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'A Single Garment of Destiny'

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The nation's view of problems facing its system of public schools is finally taking shape.

The U.S. Constitution assigns to Congress the authority and the responsibility to pass laws that implement its intent. With regard to the application of the 14th Amendment to equal educational opportunity, I recommend we do just that. At this time last year, I introduced the proposed Equal Protection School Finance Act, HR 1234, which defines equal educational opportunity as a covered right under the 14th Amendment. Passage of this bill would clarify the intent of the Constitution. It would create a mandate and empower states to equalize school finance and provide to each child an education worthy of their status as citizens of the United States of America.

The nation's view of problems facing its system of public schools is finally taking shape. This is important, because we cannot begin to address these issues effectively until we have the complete picture. The recent focus on school finance equity is particularly gratifying. In this publication's special edition Quality Counts '98(Jan. 8, 1998), Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, identified inability to drive finance equity as "the biggest failure of the education reform movement nationally." The Jan. 13, 1998, edition of USA Today reported that 10 urban educators and community leaders had included in their legislative requests to the Clinton administration "require more-equal funding." And on Dec. 17, 1997, in a 4-1 decision, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the state's system of paying for public education with property taxes is unconstitutional because it creates widely unequal tax burdens. This adds New Hampshire's to a growing list of state supreme courts, currently 18 strong, that have taken this action, laying the foundation for the institution of whole new systems of school finance that at least have a fighting chance of providing all the nation's children with an equal opportunity to learn.

The growing acceptance of school finance equity as an essential component of the school reform movement is the most encouraging development that has occurred in decades. This issue is the most serious barrier to meaningful reform. My own state of Pennsylvania has one of the widest disparities on this score. The disparity in annual per-pupil expenditure between the poorest school district and the wealthiest school district in Pennsylvania is nearly $10,000. If the average classroom size is 30 children, this translates into an average per-classroom disparity of $300,000 per year, or an average annual per-school disparity of $5 million.

Not even those who believe that more money for education is not the answer can seriously argue that these additional resources have no impact on the quality of physical facilities or on the availability of instructional materials. Neither can they argue that children subjected to these widely disparate educational experiences approach the challenges of life on a level playing field. Through our current system of school finance, we are perpetuating a self-reinforcing distribution of opportunity in this country that is fundamentally unequal.

Despite the valiant and, in many cases, effective efforts at reform under way across the country, there remains much that is antiquated about the way some of our public schools are managed. The most troubled systems--large urban systems serving predominantly poor students, some of which spend at a rate higher than the national or their state average--were inherited by their current administrators in dilapidated, underfunded condition, with outdated instructional systems, inefficient operating systems, and no systems of accountability of any kind. I mention this to acknowledge that such conditions exist, and to assert nonetheless that while they are intolerable and must be addressed, they do not constitute an excuse for failing to equalize school finance. Our country is in desperate need of comprehensive school reform that addresses instructional format, governance, accountability, and finance.

Through our current system of school finance, we are perpetuating a self-reinforcing distribution of opportunity in this country that is fundamentally unequal.

The legal battle for school finance equity is being waged at the state level at the moment. Of the 46 suits that have been filed in state courts, 18 have been decided in favor of equity, 18 have been decided against, and 10 are pending. These cases typically take as long as 10 years to be resolved, and the primary roadblock to resolving them more quickly is the debate over whether or not the right to equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right protected under the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The principle that equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right was firmly established in 1954 by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court:

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity to acquire an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms" (emphasis added).

Many state court decisions have followed the principles established in the Brown decision. However, a more recent decision, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, introduced ambiguity into how this principle is to be applied. Under the particular circumstances of the Rodriguez case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the equal-protection clause of the Constitution did not apply, and that ruling has provided comfort and cover for findings in some states that the equal-protection clauses of their state constitutions do not apply either.

Equal access to widespread systems of public education are the very cornerstone of our democracy.

Equal access to widespread systems of public education are the very cornerstone of our democracy. In the early days of our country, Congress made the set-aside of lands for public schools a condition of admission of each state into the union. In the Northwest Ordinance, Congress found and unanimously directed that "knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." The focus on education in those early days was as a right of the poor, and on the necessity of providing education to the poor on an equal basis so that, as Thaddeus Stevens wrote, "he may be prepared to act well his part in this land of free men."

Continuing to permit widespread deterioration of our public schools threatens our democracy's very survival. States that are supporting school finance equalization are finding that current outdated systems are inadequate to ensure that students have sufficient skills to live in a complex and rapidly changing society, to make informed choices, to understand current issues, to appreciate their cultural heritages, to function intelligently, and to compete favorably in the job market. How can we function as a nation when increasing percentages of our population can be described in these terms?

The answer is, we cannot. Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are all woven together into a single garment of destiny. What affects one of us directly affects us all indirectly. The Supreme Court found in Watson v. City of Memphis that constitutional rights "are not merely hopes to some future enjoyment of some formalistic constitutional promise. The basic guarantees of our Constitution are warrants for the here and now and, unless there is an overwhelmingly compelling reason, they are to be promptly fulfilled." Passage of HR 1234 would provide a foundation for the prompt fulfillment of every American child's basic right to equal education opportunity.

Recognizing that the timeliness and vision with which we respond to this issue will shape the quality of life for all of us in America for years to come, I encourage everyone to become involved. Follow the progress of related cases in your state courts. Contact your representatives and ask them to co-sponsor the Equal Protection School Finance Act. Let's fix this. It's time.

Go directly to the second of three Commentaries revisiting A Nation at Risk, "Perhaps Another Commission?" by Harold Howe II.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat representing the 2nd District of Pennsylvania, serves on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He is the prime sponsor of the proposed Equal Protection School Finance Act and the High Hopes 21st Century Scholarship Initiative.

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