Author Archives: Kelly Robson

Can You Survive When the System Is “Rigged” Against You?

“Make good choices!” We’ve all said it, heard someone say it, or had someone say it to us. And when there’s a clear right and wrong or a better and worse option, making “good” choices can be decent advice. But for the millions of young people navigating tough life circumstances, too often these decisions aren’t so clear. There often isn’t a definitively “good” or “right” choice. So what then?

How do you choose between going to first-period science class and meeting with your court-ordered social worker? Or between meeting your probation officer and going to work your assigned shift? Or studying for that test and caring for your younger siblings? These choices are the reality for far too many young people today.

The more than five million young people who interact with social service agencies for any reason — homelessness, incarceration, foster care placement, etc. — are met with a barrage of adults who demand meetings, phone calls, appointments, and paperwork.

This myriad of adults, caseworkers, social workers, teachers, probation officers, mentors, therapists, judges, and lawyers are all working on behalf of an individual child simultaneously, but likely without coordination. A child’s social worker may not know that the appointment she just rescheduled conflicts with an existing therapy appointment. But the child does, and now must make the choice between seeing his social worker or his therapist.

As the system currently exists, we expect youth to simply figure it out: to hold steady jobs and manage their responsibilities, their relationships, and their health, all while staying focused on graduating from high school.

Can you make good choices that lead you to graduation? Find out in our new game, Rigged, which lets you step into the shoes of a 17-year-old high school student navigating these very demands.

Want to learn more about our work on social service agency coordination? Check out our issue page.

Since Janus Isn’t a Simple “Win/Lose,” What Else Are the Justices Deciding?

current U.S. Supreme Court Justices

via Franz Jantzen, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court has yet to announce its decision in Janus v AFSCME, the case that will decide the fate of agency fees — fees paid to unions by non-members to support collective bargaining activities. So while you’re waiting (and studying up on the history of unions using our recently released slide deck), here are three things you need to know about the Court’s decision-making process:

  1. There is a range of possible rulings.

The Supreme Court’s decision is not going to be a simple “win/lose.” While Janus will, in fact, either “win” or “lose” his case, the Court’s written interpretation is what will shape future law and policy. And this written interpretation could be very narrow, quite broad, or fall somewhere in the middle. A very narrow finding, for example, could be to affirm the lower court’s ruling. Under this ruling, nothing would change. On the other end of the spectrum, the Court could go beyond the agency fee question presented in the case and find more broadly that exclusive representation is also unconstitutional.

  1. In its decision, the Court will likely reference a long history of precedents on agency fees and free speech.

The Court has been ruling on the issue of agency fees for decades. Analysts and commentators most frequently cite the 1977 Abood case, which endorsed the current agency-fee arrangement. But there are others cases that could be just as important. For example, the 1968 Pickering v Board of Education case dealt with a teacher who was fired after writing a letter to a local newspaper that was critical of some of his school board’s financial decisions. The Court found in Pickering’s favor that his right to freedom of speech was violated when he was fired for writing this letter. In making its decision, the Court had to balance the interests of Pickering, who was a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, and those of the government (in the case, the school board) as an employer seeking to provide efficient public services. This balancing of interests has become known as the Pickering test.

The Court could apply the Pickering test to Illinois’ law, which would require them to balance the interests of Janus speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern with those of the government as an employer. The Court could find either that the state’s interests as an employer outweigh Janus’ free speech interest (meaning that Janus would lose) or that Janus is speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern and that this free speech interest outweighs the state’s interests as his employer (meaning that Janus would win).

Another case the Court may reference is the 1991 Lenhert v Ferris Faculty Association case, which defined the activities for which unions can compel agency fees from non-members. These activities must 1) be “germane” to collective bargaining, 2) be justified by the government’s interest in maintaining labor peace, and 3) not add to the burdening of free speech.

The Court could decide that agency fees are legal, however it could revisit the definition of the expenses for which unions can charge non-members.

  1. The Court will avoid a constitutional question whenever possible.

Canons of construction are principles that provide guidance to the courts as they interpret statutes. One of these principles is to “first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which [a constitutional] question may be avoided.” In other words, if there is a reasonable interpretation of the statute that does not conflict with the Constitution, the Court will adopt this interpretation.

This could be the case for Janus: The Court could find that there is an equally reasonable interpretation of Illinois’ law that does not raise a First Amendment free speech issue. The Court would have to adopt this interpretation, and Janus would lose.

While the Court’s decision is expected in the coming days, there’s no way to predict what it will be. So in the meantime, check out our deck on the history of unions and the implications of the Janus decision here.

Students Served by Multiple Systems of Care Deserve Better

At any given point in time, about 5 million kids are served in one or more of our nation’s child service agencies. These young people are living through traumatic and disruptive experiences ranging from homelessness to foster care placement to incarceration.

As I wrote in this piece nearly two years ago, these children are navigating a fragmented world of adults, programs, and agencies, often operating as the only central point among all of the services.

In our latest publication, Continuity Counts, Hailly Korman and I offer our recommendations for addressing this fragmentation and improving cross-agency coordination. However, our project differs significantly from most other policy papers because we approached our research using human-centered design. This means that we started by talking to the very people who are impacted by agency fragmentation: the children and youth served by these agencies. We also talked to the direct-care providers working in various agencies. The goal of these interviews was to better understand the needs, wants, and constraints of both the youth and the care providers, in order to build a set of recommendations that addresses the challenges they face.

Through our human-centered design approach, we identified two key levers for change: continuity of people and continuity of information. By identifying a single adult to operate like a child’s “chief of staff,” we can mitigate the need for a child to interact with a myriad of adults. By improving data collection, sharing, and storage, we can reduce the burdens on youth and their caregivers that result from missing or incorrect information.

The silos that exist among agencies did not appear overnight and will not disappear quickly. However, just because agencies have always operated in relative isolation from one another does not mean it must always be like this. Eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, the fragmentation that exists among schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations is possible with deliberate and concerted effort over a long period of time. And doing so is necessary if we ever hope to provide youth with a cohesive, streamlined system of support throughout their education trajectories.

Read our full report here or our op-ed in The 74 here.

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

School Choice Alone Won’t Solve Educational Inequities Tied to Zip Code

Betsy DeVos advocates for school choice, at least in part, because she sees it as a strategy to address inequities in the public education system and expand access to quality schools for low-income students. But in contrast to many education reformers who speak explicitly about the role race plays in issues of educational inequity, DeVos talks in terms of geography. Her common catchphrase is that “every child, no matter their zip code, deserves access to a quality education.”

This raises two important questions: First, is talking about geography a reasonable proxy for educational inequiScreen Shot 2017-01-23 at 5.16.25 PMties that affect poor and minority students? And if so, are choice programs that enable students to attend schools outside their zip codes enough to disrupt the racial and income-based inequities that are tied to geography?

Here’s what we know about the relationship between income, race, and geography:

  • Growing up in a poor neighborhood is correlated with a host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of depression and obesity, poor academic outcomes, and lower future earnings.
  • Poor black people are five times as likely and poor Hispanics are three times as likely to live in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty compared to poor whites.
  • Children who attend high-poverty schools score lower on standardized tests than children attending more affluent schools.
  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools.
  • When low-income students are able to attend wealthier schools (where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program), the achievement gap closes between those students and their peers.

As these data demonstrate, neighborhoods, zip codes, census tracts, and other geographic boundaries are a reasonable proxy for much of the racial and income inequity that policymakers and politicians are seeking to upend.

But does that mean that allowing students to access educational options outside their neighborhoods will ensure equitable access to quality education for low-income and minority students? Continue reading