A Rant

For the most part I see this blog as a place to keep connected with extended family and friends about the goings-on in our household. Occasionally lately I’ve also been sharing some of my interest in exploring alternative education. But today — please forgive me — I want to indulge in a small rant. You may click away now if you like.

I’ve read a few books in the alternative education realm at this point, and I decided to dip into some other books on education reform that take a more mainstream approach — i.e., books about education that don’t conclude that the system is, by its very nature, the wrong track altogether. (After all, one of the easiest mistakes to make in life is to read only what you know you’ll agree with.) To that end I recently worked through The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a very thorough and thoughtful book by an avowedly conservative author. There is a great deal to think about in that book, and while I’ve been thinking it over, I decided to switch to something lighter: The Smartest Kids in the World, which is much less data-intensive but compares the US to several other countries using the vehicle of following American exchange students to those countries.

It’s an enjoyable read and, while much lighter, also has some good food for thought in it. But yesterday, as I trailed after Mica at Village Free School, reading a few paragraphs whenever she became engrossed in an activity, I read something that was like running headlong into a wall.

In the US we allocate funding to schools based on the property taxes of the nearby households.

The author didn’t belabor this point — he mentioned it, and the obvious problems with it, and then moved on. I, however, did not. I had to re-read it multiple times. Then I had to find the nearest adult to see if they were aware of this.

Apparently everyone knows this. I suppose I should have as well; I’ve heard before that schools in wealthy areas are better funded, but for much of my life I didn’t care about things like school finances, and in retrospect I assumed, vaguely, that effect was about local fundraising efforts, not about what was allocated by central authorities. Somehow I got through 38 years of life without knowing that we take a fundamentally inequitable approach to funding schools.

And finding out has stunned me. It’s like reading that fire coverage is based on local property taxes: live in a rich neighborhood, and the average emergency response time is less than three minutes, but a poor neighborhood could have a response time of as long as half an hour — oh, and residents are sixty times as likely to die in a fire. Perhaps if someone grows up knowing that this is how our school funding works it just seems natural — not ideal, maybe, but hey, it’s the system, you know?. But I keep coming back to this concept, again and again, and I keep feeling the same stunned disbelief.

How is this possible? How could this situation not be seen as inherently inimical to the ideals we purport to believe in? In a nutshell, how can people be ok with this?

And I know it isn’t as simple as that. As Dave points out, it isn’t about people but about politics. It isn’t about individuals choosing based on their own morals and common sense; it’s about a quagmire of bureaucracy and it’s-always-been-done-that-way. I look back now on the arguments that disadvantaged kids just can’t learn as well — because of cultural things, family issues, home life — and now I can see the essentially defensive nature of those arguments. It isn’t because we’ve given them less to work with. Even if the system were equitable, it wouldn’t matter. So why waste the money on them?

The only argument I can think of to support this practice is the argument of homeowners saying that they want the taxes they pay to support their kids education — and no one else’s. That argument has some intuitive weight to it, right up until I apply the fire coverage analogy to it. Do we see education as a public good, or as a service we’re paying for? Do we believe in equal opportunity or not? Is education like television (you can get limited, lousy amounts for free, or pay to get a premium package!) or like fire coverage (we value human life and strive to protect it regardless of income level)?

So now I need to go out and do some more research. How did we get here? Are there other arguments in favor of it? Or is this one of those things that we don’t really talk about, and everyone feels vaguely uncomfortable about, but when it comes down to a vote most people quietly, guiltily vote to keep it because hey, I need to give my kid the very best chance, right? And anyway it’s always been done that way. And it’s really too bad that so many kids keep dying in fires, but maybe if we just make the whole system better that won’t happen so much. Yes, I know we’ve been trying to reform the system for 100+ years, but still…

2 Responses to “A Rant”

  1. rsagerson Says:

    Holly, I believe you are correct on the local property tax financing for schools in Oregon. Washington state recognized this inequity years ago and had all local school taxes sent to the state, to be distributed to schools statewide on a per student basis. One catch: about 20% of school funding in WA is via a levy which has to be passed by 60% of the voters in a district every four years. Levy money stays in the local district. These levies constitute a referendum on how the community schools are performing, which is good or bad depending on your point of view.

    The WA constitution makes funding education the highest priority of state government. The State Supreme Court in its McCleary decision has determined that the state is not fulfilling this requirement to “fully fund” basic education. There is a battle going on with the legislature as to what “fully fund” means. It’s complicated.

    So I think your source’s blanket statement on US school funding is an overreach. I am not familiar with how other states fund schools, but I bet there is a lot of variation. After all, we are a republic of independent states, and the US constitution in the 10th amendment states that all powers not specifically reserved to the federal government accrue to the states. Our current president, who is reported to have taught constitutional law, does not seem to recognize this part of the Bill of Rights.

    This issue brings up the broader problem of unequal distribution of goods and services within the population. What is a basic need, a basic right? What should be provided to all citizens by the government on an equal basis? I believe basic and maybe advanced education falls in that category. Surely no one should starve, so we need a safety net there. I believe basic health care also falls in that category, although I think Obamacare is a poor solution. Bernie Sanders in this election cycle proposed a much broader role for government and got a lot of support from young people. You might investigate the “Nordic model” of government as exemplified by the Scandinavian governments. High taxes and lots of government services, but apparently they support business formation and entrepreneurship.

    I am copying Bob and Suzanne on this because Bob knows more about government and school funding than I do. Comments?



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