August 28, 2009
The Honorable Secretary Arne Duncan
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202
Re: Proposed Priorities for Race to the Top Fund
Dear Secretary Duncan:
Education Law Center (“ELC”), the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (“CFE”), the Alliance for Quality Education (“AQE”), and the Georgia School Funding Association (“GSFA”) are state-based organizations dedicated to ensuring adequate and equitable funding for public school children in New Jersey, New York and Georgia. These organizations also work to advance equal educational opportunities for public school children across the nation, particularly low-income students, students of color, and students with special needs. We submit the following comments on the Department of Education’s (“ED”) proposed priorities, requirements, definitions, and selection criteria for the Race to the Top Fund (“RTTF”). See 74 Fed. Reg. No. 144, p. 37804 (July 29, 2009).
Our comments focus on the failure of the RTTF proposal to address, as an element of the program priorities, requirements and selection criteria, the level of state effort to assure and provide adequate and equitable school funding, which we maintain is a fundamental prerequisite to achieving the objectives of the RTTF program as established in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”). Accordingly, we urge ED to revise and reissue the proposal to require the provision of adequate and equitable school funding as specific criteria for reviewing and selecting RTTF applications, in accordance with the recommendations set forth below.
Without question, the statutory objectives and program requirements in the ARRA for awarding competitive RTTF grants to states require Local Education Agencies (“LEA”), including public charter schools, to be adequately and equitably funded through the state school finance system. The four RTTF reform goals -- implementing more rigorous content standards and assessments; improving teaching effectiveness and ensuring equity in the distribution of effective teachers; improving the use and collection of data; and supporting low performing schools – cannot be achieved and sustained in LEAs that are inadequately funded or chronically under-funded by their states.
State school funding adequacy and equity is especially critical in light of the overarching RTTF objective of improving the educational performance of low-income and minority students, and in “high-needs” LEAs serving significant concentrations of those students. As the ED recognizes in the RTTF proposal, many, if not most, of the nation’s lowest performing schools are located in high needs LEAs and, under RTTF reform efforts, these LEAs and schools would be subjected to intensive intervention and various “turnaround” strategies implemented by State Education Agencies (“SEA”). Thus, the RTTF reform effort targets the very LEAs and so-called “struggling schools” in low wealth communities that are most often inadequately and inequitably funded or chronically under-funded through existing state school finance systems.
While effective implementation of all RTTF objectives depends upon the availability of adequate and equitable funding, the RTTF goal to improve teacher effectiveness and the “equitable” distribution of effective teachers within states is simply not achievable without such funding. By far, the largest budgetary expenditure by LEAs are salaries, benefits, professional development and other supports for teaching and essential support staff. As we know from school finance reform efforts in our states, and other states, the preparation, recruitment and retention of teachers, and the ongoing professional development and support necessary for effective teachers, requires states to provide adequate and equitable school funding, particularly to high needs LEAs that must compete in teacher labor markets with low needs, well-funded LEAs. Indeed, research shows that attracting teachers to high poverty school settings, and retaining those teachers, requires not just salary and benefit comparability in the respective teacher labor market, but the provision of a substantial wage premium.
In short, RTTF grants will have little chance of achieving the program’s reform objectives, and sustaining those objectives in future years, unless states ensure the provision of adequate and equitable school funding, particularly to high needs LEAs. States, therefore, must be required to make appropriate and reasonable effort to achieve and maintain an adequate and equitable level of school funding when compared to other states and correlated to concentrated student poverty within states. This requirement is so essential to the success of the entire RTTF program that it must be included as a basic “state reform condition” for an award of an RTTF competitive grant.
We note that ED, in its RTTF proposal, does acknowledge that states must make education funding a “priority” as a “reform condition” for RTTF grant selection. See section (E)(2). However, this provision not only backs away from school funding benchmarks established by Congress for State Fiscal Stabilization Funds in ARRA, but also allows states to reduce support for K-12 education. States need only provide in FY09 the same percentage of state revenues to support K-12 as in FY08. Thus, a state can cut the actual level of revenues for education, and provide LEAs with less funding than the FY08 level, and still satisfy the school funding “priority” requirement for an RTTF grant.
It is clear, therefore, that the proposal, as written, fails to ensure that LEAs, especially high needs LEAs, are adequately and equitably funded and, most importantly, can support and sustain the RTTF reforms. States can simply ignore their overall revenue level for public education as compared to other states and, even more troubling, ignore the relationship between school funding and concentrated poverty within states. The proposal allows states that currently have low overall revenue levels, and that provide little or no extra state support for students in high needs LEA’s, to make no effort to reform their school finance systems. The proposal even fails to, at a minimum, direct full implementation of the ARRA requirements for State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, i.e., provide state revenue for K-12 education at the greater of the FY08 or FY09 level, and implement school funding formula increases, including phase-in of equity and adequacy adjustments in the formula adopted prior to October 2008.
In sum, the lack of any standards for assuring adequate and equitable school funding, along with the absence of a clear requirement for states to make appropriate and timely effort to assure and provide such funding, is a fundamental flaw in the RTTF proposal.
Accordingly, we urge ED to revise the proposal to make education funding adequacy and equity basic requirements, selection criteria and meaningful priorities in the review and selection of RTTF applications. We recommend states be required to:
1) Make a minimum school funding effort by increasing the total state and local revenues for K-12 education as a percent of the gross state product to the average of all states, if the state is below the national average, and maintain the level of state and local revenues if the state is above the national average;
2) Assure school funding adequacy by increasing per pupil state and local revenues for K-12 education to a level that is at least within 10% of the mean for all states, if the state is under that level, and maintain the per pupil level of state and local revenues if the state is above the national mean;
3) Assure school funding equity by demonstrating that per pupil state and local revenues for K-12 education are positively correlated with US Census Bureau Poverty Estimates across LEAs within the state and that, on average, LEAs with higher poverty rates receive higher levels of state and local revenues. If a state cannot demonstrate the correlation between higher per pupil revenues and higher rates of poverty in LEAs, then the state must present a school finance reform plan and timetable for achieving the requisite correlation;
4) Implement funding formula increases or phase-in equity and adequacy formula adjustments, where applicable, provided the state funding formula was adopted prior to October 2008 as required by ARRA; and
5) Provide assurances that RTTF grant funds provided to LEA’s will supplement, not supplant, state and local revenues provided through the state’s school finance system.
We further suggest that, if necessary, ED promptly convene a panel of appropriate experts and advocates in state school finance equity to refine and adjust these proposals. Our organizations stand ready to assist ED in this effort.
We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this proposal on behalf of the public school students, especially low income students, students with special needs, and students of color, our organizations serve. Thank you for your consideration of these comments, and please do not hesitate to contact us should you need additional information or assistance.
/s/ David G. Sciarra
David G. Sciarra, Esq.
Alliance for Quality Education, New York
Geri D. Palast
Campaign For Fiscal Equity
Joseph G. Martin, Jr.
Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia
cc: Russyln Ali, Director, OCR, USDOE
 We also underscore our concern that the RTTF proposal does not require states to 1) fund and implement well-planned high quality preschool education, linked to K-12 reform, for every three- and four-year old in high needs LEAs; and 2) establish needs assessment, planning and financing mechanisms to repair and replace dilapidated, overcrowded and educationally inadequate school facilities in those LEAs. Closing the early learning gap, and assuring a safe, adequate and healthy work environment for teaching and learning are essential pre-conditions that must be coordinated with, and integrated into, efforts to address teacher effectiveness and equity in the nation’s high needs LEAs and underperforming schools. Our organizations have substantial experience with funding and implementation of state-driven high quality preschool and capital financing and construction programs, and are prepared to assist ED in efforts to assure states undertake such initiatives.
 These recommended national average benchmarks should be adjusted for regional cost differences.