Federal government must play major role in teaching America’s students

The federal government should not leave elementary and high school education to the whims of local school boards.

Such boards simply lack the capacity to address the funding, curricular and justice gaps that students experience throughout our nation.

Take California, for example. It is one of the wealthiest states in our nation, but you would never know it from its schools.

The state has the highest poverty rate for children in the country. Effectively half of California’s 6 million public school children are poor or living just barely above the poverty line.

More than half a million of these children are homeless. Eighty-one percent come from families in which the parents are working but still can’t make ends meet.

Nearly 1 in 4 of California’s students is a non-native English learner. One in 10 has an identified learning disability. Many suffer from trauma. Many show up just to eat a hot meal.

These kids need a lot of support, and the state simply won’t foot the whole bill. Per-pupil spending in California is among the lowest in the country. Last year, the federal government contributed $7 billion to education in California. While this is only a fraction of the state’s education budget, it literally cannot operate schools without these funds.

But financial support is not all that federal authorities provide. There is value in uniformity.

The federal government has established a common vision for our schools. If we want our students to excel in college and compete with an international workforce, we must have uniform curricular expectations that apply to all students.

There is no reason for one local board to decide that its students won’t be taught that global warming exists, while another teaches that it does. If we want to produce informed, productive citizens, we can’t allow local boards to lower the national expectations for student learning.

Even more important than a common vision is advancing justice. Through civil rights legislation and monitoring, federal authorities have consistently butted in to protect the rights of students with disabilities, young women, poor students and students of color.

But the battle is not over. Our schools today are almost as segregated as they were in the days before the civil rights movement. Almost every district in the country has an achievement gap related to race.

It is the federal authorities, and not local school boards, who make sure that children have equal access to education regardless of whether they live in Bakersfield, Calif., Appalachia or New York City. It is the federal authorities who are now protecting the rights of transgender students to use the restroom.

Separate is not equal. It has never been. But today, separate is also weak.

Research shows that countries with greater equity in education have better schools. Despite its fall from grace, this was the premise of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability movement.

And his idea makes good sense: If we want to improve education, we should hold schools responsible for the success of each and every student. We need a central authority to help us maintain this focus.

This is not to diminish the role of local government in public education. I am a lifelong educator. I have taught in California schools for years. While federal involvement is imperative, local governments can lead the way with school improvement.

I am hopeful that California Gov. Jerry Brown’s local control of funding will better serve our students, but holding the purse only matters if it is not empty.

Hopefully we can work together at a national and local level to cultivate excellent schools that provide equal opportunities for all our students.

Ultimately education is about our kids. And if the federal government butts out entirely, our kids are the ones who will suffer.

Elizabeth Guneratne is a lecturer at Santa Clara University’s School of Education & Counseling. She has a master’s degree in education from the University of San Francisco. Readers may write her at 22 Guadalupe Hall, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053.