Under-funded Schools

Why Money Matters

By Noreen Connell

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 216 cover

The assault on public education is picking up steam everywhere, with conservative forces embarking on a pincer movement that would make General Patton proud. On one flank, in state legislatures across the country and the U.S. Congress, the right is fighting against any effort to improve funding for urban and rural school districts and rebuild crumbling classrooms. "Money will not make the difference," they claim.

On the other flank, rightwing think tanks argue that only "competition" and "the marketplace" will turn around failing urban schools. Their experts argue that education will only improve when poor children are given vouchers to attend private schools and private groups are allowed to start and run their own schools with unregulated public funds. Their steady press barrage portrays the major urban school systems as failing socialist experiments that must be abandoned.

Progressive forces are not waging enough of a counterattack, despite a growing arsenal of data that neither vouchers nor no-strings-attached charter schools are producing miracles. For instance, scholars are waging an academic food fight around whether children's math scores in Milwaukee really increased five points since vouchers for private schools were introduced there five years ago. But rather than arguing the claims and counterclaims about privatization, progressives might be better off championing positive solutions of their own: more equitable and better directed school funding. They have a model in Kentucky, where a reformed system posted 20 to 30 point gains in student achievement.

Exposing The Big Lie: Money Does Count In Education

In European countries and Japan, national governments provide most of the money for schools and just about all schools receive roughly similar funding. But in the United States the federal government funds less than 7% of elementary and secondary education. It is up to each state to figure out how to fund the rest. The result is that we have a crazy quilt of 51 funding systems. In New Hampshire, the state shares only 8% of the costs of public education, so schools depend almost entirely on local property taxes. Schools in wealthy districts have lots of resources; those in poor school districts have far fewer. In Hawaii, the whole state is a single school district and only 2% of funding comes from local sources, so there are very minor differences in resources for school children.

The consequences of crazy-quilt funding for schools becomes clear when the U.S. educational system is compared to the U.S. postal system. Suppose every state in the nation, rather than the federal government, was responsible for funding mail delivery. In short order, dramatic differences in mail delivery would emerge. Residents in well-off postal districts would have next day delivery and local post offices would be fully automated. Families and businesses would move to these areas to ensure that their correspondence and magazines arrived on time. In poor postal districts, old, broken down, manual machines would be the norm and letters might take as long as two weeks to arrive. Wealthy individuals and companies would use private carriers, such as Federal Express. In affluent postal districts, first-class stamps might cost 27 cents, while in the poorest districts they might cost as much as 45 cents.

Legal battles challenging the inequitable school funding schemes have raged across the land throughout the 1990s (see table). A minority of court battles focus around unequal taxpayer burdens in paying for schools (the stamp analogy). Most focus on the differences in educational quality between low-wealth and high-wealth school districts. Yet even a positive court ruling is not the end of the story. The highest state court can rule that the current system of funding schools is unconstitutional, but it is up to the state legislature to fashion the "reform." This is where conservative political forces, from governors to state legislators, come powerfully into play. In states like New Jersey and Texas, the initial "reforms" looked pretty much like the old systems; i.e., schools in wealthy neighborhoods had three to five times the resources as schools in poor (and mostly minority) neighborhoods. In Kentucky, the right did not block reform following a 1989 court case, and we have a model of what progressive reform could look like (see box). The state invested in poor school districts, but also supported teacher training, causing student achievement to improve by more than one third over a four-year period. But with conservative forces blocking reform, few states have made similar progress.

In New York, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the New York Civil Liberties Union are challenging the state funding system. In New York City spending is only $8,301 per pupil, despite the greater needs of its students, while Westchester County, a wealthy suburb to its north spends $12,619. New York State's system is better than New Hampshire's simply because it doesn't leave the funding of schools at the mercy of local taxpayers. On average, it picks up 42.6% of the costs of public school districts, with twice as much state funding going to the poorest 20% of districts than the wealthiest 20%. Yet large state contributions don't mean everything. After years of litigation, the state of Texas, which picks up roughly the same proportion of education expenses as New York state, now spends three times as much on poor school districts as on wealthy ones. New York, by contrast, ranks among states with the greatest inequalities because it doesn't provide enough funding to low wealth districts to make up for dramatic differences in wealth among communities. The state provides New York City with $3,486 per pupil, and only $2,271, on average, to Westchester school districts. Yet Westchester school districts are twice as wealthy as New York City's, so they still spend twice as much on their schools.

Smart Reforms, Smart Kids

Progressives interested in school financing have one model for reform in Kentucky. After a state court ruled in 1989 that the school funding system was unconstitutional, business leaders pushed through reform legislation with little organized opposition from the rightwing. As a result, student achievement improved on a dramatic scale, in some subject areas by 20 to 30 points, far surpassing the meager gains claimed by supporters of voucher experiments.

The backbone of Kentucky's reform package was equitable funding for public schools. But Kentucky also ensured the money was directed well. Its ambitious battery of reform included curriculum changes, teacher training, school-based decision making, new technologies, before- and after-school programs, and resource centers for students and their families.

Between 1990 and 1992, the gap between the richest 20% of Kentucky's school districts and the poorest was narrowed by 52%. Teacher salaries rose from $26,292 to $31,025 in the same time period, lifting the commonwealth's teacher salary from 38th in the nation to 29th. By 1994, total state funding for education was up by 42%. Staff development programs received a hefty share of the new funds, with hundreds of administrators and thousands of teachers being trained in new programs and regulations and 198 new people trained to lead staff trainings.

The Bluegrass State's new commitment to adequate and equitable school funding and increased staff training has already paid off. Kentucky's own index showed dramatic increases in reading and mathematics abilities of students at all levels. Between 1993 and 1997, reading scores for elementary students almost doubled, increasing from 32.4 to 63.8 on a 140-point scale. Middle schoolers' reading scores rose from 38.4 to 49.2, and high school students' improved by an impressive 167%, from 20.2 to 54.0. Over the same time period, math scores shot up by 101% for elementary students, 136% for middle school students, and 125% for high school students. Scores in subjects like science, social studies, art, and writing increased consistently, although not as sharply as in reading and math. Overall, student scores at all levels increased more than one third over the four-year interval.

Of course, New York State could mimic Hawaii and pick up 98% of the costs of education so that every school gets the same level of resources. But Hawaii, no matter how scenic, is no education paradise. Given its high costs as a state, the state underfunds all schools equally. Many of its 254 schools are overcrowded and in disrepair. According to Education Week's "Quality Counts '98" report, teachers in Hawaii have the lowest salaries in the nation, adjusting for the state's cost of living. Or consider California, which also picks up more of the share of education expenditures, but does not provide enough resources to any school to keep them repaired and adequately staffed. This type of "lemon socialism" brought about by Proposition 13 is not a solution.

The Right continues to raise its voice, charging that more money to improve poor school districts "will not make a difference" and/or "the money will be wasted." Both assertions are red herrings that are as big as whales. The relationship of education funding to student achievement is complex and not fully understood. However, the assertion that "money doesn't count" is absurd. The very people who claim this are the ones spending $14,000 to send their children to private schools. If this were true, the battle over educational budgets would make no sense nor would real estate agents in suburbs point to the expenditure levels of a district's schools when selling houses. Another allegation, a bit closer to reality, is that money does count, but is sometimes wasted or misdirected.

Failed Strategies

Nationally, urban districts spent about $4,500 per student in 1994, compared with $5,066 in non-urban districts. Per pupil funding levels in Baltimore, Jersey City, Philadelphia, and New York City are $1,000 below their state's averages.

But many city districts spend the state average or even more, yet still cannot achieve their basic goals. While they have greater needs and face higher costs, some money has also been misdirected—wasted by the very funding schemes devised to ensure that poor children get their share.

From World War II to the end of the 1980s, midlevel education bureaucracies steadily grew to handle paperwork and monitor new programs. Along with the wider use of standardized tests, which reduced a good deal of principal and teacher autonomy, came top-down federal and state directives which almost eliminated decision making at the school level. These directives had several aims. First, they were a way to target more services to what were defined as "at-risk" students, thus recognizing the higher student needs of urban and rural districts. Second, they provided a way around unfair state funding formulas by driving more funds to underfunded school districts with large numbers of poor children. Third, they funded the type of services that could be easily monitored. This was to prevent funds from being siphoned off for other purposes or denied by school staff hostile to the children it was meant to serve. These programs represented lofty aims and a certain degree of justifiable paranoia that without oversight, school systems would not truly teach these students.

In hindsight, many of these "categorical" programs with their independent funding streams for the disabled, for students who had not mastered English, or students who had fallen behind and needed remedial help, ultimately proved less effective than hoped. They channeled resources in ways that were neither beneficial for students nor helpful for achieving fiscal fairness. Their impact on overall school quality has been even worse. These programs, unintentionally, created perverse funding incentives for student failure. Schools with higher levels of students testing poorly received more federal and state funding than schools with fewer failing students. Yet these multimillion dollar programs did not provide enough money per pupil to allow for additional teachers to be hired. Instead, less costly unskilled paraprofessionals were assigned to work with students with the greatest academic needs. Bureaucrats, obsessed with student eligibility for services, created new monitoring jobs to verify that these fundable services were provided; however, the monitors largely ignored whether students were being helped by the programs. They were documenting compliance—not effectiveness.

These programs shattered the instructional day for children struggling academically as they were pulled out of class for mind numbing drill sessions by paraprofessionals with little training or information on the teacher's lesson plans. District officials, principals, and teachers had no flexibility in managing the funds or designing the programs—although they were monitored for their compliance with regulations. In short, students were sorted into eligible "at risk" categories, rather than served.

By the end of the 1980's, education circles began recognizing that "categorical" funding programs targeted at individual students were not working. The first requirement in rebuilding the public education system, especially in cities, is to rebuild public education around the expectation that city kids can learn better once given the chance.

Where Resources Must Go: Teaching

Those who argue that "money doesn't count" also dispute recent research showing a powerful, direct relationship between student achievement and class size. Conducted by the state of Tennessee starting in 1985, the Student Achievement Ratio (STAR) study tracked one of the few programs designed using high scientific standards. Through random selection, children were placed in three kinds of kindergarten classes: 25 students and one teacher, similar size classes with a teacher and an aide, or a small class of 15 students and one teacher. A Harvard professor of statistics, Frederick Mosteller, tracked the progress of the students and found that those in smaller classes did far better than their cohorts in large classes. In contrast, students attending large classes with a teacher assisted by an aide made only slight gains. The students who benefited most were those from low income families. The outcomes were so striking that Tennessee invested heavily in reducing class sizes. Another recent study (by Harold Wenglinsky of the Educational Testing Service) similarly found that the students most likely to benefit from small class sizes are low-income students in high-cost areas.

For New York City to follow Tennessee and invest in smaller class sizes, it would have to spend at least $1 million to hire more than 13,300 teachers just to achieve the 13 to 1 ratio of students to teachers in nearby Westchester County.

Staff Development Is Not "Fluff"

Simply put, teacher training or "staff development" is crucial for improving the quality of public schools and changing the entire system. Large, well-managed corporations spend between 5% and 8% of their operating budgets on training. But it is not only the proportion spent that is important, but that the powers-that-be mandate teachers' participation. One of the most controversial parts of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was that it required intensive staff development for teachers of early grades. Yet it paid off with students. Their writing and higher level skills have not only improved, but become robust. The Kentucky State Education Department sacrificed many parts of KERA due to objections from teachers and the Right, but here it held firm. And the reform, combined with reduced class sizes, succeeded beyond even the optimists' hopes.

Curriculum and Standards to Combat Stripped-Down Education

While the press has paid considerable attention to the decay of city school buildings, the academic environment for city public school children is even worse. Teachers receive little guidance from their principals, school districts, or state education department. Students, besides being subjected to a grab bag of teaching approaches, are very much the victims of vendor-driven course material. Third graders in city schools often learn with boring and repetitive workbooks or software that drill them with low-level, uncreative exercises like multiple choice. Unlike their suburban cohorts, they are not even called upon to compose a sentence. Worse still, some city schools, in order to improve their students' performance on standardized tests, run practice tests so often that the real curriculum boils down to multiple-choice reading comprehension.

Necessary Investments that Won't Improve Student Outcomes Greatly

Given the drum beat of conservative political forces to privatize public education, well meaning public investments that do not "pay off" create risks for the whole progressive agenda to improve funding. While it may be necessary to invest in buildings and computers, this new spending alone won't improve student learning. A leaky roof may disrupt a classroom, without a science laboratory it is certainly more difficult to teach biology in a middle school, and jury-rigging three classes in a gymnasium is not good for students. As a matter of simple responsibility to children's physical and emotional well being, these conditions should not be tolerated.

But converting a room into a laboratory will not ensure that children achieve mastery of their subject matter. A cautionary tale, with considerable national impact, lies in the outcome of a school funding lawsuit on behalf of the Kansas City, Missouri, school district for more resources. Starting in 1994, a massive investment was made in repairing schools, but dismal student test scores remained unchanged. The business press continues to point to Kansas City as an example of why more funding for public education "doesn't work." But in actuality investments in the physical plant did work. Kansas City schools are now in good repair. But no parallel investment was made in teaching, so we should not have expected student achievement to improve. Now in the last year of additional funding for Kansas City schools, a belated investment is being made in reducing class size—too little and too late.

The same holds true with computers. Ensuring that poor students become computer literate and have access to the internet like students from wealthier districts helps prepare them for the workplace. But, so far, there is not one study documenting that students' academic achievement improved because schools increased their use of computers. The cautionary tale here is Education Alternatives, Inc., the private school management company that lost its contracts to run the Hartford and Minneapolis school systems. Although it installed computers in every school it managed, students made only marginal improvements in their test scores and in some schools test results actually went down. While the full story of this company's failure is complex, one thing is clear. Computers are not a "magic bullet" that can turn around low-performing urban schools.

If there is any "magic bullet" for urban schools, it is a clear-headed, balanced investment in both instruction and facilities, with less emphasis on "caring" for poor children—which smacks of condescension and crumbs from the rich man's table—and more emphasis on educating poor children. Claims for privatization are gaining ground among urban parents because the Right promises it will close the appalling student achievement gap and give their children a future. Yet funding public schools for failure and then blaming the victims is a cruel hoax. That the rightwing Bradley Foundation has invested in both The Bell Curve ("proving" that minorities have lower intelligence) and lawyers defending vouchers for minority students should tell us something. Progressive forces have got to get serious about engaging the Right on the field of ideological battle and not just in the courts. A campaign for social justice must begin in our classrooms.

Noreen Connell is executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel in New York City.

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