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A Twelve Lane Freeway To Mediocrity?
June 10, 2003
By topdog04

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 neighborhood?

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 employees.

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 educational inequity."

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, $91.64....

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 wealthy....

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 a success.

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?

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