Commentary, Opinion

New finance system needed for education

By Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Mike Honda

Editor’s note: Mike Honda is a former teacher, principal, and school board member and served in the U.S. Congress for 16 years (D-CA) where he co-founded the Equity and Excellence Commission under President Barack Obama. Kesha Ram Hinsdale is a Vermont state senator, the first woman of color to serve in this role, has served in the Vermont Legislature for a decade, and is now running for Vermont’s congressional seat.

Education is not only one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time, but it is also a competitiveness issue, making it a long-term economic issue, and by extension, a national security issue.

The urgency of this eludes us, however, which is why it is up to each of us to do the work of building the political will to motivate our country to recognize this crisis, and act. Let us kick-start that conversation by sharing our vision, what we are doing to build that political will, and what we need to do in order to create real equity.

Currently, the United States is confronting two educational gaps that threaten the future of our communities. The first gap is one in opportunity that separates our communities by class and race. This attacks the very principle upon which our nation was founded: A promise of equal opportunity for all. Public education is the tool through which our society strives to deliver on this promise. When public education is inequitable, the foundation of our democratic society is compromised.

The second gap is one in achievement between the United States and other developed countries. Despite the United States spending more per-pupil than any other developed nation, we rank poorly compared to other developed countries because our achievement in reading, science, and math has declined significantly over the last 30 years.

This undermines our competitiveness and our security because in the global economy, education is the enabler of opportunity and the enhancer of long-term financial stability and prosperity. The only way the United States remains a world leader in the 21st century is to ensure that the most competitive economy is built by the most highly skilled, innovative and agile workforce.

The opportunity gap threatens the authenticity of the American Dream by denying each child equal access to reach and realize their fullest potential. The achievement gap represents an attack on the American Dream itself because it threatens the viability of a middle class.

In order to address both these gaps, we must distinguish between equity and equality. Our highest spending American school district spends tens of thousands of dollars more per pupil than the lowest-spending district. Unsurprisingly, the better-funded district has higher teacher salaries, lower student-teacher ratios, higher standardized test scores and higher graduation rates than the neighboring district, which struggles with half the funding.

Federal funding, in response, tries to close these kinds of gaps and bridge these disparities by supplementing local budgets with additional federal dollars. The thinking here is that it will result in equal per-pupil spending across the system. This is not equity because it fails to take into account the specific needs of each and every child, including the need to address, with social wrap-around services, the opportunity gap that exists before the child enters school.

Low-income students, students of color, and students from economically depressed areas often require additional resources to address needs that originate outside the classroom. By equalizing funding, then, we have only achieved a parity of resources, not equity of opportunity: meaning, the child is not equally prepared to compete on a level playing field.

Only by addressing the individual needs of each child, and applying the necessary resources to each child’s assessed needs, can we attain equity. This will require precision in the way we finance public education and the way we calculate the level of resources we direct towards each and every child. To this day, federal dollars represent less than 10 percent of public education funding. State governments provide the bulk of the funding, so they are mostly immune to federal efforts to reform education policy.

State governments like ours are trying to close the gap. Vermont’s Act 60 tried to equalize education spending across school districts, regardless of each district’s prosperity. California, meanwhile, spent many millions of dollars alleviating poverty among children. But both states need to be more precise in addressing the assessed needs of each and every child.

We know the game changers. We know when and where the opportunity gap opens and we have the tools to close it. We know that teachers are the most important factor in a child’s education, but we also know that for best results, students need more class time and a whole range of support services. We know the power of data and we know how to train teachers to use it. We know where job growth is happening in our economy and we know that a background in STEM and a college diploma are what our children need to achieve their fullest potential.

Above all, we know that the single commodity that children bring to school each day is time, and that we must properly value it. Now we need to develop a new system of finance that focuses on each and every child and empowers local community leaders, advocates, businesses, nonprofits, educators, parents and students to join forces to devise a unique approach that works for their community.

While there is no single policy that will close the opportunity gap for low-income students, students of color and students from economically disadvantaged areas, there are an array of policies that if implemented effectively will help us achieve our vision of equity for each child. The international achievement gap will also close as we employ all the tools in our toolbox to ensure that each and every child is successful.

We have a long struggle ahead of us but the tide is starting to turn. For the first time we are looking at all these questions through a lens that makes all these seemingly complicated issues startlingly clear: What is best for each and every child? By answering this question, we begin to address some of the greatest civil rights, competitiveness, economic, and national security issues we are faced with today.

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