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Students in the Munroe Elementary School after-school garden club (L-R) Anai Carrillo, Jessica Grimaldo, Andrea Torres and Sandaley Haileseolph at the table in the foreground chop vegetables to put in a stir fry dish they would cook in Denver, Colorado May 9, 2012. The students learn to grow and prepare healthy meals in the school's garden club, with some of the food going to the school's lunch program. Colorado has the second fastest growing childhood obesity rate in the nation says non-profit LiveWell Colorado. Groups like Livewell are working to reduce childhood obesity by supporting school gardens, especially in low income areas, to provide learning about healthy food while actually providing nourishment. Studies have shown that children are more likely to try eating fresh fruit and vegetables if they are involved in growing them.  Photo taken May 9, 2012.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH EDUCATION SOCIETY) - TM3E85F16B801
The Avenue

Elizabeth Warren’s comprehensive education plan recognizes community needs

Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren released a federal education policy proposal that recognizes a fundamental truth about students: Kids don’t live in schools, they live in communities. In addition to matters of curriculum and instruction, factors outside the school—food, housing, transportation, safety, recreation—also affect the degree to which students learn. It’s hard to do homework when you don’t have a home to go to. Education policy that ignores neighborhood conditions misses the point of why we go to school—to improve our community.

A Great Public School Education for Every Student is one of the most comprehensive education policy proposals by a presidential candidate I’ve ever seen. The cornerstone of Warren’s plan seeks to quadruple the $16 billion in federal funding allocated to the Title I program, which is targeted at schools with high concentrations of low-income students, adding $450 billion over the next 10 years. The plan also calls for an additional $20 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides fiscal resources and legal protections for students with special needs. Her education plan works in tandem with her equally robust housing proposal, to get at the heart of racial disparities in education.

Public schooling is financed mostly by revenue from property taxes, which can be much higher in certain neighborhoods than others and therefore inherently inequitable, causing wide variations in quality. Lower revenue from property taxes also translate to fewer resources that city leaders can spend on municipal amenities and services such as policing, infrastructure, and recreation, which can enhance or hinder student development.

According to EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on school finance issues, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than districts that serve mostly students of color. Education advocacy nonprofit Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools found that “[b]etween 2005 and 2017, public schools in the U.S. were under-funded by $580 billion in Title 1 and IDEA federal dollars alone—money that is targeted specifically to support 30 million of our most vulnerable students.”

Poorer districts sure could use those additional resources. But what good is a well-funded academic program if it’s implemented in a building with a leaky roof? Schools need both well-maintained facilities and well-funded programs, and Warren’s plan accounts for both. She proposes $50 billion worth of infrastructure investments in repairing decrepit schools, which—if the policy regulations allow—can put underemployed community members to work while improving the built environment they live in.

This aspect of Warren’s plan dovetails nicely with the housing plan she released in March, which creates a $10 billion competitive grant program that incentivizes states and municipalities to invest in neighborhood conditions that uplift academic achievement: parks, roads, and schools. However, receipt of funds is contingent upon the elimination of restrictive zoning laws that can encourage racial segregation by limiting the amount of people who can live in well-resourced school districts.

The basic assumptions behind Warren’s policy are rock solid: Policy can help make up for resource disparities caused by decades of racial discrimination. The current education reform movement has abandoned the idea that disparities are a byproduct of discrimination, opting instead to place blame at the feet of teachers and students. Those reformers praise charter schools for doing more with less while using the catchphrase poverty is not an excuse. Both undercut legitimate efforts to address the root causes of resource differences that drive educational disparities and underachievement.

By making the connection between educational adequacy and equity, Warren’s policy breaks from the choice-driven reform movement that ignores the economic context in which children, families, and schools reside. Warren, a former public school teacher, specifically takes aim at the charter school movement that disregards how this sector reinforces segregated schools.

By making the connection between educational adequacy and equity, Warren’s policy breaks from the choice-driven reform movement that ignores the economic context in which children, families, and schools reside.

A December 2017 Associated Press analysis of national school enrollment data found that “as of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools essentially responded with a version of, “So what?”

Segregation in schools and housing matters because it has been the primary method through which resources have been directed to white and wealthy families. When financing systems allow for that, Black and poor children who are segregated in lower-resourced schools never get the funding they need. Ignoring segregation is to accept inequality.

Warren’s plan not only incentivizes integration, she also goes after the charter sector that has become comfortable with structural inequality. Her proposal throttles the expansion of charter schools and seeks to impose on them the same accountability and transparency requirements as traditional public schools. The Federal Charter School Program provides resources to start charter schools—Warren’s policy will eliminate it, putting the onus on states and districts to finance new charters. And she will ban for-profit charter schools outright.

Segregation in schools and housing matters because it has been the primary method through which resources have been directed to white and wealthy families. When financing systems allow for that, Black and poor children who are segregated in lower-resourced schools never get the funding they need. Ignoring segregation is to accept inequality.

Many of Warren’s policy priorities share similarities with Senator Bernie Sanders’s. He proposed tripling Title 1 funding and freezing all federal money allocated to new charter schools. However, Warren’s proposal is much more comprehensive, linking her other proposals related to housing and wealth development while injecting robust regulatory measures that get at major source of educational disparities: discrimination.

The big question her opponents and skeptics are asking is how all of this will be paid for. Many of Warren’s plans (including this one) rely on a wealth tax on the nation’s most affluent residents, which may be difficult to get through Congress. Consequently, she is taking an all-or-nothing approach to policymaking: If the wealth tax is not passed, then she won’t be able to fund the parts of her plan that cost money.

“My plan makes big, structural changes that would help give every student the resources they need to thrive,” Warren writes. She’s right—the future of education reform should focus on the structural, specifically those barriers that create educational disparities. I believe Warren’s plan will do this—if she can find the money to pay for it.

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