Equity & Diversity

Commission Urges Action on Education Equity

By Michele McNeil — February 26, 2013 5 min read
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A federally appointed panel on education equity is proposing a five-pronged agenda for states and the federal government to help the 22 percent of children living in poverty and to eliminate what it calls a “staggering” achievement gap between various subgroups of students.

Three years in the making, the report released last week stems from a 2010 congressional directive to the U.S. Department of Education, which created the Equity and Excellence Commission.

Blueprint Offered

The report, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” makes recommendations in the areas of:

• Equitable school finance. The panel calls for states to report what is needed in teaching staff, programs, services, and funding to provide a meaningful education to all students; ensure that sufficient money is available; develop models for using technology in classrooms; and promote high-quality programs for special-needs students.

It also recommends that the federal government provide incentives to states to reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poverty and seek to expand the federal government’s authority to intervene in school equity issues.

Improved teachers, leaders, and curricula. The report recommends that states better compensate teachers and increase the selectivity and effectiveness of teacher training, and that the federal government create a major new grant program to help states make improvements in the teacher pipeline.

High-quality early education. Within 10 years, the report says, states should make sure that every low-income student has access to high-quality preschool, with the federal government providing some money to help.

Mitigation of poverty’s effects. States, in partnership with the federal government, should adopt dropout-prevention programs and alternative educational opportunities for students at risk of not graduating, the commission says.

Accountability and governance. The report calls on states to develop mechanisms to intervene when districts and schools are in fiscal crisis.

The commission did not attach cost estimates to the proposals.

The report is the work of 27 commissioners, led by Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar, a professor of law at Stanford University, and Christopher Edley Jr., the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Among the other commissioners were Cynthia G. Brown, the vice president for education policy of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank; national teachers’ union leaders Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University; and Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

The commission was the brainchild of U.S. Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.

Differences in Spending

In seeking to make its case, the commission highlights some of the most glaring disparities in education funding within and between states. In California, for example, some districts spend three times as much money per student as other districts. Across states, per-pupil spending ranged from a low of $6,454 in Utah to a high of $18,167 in New York in 2010.

As a result of funding differences and many other factors, the achievement gap between children from low- and high-income families persists, the report says, and is between 30 percent and 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.

The report concludes the commission’s work, although many advocacy groups say they want to turn the proposals into action.

“It’s not only about this legislative season or this budget cycle. It’s really about a march that must continue until we’ve delivered on the promise,” Mr. Edley said in a conference call the day the report was released, promising that many members would stay involved. “We’re not going away.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who did not serve on the commission, called the report “thoughtful, provocative, challenging.” He said in that conference call, “This report compels us to act.”

For his part, Mr. Duncan said the report would form the basis of future discussions with his staff. In particular, he said, there may be more federal opportunities for decreasing concentrations of poverty, akin to the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods grant program.

Legislative, Fiscal Hurdles

The response to the report wasn’t all favorable.

Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, said many of the ideas are old ones, while the report gives short shrift to efforts championed by the Obama administration, such as charter schools and more rigorous teacher evaluations.

“Commission reports rarely get traction; the least they can do is put forward some new ideas,” said Mr. Petrilli, a former education official with the George W. Bush administration. “These ideas have been around for decades.”

The report hangs its hat on many ideas, however, that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives oppose—such as new programs and protected funding streams for at-risk populations. What’s more, in some states, adopting more-equitable school finance would probably mean spending more money—at a time when additional cash is still scarce as states climb out of the hole from the recent recession.

Equity battles have been raging in state courts for years. Indicative of the challenge of revamping school finance systems, the report notes the existence of “disagreement about exactly how to change the system.”

But, said Mr. Duncan, “I would challenge anyone who doesn’t think resources are a part of the answer.”

Many states and the federal government are taking or considering action in areas cited in the report.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union Address, for instance, proposed a major expansion of early-childhood programs—something many states have already pursued.

Mr. Duncan, meanwhile, has proposed various initiatives to improve the teaching profession, including requiring new teacher evaluations in states as part of the Race to the Top competitive-grant program and as a condition of waivers from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Commission Urges Action on Education Equity

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