A Good Idea That Will Again Fail

Should schools with student bodies primarily from low-income families spend less on the education of those children than is spent on the education of other students in the same school district?

Of course not! That practice violates common sense norms of justice and equity. If anything, children from poor families generally need extra assistance to do as well as students from more affluent families.

Yet, American school districts commonly spend less from state and locally generated funds in schools with concentrations of children from low-income families than they do in their other schools. Why?

Teacher pay is tied to years of experience, and teachers in schools with many low-income students tend to be less experienced while more experienced teachers opt to work in other schools. Thus, expenditures are lower in poor schools and higher in other schools.

Will this policy of inequitable funding based on teachers' salaries change? Based on my involvement in a half century of education policy, I doubt it -- unless other reforms, described later, are adopted.

A major battle over the current policy is occurring as the U.S. Department of Education writes regulations for the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Last year that law replaced the misguided No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which pressured teachers to raise the scores of their students through extensive testing and imposed penalties for not succeeding. That policy did not achieve its objective, and caused resentment from educators.

NCLB placed the full burden of student success on teachers' shoulders, without considering whether assistance to help students do better was available and without considering the social, medical, and emotional problems that many students brought with them to school.

President George W. Bush and leading Republican and Democratic congressional leaders passed this law in 2002 and then refused for the next 13 years to make changes, despite the pleas of educators. Opposition to NCLB boiled up like steam in a tea kettle until it exploded. Its replacement emphasizes state and local decision-making while placing unprecedented limitations on the U.S. Secretary of Education.

In writing regulations for the new law, Secretary of Education, John B. King, proposes that school districts spend as much per student of state and local funds on students in poor schools as is spent on students in the district's other schools. Compliance would be mandatory for receipt of federal aid.

Currently in effect is a weaker provision with little enforcement. The new, stronger regulation could lead to school districts having to make up the lower spending in heavily poor schools through hiring more teachers for those schools or shifting more experienced teachers to them. Since teacher pay is such a large factor in the inequities, some changes will have to occur with the teaching force in order to even out the expenditures by school.

Senator Lamar Alexander (Rep.-Tenn), the chair of the Senate education committee, opposes this rule as a federal incursion into local decision violating the spirit of ESSA. Alexander's allies include the National Education Association which at its recent convention urged teachers to sign petitions opposing this rule. Nevertheless, King said that he will proceed with this policy; and Alexander threatens congressional action overturning the rule.

As Yogi Berra famously said, this is déjà vu all over again.

The early 1980s witnessed the same fight. In Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press: March 2015), I describe how Congress imposed the same obligation on the schools as the Department's proposal. Local school administrators opposed that requirement once it took effect, and successfully worked with President Reagan and Republican congressional leaders to repeal it. Inserted in its place was the provision currently in effect which states the principle of equity but permits weak compliance.

I am afraid that we will see the same result this time. Teachers who are normally supportive of equity measures oppose this one because they may be reassigned to schools with large numbers of students who are more difficult to educate and will not be assured of the assistance they need to succeed. This reminds them of NCLB where all the pressure for student success was placed on teachers.

The way out of this dilemma is to reshape the way that the federal, state and local governments operate the schools. In my book I propose equitable funding for education, but argue that the federal government must substantially increase its aid to achieve this end.

Currently, federal aid covers less than 10 percent of the costs of elementary and secondary education. Secretary King is asking local school districts and states to reallocate substantial amounts of the 90 percent of the aid they provide to bring about funding equity. Ten percent is a very weak lever to move the 90 percent of funds from state and local sources.

Unfortunately, equitable funding is not going to happen. Congress will find some way to block it, and teachers and some other educators' organizations will applaud.

Major reform is dependent on increasing federal funding, hopefully to a third of the costs, to help pay for improvements. In addition, states, local districts, and the federal government must work together to raise the quality of schooling. My book proposes a way to bring that about by dramatically changing the way education is provided today.

If the federal government really wants major improvement, it should put its funds where its mouth is.

Shortcuts will not work. Real change will.