President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 federal budget includes a new $300 million Race to the Top Opportunity initiative described as promoting equity in public schools. While funding is frozen for the Department of Education’s large and important programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the budget, if passed by Congress, would create a new competitive grant program by which states could apply for federal funds, “to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework. It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students non-cognitive skills,” according to Education Week‘s Alyson Klein.
Late last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a brand new study to bolster the need for the new Race to the Top Opportunity proposal. According to Michele McNeill (Education Week‘s other expert on federal policy in education), the new “federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators…. Minorities and students with limited English proficiency are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, attend a high school with limited math and science offerings, and be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers….” In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reported striking facts documented in last week’s report: approximately 40 percent of school districts fail to offer preschool and usually for only a few hours each day; Black, Latino, and Native American students lack access to a full range of courses, particularly math and science; one fifth of high schools do not provide a school counselor; and serious disparities exist in punitive discipline policies and grade retention by race.
It is definitely a good thing that President Obama and Arne Duncan are bringing attention to the need for equity in public schools, because opportunity gaps due to poverty, segregation, and tragically inadequate and unequally distributed school funding are the heart of what is wrong with public schooling in America. Tragically, however, most of the substantive programs coming from Duncan’s Department of Education fail to address these very real problems and instead push punitive sanctions for the schools that struggle—school closure, transformation to a charter school, punishments for teachers who can’t quickly raise scores. It is important that Obama and Duncan are finally discussing the deep and seemingly intractable challenge of inequality, but the programs they have been promoting for over five years now have little to do with remedying inequality.
Another problem is that the new research merely replicates an enormous body of existing research that already documents these problems. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to point out that the states (where the responsibility for school funding primarily rests) are spending less on public education than in 2007, before the Great Recession. Due to the lingering effects of the recession in some states and the popularity of low taxes and austerity budgeting, 34 of the 50 states are spending less today. The Education Law Center has just released the third edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, which examines the condition of the 50 state school funding systems and rates the states on the basis of funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school ‘coverage.’
Then just a year ago a Congressionally convened Equity and Excellence Commission released a report that not only documented massive inequality of opportunity across our nation’s public schools but also suggested exactly what the President and Congress could do to address it: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education. It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national k-12 spending is a matter of custom, not a mandate. The federal government must take bold action in specific areas.” Here are the first four of the Commission’s twelve suggestions:
- “Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students….”
- “Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist….”
- “provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty, because schools without concentrated poverty cost less to run than schools with concentrated poverty.”
- “Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity….”
Notice that the Commission is speaking of the need for an enormous federal investment—far more than $300 million— and that the Commission is suggesting that the Office of Civil Rights do far more than a research study on inequality. According to the Commission, the Office of Civil Rights must enforce equity, perhaps by conditioning federal assistance on states’ efforts to ameliorate injustice.
Beyond expanding the federal goverment’s capacity to enforce states’ move toward equity, there, ironically, already exists the ideal federal program by which the federal government could invest significantly to help school districts serving very poor children. This is the Title I formula program, frozen in the President’s proposed 2015 federal budget. Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children. Title I is a formula program that distributes federal money to all schools whose children qualify. It is a program that has never been fully funded. The President and Congress could fully fund Title I and could even adjust the formula to do a better job of targeting money to schools that face enormous challenges in communities where poverty is highly concentrated.
Pursuing equity through Race to the Top instead of the Title I formula is a virtual impossibility. Race to the Top, like Arne Duncan’s other competitive grant programs, is a competition. Races with winners always create losers. There are millions of poor children spread across the fifty states. When five or ten states win a Race to the Top competition in any one year, the poor children and their schools in all the rest of the states are the losers. And it is essential to remember that the money for Race to the Top comes right out of the Title I program, thereby reducing the formula program that was designed with equity as its very foundation.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes the moral implications of the substitution of competitive programs like Race to the Top for the Title I civil rights formula program: “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run. Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”