WASHINGTON — Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rolled out a new national plan for equity in public education that includes recommendations for school finance reform and stepped up early childhood education.
The plan is based on a report two years in the making from the Equity and Excellence Commission, a group created by Congress in 2011 specifically to address achievement gaps in low-income communities and the standing of the American education system internationally.
Duncan called the report, “a document that challenges us to take on the status quo.”
Indeed, two controversial proposals stand out: a call for universal early childhood education and school finance reform that spreads funding more equally across school districts.
In the case of school funding, which is managed largely by states, reassessing the existing system is not new. Since the early 1970s, education officials have advocated changing a funding system based on local property taxes, which favor wealthier communities with higher property values.
Commission Co-chairman Christopher Edley, a former Clinton administration official, said finance was a contentious issue on the diverse board of commissioners. The 27 members represented both rural and urban areas nationwide across the socio-economic spectrum—including representation from tribal lands. After two years of research and effort, the commission unanimously accepted a school funding recommendation that it says is based on fairness and efficiency.
The report proposes that individual states redistribute educational resources to lower-income communities with greater need. It does not say exactly where that money should come from. Whether or not the commission wants to do away with the property tax system or simply reallocate that revenue is unclear.
The other major recommendation in the report, universal pre-K education, has also been around for years. But the idea gained political traction after getting a nod from President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech last week.
Research from the National Education Association has shown that critical learning development occur before a child reaches kindergarten. Students who attend preschool have an advantage in the public education system – and overwhelmingly they come from high-income families.
The report calls for a stronger investment at the state and federal level that will make universal early childhood education available for anyone who wants it within the next ten years.
Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., who was at the news conference, said, “We need to make sure we get everyone to the same starting line. We can’t have students playing catch-up before they even begin.”
Some House Republicans have already raised opposition to the idea. After the speech, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said, “Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start.” Kline is the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Edley, Dean of University of California Berkeley School of Law, said that despite its controversial nature, “every commission member is reasonably hopeful that this report will help reinvigorate the effort to improve education in this country.”
“These recommendations represent a totally new direction that we hope will guide all new efforts to reform the education system,” Edley said.
The fate of the report in terms of legislative action is at best uncertain. Despite bipartisan agreement on the commission, the news conference Tuesday only brought forward two education reformers from Capitol Hill to speak in support of the report: Honda and Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn.
Of such legislative challenges, Edley said the commission hopes that all of its recommendations are flexible enough to invite bipartisan debate.