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School boards must be accountable to whole communities

MCT FORUM, By Betsy Cavendish

The nation is riveted by the Republican primary elections and what they mean for the nation, but when it comes to what’s most precious to many of us — our kids’ educations — local school boards have most of the real power. And it’s time for these school boards to use that power to create high-quality learning opportunities for all students — particularly minority students, who now represent the majority of U.S. newborns.

True, 37 states spend less per pupil today than they did the previous school year, but school boards can’t simply point the finger of blame at their state capitols. Instead, they must reprioritize how they use their considerable resources and authority.

The modest gains posted by U.S. students in reading and math on the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” underscore the need for local school boards to take greater responsibility now to close the persistent opportunity gaps that have left minority students and less affluent children far behind.

Despite slight gains in math by fourth- and eighth-graders on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same worrisome trends remain: Black and Hispanic students continue to score much lower, on average, than their white counterparts.

Achievement gaps are not the inevitable result of poverty or race. Schools can either accelerate or hinder learning. They can close opportunity gaps or widen them. On this premise, the federal No Child Left Behind law focused extensively on closing achievement gaps, pushing states to test more students and holding low-performing schools accountable.

But if accountability and testing haven’t bridged achievement gaps, what will?

The reality is that where children attend school too often determines the quality of their education. That might be different were all Americans committed to creating an integrated society, where people of all economic groups and races live together, study together and advocate for each other’s children.

Until then, here’s what we can do to ensure a high-quality education for all children:

—School boards must allocate resources equitably among the schools they serve. They must ensure that schools in high-poverty neighborhoods have the resources to support learning, such as new textbooks, foreign language courses, technology and offerings that raise students’ sights.

—School boards can help place the most experienced teachers and principals in schools where students most need their help.

—School boards can make sure that their official actions don’t undermine federal programs designed to help schools serving low-income families.

—School boards should locate pre-k programs in low-income schools to make sure that the achievement gap isn’t gaping before the first day of kindergarten.

Wealthy families understand the importance of investing in education — the per-student expenditures at preparatory schools can be six times greater than in most urban schools. And in public schools, middle-class families have effectively advocated for ensuring that their children, and the schools they attend, get their share and more of education resources.

Middle-class activism, often along segregated housing patterns, frequently drives school board decisions. Yet elected officials cannot be allowed to set different starting lines for different schools. Low-income communities should mobilize around the cause of educational equity among schools in the same district.

Many other changes would help address the opportunity gap, from homebuyers choosing to live in diverse neighborhoods, to federal officials making sure federal educational dollars boost learning among those most in need.

But school boards can make a big impact now by more equitably divvying up the pot among schools and making strategic choices for their districts. Which schools will receive the most library books, laptops, and other learning materials? Which buildings will be renovated first? Where will new schools be located to attract diverse populations? Where will innovative programs be placed? How can the best, most experienced teachers and principals be matched with the neediest kids trying to get a fair start?

Local school boards are the arbiters of these decisions, and they have a moral responsibility to erase — not merely narrow — the opportunity gap. School boards must be accountable to whole communities, communities of today and the communities of tomorrow.

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