Statement on Public Education

Statement on Public Education

STATEMENT ON PUBLIC EDUCATION

INTRODUCTION

AJC believes there must be a rededication to public education on the national, state, community, and family levels so that the public schools can fulfill their promise as democratic institutions and launching pads of opportunity for all children.

As a community of relatively recent immigrants, American Jews have been witness to the striking difference that public education has made in a short period of time, often in just one generation, in the professional, economic, and civic lives of their families. The high value that Jews continue to place on education is evident statistically in the disproportionate numbers of American Jews who attain degrees from institutions of higher learning.

The American Jewish Committee ("AJC") has historically regarded public education not only as a means of individual intellectual development and economic betterment, but also as one of the principal ways by which children learn the core values necessary to sustain a healthy and thriving American democracy. The National Affairs Commission Task Force on Public Education was formed in recognition of AJC's commitment to public schools and the agency's desire to participate in the current debate on issues in the education arena.1 To be sure, the problems that exist in our nation's public schools are myriad and complex. As a result, this statement does not address every issue affecting public education. Rather, it is designed to inform the current national debate in the short-term. It is the Task Force's plan to supplement this statement at a later date.

Today, AJC is gravely concerned about the persistent challenges, problems, and dilemmas that compromise the public schools' ability to fulfill their important roles of educating and acculturating our children. Underlying those challenges is the extreme disparity in resources -- including quality personnel, facilities, and funding -- between many schools serving minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged children and those serving middle class and affluent communities.

At a time when the United States is enjoying record prosperity, when there are surplus funds in the federal budget and in many state budgets, there is a rare window of opportunity to improve our public schools.

I. THE PROBLEM OF RESOURCE DISPARITY

Public schools in urban and rural areas serve most of our country's poorest children. Many of their parents have little or no educational background and are non-English speaking or illiterate. In addition, some immigrant children have never attended school before coming to the United States at middle or high school age. Yet schools serving these communities typically lack resources to provide even the basic tools available to children in middle class and affluent communities. As a result, poverty becomes self-perpetuating and deprives children of the capacity to change their circumstances.

The perpetuation of poverty owing to poor educational opportunities is profoundly disturbing to Jews as a matter of conscience. Moreover, the potential social and economic consequences to society of a growing population of undereducated and marginalized citizens are grave. AJC believes that gaps in educational resources and opportunities between our nation's disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students must be narrowed.

Schools and communities must provide all students, including minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged children, with the effective schooling, extra educational help, and support systems they need to meet the educational standards demanded by today's society. AJC believes that the following are necessary in order for all students to succeed: (1) equitable school financing, (2) qualified teachers, (3) effective school and school district leadership, (4) parental involvement, (5) safe, clean, and modern schools, (6) after-school programming, and (7) early learning programming.

A. Equitable School Financing

Financial support of public schools should be based on fairness and responsiveness to all students' needs. Under our federal scheme, education is primarily the responsibility of the states -- a combination of state and local tax dollars accounts for ninety percent or more of public school funding. Districts and municipalities with lower than average taxing capacity due to low tax bases, low average per capita income, or both, need more state aid than others to support adequate expenditures for schools. Large municipalities with heavy concentrations of minority, immigrant and economically disadvantaged children need additional state aid to compensate for exceptional educational needs and extraordinary non-educational needs that must be financed with local dollars. Some rural districts need extra aid because of cost disadvantages related to their small size. State aid, which should make up for the difference in capacity, generally fails to do so. A strong democracy and a growing global economy demand a stronger financial partnership among the federal government, states, and local municipalities to overcome funding disparities.

AJC recommends that states reform school funding formulas and practices to ensure that all districts and schools are funded adequately and adjust such formulas and practices to accommodate districts and schools with greater educational needs.

For example, additional resources may be required for schools with large numbers of limited English-proficient students or for under-performing schools charged by their states or districts with preparing students to meet increased educational standards.

B. Qualified Teachers

The large number of veteran teachers reaching retirement age, coupled with an enormous increase in student enrollment and universal calls for smaller class size, is creating a looming teacher shortage. Teachers colleges, even if fully subscribed, will not generate enough graduates to meet classroom needs over the next five to ten years.

Also contributing to this crisis are the realities of low wages and inadequate prestige afforded teachers, a further reflection of the absence of a national commitment to education. Added to the dilemma of how to attract the most talented individuals to the teaching profession is the problem of how to effectively train and retain teachers to educate the least prepared students. Schools with large populations of minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged students especially need well-educated, experienced, and skillful teachers with high levels of sensitivity and determination to help their students succeed. Instead, because of low pay and unfavorable working conditions, these schools often attract the least qualified from a teacher recruitment pool itself too small to meet all needs.

AJC recommends that:

(1) school districts provide adequate teacher salaries, taking into account cost of living, to attract teachers to their communities, with states supplementing the resources of districts that cannot do so;

(2) school districts provide, and states support, appropriate compensation for teachers who work in districts or schools serving minority, immigrant and economically disadvantaged children;

(3) states establish scholarships for education students who commit to work in districts and schools serving minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged children;

(4) schools encourage teachers to continue in their professional development by, for example, passing the National Board Certification;

(5) state, city, and private universities and other teacher training institutions work closely with urban and remote rural school districts to develop improved pre-service and on-job teacher training and mentoring programs adapted to the specific needs of minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged students; and

(6) federal, state, and community efforts, such as increasing teacher compensation and providing tuition waivers or scholarships for education students, be made to expand teacher education programs and encourage talented individuals to enter the teaching profession.

C. Effective Leadership

It is essential to improve compensation, recruitment, and preparation for school superintendents and principals on both long- and short-term bases. Talented and dedicated leaders focus schools and engage staff, students, and parents in collaborative pursuits and strategies for success. Schools in the poorest neighborhoods are least able to attract such leadership, although they need it the most. Low salaries, difficult working conditions, lack of job prestige, and labor market competition all contribute to this problem, as do inadequate programs for developing leadership capacity.

AJC recommends that:

(1) all school systems, including schools and districts with high populations of minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged students, ensure that compensation is adequate to attract distinguished candidates to principalships and superintendencies; and

(2) universities, foundations, and leaders in business and non-profit organizations articulate the importance and distinction of public school leadership, and develop and provide leadership training to young professionals in order to encourage highly qualified young people to consider public school leadership careers. Ongoing leadership training should be provided especially for principals and superintendents serving in low-performing districts.

D. Parental Involvement

Parental engagement with schools and support for education at home are crucial to students' success at every educational level. Lack of educational background, pressures associated with poverty, and limited English ability all tend to curtail parental involvement in high-poverty schools. Teachers are sometimes inhibited in their interactions with parents from different cultures or resistant to parental involvement in the educational process. Overcoming these barriers must be a priority for schools and community organizations. Parents and other caregivers must be encouraged to work with schools to address the educational needs of their children and to instill in their children the value of education.

AJC recommends that:

(1) in all schools, including those in high-poverty communities, teachers or other special counselors meet with parents so that they are engaged in school planning, and are informed about their children's school experiences and expectations for learning;

(2) university and school system programs prepare teachers and school leaders to engage all parents, including minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged parents, in their children's education and school affairs;

(3) schools and community organizations work together to help parents in minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged communities obtain educational and other support so that they can play an effective role in educating their children; and

(4) Congress continue to condition Title I funding for schools on the creation of partnerships with families, and support innovative initiatives in parent involvement.2

E. Safe, Clean, and Modern Schools

A substantial number of schools in every state are antiquated, overcrowded, and/or need extensive repair. Nearly half of all school buildings lack the basic wiring for computers in the classroom.3 The problems are worse in urban and some poor rural areas. Although research links overcrowding with lower achievement by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, escalating enrollments promise to intensify the acute overcrowding in major cities. In high-poverty schools, only 39% of students have access to the Internet.4

AJC recommends that:

(1) Congress enact legislation providing substantial funding for school construction and repairs on an ongoing basis;

(2) states and cities apply funds, including budget surpluses, to the rebuilding of public school infrastructure;

(3) states and cities apply funds to enable every teacher and student to become computer literate; and

(4) school counseling programs be adequately staffed and alert to the needs of children who are troubled or causing trouble.

F. Before- and After-School Programs

Supplementary school-related programs that provide children with opportunities for healthy recreation, extra learning, constructive interaction with adults, and homework help or tutoring before and after school can be crucial to enabling minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged children to remain in school and succeed. Children offered such experiences are also less likely to use drugs, commit crimes, and become teenage parents.5 Although there are increasing numbers of such programs in cities, the General Accounting Office estimates that they will meet as little as 25% of demand in the year 2002.

Some of the best before- and after-school programs are provided through school and community agency collaborations. Community-based organizations often relate better than schools to children's families and cultures and respond better to a diversity of child needs. Together with schools, such organizations can pool academic, recreational, and social service expertise, as well as funds from various sources to provide programming in schools, community buildings, or both.

AJC recommends that:

(1) all school districts expand their before- and after-school programming, focusing on schools with high concentrations of minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged students;

(2) states and school districts collaborate with community-based agencies, federal agencies, and foundations to develop and implement plans that ensure quality before- and after-school care and programs for children from needy families; and

(3) businesses expand and improve child-care programs for employees.

G. Early Foundations for Learning

Quality pre-school education: High quality education at three and four years of age has been shown to improve later achievement, particularly among disadvantaged children. Yet according to the most recent figures available, pre-school participation - 65% nationwide - is only 37% among children of low-income families.

Intensive early math and reading programs: Children who do not read and compute well by the end of third grade have a high risk for later academic difficulty. Minority, immigrant and economically disadvantaged children are substantially more likely than others to fail in reading as evidenced by relative performance at three grades - 4, 8, and 12 - tested in 1998 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Reduced class size in early grades: Research has established a correlation between small class size in grades 1, 2 and 3 (15-17 students) and increased readiness to learn and student achievement in later grades. However, small classes will not produce learning without effective teaching and children who come to school ready to learn.

AJC recommends that:

(1) federal, state, and school district leaders accelerate progress toward the national goal of universal pre-school education; and

(2) parents, educators, and civic leaders insist that all schools, including those with high concentrations of minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged children, intensively teach reading and math in the early grades, using research-validated programs, a variety of teaching strategies, and well-prepared staffs.

II. THE NEED TO FOCUS ON VALUES AND DEMOCRACY

To sustain American democracy, it is important that public schools reinforce personal and democratic values if they have been taught at home, and teach them if they have not. However, it is also important that teaching "values" in school not become synonymous with teaching particular religious or political beliefs. These concerns, addressed in a 1989 AJC Education Task Force Report, have particular salience in the present climate of youth alienation, violence, and cynicism about government and politics. "Character education" is too often confused with religious education and is not well integrated into most American schools, and existing "civics education" curricula often fail to generate a sense of responsibility for American democracy among young people.

Continued commitment to democratic principles is of great importance to all Americans. It is particularly important to minority and immigrant children, whose long term prospects depend on strong democratic institutions and respect for constitutional principles. For democracy to flourish, Americans must understand these principles and the institutions established to carry them out as well as the central role that they, as citizens, play in making democracy work. AJC believes that fostering such understanding is a primary role of the public schools. In 1998, however, 75% of students at grade levels 4, 8, and 12 performed at or below basic levels on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in civics and government, leading the Secretary of Education and congressional representatives of both political parties to make student improvement in these subjects a national priority.

Attention to values should pervade the life of a school. All people share common values, among them honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for the rights and security of others. There are many more, and they can and must be taught without abridging the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Educators teach values not only in home room or family groups but also through dialogue, behavior, and inquiry in academic classes.6 Schools exemplify values through the atmospheres they create, the deportment of their staffs, their disciplinary policies, the attention they pay to student behavior, and the nature and supervision of extra-curricular programs.

AJC recommends that:

(1) states and school districts emphasize education in civics and American history, including improved preparation of teachers and fresh, imaginative texts, teaching tools, and techniques;

(2) government leaders, teachers, scholars, civic groups and foundations collaborate in a campaign to help schools and local organizations revitalize the teaching of civics and American history;

(3) schools have programs in place to deal with incidents of bigotry so that they are prepared to take appropriate steps if such episodes should occur;

(4) schools teach values such as honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for the rights and security of others through curricular and extra-curricular activities, through consistent, fair and age-appropriate school rulemaking and disciplinary policies, and by the examples of their staffs; and

(5) schools reinforce respect for ethnic, religious, racial, economic, and individual diversity.

CONCLUSION

 

As Americans, Jews know that the challenge to meet our country's educational aspirations for a uniquely diverse population is daunting, but our founding principles compel us to find ways to meet the challenge. Our public schools must fulfill the educational needs of all children, including the most disadvantaged among us, so that they may participate fully in the promise of American life.


ENDNOTES
1 AJC's past involvement in the public education arena is evidenced by its 1989 statement on "Choice Among Public Schools," in which the agency endorsed carefully designed school choice experiments within public schools, and by its 1999 statement on the charter school movement, in which AJC expressed both the hope that charter schools would be an effective innovation in public education and the concern that charter schools not adversely affect existing public schools or violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

2 Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the most substantial source of federal funding for public education. It provides money for schools that have high concentrations of students who are economically disadvantaged.

3 American Federation of Teachers/National Education Association Survey on School Modernization, The Tarrance Group (1999).

4 NCES, Internet Access in Public Schools (February 1998). A "high-poverty" school has 71% or more students of low income as determined by free and reduced-price school lunch data.

5 Fact Sheet on School-Age Children's Out-of-School Time, Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women, National Institute on Out-of-School Time (January 2000).

6 Hands Across the Campus, a program administered by AJC's Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Center for American Pluralism that is utilized by public schools across the country, is an example of an effective curriculum promoting tolerance and combating prejudice.

Adopted by the Board of Governors on June 26, 2000.

Copyright 2013/2014 AJC