Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading

Stop Saying “At Least We’re Not Mississippi”: A Q&A With Rachel Canter of Mississippi First

There’s a tired trope in Southern states: “At least we’re not Mississippi.” The implication is that while one’s state may be underperforming on some measure — poverty, rates of uninsured, education outcomes, etc. — Mississippi can always be counted on to look worse. 

Having grown up, taught school, and worked in education policy across the South my whole life (but not in Mississippi), I’ve heard this statement plenty. I heard it as recently as this fall at a conference, leveled by a national thought leader who ought to know better. 

Last spring, Bellwether released “Education in the American South,” a data-filled report which highlighted, among other things, how the national education reform conversation has largely bypassed the South — a conclusion bolstered by the persistence of this Mississippi myth.

Here’s the thing: While many of us look down our noses, Mississippi has been working hard — and it’s been paying off. In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, Mississippi was the only state to see improvements in reading and had the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading and math. Mississippi’s gains have been nearly continuous over the last 16 years and mostly unmatched in the region.

To dig more deeply into what’s gone right in Mississippi, I talked to Rachel Canter, longtime Mississippian and co-founder and Executive Director of Mississippi First, an education policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit working to ensure that every Mississippi student has access to excellent schools.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The most recent NAEP results highlight the progress schools and students in MIssissippi have made, but 2019 isn’t the beginning of this story. When did the tide start to turn and why? Continue reading

7 Alternate Questions for Public Education Forum 2020

Saturday at 9 a.m. EST, eight presidential candidates are expected to participate in “Public Education Forum 2020,” a debate sponsored by teachers unions, civil rights groups, and other organizations.

According to NBC News, topics will include: “early childhood education, school investment, student debt and disparities in public education, among other issues.”

Given the forum’s sponsors, who tend towards anti-charter and anti-choice perspectives, it’s unlikely that the conversation will reflect a wide spread of education reform views.

So I polled some members of our team for questions they hope will be asked — even if they suspect it’s unlikely. Here are seven: Continue reading

On National Special Education Day, I Remember My Sister-in-Law Laurie

When I married my husband John in 1987, I said “I do” to three people: John, his mother Sophie, and his sister Laurie. John was the caregiver, household manager, driver, and grocery purveyor for his mother, who had several health issues at the age of 68, and his younger sister, who was born with Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue resulting in a host of physical challenges. Laurie also experienced oxygen deprivation at birth. As a result, she never cognitively developed past the age of 7 or 8.

photo courtesy the author

Neither Laurie or Sophie are with us today, but in honor of National Special Education Day, I want to elevate Laurie’s education story, however fragmented it was. Laurie was provided transportation to an elementary school building starting in kindergarten, but there was no grade designation, no Individualized Education Program (IEP), and no social supports. She learned some very rudimentary skills, like how to count from 1 to 10 and write her first name. We know very little of what she experienced at school, but my husband remembers the taunts of “retard” thrown her way by neighborhood and school bullies. By middle school, she no longer attended school.

Like most parents, neither Sophie nor her husband were prepared for a child with special needs. Sophie was very private, but I gathered a few pieces of her story over the years we lived together. A child of Polish immigrants, Sophie’s education didn’t advance much past middle school. During the Great Depression, kids did whatever they could to keep their families from starving, and while she shared very few Depression-era memories, standing in bread lines was often her job. I regret not knowing her full story — she held many secrets — but the best we could cobble together was that her teen years were akin to sooty Cinderella, providing domestic labor until she met her real-life prince in the form of John’s father, the appliance repairman she married.

The fact that they advocated for any schooling, including transportation services, for Laurie is a tribute to the doggedness of their own backgrounds. The gaps in Laurie’s education were representative of that era, and I am glad we have moved to a point where we recognize National Special Education Day and the importance of serving all students. 

People often tell me how much they admire what John and I did, caring for Laurie and Sophie in our home as we raised our own family. But Sophie deserves the credit for standing up for her daughter in an era when mothers were shamed for having a special needs child. And Laurie faced many of her physical and cognitive challenges as an adult: She eventually learned to read with Hooked on Phonics, and learned to laugh again, thanks to the antics of her two nieces and one nephew. 

So much has improved in the special education field since Laurie’s experience in the 1960s, but there is still more to be done. These experiences tie me closely to Bellwether’s mission, and remind me of our commitment to improving education and life outcomes for underserved students, including those in special education.

50 Years Ago, Native Education Leaders Gathered. What Now? A Q&A with the National Indian Education Association.

Fifty years ago, a group of Native educators and activists organized the first national conference on Indian education in Minneapolis, MN. Over 900 parents, community leaders, and educators came together to exchange information, share their experiences, and discuss efforts to change federal education policy. That group became the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

Diana Cournoyer, Executive Director, National Indian Education Association

Today, NIEA is a powerhouse, not only when it comes to education for Native children, but also their civil rights efforts to change education outcomes for all students. We spoke with Executive Director Diana Cournoyer to learn more about the organization’s founding, the importance of partnering with allies, and how NIEA’s resources can be useful to educators working with students from marginalized communities.

NIEA is a client of Bellwether. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

NIEA just turned fifty. What were some of the social and cultural forces that led to NIEA’s founding?

Diana Cournoyer: The founding of NIEA in 1969 was initially driven by a need for education advocacy at a federal level. There had been several federally commissioned reports, like the Miriam Report in 1928 and the Kennedy Report in 1969. Again and again, these reports indicated that conditions in government funded boarding schools and public schools were harmful for Native students, but the government failed to act on that knowledge. This was also a time during which a large portion of Native populations were moving to cities to find work, and it was clear that urban public schools were dismissing the needs of Native students.

In response to an educational system lacking cultural relevance, Native language, or community inclusion, Indian education advocates held an American Indian Scholars Convocation. In 1969, these educators discussed concerns, shared best practices, and learned what was important to Indian people in the United States. Many convocation attendees desired an opportunity to continue the discourse and share ways to improve the education of Indian children. 

Founding members, educators, and tribal leadership stressed the need to create an opportunity for professionals in Indian communities to discuss common interests, talk about the education of Indian students, and explore ways to be more effective teachers, better school administrators, and discover practical experiences that might provide a path for improving schools serving Indian students.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, NIEA shifted some of its focus from federal-level work to state-based work. Can you tell us more about that?

Diana: NIEA’s founders cultivated allies at the federal level, but because of the transition to state oversight of education, we’ve been increasingly focused on cultivating relationships with state education agencies. Part of the reason for this is so that we can ensure that ESSA is implemented in the manner that it was written. It’s NIEA’s mission to hold states accountable to the promises they’ve made to Native students. Continue reading