Ralph Martire, Center on Tax and Budget Accountability Credit: Courtesy of CTBA

The American Dream really boils down to one simple proposition—the circumstances of an individual’s birth should not limit his or her future.  Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, income level or social class, and irrespective of the family one is born into or the community in which he or she lives, every American should have both the right and opportunity to rise to the very top, limited solely by individual drive and ability. 

This ethos, which has shaped the American experience from the inception of our nation, explains why we’ve devoted so much time, attention and energy to public education over the last 40 years.  After all, an individual’s chances of gaining employment—especially high wage, good benefit employment—are more closely correlated with educational attainment now than ever before.  So it’s no surprise polling data consistently shows Americans believe every child should receive a good public education. 

Yet despite this broadly shared belief, America’s public education system fails to provide each child with a meaningful educational opportunity.  While there are many reasons for this failure, one core barrier stands out: the way our nation funds schools.  It is this very issue that motivated Congressmen Mike Honda of California and Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, to work with the Obama Administration and create the Equity and Excellence Commission under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education.  I had the distinct honor of serving on this Commission from its inception on February 2, 2011, through issuance of our final report “For Each and Every Child” two years later, on February 2, 2013.

The commission’s charter challenged us to take the education funding issue head on, and in meaningful new ways. For instance, while states currently have the primary obligation to fund schools, the commission was charged with delineating “how the federal government can increase educational opportunity by improving school funding equity.”  In addition to rethinking the federal role, the commission was tasked with making “recommendations for restructuring school finance systems to achieve equity in the distribution of educational resources and further student performance, especially for students at the lower end of the achievement gap.” 

This meant the commission had to identify: (1) what educational resources and other services are needed to provide a meaningful educational opportunity to all children, with a particular focus on children who have traditionally struggled to achieve academically, like those who live in poverty or are English language learners; and (2) how to pay for it.  This focus on ensuring adequate capacity to educate at-risk children was challenging, but also the absolute right thing to do.

That’s because public education in America is “broken” not because it fails to educate all children well, but because it is under-resourced to provide every child—regardless of race, ethnicity or income class—with a quality education.  Indeed, in most communities where resources are abundant and available, the public education delivered is competitive with the best performing systems in the world.

The Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, measures how students in different Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries stack up in reading, math, and science. When the 2009 scores were released last year, the overall U.S. tally of 500 was middling.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Poverty, unequal resources 

A study that divided U.S. schools into cohorts based on poverty found that non-poor U.S. children performed quite well. Indeed, American schools with less than 10 percent of students living in poverty scored 551 on the PISA, best in the world for nations with a similar poverty profile, with Finland coming in second at 536. American schools with poverty levels between 10 percent and 24.9 percent also placed first when measured against nations with similar poverty profiles. In fact, PISA scores of American schoolchildren did not start plummeting until poverty concentrations climbed to significant levels.  

This puts the real problem in stark relief: America isn’t broadly failing to educate all children, but it is failing poor and low-income children.  And a big reason for that is resources—or the lack thereof.  See, we know quite a bit about the educational practices and resources that have been proven to enhance student achievement over time.  We just don’t have a national finance system that can cover the cost of providing them in poor and low-income communities.  Too often, a state’s funding of public education is tied to what decision-makers believe that state’s fiscal system can afford, rather than the actual cost of educating each child.  This encourages an over-reliance on local property taxes to fund schools, which in turn results in significant, meaningful disparities in the resources available among wealthy, middle-income and poor communities. 

The net result: American children receive qualitatively different educations simply based on the state in which they were born, the district in which they are enrolled, and the school to which they are assigned.

To address this clear inequity, our commission issued numerous recommendations for how state governments should determine what it will take to provide each child with a meaningful education, including how to pay for it in a fair, sustainable way.  But we didn’t stop there.  We also recommended that the federal government take a substantially greater role in covering the cost of educating our nation’s at-risk students.  This is especially important given the widely varying fiscal capacities and demographics of the 50 states. 

It was incredibly difficult reaching consensus on these contentious issues.  Indeed, the very composition of the commission itself made it doubtful that any agreement on school funding equity could be reached.  Not only were a broad array of world-views represented, the commission included members who literally were on opposing sides in education funding lawsuits.  Yet despite all that, we voted unanimously to endorse the final recommendations contained in the report, and with good reason. 

See, it shouldn’t matter if a child is born in Mississippi, Connecticut, Illinois or California. That child is an American and our entire nation has the responsibility to ensure he or she receives a high-quality education.

Ralph Martire is the executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and served as a commissioner on the U. S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission.


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