Politics Matter– even if you hate it

Lisa Romero is an Professor of Education Policy and Leadership at California State University Sacramento

I often hear educators say that they hate politics and tune-out news from Capitol Hill.  I always find that puzzling coming from the same people who say they care passionately about education. Soooo… here’s an example of why it matters.

There is an important policy showdown in Washington DC right now that educational leaders, aspiring leaders, or anyone who cares about education and particularly higher education, should be tuned in to. The $3.5 trillion Build-Back-Better legislation, sometimes referred to as the reconciliation bill, promises a lot of money, and a historic reshaping of the federal role in funding higher education. The current rendition of the bill includes the American College Promise plan which includes tuition-free community college, expanded Pell grants, and funding incentives (with strings attached) for college completion and retention.  But these are only part of a wide-ranging bill that also includes funding for other important issues—for example, lowering health care and prescription drug costs, money for clean energy and climate change, and support for childcare, among others.

Without getting too far down in the federal policy and politics weeds, there is far from any guarantee that the bill will pass, at least without a substantial haircut. Republicans in the Senate are promising to block it, conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Simena (AZ) have made clear that they won’t vote for a bill with a dollar sign this big. This lays open the question, if the bill is cut, what is cut with it?

To understand more about the higher ed components of the bill and their potential implications to reshape the federal role in high education, listen to Inside Higher Education’s The Key Podcast: Reshaping the Federal Role in Higher Ed


Is the third time the charm? Ethnic Studies in California

Lisa Romero is an Associate Professor at California State University Sacramento.

Assembly Member Jose Medina recently reintroduced Ethnic Studies (AB 101) to the California State Legislature. The bill would require California high schools to offer Ethnic Studies courses beginning in 2025 – 2026 and make it a high school graduation requirement for the class of 2030. This is third time that Medina has introduced the bill. It was first introduced in 2019, but sometimes bitter conflict surrounding the curriculum, most notably about who and what’s included, and who and what’s excluded, and charges and counter charges of bias and discrimination, led Medina to withdraw the bill to provide time to more fully develop the curriculum and resolve these and other issues. He reintroduced the bill for a second time last year. After amendments delaying the implementation to the graduating class of 2030 and allowing districts to develop local, context-sensitive courses rather than following a state curriculum, it passed both houses of the legislature and landed on Governor Newsom’s desk in September 2020. Because a similar bill, AB 1460, authored by then Assembly Member Shirley Weber, making Ethnic studies a graduation requirement for the California State Universities, passed and was signed into law by the Governor, many were surprised when the Governor Newsom refused to sign what some considered the high school companion piece.

In his veto message, Newsom said that he while valued Ethnic Studies, and recognized that progress had been made to address concerns about the curriculum, further work was needed to ensure that the state model was balanced, fair, and inclusive of all communities. In other words, he was in favor of Ethnic Studies in theory, but in practice it was too politically risky. Also consider that by this time, the State was battling raging wild fires; schools, business, and the nation were struggling with COVID; and California’s budget surplus and positive economic outlook was evaporating. Privately, however, the Governor told Medina to re-introduce the bill in the next session.

Medina notes that he ran for Assembly three times before he won, optimistic that the third time might be the charm for Ethnic Studies as well. And he has a bevy of supporters that hope he is right. 

What are the chances that the third time is the charm? Let’s consider the wider-context. California budget projections have improved, (at least for now) fires are not ravaging the state, the rate of new COVID-19 infections is on the decline, and vaccinations have begun. But, COVID is still rampant and the vaccine rollout is uneven. Most public schools remain closed, or are struggling to open and stay open. Meanwhile Governor Newsom is locked in a so-far-losing battle with the teachers’ unions who are pushing for all teachers to be vaccinated before face-to-face learning resumes, something the State concedes is not likely possible before June.  Add to this that Governor Newsom is facing a recall effort. And, all of that aside, the tensions underlying the curriculum controversies are quintessential and, in many ways, reflective of ethnic and racial conflict writ large in America. 

So, what would it take for the third time to be the charm? Understanding that Ethnic Studies is important for all Californians. Ethnic Studies isn’t just for Black kids, Brown kids, or Asian kids. We all benefit from knowing history, and understanding the rich diversity of experiences, and contributions to the economic and cultural fiber of our nation. There are few advocates more passionate or better than Medina at explaining the importance of Ethnic Studies.  Putting Ethnic Studies in the context of the violence at the nation’s Capital, “we cannot afford to wait any longer as civil unrest, racial tensions have risen across the nation. Ethnic Studies provides hope for fostering understanding and unity.”

Looking Ahead: U.S. Education Policy

While Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona has yet to have a Senate confirmation hearing to become President Biden’s Secretary of Education, we can still look ahead. Look ahead to policy changes at the U.S. Department of Education. Look ahead to changes for America’s students – students from kindergarten to college. Look ahead to a U.S. Department of Education that is again focused on the interests and well-being of America’s public education system.

Let’s consider some of the changes we could see in education policy with President Biden and Education Secretary Cardona.

  • A real plan to reopen schools, not just a pronouncement that “schools must reopen.” Such a plan would be grounded in science, vaccination programs, masks and other protections. It would also seek and consider input from states, school district leadership, teachers, and families.
  • A clear and consistent message that immigrants are valued and that DACA students and their families, are safe.
  • Recommit to Obama-era guidance on school discipline, suspensions and expulsions. Continued racial disparities in school discipline are unacceptable. Students of color are still disproportionately suspended and expelled for minor and subjective offenses, removing from learning opportunities and labeling them as problems.   
  •  Return to policies protecting college students from predatory loan practices, the victims of whom are too often veterans, first-generation college students, and students of color.
  • Reinvest in higher education and alleviate excessive student loan debt. While thought needs to go into the implementation of such a program, just think about the growth our economy could experience if, instead of making exorbitant student loan payments, people could put a down payment on a house, or buy a new car?  
  • Work to find ways to keep our students and staff safe. School police with guns and more active shooter drills are not the way forward. This should include working to build warm and welcoming school climates, addressing bullying and taking mental health seriously.
  • Return to real protections for students with disabilities. Schools that receive public funding, including public charters, must like all other public schools, serve all students. Not providing services for students with disabilities, must end.
  • Return to policies where campus sexual assault is taken and dealt with seriously.
  • Recommit to a public education system that teaches and values more than just algebra and reading comprehension. Education is so much more than job training. If the January 6th insurrection at the Capital and the 2017 Charlottesville mob taught us anything, it should be the necessity and value of a liberal education. An education that teaches critical thinking, empathy, tolerance and the value of community.

This list is far from complete. More than anything, we need a Department of Education that values public education. There’s a lot of work to be done.

The Purpose of Education

Lisa S. Romero is an Associate Professor at the California State University Sacramento.

More than 70 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. then a student at Morehouse College, wrote about the purpose of education. His words have never been more relevant.

To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

Martin Luther King, 1947


Counting and Kids

Lisa S. Romero is an Associate Professor at the California State University Sacramento.

Amid all the excitement about the 2020 election, you might have missed a bit of news that has very broad consequences for our nation’s schools and students. In October, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to halt the 2020 Census count.  Its ruling effectively ended the count of what is supposed to be every person in the nation. This is not trivial because it means that some people, in some states, were less likely to be counted than others.  Undercounting has very real implications for funding for schools and students, and for reapportionment and the electoral college.

Undercounting: Who’s Likely to be Undercounted and Why?

Some states, like California, are more likely to have its population undercounted. Why? The state has a more mobile population which is harder to find, and therefore harder to count. This includes people who don’t own homes and move from one apartment to another, and migrant and seasonal workers who move around the state following jobs. We can add to this a higher rate of homelessness in some states. If you drive down the road and see folks living in tents along the right-of-way, there is some good reason to think they may not have been counted.

And, in states with higher immigrant populations, an undercount is also more likely. In this case, people may be afraid to answer official requests for information because of their visa status. Compare California with an immigrant population of about 27% with that of Idaho, at about 6%, and it becomes clear why this is more of an issue for a state like California. Overall, people who are most likely to be missing from Census counts are renters, Natives Americans, Latinos, Blacks, young children, and limited English speakers.

The Census and Funding for Students and Schools

The Census has broad ramifications for schools and especially for students from low income families. Census data determines the distribution of:

  • More than $14 billion in Title I grants that help schools that serve 24 million plus students from low-income families
  • Nearly $30 billion in Pell grant funding for low income college students
  • $11.3 billion in special education grants to the states
  • About $19 billion for the National School Lunch Program
  • $8.5 billion for Head Start preschool programs
  • Plus, funding to support Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities, grants to improve teacher quality, funding for career and technical education, and the list goes on.

Reapportionment and The Electoral College

Census counts are also the basis for reapportionment, a fancy word for determining how many Members of Congress each state is allocated.  By law, the U.S House of Representatives has 435 members.  Every ten years, Census data is used to determine of how many Members of Congress will be allocated to each state, and thus which states will gain representation, and which states will lose representation. Undercounting in any state therefore leads to a disproportionate loss of representation in Congress. It also determines how many Electoral College votes each state has, which as we all know well by now, is how the outcome of Presidential elections are determined. After this Census, California and New York are expected to lose Electoral College votes, while States like Texas and Florida are expected to gain.

This is the reason that states work to boost Census participation and the reason that many states fought the action of the Trump administration to stop the count. Sadly, this Census was mired in political division.  But even more sadly, it will be students who suffer from a Census made political, and a Census ended prematurely.  We can and should do better for America’s youth.

What should we look for in a new Secretary of Education?

What should we look for in a Secretary of Education?

Author: Lisa S. Romero is an Associate Professor at California State University Sacramento.

Many educators have been critical of the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ performance. During her tenure, DeVos has pushed to privatize public schools, eliminated student protections against predatory, for-profit colleges and fraudulent lending, failed to enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that requires schools provide much needed support for students with special needs, reversed policies on sexual assault on campus, and incredibly, advocated for more guns in schools. Add to that the pandemic, and her threats to defund public schools that don’t fully open…regardless of local circumstances. And, the list goes on.

I’ve written before about the ways Betsy DeVos is uniquely unqualified to lead the U.S. Department of Education. If President Trump is re-elected, we can expect more from Betsy DeVos. If Joe Biden is elected, a new Secretary of Education will be nominated. Betsy DeVos has shown us the qualities we don’t want in a Secretary of Education, so what are the qualities we should we be looking for?

I thought it would be interesting to hear what policy makers had to say about this, especially policy makers who have themselves been educators, sit on committees that play a role in important legislative decisions about education, or are the product of public education. 

To find out, I interviewed Congressman Mark Takano, California Assembly Member Jose Medina, Congresswoman Susan Davis, and former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.  Listen to their answers in the video.

Supreme Relief … for Now

It was a long wait for the Supreme Court ruling on Dreamers. And the celebration has been sweet for Dreamers, those of us who love Dreamers, count Dreamers among our family and friends, and those of us who have realized that Dreamers have always been home in America, have always been the essence of who we are as a nation.  But in the midst of our celebration, the actual ruling is worth review, and that review is not as reassuring. 

The Court found that the Trump administration cannot simply end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which allows about 800,000 Dreamers to avoid deportation. The decision found that the government violated the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to give adequate justification for ending the program. In other words, the implication is that, with more adequate justification, DACA could end. This should temper somewhat our celebration and send a cold chill down the spine of any American who believes in justice for Dreamers. And, of course, Donald Trump is already touting that his administration will take just that action.

There is another thing that the decision should do to the spine of caring Americans.  It should strengthen our spines and our resolves to end the presidency of Donald Trump and opt for presidential leadership that bends toward justice, that believes in science, that puts diplomacy ahead of bluster, and that cares for all children of the world.  That is when Dreamers and those of us who care about Dreamers can rest a bit easier.

For more–

Listen to NPR’s interview with Dreamer Antonio Alarcon, one of the plaintiffs in the DACA case:


Read the full text of the Supreme Court decision on DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY ET AL. v. REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA ET AL here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-587_5ifl.pdf