Guest Column

A Presidential Agenda for the Schools

by Harold Kwalwasser

When I was at the receiving end of federal education policy, I often felt as if the money came at the price of complicating the already challenging task of running my school district, Los Angeles Unified, and, even worse, undermining our ability to function.

The new president needs to heed the call to “change” when it comes to public education — just as both contenders promised to do in so many other areas during their campaigns. However, the federal government should resist any further attempts to be a super school board in favor of crafting a policy to revitalize local schools by revitalizing local school governance.

Having Washington dole out money for this or that specific program is how business has been done for years. Whatever the merits of putting money in little categorical boxes, it does not help a local school run efficiently. Dictating from a distance has more problems than benefits. It is a continuation of the draining away of authority from school districts that makes them less functional and less capable of adapting to realities on the ground.

But if federal education policy is not all about the strings on federal aid, then what should that aid look like in a new world designed to reinvigorate our public schools?

A Rebalancing Act
There are four ways in which the federal government can provide extraordinary help. All four reinvigorate local districts rather than contribute to further dysfunction. Yes, money is involved, but more importantly, the concept behind the money is a rebalancing of the federal-state-local district relationship.

First, when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1970s, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the cost. It never has come close. It should. IDEA costs Los Angeles Unified approximately $1 billion annually.

Underfunding special education is especially costly to local districts. Under IDEA, Congress mandated that if the districts cannot provide proper special education internally, parents can force districts to pay for such education elsewhere. As the school district’s general counsel, I watched as literally millions of dollars the district needed for its own operations were compelled to be given to private schools to do what an arbitrator decided the district could not do. In light of those rules, underfunding is simply inexcusable.

Second, shifting funding from local property taxes to state and federal budgets was a great idea to eliminate the disparity created by the often vast differences in school districts’ tax bases. However, it came at a price.

Current school district budgets dependent on state funding are held hostage by the wide swings in state income. One year it is up, and the next it is down. In Los Angeles, senior leaders were preoccupied every spring with deciding where to inflict pain: increase class size, cut music and art programs, reduce the campus police force and/or stint on building maintenance. Even if the legislature ultimately generated the funds at the last minute, the damage was done. We had committed thousands of hours preoccupied with cutbacks and adjustments rather than focusing on school management and improvement.

States cannot run deficits, so when tax revenue is down, spending is down. The federal government is not so limited. It can deficit spend, a key difference. The federal government should promise states that if during economic downturns state support for public education does not get cut by more than the percentage decrease in state revenue (without tax cuts), the feds will make up the difference for all schools receiving significant assistance under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to assist those schools with large concentrations of low-income kids.

Third, Title I funding should be made conditional on states supporting equally all of their school districts. To this day, that is a promise many states find hard to fulfill. Excluding the small percentage of districts in many states that are so wealthy they do not rely in any significant way on state funding, the federal government should require that if a state is going to receive Title I money, it must guarantee all districts receive enough state support to equalize their budgets on a per-student basis.

Credit Challenge
One final way the federal government might make a better use of its education dollars is to support class-size reduction. Widespread agreement exists that reducing class size often is one of the best ways to improve learning. The improvement is particularly significant in inner-city schools where lack of funds means big classes.

The problem with class-size reduction is that it requires not just more teachers but also more classrooms, a challenge for an overcrowded district like Los Angeles.

The difficulty is that many school districts still rely on local bond issues to build those classrooms, and the local districts often most in need are those least able to support the bonds — particularly in the midst of a nationwide credit crisis. If a district with a significant percentage of poor children is prepared to pay for the teachers required for class-size reduction, the federal government should help build or renovate the schools needed to make that happen.

None of this money should be a blank check. However, think of this support as a way to rebuild vibrant school districts that have a chance to deliver quality education. Rather than the dollars becoming a tool to micromanage districts, this aid can be a way for the federal government to help the districts better manage themselves.

Harold Kwalwasser, former general counsel in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is a private attorney in Washington, D.C. E-mail: hkwalwasser@aol.com. Copyright 2008 by Harold Kwalwasser