How can our society overcome nearly a quarter century of catastrophic public education policy designed by neocons, supply side economists, billionaire privatizers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council? A new report, released yesterday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, outlines three steps by which we can recommit ourselves to a public school system prepared to serve and nurture all of America’s children.
- Congress must fund fully two federal programs designed to help school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty and children with special needs: Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
- Together the federal government, states and local school districts must, by 2025, launch 25,000 sustainable, wraparound Community Schools to ensure that children and families in our poorest communities have access to supports that will enable the children to achieve at school; and
- The U.S. Department of Education must recommit itself to its primary purpose: ensuring equity across America’s over 90,000 public schools.
The report challenges federal and state governments together to address today’s reality: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per-pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources. By failing to provide adequate funding, we deny these children the chance to fulfill their potential.”
School finance is a three part bargain, with each school district taxing itself (currently roughly 45 percent of school funding); states providing revenue (currently about 47 percent) and creating a state distribution formula to overcome disparities in local capacity; and the federal government providing a relatively smaller amount (currently roughly 8 percent) to support students with particular needs and to oversee civil rights. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools outlines five policy mistakes which have compounded a fiscal crisis over time for public schools in poor communities and areas without sufficient capacity to raise funding locally:
- Congress has failed to fund Title I and the IDEA at the levels promised when these programs were enacted.
- Local funding in the poorest communities is inadequate even when the citizens make a significant tax effort; and the states have failed to distribute their funds to eradicate inequity across local school districts.
- Current tax policies at the federal level and in many states have become regressive in the extreme, with tax policy benefiting corporations and the very wealthy, and services for the rest of us—public schools, for example—suffering.
- States have increased spending for incarceration and reduced education budgets at the same time school districts have increasingly replaced counselors and social workers with what are called School Resource Officers (guards).
- Privatization—investments in privately operated charter schools and private school tuition vouchers—at federal, state, and local levels has deliberately devastated traditional public schools when funds are extracted to pay for charters and vouchers out of fixed or declining public school budgets.
When Congress established Title I in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the intent was to provide significant extra dollars to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—an overwhelming challenge for any school district: “Not only did lawmakers recognize the need for additional resources—they attempted to quantify it. Embedded in the law is the authorization… to provide school districts an additional 40 percent for each Title I-eligible child so that their schools could offer supplemental supports such as reading specialists and smaller class sizes. Having established that 40 percent target in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.” In graphic form, the report demonstrates that Title I funding declined between 2005 between 2017: from 18 percent of the original 40 percent Congressional commitment in 2005 to only 12 percent today.
The report concludes: “The impact of those under-funded appropriations is wrenchingly clear. If Title I was fully funded by Congress, the nation’s high-poverty schools could provide: health and mental health services for every student…; and a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and a full-time additional counselor for every Title I school; OR a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom across the country.”
The story is similar with what was promised in 1975, when Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But there is one difference: In the IDEA, Congress mandated specific services schools must provide for disabled students. “The financial assumption underlying IDEA is that on average, the cost of educating a child with disabilities is twice the cost of educating a non-disabled student. IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.” Again, the report graphically presents the underfunding of the 40 percent promise. In 2005, Congress funded 18 percent of he cost of IDEA’s mandated services, and the percentage has declined since then to 15 percent today. When funding support is lacking from the federal government for mandatory IDEA services, school districts must cover the rest of the cost with general fund dollars—meaning larger classes for the general student population, fewer counselors, no librarian, no school nurse.
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools represents parents, youths, teachers, and community and labor organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.