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Federal Commission Urges Bold Steps to Boost Education Equity

By Michele McNeil — February 19, 2013 3 min read
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A federally appointed education-equity commission is proposing a five-pronged agenda for states and the federal government to help the 22 percent of children living in poverty and eliminate what the commission calls a “staggering” achievement gap.

Three years in the making, the new report released today stems from a 2010 congressional directive to the U.S. Department of Education, which created the Equity and Excellence Commission. The report, called “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence”, makes recommendations in a number of areas:

Equitable school finance: States should publicly report what is needed in the way of teaching staff, programs, services, and funding to provide a meaningful education to all students. States should also ensure that sufficient money is available, develop models for using technology in classrooms, and promote high-quality programs for special-needs students. The federal government should provide incentives to states to reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poverty and seek to expand their authority to intervene in school-equity issues. Improved teachers, leaders, and curricula: States should better compensate teachers, and increase selectivity and effectiveness of teacher training. The federal government should create a major new grant program to help states address improvements the teacher pipeline. Expanding high-quality early education: States should expand early education so that, within 10 years, every low-income student has access to high-quality preschool. And the federal government should provide some funds for this. Mitigating poverty's effects: States, in partnership with the federal government, should adopt dropout-prevention programs and other alternative-education opportunities for at-risk students. Tackling accountability and governance: States should develop mechanisms to intervene when districts and schools are in fiscal crisis.

The report did not attach cost estimates to these proposals.

The report is the work of 27 commissioners, led by Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar, a professor at Stanford Law School, and Chris Edley, the dean of University of California-Berkeley Law. Other commission all-stars include Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress; national teachers’ union leaders Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford; and John B. King, Jr., New York’s state education chief. The commission was the brainchild of U.S. Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.

The report concludes the commission’s work, which begs the question: What happens now to these recommendations?

“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,” Edley said in a conference call today, 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.” (He said it would form the basis of future discussions with his staff. In particular, he said there may be more federal opportunities to work on decreasing concentrations of poverty, Promise Neighborhoods-style.)

Other commissioners on the call mentioned that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could provide another venue for these ideas.

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. So it’s unclear just how much traction these ideas would have.

Edley said the report walks a fine line between being specific and also allowing “appropriate room for political debate and regulatory politics.”

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 system, the report says, “There is disagreement about exactly how to change the system...”

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

It’s important to note these aren’t—for the most part—new ideas, but instead meant to serve as an agenda for equity. In fact, many states and the federal government are doing or considering a lot of these things. For instance, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address proposed a major expansion of early-childhood programs—something many states are already embarking on. Duncan has proposed various initiatives to improve the teaching profession, including requiring new teacher evaluations in states as part of Race to the Top competitive grant program and waivers from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

UPDATE [2/20, 11:00 A.M.]: And interestingly, the report comes as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development releases a study showing the United States is making progress in improving equity.

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