Public education needs ‘Cash for Flunkers’

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President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced an aggressive attempt to fund our nation’s failing public schools. The initiative, called the “Race to the Top” fund provides over $4 billion in competitive grants to improve public education. The money is only a small slice from a $53 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 pie dedicated to education. It attempts to stimulate change in areas like closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring students are prepared for success in college and careers.

One of the controversial parts of the initiative is the mandate to tie teacher pay raises to student test performance. This will add more fuel to the fire in debates between teachers unions and policy makers on whether teachers, particularly in poor schools systems should be evaluated on standardized one-size-fits-all tests. This is an important issue for policy wonks like myself, but I doubt this issue will lead to any angry town hall meetings like we are witnessing in the healthcare debate.

This ambitious “Race to the Top” remedy for our ailing schools will still not be enough. The real problem is that many states are clunkers, broke and with rusting education funding systems. They need to discard their old school finance models for more updated ones that work.

According to Goodwin Liu of the Education Trust, an education policy organization, there are funding disparities for minorities within and between states, particularly in the South, Southwest and West, where millions of dollars are still being siphoned from high-poverty black school districts and given to low-poverty white districts.

For instance, Alabama spends approximately $300 less per kid in poor districts than in wealthier white ones. Surprisingly, even New York spends $2000 less per kid in poor districts like New York City compared to surrounding suburban communities. Add that per-kid spending together, and we are looking at deficits of thousands of dollars per classroom.

So what’s the solution? I believe a more aggressive education agenda is needed. I advocate, as many others have over the decades, for a U.S. constitutional amendment that makes education a right for all. Currently, only the state constitutions have provisions for public education, limiting the power of the federal government to really fund education equitably.

We need to also mandate the revamping archaic state education funding formulas to eliminate disparities between poor and wealthier school districts. Lastly, focusing on things like national academic standards is a band-aid approach. We need to create education policy that is integrated with other policies that center on anti-poverty, job creation, housing, criminal justice, healthcare because all of it is connected for our communities, impacting how our kids learn and live. This might all seem ambitious and far-fetched, but I believe it is the new civil rights agenda.

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