by Karen R. Effrem, MD
Tragically for our children’s futures and freedoms — but predictably, as we warned here and here — Congress heeded very few general principles or President Trump’s good ideas about preserving freedom and privacy, decreasing the federal footprint in education, supporting programs that work, or maintaining fiscal discipline. The House yesterday passed the $1.3 trillion omnibus-spending bill — that will only fund the government for six months — by a vote of 256-197. The Senate followed early this morning with a vote of 65-32.
The damage this bill will do the nation’s fiscal health and to issues outside of education is well discussed elsewhere (also here). Instead of restoring local control by giving federal bureaucrats less to work with, as the President’s budget had suggested, Congress increased funding for the U.S. Department of Education (USED) by $2.6 billion. Some of the gruesome details of how that increased funding will be used are summarized and discussed below:
For both the budget Congress just passed and for the next budget year, the Trump administration had given parents hope by suggesting a decrease in the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), USED’s data mining arm, and even eliminating funding for the state longitudinal data systems altogether. Not only did Congress increase funding for the IES by $8 million, they slapped parents in the face by adding this very disturbing, privacy-invading proviso:
Provided, That funds available to carry out section 208 of the Educational Technical Assistance Act may be used to link Statewide [sic] elementary and secondary data systems with early childhood, postsecondary, and workforce data systems, or to further develop such systems.
It appears there has been so much parent and citizen pushback on the data mining bills we have warned you about — like The College Transparency Act (CTA), The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA), and The Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA) — that the only way Congress can progress on the cradle-to-grave citizen-monitoring system is by stealth.
Instead of, as the administration had requested, decreasing or eliminating funding for Title IV in ESSA that contains many programs to ramp up subjective and inaccurate mental screening and social emotional learning programs in schools, Congress nearly tripled the funding for these programs from $400 million to $1.1 billion. Although there was some wise increase in physical school security measures in the omnibus, this mental health push was all done in a knee-jerk, election-year reaction to the tragic shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month.
When screening and even full evaluations by trained mental health professionals are admitted to be subjective and inaccurate (with one screening tool admitted to have an 84 percent false positive rate), unable to predict who will become violent, and sometimes politically motivated, the last thing that should happen is to expand these programs. This is especially true when data from screenings could well follow a student for life due to lack of privacy protection of medical and mental health issues in school records under the severely weak, outdated, and gutted FERPA law. If the legal and mental health procedures already in place had been properly followed in the Parkland case, this horrific tragedy could have been avoided, making this kind of screening and data collection unnecessary.
Congress again disappointed “bigly” on the Nanny State front. They increased funding for the failed Head Start by $610 million, despite mountains of data showing it to be ineffective and even harmful. And it also funded the progressive Preschool Development Grants at the same $250 million amount as the continuing resolution and ESSA, despite lots of data showing the harm or ineffectiveness of other pre-K programs.
The only small ray of hope on this front is that ESSA requires a review of the over three dozen federal pre-K programs, at least paying lip service to eliminating duplicative and ineffective programs. Hopefully, HHS will follow through on this, but we are not holding our breath.
The also ineffective Clinton-era 21st Century Community Learning Centers program — a.k.a. “Midnight Basketball” — also saw a small increase of $20 million in funding, despite the administration’s wise request to eliminate it. This is yet another example of why the invasive data collection and data sharing of FEPA is so unnecessary. Why continue to invade the privacy of Americans when bad programs like this survive into perpetuity?
The Title IV program discussed above that will increase school-based mental health screening and turn teachers into therapists also allows funds to be used for machine-based training with constant assessment that includes psychological profiling and predictive testing that will determine our children’s futures by computer-generated algorithms. We warned about this in our discussion of the Higher Education Act. It is concerning that more funds will be available for this very bad idea that is not working and is strongly rejected by parents.
The one bright spot was that Congress rejected an expansion of federal school choice funding that will protect the autonomy of private and home schools. This autonomy concern was highlighted in a House Appropriations Committee hearing this past week when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted during testimony that federal anti-discrimination rules including those involving sexual identity would be enforced in religious schools receiving federal money.
Please thank your members of Congress that were wise enough to vote against this horrific boondoggle. For those of you with members that voted for it, please remember that primary season is upon us.