City schools: Backward on finances, forward on governance

Robert Kuttner

October 04, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

In my column Oct. 4 on inequalities in school finance, I wrote that Hawaii had equalized school funding by treating the entire state as a single school district and having the state government collect property taxes. In fact, the state does assume responsibility for all school finance, but property taxes are collected by local governments and used for other purposes.

THE BUSH administration's recent embrace of national education standards is mocked by the way schools are financed. Basic student achievement is unlikely to improve until schools in poor communities have resources similar to schools in rich ones. And on that front, the nation has been moving backward.

In his new book, "Savage Inequalities," author Jonathan Kozol contrasts schools in places like Cherry Hill and Camden in New Jersey, which are five minutes apart. Good suburban public schools are able to spend $9,000 to $14,000 per student. Poor communities spend $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the state -- and have to tax themselves at higher rates to do it.


Even these statistics understate the reality. Since slum schools tend to be in crumbling buildings and violent neighborhoods, principals are forced to divert scarce resources to emergency repairs and to physical security. Slum schools also serve kids with massive family and health problems, requiring schools to double as social agencies. The actual disparity in money available to classroom teaching is more like four or five to one.

Yes, many big city systems are too bureaucratized. But as Kozol says, even if you got rid of every shred of bureaucratic waste, kids in poor schools would still get a fraction of the resources available to rich kids.

At New Trier High, in suburban Winnetka, Ill., Kozol found a feast of well-compensated teachers, advanced placement courses, swimming pools, music and art enrichment and almost everybody going to college. Across the state, in East St. Louis, he encountered buildings that should be condemned, one guidance counselor for several hundred students, shared textbooks, classes of 35 and 40, labs without supplies -- and one student in eight graduating with an academic diploma.

Increasingly in America, the social class of the parents dictates the life chances of the children -- and the one great potential equalizer, public education, compounds the inequality. Far from attaining the goal of Brown vs. Board of Education -- equal educational opportunity -- we are retreating even from the standard of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1894 case that Brown overturned.

Our schools are increasingly separate and increasingly unequal, isolated by race and by class.

Even within the same city, affluent parents are often able to carve out special districts, or magnet schools for "gifted" children, that offer the amenities of suburban schools. This is held to be the price of keeping affluent taxpayers committed to public schools at all.

This is, of course, an old story. Kozol's eloquent book, like Alex Kotlowitz's "There Are No Children Here," seems almost anachronistic. Yes, the poor are still with us; we know. We tried a national social conscience in the 1960s, and it didn't work. We've got our own problems. Tell us something new.

Yet even in an era when it is fashionable to blame the poor for their afflictions and to reject public remedy, Kozol's story cannot be dismissed -- because his subjects are children. These children are not yet crack addicts, not yet prostitutes, not yet baby-machines, not yet rapists.

Even in the bleakest ghetto, children are innocent until proven guilty, potentially capable of making poems and music, of learning middle-class virtues of hard work and self-discipline. Unless we as a society simply write off all children of the very poor as hopelessly stunted from birth -- and then wonder where those crack addicts and rapists and welfare mothers keep coming from -- it is suicidal to sponsor schools guaranteed to produce failures.

In the 1960s and 1970s, America embraced the goal of greater equality for school finance. The federal government assumed about 10 percent of public-school costs.

Today, after a decade of conservative rule, that has been cut to about 6 percent.

State legislatures, prodded by courts, have upped their funding slightly -- from 39 percent of local school budgets in 1965 to 46 percent today. But as more than one governor has learned, the politics of equalizing school finance is almost impossible in a period of dwindling federal aid and fiscal stress. Only one state, multicultural Hawaii, has faced the problem head on. It collects all property taxes, supplements them with other revenues and ++ returns a virtually equal per-pupil amount to each school.

In most of America, parents in affluent suburbs fiercely resist any diversion of their tax dollars to help other people's children. What school finance experts call "leveling-down" is considered politically impossible.

The alternative, leveling-up, is all but unattainable without federal help.

In the 1990s, it is fashionable to insist, hypocritically, that the answer is not money, but "values" and "discipline." But as Kozol points out, if money is not the answer, why is it that affluent parents in well-off suburbs keep lavishing money on their schools to buy the small classes, the good teachers, the language labs and computers and the special enrichment courses?

The only shred of hope here is that our "education president," by promoting national standards for teachers, curricula and student achievement, has inadvertently opened the door to national standards for resources. Kozol's remedy is to upgrade every classroom in America to roughly the quality of the best suburban schools. That would cost about $30 billion a year.

D8 Can you think of a better use of the peace dividend?

Robert Kuttner writes regularly on economic matters.

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