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Amy Klobuchar Would Focus Heavily on Education Civil Rights in First 100 Days of Presidency – Politics K-12


If she’s elected president, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan for her first 100 days in office would put heavy focus on education civil rights, with pledges to Obama-era directives related to issues like sexual assault, school discipline, and LGBT students that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has either repealed or replaced during the Trump administration.

Klobuchar has sought to distinguish herself from her competitors for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by painting herself as a pragmatic and effective leader. So it’s no surprise that many of her education-related proposals focus on actions that can be accomplished without the blessing of Congress.

That’s because Democrats would face a steep climb to claim the presidency, maintain the House, and achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in one election. Ambitious plans by other candidates that rely on new legislation and funding streams may be difficult to achieve.

“After four years of Donald Trump, a new President can’t wait for a bunch of congressional hearings to act,” Klobuchar said in a Medium post announcing her 100-day plan Tuesday.

A focus on civil rights in education also touches on some of the most visible and polarizing actions of the Trump Education Department and issues that have won attention among voters in a way that some education policies have failed to do in the past. That may be because they center on vulnerable children. And it may be because DeVos herself has been an unusually visible and divisive education secretary.

Klobuchar’s plans tap into that public anger, which is sometimes centered on misunderstandings and oversimplifications. For example, she pledges to put back into place 72 civil rights guidance documents related to students with disabilities that DeVos cut in 2017. That act continues to draw outrage but, as Education Week’s Christina A. Samuels wrote, most of those documents had little or no effect at the time they were repealed. Fifty of them predated the most recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004. One of those documents was an outdated letter to state chiefs about data collection for fiscal year 1983.

Not included in those 72 pieces of guidance mentioned in the plan is DeVos’s efforts to delay a rule on equity in special education, efforts that have been held up in court.

Many other Trump-era K-12 civil rights actions referenced in Klobuchar’s plan have had similarly broad and immediate effects. Among her plans that she would accomplish through executive action are commitments to:

  • Restore staffing levels at the Education Department’s office for civil rights to speed up the processing of student complaints.
  • Reinstate Title IX civil rights guidance that outlines obligations of colleges, universities, and K-12 schools to respond to sexual assault and harassment.
  • “Reverse the harmful anti-LGBTQ administrative actions taken by the Trump Administration” in the sectors of education, health care and civil rights. In education, that is likely a reference to DeVos’s recision of Obama-era guidance about the rights of transgender students in schools. Obama’s administration contended that Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex applied more broadly to gender identity, a position conservatives have disagreed with.
  • Restore Obama-era civil rights guidance that aimed to tackle disproportionately high discipline rates for students of color, particularly black and Latino students. That guidance argued that schools could be found in violation of federal civil rights laws even if their policies were written without discriminatory intent. DeVos repealed it at the recommendation of a school safety task force Trump formed in 2018.
  • Prevent federal funding from being used to arm teachers.  You can read more about the ongoing fight between congressional Democrats and DeVos on arming teachers issue here.
  • End discussions of tax credit scholarships championed by the Trump administration.
  • Direct the education secretary to ensure that federal grant programs serve to “identify, recruit and prepare homeless and foster students for college.”

Klobuchar Calls for More Education Funding

Interwoven in the more than 100 policy actions Klobuchar listed in her 100 days plan are individual elements that, taken together, match the scale of some education proposals announced by fellow candidates like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Some other candidates, like California Sen. Kamala Harris, have released standalone proposals on issues like teacher pay that Klobuchar also touched on. Those plans would also require increased federal education funding. Biden told teachers at a campaign event he would finance his education plans by closing tax loopholes, appealing to the good judgement of Republican lawmakers to do so, but some political pundits question whether that is possible or realistic.

To be sure, Klobuchar’s plan does include some bold, sweeping elements that would take some serious political skill to achieve. She commits to proposing an unspecified “historic investment in America’s education system that will fully fund education, increase teacher pay, and rebuild our crumbling school infrastructure,” pledging to finance her proposals by repealing portions of the 2017 tax bill, raising capital gains taxes, and closing other loopholes. But in the legislative elements of her plan, she only commits to proposing legislation in the first 100 days, not to getting it passed. Those legislative proposals include an infrastructure plan that covers schools.

Klobuchar also promises to include fully funding for the IDEA in her budget proposal, which is more ambitious than Biden’s plan to reach full funding in 10 years. Advocates for students with disabilities have long lamented that the federal legislation is funded well below authorized levels. When the IDEA, that law that governs special education and student accomodations, was passed in 1975, Congress gave itself permission to send to states up to 40 percent of the “average per pupil expenditure” to meet the goals of the law. In contrast, the federal contribution to special education is now less than 15 percent.

Klobuchar’s proposals also touch on many non-education issues relevant to schools, like the passage of the Equality Act, expansion of rural broadband, immigration reform, addressing child poverty, and federal funding for gun violence research, which has been a priority for youth advocates since the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. 

Photo: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., questions Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

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Follow us on Twitter @PoliticsK12And follow the Politics K-12 reporters @EvieBlad @Daarel and @AndrewUjifusa

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Why Unpaid School Meal Bills Cause Heartburn for Administrators

Kids eat lunch at Lone Oak Elementary School in Paducah, Ky.

Kids eat lunch at Lone Oak Elementary School in Paducah, Ky.

—Ellen O’Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP

When adults don’t pay their electric bills, the power company responds by turning out the lights. But when students show up to school with unpaid lunch bills, cafeteria workers struggle to respond in a way that doesn’t hurt or stigmatize a child. Some serve “alternative meals,” like cheese sandwiches, to students with negative balances beyond a certain threshold. Some refuse to serve meals at all if an account is too far in the red. The strategy, called “lunch shaming” by child hunger groups, has been the subject of state laws, a proposed federal bill that would ban it, and—most recently—proposals by Democratic presidential candidates. But school nutrition directors say that the issue is more complicated than some people may realize, and that it’s not always poverty that leads to overdrawn lunch accounts. Here’s why unpaid school meal balances can be a challenge for schools, how some are already addressing the problem, and why it may be an appealing issue for the 2020 campaign trail.

Why Is Free School Lunch an Appealing Political Issue?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tucked a call for universal free school meals into a sweeping education plan he released last month, citing stories on unpaid student bills.

Julián Castro, who is also campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, also included free universal meals in his education plan. Neither candidate detailed the cost of their proposals.

“Instead of addressing this crisis, students with lunch debt are sometimes denied meals, have debt collectors sent after their families, and are even denied their diplomas,” Sanders’ plan says. “Unacceptable. It is not a radical idea that no child in this country should go hungry.”

How schools feed hungry students is an appealing issue for candidates seeking to appeal to voters concerned about poverty, especially because it’s so much easier for the public to digest than more complicated economic issues.

Stories about unpaid meal debt often spread rapidly online. After a Pennsylvania cafeteria worker quit rather than withhold a lunch from an elementary school student whose family was $25 behind on meal payments, strangers launched viral campaigns to pay down balances in other school districts.

Most Students Already Eat Free School Lunches

A majority of school lunches—68 percent in February—are already free, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. The federal government will spend about $13.8 billion on the National School Lunch Program this year.

And some schools and districts already offer free school lunches and breakfasts universally through a federal program created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

A school or a school system qualifies for what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision if at least 40 percent of its enrollment is made up of “identified students,” who live in households that participate in other federal income-based programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Congressional Republicans have sought to change the program’s requirements in the past, facing opposition from anti-hunger groups.

Those groups say community eligibility eliminates stigma from free meals and encourages more hungry students to eat. But not all schools who would be eligible for community eligibility participation.

Some states, like Oregon, have also expanded the income limits for free school meals, paying the difference for families whose incomes fall above the federal qualifying levels.

Why Is Unpaid Meal Debt Such a Challenge for Schools?

School meal programs have limited margins for extra expenses, and any uncovered costs present a challenge, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition workers around the country. The organization surveyed its members and found that 75 percent reported unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

“There’s not extra funding available to provide meals available for free to students who are not enrolled in the free meal program,” she said.

In 2017, the USDA required districts to post policies defining how they will deal with meal debt, how they will collect on unpaid bills, and when debt will be considered “bad debt” that can’t be recouped.

Schools have sought to tackle the issue in a variety of ways: Allowing families with extra funds at the end of the year to forward that money to an “angel fund” that can cover others’ unpaid bills, making calls home to students with large amounts of debt to assist parents in filling out applications for the free or reduced-price meal programs, and even withholding things like diplomas from students until they settle.

States Tackle ‘Lunch Shaming’

An increasing number of states have passed “lunch shaming” bills that prohibit schools from withholding meals from students or communicating with anyone other than parents and guardians about unpaid balances.

But those bills can make the debt problem worse, nutrition directors said.

The 20,000 Hillsboro, Ore., district ended the 2016-17 year with a total of $1,200 in unpaid meal debts, nutrition director Nathan Roedel said. After Oregon passed a “lunch shaming” bill, the distict stopped providing alternative meals to overdrawn students and that total grew to about $45,000 at the end of the 2017-18 school year. By June 1, that number had reached $104,000 for the current school year.

And, counter to popular perception, it’s not always poverty that keeps students from paying, Roedel said. Some families face language barriers, and some are just disorganized, Roedel said.

Ultimately, he thinks lawmakers will have to help districts cover the costs of bad meal debt if it continues to grow.

“I think people are well meaning,” he said. “But it’s the real world application that’s hard.”

Vol. 38, Issue 35, Page 15

Published in Print: June 12, 2019, as School Lunch on the Campaign Menu

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