Policy Corner: November policy updates with Janet Forbush

Written by Janet Forbush, Senior Advisor with the Center for the Advancement of Mentoring

November 2017

Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels have been engaged on numerous fronts in recent weeks on issues of considerable importance to children and youth.  Front and center most recently has been passage of a tax reform bill by House Republicans with anticipated action on a modestly different version on the Senate side during the last week in November.

This column examines some of the elements of the House bill and likely implications of impact on people in different income tax brackets if a similarly framed bill passes the Senate.  In late November, the Supreme Court will meet to determine whether to hear two separate cases on the compelling matter of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Federal Developments

House and Senate: The Trump administration and congressional leaders are in hot pursuit of some type of legislative ‘win’ given a series of setbacks on other pieces of legislation that have failed, e.g., health care plan and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  But the tax reform bill passed by the House would likely cause the national deficit to soar and, according to several economists, reduce economic growth.  Why is this of concern to readers of the Chronicle?  Because the proposal would likely raise taxes for millions of middle-class families.  A particularly disturbing example of one deduction eliminated in the House bill is that used by hundreds of classroom teachers who buy school supplies for their students.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities/Senate Joint Committee on Taxation, households with annual earnings of $75,000 or less will face the prospect of less after-tax income should this approach move forward with a companion measure in the Senate.This means that the votes of a few key Senators such as Susan Collins (R-ME); Jeff Flake (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ); and Bob Corker (R-TN) are going to be pivotal to prevent this tax reform legislation from taking effect.  Our advocacy voices from across the country are needed in the next few weeks to ensure that we message the importance of protecting middle-class families and their children.

Supreme Court:  For more than a decade the Supreme Court has been moving toward a ban on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles which is in line with the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.  In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes before turning 18.  In 2010, the Court outlawed juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole in all cases except homicide.  In 2012, it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in all cases.  This last ruling was made retroactive in 2016 for 2,000 inmates already sentenced and confined.

Since these Supreme Court rulings took effect, twenty states and the District of Columbia ban the sentence in all cases.  However, the ban remains on the books in four states though is not put into practice.  A few jurisdictions, notably Louisiana and Michigan, are continuing to implement life-without-parole policies.  Together these states account for more than a quarter of all juvenile lifers.  Justice Elena Kagan has been a vocal proponent of banning life-without-parole for juveniles and cites “mitigating qualities of youth” to highlight her argument.  This is an important event on the court to monitor and Chronicle readers will be updated on this development in the December policy column.

City Feature:

Washington, D.C. Public Schools recently reported that 73 percent of students graduated on time in 2017, a record high for a school system that was struggling to graduate even half of its students.  This graduation rate marked a four-point rise from 2016 and a 20-point gain from 2011.  The school district has set a goal of 85 percent of students holding a diploma on time by 2022.

The rise in graduation rates comes as test scores continue to improve, although fewer than one-third of students were rated college-or career-ready last year.  The gap between the graduation rate and test scores is of concern among policymakers and educators that the District is issuing diplomas to students who are not read for postsecondary education or the workforce.

Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson is encouraged by the graduation rate increase overall and cites the engagement of college and career coaches in some of the high schools who are assigned to work with students at risk of not graduating.  In addition, the district created ninth grade academies five years ago under the leadership of former Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

One of the remaining challenges in the District of Columbia is the persistent gap between the District’s best- and worst-performing schools.  Vast differences in overall resource allocation across the city is an urgent priority for Chancellor Wilson and Mayor Muriel Bowser.  In an interview with the Washington Post in early November, Ms. Bowser is quoted as saying “When we have high expectations for our young people…our students can and will achieve at high levels.”

Seasonal Message

As we enter the busy holiday season and gather with friends, family, and colleagues to celebrate, we are reminded to keep in our thoughts and hearts the many children who will be hungry and not able to enjoy healthy meals.  A recent Data Point report issued by Child Trends (www.childtrends.org) indicates that in 2016, 17.5 percent of all children in the United States (12.9 million) were living in a household with limited access to food. It is the season for each of us to try and find a way to address this issue in our communities.  The Child Trends Data Bank summarizes the effects of food insecurity on children as well as the startling economic toll on the United States.

Recommended Reading

Many Chronicle readers will likely recall the long and distinguished career of John Merrow, the education correspondent at NPR and PBS who recently retired from his role as education correspondent of PBS Newshour.  Merrow’s new book, Addicted to Reform, articulates a 12-step game plan for fixing what he calls the public school system’s “addiction to reform” but which overlooks the real issue that “American public schools are ill-equipped to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century.  This is a lively and useful read and could be a resource for mentoring program staff as well as mentors.  Addicted to Reform is published by The New Press and available in bookstores and via online distributors.