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Federal aid alone won’t make America’s schools equitable; states must contribute, too | COMMENTARY

FILE -- A Head Start program classroom in Jacksonville, Fla., Nov. 19, 2018. President Joe Biden's funding request to Congress includes a $36.5 billion investment in high-poverty schools, a $20 billion increase from the previous year. (Eve Edelheit/The New York Times)
FILE -- A Head Start program classroom in Jacksonville, Fla., Nov. 19, 2018. President Joe Biden's funding request to Congress includes a $36.5 billion investment in high-poverty schools, a $20 billion increase from the previous year. (Eve Edelheit/The New York Times) (Eve Edelheit/The New York Times)

Though it hasn’t drawn the attention of other far-reaching proposals to achieve economic and racial equity, President Biden has taken a historic step to overcome severe inequality in educational opportunity. His budget request for the coming year increases federal spending on schools by about 41%. Of that, a lion’s share boosts Title I funding for high-poverty schools from about $16 billion to $36.5 billion — an unprecedented expansion.

But if that were all he is proposing, it still wouldn’t come close to remedying educational inequity. Using a conservative methodology, the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, found that the country is underfunding our public schools by $150 billion annually, “robbing millions of children — predominantly minority and low-income children — of the opportunity to succeed.”

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To put this in further perspective, even with the big increase in Title I funds, federal spending on K-12 public schools would constitute a minuscule 2% or less of total federal spending (apart from temporary COVID assistance). And state and local governments would still be paying well over 85% of all school expenditures, while falling far short on adequacy and equity.

Even pre-pandemic, the national school crisis was starkly evident. There was growing research that more school funding makes a difference in student achievement. Yet, since at least 2008, state funding had been declining, and immense disparities between poor and other districts haven’t been shrinking. Based on 2018 data, some states spend as much as $24,000 per pupil, while others spend as little as $7,600 per pupil. The money matters. The most recent national test data show that in 2019, only a little more than one-third of students were proficient in reading and math, and reading scores were actually dropping. (Maryland students performed only slightly better.)

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This national crisis — or more impolitely put, this national disgrace — is why the Biden proposals didn’t end with just the infusion of federal funds. More significantly, the Title I money is conditioned in part on states’ efforts to remedy inadequacy and inequity in their own funding.

The full details of the proposed new Title I “equity grants” are not known. But essentially, to get some of the new Title I funding, states would have to set goals for improving equity and adequacy and show progress toward meeting those goals. States are encouraged to establish state equity commissions. The Education Trust, a national policy group, lauds the grants as “a catalyst for state and district leaders to remedy inequities in their existing school funding systems.”

Maryland clearly has a leg up on other states. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future charts a 13-year course toward a world-class school system and provides some additional funding. The blueprint has received national praise as a gold standard for school finance systems.

Still, as some experts attest, the blueprint comes up substantially short on necessary funding. The learning loss caused by the pandemic has shone painful light on the depth of students’ deficiencies and the huge costs of closing achievement gaps. And the COVID federal funding will end all too soon.

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The pandemic has also shown the utter folly of “local control” of school funding. In the absence of national leadership, 50 states made a deadly mess of combating COVID-19. And the same holds for how states have long been guilty of failing to fulfill the civil right to equal educational opportunity. As far back as 1973, the Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that state disparities and inequities did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Any remedy was left to the states. But that has not happened despite litigation in almost every state (including Maryland).

Will Joe be able to ride to the rescue? The chances are iffy. Budget requests are certain to be revised more than usual under the present divided Congress. To compound the uncertainty, local control retains a political stranglehold over many Democrats as well as Republicans. Liberal-leaning school boards and teacher unions want the money but fear any strings that limit their professional autonomy.

Nonetheless, the president must not flinch in the struggle for school equity. More direct federal aid is one way, but it won’t be enough. Ultimately, states must shoulder a much larger share, as Title I equity grants would demand. The national interest in a well-educated workforce and citizenry and the moral imperative of equal educational opportunity call upon Congress to support the president’s equity initiative.

If not now, when?

Kalman R. Hettleman (khettleman@gmail.com) a former member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore City school board, is an education policy analyst and advocate.

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