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Challenges to Quality Elementary & Secondary Education No. 161

Adopted 2001
Amended 2003
Reaffirmed 2004

Public education, the cornerstone of our nation's economic vitality, national security and social and political institutions must provide our children with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind and body needed to prepare them for lives of active and productive citizenship. Americans for Democratic Action renews its commitment to equity and excellence in American public education through action at the national, state, and local community levels.

Every youngster is entitled to a quality education in a safe and secure school. A quality education provides the foundational skills that students need to become productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment.

Students in our public schools of today and the foreseeable future are increasingly diverse. This fact challenges our nation to provide appropriate educational programs, facilities and personnel to develop each and every student's full potential. In some cities and inner suburbs, students who in past decades would be considered racial and ethnic minorities now constitute the majority. Many students, especially in cities and rural areas, live in dire poverty. Large numbers of students are diagnosed as needing special education services in order to cope with disabilities. Increasing numbers of students do not learn English as their first language, thereby requiring special services to develop English language proficiency. Increasing numbers of students need health, housing, transportation, and family services to enable them to attend and fully participate in school. Some of these students' needs are being met, but too many are not.

While education always has been primarily a state and local government responsibility, from 1965 to 1980 the federal government began to play an important role with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. Courts and agencies began to correct some of the long-standing inequalities and inequities created by governmentally sanctioned discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. Federal dollars were targeted to school districts that were financially pressed by their duty to serve economically disadvantaged children as well as those with special needs. Despite the federal aid, funding of public schools remains inequitable between and within states, and even within local districts. The federal government still contributes only 7% of local school budgets.

A year before passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI of which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in federally funded programs and activities, which includes public schools. On the whole, enforcement of that law by administrative agencies and the courts has not been sufficiently effective. In some districts, the schools are less integrated today than they were in 1970.

A spate of studies over the next twenty years beginning with A Nation at Risk (1980) has documented the need to reform public schools and make them more accountable. This clear need has led to growing intrusive action at federal, state, and local levels, some of it constructive, some raising grave concerns that public education is being eroded and the goals of equity and excellence for all students are being compromised, if not abandoned.

Where schools fail, there is a need to look beyond the immediate indices of failure, such as low standardized test scores, poorly prepared teachers, high drop-out rates, low attendance, crumbling school buildings and inadequate curriculum materials, to identify the underlying causes. Such hidden causes include a low minimum wage, limited job opportunities for poorly trained workers competing in a technological society, poor medical care, continuing race and sex discrimination and inadequate housing, as well as many other factors. (This Resolution does not address those broader issues.)

Changes in educational policy must span both the specific weaknesses in current public education programs and those larger underlying causes. However, current 'reform' efforts tend to focus on narrow policies such as charter schools, vouchers, education tax deductions, high-stakes tests and inequitable funding. Rather than enhancing public education, these policies represent multiple threats to public education. In addition, various policies aimed at privatizing the management of public education generally will also undermine fundamental public education policies and practices.

Charter schools, vouchers, education tax deductions, high-stakes tests, inequitable funding, and growing teacher shortages represent today's primary threats to public education, and hence to our nation's future.

Charter Schools are publicly funded schools that operate, in most cases, outside of local and state regulations, although they are established under state approved law and charter. Thus they have operational independence from local school districts and are free to set their own curricula. They are also exempt from state regulations and often from teacher certification and collective bargaining agreements. Unlike nearly all public schools, they are usually free to be highly selective in admission of students, and are not required to include in their student bodies students with high needs. In return for this freedom, charter schools are held accountable for school performance. If the goals of the school, set forth in the charter, are not met, the school's charter is not to be renewed. School districts sometimes face costly court challenges to a decision to revoke a charter. About 2150 charter schools have been created in 32 states since Minnesota opened the first charter schools in 1991. Yet, there has been little effective monitoring of these schools to validate compliance with their charters.

Supporters of charter schools argue that they provide families with choice and that they serve as laboratories for reform. They assert that freedom from regulation facilitates the identification and elimination of ineffective practices. For-profit charter schools compete with the public school system, and in the supporters' view promote systemic reform. Because competition is useful in the market for consumer goods and services, proponents have argued that competition would benefit education and many other areas of public services.

Opponents question whether public services are analogous to consumer goods and services. These opponents note that the small size and exclusive nature of charter schools limit access and equity; charter schools have an unfair advantage when competing with district schools since they serve, on average, fewer students with disabilities and students who are English language learners. Charter schools balkanize communities when established along racial, ethnic, and religious lines, since they are not then accessible to all students. They abandon a large number of students in failing or low-performing schools who have no other alternative, undermining the fundamental principle of public education - universal access - and undermine public support for improving low-performing schools, depriving those schools of resources. ADA believes that charter schools represent one bad response to the urgent need to reform public education.

However, ADA may support those charter schools that are endorsed by and effectively monitored by the local school district and appropriate state education agencies. All public schools should have access to the resources required for the populations they serve.

Vouchers, tax deductions and tax credits enable public school students to attend private and parochial schools and thus represent an additional effort to privatize public education in the name of school reform. Vouchers are tuition subsidies for students in public schools to attend private or parochial schools. They deplete the tax base, shifting the tax burden onto those less able to pay. Vouchers, tax deductions as well as tax credits for private school tuition cannot even pose as aid to students from poor families as they subsidize families least in need, whose children already attend private school. All too often vouchers subsidize families that are not disadvantaged.

Vouchers and voucher plans were defeated in Michigan and California in 2000 bringing to zero out of ten (10) the number of school choice referenda proponents have won despite considerable funding.

Voucher and tax deduction advocates argue that minority students trapped in low performing schools should be allowed to find safe haven in private and parochial schools.

Yet, there is no evidence that demonstrates conclusively that voucher students in either private or parochial schools achieve at higher levels academically than their public schools peers. Supporters of vouchers hide behind the smoke screen of real concern for students in low performing schools when, in fact, they seek equal funding with the public schools for both private and parochial schools They do not seek good schools for poor children.

Opponents point out that funds for vouchers are taken from the inadequate resources provided to urban public schools, attracting highly motivated students, tending to leave the public schools with most students with disabilities and limited ability to speak English. Moreover, aid to parochial schools not only balkanizes communities, but it also violates the U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions.

Public school funding remains grossly inadequate in many cities and rural areas. Racial and ethnic minorities are especially harmed by inequitable state funding because too many school districts must rely excessively on property taxes to support public education. Districts vary widely in the value of their property on which the tax is based, and they vary in the many other calls on public resources that burden localities.

In the past 20 years, litigation in 44 states has challenged these inequities with some success, although the remedies put forth by state courts and legislatures have yet to create equity. Most urban districts are still unable to hire sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and principals, expand professional development for teachers, reduce class sizes enough to help disadvantaged students meet 21st century standards, fund essential school renovation and construction, and provide sufficient teaching resources, such as up-to-date books, supplies, libraries, educational technology, and laboratories.

Shabby facilities and books too often convey a message to poor and minority children that our society does not value them and does not care whether they get an education. Many students, particularly if they are poor, are denied adequate language instruction and appropriate special education services. The totality of substandard resources - from teachers to buildings and equipment - denies disadvantaged students the safe, orderly, stimulating learning environment that all our children deserve.

Annual high-stakes testing, the centerpiece of the Bush Administration's educational program, has emerged as a substitute for truly encouraging educational excellence. The tests purport to be a tool for bringing low performing schools up to higher standards.

Today, the call for "higher standards" recognizes that increasingly states are requiring that every graduate pass college preparatory examinations in English, mathematics, social studies and science. While ADA endorses the call for higher standards, we do not believe that testing is, in fact, the road to excellence. Tests are useful particularly for diagnostic and prescriptive purposes, for which multiple measures and testing instruments are required.

However, 'teaching to the test' has become the function of too many teachers in too many schools, thus taking time away from real education. In addition, we question use of a single measure of student, staff and school performance. We believe high standards must be accompanied by resources that are adequate to ensure that all students meet those standards. Tests too often limit the curriculum in ways that impede creative teaching and exclude subjects not assessed - including music and the arts, thus increasing dropout rates and depriving students of cultural enrichment opportunities. During the Clinton Administration, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (OCR) warned that high-stakes tests can be discriminatory in their effect and provided guidance to educational institutions on how to administer tests without discriminating.

ADA therefore urges action toward the following goals:

  1. Renewed commitment to providing equal access to quality education for all students, regardless of race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, poverty, or parental status;
  2. Adequate federal, state, and local funding that does not rely excessively on the property tax. All children deserve well qualified, well paid teachers and principals, sufficient and appropriate curriculum materials, including books, libraries, technology, and laboratories.
  3. Safe, orderly schools with effective rules and regulations consistent with creating and maintaining a positive school environment including sufficient space in accessible modern school buildings. Shabby facilities too often convey a message to poor and minority children that our society does not value them and does not care whether they learn;
  4. Adequate funds to reduce class size, especially for at-risk students, since research clearly validates the effectiveness of small classes for these students. Qualified teachers and sufficient resources are also needed to provide instruction to millions of students who are English language learners. Evening programs should be available to their parents as well.
  5. Full funding of universal pre-kindergarten programs with space provided in district-owned or leased buildings, city. Pre-kindergarten is necessary so all children enter elementary schools ready to learn;
  6. Recruitment of talented teachers to teach in inner city and rural schools by offering such incentives as significantly higher salaries, rent subsidies, loan forgiveness, tuition-free graduate courses, signing bonuses and reduced mortgage rates;
  7. Opposition to privatization ventures including vouchers, charter schools, education tax deductions and credits.
  8. Opposition to high stakes testing, which is no substitute for providing public schools with the resources and reforms necessary for all students to meet high academic standards.
  9. Support for multiple measures of educational success or failure including class room observations, project and portfolio based assessment, and attendance in addition to standardized tests. We urge the Bush Administration to continue OCR's policy to ensure that high stakes tests do not result in discrimination.
  10. School reform and restructuring should involve teachers, parents, and community representatives to create schools which are learning centers, knowledge based and responsive to student needs.
  11. Opposition to appointment of federal judges who are not committed to civil rights in education and the integrated communities that are the necessary underpinning of racially and ethnically integrated schools.

We remain resolute in pursuit of the goal of making all public schools good schools!

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No. 161

Social and Domestic Policy Commission