Funding for public schools is based on a wholly inequitable, unfair, last-century system that rewards wealthy communities and punishes schools in poor neighborhoods. Given that half of all public school students live in poverty, school funding tied to local property taxes is a travesty that demands a counterbalance to give all children the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Research shows there is a direct correlation between student outcomes and the amount of funding for the resources, tools and supports that children and teachers need. When you adjust for poverty, America’s public school students do as well as any other in the world. But when poverty rates exceed 25 percent, we see sharp declines in student performance. Sad but true, childhood poverty rates in the United States are the second highest among developed nations; only Romania is higher, according to UNICEF. In large urban cities, childhood poverty rates in 2013, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, were tragic: Detroit, 58 percent; Cleveland, 33 percent; Buffalo, N.Y., 50 percent; Philadelphia, 39 percent; Los Angeles, 38 percent.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission report of 2013 set out a roadmap for solving the connection between poverty and student outcomes. It recommended investing in high-quality pre-K to make sure poor children and those with disabilities do not trail their peers on the first day of kindergarten. It urged schools to provide wraparound services like healthcare and social services to children living in poverty and dealing with other challenges at home so that they can come to school healthy and ready to learn. And the commission recommended investing in training and other supports for teachers and all school staff to do their jobs well.

Investing is the operative word. Reforming our funding models will go a long way towards building the foundation needed to implement the much-needed recommendations of the Equity and Excellence Commission. The Equity and Excellence in American Education Act is a good step forward to reforming our school funding system. The bill creates a new, targeted federal funding source for schools with high concentrations of poverty, particularly where achievement gaps exist. Second, it provides financial incentives to states that are already investing in high-poverty schools. And third, the bill gives states financial support to study, and reform, their tax codes to support more sustainable and equitable funding for education. The legislation requires that all funding programs and initiatives be evidence-based and modeled after programs with a history of success in improving student achievement.

The bill dovetails perfectly with the current congressional work to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA was created 50 years ago as a mechanism for getting additional resources to those who need them the most. It was at the core of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As someone who taught poor children in a one-room schoolhouse, Johnson understood back in 1965 what we know today: children living in poverty often don’t have ready access to books, healthcare, social services and the other things that more advantaged children have and that contribute to their school performance. ESEA involves policy on how states and school districts can use federal funding. The Equity and Excellence in American Education Act would provide the targeted investments to support ESEA. While there is still work to be done, Congress is closer to replacing NCLB than it has been in a decade.  If the  ESEA work can be completed in a bipartisan manner and pass the Equity and Excellence in American Education Act, the nation will have a federal education policy that will make a real difference in the lives of our children.

Education is the great equalizer in our society to provide the opportunity for all children to achieve the American dream. We can drift along and continue with an inequitable school funding system. Or we can turn the page to a 21st century funding model to help lift all boats and inspire the next generation of innovators, doctors, scientists, business executives, teachers, or anything else a child desires to be. 

Honda represents California’s 17th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2001. He sits on the Appropriations Committee. He also has over 30 years experience as a teacher. Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.