Some members of the Board of Regents on Tuesday called for a policy that would better address the opportunity gap that underlies the academic disparities at the heart of much education discourse.
Regents Lester Young and Judith Johnson steered Tuesday morning’s Board of Regents discussion about the board’s education aid proposal toward a broader focus on closing the so-called achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their wealthier, whiter counterparts.
On the 2016 English Language Arts assessment, for example, 46 percent of white students scored proficient, while just 26 percent of black students and 27 percent of Hispanic students met that threshold, according to state data.
Young said the problem with the gap is more related to the “opportunity gap” faced by under-funded schools that serve the neediest students. When state policymakers like the Regents create expanded opportunities for students and schools, the lack of resources at some schools makes it hard to provide students with those opportunities in the classroom.
The result could be, Young suggested, furthering the divide among different student groups.
He pointed to Regents’ effort over the past year to expand “pathways” to graduation, adding a “4 plus 1” option that allows students to replace a fifth regents exam by acquiring career and technical credits or passing certain work-based programs.
Young said many schools he visits would like to offer those options to students but can’t afford to do so.
“One of the dangers is that we find out that the only opportunities that were created were for students that already had the opportunities,” Young said. “We create opportunities on paper, and yet there continues to be a gap.”
While the board didn’t hone in on any specific ask for Education Department staff, other board members agreed with Young – that they would like to see movement toward creation of a specific policy on how to close the opportunity gap.
“I don’t see a policy in place at the board level that identifies that as an issue,” Johnson said. “We talk about the gap, but we don’t say that it is a priority.”
Young said he wanted the board and state Education Department to be “more intentional” about creating the opportunities tied to specific outcome goals and targeted to lift students out of the performance “gap,” rather than “just saying we are going create opportunities.”
Regent Roger Tilles said the board sometimes approves program options that very few districts may have the resources to implement right away, suggesting the long-term goal was to expand options statewide.
“Some of the things we want to do with arts and music, for example, virtually no school district will have the resources to do that,” he said. “We are trying to come up with things that will ultimately benefit all students.”
But the root of the conversation centered around the board’s budget proposal, which is likely to call for a three-year phase-in of the $3.8 billion still outstanding in the state’s foundation aid formula, which is used to determine funding needs for districts statewide.
Beyond a commitment to fully fund the formula in the next few years, the board also appeared to be leaning toward eliminating limits to the amount of poverty that can be factored into a district’s aid distribution, as well as considering changes to the amount of weight given to poor students and English language learners in the formula.
On top of the call for a foundation aid phase-in, the board is also eyeing separate investments in consolidating the myriad existing pre-kindergarten programs and expanding access, boosting funding for schools with a large number of English language learners, expanding career and technical programs and increasing professional development.
Regent Jim Tallon, who leads the board’s state aid committee and spearheads the budget proposal, said after the meeting that it sounded to him like some of his colleagues were considering more dramatic changes to the foundation aid formula, alluding to Young’s and Johnson’s comments.
Tallon said he supports the current formula, with tweaks and adjustments, and he thinks undertaking a major overhaul would be a tremendously complex and difficult task.
“The foundation formula was an accomplishment,” he said. “If we walk away, in a complex state, from the formula, that leaves us in a difficult situation.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.
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