Lane Freeway To Mediocrity?
Have you ever noticed that the interstate does not turn into
a gravel road when you drive through poor communities? Have
you ever wondered why the military keeps all of its active
bases in good condition, whether or not they are found in
poor or wealthy parts of the nation? Have you ever questioned
why state and federal employees or members of Congress get
cost of living increases and high quality health insurance
coverage no matter if they live in an affluent or poverty-stricken
Of course not, because these programs and public servants
provide services that benefit the nation as a whole, not just
their local community.
Now, why the hell don't we feel the same way about public
education? Do we really think it only affects the local community,
so it should only be a local concern? Do we feel it is just
another local service, like sewage treatment, garbage collection,
or police and fire protection?
The obvious flaw in that line of reasoning is that the effects
of a failing public school system do not stop at the city
limits. The young people educated in one community rarely
stay there for the rest of their lives. Even if they did,
the skills they learn (or fail to learn) have a direct impact
or our national economy in the long run.
Mediocre schools churn out mediocre graduates with mediocre
chances in the job market. We are long past the time when
education can be considered a local concern. If there are
no Americans skilled enough to do the work, it can be outsourced
overseas via the internet - much easier now than in the past
- due to advances in information technology.
Some might argue, "Who will clean the toilets if everybody
has a degree?" In response I would ask them, "Which should
pay more, the office job everybody wishes they had, or the
manual labor that no one wants to do?"
It's as simple as the law of supply and demand. If it were
that much harder to fill positions at the Golden Arches, Ronald
would have to find ways to do more with less and better-paid
On the other hand, the current situation is so far from "everybody
has a degree" that it almost makes that argument laughable.
How about we try to get to "everybody has a diploma" first?
According to my copy of The World Almanac and Book of Facts
2002, the U.S. high school graduation rate was 68.1% for
the last year such statistics were calculated by the National
Center for Education Statistics, 1999.
Apparently the Bush Administration sees no need to keep track
any more. I searched the NCES web site but can not find updated
numbers on this (or expenditure per pupil, either). Kind of
frightening given that, according
to its own web site, the NCES is "the primary federal
entity for collecting and analyzing data that are related
to education in the United States and other nations."
Another common argument you hear is that "throwing money
at the problem never solves anything" and parents will rebel
unless they can maintain "local control" of their kids' schools.
Let me ask you this. Which schools have more local control:
the New York state public schools with the highest child poverty
rates, who average $6,445 per pupil a year in state and local
funding, or the New York state public schools with the lowest
child poverty rates, who average $8,598 per pupil a year?
Apparently the poor school districts are the ones who have
to exercise the most "control" - over their money - due to
the fact that they have 25%
less of it to spend, and significantly more problems to
deal with, too. According to Michael
Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal
Equity, the United States remains "the only major developed
country in the world that exhibits this shameful pattern of
Those who still think that fairer funding for public schools
is just "throwing money at the problem" should read this
in-depth article from the June 8, 2003 Dallas-Fort
Worth Star Telegram:
Did Robin Hood help our schools?
The controversial system has aided poor districts, but
wealthy ones say they've had to sacrifice.
...Over the past eight years, the Robin Hood system has
helped property-poor school districts reach important milestones,
such as offering college-preparatory classes, competitive
teacher pay and early childhood programs.
Laredo could be the poster child for the benefits of the
system. Test scores have risen, the majority of high school
students follow a more rigorous graduation plan and aging
facilities are beginning to be replaced.
Robin Hood money allowed the district, for the first time,
to provide students with, in the words of school board member
Jose Valdez, "a quality education."
The district is one of the state's poorest. About 93 percent
of Laredo's 23,421 students are economically disadvantaged,
and the district has such a meager property tax base that
each penny in its tax rate generated only $4.04 for each
student in the 2002-03 school year. The statewide average
is $18 per penny per student. Some wealthy districts reap
many times that amount - Highland Park, $93.61; Glen Rose,
As the article goes on to explain:
In 1986, Laredo's scores on the state's benchmark test were
among the lowest in Texas. Compared with districts nationwide,
the scores were worse; Laredo's 11th-graders ranked as low
as the bottom third....
With the infusion of cash, Laredo students have made strong
gains. A direct comparison of academic results is difficult
because of the switch to different state benchmark tests.
But in the 1995-96 school year, the first year after the
new finance system was endorsed by the Texas Supreme Court,
passing rates on the state reading exam among all Laredo
students rose by more than 13 percentage points, to 80.2
percent. The math scores were up 20 percentage points to
an 84.9 passing rate. Writing results improved 3 percentage
points to 80.1 percent.
Laredo students have continued to make gains in the years
since, even as the state has required higher passing scores.
Key to the improvements, Laredo officials say, were smaller
class sizes, daily and Saturday tutoring sessions for struggling
students and additional training for teachers....
Robin Hood also helped boost test scores in other property-poor
districts. In the early 1990s, nine of Edgewood's 26 schools
were rated by the state as "low-performing." By 1998, none
were and the school district was rated as "recognized" for
the first time. Today, seven schools are "recognized," and
three are "exemplary."
"To think that could ever happen in the little-bitty Edgewood
school district in the poor side of San Antonio ... it was
a very proud time for this community," said Kaye Contreras,
spokeswoman for the district, which was the lead plaintiff
of the original eight districts whose lawsuit led to the
Robin Hood law.
Still, the gains in property-poor districts have yet to
put them on par with other districts, either midrange or
Personally, I do not think it is a good idea to force equal
funding. Instead, I believe there should be equitable funding,
with a high minimum level sufficient to guarantee an education
of "equal, high quality" as Jesse Jackson, Jr. puts it.
If affluent communities want to start taxing the hell out
themselves to get the best schools money can buy, it's fine
by me. However, that should only be allowed to happen if the
poorest schools are taken care of first.
Just like we have a minimum wage for workers, we should have
a minimum expediture for students (adjusted for local cost
of living). Unlike the minimum wage, we should raise this
minimum expenditure to the national average every year or
so, until we can finally call each of our public school districts
If we devote the same kind of federal and state funding structure
to education that we have to the military and the interstate
highways, do we really expect to fail? On the contrary, I
firmly believe that not making this commitment is the only
sure road to failure.
The on-ramp is rapidly approaching. Which way will we go?