For the last decade or so policymakers have been focused, to a greater extent in some states and localities than others, on improving public elementary and secondary education performance by changing the structure of schools, and rewarding and punishing teachers based on student performance on standardized examinations.
To a certain extent this has been successful. Students perform better on standardized examinations and more students are graduating from high school and starting college. But there’s only so far this can go, says a recent New York Times editorial:
If he [New York Governor Andrew Cuomo] is serious about the issue [education], he will have to move beyond peripheral concerns and political score-settling with the state teachers’ union, which did not support his re-election, and go to the heart of the matter. And that means confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.
These shameful inequities were fully brought to light in 2006, when the state’s highest court ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York that the state had not met its constitutional responsibility to ensure adequate school funding and in particular had shortchanged New York City.
This is interesting, and suggests that the paper of record is at last moving beyond the reform movement that’s so gripped policymakers across the political spectrum for the last years.
But it’s only about half way there. Because schools are so extensively funded by local property taxes, there are very real differences between school funding in affluent towns and poor ones. Certainly, as the article points out, funding is limited and the while the 2006 case resulted in promises of more money from the state, none of that happened because of the recession.
But the fact that the funding is unequal, and the education performance is also unequal, doesn’t necessarily mean that the funding is the cause of the achievement gap, or that more money would result in higher performance.
Certainly Title I funding, which provides funding to high-poverty school districts under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, didn’t result in dramatically improved performance. Today “Title I school” used mostly to indicate “troubled school.” But how much more money would be need to see in order for these “shameful inequities” in performance to disappear? We actually have no idea. No idea at all.
And that’s because it might not be school funding that’s really crucial to fixing this problem. The article mentions that a 2014 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, characterized the problem this way: “The children who most depend on the public schools for any chance in life are concentrated in schools struggling with all the dimensions of family and neighborhood poverty and isolation.”
That’s probably a more important thing to worry about here: the neighborhood poverty and isolation. America already spends far more money on public education than other industrialized nations, and we have lower performance. American education performance is low not because we have bad schools; it’s low because we have a lot of poor people. We should work on fixing that problem.
How much money do we have to throw at schools to avoid addressing America’s high poverty rate?