How's this for a summer blockbuster -- the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Michigan for violating the "right to learn" of its children, a right guaranteed under an obscure state law.
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How's this for a summer blockbuster -- the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Michigan for violating the "right to learn" of its children, a right guaranteed under an obscure state law.

And yet although this case is the first of its kind, we've been having this debate for a loooong time now. For years, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has tried -- and failed -- to introduce language for a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution "regarding the right of all citizens of the United States to a public education of equal high quality."

Then there's the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, a 1989 gathering that resulted in the first legally binding international treaty and establishment of universally recognized norms and standards for the protection and promotion of children's rights. By any account it was an overwhelming success; all but three member nations signed on.

The three holdouts? Somalia. South Sudan. And us.

And then there's the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in response to a group of poor Texas parents who claimed their state's tolerance of the wide disparity in school resources violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed. "Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution." If it were, the majority conceded, "virtually every State will not pass muster."

The fact that the Court's 1973 decision was 5-4 tells you how closely contested this issue has always been. And yet I can't help but wonder, why is it so difficult to demand of ourselves a higher set of standards -- for learning, for teaching, and for fairness? And what should we do at the federal level to ensure the right to learn of all American children?

We could start with these seven steps:

1. Link federal support to progress in opportunities to learn.

Currently, the allocation of education spending does not reflect the urgency we face. The funding allocated in current federal policy -- less than 10% of most schools' budgets -- does not meet the needs of the under-resourced schools where many students currently struggle to learn. It is also allocated in ways that reinforce rather than compensate for unequal funding across states. But the federal government could help by:

  • Better equalizing its own allocation of funds to states, accounting for concentrations of need and differences in costs of living;
  • Creating benchmarks for the pursuit of equity in the form of opportunity-to-learn standards;
  • Closing the comparability loophole in Title I by requiring districts to equalize per-pupil expenditures across schools prior to awarding Title I funds; and
  • Incentivizing states to implement equitable funding models across districts and schools.

2. Incentivize the recruitment, development, and equitable distribution of highly qualified and highly effective teachers and school leaders.

Myriad studies have clearly demonstrated that highly effective teachers are an essential element for student learning and growth. However, students in low-resource schools do not have access to these teachers at the same rate as students in high-resource schools. The federal government could help by:

  • Creating incentives, such as service scholarships, to recruit teachers and principals to high need areas;
  • Strengthening teacher preparation by supporting professional development programs (akin to teaching hospitals) and high quality residency programs;
  • Supporting the development of a national teacher performance assessment that can be used for licensing;
  • Implementing a minimum ratio of experienced to inexperienced teachers for all schools
  • Supporting mentoring programs and ongoing, practice-based collaborative learning opportunities for teachers;
  • Providing opportunities to acquire certification in ESL and bilingual education through scholarships and loan forgiveness;
  • Supporting the development of differentiated career pathways that help keep promising teachers in the profession, and
  • Investing in strong school leadership recruitment and training programs.

3. Ensure equal access to high-quality early education programs.

Access to a high-quality early education experience sets the foundation for academic success. Research conducted by Nobel Laureate James Heckman affirms that early education programs have clear educational development benefits that include higher graduation rates, higher incomes, and lower levels of criminal behavior compared to children who did not participate in early education. The federal government can help by:

  • Establishing minimum requirements for early education programs (e.g., teachers with bachelor degrees and trained in early childhood education, small class sizes, etc.);
  • Expanding current programs to include many more children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and
  • Expanding funding for early education programs.

4. Meet the federal obligation for funding programs for high-need students.

When ESEA and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act were first enacted, the federal government committed to funding 40 percent of the extra costs of educating students with disabilities and those who are "educationally disadvantaged" by reason of poverty. This commitment has not been maintained.

If we are legitimately to expect all students to reach much higher standards, the federal government must meet its promises to support the investments needed to provide students the kind of intensive, high-quality teaching and support services they need.

5. Strengthen supports for English Language Learner and Limited English Proficiency students.

English Language Learners (ELL) represent the fastest increasing segment of the public school population. The federal government can encourage teachers, schools, and districts to provide equal education opportunities for these students by:

  • Investing in the development of fully-qualified bilingual teachers who are sensitive to language barriers and cultural differences among students and able to effectively teach ELL and LEP students;
  • Aligning Title II and III by requiring that state local education agencies (LEA's) demonstrate how their second language acquisition programs meet the academic and linguistic needs of bilingual learners;
  • Lifting the cap on the amount of money appropriated for pre-service preparation of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teacher candidates, combined with restoring fellowship opportunities (Title VII) for graduate study in those same areas provided in earlier versions of ESEA;
  • Encouraging states and localities to increase the pool of highly qualified bilingual teachers and personnel with expertise in working with ELLs;
  • Supporting high-quality, research-based professional development opportunities for ELL/LEP teachers;
  • Supporting early school intervention programs that help prevent ELL students from falling behind academically, and
  • Prohibiting districts and schools from testing ELL students exclusively in English until they have become proficient in the English language.

6. Invest in out-of-school learning supports.

The federal government also has a role to play in offering auxiliary supports that prepare students to learn, keep them engaged in school, and make their environment beyond school conducive to high levels of skill development. As New York University professor Pedro Noguera has noted: "If we want to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must ensure that their basic needs are met. This means that students who are hungry should be fed, that children who need coats in the winter should receive them, and that those who have been abused or neglected receive the counseling and care they deserve. If the commitment to raise achievement is genuine, there are a variety of measures that can be taken outside of school that will produce this result. For example, removing lead paint from old apartments and homes and providing students in need with eye exams and dental care are just some of the steps that could be taken."

7. Enforce civil rights laws that are essential for educational equity.

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) should evaluate and enforce state compliance with the federal mandate (as stated under the Civil Rights Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and NCLB) to provide an equal education opportunity for all students. Adherence to this goal would involve compliance with equitable access to equitable funding resources, early childhood education, quality teachers, and challenging curricula, along with equitable education opportunities for ELLs.

Fifty-eight years ago, the United States Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education captured the most hopeful strains of the American narrative: working within a system of laws to extend the promise of freedom, more fairly and fully, to each succeeding generation. In practice, however, integrated schools today remain as much of a dream now as they were fifty years ago, and the subject of segregation has all but disappeared from the national conversation about education reform. Worse still, many of the newest and most promising schools in our nation's cities are actually increasing the racial stratification of young people and communities -- not lessening it.

Investments must be made to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of resources for education in all communities. Doing so will afford our children the opportunities to learn they deserve. While the federal government cannot eliminate the long-standing educational debt overnight, it can enact policies that encourage states to equalize resources.

I'd call that a good start.

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