Executive Perspective

Toward a Meaningful Federal Contribution

by Daniel A. Domenech

If we truly believe that in a democracy like ours education is a civil right, then we are at the right place at the right time.

Next month a presidential election will determine the leadership of our country for the next four years. The new administration will have an action plan and will attempt to influence the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. No Child Left Behind will give way to a new name with a new emphasis and, hopefully, new ideas. AASA will be there representing you, and you will need to add your voice to those of colleagues from around the country as we speak up collectively with one message.

Back in 1965, when ESEA was first passed, it consisted of four titles containing three grant programs. Today, ESEA has grown to 11 titles containing 93 grant programs. We have a disjointed collection of unrelated programs and services begging for consolidation and focus. Here is our opportunity. Here is our chance to affect public policy in a way that might truly lead to a transformation of our public education systems.

Scattershot Funds
Certain elements of No Child Left Behind will undoubtedly remain. The heightened level of accountability that is now part of our school system culture will not disappear. The disaggregation of data that allows the monitoring of the performance of student subgroups also should remain. The noble goal to leave no child behind should endure as well, but the rules and regulations enacted to realize the goal should be replaced by a strategy that can succeed.

Let’s face it: In the scheme of things, the federal contribution to K-12 spending is a mere 8 percent, and that’s not nearly enough. For a minority stakeholder, the feds wield an enormous amount of power over what happens in our public schools. To make matters worse, that 8 percent is scattered over a multitude of titles and programs, minimizing the impact of the relatively negligible sum of federal dollars spent on public education. AASA’s solution is to maximize the impact of ESEA by focusing all available federal dollars and services on the total child.

The role of the federal government in education is to ensure all children have equal access to education opportunities. No Child Left Behind placed a spotlight on the achievement gaps that exist among pupil subgroups. Undoubtedly, the most prevalent and persistent gaps exist as a result of poverty. Along the lines of the self-fulfilling prophecy, children of poverty tend to live in low-income neighborhoods and attend low-income schools where student achievement generally lags behind the performance of students from middle-income and higher-income homes. By focusing federal dollars where they are needed most, on schools serving children of poverty, we significantly increase the chances that those dollars will actually help to close the achievement gap.

Educators also know that the effects of poverty cannot be totally erased by what we do in school. Teachers can affect the mind and body, but what happens outside of school is also an important part of the equation. Factors such as prenatal care, the health services available to a child after birth, the quality of child care, the availability of preschool programs and full-day kindergarten all play a role in affecting a child’s ability to learn and are critical components in the elimination of an achievement gap that exists long before a child ever sets a foot in the classroom.

AASA advocates for the focus of federal dollars on low-income schools and the coordination of health, child care, preschool and educational programs so as to deal with the total child. The delivery of disparate, segmented programs lacking focus and coordination dilutes the effectiveness of what is, to begin with, an inadequate amount of funding.

Avoiding Prescriptions
ESEA’s funding formula should focus on a continuum of support based on a continuum of need. Beyond the impact of poverty, we also know that children with special needs and English language learners require extraordinary resources, as do special conditions such as rural isolation and federal installations.

The federal government should refrain from attempts to prescribe how children should be taught. Their efforts would be better served by compiling the research and the best practices that educators then could use to service the needs of the specific populations they serve. Accountability should not be based on arbitrary levels of performance but rather on statistically significant measures of growth. Assessments should focus more on formative measures and less on end-of-year results that come too late to affect instruction.

To ensure the results of the research and the identified best practices are faithfully implemented, professional development dollars need to be allocated for both teachers and system leaders, including superintendents.

Such changes in current law would go a long way toward positively affecting the achievement levels of our neediest students and ensuring we fulfill our democratic mandate to provide all of our students with equal access to educational opportunities. Now is the time for us to push forward with our reform agenda.

AASA would be greatly empowered if we could speak on behalf of all superintendents and school system leaders. You can add your voice to ours by becoming a member. You can contact your local representatives and urge them to reauthorize ESEA by increasing the level of funding and focusing funding on poverty, the most significant factor affecting student achievement. Furthermore, coordinate the delivery of health and community services with public education to maximize the impact that federal dollars will have so that all children will learn.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org