Public education took an understandable backseat to the war in Iraq and the struggling economy in this year’s presidential campaign, as neither candidate gave the issue serious attention, though both articulated on paper visions for how to improve it.
Still, the man who takes the oath of office in January must return to this foundational issue.
Children, no matter where they live, no matter what race or ethnic group they belong to, deserve a fair shot at a solid education, a particularly vital commodity in an increasingly complex and interconnected world and global economy. To ensure that children get that shot, the President must use all of the tools at his disposal—lobbying muscle, the powerful federal government purse, and of course, his bully pulpit.
Republicans and Democrats took a step in the right direction when they clearly set the expectation, through the No Child Left Behind Act, that public schools must serve all children who enroll. However, in the three years since the law was passed, districts, even those that have made progress, have struggled to meet the mandates, in large part, because of insufficient funds. Even before the economic downturn, urban districts did not have the resources they needed to serve children who arrive at school lagging behind. Now, many of those districts are forced to lay off staff.
Ken Rolling, director of Mississippi-based Parents for Public Education and co-author of a chapter in the book “Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education,” says a top priority for the next President must be finding a solution for states’ chronic under-funding and inequitable funding of schools. “I’m not saying that money comes from the federal budget,” he notes.
Illinois is one of the worst examples: It ranks dead last compared to other states in funding equity, contributing a paltry 36 percent of education costs last year, according to an Illinois State Board of Education report.
No Child Left Behind needs some fine-tuning as well. Coalitions of educators and education policy advocates have suggested a variety of fixes, ranging from giving schools more credit for making progress to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement. As these proposals are debated, the next President must keep an eye on what’s best for children and separate the wheat from the political chaff.
While No Child Left Behind and funding are the major educational issues, there are other important ones that need leadership as well. No national politician has led the effort to fix crumbling urban schools in the six years since Sen. Carol Moseley Braun lost her seat. Other parts of the education establishment, colleges of education, for instance, could benefit from national standards. And the dismal high school graduation rates could be reversed with federal intervention. Chicago, with the second worst high school dropout problem in the nation according to a recent study, could certainly benefit.
Mr. President, public schools can and will continue to get by whether or not they have strong leadership at the very top. But this country and its economy need an outspoken public education President. Can we count on you?