What’s new in Public Policy? September, 2018

Janet ForbushBy Janet Forbush, Contributing Editor

Background:  The Labor Day holiday week-end is in the “rearview mirror” as we enter the first full week of September 2018.  With the beginning of a new school year throughout the country; resumption of key Congressional policy discussions on Capitol Hill with implications for funding that can influence support for mentoring programs along with the ongoing hearing associated with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court; and, let’s not forget…the launch of the NFL season, are just a sampling of key events currently underway.  While each of us are immersed in our own busy worlds of work and family life, keeping a mindful eye on the public policy arena at this time is important and vital to the maintenance of the vitality and vibrancy of our democracy.  We are all owners of this elegant enterprise and have a stake in the ballgame.

Federal and State Developments

Federal Feature: Late last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos introduced a plan to use an obscure federal grant program to permit schools to buy guns and pay for firearms training for faculty and staff members.  This plan was not greeted enthusiastically by educators and gun-control advocates who argue that this move would contribute to a climate of fear in schools and note that countless studies equate more guns translate into more injuries and deaths.

Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last February, lawmakers in fourteen states have proposed laws that would use taxpayers’ dollars to arm educators.  Only one of those state laws has passed to date.

Congress has barred new school safety funds from being used to buy firearms.  However, the plan introduced by Ms. DeVos would get around this restriction by drawing from a different fund.  The startling reality is that there are many policymakers who still view this option as worthwhile.  In contrast, violence prevention experts have spent years advocating for alternative approaches to address the need for school safety.  Among the priorities they have identified are the following:  1) prioritize “school climate.”  This refers to the general level of “well-being and comfort students and teachers experience on the school campus”; 2) provide more mental health services; and, 3) implement proven threat-assessment programs.  Law enforcement authorities have used threat assessment to protect public figures and following the Columbine shooting in 1999, psychologists began adapting the protocol for schools.  The school-based programs customarily involve teams of educators, mental health professionals and law-enforcement officials working collaboratively to assess threats with a school and develop protocols for responding to the threats on a case-by-case basis.

These three ideas for improving school safety, including the need to strengthen federal gun control laws, were included in a call to action issued earlier this year which was endorsed by over 4,000 experts in the field.  But the call to action hasn’t been heeded as this school year gets underway.  A few states, Virginia as a case in point, have taken steps to address this gap safety issue.  Since 2013, the state has required all of its K-12 public schools to employ threat-assessment teams.  The results are encouraging showing that fewer than 1 percent of students seen for a threat assessment have carried out their threats and, in most cases, students deemed a threat were able to get help without having to leave school.  This past July, the Secret Service backed this approach to school safety.

City Feature:  U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), long a compelling advocate of education reform, is on the record for having worked tirelessly to improve Newark’s public schools during his tenure as Mayor.  Senator Booker is proud of his efforts in Newark and notes that one of his successful strategies to improve student outcomes was to enlist “celebrity star power and dollars” to implement his reforms.  In other words, he didn’t rely on public funding recognizing he wouldn’t be able to generate adequate revenue from that source alone.  In addition, he instituted efforts to drive students living in economically challenged areas of the city to better schools and worked to create collaborations between district and charter schools.

This is of note since Senator Booker appears to be considering a presidential run in 2020.  In a recent interview with Laura McKenna, a contributor of The 74, a daily online education resource, he recounted that he adopted a platform in Newark that focused on expanding good schools while being “agnostic to governance.”  And, Booker also maintains that there must be a “high-performing teacher in every classroom” citing measurable gains for students as the reform efforts took hold in Newark.  The turnaround in Newark is a useful template for other urban school districts to take under consideration.

Our Mentees as Citizens

As public and private schools resume classes this week, we look forward to the promise of another season of mentoring with new matches as well as the rejuvenation of matches that were previously established.  More than 50 million students attend public schools in the United States.  On any given weekday, these schools require an army of personnel to serve as teachers, administrators, and staff members.  However, the students…our mentees…are not in an army…they are individual citizens and are protected by the same Constitution that protects each reader of the Chronicle. Students/mentees don’t necessarily think about the influence of the Supreme Court on everyday realities of school life.  But it is a strong influence and as the hearings continue to select a new Supreme Court Justice, it is an important civics lesson worth monitoring by mentors and mentees in the coming days.

Fall Reading Recommendations

TAILSPIN, The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It by Steven Brill – How did we get here?  How did America get exceptional in so many of the wrong ways?  Brill addresses this but is an optimist about where the country is beginning to redress injustice.  Reform-minded university presidents; nonprofits serving countless needs in creative ways; and groups trying to reintroduce reason into our legislative, legal, and corporate worlds. (Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher)

“The Schoolhouse Gate:  Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind” by Justin Driver, law professor at the University of Chicago (forthcoming)