WASHINGTON (February 5, 2009) Our nations educators and students are making important progress. Achievement is rising and the gaps that separate students of color and low-income students from others are narrower than ever. But much work remains to be done. Students in other countries still outperform American students, and our domestic achievement gaps, though narrowing, are still a disgrace and pose serious threats to our long-term national well-being.
The last thing we need right now is for hard-won progress to be derailed by cuts in state and local support for schools. The education provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could help prevent this and – if the Senate and administration act with wisdom and in the interest of vulnerable students – could not only sustain, but accelerate, student progress.
Three things, though, are especially important to get right:
State Longitudinal Data Systems
For too long, education decisions have been based on politics, prejudices, good intentions, or just plain hunches. Thats in part because educators, policymakers, and parents have not had access to the kinds of information needed to make sound, data-driven decisions.
The requirement in both the House and Senate bills that states build longitudinal data systems containing 10 key common elements would help improve the quality of educational practice and policy, enhance the effectiveness of our education investment and, most importantly, improve outcomes for students. The Senate should resist attempts to remove or weaken these provisions.
Fair Access to Strong Teachers
The House bill would finally enforce requirements in federal law that states attend to the matter of who teaches whom. Though mountains of evidence demonstrate that we consistently assign our weakest teachers to the most vulnerable students, the Bush administration and most states and districts stubbornly ignored these provisions, undercutting the effectiveness of other education reforms as well as the hopes of millions of American students and parents. While the Senate bill contains some provisions on access to quality teachers, they are much weaker than those in the House bill and should be strengthened to demand, on behalf of low-income students and students of color, equal access to strong teachers.
Maintenance of Effort and Supplement Not Supplant
Much has been made of the historic education funding levels contained in the stimulus. But too little attention has been paid to the unprecedented flexibility in the use of those funds that the Senate bill, through waivers, would offer states.
The Senate bill would allow the Secretary of Education to waive both the Maintenance of Effort and the Supplement Not Supplant provisions on the education funding contained in the stimulus package. While we are not unsympathetic to the Senates desire to provide governors with flexibility to address the unique impacts of the national economic crisis on their own states, we are also keenly aware of the long history that states have of shortchanging schools and school districts that serve concentrations of low-income students and students of color. The Maintenance of Effort and Supplement Not Supplant provisions traditionally contained in federal education law have helped protect schools and school districts serving high proportions of poor children from dollar-for-dollar raids on their state funding. Given the pressure on state budgets, these school districts, schools, and children need those protections now, more than ever.
Moreover, the long-term consequences of these waivers may be even more severe than would be their short-term costs. Without Maintenance of Effort, once a state replaces a state dollar with a federal dollar, the state would be under no obligation to restore it, even after all the stimulus money runs dry and fiscal health recovers. In other words, what now seems to be a funding feast for high-poverty schools could, in fiscal year 2011 and beyond, become a famine if states swap out state dollars for federal ones and are not required to replace themever.
We hope that Senate leaders and the administration remove these waivers from the Senate bill. If, however, such waivers become law, it will be up to the Administration to protect low-income students and students with disabilities from the almost inevitable state-funding shell games. That would demand new and unprecedented levels of transparency: of the Department of Education as it evaluates state waiver requests and of the states as they request waivers and implement them.
But that makes sense: smart investors demand transparency as a condition of investment. In this case, the obligation to make such a demand is especially high because of the scale of this investment, the track record of states on this issue, and the fact that these funds are intended to benefit vulnerable and politically weak populations. Should the Secretary of Education be required to offer these waivers, how he does so will be critical test of this administrations commitment to increased transparency, andeven more importantlyof its commitment to protect aggressively the long-term needs of the weak against the short-term interests of the political powerful.
The education provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act hold the three-fold promise of protecting and restoring jobs, advancing long-overdue education reforms, and providing a much-needed investment in our schools. However, if the Senate bill prevailswith its lack of protection against states fiscal sleight-of-handthe administration will have to take extraordinary measures to ensure that, in the end, it’s something more than a richly funded but ultimately empty promise to millions of students.