to Web Development, Speech 2, Advanced Music Technology, Advanced Latin and Greek Seminar, Creative Writing, World History, Arabic 2, and AP Environmental Science.
Extra-curricular Activities:
  • We offer 29 interscholastic sports programs; 3 club sports; 9 instrumental and vocal ensembles; and 3 theatrical productions per year.
  • The Student Activities Office offers a wide variety of on-and off-campus opportunities to students. 
  • The Hill has a thriving community service program.
  • As of July 2015, The Hill School's endowment was approximately $155 million.
Our Campus:
  • The Hill's campus is more than 200 acres, and includes two new artificial turf fields, a new 8-lane track, and 11 new faculty homes.
Keeping in mind that $155 million endowment means tuition does not fully cover the costs of educating a Hill student, what is the tuition?
For the 2016-17 school year, the annual tuition is $55,660 for boarding students and $38,400 for day students. For boarders, the tuition charges cover all instruction, room and board, on-campus events, health services at the Health Center, and some athletic equipment. The charges for day students cover instruction and on-campus events, as well as lunch on every day except Sunday. Students must pay for their textbooks and supplies. Some elective courses, athletic activities, music instruction, and other programs also may require additional fees. The Admission Office can supply detailed information on all costs associated with an education at The Hill.
Let's simply use day student tuition: If Donald Trump, Jr. really wants "all Americans to have those same opportunities" he had, every child in the United States would go to a school that was funded at $40K a year per pupil. That, by the way, is given a labor cost similar to the Pottstown labor market, and including all the extras Hill faculty get like free housing.

Remember also that Hill is a competitive admissions school, so they don't have to worry about the increased costs for educating children who are at-risk or Limited English Proficient or who have special education needs.

Just for a little context: national per pupil spending was $10,700 in 2013. New York City spent $20,331; Chicago, $12,284; Los Angeles, $10,657. Again, those figures are unadjusted for labor market costs or student characteristics. Imagine how much more it would cost in these big, expensive cities to provide every child, no matter their need, with a Hill-like education.

As I've pointed out many times before, school choice advocates love to pretend that urban charter schools (often run by for-profit managers) or low-spending voucher schools are somehow equivalent to elite private schools like Hill. The comparison is absurd on its face.

It's nice to see that Donald Trump, Jr. is grateful for his privileged upbringing. But Trump, Jr.'s gratuitous swipes at teachers while pretending he and his father support giving all American children an education equivalent to his is just about as obnoxious as it gets.

Now, I did promise I had something to say about Hillary Clinton and school funding. Let me be clear so you know just were I stand: Donald Trump is to completely unfit to serve as president, there is much I like about Clinton, and I will, of course, vote for her this fall (frankly, I don't see how anyone sane could ever do otherwise).

Unfortunately, like far too many Democrats, Hillary Clinton is far too accepting of the mantra of "choice," and not nearly motivated enough to address the serious issues this country has with school funding inequity. Below, for example, is her recent speech before the American Federation of Teachers.

I think Clinton was spot on in making Philando Castile, police reform, and violence against police the first focus in her speech (although it's clear we need to hear a lot more from her, with specifics, as to what she intends to do about it). I'm glad to hear her say to teachers: "We ask so much of you and we don't give you enough in return." I'm glad to hear her speak about raising teacher wages and forgiving student debt for teachers after 10 years.

But she never quite seems to put together the inequitable conditions of public schools with inequities in school funding:

(18:40) I used to have what I called the "Chelsea Test." Now I've got the "Charlotte Test." And you know that test is pretty simple: would I want my daughter and now my granddaughter, and soon my grandson, to go to school here? I'll tell you what, I have walked into a lot of schools where I said: "Boy, would I be happy to have the most important child in the world to me attend here." But I've also walked into schools where literally the building is falling down. Where you can see the holes in the ceiling, where you can see the mold, where you walk into a library and there's not a single book, and there certainly is not a computer. 
We can't tolerate that. We can't let any one of America's precious children, I don't care who they are, attend a school that shows we don't care about them. And that's why we are not going to go in the direction of letting people on the outside foist for-profit schools on our kids. We are going to continue to oppose vouchers that drain resources from public schools and undermine their ability to provide the education our children deserve. 
Where there are public charter schools we will learn from them. But what we're interested in is making sure that every child in our country has the chance to attend a great public school. And I believe part of that rests on working together to find the right balance on testing. 
Wait, what? You were just talking about school funding; now you've pivoted to testing. Where was the plan to get resources to schools that desperately need them?

Look, I am quite sympathetic to the notion that our students are over-tested -- especially when the tests themselves are normative instruments that inevitably show at least some students must be "failing." But Clinton was right at the place where she should have addressed directly the serious inadequacy and inequality found in our current school funding system... and she bailed.

Yes, vouchers do drain resources from public schools. Yes, for-profit charters are a serious impediment to getting funds into instruction (more on this to come, hopefully soon). Clinton misses that "non-profit" charters have also been shown to cause the same pernicious effects on public schools, but setting that aside...

Where was Hillary Clinton's direct call to address inadequate and inequitable school funding? Especially given that Clinton's own test -- whether a school could compare with her own child's education -- is predicated on judging how much a school spends per pupil?

Don't believe me? Let's ask again: where did Chelsea Clinton go to school?
There were obvious reasons for the Obamas to pick Sidwell Friends for their daughters Sasha and Malia. As the school that educated Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore III and the Nixon girls, it understands the unique personal and security needs of prominent children. It provides a first-rate education on two well-equipped campuses. Nearly 4 in 10 students are children of color. But the choice makes sense at a philosophical level as well, because of how Quakers view the challenge of shaping children into socially responsible and spiritually aware adults. [emphasis mine]
Yes, the Clinton and Obama children all famously enrolled at Sidwell Friends. Again: what's the tuition?
Tuition for 2016-2017
Lower School
$39,360 (includes hot lunch and textbooks)
Middle and Upper Schools
$39,360 (includes hot lunch)
Well, for that kind of dough, the lunch better damn well be hot.

As with Hill, Sidwell Friends has a large endowment: $44 million as of 2011. Which means, again, tuition only pays for part of the per pupil expenditures. For contrast, the DC Public Schools -- located in an extremely expensive labor market and, again, serving many children with the expensive educational needs that Sidwell's students do not have --  spends $17,953 per pupil.

Give Clinton this: she is at least willing to recognize that we have too many schools that are brutally, inequitably underfunded. But stopping vouchers and for-profit charter schools isn't going to solve the problem by itself. "Learning" from ostensibly nonprofit charters certainly isn't going to solve the problem -- especially since many of those schools outspend their host districts.

If Hillary Clinton really wants an education for all children equivalent to her own daughter's it's going to require a massive infusion of funds into our public schools. Is she for this?

I'm pointing out Clinton's and Trump's personal hypocrisy here because they are the two current candidates for president and the spotlight is obviously on them for the next several months. But the phenomenon of powerful, prominent people who are lukewarm, at best, on equitable and adequate funding for public schools, yet who send their own children to extremely high-spending private schools, is quite pervasive.

Barack Obama's children go to Sidwell Friends. Arne Duncan's children go to the Chicago Lab School. Chris Christie's son went to Delbarton. All spend way more than their states' public, district schools. All serve far fewer children who are at-risk, LEP, or have expensive special education needs. All also eschew the test-and-punish prescriptions loved by so many "reformers."

It is hypocritical for any prominent politician to downplay or dispute outright the need for adequate and equitable funding in our public schools while simultaneously sending their own children to high-spending private schools with small class sizes, highly compensated faculty with advanced degrees, remarkable facilities, and a broad curriculum with many extra-curricular activities.

We have a long way to go in this election, and we'll be hearing debates about many things. I certainly won't be voting solely on the basis of the candidate's school funding policies - that would be nuts. But let's get this on the table: neither seems particularly interested in tackling the disparities and inadequacies in public school funding head-on.

And that's a problem -- especially when, by their own actions with their own children, they've acknowledged just how important school funding is in providing students with a quality education.

Sidwell Friends Middle School (photo credit).

* A quick aside on comparing America's educational outcomes to the rest of the world: as Bruce Baker and I note in this report, the United States is just about where you'd expect on international test scores, given our rates of child poverty and how much we spend on education. I'll also note that what other countries call "school choice" is far different from the voucher and charter system growing in the US, and there are serious concerns about how choice affects segregation even in ethnically homogeneous countries -- but we'll save that discussion for another time.


Michelle Constantinides said...

Thank you! You are dead on! Let me know who you are voting for this November!

Luke E. said...

Your argument for why it's hypocritical to downplay the need for better-resourced schools while sending your kids to elite expensive schools is spot on -- thank you.