When Education Minister Miguel Cardona outlined the Biden administration’s education priorities in a keynote speech last month, he did not warn when he told state and district leaders they needed to do more to bring justice to the fore.
“We need our states and districts to look closely at their own ways of funding schools and for these leaders to make tough decisions to fix broken systems that perpetuate inequalities in our schools across the country,” he said.
“It’s time to finally make education a great equalizer,” he continued, “a force that can help every student develop, regardless of origin, zip code, circumstances or the language they speak at home.”
Fighting inequality in the K-12 system, Cardona added, will be the “hardest and most important work” of the educational community – the work for which they will be condemned.
Of course, all administrations are talking about a big game when it comes to justice in education. But for President Joe Biden, who took over the White House amid a pandemic that has exacerbated long-standing gaps and barred low-income students, colored students and people with disabilities from classes longer than their wealthier, white peers – and for Cardona in particular, who rose to higher education in the country after growing up in public housing and entering public school as an English language student – the focus is on urgency and a deep understanding of the consequences.
That’s why it looked so bad when just days after the secretary’s speech asking state and district leaders to “rise to the level,” school board members Darien, Connecticut, Cardona’s hometown, voted against a program designed to eliminate racial and economic disparities that exist between cities and neighboring suburbs, allowing kindergartens from neighboring Norwalk to attend their schools.
According to the plan, 16 children from Norwalk will be able to attend schools in Darien, where the average family income is $ 230,000 – about three times more than in Norwalk, where 30% of students are Hispanic, and half of the students are still studying English.
The program was supported by the headmaster and the head of the school board, but opponents expressed concern about the class size and the problems associated with the ongoing pandemic.
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“There just wasn’t time,” said Jill McCamon, Darien’s deputy head of the school board.
Although Darien is only one of more than 13,000 school districts across the country that follow Cardona’s orders to march with varying degrees of sincerity, the example begs the question: if the district in the secretary’s home state does not take place for 16 children, then who?
“This is a big question,” says Alison Sokol, assistant director of P-12 policy at The Education Trust. “I have to believe it’s not quite deaf.”
Of course, there are many examples where states and counties are listening to the big Cardon issue.
Several states are increasing funding for their K-12 systems, including California, where lawmakers have included $ 3 billion to turn schools in their poorest areas into public schools – schools that provide comprehensive services such as physical, dental and mental health centers. food and clothing banks. . They also help parents find stable housing and jobs.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal includes nearly $ 500 million in new spending on the K-12, which is preferred by low-income students, English language learners, and people with disabilities. And in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer this week proposed increasing K-12 funding by 8% in the state budget for 2023.
Tennessee is working hard to hire more color teachers by adopting a nationwide policy that requires school districts to submit diversity goals to the education department and annual progress reports to close the gap between 80% of white teaching staff. , and her students, 40% of whom are colored students.
Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina and Washington have introduced state policies that give students the right to advanced coursework if they demonstrate readiness, which has already led to more low-income students and students of different colors gaining access to classes AP than ever before. And several states, including Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico and Tennessee, are using much of their federal aid for coronavirus from the U.S. Rescue Plan to support training programs for students most affected by the pandemic.
“While all this is true, there are bright spots and there are leaders who do really good things, we need much more,” says Sokol. “They’re all wonderful and will be important to children in those places, but that’s not enough.”
“We need to see more states moving in that direction to provide fair funding and resources,” she said. “And we really need people to focus on these things, not on the opinions of a loud and very vocal minority who have opinions that are now very prominent in the news.”
Of course, Socol speaks of stepping up efforts by Republican-controlled states and school boards to exclude from their curricula topics considered “divisive,” including issues of race and racism in U.S. history – efforts that are the result of Conservative responses to critical racial theory and directly contradict Cardona’s desire to introduce more justice into the country’s public school system.
There are less obvious, but perhaps more significant examples, as in Darien.
In Maryland, for example, lawmakers two years ago adopted a plan to increase funding for the state’s K-12 system in a way that prioritizes areas that serve a large concentration of low-income students. But Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest budget proposal does not fund the part of the formula that determines the priorities of these areas – that is, for example, that the city of Baltimore could lose $ 99 million.
“We’ve always had deeply unfair funding structures in this country, in large part because much of education funding has historically been linked to wealth,” said Jessica Gartner, founder and CEO of Allovue, a technology company that helps school districts keep track of them. costs and focuses on equity.
“Over the past 20-30 years, some states have made real progress in addressing this issue and correcting it in public funding formulas, and we have made some progress in addressing this issue at the federal level,” she says. “But both of these attempts were a drop in the bucket regarding the scale of inequality in the K-12.”
This is especially true when it comes to public policy, which usually tries to equalize funding, but rarely makes a full mile to make the funding system truly fair. To achieve this, Gartner says she hopes Cardona will turn her question inside.
“The whole point is that a single district can actually do relatively very little in terms of large-scale structural change,” she says. “Counties in communities and political climates that are indifferent to this work will do so no matter what, and districts in a political climate that are actively opposed to this work are not going to do it no matter what.”
Because of this, Gartner and other equity advocates say there are very few ways to encourage states and counties to make significant changes to capital on their own, and that to achieve that change the federal government will either need to expand funding for programs that target the most vulnerable students. an approach in which states are punished for failing to adopt a fairer funding formula.
“The reality is,” says Gartner, “states that oppose this work will not be encouraged by carrots for more money for what they don’t care about or don’t believe in.”
The Biden administration is experimenting with this concept in real time, requiring states to provide federal assistance to K-12 schools included in the U.S. Rescue Plan through Section I, which prioritizes areas that serve high concentrations or poor students. The White House is also pushing for a historic increase in funding for Section I and the Education Act for People with Disabilities, a federal program, better known as the IDEA for students with disabilities, in its budget.
“If we expanded Section I funding and IDEA funding at the federal level,” Gartner says, “if we introduce rules and guidelines for state funding to fund these populations through more targeted grants commensurate with actual costs, we could actually start making some structural changes ”.