Redefining the federal role in public education (Rep. Mike Honda)

My journey started at home, in California's 15th district, wherein I shared my vision for education equity with Lincoln High School and National Blue Ribbon KIPP Heartwood School students and with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The second and third legs of the trip took me to New Jersey, to address a conference on equity hosted by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, and New York City, to meet with Geoffrey Canada and see the remarkable work being done at the Harlem Children's Zone.

My whirlwind tour left me both inspired and concerned. We need to do more to address what the President and others have called the Civil Rights issue of our time. Education is not only one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time, but it is also one of the greatest competitiveness issues, making it one of the greatest long-term economic issues, and by extension, one of the greatest national security issues we are faced with today.

The urgency of this eludes us, however, which it is why it is up to each of us to do the pick-and-shovel work of building the political will to motivate our country to recognize this crisis, and act. Let me kick-start that conversation by sharing my vision, what I am doing to build that political will, and what I think we need to do in order to create real equity.

Currently, the United States is confronting two achievement gaps that threaten the future of our communities. The first achievement gap separates our communities by class and ethnicity. This attacks the very principle upon which our nation was founded: A promise of equal opportunity for all. Public education is the tool through which our society strives to deliver on this promise. When public education is inequitable, the foundation of our democratic society is compromised.

The second achievement gap is between the United States and other developed countries. Despite the United States spending more per-pupil than any other developed nation, we rank poorly compared to other developed countries because our achievement in reading, science and math has declined significantly over the last 30 years. This threatens our competitiveness and our security because in the global economy, education is the enabler of opportunity and the enhancer of long-term financial stability and prosperity. The only way the United States remains a world leader in the 21st century is to ensure that the most competitive economy is built by the most highly skilled, innovative and agile workforce.

The first achievement gap threatens the authenticity of the American Dream by denying each child equal access to reach and realize his or her fullest potential. The second achievement gap represents an attack on the American Dream itself because it threatens the viability of a middle class.

In order to address both these gaps, we must distinguish between equity and parity. In California, for example, 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. Consequently, any state-wide funding cut results in disproportionate and adverse effects among low-income communities and high-needs students.

California's disparities are representative 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.

Federal funding, in response, tries to close these kinds of gaps and bridge these disparities by supplementing local budgets with additional federal dollars. The thinking here is that it will result in equal per-pupil spending across the system. This is not equity because it fails to take into account the specific needs of each child, including the need to address the achievement gap that exists before the child enters school. Poor and minority students often require additional resources to address needs that originate outside the classroom. By equalizing funding, then, we have only achieved a parity of resources, not equity of opportunity.

Only by addressing the individual needs of each child, regardless of cost per pupil, can we attain equity. This will require precision in the way we finance public education and the way we calculate the level of resources we direct towards each child.

Inequity in education has historical roots. At its inception, the Federal Government lacked the capacity and the authority to take responsibility for public education. Before the Constitution was drafted, the 13 colonies operated under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states. Any state had effective veto power over any proposed change.

In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power. It was entirely dependent on the states for its money and had no power to force delinquent states to pay. In fact, Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention in the hopes of preventing any change to the Articles. When the Constitution was subsequently presented to the Confederation, Rhode Island refused to ratify it. To placate the states, the Tenth Amendment ceded broad authority to the state governments.

Consequently, as regions of the country developed their own public education systems, disparities opened up. These disparities have become more pronounced and localized as states used local property taxes to finance their own schools. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement that the Federal Government became actively involved in financing education through the ESEA Act of 1965 and IDEA Act of 1975, in order to level the playing field. The Supreme Court, in its 1973 decision in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, effectively removed federal courts from school finance. To this day, federal dollars represent less than 10 percent of public education funding. State governments provide the bulk of the funding, so they are mostly immune to federal efforts to reform education policy.

The current crisis in state budgets has created a historic opportunity to change this paradigm. State governments, mired in long-term fiscal trouble, are willing to accept the requirements the federal government has imposed in order to receive desperately needed aid.

Paradigmatic change is already happening. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has altered the political landscape through competitive grant programs like Race To The Top, that provide state and local governments with funding if the recipient agreed to some form of educational reforms. More than 30 states have changed laws around the issue of teacher evaluation. The impending reauthorization of ESEA has taken the process a step further: 37 states have agreed to the Common Core standards for curricula to ensure they will qualify for future federal funding. The groundwork has been laid for an increased federal role in education. We need to build on these accomplishments to ensure that federal dollars can continue to be leveraged to produce local successes after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding runs out.

We need to continue to redefine the federal role in public education. The implications to our democracy, our civil rights, and our role as a world leader, require it. This leaves us with two interconnected questions: First, how do we reform the system of financing public education? Second, what policies should the federal government pursue in order to leverage this expanded role?

In order to attack the problem of reforming school finance and redefining the federal role in public education, I formed the National Commission on Education Equity and Excellence. The Commission is housed in the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, and will bring together some of the foremost experts on education from across the political spectrum in order to conduct a national dialogue on school finance and equity that reaches the needs of each child. It is only by talking with educators, parents, students, advocates, school board members, counselors, principals and superintendents invested in each student's achievements and civil rights that we can understand what is needed to make public education work in every community. The intent of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top was well-intentioned, but one of many key problems in both cases was Washington lawmakers' failure to hold the kind of dialogue needed to understand the incredible tools at the federal government's disposal to help states, districts and schools succeed.

This time, we will not make the same mistake. Our national dialogue will ferret out not only new systems of finance, but new policies that will create equity for each child. The great thing about where we are now is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Innovation is critical, but it should not come at the expense of ignoring 50 years of research on what works.

We know the game changers. We not only know which children will drop out of school, we know which schools they attend. We know when and where the achievement gap opens and we have the tools to close it. We know that teachers are the most important factor in a child's education, but we also know that for best results, students need more class time and a whole range of support services. We know the power of data and we know how to train teachers to use it. We know where job growth is happening in our economy and we know that a background in STEM and a college diploma are what our children need to achieve their fullest potential. Above all, we know that the single commodity that children bring to school each day is time, and that we must properly value it.

We know these things work and we know how to accomplish them. We need to develop a new system of finance that empowers local community leaders, advocates, businesses, nonprofits, educators, parents and students to join forces to devise a unique approach that works for their community.

Going forward, I see my work as two-fold. First, I will continue to build the political support for the Equity Commission and to encourage this crucial dialogue so that we can build the will to act. Second, I will propose and fight for legislation that addresses the critical game-changers and uses the tools of the Federal Government to empower communities to educate their children.

We often hear that there is no silver bullet in education. This is correct. There is no single policy that will close the achievement gap for poor and minority students, but there is an array of policies that if implemented effectively will help us achieve our vision of equity for each child. The international achievement gap will also close as we employ all the tools in our toolbox to ensure that each and every child is successful.

We have a long struggle ahead of us but we are able to say right now, maybe for the first time, that the tide is starting to turn. For the first time we are looking at all these questions through a lens that makes all these seemingly complicated issues startlingly clear: What is best for each child? By answering this question, we begin to address one of the greatest civil rights issues, one of the greatest competitiveness issues, one of the greatest long-term economic issues, and one of the greatest national security issues we are faced with today.