The fervor of the partisan politics and cross-aisle finger-pointing in Washington DC seems to be increasing in direct proportion to the waning number of days before the November 6 election. But in today's hyper-partisan climate of deep divides between the red and the blue, both parties seem to find common ground on one issue: Our schools are failing too many of our students.
Case in point: Both Condoleezza Rice and Joe Biden have spoken to the importance of education in recent public addresses. In late May, the former Secretary of State visited my hometown to address the Executives' Club of Chicago, cautioning that "the urgent need to reform our country's K-12 education system poses one of our greatest security threats." And just last week, the Vice President echoed her message at the National Council of La Raza conference in Las Vegas: "Quality early education is the single most consequential bit of education for all Americans, but particularly Hispanic children."
While both parties agree on the urgency of quality education for all students--and give plenty of lip service to the need for reform--neither has provided a sound education investment that produces solid academic outcomes for our most vulnerable groups of learners. As of late, federal school financing has been either punitive (No Child Left Behind) or competitive (Race to the Top) but not sustainable. And at the local level, antiquated school funding formulas still rely too heavily on local property taxes, with state-level budget cuts only intensifying inequalities. Cash-strapped Illinois has recently applied a backwards proration to its school financing that actually deepens the equity gap between the have and have-not districts. Now more than ever, a student's ZIP code too often determines the quality of his or her education.
The result of this funding quagmire is an almost perfect, three-way correlation between poverty, majority-minority public schools, and low academic performance. In a city like Chicago, these three phenomena conspire to put 90 percent of Latino students in a school with an academic watch or warning status. It follows, then, that Latino students across our state are almost as likely to drop out of school as they are to graduate.
Exacerbating these low-income, high-minority districts' fiscal woes is the fact that well-intentioned educational reforms are often so focused on elevating standards that they neglect to build in the fiscal and professional development supports necessary to help students meet them. Illinois, for example, has plenty of progressive preschool policies in place--the state is the first in the nation to require that bilingual preschool be offered for students who speak a language other than English at home -- but lacks the funds to properly implement them. After years of fiscal crisis, Illinois' coffers are empty, leaving educators scrambling to earn the extra credentials and purchase additional materials required to comply with the unfunded mandate, set to be fully implemented in 2014.
In that same vein, our K-12 system will soon receive an overhaul with the impending state-by-state implementation of the Common Core Standards, built on the promise of leveling the academic playing field by demanding the same high-level skills -- including internationally benchmarked critical thinking and language reasoning competencies -- from all students. But as shrinking state and local budgets offer minimal resources to train teachers or update curricula in light of the new standards, advocates cast a wary eye at the cyclically low-performing, cash-strapped schools that serve Latinos and wonder if these students will simply fall further behind.
Education is the great equalizer, so the saying goes -- but only if all things are equal. Quality schools can't be built on the backs of collapsing local economies.
The Latino Policy Forum recently released a report that optimistically outlines a way forward for educational reform, for building a system that provides a culturally relevant, quality education for Latinos and for all students. But the bottom line is that true reform will require resources, not rhetoric from Washington, D.C. and the state: An effective, lasting overhaul of our schools requires our government taking a long, hard and likely uncomfortable look at the way it finances them.
Savvy voters of all political persuasions can connect the dots between education reform and another white-hot bipartisan issue: our economic future. The United States' growing cohort of Latino students is poised to be either an economic engine or an economic challenge, depending on our ability to reform schools to properly prepare them. As Latino voters consistently indicate that both education and the economy will determine how they cast their vote this November, candidates should take note. They have an opportunity to pitch a plan for federal financing that truly fixes failing local schools -- and a responsibility to turn the rhetoric around reform into reality once in office.