Cantwell: The Road to Better Education is Not Paved With Unfunded Mandates
- Mar. 6, 2012
- 37 Comments
As a product of a single-parent, socio-economically disadvantaged household, the power of education to lift an individual from the shackles of poverty is not lost on me. It’s one of the reasons why I have become such a staunch advocate for many educational reform issues and a reason why I have spent a significant amount of time mentoring younger students.
Given this, it came as a surprise to me that when President Obama announced his new proposal to federally mandate the dropout age to be raised from 16 to 18 in his State of the Union address, I struggled to find ways I could support this policy.
Although it may seem logical that a larger population of degree-earning students is a favorable outcome of educational reform for society as whole, the reality is that a degree will not help pull students graduating with a fourth-grade reading level out of poverty.
President Obama’s proposal, while valiant in effort, is inherently flawed for two reasons.
First, because unfunded mandates, such as his one, are catastrophic to already struggling school districts; and second, because without funding and support for the inevitably increased class sizes, the students from underprivileged environments who have a fighting chance of succeeding past high school are put at further risk of academic failure.
The bottom line to the U.S.’s educational woes is that education is inherently under — and inequitably — funded. Jonathan Kozol’s pivotal 1992 book Savage Inequalities brings this issue to light through his case studies of districts like east St. Louis and inner-city Chicago. As these districts stand, consolidation has become a reality for many struggling schools, including the Kansas City school district, which is just 60 miles east of the University of Kansas.
The Associated Press reported in 2007 that Topeka High School, in Topeka, Kan., faced a retention rate of just 60 percent, retaining just 49 percent of the students on Free and Reduced Lunch Programs and 46 percent of the students classified as minorities in the school.
To put these percentages in perspective, the breakup of Topeka High School in the same year had a minority population of approximately 51 percent, meaning that approximately 25 percent, or 400 students of the total students enrolled would never make it to graduation. These statistics are an atrocity, and represent underlying social and racial inequalities in our nation. Mandating that students stay in school until the age of 18, however, will not solve these underlying issues.
To create an unfunded mandate that graduation rates in some of these districts must be raised from 40 percent to near 100 percent will force districts to raise classroom sizes and cut teacher salaries. Additionally, schools already struggling to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by federal standards set forth in No Child Left Behind will now have additional pressure put on them to significantly raise the number of students who pass these assessments in their junior and senior years under these strenuous conditions.
This leads to my second issue with the dropout provision. Students who need the most help in these failing districts or “dropout factories” (as referred to in the AP 2007 article), succeed in smaller classrooms. These students need more individualized attention from teachers and classmates who are succeeding.
A 2009 study titled: “What Are the Long-Term Effects of Small Classes on the Achievement Gap? Evidence from the Lasting Beneﬁts Study” conducted by Spyros Konstantopoulos at Michigan State University and Vicki Chun at Northwestern University concluded that low-achieving students seem to benefit more from being in smaller class sizes for an extended amount of time, which is correlated to closing the achievement gap in test scores. Without the federal government providing more funding to districts to carry out this mandate, the achievement gap with the increased size of classrooms will continue to grow.
Yes, we need to improve the education levels of all of our citizens. As a nation founded on the basic principles of Jeffersonian democracy, which supports giving citizens the bare minimum to establish themselves in a self-sufficient manner, we seem to have abandoned these founding principles in favor of a system that has continually disenfranchised large segments of the American population.
These injustices and inequalities that I have seen so frequently throughout my life has guided my interest and passion for education. Every child in our country should have the opportunity to achieve a basic level of education to fully participate in our social, cultural and political systems in America. The road to achieving this goal is certainly not paved with additional unfunded mandates for schools, though. If we want to improve education, we need to reach into our hearts — and pocketbooks — to fully support educational reform efforts structurally and financially.