While some of the gridlock among policymakers today can be chalked up to principled differences in political philosophy, some political stalemates are the result of policies that defy common sense. This most often happens when politicians ignore basic realities in order to further their own ideologies. This behavior is frustrating in any instance but is particularly galling when the needs of kids are involved.
The latest example of this phenomenon is a bill deceptively named the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act. A product of the Republican stronghold on the House Education Committee, the bill is less about "flexibility" than it is a conscious attempt to dismantle many of the rules within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that direct federal funding to groups of disadvantaged students. ESEA was reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind in 2002.
Originally enacted in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, ESEA is the landmark education law championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the War on Poverty to "bridge the gap between helplessness and hope" for millions of educationally deprived children. The law was designed not only to address the needs of individual poor children but also to address the impact of concentrated poverty on children's opportunity to learn.
In every update, or reauthorization, of ESEA since its adoption, Congress not only has maintained its key provisions but has also undertaken bipartisan efforts to add measures to ensure that low-income children (many of whom are children of color) received the support they needed to achieve in school. For example, over the years Congress has added specific funding for disabled children, bilingual education programs, Native American children and others.
But the so-called Funding Flexibility Act could change all this.
If passed into law, the bill would mark the first time that a major amendment to ESEA took steps backward instead of forward. Under the guise of "flexibility," the bill would eviscerate ESEA's anti-poverty mandate by allowing states and school districts to siphon off billions of dollars in federal education aid intended to be used for poor children.
House Education Committee Chairman John Kline has hinted, for example, that some district officials would rather use funds intended for English-language learners to instead "upgrade computers." The great anti-poverty and civil rights legislation would become one huge block grant subject to the political whims of state and local leaders.
By threatening the funding and programs for disadvantaged students, the bill not only jeopardizes Congress' bipartisan legacy of leadership in education policy but also ignores at least two basic realities.
First, decades of research (pdf) demonstrate that children living in poverty face obstacles to learning that must be addressed in order to level the playing field (pdf). And second, what states and school districts need most in times of fiscal crisis and faltering academic achievement is not "flexibility" in how to use limited money but greater investments and support overall.
This bill will not help school districts or students. Worse yet, the bill ignores the high rate of return on investments made in providing a quality education to poor students. Despite these realities, the bill received unanimous support from House Republicans while receiving universal condemnation from the civil rights community. Once again, political ideology reigned over common sense.
Unfortunately, today's congressional leaders are not the only policymakers prioritizing politics over the needs of students. In New Jersey, where the state Supreme Court has long affirmed the need for students in poor districts to receive additional funds (pdf), Gov. Chris Christie recently slashed funding for such districts, resulting in an arduous court battle.
Meanwhile, advocates in Pennsylvania saw their efforts to cement a new funding plan, intended to bring more money to poor schools, decimated when Gov. Tom Corbett cut the state's education budget. Another legal showdown emerged in North Carolina, where the Republican-led General Assembly attempted to limit funding for low-income students to attend state-sponsored preschool.
These examples represent a troubling tendency of some policymakers to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students when political expediency permits. Tough economic times have allowed them to hide behind the guise of shared sacrifice. But while budget cuts can negatively affect all students, they are particularly harmful to students already trailing behind wealthier kids.
Cutting free state-sponsored pre-K has a very different effect in a community with few preschool options versus a suburban area where parents compete for private school placements. Policymakers may argue that all students must bear the weight of the recession, but they cannot deny that these decisions may widen the achievement gap between low-income (often black and Latino) and wealthier kids.
Protecting the funds and services that we know help low-income and minority kids learn has to be a priority, even in difficult economic times. Instead of viewing these resources as "extras," we should consider them indispensable tools in overcoming the achievement gap.
Legislators, in Washington, D.C., and across the nation, should work hard to preserve these resources instead of hiding behind politically driven claims that there may be better uses for such funds, that increased money will not to lead increased academic achievement or that all districts must bear the weight of budget cuts equally.
Low-income and minority students have made significant strides in educational achievement in the years since Congress passed ESEA. Many states and districts have followed suit in creating specific programs and allocating funds to help disadvantaged kids learn. Although we have much to learn about the most effective uses, rolling back support for students who need it the most is certainly not the way forward.
Saba Bireda is a Harvard Law School graduate and deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. Eric Rafael Gonzalez is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the education policy advocate for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.