Education: The state fails again; Remedy: Only the federal government can guarantee every student access to an adequate education.


This was the year it was supposed to happen. Maryland would move to the top of the class among the states in enabling poor and minority students to meet rigorous academic standards.

The Maryland state board and Superintendent Nancy Grasmick are national leaders in setting high standards. Yet they recognize that over 90 percent of disadvantaged students will fail new high school graduation exams without extensive interventions like summer school, tutoring and after-school programs. They, and city officials, have pleaded with Gov. Parris N. Glendening for such aid.

Prospects never looked better. The governor has been promoting himself as the "education governor" and campaigning to be secretary of education in a Gore administration. Maryland is one of the most liberal states and has a huge budget surplus. And several lawsuits are pending that appear to require academic interventions for poor students as a matter of constitutional right.

Yet, in the past legislative session, the governor flunked the test. His two high-profile education initiatives -- school construction and matching funds for teacher pay raises -- were tilted to benefit wealthier school districts. At the same time, new funding for poor and minority students was, as Sun columnist Barry Rascovar put it, "pittances." Catherine Brennan, director of the Maryland Education Coalition, a statewide advocacy group, rated the governor's performance as "very disappointing and poor."

State educators sought about $45 million for elementary and middle school interventions for next year, which is probably about one-tenth of the full statewide cost. They got only $12 million. City officials, in accordance with a lawsuit settlement with the state three years ago, documented the need for an extra $250 million per year. They pared the request to $49 million. But the governor in effect reneged on the settlement, and according to the city's calculations, it only received an additional $8 million beyond its share of the statewide funding.

Why this shameful under-achievement by the governor?

Part of the reason lies in the governor's ill-disguised feud and rivalry with the politically popular Grasmick. He frequently snubs her and ignores recommendations from the state school board, this year more than ever.

In addition, the governor's political agenda usually caters to business interests and the middle class at the expense of the politically powerless, such as the families of low-performing students.

At the same time, his failure to rise to the challenge of providing adequate resources for poor and minority students fits a tragic national pattern. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that states were not required -- under the U.S. Constitution -- to equalize funding between poor and wealthy students. Since then, lawsuits have been filed in over 40 states seeking remedies under state constitutions. But the results have been meager.

This hasn't changed, despite the much ballyhooed education reform in the states that began in the 1980s. Disadvantaged children have benefited little.

A landmark National Research Council report last year concluded: "The main lesson from the past 30 years is how persistent spending inequalities are in American education .... The long period of active reform has yielded only modest change."

Worse, the "savage inequalities," in Jonathan Kozol's words, are growing as states continue to toughen standards.

This is no surprise. The historical truth about American federalism is that the states never have met the social welfare and education needs of low-income and minority families. That's why the national government has had to step in: for example, the New Deal, desegregation court rulings, federal civil rights legislation and the Great Society.

John Donahue, at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, writes about the "latent political fragility of states' commitment to broad-based education investment."

There are many deep-rooted factors.

States vary widely in wealth and political will. In the fierce economic wars with neighboring states, low taxes (which cut into available revenues) are a major weapon. Moreover, states -- unlike the federal government -- can't run deficits in bad fiscal times, and education spending is vulnerable during downturns. School investment is devalued by individual states because the payoff is long-term, and partially lost through population mobility.

Most fundamentally, impoverished people and their school districts are more "at risk" politically in the states than in the national government.

Only a new federal civil right can overcome these obstacles -- a guarantee of adequate educational opportunity for every child.

Adequacy has replaced equality as the measure of true opportunity. It means that poor and other disadvantaged children must have access to the more-than-equal instructional resources that will enable them to meet rising state standards.

Maryland educators say they will be forced to pull back the high school graduation requirements without more funding for academic interventions. Several states, for the same reason, have already delayed or watered down their standards.

But the best interests of disadvantaged children and the nation are not served by abandoning high expectations. Rather, every child must be assured the opportunity to meet them. Since it's evident that the states aren't going to do it, the federal government must.

Such an idea seemed far-fetched only a few years ago. Conventional wisdom held that local control of public education was sacrosanct, and any large-scale federal involvement was politically doomed. But public opinion has shifted dramatically. National polls strongly support increased federal funding and even higher taxes to pay for it. Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are engaged in a bidding contest to become the "education president."

Most important a federal guarantee can be legislatively crafted so that it does not usurp local and state control over instruction. This can be done by considerably expanding federal funding, mainly through a broad block grant that builds upon the existing Title I (for low-income students) and Individuals With Disabilities Act (for special education students) programs. Both are now unfunded national mandates.

A rough estimate of cost would be $35 billion to $40 billion a year. That's more than double current federal spending but only about 10 percent of all public school expenditures, and less than 4 percent of the federal budget and 1 percent of the gross national product.

Another approach would force states to meet benchmarks of fiscal equality and adequacy or lose federal aid.

ka-10 States meeting the benchmarks would be free to spend the money as they choose. This intergovernmental balancing act will stand a better chance if overseen by a national blue-ribbon commission that is independent of the politicized U.S. Department of Education.

ka0 Sure, money is only part of the answer. Adequate funding must be aligned with more efficient use of current resources. Still, we have failed to act upon the fact that the federal government has proved far more effective than the states in overcoming educational inequalities and injustice. Maryland's dismal performance is only the most recent proof.

American public schools remain "separate and unequal," except now the great divide is economic class and academic success. A federal civil rights guarantee of adequate educational opportunity is therefore a social and moral imperative. The time has come.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant.

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