Friday, June 13, 2008

EQUAL SCHOOLING AS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT

In making No Child Left Behind the law of the land, Congress and President Bush got their school reform priorities backwards. Before demanding that no child be left behind, they first should have remedied the educational inequalities that insure that millions of American youngsters don't have a fair chance of keeping up.

How severe are these inequalities? Consider the School District of Philadelphia. Nearly 80 percent of its K-12 students live at or near the poverty level; and financial neediness spawns profound educational deficits. Nevertheless, a typical Philadelphia student has $2,215 less spent per year on his or her schooling than a typically less disadvantaged suburban student. As a matter of fact, six of those surrounding suburban districts spend over $5,000 more per pupil per year than Philadelphia. Given the School District of Philadelphia’s maximum class size of 32, that equals a $160,000.00 difference per classroom, per year.

It would be one thing if such educational inequalities were confined to the Philadelphia area or even to Pennsylvania. But outrageous inequalities in per student spending persist in district after district, and state after state. Here is a brief sampler of the unequal per-student spending that disadvantages so many American children.

• Camden, NJ $15,485 / Brick Township, NJ $9,472 – a difference of $6,013.
• Palo Alto Unified, CA $10,709 / Victor Valley Union High, CA $5,125 – a difference of $5,584.
• Yonkers, NY $15,148 / North Syracuse, NY $9,856 – a difference of $5,292.
• Atlanta, GA $11,502 / Columbia County, GA $6,580 – a difference of $4,922.
• Pittsburgh, PA $12,242 / Reading, PA $7,340 – a difference of $4,902.

These differences are typical of differences over most of the nation. Yet federal politicians, fully aware of this pitiable situation, are piously demanding that no child be left behind. Their hypocrisy is truly breath taking, even by Washington standards.

To be sure, federal tinkering attempts to deal with symptoms of this situation. But more than a century of outrageous inequality in school funding suggests that only a constitutional amendment would apply the consistent and persistent pressure necessary to sustain efforts at educational equalization from congress to congress and administration to administration. Plus federal judicial scrutiny, would pack the muscle necessary to insure state cooperation.

What would an Equal Education Amendment look like? It might read something like this:

EQUAL EDUCATION AMENDMENT
Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Would an equal education amendment have sufficient support in Congress? That seems highly doubtful. Would the required two thirds of the states ratify it? Possibly not. But just raising the issue of a constitutional amendment focuses attention on the inequities.

Who would oppose such an amendment? In George W. Bush's America, there should be no scarcity of opponents.

And what would be the stated grounds of opposition? Some would say that an equal education amendment establishes excessive federal control over what are properly state and local matters. But that concern seems bogus now that Republicans have taken the lead in the most massive federal infringement of state and local control of schooling in our history - No Child Left Behind.

A far more potent source of opposition to an equitable disposition of educational resources would be those who benefit from the present inequality. Barring massive new spending that would raise all boats to the same level, they would have to forfeit that advantage and Congresspersons would vote accordingly.

Make no mistake; the federal government commands the necessary resources to provide every American child with equal educational opportunity. But to do this legislators and the White House would have to massively rearrange national priorities. We might, for example, have to invest far more in children and far less in the warfare state. And this would threaten the financial interests of many powerful people who paid to get these politicians elected in the first place.

This gets us to the real advantage of putting an Equal Education Amendment on the table; it forces hands and reveals agendas. It puts a question out there that most politicians dearly want to dodge. What is more important to you, providing every American child with equal educational opportunity, or serving the special interests you are beholden to? It’s high time that we ask that question and insist on a straight answer. -- GKC

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