Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. 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 ultimately go to school — to improve our community.
Warren’s plan, 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 the plan is a massive increase in the roughly $16 billion in federal funding allocated to the Title I program, targeted at schools with high concentrations of low-income students. The plan would quadruple the current yearly funding, adding $450 billion over the next 10 years.
Warren’s proposal 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 revenues from local property taxes, which can be much higher in certain neighborhoods than others and therefore inherently inequitable, causing wide variations in quality. Lower revenues 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 to repair decrepit schools, investment which — if the policy regulations allow — could help put underemployed community members to work while improving the structures in the community 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, investments which have the effect of uplifting 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 number 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 saying that poverty is not an excuse for poor performance. Both arguments 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.
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.” Yet the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools responded with what was essentially 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 this, 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, but 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 would eliminate it, and put the onus on states and districts to finance new charters. And she will ban for-profit charter schools outright.
Related: Making elite colleges white again
Many of Warren’s policy priorities share similarities with those of Sen. Bernie Sanders. He proposed tripling Title 1 funding and freezing all federal money allocated to new charter schools. However, Warren’s plan is much more comprehensive because it is linked to proposals related to housing and wealth development while injecting robust regulatory measures that get at the 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 much of her plan.
“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 structural change, 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.
This story about education policy proposals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.