A New Approach to Remedy Education Inequity?: Opportunity to Learn (OTL) “State Minimums” for School Finance

In my recent School Law and Policy course at California State University Sacramento, I challenged my EDD students to work with me to detail a new input orientation, empirically-based idea for school finance based on Opportunity to Learn (OTL) “state minimums.” I believe that we have come up with a jumping off point for a promising approach to thinking about the ingredients necessary to improve student success and address longstanding inequality in US schools.

Revisiting Opportunity to Learn (OTL) is potentially a vehicle to remake the US educational system. OTL is a way of measuring and reporting whether students from all economic backgrounds have access to the different ingredients that make quality schools. Derek W. Black, Law Professor at the University of South Carolina, related in his book Education Law: Equality, Fairness, and Reform that core opportunities to learn include high quality Early Childhood Education, highly effective teachers, and a broad college bound curriculum designed to prepare all students to participate effectively in the US democracy.

OTL matters because learning is essential to the economy and the nation as a whole. However, some districts and schools provide students with greater opportunities to learn while others offer less opportunities. In essence, OTL is not equally distributed throughout the US. Many districts and schools have trouble meeting basic OTL standards. For example, decades of research has demonstrated that schools with the highest numbers of Latino/a and African American students enrolled often have textbook shortages and the lowest levels of qualified teachers. Because there are persisting learning opportunity disparities at the state, district and school-level, it is imperative that national OTL standards be implemented.

The 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) included OTL standards, but they were voluntary and vague. The states could reject the national standards and implement their own. While OTL standards were voluntary, the 1990s saw a the rise of academic standards linked to codified high-stakes testing and accountability formulas. 

During the NCLB-era, high-stakes testing and accountability proponents posited that the US could test its way to closing achievement gaps. What the testing regimes underscored was the vast difference in students success relative to students race/ethnicity and socio-economic status. Research has long shown the impact of poverty on children’s readiness for learning is profound. The poverty rate among children is not random but is unequally distributed across racial/ethnic backgrounds. To improve learning opportunities for disadvantaged children and substantially improve their educational outcomes, a proactive national policy agenda must focus on ensuring the coordinated provision of opportunities in a broad range of equity areas, including not only qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, adequate facilities, and other aspects of K-12 education, but also in regard to areas like health, nutrition, housing, and family supportBy developing and implementing OTL national standards, the policymaking community will help students, parents, communities, and school officials discover and correct disparities—especially as it relates to poverty—in schools. Having national OTL minimum standards would ensure that all school officials across the country are accountable for the educational inputs.

In most states, insurance (car, home, etc.) is governed by state minimums for each policyholder. The core of this approach from insurance laws undergirds the OTL state minimums approach—essentially, based on the OTL literature, we seek to develop state minimums for inputs across a variety of priorities. School funding should be input oriented, working forward from the ingredients necessary for student success instead of backwards from legislative whims. Once these minimums categories are established, it can then be determined what minimum level is allowable for every school. Then, districts and the state would be held accountable for providing the minimum OTL state minimum standards in each school. Districts and schools could of course go above the guaranteed minimums, but they must provide at least the minimums. As a result, this proposal is a first take to detail potential OTL state minimum standards which would then underpin school finance conversations.

Table. 1 Overview of Opportunity to Learn (OTL) “State Minimums” Targets

A. School Climate 

  • Yearly measurement of climate and safety (students, teachers, administrators, and parents)
  • Yearly measurement of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (students, teachers, administrators, and parents)
  • Strategic school climate plan
B. Parent and Community Involvement 

  • Parent liaison
  • Communication system
  • Parent advisory committee
  • Parent development opportunities
C. Assessment and Evaluation 

  • Accreditation
  • Parent and community reporting
  • Strategic plan (i.e. LCAP)
D. Teacher Quality 

  • Professional development, induction and mentoring
  • Staffing strategies (recruitment and retention)
  • Qualifications (credentials, knowledge, and experience)
E. Administrative Quality

  • Credentialed
  • Yearly measurement of quality (students, teachers, and parents)
  • Cross-site mentorship
F. Curriculum and Instruction

  • Articulated career and college pathways
  • STEAM opportunities
  • Visual and Performing Arts Electives
  • Ethnic studies
  • Foreign language
  • Secondary dual enrollment
G. Transportation, Facilities and Maintenance

  • Well-maintained
  • Yearly measurement of good repair (students, teachers, administrators and parents)
  • Integrated technology
  • Transportation
H. Wrap Around Services 

  • Counselors
  • Academic Coaches
  • Health and Wellness Services (i.e. nurses, mental health)
I. Extra and Co-Curricular Opportunities 

  • Athletics
  • Community volunteerism
  • Student government, clubs and other activities

School Climate

School climate includes safety as one of the dimensions for creating a sheltered environment. Maslow (1943) indicated that feeling safe—socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically—is a fundamental human need. Additionally, feeling safe in school promotes student learning and healthy development (Devine & Cohen, 2007). There are multiple conducts of safety, one being rules and norms. School with set discipline guidelines and enforcement have a lower rate of violence (Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005). This fact leads to an increase in the positive climate of a school. Another form of safety is school space. The quality of school facilities has been found to positively affect student achievement (Uline & Tschannen-Moran, 2008). Moreover, variables such as classroom layout, activity schedules and student-teacher interactions can influence student behaviors and the feelings of safety. In sum, a positive school climate promotes cooperative learning, group cohesion, respect and mutual trust, which directly improves the learning environment.

Parent and Community Involvement

Family and community engagement has a positive influence on student achievement and behavior. Research has found that schools with family and community partnerships are more successful in improving students’ academic achievement and their college and career readiness compared to schools that do not engage families and community. The positive influence of school practices to engage families is greatest for low-income children; in fact, the disparity between middle- and low-income families’ readiness to work effectively with schools contributes to the achievement gap.

Assessment and Evaluation

Accreditation serves to establish trust in the quality of public schools. Accreditation criteria often include defining clear educational missions and goals, systems and resources to achieve objectives, and processes  to ensure continuous improvement. These criteria empower educators to reflect upon their current practices and engage in innovation. Consequently, it is vital that all schools undergo accreditation and develop a plan for meeting accreditation standards. In the process of preparing for accreditation, schools should engage their local community members. Inviting the community to visit and observe the school will promote transparency and establish a network through which information can be developed and shared. Studies have suggested that increasing community involvement improves educational outcomes for students. The data gathered through accreditation and the information shared by the community will prepare schools to develop relevant and applied strategic plans. Schools should be allowed freedom to allocate resources to address identified areas for improvement while maintaining existing services. A system of local control will promote ownership of the accreditation process.

Teacher Quality 

Students’ opportunity to learn depends on many factors one of which is teachers’ quality. As for college degrees and subject-matter knowledge, research has shown that teachers’ subject-matter knowledge association with student achievement varied by grade level. Furthermore, not only teachers’ experience with years affect student’s learning positively, but also teachers’ ability to motivate their students and to manage their classrooms improves with time resulting in better students’ attendance and in a decrease in the number of students’ violations to school rulesAfter the passage of NCLB, districts have hired of hundreds of thousands more teachers on emergency permits without quality preparation (or no preparation at all) in high- minority and high poverty schools which has negatively impacted students’ opportunity to learn and increased the achievement gap between them and their more affluent peers.

Administrative Quality

Today, school administrators are expected to do more than just leading the school. An administrator is expected to not only be a school leader but also a student advocate, a social worker, a community activist, a conflict manager, while simultaneously fostering student achievement. As a result, in order to improve educational outcomes, it is vital that school administrators be trained and provided mentorship to become skilled in their job duties. An administrative credential should be a requirement for all school administrators.  A credential ensures that the person in charge of a school site has met certain requirements in order to lead. The ability to gain a credential is not just completing a check-list. A credential is one tool to build the capacity of leaders. For example, administrators should be able to expertly demonstrate the skills outlined in the California Administrator Performance Expectations will improve teaching and learning for all students.

Curriculum and Instruction

Curriculum and Instruction  defines the content and pedagogical practices that each school will include to ensure equity in the quality of education that every student will experience. All students will be provided with seven primary components in addition to core content instruction. This will require the inclusion of ethnic studies, foreign language, visual and performing arts, Science Technology Engineering Arts and MATH (STEAM), Career Technical Education (CTE), articulated career and college ready pathways, and secondary dual enrollment. Just as the currently adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) add to the linguistic and academic development from year to year, the C & I state minimums will include progressing stages across the grade-levels.

Transportation, Facilities and Maintenance

There is little doubt that school transportation improves the school attendance rate and academic performance. A recent research by UC Santa Barbara professor Michael Gottfried shows the effect of school bus transportation on chronic absenteeism, in some cases a 20 percent increase in attendance. The state should provide free of charge transportation to all students.  Good facilities maintenance cost money in the short-run and save money in the long-run. Facilities maintenance produces savings by:  (1) Decreasing equipment replacement costs over time, (2) Decreasing renovation costs because fewer large-scale repair jobs are needed, and (3) Decreasing overhead costs (such as utility bills) because of increased system efficiency. The state should guarantee all public schools well-maintained facilities and increase spending for school facilities as highlighted in the research report that 80% of students attend districts that are failing to meet minimum industry standards due to lack of spending.

Career Ready and College Pathways

Guarantee all students will have access to well articulated pathways that will prepare them to succeed in  the job market, college or university. Strive to develop internship opportunities with industry and dual-enrollment opportunities with local colleges and universities.

Wrap-Around Services

Critical to student success is the school’s provision of  Socio-emotional Learning services beyond the classroom. It is important that specialized support is given as students face barriers to learning in achieving their educational goals.  Counseling, academic coaching, as well as health and wellness services are wrap-around support that contribute to students’ academic, health and well-being. One-on-one interaction of student with academic coach to focus on strengths, goals, study skills, and school engagement would encourage the student to stay on the path of learning. Counselors on the other hand can guide the students choose relevant courses that affect their life options after graduation. Additionally, health and wellness services staff, which consist of nurses and mental health professionals, ensures that students have access to the physical, emotional and psychological care to function effectively in and out of the classroom.  These wrap-around services iwork hand-in-hand with instructional services to ensure students achieve academic success.

Extra and Co-Curricular Opportunities

Extracurricular activities offer extensive benefits for students. Studies show that participation in extracurricular activities is associated with positive youth outcomes, including higher education attainment and greater future earnings. These opportunities are especially vital for youth from immigrant backgrounds, as they help to build peer relationships and academic motivation.  Maintaining diverse extracurricular offerings within schools will increase accessibility and inclusion for students. Schools should offer a range of athletic, social, and academic extracurricular options. Inviting community members to participate in the leadership and implementation of these offerings will also help to establish a community which prioritizes civic engagement.


High-stakes testing, accountability and the academic standards linked to them have been the primary focus of education reform for the past two decades. Such reforms have done little to address inequities within our educational system— in fact, it can be argued that they have purposefully ignored resource disparities. It is time to move away from reforms that are uni-directional accountability, primarily placing the burden of achievement upon students and educators. We need to focus our attention on creating OTL that will promote student growth and success an create bi-directional accountability that will also extend the press of accountability to policymakers to provision the resources necessary to provide OTL minimum standards.

In summary, Opportunity to Learn standards will establish equitable conditions for all students by outlining key elements and core values that every neighborhood public school should possess to promote student learning and success such as School Climate, Parent and Community Involvement, Assessment and Evaluation, Teacher Quality, Administrative Quality, Curriculum and Instruction, Facilities and Maintenance, Wrap Around Services, and Extra and Co-Curricular Opportunities. The OTL minimum standards reflect education research and proven practices; they evidence a commitment to equity and inclusion as integrative components in advancing student success.

So now, just as I did with the community-based accountability idea five years ago, I am handing off the OTL “state minimums” idea to the policy community to ponder, revise and potentially implement to create more equity in our nation’s schools.

I was honored to work on this project with my California State University Sacramento EDD student co-authors. Here they are in alphabetical order:


Sandra Ayón

Zeeshan Ayub

Pete Benitti

Karen Bridges

Suzie Dollesin

Fred Evangelisti

Thomas Herman

Matt Kronzer

Ikbal Nourddine

Rochelle A. Perez

Theresa G. Reed

Irit Winston



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