ESEA at 50: In the Mood to Take Risks

The fiftieth anniversary of the ESEA is coming up in April of 2015, and we’ll be hearing a lot about it – you know, “looking forward, looking back.”  Make no mistake, I adore history and historians of the federal role.   I like to kvetch about NCLB’s problems as much as the next College of Education faculty member.  But my intellectual commitments are increasingly to policy analysis aimed at the future tense, and I am looking for new collaborators to get me to think in creative ways about that.  

My colleague Professor Eric Houck, a school finance scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I wrote a paper for the Russell Sage Foundation’s gathering on ESEA at 50 in New York last week.   We are very interested in how Congress could build some incentives for states to re-vamp their state finance systems to make them more equitable into the ESEA. We argue that federal policy has swung toward adequacy since NCLB, and suggest that when we meld the concepts of adequacy from school finance and opportunity-to-learn from education policy together, there is a justification for incentivizing equity.  We propose a competitive grant program within ESEA to make awards to states willing to revamp their state finance systems, either through better weighting of formulae to support students with the greatest needs, or by asking states to increase their share of spending, thereby blunting somewhat the effects of the local property-tax base system.  Although the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2013 Report to the Secretary of Education called for a stronger federal role in that dimension, it never explained how it could be accomplished in policy.   

The Charter School Paradox in New Orleans: Too Big To Fail

Notwithstanding the great public relations machine that the charter school movement uses, scholars continue to debate the role of charter schools in the United States. Research suggests that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, do not typically outperform traditional public schools in terms of academics and have a slew of issues in terms of financial accountability. Why, then, are charter schools achieving such popularity within minority populations? It’s mind-boggling! Let us be clear about one thing: the charter school experiment in New Orleans must work! The charter school movement must not only work in the superficial assessments created by and advanced by the state of Louisiana, through the state’s Department of Education and Recovery School District. The charter school movement in New Orleans must succeed on all levels. The state of Louisiana continues to report gains in student achievement on state assessments while the state continues to falter in national assessments. This is reason enough to be a skeptic of the charter school movement’s stated role in the advancement of student achievement in New Orleans’ public schools, but tales of charter school success in Louisiana, and chiefly in predominately Black and poor New Orleans, are suspicious for a variety of other reasons. The School Performance Scores for Louisiana’s public schools are comprised mainly of scores on state assessments. The scores do not contemplate or give enough attention to other important areas of student achievement, such as graduation rates, dropout rates, attendance rates, suspension rates, expulsion rates, enrollment in special education and gifted programs, matriculation and completion of college, or any of many other academic indicators that are potentially more compelling and important assessments of student achievement and equity for Black students. We know these areas are critical to the assessment of student achievement for Black students.

Public Policies and Contemporary Segregation

Prior to a grand jury failing to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, Richard Rothstein released an important report examining the broader structural contexts that make Ferguson, like many inner-ring suburbs, likely to provide limited opportunities for its young people. His work connects nicely with more contemporary work I’ve done examining the opportunity of students of color in suburban schools and districts that are rapidly changing—which in many instances are expanding the geographic scale of central city segregation. Rothstein stresses—and my own reading and research on this topic concur—that this is not unique to Ferguson or St. Louis, but is systematic and similar across metro areas in the country.