Before a Senate panel on equal access to high quality educational resources, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) unveiled his new Student Bill of Rights, which would make states accountable for providing an equal educational opportunity for all students.
Rep. Fattah rolled out his bill last week at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing led by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Mike Enzi (R-WY). The hearing discussed the federal government’s role in ensuring equal access to a high quality education across states and local school districts and the manner in which states finance education.
Rep. Fattah’s bill would require states to certify with the Secretary of Education that their public school system operates on an equal statewide basis, offering all students access to educational inputs necessary to achieve high academic outcomes.
After working closely with Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who also testified at the hearing, Rep. Fattah’s new legislation focuses on providing adequate educational resources to all children, regardless of income level or place of residency. Toward this end, the bill would require every public school system to provide seven essential elements for learning: 1) instruction from a high quality teacher; 2) rigorous academic standards; 3) small class size; 4) up-to-date instructional materials; 5) state-of-the-art libraries; 6) updated computers; and 7) qualified guidance counselors.
In defending the need for his legislation, Rep. Fattah remarked:
“To deny children such opportunities or access is, in essence, a denial of their basic right to become prosperous and competent adults, not to mention highly intellectual individuals. For it is education that provides us with the values and skills necessary for living productive lives. If no child is to be left behind, then all children must be given an equal opportunity to compete.”
While continuing to search for consensus on the level of federal involvement, the hearing brought to light the widespread discrepancies in education funding and education resources across school districts. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN) joined Dodd and Enzi and spoke about the specific challenges that their states face in providing an equal education to every child.
Citing a need to fundamentally change the way the United States deals with a child’s education, Sen. Dodd explained the challenge the nation must overcome:
“Whether an American child is taught by a high quality teacher in a small class, has access to the best courses and instructional materials, goes to school in a new, modern building, and otherwise benefits from educational resources that have been shown to be essential to a quality education, still depends on where the child’s family can afford to live. A child’s education should be determined by the size of their dreams, not the numbers of their zip code.”
Appearing at the invitation of Sen. Enzi, Judy Catchpole, Wyoming Superintendent of Instruction, described Wyoming’s school financing system, which provides the same money for each student and then adjusts the amount depending on unique local demographics. She argued that while such a system may yield different funding levels ($7,009 in Cheyenne versus $14,715 in Arvada/Clearmont), both school districts have good schools and the system is in accordance with the Wyoming Constitution’s requirement of a “complete and uniform, proper and adequate” education.
Michael Rebell, Executive Director and Counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, provided a national overview of educational inequities, and the detrimental impact of inadequate resources-both in funding and services-on the educational outcomes of low-income students. He also made the case that equity in education funding improves educational outcomes, and that money does matter in helping students to become successful, productive citizens.
In his testimony, Hugh Price, Director and CEO of the National Urban League urged Congress to follow up the tougher standards and standardized tests in the No Child Left Behind Act with a focus “just as intense” on what it takes to meet these higher expectations. He specifically drew attention to the plight of urban and rural children to whom he referred as hostages in “communities with low tax bases, with weak commitments from states to provide quality education, and skinflint taxpayers who oppose providing equal and adequate support for all schools in their state.” To combat this inequality, Price proposed higher salaries for young graduates with masters degrees and challenged the federal government to “take the lead” in financing the economic incentives needed to attract stronger educators to these high-need school districts.