The Case of the Underfunded Schools

February 25, 2011 | By Thompson Education | Post a Comment

(This post was written by guest blogger Andrew Brownstein, one of Thompson’s federal education policy editors.) When a federal commission meets for the first time, it is customary for members to declare that they don’t want their work to “just be another document on a shelf.”

And there was much of that on Tuesday, when the Department of Education’s star-studded Equity and Excellence Commission met for the first time.

“We don’t want yet another commission report that sits on a shelf,” said Russlyn Ali, the agency’s assistant secretary for civil rights.

“We’re all here, we’re all busy, and we want to make a difference,” said Christopher Edley, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s law school, and co-chair of the commission.

The first meeting, which will be followed by nine regional forums and a completed report expected in December, demonstrated that there was cause for optimism even if the problem is, as Ali put it, a “behemoth.”

The good news is that there is a growing sense that the issue’s time has come. The issue, in a nutshell, is that the highly localized way in which U.S. schools are funded — by local property taxes — undermines most attempts at reforming schools, particularly reforms aimed at turning around chronically low-performing schools in the nation’s most distressed areas. Paradoxically, the children who need funds and high-quality teachers the most are those that are least likely to get them.

Various members of the commission framed the issue as both a civil rights issue and one of national security. They spoke of equity as both an extension of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation and as a way of maintaining the nation’s global competitiveness at a time when U.S. students are falling behind their counterparts around the world on international benchmarks.

The point was made more than once that the U.S. is an outlier in the way it funds its schools via local property taxes. “We’re exceptional in a way that is not producing results,” said commission member Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.

Stay tuned for Monday’s post, where we’ll discuss the commission’s approach to this challenge.

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