America is built on principles of equality and opportunity for all. In education, that means all our students deserve fair and equal access to strong academic programs, great teachers, new technology, and appropriate facilities, no matter where they live. Those values motivate committed educators and their partner organizations throughout this country.
Yet today, not every child in America gets a fair shot at success, including equal access to educational resources. Many students in high poverty districts are short-changed. Often, their peers in low poverty districts receive more per-pupil funding, and that translates to more resources, more opportunities, and better access to effective teaching.
For our nation to be strong, we must offer a real opportunity to every child – it’s a moral imperative and an economic necessity. Yet wide gaps continue to prevail in how we fund schools for rich and poor students. Low-poverty districts spend, on average, 16 percent more per student than high-poverty districts. In some states – like Pennsylvania, Vermont and Indiana – the gaps are much wider.
These gaps should spur bold action by all of us — educators, district leaders, community members, and elected and appointed officials. And there are examples throughout the country of just that kind of collective action.
Just outside D.C., in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the education budget trails far behind those in neighboring districts like Montgomery County, or Virginia’s Fairfax County. But in Prince George’s, advocates are considering bold steps to close some troubling funding gaps, target more resources for struggling schools, and boost academic achievement.
Faced with limited state funding and longstanding local shortfalls, the county executive and the local school board have proposed a significant budget increase to better meet the needs of the district’s students. They also plan to address a-decades-old property tax cap that has squeezed tax-based contributions to their schools.
The approach is backed by community leaders and stakeholders who want to see their county flourish as neighboring counties have under new education efforts that support all students. Additional dollars could help increase per-pupil spending, raise teacher salaries which lag behind those in nearby counties, and expand full-day pre-k programs.
For instance, James Madison Middle School, in Upper Marlboro, serves nearly 800 students, most of them African American and roughly 45 percent from low-income families. Under the proposed budget, the school would receive more than $125,000 to focus on improving essential college and career-ready skills for students. More equitable funding would allow the principal to hire a literacy coach and an 8th grade digital literacy instructor, to help ensure that every student becomes a strong reader, and can perform well in our technology-rich world, from computer-based tests, to the digital workplace.
In Minnesota, Governor Dayton convened a working group of superintendents, business managers, school facilities directors and school board representatives to develop recommendations to create an adequate and equitable funding formula for Pre-K –12 programs. The group “Schools for Equity in Education” is also working with state officials to draft a budget formula that meets the state’s obligation to provide a uniform quality education to all students. The combination of these efforts, the voice of school leaders, and a strong state-level vision has yielded remarkable progress. In the latest legislative session, lawmakers drafted plans to expand programs to close the achievement gap and address funding differences between rural and urban school districts.
True leadership by lawmakers, advocates, and civic leaders means taking courageous action to meet the needs of all students. We cannot cut our way to better education. We have to listen to those who know what is needed – superintendents, district chiefs, educators, and parents – and develop laws and policies to support practices that work.
In Pennsylvania, which leads the nation in school funding disparities, local education leaders recently convened to tackle this issue collaboratively. At the same time, the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission has hosted statewide conversations to increase community participation in developing recommendations for the legislature. And, in late April, community members, superintendents and educators came together to discuss the problem of unequal funding between well-off and poorly funded districts. When teachers and students have the support they need, everyone does better. The wealthier counties are joining the conversation and developing solutions alongside high-poverty districts.
I’ve seen firsthand how important it is for all of us, at all levels, to join with and support those leaders who are willing to take on the toughest conversations and the most challenging issues.
We now face a crucial national opportunity to advance equity, as Congress debates reauthorizing the most important national education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I’ve called for scrapping the current law, known under the label No Child Left Behind, and replacing it with one that expands funding and support for schools and educators, and maintaining high expectations for students.
The nation faces clear choices here. Some proposals under discussion could exacerbate existing inequities by allowing funds to move out of high poverty schools into wealthier ones. Other, better proposals would take important steps to ensure all students have the resources and support they need, closing a longstanding loophole in order to ensure that funding intended for the neediest students actually reaches them.
Wise proposals would also help to close opportunity gaps by ensuring an equitable distribution of resources. It’s basic: no matter where they are – in Prince George’s County, in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in this country – kids should have access to challenging, high-level classes and technology, and teachers should have the resources they need to their jobs.
When we adults do our civic duty and take strong steps to ensure that all our children have equal access to a great education, we improve their chances to succeed in college, careers and life – and our own future, as well.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.