Nation Needs Commission to Find Solution to Deteriorating Education System

Posted January 30, 2009 at 2:53pm

The direction in which California and 27 other states are headed with regard to education is a dangerous and deeply disappointing one. While I recognize the dilemma facing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in light of the economic woes stemming from Bush-era policymaking, which forces tough choices in trimming budgets, education must be off-limits. Schwarzenegger’s proposed education spending cuts, in the billions of dollars, will adversely impact our state’s schools, particularly those most vulnerable. These cuts will significantly set back our capacity to provide an equitable education for all children and will position California for further economic hardship in the long term. [IMGCAP(1)]

The governor’s proposal to slash education funding by roughly $7 billion from administrative funds will undermine our state’s already-struggling and cash-strapped schools. In California, while all schools may, in theory, be created equal, not all schools are treated equally. California ranks the highest in the country in per-pupil spending disparity; one school district spends more than four times what the lowest district spends. A universal statewide funding cut, therefore, will result in disproportionate and adverse effects among low-income communities and high-needs students.

California’s disparities are emblematic of funding disparities across the nation. Our highest spending American school district spends 9.12 times more per pupil than the lowest-spending district. My district in the Silicon Valley region, for example, contains one school district that spends nearly twice as much per student than an adjacent, similarly sized district. Unsurprisingly, the better-funded district has higher teacher salaries, lower student-teacher ratios, higher standardized test scores and higher graduation rates than the neighboring district, which struggles with half the funding. Given the disproportionate funding, the governor’s universal formula for education spending cuts only exacerbates these harmful disparities.

The second reason that education must not take a beating in attempts to stem California’s budget shortfall is that education facilitates innovation, a critical engine of our economy. Education serves as the gateway to realizing America’s potential and is also the great equalizer, seen in leaders like President Barack Obama. To forego investing in America’s future potential will only fetter our nation’s ability to strengthen our economy and our competitiveness.

In sum, this chipping away of education spending must stop. We are indeed facing severe financial straits, but the question is not about available dollars. Congress’s economic stimulus package will allocate $150 billion for education spending to help stave off cutbacks, $80 billion of which will go directly to state education budgets. This makes good policy sense: What good is a stimulus package that is focused on job creation without future workers to fill these jobs?

The question instead should be how we optimize the education system so that children are equipped with the training and education needed to reach their maximum potential and give back to America’s economy through innovation, investment and intellect. If this is our goal, and it must be for ethical and common-sense reasons, we are now failing.

We must change the way we approach education reform. Despite our best efforts, our children are not receiving an equitable education. There are vast disparities between the education provided by schools in different school districts, counties and states. Our current funding formulas are outdated, relying on factors such as average daily attendance, average costs for “regular” students, percentage of low-income students and concentrations of low-income students, special education students and English language learners. Additionally, funding formulas are based on a number of factors not necessarily correlated to the individual needs of the children in the school, and they vary from state to state.

This is a national problem demanding a national conversation. Just as a security threat facing the U.S. requires a commission to facilitate and elicit a solution, like the 9/11 commission or the Iraq Study Group, the threat of a deteriorating education system and the subsequent erosion of America’s economic competitiveness would benefit from a similar approach.

We need a national conversation to identify ways in which we can enable all American children to achieve their maximum potential. If fostered effectively, the dialogue will have a direct and positive impact on our nation’s economy and capacity to lead in the 21st century. A Citizens’ Educational Equity Commission, legislation which I plan to reintroduce in this 111th Congress, would do this by soliciting solutions for eliminating the inequitable distribution of resources among our schools.

Importantly, the commission’s composition would change the nature of the debate. Comprised of parents, teachers and experts on equity, civil rights, education policy, school finance, economics and taxation — not merely state and federal legislators — the reform road map would be written by all users and beneficiaries of America’s education system.

Given the right road map and sufficient resources, each child will have an equal opportunity to succeed. Until that point, we in California, and other states facing similar choices, leave the potential of our future — our children — behind, ill-equipped and ill-advised to make the journey.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, and is a former teacher, school principal and school board member.