March 5, 2024

Jan Resseger: America Neglects to Address the Big Problems for Public Schools

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Retired Ohio educator Jan Resseger considers the problems that ESSA didn’t solve. Reposted with permission. 

Two weeks ago this blog covered problems stemming from the rating and ranking of public schools required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 reauthorization of the federal education law. That post covered the widespread exacerbation of racial and economic segregation that results when the press publishes the school and school district rankings, encouraging families with means to rush to the highest income communities with the highest test scores, despite research demonstrating that test scores are primarily an indicator of families’ economic and educational level, not an accurate measure of school quality.

Now Education Week‘s Alyson Klein reports on another serious problem with the rankings required by ESSA.  The federal law requires states to put the schools ranked in the bottom five percent on school improvement plans and redirects 7 percent of the state’s federal Title I dollars to pay for programs to turn around the schools.  While No Child Left Behind had imposed federal turnaround plans, the 2015 ESSA gave the states more leverage to design school improvement. But, as Klein  explains, ESSA’s requirement isn’t working:

“Nearly a decade ago, Congress handed states and districts near-autonomy to fix their worst-performing schools in the ways they saw fit. Now, many of those schools appear to have been left to languish in the academic doldrums, without clear improvement strategies to use or dedicated resources to execute turnarounds.” A serious problem seems to be that a small percentage of Title I funding is not enough to compensate for the states’ inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding.

“In many cases, low-performing schools did not receive any more funding per pupil to implement turnaround plans…. In every state but one, at least a quarter of schools identified for improvement actually spent less per pupil after they were flagged as needing extra support, rather than more. And those drops were not trivial, especially when schools spent less from federal sources and state and local ones. In those schools, the average decrease in spending ranged from $705 to $2,819 per pupil…. In most states, the drop neared or exceeded $1,000 per student….”

Klein’s report last week should serve as a warning.  Not only did COVID disrupt schools—especially schools in the poorest communities—and pose overwhelming challenges to help students get back on track academically and socially, but it also distracted us all from the most daunting challenges for public schools across the states. Here are three primary injustices our society needs to address.

Unequal Public School Funding Persists Almost Everywhere

In December, the Education Law Center published its 2023 Making the Grade report, which “explores the kind of serious problems that make the school turnarounds required by ESSA difficult to accomplish even with some extra federal Title I money: “Far too few states progressively distribute funds to high-poverty districts. More than half of the states evaluated have either flat or regressive funding distributions that disadvantage high-poverty districts. Many states lack the fiscal effort that is required to adequately fund schools: the worst funded states are often guilty of low effort, indicating a failure to prioritize public education… Nationally, PK-12 education saw the smallest annual increase in combined state and local funding since the Great Recession… The decline in funding effort in every state except Missouri demonstrated that school funding investments lagged far behind unexpected economic growth… Fair funding has two basic components: a sufficient level of funding for all students and increased funding for high-poverty districts to address the additional cost of educating students in those districts… A strong funding foundation is even more critical for low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and students facing homelessness, trauma and other challenges.  These students, and the schools that serve them, need additional staff, programs, and supports to put them on the same footing as their peers.”

School Segregation Is Increasing

Last week the Civil Rights Project released a new report on persistent racial segregation in American public schools. While this newest report focuses on the suburbs, it only adds to decades of previous work on urban school segregation: “Almost one-third (30%) of students in public schools in the United States are enrolled in suburban schools in the nation’s largest 25 metro areas, where two-thirds of children in metropolitan areas are educated.  According to a new study published by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, these suburban schools are experiencing a substantial proliferation of school segregation underscoring an urgent need for a civil rights agenda that addresses the challenges to educational opportunity and lasting integration… ‘There are clear signs that rather than learn from the destructive spread of segregation across our central cities and their schools in the twentieth century, we may be repeating the failure in large swaths of suburbia,’ says Gary Orfield…. The report’s authors contend that fast-paced demographic change and segregation in public schools and districts are occurring in a policy vacuum. Too little planning and leadership occur around an affirmative regional, and cross-sector vision for more equitable metropolitan education.”

Child Poverty Remains an Overwhelming Problem for America’s Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

On January 31st, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a significant funding increase for the Child Tax Credit and sent the bill on to the U.S Senate. If Congress passes this bill, it will be an initial step to restore the Child Tax credit expansion Congress passed in 2021 during COVID but allowed to expire in 2022. That plan made the Child Tax Credit fully refundable to families without income or with such meager income that they don’t pay enough federal income taxes to cover the amount of the full Child Tax Credit. Tragically when Congress let the improved, fully refundable Child Tax Credit lapse in 2022, U.S. child poverty increased by 41 percent.  Keep in mind that all children from middle and upper income families qualify to receive the full Child Tax Credit for each of their children under the age of 17, but children in families with low or no income receive less than the full amount or do not qualify at all.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate would accomplish: “In the first year, more than 80 percent of the roughly 19 million children under 17 in families with low incomes who don’t now get the full credit would benefit — about 16 million children.”

The bill passed in the House because it combines modest reform to the Child Tax Credit with a renewal of some corporate tax breaks that are important to conservatives. After passage in the House,  the bill has languished in the Senate. Senators need to pass this bill and do what they can to begin ameliorating child poverty that holds kids back in every way.

The Huge Structural Challenges for Public Schools

There is an urgent need for an education advocacy agenda that directly confronts school finance inequity across the states, persistent racial and economic segregation, and concentrated child poverty.  These are obstacles for our society’s poorest children who are likely to be segregated in schools with large classes and too little personal attention, schools with too few counselors and social workers, schools where the curriculum may be limited and extra curricular enhancements lacking.


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