Changing the way schools are funded would help to close the achievement gap between students who live in affluent neighborhoods and those in high poverty areas, according to a report released Tuesday by a congressionally-mandated education committee.
"There is disagreement about exactly how to change the system, but there is complete agreement that achieving equity and excellence requires sufficient resources that are distributed based on student need and that are efficiently used," says "For Each and Every Child," a report by the Equity and Excellence Commission.
A primary source of funding for public schools is local property taxes. The problem: If the school is in a high poverty area, the property taxes tend to be low, and that means less money for the school, and less money to pay teachers.
"Whether a state uses property taxes or not is no excuse for the responsibility a state has to deliver more equitable financing," said Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, co-chairman of the commission and a professor at Stanford Law School.
The report cites spending disparities as wide as $7,306 per pupil in Tennessee to $19,520 in Wyoming, with adjustment for student poverty, regional wage variation, school district size and density. There are disparities across districts, too -- excluding the top 5% of districts in California, spending ranged from $6,032 to $18,025 per pupil there in 2009.
"In far too many communities, the children who need the most help get the least -- get the least experienced, the least qualified. There are very few incentives to bring our greatest talent to where it's needed the most," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a conference call Tuesday.
The 52-page report includes a long list of finance recommendations for the federal government, including directing states to adopt new school finance systems, offering incentives to states who find ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty and enacting legislation that puts "significant new federal funds" to schools with high populations of low-income students.
"There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education," the report says. "It is, rather, a question of our nation's civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10% of national K-12 spending is a matter of custom, not a mandate."
"Low-income and English-language-learner students bring unique educational challenges that the average middle-class student does not. To afford these children the same level of education, it requires more resources for them to enable equal opportunity, " said Rep. Mike Honda, D-California, who pushed for the commission to be formed in 2008.
The report recommends increasing the selectivity of teacher hires and holding training programs accountable for producing effective teachers; creating grants for schools to increase parent engagement; extending learning times. It devotes a section to a hot topic since President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week: early childhood education.
The report calls for funding that will provide all low-income children access to early learning within 10 years.
"If we are serious about closing what I call the 'opportunity gap,' it has to start with high-quality early-learning opportunities in disadvantaged communities that have been denied for too long," Duncan said.