1998-1999 Monograph Series
FROM THE DIRECTOR
With this publication, we introduce the 1998-99 Monograph Series of
the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education. Launched in 1997, the
purpose of the Project is to build on the knowledge base and heritage of
Progressive Education, which was inspired by the work of University of
Vermont alumnus (1879) John Dewey, and extend these ideas into the future.
Our work grows out of a concern that the language of justice, equity, human
development, creativity, care, ethics and much more has been overshadowed
in current educational discussions by the technocratic language of accountability
(measured and communicated by test scores), standards and standardization,
competition, and the management of student learning and behavior. In the
current frenzy to make schools more like corporate entities, whose aims
and values are shaped by the market economy, we sometimes forget that the
aim of education, at least from a progressive perspective, is to form enlightened
citizens who understand democracy as a "way of life", who have attained
their own creative and productive potential, and who have the skills and
aptitudes for lifelong inquiry. We forget that democracy can not be learned
through textbooks, but must be actively engaged in. Our schools, if we
take progressive ideas to heart, should be laboratories where students
gain the skills of self- motivated inquiry and "associative living", not
just places where they learn to compete for
vocational slots in a global economic system.
Towards the end of his life, Dewey spoke compellingly about democracy as a way of life, or a habit of mind, and contrasted this with the narrow focus on laws and governmental systems usually associated with the notion of democracy. The democratic spirit, according to Dewey, involves a generous belief in the capacities and potentials of all human beings, "a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment"1. Concerned with the deleterious effects of social class differences, Dewey seems to be advocating for equitable school funding when he states in Democracy and Education that "school facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers"2. Dewey hoped that an equitable system of national education might alleviate the ravages of an inequitable economic system by creating intelligent citizens with the capacity to participate directly in decisions about their economic activities.
Dewey was perhaps overly optimistic about the role of education in equalizing
about the possibilities for the development of a "class-free" society in America. Today, the economic trend is towards the increasing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and within the last couple of decades, we have witnessed the growth of an underclass who have little hope of achieving their creative potential, let alone of meeting their basic human needs. Our current battles and debates about the funding of schools must be understood within this context of class stratification and class privilege. This first monograph in our series focuses on the issue of equity, as it is understood through school funding patterns. Sue Books helps us understand some of the issues in school funding decisions, providing us with historical background viewed through the lens of significant court decisions. In it, she calls our attention to the difference between narrow, legal definitions of equity and genuine educational justice. Two experts in school finance, William J, Mathis, Superintendent of Schools in Brandon, Vermont, and Bill McLaurin, who teaches educational finance at the University of North Carolina -Greensboro respond to Book’s article with their own passionate calls for
educational justice. We welcome your own response to the issues raised in our monographs.
Gouinlock, James (Ed.) (1994). The Moral Writings of John Dewey. N.Y: Prometheus Books, p. 269.
Dewey, John. (1916, 1966). Democracy and Education. N.Y: The Free Press, p. 98.
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Despite decades of lawsuits challenging state systems of funding public schools across the nation, inequities persist. Some students – generally, but not always, white, middle- to upper-class children in suburban areas – attend well funded schools in good repair. Others -- generally, but not always, poor children of color in urban areas – attend inadequately funded schools where they learn in a thousand different ways that they do not matter very much. Whatever the resource – clean, safe buildings; well trained and adequately compensated teachers; up-to-date textbooks – some still get significantly less. And sadly, we can predict the winners and losers.
New York is a case in point. The New York State Education Department’s 1997 annual report, New York: The State of Learning, documents "a dismaying alignment of disadvantaged students (disproportionately children of color), schools with the poorest educational resources (fiscal and human), and substandard achievement." Conversely, "those schools who serve the fewest at-risk children have the greatest financial resources, teachers with the best credentials, and the highest levels of achievement." Statewide, districts at the 90th percentile of expenditures per pupil spent almost 77% more than districts at the 10th percentile -- $12,949 versus $7,320.
Although a direct line showing a cause-and-effect relationship between poverty, racial composition, spending, and student achievement cannot be drawn, patterns are evident:
I believe significant progress towards educational justice for poor children will require not only a new language that illuminates the central moral issues that shape battles over school funding, but also a theoretical framework that highlights and contextualizes the relationship between concentrated poverty, racial isolation, and school achievement. Court-mandated efforts to make school funding more equitable have resulted in a few more textbooks, computers, or roof repairs here and there, and this certainly is better than nothing. Still, such efforts, however valuable, do not begin to address the social and educational needs of children in the ghetto schools that come with the territory of concentrated poverty and racial isolation. Nor do such efforts necessarily narrow the gap between the educational haves and have-nots – who theoretically will compete for the same pool of jobs down the road.
Admittedly, the issues are complex. Because little consensus exists, even within the educational research community, either about what "equity" means or about how it ought to be measured, it is difficult to answer the seemingly straightforward question: How inequitable is school funding? It depends. Inequitable in the sense of unfair or in the sense of unequal? And unfair or unequal from whose perspective -- public school students or the taxpayers who fund their education? Finally, inequitable with respect to what – funds allocated, dollars actually spent, the quality of education students receive, or the level of educational achievement they attain?
Clearly, some students are getting more than others. Disparities in per-pupil spending exist across states as well as across districts within states. Disparities across state lines account for most (65%) of the total disparity in per-pupil spending nationally. Adjusting for regional cost differences, the 1997 Education Week study Quality Counts found that per-pupil spending in 1995 ranged from $3,537 in Utah to $8,118 in New Jersey.2
Significant disparities also exist across district lines within individual states. According to a 1997 study by the General Accounting Office, wealthy districts in 37 states had more total funding (state and local combined) than poor districts in the 1991-1992 school year. Even after adjustments for regional costs differences and varying student needs, wealthy districts had an average of 24% more funding per pupil. This was true despite the fact that poor districts in 35 states made a greater tax effort than wealthy districts.3
These numbers document inequity, but still do not offer a full picture. In a 1995 study comparing individual school district data with U.S. Census data mapped to school district boundaries, the National Center for Education Statistics found a significant correlation between household wealth and school funding, but only at the upper and lower ends of the income spectrum. Schoolsin communities in the wealthiest decile of household income spent 21% more per pupil in 1990 than the national average while schools in the poorest decile spent 11% less. However, spending in districts in the other eight deciles was fairly tightly clustered within 6% above or below the national average.4
These numbers suggest a problem, but not one captured very well by a general diagnosis of "inequity" spread across a societal continuum. Although it seems children in the wealthiest families are continuing to get significantly more than anyone else, per-pupil spending in most schools, this study shows, approaches the national average. The shortchange is happening in the usual place: the schools of children living in the poorest communities.
Arguably, the dozens of lawsuits filed in recent decades -- some won, some lost, some tied up in court for generations -- have made school funding more equitable than it used to be, but only if one focuses on total dollars spent and not on dollars spent on some children relative to others. Looking at revenues from more than 16,000 school districts over 20 years (1972 to 1992), researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of Kentucky found per-pupil revenues from state sources increased by 15% to 29% after the implementation of court-mandated reforms. Disparities in revenues between wealthy and poor districts, however, were virtually the same in 1992 as they were in 1972.5 Court mandates, it seems, have caused states to pull the bottom up in terms of funding, but not relative to the top, and reforms not mandated by a court (e.g., reforms initiated by state legislatures) have been largely ineffective.
As always, social context matters. Issues of school funding are being debated in the courts at a time when forces of economic polarization are steam-rolling ahead, when corporations are negotiating their way out of local tax pools, and when the public discourse on equity serves to rationalize the status quo. I want to say more about each of these things.
Ghettoization. Almost all of the nation’s metropolitan regions now have areas of concentrated poverty at their cores. Ghettoization increased sharply in cities in the Northeast in the 1970s and in cities in the Midwest in the 1980s. Minnesota state representative Myron Orfield, author of Metropolitics, explains the process:
There is, of course, some truth to the popular belief that "throwing money" does not necessarily translate into documentable gains in student achievement. This is true, however, not because money doesn’t matter, but rather because more funding for schools in areas of concentrated poverty is grossly insufficient as a response to the deprivation, social and educational, of children in ghettoized communities. More money may be the cheapest Band-Aid of all. As in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Myron Orfield suggests, so too in regions nationwide:
Corporate deals. As a special report in Education Week notes, "corporate tax incentives used as a lure for companies are costing school districts across the country hundreds of millions of dollars each year." In the cut-throat competition among governors and other state leaders for new jobs, "the first bargaining chip is a perk often worth millions – reduced property taxes or a complete abatement." Lawmakers in Minnesota say such tax incentives diverted $112 million from schools there in 1996. A tax group in Louisiana says tax deals cost their schools $141 million in 1994, and the Texas comptroller’s office calculates that between 1985 and 1995, tax abatements cut school revenues by $480 million. Although the intention may have been "to encourage businesses to take a chance on blighted areas by allowing companies to plow what would have been tax money back into a project," the practice of cutting tax deals appears now to be fueling an "economic war among the states" – a competition that benefits stockholders, perhaps, but not school-age children.8
Political spins. Meanwhile, the public discourse on school funding focuses neither on the "metropolitics" of ghettoization nor on questions about the corporate tax share, but rather on the inadequacies of schools and students and of the alleged insignificance, ultimately, of money. News reports on school funding issues suggest the arguments against reform that William Firestone and his colleagues, co-authors of From Cashbox to Classroom: the Struggle for Fiscal Reform and Educational Change in New Jersey, heard in that state are commonplace across the nation:
"Students in these districts [are] not worth the investment because they would not learn anyway."
"Providing more money to the special needs districts require[s] shifting funds away from the high-achievement suburban districts that [serve] as lighthouses of excellence…"
"When it comes to schooling, money just does not matter."
In Vermont where perhaps the most radical school funding legislation, with strong incentives for true equalization of per-pupil funding, can be found, national commentators have evoked the legacy of the Revolutionary patriot Ethan Allen as three towns (Dover, Plymouth, and Scarsburg) have refused to send their taxes to the state capital of Montpelier in protest of the law that aims to equalize the property tax rate across the state, pool the funds to be distributed in the form of block grants on a per-pupil basis, and require that any additional tax monies be shared according to a formula that takes district wealth into account.9 Act 60, the controversial law, was written in response to Brigham v State (1996) in which the Vermont Supreme Court overturned the state’s system of funding public schools.
A public discourse on equity in school funding that evades the fundamental moral issues of justice and fairness complements a legal discourse that over the years has set boundaries around the concept. State and federal courts have focused the equity debate on the question, "Can the prevailing system be justified?" and not the question, "Is the prevailing system fair?"
Disparities in educational spending across school districts within a state became the subject of court challenges in the 1960s. In a landmark case, Serrano v. Priest (1971), the California Supreme Court drew on federal and state equal protection provisions to invalidate the state’s public school finance system. Adopting the principle of "fiscal neutrality," the court argued that "the quality of education may not be a function of wealth other than the wealth of the state as a whole." Soon thereafter, school finance laws in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, New Jersey, Arizona, and Michigan were struck down in rapid succession, and similar challenges were brought in more than 30 states.
Two years later, however, in San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Serrano rationale and declined to recognize children in poor school districts as a "suspect class." This meant the state had to show only that its school finance system bore some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose. Dissenting from the majority opinion, Justice Marshall argued that "personal poverty may entail much the same social stigma as historically attached to certain racial or ethnic groups." Rejecting this argument, the court found that the state’s system of financing public schools represented "a rational accommodation of the interest in local fiscal and administrative control of schools and the desire to provide a basic education for each child."
The Rodriguez decision was significant in several regards. In Rodriguez the U.S. Supreme Court declined not only to recognize poverty as a "suspect class," but also to give education the status of a "fundamental right" protected by the federal Constitution. Consequently, Rodriguez essentially eliminated the federal courts as an avenue for school finance reform. Less than two weeks later, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court suggested another route. In Robinson vs. Cahill (1973), that court invalidated New Jersey’s system of school finance solely on the basis of the education clause in the state constitution, which requires the state to provide a "thorough and efficient" education for all students. A funding structure that allows for wide disparities in per-pupil spending linked to local property wealth is not, the court argued, a "thorough and efficient" system.10
This was a new legal strategy in the pursuit of funding equity -- challenging a school finance system on the basis that it violated an education clause in the state constitution -- that opened a door (appeal to state education clauses) as another was closed (appeal to the U.S. Constitution). It is a strategy, however, that cuts two ways. Relying solely on education clauses in school finance equity suits means that questions, and only questions, of the legislature’s duty and whether that duty has been fulfilled will be involved. This limits the implications of any decision mandating school finance reform to the education context without threatening other areas of social welfare legislation.11
From one perspective, this boundary setting makes it easier for courts that are reluctant to do so to go ahead and mandate reforms. From another perspective, however, tying equity suits to the requirements of state education clauses delineates a sphere of state accountability that may "free" states from the responsibility to even try to create the social conditions under which all children can truly be offered a genuinely good education.
In declining to give education the status of a "fundamental right" protected by the federal Constitution, Rodriguez also rendered most of the disparity in educational resources untouchable. After Rodriguez, which held that an unequal distribution of educational resources does not violate the Constitution, litigation can attack only the one-third of the overall disparity that results from within-state differences and not the remaining two-thirds that results from disparities across states. Furthermore, since politically, district spending generally cannot be capped as this is widely regarded as threatening local control, the only way to address even the one-third of the problem subject to challenge is to increase the state share of school funding. This means enlarging the pie through increased state taxes, which also is almost unthinkable politically.
Thus, it is not surprising that there has been considerable slippage between what courts have mandated and what school children have ended up getting. As the Education Law Center in New Jersey points out, "Law books are filled with wonderful paper victories which have never been implemented." Firestone and colleagues conclude their study of school finance reform in New Jersey with this sad assessment:
A guarantee of some level of adequacy in funding -- recognizing that what counts as adequate may vary, depending on the students and communities involved -- seems reasonable and accommodating of the diverse interests of the multiple stakeholders in issues of school funding. However, such a system in no way ensures that poor students will be any better prepared tomorrow than they are today to compete seriously for opportunities in higher education and the professional job market. If school funding systems are judged equitable or inequitable by a standard of adequacy, which can mean little more than the provision of some educational opportunity, a system that reproduces privilege and advantage prevails unscathed. A focus on adequacy of funding for some minimal level of educational opportunity without regard to disparities does not necessarily narrow the gap between rich and poor students in terms of the quality of the preparation they are offered for the world of higher education or career-level employment. As with equity, it all depends on how the concept is defined. Adequate with respect to what?
In light of the poor track record of litigation as a strategy in the pursuit of educational justice, I believe journalists, educational scholars, and social activists need to play a much larger role than they have in framing the issues with respect to school funding inequities. More specifically, we need more analysis of the educational significance of ghettoization in the lives of children. Nationwide, schools in which 90% or more of the students are students of color are 14 times more likely to have a majority of poor children than schools in which most of the students are white.13 These numbers reflect a level of social and educational injustice that must be linked more meaningfully to debates over school funding.
Secondly, the concepts of equity and adequacy in school funding need to be broadened – equity recast as justice, and adequacy recast as adequacy in response, nationwide, to the educational needs of children, which include, at a minimum, social conditions conducive to learning. The notion of adequacy should be tied to a notion of educational need conceptualized not as narrowly as legally possible, but rather as broadly as educationally necessary.
Finally, the idea of local control needs to be exposed for what, in my opinion, it is: code language for the right to preserve privilege and advantage. The protection of local control, recognized by many courts as a legitimate state practice, gives states a trump card in the face of challenges to their systems of funding public schools. Significant disparities in educational resources can often be justified as an unintended but inevitable consequence of the exercise of local control. However, as the educational reformer James Comer observes in his book Waiting for a Miracle,
Finally, the problem of equity in school funding needs to be defined more accurately. The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is neither a generalized inequity nor a generalized inadequacy, but rather the ghettoization that is both cause and consequence of the poverty, social isolation, and related educational deprivation of poor children, especially poor children of color. This is not to discount the importance of either equity or adequacy in school funding, but rather to acknowledge that adherence to the minimal requirements of a legal definition of equity does not constitute a serious response to educational needs of ghettoized children. A narrow legal definition of equity is a poor substitute for the educational justice children, all of them, need and deserve.
1. New York State Education Department. February 1997. The State of Learning: A Report to the Governor.
2. Quality Counts: A Report Card on the Condition of Public Education in the 50 States. A supplement to Education Week, January 22, 1997.
3. General Accounting Office. February 1997. School Finance: State Efforts to Reduce Funding Gaps Between Poor and Wealthy Districts. GAO/HES-97-31.
4. NCES study cited in Terman, Donna, and Behrman, Richard. 1997. Financing schools: Analysis and recommendations. The Future of Children 7 (3): 4-23.
5. Evans, William, Murray, Sheila, and Schwab, Robert. 1997. Schoolhouses, courthouses, and statehouses after Serrano. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16 (1): 10-31.
6. GAO study cited in Krantzler, Nora, and Terman, Donna. 1997. Appendix B: Equity considerations in funding urban schools. The Future of Children 7 (3):133-139.
7. DOE report cited in Terman, Donna, and Behrman, Richard. 1997. Financing schools: Analysis and recommendations. The Future of Children 7 (3): 4-23.
8. White, Kerry, and Johnston, Robert. 1997. Schools’ taxes bartered away to garner jobs. Education Week, March 12, 1997.
9. Norman, Geoffrey. August 1998. Vermont’s class act. The American Spectator.
10. Tracetenberg, Paul. 1974. Robinson v. Cahill: The "thorough and efficient" clause. Law and Contemporary Problems 38 (3): 312-332.
11. Thro, William. 1991. The implications of Coalition for Equitable School Funding v. State for the future of public school finance reform litigation. Education Law Reporter 69 (4): 1009-1022.
12. Terman, Donna, and Behrman, Richard. 1997. Financing schools: Analysis and recommendations. The Future of Children 7 (3): 4-23.
13. Orfield, Gary, Eaton, Susan, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press.
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Speaking of how America has previously imagined itself, Kozol asks,
"Is fairness less important to Americans today than in some earlier times?
Is it viewed as slightly tiresome and incompatible with hard-nosed values?"
(p. 41). He then describes the worst of our system of public schools in
such heart-breaking detail that we cannot resist agreeing with one of his
sources that, "You could not permit this sort of thing . . . unless you
saw these children and their parents as a little less than human" (p. 191).
In the system that Kozol shows us, it is reasonable to ask, "How much is it worth investing in this child as opposed to that one? Where will we see the best return?" (p. 117). Even the expression of parental concern is transformed into something rather less attractive: "Despite a lot of pious rhetoric about equal opportunity . . . most parents want their children to have a more than equal chance of success . . . which means, inevitably, that they want . . . some others to have less than equal chances" (p. 199). He describes how the wealthy have fled to better systems or to private schools, as have the middle class and those of the poor with even the barest social mobility. Remaining behind are the hurt, the abandoned, "those with broken wings".
While describing the media response to the work of his predecessors, Kozol foresaw the treatment of his own work, "even the most thorough exposition of the facts within major organs of the press is neutralized too frequently by context and a predilection for the type of grayish language that denies the possibilities for indignation. Facts are cited. Editorials are written. Five years later, the same facts are cited once again. There is no sense of moral urgency; and nothing changes" (p. 119). Sue Books documents the continuing truth of his assertions, while showing us that these horrors are now increasing in severity as the poor are ghettoized.
If I differ with Kozol, or with Books, that difference lies not with their data, nor with their prophetic outrage at the "savage inequalities", nor with their courage in continuing to express such outrage in the face of indifference; rather, it lies in their reluctance to prescribe a remedy for this acknowledged history of ineffectiveness. I suspect that our failure to make a meaningful response to such work as theirs points toward something profoundly important; something about us as individuals and as a culture that we ignore at great peril. If we do not come to understand what is happening here, educators will continue to be left to be the "agents of cruel choices" when political "solutions" to questions of equity prescribe goals they do not fund.
Why have these disparities continued to exist after being diagnosed and eloquently communicated to us? It seems to me that the crux of the problem lies in our willingness to treat these "savage inequalities" as a political rather than a moral problem. The world described first by Kozol and now by Books is clearly not the world we would make if we were to act upon the basis of the founding documents of our democracy. Nor does it in the least resemble a world based upon the ethical teachings common to the religious traditions to which the majority of us still confess. On the basis of the sorts of values that most of us would want to claim for ourselves (and presumably would wish to pass on to the children of our culture) we are compelled to find our behavior toward the least advantaged among us to be at least wrong, if not reprehensible! Where does this leave us? What are we to make of a culture equally adept at diagnosing and ignoring such a malady?
Is it possible – without being judged an aspiring television evangelist – to suggest that, if we are to have any hope for the future, we must judge our political behavior harshly and make it compliant with such values? By reading these authors, we can see what we have accomplished thus far in pursuing justice by competitive political means alone. With the least sensitivity to the history of these efforts we might also see that with such means the future would at best resemble the past.
The eloquent persuasion of Kozol and Books presumes that our cultural repertoire includes the moral resources that would render their reports effective in changing these indicted practices. Yet, in fact, ours is a society too politely pluralistic that it is compelled to accept selfishness as a virtue and acquisitiveness as the presumptive motivator of all human conduct. We know better, but we have surrendered our individual and corporate responsibilities to the intellectual fashion of the moment. In an understandable rebellion against moral authoritarianism used in defense of privilege, we have overreached ourselves in discarding the possibility of real wisdom. As a result, if we truly want justice for these ghettoized children, we must consciously undertake a repair of the moral grounding of our culture. We must demand that our legal systems and our marketplace reflect what we have learned, over uncounted generations, about decent treatment of our fellow human beings. Admittedly, this is a dangerous journey – the Inquisition lies at the end of many of its wrong turns – but we are already seeing the cost of the present alternative. We can do this; we can affirm the reality of moral truth without burning each other at the stake. It is time to require this of ourselves, to insist that we each act as we claim to believe and to act together to deny the veil of legalistic respectability to those who would allow for "some people’s children" what they would not allow for their own.
Bill McLaurin received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teaching from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where he studied under David Purpel. He has taught graduate courses in Educational Finance and in Philosophies of Education at UNCG as an adjunct. He also employs his MBA from UNCG in running a construction company.
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