NEW YORK -- It's been more than a decade since Michael Rebell filed a lawsuit that led to increased school funding in New York. Now, the lawyer and Columbia University Teachers College professor is on to his next crusade: closing the achievement gap by providing services both inside and outside schools.
The achievement gap refers to performance disparities between groups of students from different backgrounds. Rebell's Campaign For Educational Equity recently released five new white papers that offer legal and financial analyses of broad-based educational equity.
The first paper finds:
Current federal and state policies, however, largely ignore the fact that the childhood poverty rate in the United States is 21%, the highest in the industrialized world, and that poverty substantially impedes these children’s ability to learn and to succeed in school.
In addition to important school-based educational resources like effective teaching, reasonable class sizes, and up-to-date learning materials, these children need additional comprehensive services, specifically, early childhood, health, after-school and other extended learning opportunities, and family supports.
Rebell's papers argue that New York state, which spends about $18,126 annually on each student, should also finance out-of-classroom services to the tune of $4,750 more per poor student each year. These out-of-school services would include prenatal care for mothers, child-care and after-school programs. In other parts of the country, the additional costs would add up to $4,230 per kid.
At a recent Teachers College forum titled "Achievable and Affordable: Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low-Income Students," Rebell made his case to a packed Milbank Chapel, alongside panelists including New York State Education Commissioner John King, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's deputy education secretary David Wakelyn, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Say Yes To Education President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey and Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman.
For that kind of funding increase to happen in New York, the state would have to be willing to boost the state's education budget, after years of cutting back. While both King and Wakelyn sounded supportive of Rebell's ideas, King committed to nothing.
"There's no question that we can do better with the resources that we have, that schools can get more out of the resources that we're currently expending," King said. "It's a false dichotomy and false choice between focusing on out-of-school services and focusing on school reform. We've got to do both well."
Schmitt-Carey described how her organization successfully aligned in- and out-of-school student services by organizing intergovernmental coalitions and rationalizing spending in places like Cincinnati and Syracuse. In Cincinnati, schools have community learning centers, after-school programs, mental health teams and health centers.
"The question of how you take it to scale, looking at the city being a unit of change, we had to make this piece up," Schmitt-Carey said. She stressed that collaborations have to come from the ground up, rather than be mandated by state laws, to be effective.
Weingarten lauded both Schmitt-Carey's work and Rebell's proposals. "It is shocking to me, just shocking, that we have not done more around the country of what Michael is proposing," Weingarten said. She pointed to the phenomenon of mayoral control of school districts in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. "In a place where there is mayoral control and where one would think that the mayor has control of all the other social service agencies, you probably can find a way to noodle down these numbers," she said.
Weingarten noted that the health centers in Cincinnati cost no additional money, since they were financed through the coordination and reallocation of existing funds. "Knowing that two-thirds of the achievement gap is socioeconomic, we must do this," she said.
Rebell also said he'd like to see New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg help align municipal services around the city's schools.
But such decisions aren't necessarily handled well at a city level, suggested Eric Nadelstern, a Teachers College professor and former vice chancellor in New York City's Department of Education. "When I see city government intervene with those funds, it doesn’t solve the problem," he said. "It often exacerbates them by disproportionately funding schools and services in middle-class neighborhoods more richly than in the poorest neighborhoods with kids who need them the most."
Wakelyn suggested looking at pre-kindergarten readiness screening tools, such as those in Maryland, to help narrow the achievement gap at an early age. "I think that we can stop the achievement gap before it starts, but we need to look at what other states are doing," Wakelyn said.
King said the federal Early Learning Challenge, part of the Race to the Top grant program, would help New York tackle that piece of the puzzle.