Forgetting to Address the Cause of Educational Injustice

Teachers’ unions are criticized all the time for putting the needs of teachers first. Far-right astro-turf organizations like Students First and Stand for Children have made sharing this myth their raison-d’etre.  But in my long work as an advocate for justice in public education policy at the federal level, I discovered again and again and again that the myth isn’t true.  Teachers’ unions work assiduously for laws that help children; the teachers who belong to the teachers’ unions fund these organizations well enough that they hire expert policy analysts; and the teachers’ unions do more than almost any other organization to reach out to the broader community on behalf of public schools.  I have come to believe that far-right ideologues trash teachers’ unions because those same ideologues believe in cutting taxes, and they want cheap labor in the classroom because their persistent tax slashing makes it impossible to afford expert professionals.  This is all designed to destroy teachers’ unions as part of a race to the bottom.

Over the weekend the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union provided another piece of evidence that teachers’ unions are intent on keeping us focused on what matters for the children in our public schools.  On Saturday, the National Education Association pointed out that, while the new bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act may eliminate some of the most horrible aspects of test-and-punish school policy, its authors forgot about the federal government’s primary role for addressing vast educational inequality in school resources that exists across the states.

NEA is the only national organization, so far at least, to have noticed this egregious hole in the proposed law.  It is a very serious omission from Senator Alexander and Murray’s bill.  After all, the law being reauthorized has Title I as its centerpiece—the program designed in 1965 to address the needs of poor children and the schools that serve them with federal aid to education.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The head of the country’s largest teachers union said that her organization does not support a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to replace the nation’s main federal education law because it does not go far enough to create equal educational opportunities for poor children.  ‘We keep asking ourselves, ‘Does this move the needle for kids?  Will a child see something better in his or her classroom?’ said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. ‘And this bill in the Senate doesn’t do it. We’re not at ‘better’ yet.'”

Layton explains that new data demonstrates persistent inequality of opportunity: across the states, less money—often far less—is spent on the education of children living in poverty than on children in wealthy communities.  And federal funding is so meager that it fails to come close to making up the difference.  Layton links to Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post article that describes new data from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts.  Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.  But 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… In some states the differences are stark. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts.  In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent. Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts… than they are in the most affluent… In general, wealthier towns and counties are able to raise more money through taxes to support their schools than poorer localities can.  Many states have developed school-finance systems that send extra dollars to poorer areas in an attempt to mitigate those inequities.  But state aid is often not enough to make up the difference.”  Title I helps, but it is not enough.

Layton explains NEA’s new advocacy effort for equalizing opportunity in the reauthorization of the federal education law: “No Child Left Behind has judged states and school districts based on student outcomes, largely by relying on test scores.  But they should also be evaluated based in inputs—whether they are evenly distributing resources from school to school.”  Eskelsen-Garcia explains: “We’ve been talking about this to every senator we can.  It is time for accountability to mean that all kids are getting what they need.”

NEA is asking Congress to make “any new federal law hold states responsible for reducing the resource gap between schools.”  NEA is also asking for more transparency to raise awareness about the size of opportunity gaps by asking that Congress require school districts to publish “opportunity dashboards” to “disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators.”

When a national Equity and Excellence Commission appointed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the request of Representatives Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Mike Honda (D-CA) reported on federal policy in public education, the members declared: “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… 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…. Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity…. Ensure that its dollars are not used to perpetuate or exacerbate inequities.”

Fifty years ago, the federal education law that now faces Congressional reauthorization was created primarily to address the injustice of unequal opportunity for children. As Congress considers the reauthorization of this law, thank you, National Education Association, for reminding us that poor children most often live in school districts without small classes and without enough counselors and enough sports and debate teams and enough music programs—the very privileges middle and upper class children in the suburbs and in smaller cities and towns across America take for granted.