Mixing Cocktails for School Reform

It takes all kinds and types of approaches to close the achievement gap, writes Feather O'Connor Houstoun.
July 25, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Here at the William Penn Foundation, we've watched education reform unfold in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for over two decades. The two states are polar opposites in the way they've approached the twin goals of educational achievement and accountability.

Just for starters, in New Jersey , the state Supreme Court has, since its initial Abbott v. Burke decision in 1981, repeatedly and forcefully directed increased operating and capital funding to impoverished local school districts to meet the constitutional standard of providing a "thorough and efficient" education. In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court has turned funding equity issues back to the state legislature indicating that it, not the court, is responsible for interpreting what the state constitution's "thorough and efficient" means.

Today, New Jersey's so-called "Abbott district" schools have achieved funding equity, often ranking among the highest-spending districts, according to a recent New York Times report. Gaps between resources available in Pennsylvania schools are among the highest in the country, with one quarter of districts spending more than $4,000 less per pupil than the top 20 percent of districts.

But the contrasts go much further.

In New Jersey, the successful fight for funding equity has been led virtually single-handedly by the Education Law Project, a nonprofit that brought the Abbott case and subsequent cases to the Supreme Court and remains the only significant advocacy organization for education in the state.

In Pennsylvania, three education-advocacy groups have worked for years, with support from foundations and allied interest groups such as labor organizations, the League of Women Voters, the Council of Churches and children's advocacy groups to pursue funding equalization. They recognize they are in for a long slog, recently having persuaded legislative supporters to fund a costing-out study based on real needs in selected districts. They hope the results will create the local groundswell necessary to increase legislative support.

Given that Pennsylvania -- with the robust advocacy community -- hasn't made much headway on equitable funding, is there much reason to think it's important? The answer is clearly yes.

The willingness of the New Jersey Supreme Court to repeatedly insist on executive and legislative action created a single game in town. That in turn had unintended consequences. The litigation card trumped the development of a proactive culture of performance accountability -- to taxpayers and to children.

Lacking a strong, broad base of political support for funding equity, advocates were reluctant to point out that many New Jersey districts were underperforming and in need of major overhaul. Being critical of results might jeopardize the imperative for funding.

Locally controlled, poor performing districts had little to fear, and with few exceptions, strong local and state reform advocates seldom developed to demand the systemic changes that can close student achievement gaps. There are clearly success stories in some New Jersey Abbott schools -- but the road map for school district reform and student achievement is far from clear.

If advocacy doesn't guarantee funding, is it just mood music? Hardly.

Changing demographics have made public schools less immediately relevant to most American households. The fewer households with school-age children, the more the importance of quality education needs to be linked to workforce development and competitiveness for those voters and civic leaders who have little contact with the system. Advocacy can do that.

Advocacy can also be the force of reform over the resistance of the educational status quo at schools, districts and state oversight agencies. These groups can otherwise turn a blind eye to the realities that some reforms work and others don't, and that closing the educational attainment gap is hard, but doable. Advocacy can create accountability that everyone understands.

Advocacy can stabilize the transition during district and system leadership changes that can otherwise disrupt reform movements with the latest new tricks.

In the words of one national school-reform advocate, it takes a cocktail of tonics to close the achievement gap. Parent advocacy, civic leadership expectations for school, political support for equitable funding, judicial decisions and strong public oversight of school administration and performance all interact with each other to produce success stories.

Martinis, anyone?

Feather O'Connor Houstoun is president of the William Penn Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through grant making in arts and culture, children and youth, and environment and communities.