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No Child Left Behind Renewal Sparks Push for Equity Funding

By most accounts, No Child Left Behind is widely considered a failure by lawmakers and educators alike. Its stated goal is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education” and reach” proficiency on state academic achievement standards and assessments.

Instead, legislators and advocates complain, it is an unfunded mandate that forces educators to focus on teaching a rote set of facts for standardized testing rather than intellectually stimulating and developing young minds so they are prepared to compete in a global society. While it offers many ways to identify failure, it fails to support improved student achievement or increase teacher capacity.

Many lawmakers and education advocates argue that achievement equity will be a perpetually elusive goal without funding equity. As Congress takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, advocates are pushing a bill to ensure local and state governments distribute school resources equitably.

“A really vulnerable point in NCLB is that it basically put in an accountability model that demanded all kinds of performance from schools but no mechanisms to build up capacity,” says Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This last year shows that this business model doesn’t work in education if you’re struggling with inadequate resources. You can be beat over the head but it won’t get results and that’s really what we’re talking about.”

According to The Education Trust, schools in poor districts tend to employ teachers with less experience and fewer advanced degrees. Better-educated, more experienced teachers gravitate to more affluent schools where the resources are plentiful.

It is not unusual to find significant funding gaps between schools in the same district. A report by The Education Trust noted that during the 2007-08 school year, the state and local per-pupil expenditure at P.S. 251, a Brooklyn, N.Y., school with a predominantly Black student enrollment, was $1,983 less than the average in New York’s low-poverty schools.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) has introduced the ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act, which seeks to ensure all schools get an equal share of state and local resources.

“In every state in the nation, poor children are receiving less of everything that we know they need to get a quality education and getting less than schools in their districts and in wealthy suburban districts in their states,” Fattah says. “Under Title I, the federal money districts receive is supposed to be a supplement to an already equal playing field. Instead, around the country it’s being used as a substitute for local funds. So rather than helping children in more impoverished circumstances so they have more assistance, it’s actually being used to fill gaps as local districts provide fewer resources.”

Before a district can be eligible for Title I funds it has to demonstrate comparability — to provide equitable state and local resources to their low-income, Title I schools and their counterparts. Chaka’s bill would close a loophole in the reporting of staff salaries, which tend to comprise a major portion of school expenditures. NCLB allows school districts to omit this item when comparing high- and low-poverty schools, but Chaka’s bill would require schools to provide an accounting of total spending per student, including differences in salary due to years of experience.

The measure has been endorsed by several organizations, including the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin have all expressed support for exploring a more equitable distribution of resources.

“Without some strong commitment to equity in funding at the state level,” Rebell says, “the very ambitious goals in the ESEA won’t be met, especially these days with all of the budget cuts in various states. It’s a very serious matter.”

Regulations have enabled high-poverty schools to be considered comparable if they are receiving 10 percent less than schools with greater resources. The ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act would narrow the allowable difference to 3 percent. It calls for comparability to serve as a floor rather than a ceiling to encourage states and local school districts to provide additional resources to the schools that are in most need. In addition, the bill would require public reporting to communities, teachers, parents and taxpayers of where public funds are being spent and directs the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General to conduct audits to ensure that states are in compliance.

Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, suspects that people will be surprised by how vast the discrepancy in funding is if Fattah’s bill becomes law and districts are forced to do the required calculations.

“The first requirement is that you calculate,” says Scott. “That can’t be controversial and once you have the calculations, it would be difficult to argue that some kind of equalization should not take place and that something shouldn’t be done.”

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