By definition, justice must be systemic. In public education our society will be just when our laws distribute opportunity equally to all children whatever their school and wherever their school district.
In a blog post to mark the transition to a new year, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker reflects on a primary injustice in our society’s provision of public education: “The bottom line is that providing for a high quality, equitably distributed system of public schooling in the United States requires equitable, adequate and stable and sustainable public financing. There’s no way around that. It’s a necessary underlying condition.” Baker worries that we are in the midst of a “post-equity era in school finance.”
Baker writes: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers). How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”
While the details of Baker’s fairness ratio—by which he evaluates the fairness over time of a number of state school finance systems—can get a little complicated for the general reader, the trends he traces between 1993 and 2012 in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut, Kansas, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are crystal clear. All of these funding systems have become less eqitable since the 2008 recession.
Baker concludes: “And yet we wonder why our lower income children’s educational outcomes continue to suffer? We pretend that if only our higher poverty districts would fire that bottom 5% of teachers who produce bad test scores (gains), they’d do better (because of course, they can hire a new crop of better teachers even if they can’t pay a competitive wage?). We pretend that expanding charter schooling, to siphon off the less needy among the needy into privately subsidized (soft money) schools (and diminished legal protections) that somehow we’ll achieve a desirable systemwide effect?” “Meanwhile, the damage that’s been done to our public education systems by outright and at times belligerent neglect of state school finance systems has, in the past 3 years alone set us back in many cases 20 years.”