Education Secretary Cardona has big plans for equity. Are states and districts listening? | Education News

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When Education Secretary Miguel Cardona outlined the Biden administration’s education priorities in a major speech last month, he didn’t mince words when he told state leaders and districts that they needed to do more to put equity first.

“We need our states and districts to look carefully at their own ways of funding schools, and for those leaders to make the tough decisions to fix the broken systems that perpetuate inequities in our schools across the country,” he said. declared.

“Now is our time to finally make education the great equalizer,” he continued, “the force that can help every student thrive, regardless of background, zip code, circumstance. or the language he speaks at home”.

Tackling inequities in the K-12 system, Cardona added, will be the “toughest and most important job” of the education community — work against which they will be judged.

Of course, all jurisdictions talk about a big game when it comes to educational equity. But for President Joe Biden, who took the White House amid a pandemic that has exacerbated longstanding achievement gaps and locked low-income students, students of color and people with disabilities out of classrooms longer than their wealthier, whiter peers — and for Cardona in particular, who rose to the nation’s highest teaching post after growing up in public housing and navigating public school as a learner from the English language – the emphasis is on urgency and intimate understanding of implications.

That’s why it looked so bad when just days after the secretary’s speech asking state and district leaders to “step up,” school board members in Darien, Connecticut — the state of Cardona descent — voted against a program designed to address the racial and economic disparities that exist. between neighboring towns and suburbs by allowing kindergartens in neighboring Norwalk to attend their schools.

Under the plan, 16 Norwalk children would have the opportunity to enroll in schools in Darien, where the median family income is $230,000, about three times that of Norwalk, where 30% of students are Hispanic. and half of the students are still learning English.

The program was backed by the superintendent and head of the school board, but opponents have raised concerns about class sizes and challenges from the ongoing pandemic.

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“Now just wasn’t the time,” said Jill McCammon, vice president of the Darien School Board.

While Darien is just one of more than 13,000 school districts across the country that follow Cardona’s marching orders with varying levels of sincerity, the example begs the question, if a district in the state of origin of the secretary will not make room for 16 children, so who will?

“It’s a big question,” says Allison Socol, deputy director of P-12 policy at The Education Trust. “I have to believe this hasn’t completely fallen on deaf ears.”

Certainly, there are many examples of states and districts accommodating the great demand for Cardona.

Several states are increasing funding for their K-12 systems, including California, where lawmakers have included $3 billion to turn schools in their poorest neighborhoods into community schools — schools that provide comprehensive services like centers physical, dental and mental health, food and clothing banks. . They also help parents find stable housing and jobs.

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker’s budget proposal includes nearly $500 million in new K-12 spending that prioritizes low-income students, English learners and people with disabilities. And in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer this week proposed an 8% increase in K-12 funding in the state’s 2023 budget.

Tennessee is making a major push to hire more teachers of color by passing a statewide policy that requires school districts to submit diversity goals and annual progress reports to its Department of Education to bridge the gaps between its faculty, which is 80% white, and its student body, 40% of which are students of color.

Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington State have adopted statewide policies that give students the right to advanced courses if they demonstrate they are ready. which has already led to more low-income students and students of color gaining access to AP classes than ever before. And a handful of states, including Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico and Tennessee, are using a significant portion of their federal coronavirus aid from the American Rescue Plan to support tutoring programs for the most vulnerable students. affected by the pandemic.

“While all of these things are true and there are positives and there are leaders who are doing very good things, we need a lot more,” Socol says. “They are all great and will make a difference for the children in these places, but it’s not enough.”

“We need to see more states move in this direction to provide equitable funding and resources,” she says. “And we really need people to focus on those things and not the opinions of a loud, very vocal minority who have very important opinions in the news right now.”

Of course, Socol speaks of the growing efforts by states and Republican-controlled school boards to eliminate from their curricula subjects deemed “diversifying,” including issues of race and racism in US history – efforts which are the result of the reaction of the conservatives against the critics. race theory and are directly at odds with Cardona’s efforts to inject more equity into the nation’s public school system.

There are also less obvious but perhaps more impactful examples, such as in Darien.

In Maryland, for example, lawmakers passed a plan two years ago to increase funding for the state’s K-12 system in a way that prioritizes districts serving large concentrations of college students. low income. But Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest budget proposal fails to fund the part of the formula that prioritizes those districts — meaning, for example, the city of Baltimore stands to lose $99 million.

“We’ve always had deeply inequitable funding structures in this country, largely because so much of education funding has always been tied to real estate wealth,” says Jessica Gartner, Founder and CEO of Allovue. , a technology company that helps school districts track spending and focuses on equity.

“Over the past 20 to 30 years, some states have made real progress in solving this problem and correcting it in state funding formulas, and we have made progress in solving this problem at the federal level,” she says. . “But those two attempts were a drop in the bucket when it came to the extent of inequality in K-12.”

This is especially true when it comes to state policies, which generally attempt to equalize funding but rarely go out of their way to make funding systems truly equitable. To achieve this, Gartner says it hopes Cardona turns its request inward.

“The key point here is that there’s actually relatively little an individual district can do in terms of large-scale structural changes,” she says. “Districts in communities and political climates that care about this work will do it no matter what, and districts that are in political climates that actively oppose this work will not do it no matter what. come.”

For this reason, Gartner and other equity advocates say there are very few ways to incentivize states and districts to make meaningful equity changes themselves, and that to achieve those changes, the federal government will either have to increase funding for programs that target the most vulnerable students, or adopt a stick-and-stick approach in which states are penalized for not adopting more equitable funding formulas.

“The reality is,” says Gartner, “states that are against this work won’t be spurred on by a carrot to get more money for something they don’t care about or believe in.”

The Biden administration is experimenting with this concept in real time, with the requirement for states to disburse federal assistance to K-12 schools included in the U.S. bailout through Title I, which prioritizes districts that serve large concentrations or poor students. The White House is also seeking historic funding increases for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal program better known as IDEA for Students with Disabilities, in its budget, which officials are in negotiating in Congress.

“If we expand Title I funding and IDEA funding at the federal level,” says Gartner, “if we put in place regulations and guidelines to fund them so that states fund these populations with more targeted grants and commensurate with actual costs, then we could actually start making structural changes.

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