Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Stephen Sugarman

Are Liberals Really Committed to Education as a Right of All American Children?

Probably because I first came to the idea of a right to education from the perspective of school finance reform, I have always believed that equal educational opportunity starts with fair access to a reasonably fair share of educational resources. I concede that attention to dollar inputs is not sufficient, but I still believe it is a necessary floor.

How turn those dollars into effective education that well prepares young people for their adult roles as citizens, family members, and workers is much contested and likely to remain so. (My preference for empowering low-income parents to make informed choices for their children is not very popular with most liberals, and I put this strategy aside here.)

If American children are to have access to sufficient resources so that there is, in turn, a good chance that most children will learn enough to meet reasonably high educational standards, then it seems to me that each of our levels of government has a duty to assure this objective is met. Schools need to assure a fair allocation of what they have, districts need to assure a fair allocation of what they have, states need to assure a fair allocation of what they have, and the nation as a whole has to assure that states (and the units below the state) have a fair share of the national wealth to responsibly do their jobs. (Almost all of the school finance litigation over the past 35 years has aimed at only the third of these four duties.)

As I read Goodwin’s paper on national school funding inequalities, it appears to me that a large share of the “poor” states are “red” states (especially in the south and southwest) and that a large share of the “rich” states are “blue” states (especially in the northeast).

To be sure, it may not be easy for Congressional and Senatorial representatives from states like Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut to eagerly embrace sending federal tax dollars to states like Alabama, South Carolina and Oklahoma (especially when political leaders in the rich states recognize that children from low income families inside their own borders are now often failed by our schools.)

Nor, alas, does their seem to be a great deal of pressure by representatives of those “poor southern red” states (despite Republican power) to make increased federal aid a priority. Perhaps this is because Title I’s current formula disfavors poor states despite their greater need. Perhaps more importantly, these are states with long histories of racism, whose conservative political leaders are disinclined to champion changes aimed at improving the lot of African-American, especially when their constituents now include large numbers of white fundamentalist Protestants who are fed up with what public schools are offering to their children and would not be terribly excited by higher spending on those schools.

Nonetheless, I believe that liberal leadership, if drawn together from a great number of places around the nation, could perhaps successfully promote a substantial increase in federal spending – if those leaders are willing to back a scheme in which a disproportionate share of that funding were to go to poor states (importantly, poor red states) that desperately need the money.
If this enhanced federal financial commitment were to be combined with seriously enforced obligations of states to fairly distribute what they have and to ensure that their districts and schools too also fairly allocate what they have, then there would be a chance that No Child Left Behind could become a truly national concept. Alas, the current NCLB at best pushes towards intra-state equality but not towards an inter-state equality that a true American “right to education” would imply.

But I don’t see liberal political leaders from rich blue states saying that taxpayers in their states should be asked to pay for school finance dollars to be sent to red state strongholds, even if the scheme contained conditions that assured that the major beneficiaries of the money would be poor and working class families who these liberals claim to care about. Why is this? If, as Goodwin argues, our political leaders have a constitutional duty to make real a right to education for all American citizens, should not liberals from places of wealth be first in line to embrace that duty?

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