An Education New Year’s Resolution We Can All Believe In

Jeff Bryant

So far, most predictions for education policy in 2015 are pretty dreary.

NPR’s Claudio Sanchez sees a series of bad to worse situations: “standardized testing under fire … more troubles for the Common Core … Vergara fallout … Ferguson effect.” Ugh.

According to Alyson Klein at Education Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan foretells lots of big numbers resulting from what’s been done in the past (we’ll see) but tellingly doesn’t even mention a reauthorization of the federal government’s signature accomplishment: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called “No Child Left Behind”).

Maggie Severns at Politco notes, “Considering Congress has spent seven years trying to rewrite NCLB, the debate over reauthorization is still plenty chaotic.” She foresees a squabble between conservatives in the now Republican-dominated Congress and civil rights advocates over the frequency of standardized tests the federal government requires states to employ in schools.

Far more important, of course, are the issues of how the tests are to be created (with the input of classroom teachers?), administered (with the consideration of student needs, abilities, and cultural backgrounds?), and used (to inform curricular and instructional decision-making rather than to fire teachers and close schools?). But that more substantive debate seems lost in the Beltway bromide.

To education professor and research expert Julian Vasquez Heilig, all this sounds like, “The more things change the more things stay the same.”

Asked by NPR for his predictions for 2015, Heilig writes, “Both parties have bought into a test and accountability system … controlled in a top-down fashion … They will talk about turning around 1,000 schools, when in fact very few of the schools stay ‘turned around’ because the poverty in communities and special learning needs of the students are not being addressed.”

And he’s right.

So instead of relegating the New Year to more of the same, let’s resolve to make 2015 the year we work on the most important education issue of all.

It’s The Inequity, Stupid

This week, the editorial board of The New York Times called out the issue that is “the central crisis” in education in that state. Targeting the real “heart of the matter,” the editors state, requires “confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.”

The editors write of “shameful inequities” that continue in New York state despite court rulings that demanded lawmakers address the underfunding of schools, especially those schools that serve rural and low-income families. They agree with previous demands that the state commit at least $5.6 billion more per year in financial support for these schools. And they point out that addressing any other “legitimate issues,” such as teacher evaluation and training, are “unlikely to improve the schools unless they were paired with new investments along the lines of the $2 billion in extra spending.”

This is a welcome stance from a newspaper that has often sided with government leaders and politicians who place much of the blame for struggling schools solely on the backs of “low-performing teachers.”

Further, the editors note how inequities of school funding are driven by the nation’s profound and persistent problems with race. “These inequalities,” they state, “are compounded by the fact that New York State, which regards itself as a bastion of liberalism, has the most racially and economically segregated schools in the nation.”

On her personal blog, education historian Diane Ravitch calls the editorial “miraculous,” noting, “For the past dozen years or so, The New York Times has been a cheerleader for corporate education reform, especially testing. Its editorials have faithfully repeated the talking points of the corporate reformers who slam ‘failing public schools’ because they have low test scores.”

Ravitch also notes, “Any serious effort to improve education must direct more resources to districts that need them and must address the racial segregation in New York’s schools.”

As It Is In New York …

What led the Times editors to such an “astonishing,” in Ravitch’s words, turnaround?

Maybe they read their own newspaper.

In the December 19, 2014 edition, an article revealed how the inequality so evident in New York is rampant across the nation.

The article, “How School Segregation Divides Ferguson – and the United States,” looked at the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the context of the deeply segregated and unequal education system he grew up in. The writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, noted the school Brown attended was among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri and “ranks last in overall academic performance,” while the school “just five miles down the road” serving students who are “predominantly white, with almost no poverty to speak of … is regularly ranked in the top 10 percent in the state.

“As hundreds of school districts across the nation have been released from court-enforced integration over the past 15 years,” Hannah-Jones wrote, “the number of what researchers call ‘apartheid schools’ – in which the white population is 1 percent or less – has shot up. The achievement gap, narrowed during the height of school integration, has widened.”

Adding to Hannah-Jones’ insights, a new report from The Leadership Conference accuses the nation of heading in full-scale retreat from its foundational commitment to equality, including our country’s education policy.

The report, “50 Years after the Civil Rights Act: The Ongoing Work for Racial Justice in the 21st Century,” finds, “Minority students, to an overwhelming degree, disproportionately attend underfunded and under-resourced schools. The result is that students whose families already face hardship are placed at an even greater disadvantage.”

The report cites evidence from the Department of Education’s DOE’s Office for Civil Rights that “state and local education agencies are failing to provide students with the classes needed for students to succeed in college or post-secondary career-education programs including math and science courses required for admission to many universities.” It notes that poor management and inadequate staff have stripped these schools of counselors and behavioral supports and instead substituted law enforcement officers who raise the expulsion and incarceration rates of minority students.

Among the report’s recommendations is the demand for the federal government to “require all states – as a condition for continuing receipt of Title I funds – to ensure that all schools have the resources needed to enable all students to achieve college-ready academic standards.” It also urges the Obama administration to adopt the recommendations of the 2013 report by the Equity and Excellence Commission “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence.” As I wrote at the time of its publication, among that report’s recommendations were that the federal government direct states to change finance systems so they “provide a meaningful opportunity for all students” and amend Title I of NCLB so it no longer “endorses the local practice of often providing lesser amounts of state and local funds per pupil to Title I than non-Title I schools.”

Why isn’t anyone in Washington talking about this?

Some People Are Getting It

Recognition of the blatant inequity in our nation’s education system is growing.

In the November elections, Pennsylvania voters, angered – in part – by the gross inequities in the education funding policy in that state, turned their conservative governor Tom Corbett out of office. Corbett more than doubled the gap between what wealthy districts and poor districts spend to educate children, and his successful opponent Tom Wolfe campaigned on changing the state’s education funding system.

In Minnesota, returning governor Mark Dayton is pledging to increase his already strong support for public education with more funding, increased access to early childhood education for low-income children, and addressing the state’s persistent achievement gap.

But the state leader sounding the most like someone who really gets it is California governor Jerry Brown. In Brown’s last term, he not only ensured the restoration of billions in state’s education funding cut by previous administrations; he led a breakthrough policy change to address funding disparities between districts serving students in poverty. Looking at the rollout of this new funding policy, a reporter for Education Week found some “bumps,” which were to be expected, but the goals are clear: “The idea is to give schools with the largest numbers of needy students more money and also more autonomy over spending, in the hopes of reducing inequities and improving achievement.”

In Brown’s inaugural address, he pledged to continue on the path to “remedy the wide inequities among different school districts.”

Despite the grim predictions coming from the Beltway, maybe 2015 can be the year that education equity gets the emphasis it deserves.

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