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April 26, 2013
By Ralph Martire

Two years ago, Congressmen Honda (D-CA) and Fattah (D-PA) passed a resolution to create a national commission to recommend ways to transform the American education system into one that provides a meaningful educational opportunity to every child. Dubbed the "Equity and Excellence" Commission, it was housed in the civil rights division of the federal Department of Education. As the name implies, the Commission was tasked by Honda and Fattah to focus its efforts on ensuring not just that education resources be distributed equitably, but also that every school have the capacity to provide an excellent education. I had the honor of serving on this Commission, which issued its final report "For Each and Every Child" in February of this year.

One lesson learned from my experience serving on the Equity and Excellence Commission is clear: Fixing what ails public education in America has historically been incredibly difficult, not so much because we don't know what to do, but because we've never been willing to pay for it. This is why those of us who served on the Equity and Excellence Commission devoted so many of our core recommendations to building sufficient and equitable education funding systems at the state and federal levels.

Let's hope things finally change. I say "finally", because it's not as if America hasn't previously been warned about the negative consequences that flow from our inequitable approach to education funding.

Consider that, back in 1972, President Nixon formed a Commission on School Finance which found America could reverse many unsatisfactory educational outcomes by simply investing what was needed to educate poor and minority kids. The Nixon Commission placed the blame for America's failure to make this investment squarely on our education finance system, which that Commission found was both inequitable---because it over-relied on property taxes thereby effectively tying education quality to local wealth---and insufficient---because it based funding on state fiscal constraints rather than the actual cost of educating children.

Not surprisingly, an under-resourced, inequitable education system produces less than desirable student outcomes. That simple, data-based reality led the Nixon Commission to recommend that the states and federal government reform fiscal policy to enhance their capacity to fund public education, and then reallocate those enhanced resources on a more equitable basis.

In the decades since, it seems that American education reform has focused on everything but what Nixon recommended. Instead of building fiscal capacity to the point where public education has the resources to ensure every child receives a quality education, reforms have focused on setting higher standards for student achievement, enhancing accountability metrics and creating competition through school choice. Despite these initiatives, funding disparities have worsened, significant achievement gaps persist and inequality in educational opportunity remains systemic and persistent. As it turns out, mandated performance standards not accompanied by the resources needed to achieve them, punitive accountability metrics applied to an under-resourced system, and promoting competition through school choice, fail to enhance student achievement.

Which wouldn't surprise anyone who bothered to pay attention to reforms implemented in other industrialized nations---like Finland---that actually work. Finland is currently recognized as having one of the best public education systems in the world, and for good reason. Over the last decade, Finnish children have consistently outperformed students from other nations on tests covering math, science and reading. But that wasn't always the case. Finland used to lag other OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in student achievement.

Last week, Pasi Sahlberg, Finland's head of education, came to Chicago and explained how his nation effectively turned around its education system to be high performing. First and foremost, Finland focused on equity, by building the public education system's capacity to ensure every child in that nation attended a great school. Sahlberg noted that "enhanced equity" correlated with improved educational quality and student outcomes across the globe. Second, Finland focused on enhancing the skills and overall quality of its teaching force---not through punitive accountability metrics, but through implementation of collaborative teaching, and enhancing the compensation and prestige of the teaching profession. Finally, Sahlberg specifically shot down school choice and competition as a pathway to enhanced student achievement, because that model relies on having "winners" and "losers." A public education system should not tolerate schools that are losers.

In fact, everything America has tried to-date is part of what Sahlberg calls the "Global Education Reform Movement" or "GERM." He noted the evidence demonstrates that nations---like the U.S.---which have caught the GERM, that is, have focused education reform on creating school choice while implementing high-stakes, standardized testing and punitive accountability, have failed to enhance student achievement. On the other hand, nations that built capacity through enhanced investments equitably distributed have succeeded. Just like the Nixon Commission told us in 1972.

Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and Commissioner, U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission. rmartire@ctbaonline.org

Related Stories:

Equity Commission Calls for Bold Action on School Funding and Preschool
Equity Leader David Sciarra Named to National Equity Commission
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
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