What Reforms Would Close Opportunity Gaps?

What Reforms Would Close Opportunity Gaps?

The disparity in funding for public education between wealthy and poor school districts is 3:1 in most states, this despite more than 30 years of lawsuits and the improved funding they have brought.

Today, with a new Administration and with Congress preparing for the long overdue reauthorization of the federal education law we currently call No Child Left Behind, we join with partners to call Congress and the Administration to confront long-standing disparities in educational opportunity that derive from years of inequitable policy at the federal and state levels. 

In our faithful critique of NCLB, we have pointed out that it is unfair and immoral to demand equal outcomes on standardized tests without equalizing the resources at the federal and state levels that create the opportunity for children to learn.  Each child should be guaranteed not only equitable funding levels, but also the opportunity for quality early childhood education; well qualified teachers; challenging courses that qualify youths for college; and instructional resources such as small classes, reasonable case loads for school counselors, libraries, and computers. 

 In the reauthorization, Congress should allocate federal resources for equity and use its power to pressure states to close opportunity gaps. Congress should:

  • Fully fund Title I in accord with the current formula. When No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, the assumption was that the federal government would significantly invest in the schools that serve a large number of very poor children. Congress has never kept that promise. In the fall of 2008, the cumulative underfunding of NCLB over seven years below what Congress authorized was $71 billion.
  • Move Title I and IDEA Part B funding to the mandatory budget category to alleviate the problem that appropriations for Title I and IDEA have historically been only a fraction of what the laws authorize. Title I is additional money, distributed by formula, for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. IDEA funding is for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and is distributed to school districts for the special needs children they serve. Today funding for both of these budget lines is in the discretionary budget category, which means that political wrangling affects what Congress appropriates each year for these budget lines.  Experts have documented that current Title I and IDEA appropriations are far below the cost of educating these children and far below what should be the federal government's commitment considering federal requirements for school districts to provide services. If Title I and IDEA funding were moved to the mandatory budget category, these budget lines would no longer be subject to the annual political appropriations process.
  • Develop meaningful federal incentives for states to address resource inequity. Rules for the various American Recovery and Reinvestment Act create incentives for states to establish a climate more receptive to the creation of new charter schools, for states to create school restructure models, and for states to tie teacher evaluations to test scores.  In the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress should also create incentives for states to address long-standing school funding inequity.
  • Establish a comprehensive school funding indicator system under which states report data about spending patterns across and within school districts.  By collecting data about states' resource inputs, Congress could go a long way toward exposing inequity in funding and also disparities in resources available for poor children including access to: quality early childhood education; well qualified teachers; challenging courses that qualify students for college; and instructional resources like small classes, reasonable case loads for school counselors, libraries, and computers.
  • Require states to develop plans for overcoming resource inequity and document their progress toward the goals they have themselves established.  The federal government should use its leverage to pressure states to acknowledge long standing injustices and make plans to address them.
  • Create a transparent, regular federal report that exposes the scope of unequal opportunity. Once states have provided data, the federal government needs to compile it regularly and begin reporting the size of opportunity gaps just as it has been reporting gaps in standardized test scores.

There is one further step. The U.S. Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The Department needs to revitalize that division and develop OCR's capacity to monitor and enforce access to educational resources across the states.