THE BLOG

Equal Opportunity and the Future of Our Nation

02/20/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

"The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries." - Thomas Jefferson, 1817

Thomas Jefferson had a vision for a system of public education and the "diffusion of knowledge among the people" that would raise the talents of the rich and poor alike in the new American republic. He believed that its success was fundamental to a democratic society. In his words, "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness..."

Reflecting Jefferson, the Equity and Excellence Commission's 2013 final report entitled "For Each and Every Child - A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence" explains, "Education is the key to a strong democracy, economic competitiveness and a world-class standard of living... We cannot have a strong democracy without an informed, engaged citizenry. Accordingly, a strong public school system is essential to a strong democracy."

But, we are failing to live up to that commitment to many of our nation's children. Due to a highly inequitable system of financing, children receive wildly different and inequitable levels of funding just because of their school district, zip code and school they attend.

As Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz points out, "Most societies recognize a moral obligation to help ensure that young people can live up to their potential" and attempt to increase educational opportunity among its most disadvantaged children. In contrast, he writes that our country stands out among nations in a negative way because, "in America, more is spent on the education of rich students than on the education of the poor."

This is contrary to the principle of equal opportunity in our nation's Declaration of Independence. As the Equity and Excellence Commission points out:

America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools, and also in terms of performance. No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. Sadly, what feels so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.

Inequities are wide between states, within states, and even within school districts. The Commission found an almost 3-to-1 gap in education spending between Utah and New York but also found that "in most states, the highest-spending districts pay about twice as much per pupil as the lowest-spending districts. In some states, like California, the ratio is more than 3-to-1.

Texas's system of school finance is, unfortunately, exemplary of the inequity found in a number of states across the country. As Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent John Kuhn explains in his book, Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity, the Texas Legislature, wealthy businessmen, testing companies and property-rich communities created an effective bait-and-switch political campaign that has undermined the democratic commitment to equal opportunity.

Under the banner of "school reform," testing advocates and their lobbyists advocated for moving Texas schools to a regime that: (1) imposed a one-size-fits-all testing regime upon schools, teachers and students; (2) worked to undermine support for public schools; (3) demonized teachers; (4) helped create an environment that led to billions of dollars in education cuts; (5) institutionalized funding inequities through school funding formulas and hold harmless clauses benefitting the wealthiest schools; and, (6) created what is now an opportunity chasm.

Consequently, the Texas Equity Center, which advocates for the property poor school districts and the children in those schools in Texas, helped file a lawsuit that highlighted the disparities in funding to schools and children based on zip code, property value and political clout. According to Wayne Pierce, president of the Equity Center, the disparities have grown once again so that the children of El Paso Independent School District (ISD) receive a staggering $72,359 less per classroom than the kids in Glen Rose ISD.

The Equity Center has found that, even though the poorest schools have the greatest need, they remain terribly underfunded. In fact, according to their research, "if the poorest 100 Texas school districts were funded at the same level the state readily funds the wealthiest 100 districts, they would have an additional $91,688 per typical elementary school classroom."

Compounding the problem, the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion out of the education budget in 2011, and although the state restored some of that money in 2013, Texas is spending less money per child today than it did in 2002.

That is simply not a model of success for the children of Texas, as funding is both inadequate and inequitable. But more troublesome, since Texas schools educate nearly 10 percent of the nation's kids and accounted for 52 percent of the nation's growth (more than the combined growth in the other 49 states) in the number of children between 2000 and 2010, it is also a problem for the entire nation.

However, that was not the initial vision of Texas's founders. In fact, when Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836, joined the United States as a State, was readmitted to the country after the Civil War, and wrote a new Constitution to overturn Reconstructionist Republican rule in 1876, Texas looked again and again to Jefferson's efforts to establish a public school system in Virginia and specifically lifted Jefferson's reference to a "general diffusion of knowledge" and put it into its own Constitution.

Unfortunately, as District Court Judge John Dietz has noted, "Texas has a 179 year history of playing lip service to" public education.

Consequently, Judge Dietz ruled last August that Texas's school finance system is unconstitutional for failing to "suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren."

In doing so, Judge Dietz referenced the Jeffersonian language in the Texas Constitution. As his opinion reads:

Further, the school finance system is constitutionally inadequate because it cannot accomplish, and has not accomplished, a general diffusion of knowledge for all students due to insufficient funding. Finally, the school finance system is financially inefficient because all Texas students do not have substantially equal access to the education funds necessary to accomplish a general diffusion of knowledge (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, rather than recognizing and addressing the State's educational shortcomings properly, the State, under the leadership of then Attorney General and now Governor Greg Abbott, chose, to the detriment of the school children of Texas, to appeal the case so that it is now pending before the Texas Supreme Court once again.

There is some shocking hypocrisy among those that argue that money and resources don't matter when it comes to education. For example, to justify the funding inadequacies and inequities in Texas, some of the same business leaders, who were lobbying before the Texas Legislature for tax breaks for their businesses, were simultaneously and paradoxically arguing that money doesn't matter when it comes to education. As Kuhn says:

... business leaders behind the Texas education reform movement convinced themselves, conveniently and counterfactually, that money didn't matter whatsoever in public education. It mattered in business, of course - enough that a whole slew of business-related chichés about the topic exists: 'You get what you pay for,' for example, and 'You have to spend money to make money.' But somehow Texas reform agitators and backslapping backroom dealers found it intellectually acceptable to argue that when one crossed the public-private version of the Mason-Dixon Line, suddenly infusions of resources had no impact whatsoever on operations or outcomes.

Likewise, some of the wealthier school districts have hypocritically argued that any loss of money to them would be devastating and result in reductions in school achievement while simultaneously arguing that money is not important and really does not matter for the poorer schools and children.

In response, the Texas Equity Center's Money Does Matter report cites a wealth of evidence that money does matter to low-income children in terms of helping them receive preschool, smaller classes, quality teachers, interventions for struggling students, challenging curriculum, and technology. The Equity Center concludes:

Positive academic outcomes can happen, if children have the resources they need. That is why money matters. It matters greatly in lifting children out of the poverty of their backgrounds - by increasing their opportunities to learn, facilitating their academic success, ensuring their graduation from high school and education beyond high school, giving them hope for the future, and ensuring their overall health and life earnings.

An important recent study on the impact of education funding to low-income children by Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico at Northwestern University and Rucker Jackson of the University of California confirms that money and equity clearly and unequivocally matters to low-income children. After analyzing the long-term impact to children from court-ordered school finance reforms, the authors revealed at a recent Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and First Focus that:

. . .for low-income families, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with 0.43 additional years of completed education, 9.5 percent higher earnings, and a 6.8 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.

Among other things, the authors found that the additional resources provided to poor schools led to "reduction in the student-to-teacher ratio, longer school years, and increased teacher salaries. . . ."

Unfortunately, most states are not improving equity and opportunity. David Sciarra and Danielle Farrie with the Education Law Center and Bruce Baker with the Rutgers School of Education analyzed school finance systems across the country in their report entitled Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card. They found that the overwhelming majority of states are not doing well by their poorest children. As the report concludes:

The consequences of a failure to design, implement, and sustain fair systems of school funding are felt directly in the everyday classroom experiences of students across the country... Simply put, states with unfair school funding have fewer resources in classrooms and schools to support teachers and students and lag in educational performance. These states and regions are an educational drag on the entire nation.

The fact is that the United States simply cannot compete internationally if we fail to raise the opportunity of all of our nation's children rather than just our wealthiest kids. Public policy matters and yet the public doesn't do enough to hold their political leaders accountable to that end.

For example, the Equity and Excellence Commission called for the federal government to enact "new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist, to implement meaningful education opportunities for (and support high academic achievement by) all these students. . . ."

In sharp contrast, last week, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved H.R. 5, the "Student Success Act." That legislation would lock-in sequestration funding levels and allow states to shift Title I funds from high-poverty schools to more affluent districts. These measures would exacerbate education inadequacy and inequity rather than narrow them. According to estimates from the White House, "Some of the poorest districts in every state would see cuts as high as 74 percent." This is counter to Jefferson's vision of public schools and what is best for our nation's children and their future.

We can and must do better. And, now is our chance to do so because, at all levels of government, decisions about education funding levels, equity, teacher quality, class size, student supports and technology are being made right now. Call your school board, your state legislators and your Members of Congress now and urge them to fully and equitably fund our nation's public schools.

As philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once said:

What the best and wisest parents wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.