The Good, the Bad and the Missing: President Bush's Proposals for Improving Education for Disadvantaged Students

The Bottom Line on the Federal Role: Where's the Beef?

Perhaps the most remarkable and positive aspect of the President’s proposals is his overall view of the possible federal contribution to improving public education. As recently as 1996, the Republican Party was calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).47 Four years later, George W. Bush became president after campaigning on a platform whose most persistent theme was to utilize the federal government to drive national education reform and improve student achievement for our hardest-to-educate students. President Bush has rejected pessimism and disillusionment about public schools and the role of the federal government, and calls on all of us to expect our public schools to be able to educate all of our students effectively. We support his call for high standards and accountability in education, and applaud his proposal for the federal government to play a leading role in improving our schools and closing the achievement gap that separates advantaged and disadvantaged students.

In his January 23 paper, the president repeatedly calls for research-based strategies in the effort to close the achievement gap, raise teacher quality, and enable all children to ready by the time they are in third grade. We applaud this, for we believe there is a growing body of knowledge that points the way to a brighter future for America’s public schools and the fifty million students who depend on those schools to provide them with an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream.

A mandate to put current research findings to good use in improving America’s disadvantaged schools would lead us away from single-method approaches to the teaching of reading as well as privatization schemes such as vouchers that have no proven track record, and steer us towards other, more promising reforms. What is generally so encouraging about much of recent research is the increasingly solid finding that, not only does “money matter” – contrary to the claims of critics for more than two decades – but that it matters most for the children who need it to matter most. The benefits of additional resources expended to put teachers and students in smaller classes and smaller schools accrue to all students, but especially to the poor, minority and disadvantaged students who have the most to gain. African American students who attended even two years of the Tennessee STAR Project K-3 class size reduction experiment not only do better than their peers in larger classes but, as they progress through school, continue to outpace their peers in terms of increased academic achievement. Furthermore, they are more likely to take and do better on SAT or ACT college entrance examinations, and enjoy higher lifetime earnings.48 While the conventional wisdom on “economies of scale” has been that larger schools are more efficient and cheaper to run, recent research tell us that smaller schools are actually more economical if you measure costs on a per graduate basis rather than the conventional per pupil basis,49 and that the benefits of small schools disproportionately benefit disadvantaged students.50

It is increasingly clear that there are short-run and long-run benefits which result from both smaller classes and smaller schools and that these benefits will help to close if not eliminate the achievement gap. There is, furthermore, evidence that these benefits will greatly outweigh the costs and will therefore produce a good return on investment – but the investments must be funded. And therein lies the question: Will the President support anything like the level of funding and resource allocation that would be required to realize his stated goal? We have already questioned, above, whether the level of funding he proposes will be sufficient to enable programs like Head Start, Title I programs for poor students, and interventions to improve the teaching of reading, to meet their stated goals.

The president’s recent answer to this question is extremely discouraging. On February 21, President Bush proposed an overall increase of 11% for education funding in 2001-02, with an 8% increase for elementary and secondary education. While this proposed increase is reportedly larger than for any other cabinet agency, it is less than half the amount sought by Congressional Democrats.51 Furthermore, the problem is not only how much money the President proposes spending on education, but exactly how he proposes it be spent.

A brief overview of the extent of the resource needs for American public education for poor students makes clear that President Bush’s proposals are inadequate. The needed investments to bring about the closing of the achievement gap will require funds not only for increased operating expenses mentioned above but also those incurred in hiring additional teachers (to lower class size and alleviate overcrowding) and provide them with needed, up to date resources such as textbooks and computers. Moreover, huge investments must be made from some quarter – federal, state or local – to provide for capital expenses. The president has paid scant heed to the overwhelming and overdue task of renovating, refurbishing and replacing this country’s aging school infrastructure, whose cost has been estimated at $112 billion by the General Accounting Office and $268 billion in a more-recent National Education Association study.52 On the contrary, during the campaign he specifically maintained that the federal government should not fund school construction,53 despite a strong movement by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to enact such a measure, and despite the publicly-voiced concerns of his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, who advocated for a “major federal investment” in the school construction and maintenance needs of urban school districts.54

By way of federal support for school facilities, the president’s January 23 document mentions only a specific fund for construction and maintenance of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and a meager “private activity bond” proposal that would depend on districts finding for-profit corporations willing to first build school facilities and then lease them to the school district. Even if this latter approach were modestly successful in some localities, it would still only address the need of a small portion of required new construction and would do nothing to provide for overdue maintenance, repairs and upgrading.55 And it is not clear whether the President even plans to continue with the new $1.2 billion appropriation enacted by Congress in December of last year for urgent school repairs.

The problem of unsafe, deteriorating and inadequate school facilities disproportionately affects poor rural and urban communities – in what Jonathan Kozol has rightfully labeled as “savage inequalities.”56 This points to the most gaping hole in the President’s approach: an immense underestimation of the inequities in school funding nationwide. As discussed above, one lesson of the Texas experience is that there is a direct relationship between the achievement gap and the funding gap between rich and poor students. While reducing the funding differentials between districts has, in most states, proven a most difficult task, the benefits are promising. Correcting for funding inequities can and does lead to a narrowing of the achievement gap. The 1997 school funding equity reforms in Vermont known as Act 60 are now paying dividends in the form of greatly improved student achievement in the poorest districts – the very ones which have seen important increases in funding for their schools.57 To some extent the federal government’s hands are tied when it comes to addressing problems of school funding equity, as this has largely been a matter for state courts and legislatures to grapple with. Nevertheless it is clear that drastic steps must ultimately be taken to address this problem if efforts at reducing the achievement gap nationwide are truly going to be successful. This is because fully sixty percent of the inequities in school funding result from differences between, not within states.58

Even lacking new initiatives on school funding equity, the allocation of Title I and other ESEA funds is one area worth examining to see if there are ways the federal government could play a more proactive role in redressing the injustice that results from the association of the wealth of a child’s family, community and state with the quantity of resources and quality of schooling available to her. At the very least, this concern drives the need to treat all proposals for merging and block granting federal programs with considerable skepticism until it can be resolved that the targeting of federal funds to schools and districts serving high poverty and other high need communities can be guaranteed under the new provisions.

If schools are to be held accountable for helping students achieve the new standards, they will need a strong commitment from government to provide the necessary resources – and they do not yet have such a commitment from President Bush. If our commitment to closing the achievement gap is to be more than mere lip service, there must be serious recognition by the President and Congress, as well as by the states, that this undertaking will require the rallying of resources for the education of our youth on an unprecedented scale.

As an illustration, consider the "ScholarshipBuilder" program developed and administered by Merrill Lynch in partnership with the National Urban League. This program began in 1988 with an offer of full, free college tuition to 249 first graders randomly selected from ten large cities. Eventually, 90% of them did graduate from high school, something of a remarkable feat given the poverty and family situations that many of these students came from. But the promise of an all-expenses paid college scholarship alone was not nearly sufficient to bring about this remarkable achievement. On the contrary, Merrill Lynch and the Urban League developed, out of necessity as the program grew, a package of various activities and interventions to help these children stay in school and succeed. The program – which is expected to cost $19.2 million when completed – provided the students and their families with academic and cultural enrichment activities, mentoring, guidance and instruction in parental involvement, life skills development, internships, and community service activities. For 90% of them, this was enough to get them over all the hurdles and challenges, and see them through high school graduation, so that they could take advantage of that original promise.59 It is that kind of investment in disadvantaged students, coupled with high standards and accountability, that is crucial to truly eliminate the achievement gap as President Bush has proposed.

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