Thursday, November 7, 2013
In recent days, a few high profile calls to focus on poverty and inequality, as opposed to education innovation and “reform,” have been issued. Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story, In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich, that emphasized the fact that, while our nation proclaims to be the land of opportunity and that education is the gateway to that opportunity, our education system is rife with gross funding disparities. On average, we spend less per pupil in schools with high levels of student poverty than we do in schools with low levels of poverty. Similarly, we also allow poor states to fend for their selves. New York, for instance, spends more than twice as much per pupil as Tennessee.
Last week, everyone from an audience member watching an educational debate between Arne Duncan and Fredrick Hess to Diane Ravitch has charged the Department of Education with chasing a fool’s errand and taking poor kids along for the ride. The audience member charged Arne Duncan with policies that favor the advantaged over the disadvantaged. And Diane Ravitch has charged in her new book and in promotional events that there is no fundamental crisis in education that needs reform. Rather, we need to tackle poverty. Our other so called reforms are but a side show that undermines instead of improves education.
Two weeks ago, the Southern Education Foundation released its report on the growing levels of poverty in public schools and shrinking education budgets available to address it. Fortunately, the media gave the report substantial coverage for a week or so and the report has reverberated through the messaging of various other policy commentators. My post called it a wake-up call. If unaddressed, the diverging trends of poverty growth and budget shortfalls pose a fundamental threat to quality education.
The fact that these voices are joining in a chorus is good news. It is going to take a sustained and aggressive campaign to put poverty and equality back at the top of the agenda. For a couple of sessions of Congress, Representative Chaka Fattah, for instance, has introduced student bills of rights that would require equity as a condition of receiving federal education funds. As one of the sole advocates for equity in Congress, his efforts have yet to go any where.
At the local level, we are got mixed messages in the elections this week. In Colorado, the referendum to increase taxes for schools failed (which many consider a remedy for the state's currently constitutionally inadequate system). But in the New York City mayoral race, Bill de Blasio won. His platform called for stemming the charterization of public education and supporting the neediest rather than closing them.
Once could attempt to write off the loss in Colorado to the fact that voters had another option on the ballot that they approved--school construction funding--and that the tax increase had a few wrinkles in it. The voters did not know exactly what the money would be spent on, nor that all the money would necessarily stay with schools. The tax itself also would have instituted a graduated tax system rather than the flat one they had before. One could also discount the de Blasio win, as many other issues were on the table. But regardless of how one interprets these results, the chorus of voices reminding of us the core problem of inequality and poverty will have to grow for serious change to occur.