Equalizing School Funding

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

The long struggle to equalize funding of public schools—in order to diminish the often startling disparities between public schools in different school districts—got a significant boost this past week. In New York a court-appointed panel recommended that an additional $5.6 billion be spent annually on New York City’s public schools in order to provide its 1.1 million students with the “sound, basic education” guaranteed by the state’s Constitution.

In addition, the special panel said that the New York City schools should get another $9.2 billion to renovate old facilities and build new laboratories, classrooms and school libraries throughout the mammoth school system.

The panel’s recommendations puts specific dollar figures to last year’s court ruling that New York City’s schools had indeed been shortchanged and the neglect must now be remedied.

The three-member panel’s proposals still have to be accepted by the New York State court justice overseeing the eleven-year-old lawsuit. That suit charged that the state had violated its responsibility to give the city schools the monies needed to equalize school-financing disparities with other districts and properly help its students secure a good education.

For example, state figures show that in 1999-2000, New York City spent an average of $10,469 per pupil, compared with the $13,760 per pupil spent by the city’s wealthier suburbs.

But it appears certain that the judge, who appointed the panel last summer after the state legislature missed a court deadline for suggesting its own remedy, will substantially rely on its proposals, which heavily favor those of the advocacy group which brought the suit in the early 1990s.

To be sure, the panel’s proposals will intensify the political jockeying over just how much of the funds are to come from the state, which had opposed the lawsuit, and how much from New York City’s government, which had supported it.

But, beyond those concerns at the heart of this case, as with all the other school-equalization struggles across the country, lies a very simple story.

This is a tale of two schools.

Or rather, of two kinds of schools.

The one kind of school is characterized by substandard facilities and equipment, such as libraries with few books in them, bathrooms that are continually out of order, and classrooms with broken windows, light fixtures, and even few chairs and desks; a high number of teachers who lack adequate training in the subjects they’re teaching; and a curriculum lacking a full or even partial load of rigorous, college-preparatory courses.

Most of all, this kind of school’s students are primarily from poor and lower-income families, and they are disproportionately predominantly black and Latino.

The other kind of school has all the good things the former lack, and often much more—a flourishing extracurricular program, field trips for students during the school year, and special summer-study programs and internships, and so on.

This kind of school’s students are overwhelmingly from upper-middle-class and wealthy families, and they are disproportionately white.
Students from the first kinds of schools are keenly aware of the second-class status of their schools, and of how they themselves are perceived by the larger society, as Professor Kimberly A. Scott showed in an essay examining the attitudes and aspirations of adolescent African-American girls in a poor, substantially black suburb of New York City for the National Urban League’s 2003 edition of The State of Black America.

That school system had been taken over by the state education department because its students were doing so poorly in scholastic terms. But Professor Scot found the girls to have a marked understanding of their community’s predicament, and high aspirations for themselves.

But, for adolescents like these, whether their aspirations will be realized is a question of far greater uncertainty than attends the futures of their more fortunate counterparts.

A report on the national school-equalization situation published in October by the nonprofit advocacy organization, the Education Trust, describes in stark, state by state terms the magnitude of the issue the country as a whole faces. It found that in 36 states the highest-poverty school districts get less money than the lowest-poverty school districts—by as much as $1,300—when the extra cost of educating low-income students is taken into account.

Furthermore, the gap in nearly three-quarters of the states is almost as great between school districts with the highest percentage of students of color and those with the lowest percentage.

The report recommends several “proven policy options [that can] close the funding gap.” They include: more federal funding; reducing state reliance on local property taxes to fund education; providing extra funds to help low-income children learn, and equalizing funding gaps between individual schools within school districts.

Thus, the Education Trust report and the trajectory of the New York City school-equalization case reinforce what’s at issue here.

That, ultimately, the struggle over school equalization is really a tale of two Americas.

That is, whether these two Americas will continue, to the detriment of all of us, to exist.

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