Pay Now or Pay Later

April 10, 1991|By SUSAN P. LEVITON

There was a time in this country when public education pavedthe road out of poverty. this is no longer true. Today the substandard schools that serve poor and minority students reinforce the polarizing trends at work in our society.

The American dream has always been that rewards are based on individual achievement and hard work. Yet the accident of birth, coupled with our unwillingness to invest in the growing number of poor children, has denied thousands of Maryland's children any real chance to develop their potential and realize that dream.

Some people argue that now is the wrong time -- that we can't afford to make the investment in public education today. The lesson of the 1980s is that we can't afford not to invest now. We can't afford to continue to allow our children to grow into a population which, instead of being self-sufficient and contributing members of society, is increasingly dependent on government services. As individuals and as a society we will pay: either now or later. The price tag for delaying this critical investment is high.

Between 1980 and 1990 our prison population doubled; we are now spending over $300 million to house 17,000 people in our prison system. While Maryland is cutting over 1,000 health workers in this year's budget, we are increasing the number of prison correctional officers by more than 200.

To understand some of the reasons for the increase in our prison population, it is important to recognize the high correlation between high school drop-out rates and rates of incarceration. In Maryland, more than 16,000 children drop out of school each year. In fact, 25 percent of all Maryland students entering the ninth grade will not graduate. In Baltimore, the drop-out rate rises to 50 percent!

What is the cost to us? Each year's high school drop-out ''class'' cost the nation $340 billion in lost productivity and forgone taxes. We lose these children from the pool of prepared, qualified workers so desperately needed by our business community. Instead, they are added to our pool of prisoners, since 75 percent of the prison population never completed high school.

Why do we have such a high drop-out rate? Consider the plight of children living in poverty: 40 percent repeat a grade in school, twice the failure rate of children who are not poor. Poor children are four times more likely to have below-average basic skills.

And these poor children who come from homes where bookcases are not filled with books, and tables are not filled with food, go to the schools with the least resources. In their schools, teachers make on average $6,000 less than teachers in neighboring counties. We spend $1.75 a year on school library services for poor children, compared to the state average of $12.35. We put them in classrooms that have the highest class size in the state.

We spend less than the State average for these students on guidance counseling, computers, vocational education, gifted-and-talented education, health services and student personnel services. In school year 1989-1989, there was a $2,580 difference per student between what we spent in our wealthiest and poorest school systems. That's over $77,000 per classroom -- money that wasn't available in our poor jurisdictions for supplies, books, competitive teacher salaries and other benefits that children in wealthy jurisdictions received.

We know the individual pieces that can change this awful outcome. The development of an adequate and equitable financing system for education which would correct the disparities between wealthier and poorer jurisdictions has been proposed. ''Incentive challenge grants'' have been proposed to provide targeted funding to enable schools with poor outcomes to improve achievement and decrease retention rates has also been proposed. Rigorous performance standards have also been developed, and a system for holding schools accountable for meeting these standards.

And the crucial piece -- funding for these initiatives -- is available through restructuring our tax system.

What we do with these pieces in Maryland is now up to us. We can put these pieces together and create an agenda that will give all our children -- including poor kids -- the tools for success that a quality education offers. Or we can face what four out of five states recently experienced when their state educational financing systems were challenged in court: declaration that their financing systems were unconstitutional.

Susan P. Leviton teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law. She is president of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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