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School Matters: Obama’s Chance to Spark Real School Funding Reform

New America Media, Commentary, Tara Kini Posted: Oct 07, 2009

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have an unprecedented opportunity to lead real school funding reform through the federal stimulus package. They can encourage states like California to fund public schools adequately and equitably. The question is, will they?


While much of the $100-plus billion in education stimulus funding is targeted to stave off teacher layoffs and keep class sizes in check, the so-called “Race to the Top” Fund stands apart. This $4.35 billion pot is the largest infusion of discretionary federal dollars ever into the public education system, bigger than the combined discretionary funds provided to all prior education secretaries over the past 29 years. States have to compete for funding, and not all will win. Money will be doled out on a selective basis to a subset of states that demonstrate their commitment to bold, systemic education reform. The idea is to reward innovation and results in public education and push states to undertake serious reform if they want to access to the pot.


The Race to the Top Fund places Obama and Duncan on the most effective education bully pulpit they are likely to have at any point during their administration. And it’s one they certainly haven’t been shy to use in pushing states like California to increase the number of charter schools and to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. If things in Sacramento are any indication, when the feds dangle billions in potential education funding, states will jump to comply. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called a special session to pass legislation that will address those two issues to improve California’s chances of receiving Race to the Top dollars.

California desperately needs these funds. It ranked 47th in the nation in per pupil spending in 2006-07. When the latest rankings are released come January, it won’t be surprising if we drop to 50. And in the face of a state budget crisis and a nationwide recession, California state legislators have cut education funding by a shocking $2,000 per student over the past two years.

These massive cuts hit some students harder than others. Funding among California school districts is vastly unequal, ranging from a low of $6,000 per student in one district to a high of approximately $30,000 in another.

Wealthy suburban districts like Palo Alto have more flexibility ability streamline programs and services. Meanwhile, students returning to Hawthorne High School in southern LA County this fall found that English Language Development classes for beginning and intermediate English Learner students, which are vital to learning, have been eliminated.


At Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, where class size is close to 40, students sit on folding chairs or stand because there are not enough desks to go around. And as anyone who has ever taken a walk through Oakland High School and Piedmont High can tell you, unequal funding produces unequal learning opportunities and—down the road—unequal outcomes.


Sadly, Obama and Duncan have been conspicuously silent when it comes to spotlighting the funding issues at the heart of the current failures of our public education system. While the department’s proposed Race to the Top guidance requires states to “make education funding a priority,” it pays only lip service to this principle. The fine print requires that states spend only as much on education as they did last year—the year our national recession began and when many states cut education funding to their lowest levels in years—and places no conditions on states to allocate existing funding more equally. Frankly, that won't solve the problem.


But it’s not too late. The Department of Education is currently sifting through the hundreds of public comments it received on its proposed Race to the Top guidance and is scheduled to issue final regulations in November. There is still time for Duncan to use Race to the Top funds as an incentive to push states to fund their education systems adequately and equitably. The department should grant funds only to those states that are taking concrete steps to close funding disparities and to provide sufficient funding so that all students have the opportunity to meet their state’s academic content standards, including those requiring greater learning support.


This means requiring states to demonstrate they are providing poorer school districts with sufficient resources so that all students have access to expert teachers, small class sizes, rich and diverse course offerings, high-quality learning materials, equipped science and computer laboratories, and adequately maintained school facilities—plus the intensive intervention programs that many underperforming students need.


Let’s hope that Obama and Duncan don’t pass up this precious opportunity to lead real school funding reform. They may not get another chance. And our children can't afford for this one to slip by.


Tara Kini is a staff attorney with Public Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit legal and advocacy firm.


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