Education Equity:  failing funding or fair funding?

Be part of the solution !

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First: Grateful thanks  

A heartfelt tip of the hat to the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) of Pennsylvania !   They have led us, the nation, to a place in history where we get to be part of a “tipping point” for a dramatic turn toward educational equity.

Public domain
Public domain

Education funding-concerns are very weighty and very high-profile in Pennsylvania. No doubt that the task was daunting.  No doubt BEFC persistence and thoroughness have produced a historic recommendation.

A recommendation worthy of equally profound action from each of us.

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Education Equity

The BEFC recommended ‘factors’ required for a fair funding formula across all school districts.

Eight factors are included in their proposed ‘formula’ and eight other factors are recommended for consideration by the full General Assembly.

The most pivotal equity-factor is found on page 69 of the document entitled “BEFC Report and Recommendations” (June 18, 2015):

“The [PA] Department of Education should consider devising protocols and measures to identify students in trauma.”

Then, the BEFC recommendation continues with:

“The Commission recognizes that students in trauma may be more costly to educate and the application of weights to this factor based on reliable data may be merited.”

Childhood trauma is the “most pivotal factor” in education equity because of both its wide scope and  deep impact on children’s ability to learn.  It will be historic for any state to attack this  inequity, via  an explicit funding mandate, statewide, across five-hundred school districts.

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The possibility is right there in black and white . . . quite amazing when you think about it !

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Legislator contact info is linked at the end of this blog, for those who are immediately ready to lobby for implementation.

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Definition

Childhood Trauma is not “poverty”.  Yet, sometimes ‘trauma’ and ‘poverty’ are misleadingly used interchangeably.  Research shows that more than half of those living in poverty do not experience debilitating trauma.  Poverty does have a myriad of impacts on learning to be sure, but they are not necessarily traumatic impacts.

Childhood Trauma is a response of overwhelming, helpless terror to event(s) some call “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE): Physical Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Physical Neglect, Emotional Neglect, Single Parent Home (due to any: separation, divorce, incarceration), Household violence, Community violence, Household substance abuse, Household mental illness, and more.

Photo credit Maestro Pastelero
Photo credit Maestro Pastelero

 

 

Deep Impact

The deep impact of childhood trauma changes children’s physical brains, and impairs their cognitive and social functioning and ultimately their life trajectories. The children are not bad or sick, they are injured.  The neuroscience is compelling.  Childhood trauma connects directly to education via its toxic stress effects on development of the physical brain.  When children live in a  chronic, traumatic state of survival, the unresolved toxic stress damages the function and structure of their still-developing brains. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially crucial executive function, memory and literacy.

The physiological process also leads kids to distorted perceptions of social cues, which alter their social behaviors in response.  Eminently logical defenses in the midst of trauma (hyper-vigilance, dissociation) become ingrained habits, and then destructive, once the threat is extinguished, but the defense pattern remains.

While we wait, trauma-impacted children do not have equal access to their education.

A detailed anecdotal narrative called “Danny goes to school” provides more insight.

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Wide Scope

The wide scope is stunning!  Based on research in the USA, childhood trauma rates vary in a range from 22%  to  greater than 45% of children impacted by 3 or more categories of trauma — in many districts the scope is greater than English Language Learners (ELL) or those with an Individual Education Plan (IEP).   In some urban locations (pg. 17 map) the prevalence is greater than ELL and IEP students combined!  Researchers including our own Department of Justice report the scope as massive, “an epidemic”, or a “national crisis”, particularly in urban areas.

Findings from public health research are convicting.  The groundbreaking “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study” by Felitti and Anda/CDC found a “strong correlation between the extent of exposure to childhood ACEs and several leading causes of death in adulthood. . .”

Center for Disease Control
Center for Disease Control

This study uncovered devastation that is no respecter of demographics, zip code or socio-economic status.  CDC researchers found roughly one-fourth, of beautiful suburban San Diego’s, mostly middle class, mostly white, working folks with medical insurance had experienced 3 or more ACEs!

Three or more ACEs is significant because experiencing 3 or more ACEs correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.  It doesn’t just go away.

Today, at best, trauma-impacted children are still invisible in the data and analyses (Try asking for ACE-adjusted, test scores).  See “What’s Missing?”.  At worst the data is outright misleading, especially for our understanding of academic results including “standardized test” results.   .

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Evolving precision

Several members of the BEFC rightly raise crucial questions about how we can get to specific measures of scope and the cost factors for trauma.  Follow-up papers here will provide detail regarding screening measures and cost factors.  However, a key perspective is that we are leading the way, the front line of equity for trauma-impacted children.  A poignant awakening for us all.  We can choose to start with best-estimates and adjust as we go.  Conversely, delaying for every detail to be precisely quantified is too costly and too inequitable.

A starting point for screening can be as simple as the “ACE score” derived by counselors as part of annual school registration or re-registration.  A wide range of other screening measures is available at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website.

A starting cost-priority in addressing the learning impacts of trauma is training of teachers and staff.  The most efficient approach is through the “first responders” already seeing the children every day.  Training must be an on-going requirement for all adults in a district, as part of a priority to: 1) deliver “safety”, 2) understand complexity of teaching trauma-impacted children, and 3) respond appropriately, including avoiding re-triggering old trauma.  Training options include “Institute for Family Professionals” (IFP), a division of Lakeside Education Network, right here in Pennsylvania, and Sanctuary Institute, a division of Andrus.

Other crucial incremental costs will include smaller class-sizes, with limits on trauma-impacted children per classroom.  Also, dedicated appropriate space(s) for children to de-escalate, and on-site counselors, that is District counselors, who build on-going relationships with the children and families in the school community. These are all starting points, to be refined as we go.

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Immediate priority

What remains is the immediate priority for the full General Assembly to act formally.  We need them to explicitly acknowledge the power of childhood trauma by acting to include it in a “fair” funding formula as per the BEFC recommendation (weighting and costs to be estimated and then refined as we go).  The kids are waiting.

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Join the movement:    Be part of the solution !

Photo © Ada Gonzalez Kauffman
Photo © Ada Gonzalez Kauffman

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Please take a moment to write to your own legislators now, whether in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.  Sample below.

Pennsylvanians:  Please write or call now.  Simply click on this link, or search “find your legislator, PA General Assembly”, then click on a single legislator’s name.  (Most have an email link.  Many have a Facebook page.) Thirdly, cut and paste the short note below (or compose your own)  into their contact form with your name/address.  Please add your voice today!

Those from out-of-state can write the Co-chairs of the BEFC  here.  Equally important, those from afar can further expedite ‘tipping’ by raising nationwide visibility of trauma-impacted children and Pennsylvania’s dramatic and comprehensive shift in equity (share this post widely). We all have the chance to participate in the tipping point toward equity for trauma-impacted children. It’s an exhilarating time.  Join us as we all together make history.

Sample note to General Assembly legislators:

Dear ____________,

I’d like to thank the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) for their thorough and productive work on a fair funding formula! 

Please continue the profound work the BEFC started by adding childhood trauma as an explicit factor to the “Fair Funding Formula” (page 69 of the BEFC Report).  Please authorize a high priority effort to identify screening protocols and weights for the costs of educating trauma-impacted students. Meanwhile, please endorse best-effort estimates of those measures (to be refined as we go). 

Again, thank you for your part in getting us to this exciting tipping point toward Pennsylvania’s new leadership in educational equity.