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How Does A Child Get Kicked Out Of Preschool?

By Sarah Chacko, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

Mental health consultant Wendy Jones is trying to explain how a 3-year-old child gets expelled from a preschool school class, and it’s taking a long time.

Her explanation includes cultural differences and parental struggles in the family that put pressure on children, seeping into their psyche and coming out as bad behavior. It also involves teachers who lack consistent support and are more concerned with starting the day’s lesson than exploring why four boys in her classroom described their feelings that morning as “mad,” “sad,” “angry,” and “upset.”

“So you see little ones starting pre-K with some behaviors that teachers are not looking forward to handling or don’t really have an understanding of why it’s happening,” said Jones, a director at Georgetown University’s National Center for Cultural Competence, within its Center for Child & Human Development.

Jones’ job is to help teachers and parents understand how 3- and 4-year-olds develop mentally and physically, consider cultural differences that may come from the family or their upbringing, and work on approaches to handle problematic behavior – hitting and biting or simply not following directions or participating in class – that can lead to suspension and eventually expulsion from their first classroom.

It’s a job that a bipartisan group of lawmakers may push more funding toward as they look to prevent children – particularly black boys – from those extreme disciplinary actions in preschool and the first few years of elementary school.

African-American boys make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschoolers who are suspended more than once, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights reported last year.

Black girls also are more likely to be suspended than their white peers, but boys account for the overwhelming majority of preschool suspensions. Males make up 79 percent of preschoolers who are suspended once, and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times, the civil rights office reported.

That data affected members of a House Appropriations subcommittee, who urged urging the Education and Health and Human Services departments to highlight interventions that prevent and limit suspensions and expulsions in preschool and the first few years of elementary school.

The subcommittee’s report, attached to a spending bill, says the findings are particularly troubling given that those early negative experiences with educational settings can adversely affect a child’s long-term development and health.

“When you have this disparity, these racial gaps, existing in our country with young, preschool children, our national, federal government has a responsibility to these children, to make sure they are treated fairly, and tax dollars should go to insist that there’s some equity and some justice in this,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said at an April hearing.

Soon after the civil rights office released its findings, the Health and Human Services Department increased efforts to promote social-emotional development and teacher training to slow suspensions and expulsions, including dedicating $4 million to start a national center to help states and communities with infant and early childhood mental health consultation.

The department is also seeking to clarify Head Start standards to explicitly prohibit expulsions and greatly reduce suspensions. Under the proposed standards, temporary suspensions for challenging behavior can only be used as a last resort and, when deemed necessary, and would require the provider to confer with mental health consultants, collaborate with parents and use community resources to help children return to the program.

The civil rights office’s preschool suspension findings show only a small part of the problem, experts said. The Education Department did not separate the data by location or income, but there’s a wealth of other research that helps draw clear lines between race, gender and disruptive behaviors.

Deborah F. Perry, an associate professor at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, notes that other studies show black children are more likely to live in poverty, which puts them at a higher risk of having traumatic experiences and developmental difficulties. Studies also show that boys are more likely to cope with mental health issues by externalizing, or acting out, than girls, who generally internalize.

That means a child with lagging verbal skills, for example, may resort to seemingly aggressive behaviors, like hitting, if they have trouble communicating, Perry said.

Efforts to boost the educational rigor for poor children could be another inadvertent factor. Small children generally need some play-based education, as opposed to only sitting at tables and receiving instruction, Perry said. However, high poverty schools – which typically have high minority populations – are increasing their classroom time to close achievement gaps, limiting the active time preschoolers, and boys in particular, need developmentally, she said.

At this point, the connections that Perry and other experts are making with other studies are hypothetical as they await additional details from the Education Department. “In each of our sectors, we’re gathering data but we’re not gathering data in a way that helps us understand the complete story,” she said.

Some lawmakers say better data collection will help them figure out which intervention programs to fund. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said at the April hearing that he was shocked that so little information exists about the problem and agreed to work with Democrats to push more money toward research.

“I’d be happy to find ways we can work together on that and sort of encourage our government, which I think wants to do the right thing, to actually focus and start getting it done,” he said.

Early learning experts said many of the factors that lead to disciplinary actions have little to do with a child’s actual behavior, including low teacher-to-child ratios, teacher depression and job stress.

For example, Yale researcher Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, said he found that teachers who screen positive for depression expel at twice the rate of those who screen negative. Without the support of mental health consultants, the depression converts to stress and someone gets expelled from the classroom, he said.
“It’s a way to mitigate the amount of stress,” Gilliam said.

Jones said part of the solution is training teachers to better empathize with the challenges children as young as three and four years of age face in their lives away from school, and to handle poor behavior in constructive ways in the classroom.

Many times it requires connecting with parents, trying to understand what problems the family may be facing, and realizing how that is being expressed in the child’s behavior, Jones said. It also requires teachers to know coping mechanisms to help the child deal with stress and anxiety, she said.

“What I was finding is that some of the teachers were sort of afraid to get into that realm because they are on a tight timeline for instructional pieces but also because I think they feel they didn’t have the skills to work with that,” she said.

Teacher training and mental health support programs are generally underfunded, experts said. Lawmakers seem to want to change that, but first they will want proof that programs are working, said Karen Howard, vice president of early childhood policy at First Focus, a child welfare group.

Many programs are on a small scale and have not yet gone through the rigorous tests that policymakers need to make a case for further investment, she said. The issue may be of particular interest to lawmakers pushing universal preschool coverage, Howard said.

“I don’t think you can have universal preschool with this looming in the background,” she said.

Photo: Why are preschool kids suspended from school? The answer is complicated. Kars for Kids Donation and Educational Program/Flickr

Senate Democrats’ Unity Strategy Will Face Tough Tests

By Sarah Chacko, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The opening gambit by Senate Democrats on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security gives a strong signal about how the party intends to handle its position as the minority on the Senate floor.

The strategy of using fundamental floor procedures to block action on controversial immigration pieces in the bill carries political risks in the near term, however, and big questions over what will be a long congressional term of votes.

For the DHS bill, it has meant keeping united lawmakers who span the caucus’ political spectrum. Democrats will be challenged to keep that coalition together as Republicans try to peel some of the ranks away and bring forward legislation in areas such as health care that present tough choices for members.

“The process is going to vary from bill to bill,” said Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “It depends on what the issues are. I just don’t think a budget bill is the proper place to legislate policy.”

The blockade on the DHS bill is a shift from the strategy the Democrats undertook last month with the first major bill before the Senate, the measure mandating completion of the Keystone XL. While a majority of Democrats opposed the bill, they debated amendments and ultimately helped pass the bill.

“It’s no fun being in the minority, and I hope it ends soon, but as long as we’re in the minority, I think we should try to be constructive,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 in Democratic leadership, said at the time.

But Democrats changed up for the DHS bill. Tied to the measure are provisions that would block or roll back President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration and restrict his ability to take further actions in the future.

Even as Republicans offered alternative proposals to minimize the impact on immigration policy, Democrats balked. Democratic leaders likened any attempt to tie DHS funding to immigration riders to “hostage taking.”

“People need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich, who helped pull the chamber together this week for a bipartisan lunch. “There are times we’re going to throw down and fight and that should not keep us from working with people when there’s constructive common ground. On this issue we have some very substantial differences, clearly.”

Does that mean the Democrats are not interested in being constructive?

“Absolutely not. We’re being very constructive. We want to pass a bill that has been … worked out in a bipartisan way,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). “Who is not being constructive? Ted Cruz and all of the Republicans who are following him and who say, ‘I want my way on an extraneous issue — an important issue but an extraneous issue, immigration — and I’m going to hold this bill up and shut down a good portion of the government if I don’t get my way.’ It’s clear.”

Democrats who helped move the pipeline legislation to the floor were eager for a broad energy debate and hoped the open amendment debate promised by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would give them the chance to change the bill or at least make it easier to swallow.

In the end, however, many of the proposals faced 60-vote thresholds on motions to table, none of which Democrats were able to overcome with their 46 votes alone.

On the DHS bill, Democrats say they don’t want to trade funding over policy.

“We can debate immigration,” New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who leads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees DHS funding, said on the floor. “I think members of the Democratic caucus would be happy to do that. … But this is not the time for us to have this debate. Now we need to be funding the Department of Homeland Security so they can continue to do their work.”

So the minority is using its greatest procedural power — the filibuster — to stop the measure altogether and push consideration of a “clean” bill, free of the contentious immigration provisions.

Though some Democrats previously expressed reservations about the president’s actions, the party united in opposition to the House-passed bill. The only member to break ranks came from the Republican side, Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), said in a statement the measure “complicates the process of finding a solution.”

While Republicans attempt to paint the move as obstructionist, Democrats are unapologetic as DHS funding stands to run out in a little more than three weeks.

“It’s still hostage taking, because it’s attached to funding the Homeland Security bill. We’re now only debating the size of the ransom,” said Schumer. “To my dear Republican friends, go back to the drawing board. You control the Senate. … It’s your responsibility to find a way out of this.

Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr

A Senate Race Where Democrats Neutralized Obamacare Attacks

By Sarah Chacko, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

The Republican critique of the president’s health care overhaul law may have hit a wall in Minnesota, complicating the GOP’s already long chances of picking up a Senate seat in the state.

Though the state’s health care exchange, MNsure, has hit a few snags in recent weeks, local Democrats still claim the program is an overall success — at least relative to other states. A University of Minnesota study credited the Affordable Care Act for dropping the state’s uninsured numbers to roughly 5 percent, making it the one of the lowest in the country.Minnesota also touts the lowest premium rates and generally low health care costs.

Those statistics have made it more difficult for businessman Mike McFadden, the GOP’s nominee, to challenge Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) for supporting the president’s signature health care law. Franken is the front-runner in the race, and independent polls show him with a small double-digit lead.

“The Republicans hope that the toxicity of the moniker Obamacare would lead to this kind of mob running against the Democrats has not happened. Voters are hearing different things,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at University of Minnesota. “It’s turning out that Democrats have found strategies to fight to a draw, which in 2014 is probably the best they could hope for, at least on this issue.”

Franken’s campaign has focused on the state’s achievements and the more popular aspects of the law, including a provision he helped craft that requires health insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on services, as opposed to administrative overhead.

McFadden initially opposed that language as part of his position to repeal the health care law, but he later said he would consider keeping the policy when pressed on the issue in an August interview with WCCO-TV. In a recent debate, McFadden has said his major gripe with the health care law is that states can make better decisions than the White House.

“I believe the states are laboratories for experiment,” he said in an Oct. 1 debate.

If we allow the federal government to do it, our health care system will look like the VA, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

Franken warned repealing the law could lead to greater frustrations, sending a divided Congress back to the drawing board.

“Do you think this Congress now, as gridlocked as it is, is actually going to come up with a health care plan with guarantees to cover pre-existing conditions and all the other stuff that we’ve seen?” Franken concluded in the debate.

To be sure, the rollout of the Minnesota health care exchange last October was as rocky as the Healthcare.gov launch. Software errors and technical glitches ultimately lead to the resignation of MNsure’s first executive director.

But things have been smoother for MNsure since then — at least until last month when Preferred One, the cheapest and largest provider that carried 53 percent of the state exchange’s commercial plans, withdrew from the exchange. Two weeks later, the Minnesota Commerce Department announced premium rates are expected to increase an average of 4.5 percent in 2015.

A Democratic strategist familiar with Senate races said though Democrats did not make the health care law a centerpiece of their campaigns, they were concerned those two events would cause their numbers to drop.

Despite Republican attempts to tie those issues to the candidates, polls since then show Democrats maintaining or improving their leads in the state, the strategist said.

In surveys, Minnesotans mirror the nation’s discontent with the health care law; 44 percent said they consider MNsure “mostly a failure” in a September poll.However that has yet to sway their opinion in the Senate race. The same poll showed Franken’s support at 49 percent, a number that has not changed by much since then.

“I haven’t seen it working,”the strategist said. “The die is just so far cast.”

McFadden and his supporters say Franken’s support of the health care law exemplifies the incumbent’s partisan slant and blame him for following the party line to bring a “Washington-based policy” to the state.

“A lot of things that we’ve seen MNsure, for lack of a better word, ‘solve’ were already things that our existing program could have done,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the right-leaning Minnesota Jobs Coalition “And things that MNsure has done, it hasn’t done that well.”

Franken has also been criticized for not pushing harder against a medical device tax included in the health care law, which affects the hundreds of medical device companies in the state, including Medtronic and St. Jude Medical. Franken, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says he worked with former Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to cut the tax in half and has since advocated for repealing that part of the law.

Minnesotans disgruntled about the state’s health care program also may decide to place the blame on the governor’s desk instead of Franken’s.

McFadden’s argument requires voters to tie what’s happening in the state to what the federal government did, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield. Meanwhile, the debate in the gubernatorial race about state management is gaining more traction, he said.

“At the end of the day, Mark Dayton is going to be held responsible for that, not Al Franken,” Schier said.

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race as Democrat Favored.

Photo: John Taylor via Flickr