Federal Commission Highlights Funding as a Major Cause of Inequity Among Schools

Last Updated: April 11, 2013

This article appeared in the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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After two years of research, discussion, and input from stakeholders, the Education Equity Commission has released its final report on its findings. “For Each and Every Child” includes recommendations for action in five major education policy arenas: school finance, teacher/leader quality, early childhood education, mitigation of poverty, and accountability.

Rural School and Community Trust President Doris Terry Williams serves on the Commission, a diverse 27-member panel appointed by President Barak Obama. (Editor’s Note: See coverage of her nomination here.)

The Equity Commission was charged with the two-fold task of advising the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education on the disparities in educational opportunities, particularly in school finance, that create the achievement gap and recommending ways in which federal policies could address such disparities.

The Commission’s members represent a wide range of organizations and highly divergent policy positions. For example, some school finance experts in the group have testified on behalf of plaintiff school districts in school funding lawsuits, while other members have defended state governments in funding cases. There are also six members representing the U.S. Department of Education.

School funding is a major focus of the report, which includes calls for the federal government to incentivize the creation of more equitable state funding systems. Federal education funding currently comprises less than 10% of education spending. "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." (Editor’s note: for a more complete discussion of this topic, see the RSFN Special Series: Financing Rural Schools here.)

The Commission met and held hearings in major U.S. cities. Transcripts of all meetings are available on the U.S. Department of Education website and make clear the divergence of ideas among members.

Diversity of opinion, positions staked

As the lone representative of rural schools, Williams was steadfast in insisting that the unique challenges of rural communities be included in the Commission’s considerations.

“I believe this report and actions around it will impact rural places only to the extent that people can muster the political will to ensure equitable and adequate resources for every child,” says Williams. “There is otherwise not much in the report narrative that will bring people who don't normally think about rural to reorient their thinking. We are still in a battle to bring attention to the unique challenges and opportunities for rural schools and communities.”

Williams continues, “The report acknowledges the correlation between poverty and academic performance; however, we must be much more intentional in bringing about remedies that speak to both school and community issues that impact teaching and learning.”

The report’s recommendations reflect broad compromise among the group’s members. Many individual Commissioners and groups of Commissioners also submitted essays. Most were calls for specific actions.

Williams’ essay, “Rural Students and Communities,” includes information on disparities for rural schools in Title I funding formulas, in competitive grant competitions, and teacher recruitment and retention. The essay recommends federal funding initiatives to address those disparities as a priority.

An essay on exclusionary school discipline and the school to prison pipeline as factors in increasing inequity was written by representatives of the NAACP, Urban League, and UNCF. It includes very specific recommendations for policy change at the local, stat, and federal levels.

The report also emphasizes increasing pre-kindergarten opportunities and making high quality pre-K available for every poor child within 10 years. Pre-K was also a highlight of President Obama’s State of the Union address and many speculate that initial action on the report by the administration will likely occur on pre-kindergarten issues. According to the report, fewer than half of low-income children are considered school-ready when they enter kindergarten, compared with three-quarters of children from moderate and high-income families.

Five areas for action

The report addresses five areas for action:

  • Equitable School Finance. The report emphasizes improving funding systems so that a child’s critical opportunities are not a function of his or her zip code. One notable recommendation suggests the “federal government should consider expanding its authority to address longstanding and persistent issues of inequity in school finance, including new enforcement steps that stop short of withdrawing funding from students most in need.”
  • Teachers, Principals and Curricula. The report includes calls for supports for a corps of teachers effective enough to provide children with the opportunity to thrive in a changing world; it also recommends incentivizing states to improve teacher quality. The report notes that only 30% of U.S. educators come from the top third of the college pool. One of the recommendations in this area is that the federal government invests in high-quality residency programs that create a steady supply of highly effective recruits in high-need communities. This recommendation reflects the Rural Trust’s call for a National Rural Teacher Corps.
  • Early Childhood Education. The report calls for a focus on narrowing the disparities in readiness when children reach kindergarten.
  • Mitigating Poverty’s Effects. The report calls for access to a variety of supports, in addition to early childhood education, to mitigate the effects of poverty on children and to promote student success and family engagement in school. The recommendations specifically include effective measures to improve outcomes for student groups especially likely to be left behind—including English-language learners, children in Indian country or isolated rural areas, children with special education needs, and those involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. This section of the report includes both recommendations around increasing health services for students as well as improving preventative services to keep students out of disciplinary trouble.
  • Accountability and Governance. As the Commission says, this section focuses on “reforms to make clearer who is responsible for what, attach consequences to performance, and ensure that national commitments to equity and excellence are reflected in results on the ground, not just in speeches during campaigns.” Notably, this section calls on schools to be accountable for their responsiveness to parents and says “in communities with low levels of parental participation or low performance on a “parent engagement index,” districts should be required to fully inform parents and guardians and engage them in school decisions, including in plans to improve educational outcomes and provide equitable access to needed inputs.” This section also makes mention of charter schools and the need to more closely examine their impact on equity of all students.

The Equity Commission was first proposed and advanced by two Congressmen in 2009, Representative Michael Honda (D-CA) and Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA). The Commission operates under a congressional appropriation written by Honda. In his introductory letter found in the report, he says, “After a year and a half of groundbreaking public dialogue and debate, of study and scrutiny, this report reflects the thinking of the nation’s foremost educational experts, who worked arduously and collaboratively, despite our sometime-disparate ideas about educational reform.” Similarly, Fattah says, “I look forward to working with my colleagues on Capitol Hill, and policymakers around the country, to make equity and excellence a reality for every American child and to strengthen America’s future for generations to come.”

The group is seeking foundation funding to continue its activities.

Read more:

Read the full report here:

Read the compendium of member-submitted essays here, including Rural Students and Communities by Doris Terry Williams at page 45, here:

Read media coverage of the Commission’s report here:

Read more from the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.