I recently attended the American premiere of Waiting for Superman, the new film by director Davis Guggenheim that rightly addresses the crisis in our nation's public education system. Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, hopes that Waiting for Superman will force America to confront another inconvenient truth -- that the fundamental right to an equal, quality education is not realized by every child in our great nation.
As a former teacher, principal and board member in California's economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, I know all too well how prevalent inequity is in our education system.
Waiting for Superman illuminates the dysfunction in our education system. The film asks us to consider how our educational system is preparing our young to excel globally. On reading, math and science among 15-year-olds, we fail even to rank in the world's top dozen. Canada, our neighbor to the north, is doing a bang-up job with its young, ranking third in science, fourth in reading and sixth in math. Or take Finland, consistently the world's top performer, ranking first in math and science and second in reading.
The economic effect of our poor performance is clear: Had we improved achievement, our 2008 gross domestic product could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher, according to a 2009 study by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm.
Examine the problem with a different variable: graduation rates. Among developed countries, top performers such as Denmark, Japan, Poland, Germany and Finland are graduating more than 90 percent of their populations, while the U.S. averages 70 percent, with cities such as Baltimore graduating less than 40 percent of their students. We cannot continue to ignore that we are being outpaced by the world.
Waiting for Superman also examines the broad economic disparities that affect educational outcomes in this country. Our highest-spending school district spends more than nine times per pupil than the lowest-spending district. Children raised in low-income communities carry the burden of a grossly underfunded learning environment, where the basics -- paper, books, pencils -- are, astoundingly, nowhere to be found in the classroom.
The economic effect of these disparities is noteworthy: The narrowing of this gap would have raised our 2008 GDP by $400 billion to $670 billion, according to the McKinsey study.
Racial disparities are also a persistent problem, with students of color and youth from low-income neighborhoods acutely affected. African-American, Hispanic and Native American high school students have, at best, a six-out-of-10 chance of graduating on time with a diploma. The Asian-American community is not exempt; at least half of all Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong ages 25 and older have less than a high school education.
America is losing its economic edge because the brightest and best are emerging overseas, from education-savvy brain factories in India, China and elsewhere. And we are losing our streets to violence as dropouts increase. As President Barack Obama noted, the "relative decline of American education" is "untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children."
But identifying the "villains" and "superheroes" of the public school system and subsequently assigning blame is not useful. There is not a silver bullet because of the very complex composition of the education system.
Our country is experiencing a myriad of education reform initiatives, including controversies over charter schools, varied testing standards and teacher evaluations.
At the same time, school district budgets are strained and countless political factors get in the way of needed changes. Our system is being managed and manipulated at many different levels, be it federal, state or local government. To say there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen is an understatement.
We must not wait any longer for a superman or superwoman to fix this mess. The answer is known: It is in how we finance the system. Education finance is the key to breaking the logjam because it addresses the inherently unequal funding system propping up public education. Our education funding formulas are outdated, relying on factors such as average daily attendance, average costs for "regular" students and concentrations of low-income, special education and English-language-learner students.
One of the most powerful lessons to come out of Waiting for Superman is the need for policymakers to challenge this status quo that's failing all of our students. To this end, I created the Equity and Excellence Commission, a process supported by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and Parent Teacher Association, among others, in order to ensure equity for each child. The commission, which begins its work this year, will gather insights and opinions about how the government can improve education. The Equity and Excellence Commission is built to do more than talk, it is built to act, and it will be charged with developing strategies for Congress to guarantee equity in our education system.
Our nation must take a stand for its young, lest Canada and Finland continue to top reading, science and math scores; lest Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans continue to struggle with literacy; and lest black and Hispanic students continue to top dropout rates.
My thanks to Guggenheim and Waiting for Superman for sounding an important national alarm on every child's right to an equal and quality education and providing needed opportunities for the nation to join the debate about education reform. To create comprehensive reform and improve the education system, we all need to work together.
Regardless of whether Superman comes to save the day, we cannot wait any longer. Our children are counting on us.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) is a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
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