In a sweeping vision to broaden educational opportunity, a panel of national education leaders has recommended boosting teacher pay and training, widening access to preschool and adding an unprecedented level of federal involvement in schools.
Among the reasons cited by the federal advisory commission for its bold proposal: poor achievement and the yawning achievement gap.
"No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children," reads "For Each And Every Child: A Strategy for Equity and Excellence," a congressionally mandated report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
If adopted, the recommendations could be the biggest federal expansion into education since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was funded in 1965.
But the ideas from the 20-member commission face enormous hurdles. Conservatives will oppose an expensive expansion of government, and many educators will not welcome what they see as heavy-handed intervention.
The report suggests directing states to identify what's necessary to build meaningful school and teaching programs, then craft stable, predictable finance systems to support them. The report recommends creating a federal loan program for states to minimize the volatility of education spending.
In broad terms, educators said, the report hits the right
"They're heading in the right direction," said John Porter, superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose. Places that have developed effective school systems -- like Finland, Ontario and Australia -- focus on teacher selection and training, he said. "They've decided education is not just a quality-of-life issue, but a national security issue."
Noting that only 30 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top one-third of their college class, the report suggests seeking higher-caliber candidates, perhaps by raising average starting pay from $37,000 to $65,000, and by raising top salaries from $70,000 to $150,000.
Dennis Cima of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group welcomed the federal interest in toddler and preschool education, equity and teacher quality -- particularly recruiting and retaining the brightest college students.
And yet, because California lags so far behind in per-pupil spending, even enacting an ambitious vision could be less than earthshaking here. "If we doubled the amount we spend on our kids, we'd equal what they spend in Washington, D.C.," per student, said Sacramento education consultant John Mockler.
He's skeptical of more Washington ventures into education. He points to the federal order for schools to provide special education. More than three decades later, the federal government still pays only 20 percent of what districts spend on that costly -- if worthwhile -- program.
Currently, Uncle Sam contributes only about 10 percent of K-12 spending. But the report notes, "The federal government should consider expanding its authority to address longstanding and persistent issues of inequity in school finance."
The report underlines a priority President Barack Obama emphasized in the State of the Union address: universal preschool. Within 10 years, a federal-state partnership should ensure that low-income children have access to preschool, the report suggests.
In seeking to narrow the achievement gap, said Superintendent Chris Funk of San Jose's East Side Union High School District, "that's the biggest bang for the buck."
Whatever the benefits, some educators may shun federal interest as unwanted attention. For more than 10 years, through the No Child Left Behind Act, Washington has narrowly focused schools on English, math and exit exams, and punished those not hurdling an ever-rising bar. Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education professor, said, "it's hard to mobilize enthusiasm for recentralizing power in Washington."
Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, who sponsored the bill creating the commission, said "we expect to sit down with the White House legislative team to carve out a plan of action."
While the report raises important issues, it neglects other critical ones, said Hoi-Yung Poon, who leads the Silicon Valley-based advocacy group Parents for a Great Education. "There isn't a culture of learning in this country," she said, adding that there's a general lack of respect for teachers, who too often have no place in decision-making.
"Until we address those top issues, no matter how much money you put in, I'm not sure it's going to work."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.