Some Schools Are More Equal than Others

CARL T. ROWAN

April 26, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington. -- Students in Kalkaska, Mich., will not be in school today. The rural district closed its schools more than two months early because it had no money to finish the year. School board members blamed Michigan's school financing system.

The closing offered a dramatic harbinger of what threatens to be the fiercest battle in public schools since desegregation: equalizing school funds.

Huge disparities exist in the money spent on education in the United States. The Congressional Research Service, using 1986-7 census data, found that the 10 poorest school districts spent an average of $2,004 per elementary student and $3,179 per secondary student, while the 10 richest districts spent $6,260 and $6,631.

In at least a dozen states -- including Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas -- the wealthiest districts outspent the poorest by more than two to one.

Minority, inner-city children, tend to be hardest hit. A report last fall by the Educational Resource Service and the Council of Great City Schools said that large urban schools spend an average of $5,200 per pupil annually compared with $6,073 for suburban schools.

But rural areas like Kalkaska get short-changed, too. The study found rural schools spend an average of $5,476 per pupil.

Money isn't the only factor in determining the quality of education, but it is a mighty important one.

Last January, in ruling that Missouri's school funds distribution formula violated the state constitution, Circuit Judge Byron Kinder declared, ''The amount of money available for schools can and does make a difference in the educational opportunities that can be provided Missouri children.''

Noting that yearly spending ranged from $9,750 to $2,653 per pupil, Judge Kinder said that school facilities varied ''from the golden to the god-awful.''

This is illustrated in a comparison by Congressional Quarterly of schools at opposite ends of the spectrum in Illinois: New Trier High School, which serves northern suburbs of Chicago and spends $10,417 per pupil, and East St. Louis, a poverty-riddled city where most students are black and the average expenditure per pupil is $5,216.

New Trier, reports CQ, has elaborate computer labs and an Olympic-sized swimming pool; its teachers earn an average of $59,000 a year and there are 18 advanced-placement, college-level courses.

In East St. Louis, the buildings and lab equipment are aging, there are no college-level courses and high school teachers average $38,000.

Spending disparities don't arise from different needs. Urban schools generally must pay more to educate poor students and immigrants.

No, the main reason is differences in wealth. Property taxes are the chief source of funds for most schools. A growing suburb with expensive homes and prosperous malls has a much greater tax base than a decaying city losing people and industries.

Congressional Quarterly reports that about 25 states are being sued for operating unconstitutional school financing systems, and that supreme courts in 11 states have ruled that their systems violate state constitutions.

The Missouri decision is seen as a landmark, since Judge Kinder said that education is a fundamental right and that the state's finance system is irrational.

Several state legislatures, under court or public pressure, are trying to come up with solutions to funding discrepancies. Efforts are under way in Congress, too.

Closing the gaps will not be easy. It is likely to require raising taxes or shifting funds from rich districts to poor ones -- neither of which is politically appealing.

But many states have achieved near-parity, and the rest must.

This nation cannot afford to offer some of its children a golden opportunity to learn, and others a god-awful one.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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