Former Texas Congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke released an education plan Wednesday that centers on the creation of a $500 billion “Permanent Fund for Equity and Excellence,” tying strings to that money to ensure schools, districts, and states make efforts to drive out disparities in education funding and outcomes and focus resources on schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families.
O’Rourke is the latest Democratic hopeful to propose a surge in federal education funds, though several of his opponents have focused instead on growing Title I funding for low-income schools.
O’Rourke’s permanent fund— which would be about seven times the annual $71.5 billion budget of the U.S. Department of Education—would be “committed to closing funding gaps, creating incentives for states and districts to guarantee fair funding for public schools and pay teachers professional wages,” his plan says.
“We are going to make sure that we address the disparity in public education funding for communities of color,” O’Rourke told a Detroit audience at the NAACP presidential candidate forum hours after releasing the plan.
He also proposed providing teachers with student debt relief, working with minority serving insitutions to diversify the teacher workforce, reforming school discipline to decrease racial disparities, boosting school infrastructure funding, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and providing incentives for teachers to seek additional training and graduate degrees.
Touching on a hot topic in the campaign, O’Rourke’s plan would lift the ban on federal funding for transportation used to desegregate schools, and increase federal incentives to integrate schools and residential neighborhoods.
There is a $23 billion gap between the amount of money spent on predominantly white school districts and predominantly nonwhite school districts, O’Rourke said, citing a report by EdBuild, an advocacy organization that pushes for equitable spending. His plan estimates he could nearly close that gap with interest generated on the $500 billion equity fund, which would be financed through a tax on Wall Street Speculation.
To receive money from the permanent equity fund, schools and districts would commit to “equity audits” that explore data on student outcomes, how money is allocated, and availability of rigorous coursework disaggregated by race and income. Such information is already collected and reported as part of the federal civil rights data collection and under requirements included in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Schools and districts would then seek community feedback to determine how the funds would be used.
States and districts would distribute the funding using formulas that take into account low-income students, English-learners, students with disabilities, or “other groups in need of additional resources,” the plan says.
The plan proposes creating a committee to determine appropriate education spending levels, taking into consideration regional variations in cost of living and funds needed to meet the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English-learners. States that didn’t meet that level of funding would be required to match federal equity funds by 50 percent. States failing to meet that standard within five years would be at risk of losing the equity funding, the plan says.
Several other Democratic candidates have criticized disparities in education funding, and some have called for efforts to diversify the teacher workforce to better meet the needs of public school students, a majority of whom are students of color.
But state and local decisionmakers, and the public, don’t always respond well to tying strings to federal dollars. Even among those who see equity as a priority, the devil may be in the details. What will formulas include? What experts will decide what is considered an equitable approach? How can the Education Department be sure schools and districts don’t “game” the data or provide inaccurate information to boost their funds?
A familiar face to education wonks may have helped O’Rourke create his policy proposals. In June, he added Carmel Martin to his campaign team. Martin was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education in President Barack Obama’s administration. Most recently, she served as the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank typically aligned with Democrats.
Photo: Beto O’Rourke speaks during the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention on June 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)