Rich-poor spending gap on schools hurts kids, report says

WASHINGTON, D.C. — America is failing too many of its children in public schools because it doesn’t spread the opportunity for a good education fairly to all, according to a report for the government released Tuesday.

“While some young Americans — most of them white and affluent — are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations,” says the 52-page report by the Equity and Excellence Commission, created by Congress to look into the disparity in educational opportunity

A group of leading education experts, the commission said the nation needed to achieve equity in education, both as a matter of fairness and to secure its economic future. It called for changes in the ways that schools are funded.

“It is only when our nation begins to address the needs of each and every child that we can ensure that America will continue to remain a global leader and innovator,” said Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., who was a science teacher and principal for more than 30 years, and who sponsored legislation in 2008 that created the commission. “This is not a minority issue. This is not a poverty issue. This is an American issue.”

He and other members of the commission unveiled the report in a conference call with reporters.

It found that schools in poor communities in many cases spend thousands of dollars less per student than those in more affluent areas do. As a result, poor schools can’t compete for the best teachers and principals, buy the best technology and support rigorous academic and enrichment programs.

“Ten million students in America’s poorest communities — and millions more African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native students who are not poor — are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students,” according to the report.

Among other things, it recommended higher pay and better work conditions for teachers and principals, and universal high-quality early education. The commission said the U.S. could afford to pay teachers more, and it argued that raising starting pay to $65,000, instead of today’s average of $37,000, and increasing top salaries to $150,000, instead of around $70,000, would help attract better teachers.

It estimated the cost of such a pay hike at about $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of current spending on elementary and secondary education.

Commission co-Chairman Christopher Edley Jr., the dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, said the group’s work was a long-term project. Even if nothing happens immediately, he said, it was important to “kick-start a stronger movement” to promote the idea of education equity across the country.

The report said that states should adopt finance systems that divided funds equitably, which doesn’t mean evenly, the commission said, because some students need more support. It called on the federal government to use incentives to push states in this direction, and for more money for schools with large numbers of low-income students.

It also recommended more spending on preschool, to ensure that all low-income children can attend high-quality programs. Only 65 percent of low-income 4-year-olds attend preschool, and many preschools offer only low-quality programs. In his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama said public preschool should become available to all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.

The commission offered no estimates of the costs of many of its recommendations.

Its report was the result of more than two years of meetings around the country with scholars, education advocates, teachers and parents. It held town halls in Kansas City, Mo.; Dallas; and other cities.

“Through much debate and deliberation, this report presents a blueprint for how to guarantee that each child has a fair shot at the American dream,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who’s a member of the commission, said in a statement.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was on the conference call, said the commission was independent. “We asked them to tell us not what we wanted to hear,” he said, “but to tell us the truth.”

During the call, Darling-Hammond said California was a microcosm for school financing problems nationwide. The districts that spend the most per pupil spend four times as much as those that spend the least, she said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for next year calls for directing more money to districts with many low-income students and English-language learners.

“I hope that’s a sign of what we’re going to see in other states,” Darling-Hammond said. “And the federal government can incentivize that by the way it allocates federal funds.”