A Pennsylvania congressman wants to take the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act one step further and hold states accountable for providing school districts with the core resourcesincluding technologythat would enable them to deliver high-quality education to all students regardless of economic status.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), a fourth-term lawmaker from Pennyslvania’s second congressional district, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Delaware County, floated the idea in testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions during a May 23 hearing on the poverty of educational resources in many school districts across the nation.
“Children are required by the federal government to take federally mandated tests, in every school, in every year,” said Congressman Fattah. “If we are requiring them to take tests, we should ensure that they have all the tools necessary to achieve their potential….”
Rep. Fattah said he will introduce legislation, entitled The Student Bill of Rights, that will call on state governments to meet seven specific needs of students or risk losing certain types of federal funding. According to Fattah, there are “seven essential keys for learning”: instruction from a highly qualified teacher, rigorous academic standards, small class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, state-of-the-art libraries, updated computers, and qualified guidance counselors.
Fattah said his proposed bill would attempt to shift the burden of accountability from individual schools to the state level, where he said many funding decisions are made and handed down.
“State governments make every important decision in educationhow many school districts there are, how to tax for school funding, the curriculum, what’s adequate,” said Fattah. “Not since the beginning of this country have states shown a desire to provide poor children with the same opportunities as other children.”
According to Fattah, each state would be given two years to outline and implement a plan to meet all seven standards. Each year, the federal government would publish a report on which states fell short on any or all of the criteria. If after three years states did not improve, the federal government would have the option of withholding from the failing states certain monies allocated for administrative purposes, Fattah said.
“If we want to seek comparable results, we have to have equal opportunities,” said Fattah. “The bill would require states to act more aggressively in that direction.”
Fattah’s idea appeals to some education officials in Philadelphia, where a chronic lack of resources has for years thwarted efforts at reform.
“It is unfair to hold students to the same standards when there is clearly a wide variance in the resources they have available to them,” said Debra Kahn, Philadelphia’s secretary of education.
While serving on the Web-Based Education Commission, impaneled during the Clinton Administration, Fattah said, he found a noticeable disparity in the technology options offered in different schools across the country.
According to “Unequal Education in America”a report Fattah compiled to support his proposed legislationdisparities abound in the technology resources available to rich and poor students.
The student-to-computer ratio in California is 10 to 1 in schools where at least 81 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to Fattah’s report, but the ratio is 7 to 1 in California schools where 20 percent or fewer students receive such lunches.
In New Jersey, the report found, the computer-to-student ratio in low-income Ocean County is 7 to 1, while schools in the more affluent Camden County operate at a ratio of 4 to 1.
And in one especially hard-pressed Ohio school, the report said, only 12 computers are available to more than 1,800 students.
Philadelphia’s education secretary said Fattah’s proposed legislation could change the focus of reform efforts. “As a matter of federal policy the [Student Bill of Rights] is a significant standard,” said Kahn. “It’s saying, let’s get real. It’s important that the federal government recognizes that states have a real role to play.”
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.)
Philadelphia City Schools