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Tisch and Rebell Lead Campaign to Washington

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Equity Campaign in DC

Laurie M. Tisch speaking with Rep. Charles Rangel at the Campaign Rollout in Washington, DC.

No Child Left Behind is the focus in rollout on Capitol Hill

Any way you slice it, spring started with a bang for Michael Rebell.

On Wednesday, March 29th, the New York State legislature voted to appropriate $11.2 billion in capital construction funds to New York City schools -- money that, as counsel in one of the nation's most prominent school finance suits, Rebell had sought for more than a decade. The decision was only a partial victory -- the state continues to defy a court order to provide the city with an annual increase of more than $5 billion in school operating funds -- but it followed on the heels of an appellate court ruling that, in perhaps the strongest language yet, directs the legislature to pay up.

Meanwhile Rebell -- who last June begin his current job as executive director of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College -- was too busy to celebrate. Together with Laurie M. Tisch, The Campaign's Board Chair, he was in Washington, D.C., delivering an impassioned plea for Congress to similarly attend to the needs of disadvantaged school children nationwide.

"For the past 12 years, I've been asking judges to give schools the money they need," Rebell said. "But what I've really learned from all the work going on at Teachers College is that if you're serious about eliminating the achievement gap, you've got to deal up front with the impact of poverty on so many children. And that means looking not only at the potential benefits of universal pre-school, but also at health issues, like the high rates of asthma in poor black children; family support; after school programs; and much more."

Rebell and Tisch also called for Congress to significantly retool No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that is up for reauthorization in 2007 -- and to precede that work with a national study of the true cost of providing children with a quality education.

"It is our belief that the federal government -- and Congress, in particular -- must engage in an exhaustive analysis of precisely what aspects of this law have been successful, what needs fixing, and how," said Tisch in her opening remarks. "This analysis must be conducted in a way that draws upon the highest-quality research and ensures a debate can be driven by facts rather than a priori partisan ideologies. We believe this is the only way to ensure that we are serving the interests of America's children."

The Washington event, sponsored by the office of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and attended by an overflow crowd in the Russell Senate Office Building, was also a national rollout event for The Campaign. Congressman Charles Rangel of New York's 15th District delivered opening remarks, followed by Roberto Rodriguez, Kennedy's senior education counsel. 

"This can't be a campaign, it has to be a crusade," said Rangel, in a rousing speech. "There's no problem I can think of that can't be eliminated or at least alleviated by improving education."

For Rebell, who views the work of The Campaign as a natural outgrowth of school finance lawsuits like New York's (for which he still acts as counsel), the timing of the New York appropriation vote and The Campaign's rollout on Capitol Hill perfectly illustrated the link between his old job and his new one.

"When I was offered the opportunity to lead The Campaign, I was thrilled, because now I could finally confront a question people have been asking me for the past 12 years -- namely, -'well, if you get the money, is it going to matter, or is it just going to go down the same old bureaucratic rat hole,'" Rebell said.

The Campaign's focus, he explained, is to ensure, on a national level, that money spent on education does indeed matter. One way it will do that, Rebell said, is by applying lessons learned from school finance cases like New York's to the question of how to rethink No Child Left Behind, a law that has given the federal government clear powers to penalize failing schools and districts, but been much less forthcoming about defining success or providing schools with the resources to achieve it.

In addition, the Campaign intends to marshal research currently available at Teachers College and other institutions and use the occasion of next fall's annual Equity Symposium to generate new research to provide answers or advance the debate on questions like, "Can we really achieve 100 percent proficiency in regard to meaningful standards by 2014? If not, is there a more a more realistic yet challenging output goal that the law should mandate? How can the needs of English language learners and students with disabilities be properly advanced by this law? And how can we ensure that teachers -- especially those in hard-to-staff inner-city and rural districts, are truly -'highly qualified' instead of -'minimally qualified'?"

Drawing on two policy papers just published by The Campaign, Rebell argued that in addressing NCLB, Congress might take direction from the state courts that have ruled in school finance "adequacy" cases -- those in which plaintiffs have argued that state constitutions guarantee students the right to a sound, basic education.

"Since 1989, there have been 28 major decisions in school finance adequacy cases heard in state high courts, and plaintiffs have won 21 of them," he told his audience. "Those victories have come in red states as well as blue, during an era generally dominated by the conservative political agenda. What that shows is that there is a deep and profound commitment to equity in America and to the vision first laid out in Brown versus Board of Education."

More specifically, Rebell said, the experience in the state court cases indicates that NCLB needs fixing on at least the following three fronts:

  • Adequacy of resources. "There's a lot of talk in Washington about the states not getting enough money to cover increased costs for testing and administration under NCLB," he said. "That's important, but much more important is that schools in the neediest areas lack the fundamental resources to do what the law tells them to -- help kids learn. So what can all these sanctions possibly achieve?" In contrast, Rebell said, state courts have conducted detailed estimates of the money required to deliver an education that will enable students to meet state standards. "We're asking Congress to do a similar costing out study on a national level," he said.
  • Quality of education standards. In leaving it to each state to define "proficiency," NCLB has left the door open for states to game the system by lowering their standards."At this point, it's more than fair to ask whether NCLB, contrary to its intent, is encouraging a race to the bottom to meet these increasingly pressured -'average yearly progress requirements by 2014," he said. Again, Rebell argued that the state courts have taken a more sound approach by conducting painstaking evaluations of what constitutes a quality education. "If you look at these cases, you find a virtual consensus definition," he said. "It includes sufficient ability to read, write and speak the English language; sufficient fundamental knowledge of social studies to make informed choices about issues that affect them personally or affect their communities; sufficient social and communication skills to work well with others and communicate ideas to a group -- and much more." Such a consensus definition should be "built into NCLB as a substantive floor."
  • School capacity-building at the local level. Schools and districts that are struggling to meet student achievement targets need not only money, but guidance on how to do a better job of developing curriculum and improving teaching. NCLB should "require districts in need of improvement to develop a multi-year comprehensive capacity-building plan," Rebell said. State education departments need to be encouraged (and provided the resources) to help schools in need of improvement with substantial technical assistance -- including teams of distinguished educators -- as states such as Massachusetts, North Carolina and Kentucky have done.

Rebell and Tisch also met separately with Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who originally co-authored NCLB, and Congressman Ric Keller, Republican of Florida; as well as legislative aides from the offices of Senator Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut; and Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and from the House Committee on Education and the Work Force, chaired by Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon, Republican of California.

"It's tough winning friends on both sides of the aisle, because there are some real ideological divides around education," Rebell said. "But ultimately, everyone wants to help children succeed."

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