Education panel: To close achievement gap, urgent state, federal action needed

The nation must act urgently to close the achievement gap between poor and privileged children by changing the way public schools are financed, improving teacher quality, investing in early-childhood education and demanding greater accountability down to the local school board level, according to a report issued Tuesday by an expert panel.

Created by Congress in 2010 — with legislation sponsored by Reps. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.) and Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) — the Equity and Excellence Commission aimed to propose ways to improve public education for poor American children. The 27-member panel included state and federal officials, civil rights activists and academics.

(Matt Rourke/AP) - Created by Congress in 2010 — with legislation sponsored by Reps. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.) and Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), above — the Equity and Excellence Commission aimed to propose ways to improve public education for poor American children.

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“This is about all levels of government,” said Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the University of California at Berkeley Law School and the commission’s co-chair. “This is a proposed agenda for everyone who’s concerned with the fate of our children and of our public education system.”

The panel released its recommendations to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In a telephone call with reporters, Honda said the goal is to focus the public’s attention on a national crisis. “This is not a minority issue. This is not a poverty issue. This is an American issue,” Honda said.

The achievement gap has proved to be a stubborn problem and one of growing concern among educators, policymakers and civic leaders. With enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, the federal government made closing the gap a priority and a reason for increased accountability in public education. A host of strategies has been deployed in schools across the country to attack the gap, but few have resulted in substantial progress.

Closely tied to race, the gap is creating an underclass that threatens the country’s long-term economic stability, the commission said.

A 2011 study of the country’s 21 largest urban school districts found that every city displayed a difference in performance between whites and blacks and between whites and Hispanics. That study was based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which includes federal reading and math exams taken regularly by fourth- and eighth-graders across the country.

“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,” the commission wrote in its report.

More than 40 percent of U.S. children attend high-poverty schools and 22 percent of children are living below the poverty line, the government said.

Public schools in poor communities have fewer resources, less-experienced teachers and worse facilities than schools in more-affluent communities — an imbalance that must be corrected by state and federal action, the commission said.

“Ten million students in America’s poorest communities . . . 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,” the commission wrote. “These vestiges of segregation, discrimination and inequality are unfinished business for our nation.”

The country’s primary method for funding public schools — property taxes — is one reason for disparate resources, the commission wrote. Communities with elevated real estate values can generate more money for schools, at a lower tax rate, than towns and cities with lower property values.

While the federal government pays about 10 percent of the cost of public education, about half comes from states and 40 percent comes from local communities.

The commission urged states and the federal government to send more tax dollars to high-poverty schools to compensate for the imbalance in local funding. But it stopped short of recommending a new way to fund schools that does not rely so heavily on property taxes.

In 1972, a federal commission convened by President Richard M. Nixon to address school funding concluded that as long as property taxes funded schools, poor and privileged children would be condemned to different educational outcomes.

 
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