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Equity & Diversity

Feds Can Do More to Promote Funding Equity, Report Urges

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 15, 2013 3 min read
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From Learning the Language blogger Lesli A. Maxwell

Forty years after the Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that state funding formulas for public schools that are based on local property taxes are not unconstitutional, some civil rights leaders and education advocates say it’s time to push for new efforts to address decades-long disparities in how resources are parceled out to public schools.

Among those efforts: Urging the U.S. Department of Education to design a Race to the Top competition to reward states that overhaul school funding formulas that would distribute money based on the actual needs of students and not where their schools are located.

And another effort: Pushing for more federal civil rights investigations and compliance reviews of states and schools districts where disparities in per-pupil spending, as well as in distribution of resources such as access to college-preparatory courses and effective teachers, have been persistent.

Those recommendations, among more than a dozen others, are outlined in a new report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights that was released today in Washington. The group’s “action steps” for federal, state, and local governments, derive directly from a broad agenda recently put forth to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by a federally appointed commission on education equity. That agenda—which focuses on five areas to help close the resource and achievement gaps between poor students and their middle and upper-class peers—was developed by the Equity and Excellence Commission. That panel, led by Christopher Edley, Jr., the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuellar, a law professor at Stanford University, released its report in February after three years in the making.

The Leadership Conference hosted an event in Washington today that is tied to the release of its action plan and featured discussions with members of the equity commission, including Edley, and David G. Sciarra, who is the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., which represented the plaintiffs in the long-running school equity lawsuit in New Jersey known as Abbott v. Burke.

Lawsuits filed by advocates over the years have brought some equity to school funding—perhaps most notably the Abbott case. In that case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the state’s school aid formula was not constitutionally adequate for most poor children, and followed up with later rulings that ordered the state to provide additional per-pupil funding to 30 of the state’s mostly urban, low-income districts. But long-lasting overhauls of school funding in other places remain elusive, advocates say.

“We need a stronger federal involvement in educational equity,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, a civil rights organization that has waged numerous school finance equity battles in state courts over the last four decades. “Litigation has mostly proven to be inefficient and ineffective.”

Saenz, who is a member of the equity commission, also said that the elected body closest to students and their families—local school boards—are largely powerless to address equity issues and that the parents and families with the most interest or need to see school funding practices changed are often the least likely to vote in local elections.

The Leadership Conference’s recommended actions also focus on efforts that state and local policymakers can make to promote equity, including holding public hearings in high poverty and racially isolated communities around the nation to discuss the impacts of inequitable resources and what public schools can and should do to address those. Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said a similar tactic was used across states and locales that helped lead up to the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Edley, the commission’s co-chair, said he thinks that federal strategies to make school resources more equitable “hold the most potential,” for addressing decades of imbalance, but that incentives alone would not be enough. Consequences will also be necessary to get policymakers at the state and local level to change their practices, he said.