03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congressman Chaka Fattah Talks Education

Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) serves on the influential Appropriations Committee. He is also a devoted and passionate advocate for education and educational opportunities for all of the nation's children.

Congressman Fattah contends that one of the most persistent and pervasive injustices in our educational system is that poorer communities suffer from under-qualified teachers, substandard facilities and inadequate instructional resources. Consequently, when elected to Congress, Fattah introduced two bills to address this inequity.

Kathleen Wells: In addition to serving on the House Appropriations Committee, you are a passionate advocate for equity in public education. Where does this passion come from?

Congressman Fattah: Well, I think [it comes from] being a product of the Philadelphia public schools and representing a district that has for many years and still today shares unequally in resources compared with their wealthy suburban counterparts.

I have led an effort to try and bring more equity and I've done that through legislative action, including briefs before the Supreme Court. I think it's the biggest civil rights action of the day. We [must] make sure that children have an equal educational opportunity and that's not the same as an equal result. But there's no possibility that young people are going to live up to their potential if they are deprived of quality teachers and adequate educational access. So, it's a fight that I've been engaged in. We've had some successes, but there's still a lot more work to do.

Kathleen Wells: You recently testified before the House Education and Labor Committee about teacher equity. Why aren't low-income students getting good teachers?

Congressman Fattah: It's because of the funding disparity that exists in poor, urban and rural school districts. President [Richard] Nixon had a commission on school finances decades ago and the Executive Summary reads as if he wrote it today. It says as long as you have a property tax base funding the system, poor kids are going to get the short end of the deal in terms of educational opportunities. There's no way around it.

The matter has been litigated around the country in more than 40 states. There have been some positive rulings. But I believe that the federal government should take a much stronger role and I think [Department of Education] Secretary Arne Duncan agrees with me now in being somewhat of a referee -- that is to say that states can't have an apartheid-like system of public education where some kids get every opportunity in the world (quality teachers, small classroom sizes, technical, computers) and other kids get little or nothing.

What it really comes down to is the way schools are funded in our country. It's based primarily on property tax. So, when you are in a poorer community or if you are in a city like Philadelphia, a third of all the property in Philadelphia is off the tax rolls, by state law. They are owned by non-profits, museums, hospitals, [and] universities. If you go to Syracuse, New York, 56 percent of the property is off the tax rolls.

Either because of the aggregation of public services, like in the non-profit world, that property is off the rolls or [because it's] just a poor rural community and you can't generate the tax revenue you need to fund schools at the same level as wealthy suburban districts can fund schools.

There are people who say that money doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, my view is if it really doesn't matter, then we should equalize the expenditures. If it does matter, we should equalize the expenditures. But we shouldn't have a situation where poorer districts can't really compete because of hiring personnel. In fact, what usually happens is that the personnel end up being trained in these poorer districts and then hired away to the wealthier school districts.

Kathleen Wells: You developed a program called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness) as an enhancement to the Higher Education Act of 1965. How does GEAR UP work to address the disparity you've mentioned?

Congressman Fattah: The reason that the disparity exists is that we have a school system that really from its heart has been designed to make sure that, at the end of the day, in wealthy suburban districts that kids get a rigorous curriculum, qualified teachers and get the opportunities and deliver to their potential. In poorer communities, the system is built on the notion that the kids can't achieve and won't achieve and, therefore, we don't need to do much, other than watch for this self-fulfilling prophecy.

GEAR UP is simply [designed] to make sure that young people, starting in middle school, get introduced to all of the critical academic subjects that they need to be prepared for college. It's been extraordinarily successful. After ten years, millions of young people have been involved in the GEAR UP program around the country.

85 percent of these kids [participating in GEAR UP] graduate from high school. So, if you wanted to double the high school graduation rate in this country today, all you would have to do is expand the GEAR UP program. If you wanted more kids to go to college, if you wanted to meet the president's goal of having America be the leading nation in the world in the number of college graduates, all you would have to do is expand the GEAR UP program because 65 percent of GEAR UP kids go on to college.

The whole idea of GEAR UP is to get them [students] academically prepared -- that is, rather than dumb down the curriculum, to actually make the curriculum college preparatory. The school has to make a commitment to do that -- to make the curriculum college prepartory. They have to make a commitment to make sure the kids visit colleges and that they have the mentors and other kinds of assistance that they need. In most instances, GEAR UP sets aside scholarship money so that their college can be paid for.

Kathleen Wells: Critics question, however, the need for increasing the amount of federal dollars that are already being poured into education.

Congressman Fattah: Well, the critics are just uninformed. The heart of the matter is that right now, today, there is no state in the country where poor children are getting the same quality of education as their counterparts from wealthier communities.

Kathleen Wells: There's a report indicating that 70 percent of the students in one Los Angeles public high school do not graduate. Would GEAR UP reduce such a staggering dropout rate?

Congressman Fattah: If we put GEAR UP in there, we know, based on [GEAR UP's success] over the last 10 years throughout the country, that a majority of those kids will graduate from high school.

Not only can they be saved, they can be part of positioning the country to be able to compete economically in the long term. It's not just a matter of charity: "we need to help these poor children." In order to help this country move forward, we have to get more of our young children to successfully matriculate through high school and go on to college. It is a necessity.

The New American Foundation just came out with a major push that we expand GEAR UP. Pushing the Senate, pushing the [Obama] Administration and I think we are going to see an expansion of this program because even though it is serving large numbers of young people and even though it is the largest early college awareness program in the country, it can do a lot more. There are a lot more young people that can benefit by it.

Kathleen Wells: Recently, you joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton on a "listening and learning" tour in Philadelphia. The tour included a visit to Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus. What did you learn?

Congressman Fattah: Shoemaker was a middle school when I went there [and] graduated years ago. It's a high school campus now - from ninth grade through the 12th. It's run through Mastery Charter Schools, a non-profit which runs a couple of schools in my district. The test scores at Shoemaker, prior to Mastery taking charge a few years ago (same kids, same building), were in the 20th percentile in the state. Now they are close to the 90th percentile. They are scoring better and doing better than almost any other school in the whole state of Pennsylvania.

It's an alternative management approach. It's a completely college preparatory program. Every kid is expected to prepare themselves to get ready to go on to college.

Kathleen Wells: How were you able to develop the GEAR UP program?

Congressman Fattah: You [have] to go back to the beginning. I had spent 12 years in the state senate. I was chair of the Education Committee in Pennsylvania. I was on the Board of Community Colleges, Penn State and Temple. I was also chairing the Higher Education Assistance Agency, which is our student grant and loan agency in Pennsylvania. I was quite involved in education. When we started to work on [GEAR UP], I came with a pretty significant background in higher education.

When I got elected to the Congress, I introduced two bills. One was GEAR UP, [originally] titled "The 21st Century Scholars Act." The other was what we now call the Student Bill of Rights. We called it the School Finance Equal Protection Act. I introduced those two bills and I said, "You know, one of these is going to take us more than a decade to enact and the other, we are going to enact this year." I was correct in the sense that we got GEAR UP passed rather quickly and the Student Bill of Rights has taken a lot more work, but they are not dissimilar in terms of their purposes. One is more focused.

[GEAR UP] is on the ground now and it's focused on college access. I designed it, in the sense that I wrote the legislation. The most important design feature is this cohort approach. What we found was in the "I Have a Dream" approach with Eugene Lang, or the Belmont 1-12, with George White (these are great efforts, where you promise that you are going to pay for all these kids in poorer communities to go to college.), the problem was after graduation day, they [the students] were dispersing from the school and going to separate high schools in which they were isolated in the end.

That's why GEAR UP starts on the first day of middle school. You are working with a group of kids for a period of years, rather than at the end of their period together.

I've been convinced that programs where you get to select which kids are going to succeed or not, are filled with people's [sic] own subjective prejudices about who is going to make it and who is not going to make it. What we need to do is give all these kids a chance and we will have many more succeed. I said as much when I debated [the bill].

If you go back to the committee on the deliberations on this program, the Republicans were in charge [and] there was a lot of fighting against any new initiatives. They wanted to disband the department. So, I passed this (really the only Democratic initiative passed during those very lean years that the Republicans were in charge), mainly because I was able to convince some Republicans that it was a much better outcome for these kids to go to college than to have any other outcome.

It actually made better sense for taxpayers. We went through all the other options, in terms of what happens to children who don't get a college education. They earn a million dollars less (1.3 million now) over their lifetime. If they get pregnant as a teenager, it costs the taxpayer about 180K until the baby comes to the age of maturity. If they go to jail as juveniles, what will it cost [taxpayers]? We basically made a business argument [that] it actually made better sense to invest in them [poor students] to go to college.

I was able to get not just every Democrat on the committee; I was [also] able to get (over the Republican chairman's objection) seven Republican votes to get this passed. It was a pretty significant event when it was passed, but I think no one imagined it would be so successful 10 years later.