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Frequently Asked Questions About Education Policy,

by Nicole Devero How are schools in the United States funded?

School budgets and the ways they are financed vary from state to state and school district to school district. Generally, though, states use a combination of income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes, and fees to provide about 50 percent of the budget for elementary and secondary schools. Local districts contribute around 43 percent, drawn mostly from local property taxes. The federal government provides about 7 percent of state education budgets (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Altogether, these funds are distributed to school districts on a per-pupil basis (to ensure there is enough to cover each child’s education) and categorically (to ensure there is enough for each special program or facility).

School funding has traditionally been viewed as the province of local government. However, advocates for educational equity often criticize the localized nature of school funding because wealthier districts, due to their higher tax revenues, are able to provide better educational opportunity to their students. School funding plans have been challenged in over 30 states, with ongoing cases pending in New Jersey and New York. Information on these, and other school finance suits, can be found at The Campaign for Fiscal Equity or The Education Law Center.

What is No Child Left Behind?

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, President George W. Bush's education-reform bill, was signed into law on Jan. 8, 2002. By all measures, it is the most sweeping education-reform legislation since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson passed his landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Technically, the new bill is a reauthorization and revision of that 1965 legislation.) It dramatically increases the role of the federal government in guaranteeing the quality of public education for all children in the United States – with an emphasis on increased funding for poor school districts, higher achievement for poor and minority students, and new measures to hold schools accountable for their students’ progress – and in the process dramatically expands the role of standardized testing in American public education, requiring that students in grades 3 through 8 be tested every year in reading and math.

The debate over the bill's testing and accountability provisions centered on such questions as whether states would maintain control over their own standards and tests, how the new mandates would be funded, how test results would be reported, where the bar would be set for defining proficiency and adequate progress, how schools would be held accountable, and whether states' test scores would be compared against an independent national benchmark, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Why is there a debate about testing?

The testing debate arouses strong feelings. Testing proponents see statewide assessments as a way to raise expectations and help guarantee that all children are held to the same high standards. They also argue that testing allows parents to evaluate the strength of their children’s schools, and can make schools more accountable.

Critics of testing argue that such programs narrow student learning to what is tested, and that what is tested is only a sample of what children should know. Furthermore, tests often focus on what's easiest to measure, not on the critical-thinking skills students most need to develop. Testing critics also contend that a focus on test-based assessments forces teachers to “teach to the test” and can drive good teachers away from schools that need them the most. Finally, critics claim that many tests are not used for their original purpose, or are poorly designed. In other words, even if testing worked in theory, the common misapplication of tests renders testing a bad idea.

Previously, one’s view on testing could have turned on whether the test was high- or low-stakes. A high-stakes test is one in which the result is tied to an extremely significant outcome, such as graduation. Low-stakes tests, while still important, are tied to less momentous decisions, such as deciding whether a student needs instructional help. The testing debate has become more pronounced with the enactment of No Child Left Behind. Because NCLB requires all schools to test their students, and penalizes schools that consistently perform poorly (thus making it an extremely high-stakes test), both advocates and critics view testing as now having a much more prominent role in education policy.

What is the “achievement gap”?

The "achievement gap" in education refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between many African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income and well-off families. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates. It has become a focal point of education reform efforts.

Some researchers argue that the best way to close the achievement gap is by equalizing income and wealth. To the extent that a disproportionate number of minorities are poor, such efforts would also help these students perform better in school. However, critics contend that an economics-based approach tends to minimize the very real role race continues to play in this country. Efforts to close the achievement gap, it is contended, need to examine the quality of the education being offered to all students, as well as the way wealth affects achievement.


What is a charter school?

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school’s contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor – usually a state or local school board – to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them.

Why is there a debate about zero tolerance in schools?

Zero tolerance – a response to the numerous violent incidents that have occurred at schools around the country –describes an increasingly popular approach to school discipline. As the name implies, teachers and administrators are not to tolerate any disruptive behavior from students. However, while the theory may be sound, in practice zero tolerance has resulted in a large number of student disciplinary actions – from expulsion to arrest – for relatively minor infractions, even when committed by young students. The Harvard Civil Rights Project in its study, Opportunities Suspended, has documented the far-reaching nature of many disciplinary measures. The study also concluded that disabled and minority students are disproportionately, and often unfairly, singled out for discipline. The HCRP and other critics of zero tolerance argue that many incidents can be handled by alternative measures. Proponents of the policy, on the other hand, contend that zero tolerance makes schools safer.

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