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Education Secretary Says Status Quo In Schools Is 'Unacceptable'


It's back to school time around the country, so we thought it was a good time to check in with our country's top education official, Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. There's also news to report. Earlier this week, his agency proposed new rules that would govern how school districts distribute federal money meant to support the education of low-income kids. The rules are intended to ensure that these federal funds, known as Title I, can only be used in addition to state and local money and not instead of those funds. It turns out that some districts spend far more of their state and local funds on their more affluent schools. The new rules, if they last, could change that, forcing districts to share resources more evenly. It's controversial.

Republican lawmakers don't like it, and the leading teachers' unions are not comfortable with it either fearing it could force transfers of experienced teachers from richer schools without doing anything to improve poorer schools. To find out more, I asked Secretary King to make the case for why the changes are necessary.

JOHN B. KING JR: Unfortunately, the history here is that in many school districts, we see that there are schools serving high-needs students where even the entire student population is in poverty, and they're actually spending 25 to 30 percent less than a school 10 blocks away that serves largely affluent students.

And so this is really about requiring districts to direct resources to the kids who need them most, to ensure that students have access to pre-K, to advanced coursework, to school counselors. Right now we have over 5,000 schools that are getting on average $440,000 less from their district even though they are serving high-needs students. Those schools aren't getting the funds that the law requires. If they had that $440,000, they'd be able to put in place just the kinds of programs we've been talking about.

MARTIN: See, I still don't understand how exactly that is possible since these funds are specifically targeted to poor students. Is it mainly teachers' salaries that because the more experienced teachers tend to go to the more affluent schools, they take their payrolls with them? Can you explain that?

KING: That's right. That's one of the largest drivers, for sure, in schools. Teachers, administrators, counselors - that's the largest expenditure in any school budget - personnel. So certainly the fact that more experienced personnel tend to be concentrated in affluent schools is a very large driver of these gaps.

But it also can be programmatic differences. We know, for example, from our Civil Rights Data survey that many high-needs high schools don't offer the AP classes, and so that lack of access to those opportunities goes back to resources.

MARTIN: Now, this sounds - it sounds very simple - providing equity - but it's gotten a lot of pushback, and, interestingly, you know, from lots of different quarters - both from Republican lawmakers and also from some of the teachers' unions. How do you respond to that?

KING: Well, you know, we certainly got a lot of feedback on the initial draft of the rule that was discussed in the negotiated rule-making process. We listened to that feedback. Unfortunately, there are some folks who are saying, well, we should just leave the status quo as it is. But I don't think it's acceptable for local leaders to say because it's hard, we can't honor students' civil rights. Our Civil Rights Data Collection survey data showed that we have 1.6 million kids who go to schools that have a sworn law enforcement officer and no school counselor. Students are entitled to a quality education, and districts need to make adjustments to ensure that that happens.

MARTIN: What informs your view of this?

KING: You know, for me, it's really grounded in my own experience growing up. I grew up in New York City in Brooklyn. I went to P.S. 276 in Canarsie. In October of my fourth grade year, my mom passed away. And I lived with my dad who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's, and he passed away when I was 12. And...

MARTIN: You lost both your parents by the time you were 12?

KING: Yeah. And, you know, home was this place where I couldn't be a kid, but school was the place where I could be a kid, where I could be excited and engaged by learning. I was blessed to have phenomenal teachers in New York City Public Schools who saved my life. They saved my life by investing in me, by creating opportunities.

I can remember doing Shakespeare in elementary school. I can remember taking field trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to see the ballet and teachers who could have given up on me, but instead chose to invest in me. And so I know fundamentally school can save lives. We've got to make sure that all children, whatever their circumstances outside of school, have access to great learning opportunities inside of school.

MARTIN: So you then became a teacher, and you founded a charter school. You've since described charter schools as an important and permanent part of public education. Charter schools are a very polarizing subject in education. Some people feel that they are also an additional driver of segregation. I'd like to ask, you know, how do you respond to that?

KING: What we need are more great schools, whether they're charter schools or district schools. We know too many of our students are in schools that are struggling, and so we've got work to do to improve opportunities. Charters can be a part of that. That said, there are some terrible charters, and those schools should be closed. Part of the agreement in getting a charter is that the school be good or the school won't be allowed to continue. And so we need states to step up as charter authorizers and really have meaningful accountability. But where charters are creating opportunities for students, where they're getting much better academic outcomes, they're going on to college at higher rates, we should celebrate that, and we should expand those opportunities.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is part of the play here on these new regulations is that if affluent schools realize they might lose something, that that might create some urgency around making sure that less affluent kids get what they need - is that part of the logic of this?

KING: I hope in the end it's that folks see that they have a stake in the success of other people's children. The reality is you can't build walls high enough to keep the fate of your kids separate from the fate of the kid down the block, down the street, down the road, in the next community over - all our kids' fates are bound up together. And the work that we're doing on supplement not supplant, the work that we're doing on socioeconomic diversity in schools and promoting efforts to increase school diversity, all of that is about saying we are one community and we are ultimately stronger together.

MARTIN: That's John King, the secretary of education for the United States. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

KING: Thanks for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.