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Hey Betsy DeVos! That Money Is for Student Needs, Not Private Schools

The Education Innovation Research (EIR) program was designed to support innovation in public schools, not as a backdoor to privatization efforts

During her confirmation process, critics said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was unqualified to lead the department. (Photo: Reuters)

The Trump Education Budget for FY 2018 adds more than $250,000,000 to the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program established under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA) to support educational research.  This research must benefit students with high needs.  Presumably economic, social, psychological, learning and developmental needs all make children fit within the embrace of this legislation.  It is intended by Congress to make lives and learning better for children. Fitting within this imperative of recognizing and meeting children’s “needs” is a serious requirement for a research proposal to be fundable using these federal resources.   

Congress directs the Department of Education to distribute these resources to researchers.  EIR funds are not meant to support children’s movement out of public schools to schools that do not show progress in innovative learning.  So why does President Trump believe he can use $250,000,000 of the EIR research budget to make tuition reimbursements to parents who want to send their children to private and parochial schools?  

Apparently the well conceived intentions of Congress and the oversight of researchers who are invested in education innovation – people who are responsible for reviewing proposals and allocating research funds under EIR – can be ignored by a White House that does not really value learning and does not respect expertise.

For those who do not know the EIR program – here is a description of the purpose of this legislation:  the EIR program is established to “provide funding to create, develop, implement, replicate or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-needs students and rigorously evaluate those innovations.  The EIR program is designed to generate and validate solutions to persistent educational challenges and to support the expansion of effective solutions to serve substantially larger numbers of students.”   

It would be a better investment in urban schools if the EIR education budget were to make an investment of $250,000,000 in understanding and healing the consequences of children’s exposure to poverty, toxic stress, violence in communities and trauma.  These traumas and stresses can have serious adverse impacts on a child’s brain development, creating disruptive behavior and inhibiting learning.  Creating a Trauma-Informed Education Fund under this program would make investments in innovative strategies that heal the effects of trauma and (literally) grow brain matter to improve self-regulation, reduce aggressive behavior, alter how children perceive threats and increase focused attention – all to contribute directly to improvements in students’ capacities to engage in learning and academic achievement.  We know childhood trauma is an important factor contributing to low-performing urban elementary schools.  But childhood trauma can be healed if we create nurturing, accepting, engaging and stimulating learning environments in schools.  We can create trauma-sensitive compassionate schools for urban disadvantaged children – if we have the political will and understand early childhood education as a collective moral responsibility.  We can do this.  

In 2012, Eric Holder’s “AG Task Force Report on Children Exposed to Violence” (pdf) recommended that federal funding continue to develop clinical and scientific strategies to increase effective evidence-based treatments for children exposed to violence.  The Task Force found that 60% of children’s lives (46 million children) are impacted by violence, crime, abuse and psychological trauma in a year. The costs of children’s exposure to trauma and violence are “astronomical.” These financial burdens fall on public systems for child welfare, juvenile justice and education.  The Task Force called for federal Departments to require that all grantees in areas of children’s needs address violence and psychological trauma by implementing and planning services and treatment collaboratively (48).  Federal grant guidelines should integrate evidence-based trauma informed principles whenever their activities impact children’s lives.  

Elementary schools are public institutions where children spend thousands of hours of their early lives.  Any federal funding to these schools in urban poor communities should address effects of childhood trauma on child development. Childhood trauma interferes with self-regulation, the ability to form relationships with peers and cope with overwhelming stress.  Mastering these developmental tasks is a fundamental foundation for learning. See Brooke Stafford Brizard’s excellent paper “Building Blocks for Learning” (pdf) published by TurnAround for Children in NYC.

The EIR obviously is a federal funding source that should integrate evidence-based and trauma-informed principles – requiring that grantees consider the adverse effects of trauma on children’s abilities to learn.  In fairness to people in the U.S. Department of Education who developed guidelines for and evaluate EIR  grant proposals – they have funded development of valuable and important research on children’s literacy, writing, self-regulation, student engagement, principals’ professional development , teachers’ effectiveness, students’ mindfulness, cooperative learning, education technology, college readiness , parents involvement,  leadership, summer learning, data-driven school transformations, and arts education, to name some areas of investment in innovative education research (EIR was originally the Investing In Innovation Fund, grants were identified as i3 grants).      

Obviously, a system that distributes education vouchers and tuition reimbursement to private schools to enable children to leave low-performing public school systems does not meet the criteria for federal funding under this Education Innovation Research legislation.  But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposes to use EIR funding to distribute tuition vouchers of $12,000-$18,000/children to families who want an alternative choice for their child’s education.  We welcome an investment of $250,000,000 in education research and the public institutions that educate our children. What children in urban core schools need is a deeper investment in and commitment to make their schools successful.  We think this budgeted $250,000,000 to improve education could more wisely, morally and thoughtfully be invested in developing strategies and tools in schools that heal persistent childhood trauma and exposure to violence experienced by many poor children in our urban core schools.  This would be truly innovative.

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown is a community activist working with community organizations and schools on the Southside of Chicago to improve the stability, security and learning opportunities for children.  She holds an MSW from the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. She is involved in introducing mindfulness and yoga in Chicago Public School classrooms to heal childhood trauma.

Maud Schaafsma

Maud Schaafsma

Maud Schaafsma is a principal in ChildWorks, a Chicago educational consulting group.  Maud has a PhD in Sociology and has done research and public policy post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and in the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee.  

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