Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Apples and Oranges

I’ve lived through 30 years of New Jersey Supreme Court school funding decisions, school voucher debates and federal and state educational initiatives, and there are two things of which I am sure: One, for the NJEA and many school administrators, there will never be enough money spent for schools. Two, there is little correlation between money spent on schools and excellence in education, especially true for city students with high school dropout rates of upwards of 50 percent.
That’s Hank McNamara, former Republican senator, in yesterday's Record, reciting the mantra of education reformers: slice it and dice it any way you want, but increases in school funding don’t necessarily lead to increases in school achievement. McNamara is limiting his discussion to NJ, but others commentators who don't necessarily share his political leanings have gone federal. For instance, our very own David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, was interviewed on NPR the other day and commented,
I think, you know, we have, in the United States, we don't have a national right to education like other developed countries. The states run our educational systems, and they control the financing and the resources, and they're ultimately responsible for the education of their children.
It’s kind of a stunning statement: we don’t have a “national right” to education because individual states control the financing. Mr. Sciarra is right. In spite of all the frothing of the mouth over Race To The Top’s impact (I’m wiping my own chin), remember that RTTT’s total spending over two years will be just over $5 billion, which is a drop in the bucket in the context of total education spending, about half of one percent. Federal initiatives notwithstanding, individual states decide what education is worth. While our national cost per pupil is $9,666 (according to the US Census), Idaho spends $6,625 and New Jersey spends $15,691.

I argue all the time that NJ zipcode shouldn’t determine NJ education. Widen the lens and it’s reasonable to posit that state residence shouldn’t determine educational content either.

In other words, if education should be funded at a federal level, shouldn’t curricular content be controlled at a federal level? It’s equitable, right? Why should kids in Mississippi have a different set of math standards than kids in Maine? Oh, right: we do that already. No Child Left Behind, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a certain national competition called Race To The Top, all strive to standardize experiences of learning across the country. Such federal control should be popular among those who advocate equalized spending.

Yet here’s national education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch,
Here is my overall impression of what is happening in D.C. The federal government now controls education policy in the United States, thanks to No Child Left Behind, which caused an unprecedented expansion of federal power into every public classroom. As you know, I believe that NCLB did not raise standards, but actually caused a dumbing-down of American education through its accountability provisions, which emphasize only basic skills
Do we want federal power in the classroom or not? How else will we achieve funding equity? And if we support that sort of national control, should individual states maintain curricular control?

Advocating federal control over money and state control over content is like ordering Bill Gates to supply all schoolchildren with Macs. Can we have it both ways?

1 comment:

kallikak said...

Have to agree that the feds have achieved an impressive amount of leverage over our public schools relative to their miniscule fiscal contribution.

I share Ms. Ravitch's skepticism over NCLB and the so-called "reform" movement in general.

What, exactly, have guys like Arne Duncan, Bret Schundler and Andy Smarick actually accomplished vis a vis public education?