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NEA News

Issues and Impact - Summer 2017

Four articles that highlight educators and allies fighting for public schools on topics from privatization to finding to student health.
Published: August 1, 2017
First Appeared In NEA Today Summer 2017

Key Takeaways

  1. Public funding should not be shifted from public schools to private institutions that are unaccountable to taxpayers.
  2. The Trump-DeVos agenda hurts American students and public schools.
  3. A grassroots effort in Pennsylvania is helping to ensure safe drinking water in schools.

Bipartisan Measure Urges Full Special Ed Funding

By Amanda Litvinov

During another tense appearance before the Senate in June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal “does in fact anticipate fully funding IDEA.”

Not True. It eliminates $113 million from the funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) received in 2017.

But the proposed cuts aren’t popular with everyone on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers have introduced the bipartisan IDEA Full Funding Act, which, over the next decade, would increase the federal contribution to IDEA from approximately 15 percent to 40 percent of the costs associated with educating special needs students.

Forty percent is the level Congress committed to when the federal special education law was enacted in 1975. Congress has never funded IDEA at even 20 percent.

The additional reduction in the Trump-DeVos budget lowers IDEA funding to pre-2001 levels.

One result of shortchanging IDEA is class sizes that are too large to meet students’ needs, says Martha Patterson, a 30-year special education teacher at Fairview Middle School in Silverdale, Wash.

This year, there were 18 students in Patterson’s math remediation class. There should be six or seven. In another district, Patterson taught a reading group with up to 20 students. The ideal size according to the curriculum? Six. 

Patterson is disheartened to see IDEA funding languish, and concerned that the Trump administration would essentially roll it back another 16 years.

All told, the Trump administration seeks a 13.5 percent cut to the Department of Education to pay for its private school voucher program. 

The move could cause further harm: By accepting private school vouchers, families might unknowingly sacrifice the federal protections their children have under IDEA. That’s essentially what happens with voucher schemes in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, as described in the New York Times article, “Special Ed School Vouchers May Come with Hidden Cost.”

This is one of many reasons public dollars should not be shifted from public schools to private institutions that are unaccountable to taxpayers.

Patterson says educators need more support—paraeducators and specialized instructional support personnel who can help meet her students’ wide range of needs. She also needs equipment to support medically fragile students, some who require feeding tubes and diapering. 

“These students have incredible brains, incredible minds,” says the veteran educator, who knows that with proper support, her students can do great things. “But when you shortchange education funding to special ed students, you are shortchanging our future.”

Speak up for the IDEA Full Funding Act at


Vouchers Don’t Work

Vouchers offer false promises to rural students

By Amanda Litvinov

Although President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are actively trying to market them, the truth is that voucher schemes remove already-scarce funding from public schools, which are attended by 90 percent of the nation’s students. Their goal is to create two education systems—one private and one public—both funded by taxpayers.

The risks inherent in vouchers are especially pronounced in rural areas, where private school options are few.

In rural areas, schools are often the social center of the community and the sole provider of critical services such as summer lunch programs, food pantries, and sports. 

Private and religious school vouchers have received more attention recently as Trump and DeVos have traveled the country extolling their virtues.

What goes unmentioned is the destabilizing effect vouchers have in rural communities and small towns, where many public school systems cannot afford to lose more funding, and transportation to the nearest private voucher school — which can be an hour away or more — must be paid for and arranged by the student’s family.

The Trump-DeVos voucher proposal has drawn opposition from key federal elected officials, including U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

In a memo to her Senate colleagues, Murray wrote:

“In many rural areas, there are no, or very few, private school options. Students in rural areas often have to travel very far to attend the nearest school. Without taxpayer funded transportation, arranging private transportation would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming for many families in rural areas.

For these students and families, their public school is the only real option and claims to the contrary only amount to a ‘false choice.’”

In a Center for American Progress report, Catherine Brown and Neil Campbell state that vouchers are highly unlikely to work and they could decimate the public system in nearly 9,000 sparse school districts that have four or fewer schools. 

According to a forthcoming report from the Rural School and Community Trust, nearly 9 million of the nation’s 50 million public school students attend rural schools.

“For rural schools, the emphasis on school choice means little because the closest schools are impossibly far away.

Rural educators worry that their schools will gain very little from the school-choice model. If anything, it could siphon away critical funding,” according to the organization’s report.

Learn more about the false promise of vouchers and how you can help defend public education at


Hurting Students

5 ways Trump and Devos undermine public schools

By Tim Reed

1. Betsy DeVos, the nation’s least-qualified secretary of education, angered educators last winter when during her first visit to a public school, she told teachers at Jefferson Middle School Academy that teachers are in “more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child.”

2. The Trump-DeVos budget proposed $9 billion in cuts to public school programs and allocated $1.4 billion for vouchers and charter schools.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal slashes funding for the Department of Education by 13.5 percent, sacrificing critical, long-standing education programs in order to give a $1.4 billion boost to voucher and charter school schemes.

3. Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch, has ruled against students with disabilities repeatedly.

NEA and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law reviewed Gorsuch’s record and found that he failed to adequately and fairly protect the rights of students with disabilities, and by requiring extreme preconditions for bringing lawsuits, Gorsuch created barriers that prevented students from asserting their rights.

Even when students successfully proved that their rights had been violated, Gorsuch denied them relief in the courts.

4. The Trump administration rolled back protections for people struggling with student loans.

President Trump’s administration revoked federal policy barring student debt collectors from charging high fees on past-due loans.

The rescinded policy forbade collection agencies under the Federal Family Education Loan Program from charging up to 16 percent of the principal and accrued interest owed on the loans.

5. Trump-DeVos put for-profit colleges with high student debt levels and dubious practices ahead of students.

The Education Department announced it is delaying enforcement of a rule requiring for-profit and career colleges to warn prospective students that the school is at risk of losing federal funding because of high student debt levels.

A 2012 federal investigation found that for-profit colleges routinely overpriced tuition, engaged in predatory recruiting practices, had sky-high dropout rates, and spent billions of taxpayer dollars on aggressive marketing and advertising.

Follow the latest political and legislative news at

Schools Struggle to Keep Water Free of Contaminants 

Pittsburgh School District officials launch voluntary effort to keep drinking water lead free

By John Rosales

During the summer of 2016, in the wake of a water crisis which earlier that year created a state of emergency in Flint, Mich., officials within Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) voluntarily tested every school sink and water fountain for lead at 70 district facilities. No federal law requires the testing of drinking water for lead, but former Superintendent Linda Lane instructed district officials to oversee the examination in all facilities before the start of the school year.

“Given the circumstances taking place across the country, we knew we had to ensure the highest quality of drinking water is accessible in our schools, even though there are no local, state, or federal laws mandating districts to do so,” said Lane in a press statement issued at the time. 

Following testing, families across the district were mailed a letter with their local school’s results. Out of approximately 4,700 water samples taken at district facilities, 3 percent (141) tested positive for lead levels above 20 parts per billion, which is the maximum legal level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) involving water that is safe for drinking or cooking.

Of those that tested positive, 14 were water fountains. In addition to testing lead levels, district staff replaced problem fixtures and installed new filters and 300 bottle-filling stations in schools throughout the district.

Without government mandates to test water quality in schools, it is advisable that educators, parents, and school district staff work with local policymakers and water companies to conduct their own testing, says Matt Edgell, a regional advocacy director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

“Pittsburgh Public Schools is a perfect example of why schools across the nation need to monitor their own water quality,” says Edgell, who served as a teacher for 22 years.

After unhealthy lead levels in tap water were detected among homeowners, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto announced this March that the city was working with Peoples Gas and the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA) to invest $1 million to provide filters to every PWSA customer to reduce high lead levels in their drinking water.

By the time of the mayor’s announcement, PPS facilities had been meeting the water needs of students, educators, and staff for at least six months.

“They averted a health scare in Pittsburgh by monitoring their own levels,” Edgell adds. “Exposure to lead and other water contaminants is a health concern, especially for children and infants.”

Lead Poisoning in Children

There is no safe lead level when it comes to children’s blood. And, unfortunately, at least 4 million U.S. households include children who are being exposed to high levels of lead, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Children exposed to lead can experience:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Slowed growth and development
  • Learning and behavior problems
  • Hearing and speech problems

All of these setbacks are known to cause decreased ability and performance in school.

These effects can be passed from a pregnant mother to her baby, affecting the baby’s brain, bone, and other organ development. This happens even if the mother was exposed to lead years before the pregnancy.

What’s less known, but is even scarier, is that the effects of lead poisoning may be passed down through generations. In a study by Wayne State University researchers, published in 2015 by Scientific Reports, scientists found that the harmful effects of lead can be longlasting—passing not only to the babies of mothers who were exposed, but to those babies’ babies—the exposed mothers’ grandchildren.

“Think of a pregnant woman like a Russian doll. She’s the outer layer, and her baby is the middle layer, and this next baby is the inner doll,” said study leader Douglas Ruden, a Wayne State professor of obstetrics, to the Detroit Free Press. “When Mom [is] born in 1985…her eggs that won’t be fertilized for 20 or 30 years are damaged.”

From the Environmental Protection Agency

What You Can Do To Maintain Clean Water at Your School

Determine whether the school is a public water system (PWS). A PWS is a system that serves water to 25 or more of the same people more than 60 days per year, or a system that has 15 or more service connections. Most schools are usually part of a larger PWS but smaller schools in rural areas can be their own PWS.

If a School is a PWS, it Must:

Comply with all primary drinking water regulations and applicable underground injection control requirements.

Notify students, staff, and parents if the system fails to meet primary drinking water standards.

Ensure that only lead-free pipes are used in either installation or for repairs.

Comply with all state program requirements and EPA inspections.

If the school has its own water supply system, check with the system operator to ensure that the system is in compliance with drinking water regulations.

Review the school’s files for plumbing surveys that identify areas of high risk for lead sources. 

Maintain drinking water taps by routinely cleaning faucet aerators and disinfecting drinking water outlets and water fountains.

Compare the school’s drinking fountains with those identified on EPA’s list of known lead-containing models. Make note of any fountains that are on EPA’s list and take them out of service.

Review the school’s files on lead test results for drinking water taps. If testing records do not exist, or if testing has not been conducted within the past 5 years, collect and analyze samples from drinking water taps. EPA’s Lead in Drinking Water website provides guidance on conducting lead testing in schools.

Lead concentrations at all drinking water taps should be below 20 parts per billion (ppb) for a 250-milliliter sample. This concentration applies only for schools whose water supply is provided by a municipal system (i.e., a PWS). 

For schools that have their own well or water source, lead concentrations at 10 percent of drinking water taps must be below the EPA action level of 15 ppb.

These schools must test for lead and be below the lead action level to comply with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.



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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.