Expand 'No Child' through federal standards, funding

Second of three parts

o urban school system offers more hope than Baltimore's. Still, even if CEO Andrés Alonso stays the course (while fine-tuning it), city schools will need more resources. More must be done across the nation to fulfill, at long last, the legal and moral right of every poor child to a quality education.

The best hope for the future lies in what I call a "New Education Federalism." Its foundation is a larger, more muscular role for the federal government. But whoa - most educators and politicians are strongly opposed. Local and state control of public schools has always been regarded as sacrosanct. Its liberal and conservative defenders say that the failings of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) prove the point.


But rather than going too far, NCLB doesn't go far enough. NCLB seeks to hold schools accountable for the low performance of poor and minority students. But it has been undermined by political compromises, especially the provisions that allow state and local officials to continue to devise their own academic standards and tests.

How does it make any sense for 50 states (much less 14,000 local school systems) to have their own versions of what students need to know in reading, math, science and history? In fact, when it comes to education federalism, the U.S. is an underdeveloped country. Almost all our global competitors have national standards, tests and curricula. By contrast, we, under NCLB, have a notorious "race to the bottom" in which states dumb down their standards and tests to avoid sanctions and public embarrassment.


NCLB also does next to nothing to address, in Jonathan Kozol's memorable term, "savage inequalities" in school funding. Parents matter. School management matters. But so does the ability to pay for competitive teachers' salaries, training teachers, small class sizes, extra instruction for struggling students (during school, after school and during summers), school safety and decent facilities.

Yet, despite decades of lawsuits in almost every state, enormous inequities in per-pupil spending among school districts remain. A 2008 report, using the most recent data available (for 2005), showed that after adjustments for geographical differences in costs, the average gaps in spending of state and local funds between the highest-spending 25 percent and the lowest 25 percent districts was $938 per pupil (or about $25,000 per classroom).

Maryland, thanks to the "Thornton" law enacted in 2002, does more than most states to provide adequate funding. Yet, funding still falls far below need, and the current fiscal crisis has brought significant boosts in local aid to a halt.

Nationwide, the problem lies in vast differences in fiscal wealth and political will among the states. States fail to do more to eliminate disparities in funding because the school districts that would benefit most are politically as well as fiscally downtrodden. States are also under pressure to hold down taxes because of competition with neighboring states to attract industries and taxpayers.

This picture of low standards and inadequate school funding portrays a national failure that subverts the national interest in a well-educated citizenry and work force. Stronger federal action is imperative. It requires mandated national standards and tests that set a floor, not a ceiling, on what students should learn.

It also requires a federal guarantee of equal-opportunity funding for poor and minority children that can be accomplished through carrots (direct federal aid) and sticks (withholding federal aid from states that do not equalize funding on their own). And to ensure that the money is well spent, the federal government must raise the deplorable quality of education R&D; and condition federal aid on local use of the best, research-based instructional programs.

Such a seemingly audacious plan for a vastly enhanced federal role isn't a political pipe dream. National polls show that despite the furor over NCLB, most Americans want it mended, not ended. Polls also reveal popular support for more federal funding and for national standards, tests and curricula. Most Americans are pragmatic, and the emotional attachment to local control is trumped by common sense and frustration over the plight of our schools.

Moreover, bear in mind that under the New Education Federalism, the federal government only fixes national standards for what every child is entitled to: namely, a world-class education. States and local governments and departments of education would still have great leeway in how federal standards are met: how students are taught, teachers are trained and federal aid is spent.


So it can happen. But if it does, will local school systems live up to their end of the bargain?

Tomorrow: The audacity of hope for poor children.
About the author

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren," is due out next week. His e-mail is