Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/School Organization/Funding
School funding: Are all schools created equal?
By Shelly Simonds
Just imagine; you’re moving to a new city, you’ve got a wife and two young kids and tons of money. Where would you want to send your kids to school?
If you moved to New Hampshire, you could send them to a private boarding school called Phillips Exeter Academy where they have small class sizes, talented students and a one billion dollar endowment (Fabrikant, 2008). Or you could send your child to a poor public school district an hour away in Lawrence, Massachusetts where students have at times needed to bring in their own toilet paper (Kozol 1992).
Hummmm…. difficult decision? I don’t think so. All parents make rational choices about their children’s education. Unfortunately, poor parents in the inner city don’t have the same choices as wealthy and middle class parents because they are physically stuck where they are by limited opportunities. Minorities in the inner city are the biggest victims of school funding inequality, or the way some schools in America have more resources than others.
The topic of equal funding for schools is very important for teachers because many of us are asked to prepare students for a successful future without adequate resources. In my opinion, we are increasingly held accountable for the success or failure of our students, although we are rarely provided with the facilities, materials and support needed for success.
This article will provide teachers with new information on how their schools are funded and show how current inequalities in school funding impact minority students. In it, I will argue that the inability of the United States to fix inequalities in school funding could hurt our country’s future economic growth. This inequality also threatens to create an underclass of people who cannot find jobs and as a result, place a drain on government resources. The article will conclude by presenting multiple perspectives on ways to solve the current problems in school funding.
Why are there inequities in America’s schools?
Public schools are funded by a complex mix of local property tax revenue, state funding and federal grants. The federal government currently only contributes 9 percent of K-12 funding with states and localities contributing the rest (Miller, 2008).
Although most people agree that more money should be spent on school funding, there is much debate over which level of government should provide the money. This disagreement has stood in the way of school finance reform (Walter and Sweetland, 2003). Both local and state budgets are under increased pressure for funds in areas such as pensions, health care, and corrections (Walter and Sweetland, 2003).
Local control of schools, and school funding, dates back to colonial times when colonists were leery of central government authority. When rich and poor lived side by side in cities and towns property taxes seemed like a fair way to fund the schools all children attended (Miller, 2008). But the funding gap began to increase in the 20th century as the wealthy and middle classes began moving out of large cities and into the suburbs, leaving poorer citizens behind.
What is the impact of this inequity on minorities?
Why it matters
The reason that the school funding issue is so important is that it has a huge impact on minorities who are the majority of students attending schools in the inner-city. These are also the schools without a large property tax base. Over time many inner-city schools have been the victims of a downward spiral in revenue which occurs like this: Once schools become known for having insufficient resources, those with means move else where, which causes housing prices to drop, which in turn means even fewer tax dollars can be collected to pay for schools (Miller, 2008). The result is that the poorer schools get poorer and the richer schools get richer.
“The dirty little secret of local control is the enormous tax advantage it confers on better off Americans; communities with high property wealth can tax themselves at low rates and still generate far more dollars per pupil than poor communities taxing themselves heavily,” argued Matt Miller in the online edition of the Atlantic Monthly (2008).
This dynamic has a huge impact on minorities, who make up the majority of those attending poorly-financed city schools. Students of color made up 69 percent of students in the 100 largest school districts3 (Darling-Hammond, 2007).
As the number of minorities increase as a percentage of our population, our failure to educate them in urban schools will decrease the number of our citizens who can enter the job market of the future (Darling-Hammond, 2007). This failure to invest in education will cost the country in economic growth over the long run.
According to Darling-Hammond (2007) “Those who are undereducated can no longer access the labor market. While the United States must fill many of its high-tech jobs with individuals educated overseas, a growing share of its own citizens are unemployable and relegated to the welfare or prison systems, representing a drain on the nation’s economy and social well-being rather than a contribution to our national welfare,” (p 318).
How can we provide equal opportunity in education?
One of the main indicators of school success, or failure, is the quality of instruction students receive. An increasing body of research has linked student success to the quality of teachers, according to Darling-Hammond (2007). She suggests a national policy as aggressive as the post World War II Marshall Plan to increase the number of qualified teachers in impoverished schools. This new policy would include: $25,000 service scholarships to draw teachers to high-need school districts; stipends to experienced teachers who agree to teach in high-poverty schools; improved teacher preparation and professional development; as well as programs to mentor all beginning teachers. (Darling-Hammond, 2007).
A number of experts have pointed to the need for more federal government support of education. Darling-Hammond also recommends that the federal government create programs to promote “thinking curriculums” which would emphasize problem solving and the higher-order thinking skills required of the 21st Century jobs.
Others are calling for the federal government to greatly increase the amount of funding it grants local schools. Much of the recent educational gain by European countries can be attributed to centrally funded schools with clear national standards for education (Miller, 2008).
“If we’re serious about improving our schools, and especially about raising up the lowest, Uncle Sam’s contribution must rise to 25 or 30 percent of the total,” stated Miller (2008, online).
Another strategy being pursued to improve the quality of inner-city schools is fiscal equity litigation. This entails using lawsuits to force states to provide adequate educational opportunities for all students. They are also called adequacy lawsuits. Over the last 20 years many such lawsuits have been successful and funding models having been declared unconstitutional in 17 states (Rebell, 1999). Unfortunately, enforcing such rulings has been difficult and many rulings have been ignored by state legislatures.
The recent court rulings in favor of more equitable funding shows that people are increasingly concerned about fairness in education (Rebell, 1999). According to Rebell (1999) “what seems to be at play here is the resurgence of a powerful democratic imperative at the core of the American political tradition” (p. 5). In other words, more and more people are seeing equal access to education as an essential part of democracy.
Conclusion: is change on the horizon?
This change in attitude is good news for those in favor of more evenly distributed school funding. For many years Americans have stuck to the notion that our current funding system offers equal opportunity to all (Darling-Hammond, 2007). This belief has been a major obstacle to change because, until there is a consensus about resource problems in our poorest schools, we won’t begin looking for solutions.
“The common presumption that schools currently provide a level playing filed paralyzes necessary efforts to invest in schools attended primarily by students of color,” according to Darling-Hammond (p. 329).
In this way, I think the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 may have moved the country closer to accepting the fact of inequality. Now that the government acknowledges the problem as a matter of law, it needs to invest real financial resources in the solution.
Efforts to equalize educational resources are already working in my city, Newport News, Virginia. Millions of dollars were recently spent to renovate a crumbling urban school and, as a result, children from more wealthy neighborhoods are happily riding the bus downtown to attend. The school, Booker T Washington, now has a Marine science focus, a new aquarium, a small number of students, and some of the best teachers in the city. My daughter has begged me to let her go there for middle school. Difficult decision? I don’t think so.
Application Questions and Answers
Ms. Smith is a parent of a public school child. She wants more funding for her school. Where does her school get most of its funds?
A. From the state and local governments is the answer
Ms Smith wants to send a letter to the people in charge of her public school budget, to whom should she send it?
B. Local government and school boards are the answer
Ms Smith is doesn’t like the poorly funded inner-city school her niece attends. Students there are most likely disadvantaged because…
A. They don’t have the most qualified teachers is the answer
The family of an inner-city child has been asked to participate in a fiscal equity lawsuit. The goal is to….
D. Require states to fund education more equitably is the answer
Based on recent experience, how successful will the lawsuit be?
B. Somewhat successful because the hold states accountable is the answer
Darling-Hammond, L (2007) The flat earth and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our Future. Educational Researcher, 36 (6), 318-334.
Fabrikant, G. (2008, January 26). Age of riches: At elite prep schools, college-sized endowments. The New York Times. Retrieved on Jan 29 from the website http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/26/business/26prep.html?pagewanted=all
Hayes, L. (December 1992) A simple matter of humanity; an interview with Jonathan Kozol. Phi Delta Kappan. 74(4), 334(4)
Kozol, J. (March 1992) “If money doesn’t matter, why all the savage inequalities?” Education Digest. 57(7), 32-35.
Miller, M. (January/February 2008) First, kill all the schools boards. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved on February 3 from the website http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200801/miller-education
Moretti and Rouse (December 2006) The costs of not graduating tallied by researchers. Education Week. 25(45s), 7. Retrived online Feb. 16, 2008 from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/06/22/41s_costs.h25.html
Rebell, M. (December 1999) Fiscal Equity Litigation and the Democratic Imperative, Equity & Excellence in Education, 32(3), 5-18.
Walter, F, & Sweetland, S. (Fall 2003) School finance reform: an unresolved issue across the nation. Education (Chula Vista, CA) 124(1), 143-50.