An Education Department commission is recommending pre-kindergarten programs for every poor student within 10 years, adding a timeframe to President Barack Obama's similar call to help the least advantaged arrive for their first day of classes as prepared as their counterparts from more affluent homes.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday released his Equity and Excellence Commission's report, which is not binding but includes input from his top aides and the White House's chief education policy adviser. In the report, the commissioners documented the inequalities of the nation's schools and recommended ways to ensure that students from poorer neighborhoods aren't automatically enrolled in less-effective schools.
"The time has come for bold action by the states — and the federal government — to redesign and reform the funding of our nation's public schools. Achieving equity and excellence requires sufficient resources that are distributed based on student need, not ZIP code, and that are efficiently used," the 52-page report urged after two years of study of the gap between rich and poor students.
The report called on a new federal program to send tax dollars to schools with high numbers of low-income students, especially those with large gaps between the best and worst students. The commission also urged Washington to offer other money as an incentive for states to spend their own money on schools with high concentrations of low-income students and to make sure it is not too easy to become a teacher.
"We asked them not what they thought we wanted to hear but what they thought," Duncan told reporters on a conference call to announce the commission's findings. "In far too many communities, the children who need the most help get the least."
Those recommendations were likely to find resistance in Congress, which is facing pressure to come up with a plan by March 1 to reduce the deficit. Absent a deal, potentially devastating spending cuts would automatically kick in, affecting everything from defense to existing pre-kindergarten options to meat inspection and port security. But the commissioners, many of them from colleges' education departments and advocacy groups typically friendly to the administration, said they wanted to give their best advice to the Education Department independent of politics.
Obama has outlined a broad proposal to partner with states, which would set up their own pre-kindergarten systems and in turn receive federal dollars. Some states are already operating pre-kindergarten programs; Obama cited Georgia and Oklahoma during his State of the Union address and later visited an Atlanta-area program to promote his idea.
Administration officials have refused to outline their proposal's details or cost, and instead suggest reporters wait for the president's budget to be released next month.
While these recommendations are independent of the administration, White House education adviser Roberto Rodriguez participated on the panel, as did Duncan's chief of staff and four other top Education Department officials. The commission delivered its final recommendations to Duncan on Feb. 2, ahead of Obama's Feb. 12 State of the Union address that gave pre-kindergarten programs a star turn.
"Smart states know that if they're going to get kids to grade level by third grade or whatever, they have to start early," said Margaret Spellings, an education secretary and domestic policy counselor during President George W. Bush's administration.
In an interview Tuesday, she said she doesn't expect Obama's proposal for pre-kindergarten for all — including middle-income families — to find traction in a divided Washington.
"It's kind of a sideshow, in my view," said Spellings, now president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Inaction, though, is not an option, Democratic lawmakers vowed.
"At the end of the day, we're not going to solve this problem just through court action or hoping states do the right thing for poor children," said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa. "We can't afford to have a third or more of our children in the shadow of opportunity."
The commission did not put a price tag on any of its recommendations and intentionally kept many of its potentially divisive recommendations vague when addressing ways to fix the vast differences among states in per-pupil spending. In 2010, for instance, Utah spent $6,454 per student while New York spent $18,167 for each student.
"We need to ensure that we get everyone to the same starting line," said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif. "We need to redesign education financing for our schools."
Money, of course, is not a guarantee for student success. But students from poor schools generally lag students from better-funded counterparts and those students from impoverished families arrive in kindergarten less prepared than others.
"We have to stop saying that poverty excuses the achievement gap and recognize there are concrete measures that we can take, starting with early childhood education," said Christopher Edley, dean of the University of California at Berkeley law school and co-chairman of the commission.
It is a moral and policy issue, as well, the report's authors argued.
"Our country has the highest poverty rate of any in the developed world," said Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Stanford University law school professor and co-chair of the commission. "From Day One, these children are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to attend college."
The commission's report also recommends a process by which ineffective elected school boards could be deposed and replaced with appointed oversight boards. The commission also suggests a threshold of training and experience for new teachers, as well as urges schools to be more selective in their hiring process.