IDRA Calls for Greater Federal Role in Education to Increase Excellence and Equity
by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.
Editor’s note: Over these past months, Texas debated budget bills that will dramatically impact low-income and minority students, who are now the majority of students in the region. While Texas ranks 42 nationally in the number of high school graduates going to college, the state legislature cut billions of dollars from public education (see story entitled: “Texas: Turning its Back on the Future – An Assessment of Major Education Policy Reforms Considered by the 82nd Texas Legislature”). Policymakers here – as in many other states – also are cutting financial aid for low-income college students and full-day prekindergarten programs. States must not shirk their responsibility to educate all children. IDRA has issued a call for the federal government to take an increased role in securing equity and excellence in education. Following is the text of the testimony presented by IDRA to the U.S. Department of Education, Equity and Excellence Commission in June.
IDRA is a national independent, non-profit research and training organization whose mission is to strengthen schools to work for all children. With this commitment, the twin goals of educational equity and excellence have been both founding and defining concerns of our organization. (See IDRA’s Principles for Fair Funding for the Common Good online.)
IDRA’s deep concern for our children’s future is shared by many. Just a few weeks ago, IDRA joined the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in meeting with community and school leaders in South Texas to explore the possibility of new litigation on behalf of the children of the region. The concern arises from a clear pattern: Schools that have the highest dropout rates (Johnson, 2010) and that are most challenged to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers and to provide a rigorous curriculum for all students are also the schools that have been historically neglected in terms of resources.
It is fitting that the commission should convene here in Texas, home to the Rodríguez and Edgewood court cases that were at the forefront of legal struggles nationally to achieve school finance equity. And it is pressing that we gather now, as Texas lawmakers opt to leave monies untouched in a Rainy Day fund while cutting $4 billion from an educational system that is already inequitable.
When families can’t count on their neighborhood public school to be funded equitably, something has gone deeply wrong in America. Educational opportunity is, after all, woven into the very fabric of our nation’s promise to children.
In delivering the unanimous opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education, Judge Justice Earl Warren called education one of our government’s most important functions. He went on to say that it is “doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education” and that “such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” (emphasis added).
The Brown decision asserted that in America – where any girl or boy could grow up to be an astronaut, an artist, a business owner, a Supreme Court Justice or the nation’s president – every family could expect a quality education for their child.
Despite equity gains that were achieved through litigation in state courts, it is abundantly clear that we are not making good on that basic promise.
Because systemic inequity is concentrated in our poorest communities, this is especially punishing in the southern states where over half of students are low-income and the majority are students of color (Southern Education Foundation, 2007).
As Rutgers University researchers point out in the school funding fairness report card, funding levels should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty – not the reverse. But Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee all rank in the bottom 10 states for funding levels (Baker, et al., 2010). (Texas ranks 42 on the “funding level” measure.)
Today in Texas, there is a $1,450 gap in per pupil funding between the 100 poorest school districts in the state and the 100 wealthiest districts. This means that in a class of 25 students, poorer schools have $36,000 less to spend on teaching staff, curriculum, books, technology tools and supplies (IDRA, 2011). (See IDRA’s infographic: Texas School Funding Equity Gap online)
How does this directly impact children and their lived experience in the classroom?
Recent research by Dr. Ed Fuller on the distribution of highly qualified teachers in Texas found that, “at all school levels…students in high-poverty and predominantly minority schools have far less access to teacher quality than students in low-poverty and predominantly White schools” (2010).
IDRA’s latest attrition research shows that, although attrition rates in Texas dipped below 30 percent for the first time in 25 years, the gaps between the attrition rates of White students and Hispanic students and Black students are dramatically higher than 25 years ago. Also, the five Texas regions with the highest attrition rates are among the poorest regions in the state. (Johnson, 2010 & 2011)
A deeply concerning part of this story is that Texas had been on a path to improving equity. After years of struggle, the state had reduced funding disparities in school revenues from thousands of dollars per student to less than $700. But in 2005, the state Supreme Court in West Orange-Cove vs. Neeley modified its stance in the Edgewood I case by ruling that, once the state met and ensured access to an “adequate” (minimal, not excellent) education, some degree of unequalized local supplementation or “unequalized enrichment” was permissible. In response, the Texas legislature wasted no time in modifying the school funding system and rendering the state equalization formulae all but irrelevant. (For a full description, see IDRA’s policy update, The Status of School Finance Equity in Texas, Cortez, 2009.)
That is where we are today.
History has taught us that Texas, like many states in this region and around this country, often does not make the hard choices required to bring justice to the most vulnerable of its citizens. It took federal intervention via U.S. Civil Action 5281 to move the state to desegregate its public schools, decades after the Brown vs. Topeka case made integrated schooling the law of the land. It took federal court action for Texas to mandate that its schools provide bilingual and ESL programs to its English learners years after the Lau vs. Nichols case in 1974. And it took federal intervention to require Texas to provide access to public education to children of undocumented workers as mandated in Doe vs. Plyler in 1981. This state and this region have a long and tarnished history of failing to provide equal educational opportunities for all children. It is imperative that new federal policies be adopted to protect the right to equal educational opportunities for all of our students in every state.
To take up this call, we offer the following recommendations.
Recommendation 1: The federal government must assume an increased role in supporting educational funding for equity and excellence across states.
In all states, all schools should be included under a state equalized funding system.
Local property wealth plays a critical role in determining funding for public schools in most states. Federal funding for school districts should provide state incentives to increase equity recognizing the vastly different levels of property wealth that affect local funding capacities.
Equity does not mean equal federal funding for all districts. Federal funding must incorporate mechanisms to recognize that school districts may require different levels of funding – so long as they are based on real operating cost variations.
Federal funding mechanisms should be adjusted to recognize that costs to serve special needs students are higher than other students – with special needs categories including English learners, low-income, gifted and talented, migrant and special education students.
Federal allocations must continue to require states to supplement and not supplant state funding.
Recommendation 2: The federal government must fund community engagement and amplify community and family leadership in education.
From 1968, when students in the Edgewood school district walked out to protest poor conditions in their schools, youth, families and community members have played critical roles in pressing for school finance equity. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving away from funding community-based problem-solving and promoting a shared sense of responsibility for education.
The federal government needs to ensure that all families, including low-income and minority families, are full partners in education. In federal congressional testimony, IDRA noted that “community oversight is a critical missing ingredient in effective and accountable dropout prevention efforts at the local level” and recommended federal funding for the creating of local accountability teams (Robledo Montecel, 2007). As we described, local accountability teams would review data and form action plans to strengthen the four school features that are essential to student success: parent and community engagement, student engagement, curriculum quality and access, and teaching quality (see IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework™). The work of the federally-funded parent information and resource centers in some states, including Texas, provide insight into this approach.
In the Texas colonias, the IDRA Texas Parent Information and Resource Center (PIRC) has worked with Latina leaders at a non-profit called ARISE to form the nation’s first PTA Comunitario, a grassroots PTA chapter that provides colonia leaders with school data and resources to support reform.
Also, in South Texas, we are collaborating with a cross-sector network of organizations funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation that have committed to a region-wide agenda to improve the quality of public education.
The federal government can foster more efforts of this kind, recognizing that education is at its best when it is infused with the voice and strength of the community.
Recommendation 3: Education must be secured as a fundamental right guaranteed via adoption of a new constitutional amendment.
This was the principal recommendation of civil rights attorneys who formed part of our Fulfilling the Promise of Mendez and Brown initiative and a core recommendation of the Southern Education Foundation (see No Time to Lose: Why America Needs an Education Amendment to the US Constitution to Improve Public Education, Southern Education Foundation, 2009).
Though the founding fathers may not have chosen to provide for access to education as a fundamental right in the early 1700s, the significance of access to education in today’s economic, social and democratic life cannot be denied.
Four decades ago, IDRA’s founder, Dr. José Angel Cárdenas gave voice to a vision and a dream of “an educational system where success and rewards are dependent on the student’s capability and effort and are not constrained by [environmental] circumstances – an educational system in which all students can and will learn.”
We stand ready to work with the commission now as you take up this charge to secure equity and excellence in education. Together, this commission, our communities and educators can work to fulfill America’s promise of equity and excellence. Our children deserve it, our democracy demands it, and the future of our country depends on it.
Baker, B.D., & D.G. Sciarra, D. Farrie. Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (Newark, N.J.: Education Law Center, September 2010).
Cortez, A. The Status of School Finance Equity in Texas – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).
Fuller, E. Study on the Distribution of Teacher Quality in Texas Schools (Austin, Texas: Association of Texas Professional Educators, Fall 2010).
IDRA. Texas School Funding Equity Gap, Infographic (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2011).
Johnson, R.L. More than 3 Million Students Have Been Lost from Texas High Schools Since 1986 – Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2009-10 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2010).
Johnson, R.L. High School Attrition Rates Across Texas Education Service Center Regions: 2009-10 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2011).
Robledo Montecel, M. “Graduation for All Students – Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Strategies and the Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act,” testimony Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 23, 2007).
Southern Education Foundation. A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South’s Public Schools (Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Education Foundation, 2007).
Southern Education Foundation. No Time to Lose: Why America Needs an Education Amendment to the US Constitution to Improve Public Education (Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Education Foundation, 2009).
María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA president and CEO. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at
[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2011 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]