Revisiting A Progressive Education Agenda: What’s Happened Since?

Jeff Bryant

It’s been nearly two years since the Education Opportunity Network, with the Opportunity to Learn campaign and the Campaign for America’s Future, published the Education Declaration to Rebuild America.

As The Washington Post reported at the time, “The document offers a progressive approach to school reform.”

What makes the document truly “progressive,” is that it advocates “equity of opportunity” and adequate financial and instructional support for every child, among other principles.

Immediately, leading progressive luminaries and public school advocates – including Robert Reich, Jonathan Kozol, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Diane Ravitch – endorsed the document.

The Declaration was sandwiched between two other documents that year which called for a similarly progressive education agenda based on equity of opportunity.

One document, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” was from the Equity and Excellence Commission – a diverse group of prominent academics, economists, government officials, labor leaders, and education advocates – who, by order of Congress, advise the US Department of Education. It recommended six specific policy changes, outlined here, to remedy the devastating inequities dominating public school systems throughout the nation.

A third, “The Principles That Unite Us,” was an outcome of the work of over 500 individuals and groups in the national community-labor movement for educational justice. Central to the Principles is a call for “access to good public schools … that serve all children.”

Now two years later, what we see instead of a unified education agenda based on equity of opportunity is an education policy landscape mired in controversy and fraught with politics.

What went wrong?

It’s The Inequity, Stupid

First, let’s be clear about the problems with inequity in America’s public schools.

Looking at the latest data from the National Center of Education Statistics, a report at The Washington Post finds, “In 23 states, state and local governments are together spending less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts.”

The reporter, Emma Brown, writes, “Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts.”

Although federal dollars help in part to close the gap, that money was never intended to fill gaps. Instead, as Brown explains, federal money was supposed to give schools districts serving low-income kids an extra funding advantage because those schools need more resources to help compensate for the extra costs of educating disadvantaged students.

A new report from The Education Trust goes into even greater detail about the extent of the funding inequity between rich and poor schools. That report, “Funding Gaps 2015,” “finds that U.S. school districts serving the largest populations of low-income students receive roughly $1,200, or 10 percent, less per student in state and local funding than the lowest poverty districts. These gaps add up. For a middle school with 500 students, a gap of $1,200 per student means a shortage of $600,000 per year. For a 1,000-student high school, it means a whopping $1.2 million per year in missing resources.”

Given the accumulation of evidence in these reports, and many others, it’s clear we have an equity problem in our schools. The nature and level of inequity is evident in just about all other education measures, as we see this disparity in inputs reflected in standardized test scores and school assessment systems.

The common rejoinder is that we’ve already tried “throwing money at the problem.” But as Rutgers professor and education finance expert Bruce Baker has pointed out again and again, “Even the most fractionally-witted reader knows that deep disparities still exist in state school finance systems. What is less well known – or less frequently illustrated – is that in many cases, not much has changed in as much as twenty years! … Even in those cases where funding was targeted to areas of greater need, that funding really never reached the levels that would have been needed to make substantive progress on closing achievement gaps.”

So what are political leaders doing about inequity?

Bad Business In New York

In true blue state New York, you would expect state policy leaders to take steps to address inequity in the education system.

You’d be mistaken.

In fact, the state’s governor, Andre Cuomo, was quoted recently in a local news source saying, “We’ve been putting more money into failing schools for decades. … Over the last 10 years, 250,000 children went through those failing schools.”

Regardless of how you calculate New York’s return on education investment, the fact is, the state’s investment has been distributed with atrocious inequity. Baker points to numerous studies he has conducted that find the state has a tendency to “low-ball” estimates of what districts need financially and persistently underfunds high need districts the most.

New York, Baker finds, “maintains one of the least equitable state school finance systems in the nation.

Nevertheless, the state is embroiled in a fight that has almost nothing to do with equity. As a recent in-depth investigative article in The Nation reports, a very small group of influential advocates are collaborating with Cuomo to divert attention away from the state’s troubled funding system.

As reporter George Joseph explains, two groups led by nine billionaires enriched by the hedge fund industry have “dominated” the state capital in Albany with an agenda that basically insists money doesn’t matter, and inequity is not a problem.

Writes Joseph, “Cuomo has banked his gubernatorial legacy on a budget that would again fail to meet the state’s public-school funding requirements.”

Joseph finds Cuomo’s reasoning “curious,” especially since a court case in 2006 ordered the state to “correct its inequitable school-funding formula to provide every student their constitutional right to ‘sound basic education.'”

Despite the ruling, “Low-income New York school districts haven’t received their legally mandated funding since 2009,” Joseph explains, “and the state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion, according to a recent study by the labor-backed group Alliance for Quality Education. … Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.”

The reasoning to deny poor kids the money they need for an adequate education, while refusing to tax the richest people to pay for that education, only makes sense “from a purely business standpoint,” in Joseph’s words.

To distract from their business agenda, Cuomo and his hedge-fund friends have employed a “hey, look over there” strategy to focus attention on a “reform” agenda that supports charter schools, attacks on teacher tenure, and a flawed teacher evaluation process based on student test scores.

Their strategy may work. But, what a dirty, low form of “business” that is!

California Dreaming

Unfortunately, the business agenda at work in New York is operating nearly everywhere else in the nation.

On the other side of the country, in the truest, bluest state of California, a reporter for the state news outlet Capital & Main asks, “What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place?”

The reporter, Bill Raden, points to work done by “a growing number of researchers who … argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty.”

Raden quotes two of those researchers, Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, who contend our country has been engaged in a “tragic distraction from addressing the real roots of educational inequality.”

Sensibly, Gandara asks. “If money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?”

However, instead of following good sense, California, like the rest of the nation has followed a 30-year pursuit of policies aimed at “lax schools and ineffective teachers,” as Raden puts it.

The results from this long distraction have been especially bad for California. While the state leads the nation in percentage of low-income, predominantly immigrant families, and English learners, its low ranking in K-12 per-student spending – 44th according to Raden – is nearly matched by its ranking in adults with high school diplomas, 48th.

“It is facts like these,” Raden writes, “that recently led the Social Science Research Council to place California at the top of its educational inequality index in December’s Portrait of California: 2014-15 report. Using its own 10-point scale based on such factors as preschool enrollment and high school graduation rates, the report measured a dizzying eight-and-a-half point spread between Santa Clara County’s gilded Silicon Valley and the educational sub-basement of Los Angeles neighborhoods like Huntington Park City, Florence-Graham, and Walnut Park.”

Whatever dream California had to lead the nation in education by following a reform plan crafted in the era of President Ronald Reagan has resulted in a nightmare for the states’ least-served school children – one the state is now coming to consciousness from by passing legislation like Proposition 30.

Time To End The Distractions

We’ve taken a long route away from what matters most in education – focusing on adequate and equitable resources, reasonable class sizes, early childhood education, and extensive opportunities to learn. And it has gotten us nowhere.

The calls for equity sounded in 2013 were a reminder of what a progressive agenda for education truly is. Yet, we’re still letting a “business agenda,” beneficial primarily to the rich and powerful, distract us from policies that are truly beneficial to children.

Let’s hope more states do as California is beginning to do, and take steps to alleviate chronic inequity in our education system.

That’s the only business we ought to be in.

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