Good intentions, no price tag in new national education report

Nathan-on-Education-newGood intentions, but no price tag and too many priorities. That’s how I’d describe a new national Equity and Excellence Commission report. Here’s a brief summary of the report and a few reactions.

Several years ago, Congress created a 27-member group that included two national teachers union presidents, college faculty, several lawyers and directors of education advocacy organizations. Perhaps the commission’s most powerful words describe inequities in U.S. education opportunities compared to many other countries. It describes the current system as “Unjust and unwise … we take the extraordinary diversity that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it.”

Their 50-page report has dozens of recommendations in five areas:

• Improving school finance and efficiency;

• Teaching, leading and learning opportunities;

• Insuring access to high-quality early childhood education;

• Meeting the needs of students in high poverty neighborhoods; and

• Governance and accountability to improve equity and excellence.

The report notes that many other countries insure that high quality early childhood programs are available to all, that schools serving low income students have higher funding, rather than less, as in the case in many states. The report praises other countries for doing a better job of recruiting and compensating teachers and school leaders. Commissioners call the U.S. “an outlier” among nations. Commission members insist we would have a much healthier economy if we dealt with these issues.

They acknowledge that, “By some measures, we spend as much as or even more as a share of our GDP than do other nations, which underscores that the amount of money spent is not the only factor affecting student achievement … it is critical to spend money strategically on things that work.”

The commission recognizes the value of research but again, nothing on how much or how to most effectively spend research funds.

The report has a single sentence referring to congressional promises regarding funding of students with special needs: “… financial support for these students (with disabilities) should meet the original federal commitment promised.” Yes, it should.

Commission members should make that commitment a priority. Congressional funding for students with disabilities has never reached 30 percent of the overall cost, much less the 40 percent funding that Congress promised.

Here’s a link to the report: www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/eec/index.html.

As the report was released, I listened and asked two questions. Then via e-mail, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and I talked.

She told me, “We did not provide input.” That’s unfortunate, because the commissioner and governor know that many of the report’s recommendations will cost a lot of money. I asked, and commission members acknowledged, that their report included dozens of recommendations but not how much some would cost, or how to pay for them.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed education budget urges spending an additional $300 million on early childhood and K-12 education. He suggests more funding for strong programs serving  3-to 4-year-olds, kindergarten students, youngsters with special needs, and greater funding equity among districts, all of which the commission recommends. Moreover, the state has identified outstanding district and charter public schools, and plans to arrange for them to help other schools. Sharing takes some, but not a lot of money.

Commissioner Cassellius praised the report’s tone. She believes “All children deserve an equitable opportunity to succeed and excel.” Agreed.

Give the governor and commissioner credit for proposing a budget and taking other actions that help move Minnesota in the direction the national commission recommends.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, direct the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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