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Tisch, Rebell, Rodriguez

Laurie Tisch (far left) and Michael Rebell (center) with Roberto Rodriguez, aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy

In June 2005, when Laurie Tisch and Michael Rebell were named, respectively, Board Chair and Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, they brought what seemed like the ultimate qualifications to their jobs.

After all, Tisch, a longtime TC trustee, had personally overseen the infusion of more than $60 million into the New York City public schools to support arts education. Rebell, lead counsel and guiding spirit in a decade-long lawsuit against New York State, was known as the man who had won the City's schools a court verdict for $5.6 billion in additional operating funds and $9.2 billion in new money for facilities.

Impressive stuff. But not to a Republican Congress-man Tisch and Rebell met with this past March.

"How do you explain the fact that in my state, we spend about half of what they spend per student here in Washington, D.C., but we've got twice as many fourth graders reading at grade level?" the Congressman demanded.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans want to eliminate the school achievement gap, but few believe it can be done or that money will make a difference. Refuting that skepticism has, in many ways, been The Campaign's primary task. At its first annual symposium, "The Social Costs of Inadequate Education," held in October 2005, a group of leading social scientists presented new data on what America pays when young people fail to graduate from high school. Among the findings: a high school dropout earns about $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate and pays about $60,000 less in taxes. Annual losses exceed $50 billion in federal and state income taxes for all 23 million U.S. high school dropouts ages 18-67. Health-related losses for the estimated 600,000 high school dropouts in 2004 totaled at least $58 billion, or nearly $100,000 per student.

Conversely, the researchers found that intelligent spending could pay enormous dividends. For example, increasing the high school completion rate by just one percent for all men ages 20-60 would save the U.S. up to $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime. If even one-third of all Americans without a high school education received at least some college education, then savings on welfare, food stamps and housing assistance could total more than $10 billion. And quality preschool programs have returned as much as seven dollars for every one spent in avoided costs relating to teen pregnancy, drug abuse and crime.

Now The Campaign is subjecting the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - up for Congressional reauthorization in 2007 - to similar scrutiny. At a launch event for The Campaign on Capitol Hill in March 2006, Rebell and Tisch called for Congress to significantly retool NCLB, a law they believe has given the federal government clear powers to penalize failing schools and districts without defining success or providing schools with the resources to achieve it. Drawing on two policy papers just published by The Campaign, Rebell argued that in addressing NCLB, Congress should take direction from courts that ruled state constitutions guarantee students the right to a sound, basic education. Just as those courts have used "costing out" studies to determine how much money schools need to help students perform up to state standards, Rebell said, so the federal government should study the true costs of reaching NCLB's goals. 

Rebell argued NCLB needs fixing on at least three broad fronts: adequacy of funding, quality of education standards and support for schools to refine their curricula and otherwise help students to improve.

The Campaign's fall 2006 symposium - "NCLB and Its Alternatives: Examining America's Commitment to Closing Achievement Gaps" -will address questions like, "Can we really achieve 100 percent proficiency in regard to meaningful standards by 2014?"  If not, "Is there 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'?"

The Campaign's emphasis on fiscal accountability is the counterweight to what Rebell calls its "comprehensive approach to educational equity" - the idea that, because the nation's education gap grows out of so many factors outside the classroom (including poverty, family and cultural issues, and disparities in health care and housing), any solution must be similarly broad in focus. "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."

More specifically, The Campaign will focus its research and seek to influence policy and practice in 12 issue areas, ranging from high-quality early childhood education programs and improved student health to family education training and sustained, adequate school funding.

Meanwhile, in spring 2006, TC Visiting Professor Richard Rothstein unveiled preliminary work on a "report card" that will measure progress toward educational equity at both the national and state levels. Rothstein argued that America has traditionally defined education's goals broadly - including a focus on physical and emotional well-being and on citizenship - and that the current narrow focus of NCLB on reading, writing and math is a historical anomaly. Assessment of schools and of the nation's education gap should therefore be based on eight broad areas, he said, but a dearth of comparable data at the state level currently prevents sound judgments about which states are doing a good job in closing the gap.

Can schools really play such a broad role in today's world? Is comprehensive educational equity, as The Campaign defines it, really an achievable goal?

Returning to the Congressman's question, Rebell spoke of student achievement gains in North Carolina, Connecticut and Kentucky, states where plaintiffs have won additional school funding.

"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," Rebell told his Capitol Hill audience in spring 2006. "Those victories have come in red states as well as blue, during an era generally dominated by the conservative political agenda. That shows there is a deep and profound commitment to equity in America and to the vision first laid out in Brown v. Board of Education."

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