In 1973, in the case of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the nation’s first school finance case under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court found against the parent plaintiffs and declared that fairness of school funding is not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented. He declared, “I cannot accept such an emasculation of the Equal Protection Clause in the context of this case.” “Is it ever really going to change?”
National Public Radio reports on Justice Marshall’s question in the first installment of a three-week series about the matter of unequal access to well funded schools. The series, including extensive maps of the states and demonstrating egregious inequity in the amount being spent from school district to school district and state to state, is a collaboration with Education Week.
Justice Marshall’s question strikes me as the heart of NPR’s investigation that includes not only analysis but also local stories from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania so far, and this is merely the second week of the three week series: “School Money is a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.”
NPR’s reporters set out to understand why some school districts (usually those that serve wealthy students) can spend so much more per pupil than the poorest districts. The lead article last week featured two suburban Chicago, Illinois school districts—Chicago Ridge that spends $9,794 per pupil and Rondout District 72 that spends $28,639 per pupil: “The simple answer is that many of Rondout’s neighbors are successful businesses. They pay local taxes, and those taxes help pay for local schools. Ridge simply has less to work with—fewer businesses, lower property values. More broadly: ‘You’ve got highly segregated rich and poor towns,’ says Bruce Baker of Rutgers University…. ‘They raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases, and Illinois really doesn’t put much effort into counterbalancing that.’ To be fair, Illinois gives more money to Ridge than it does to Rondout. It is just not nearly enough to level the playing field.”
After 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected school funding as a matter to be tried in federal courts, 40 years’ of lawsuits in more than 40 states have worked their way through the state courts. “Right now, 13 states are defending themselves in school funding lawsuits: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.”
This week’s second analytical piece in NPR’s series examines the long contested question: Does money really matter? We learn about Eric Hanushek at the Hoover Institution and his libertarian collaborators at places like the Cato Institute who claim that disparities in investment are not the most significant variable, but their arguments are countered by the many regional stories that accompany this series. There is the story from the suburban Philadelphia, William Penn School District, where the Spanish teacher has collected blankets for her students to wrap around themselves for protection during class in a metal building whose walls lack insulation. Parent plaintiffs in the William Penn School District are part of an ongoing school funding lawsuit “in an attempt to force changes at the state level and make (Pennsylvania) spending more equitable and adequate….” Reporter Cory Turner summarizes academic research documenting that, of course, investment in quality schools, pre-Kindergarten, and wraparound supports for the poorest families does help children learn, and quotes the common sense conclusion of Rutgers’ Bruce Baker: “If you have enough money to hire enough people to have reasonable class sizes and to be able to pay them sufficient wages so that you’re getting good people coming into the profession that’s most of the battle of providing quality schooling.”
Claudio Sanchez’s local piece on Kentucky presents another reality: adequate funding and equity achieved must be actively maintained or the poorest school districts will fall behind once again. After a state supreme court decision forced an overhaul of school finance in Kentucky in 1990, money flowed into the poorest Appalachian schools: “Among the most significant of the changes was a new funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money every district would receive from the state every year.” “And by the mid 1990s, it was paying off. Reading and math scores shot up. More students were graduating and going on to college. A lot more.” “But a funding gap between rich and poor schools remains in Kentucky, in part because lawmakers did not deal with the fundamental imbalance that comes with a reliance on local property taxes.” And, “The Legislature has not approved any significant increases in overall school funding since 2008. So, with the state budget flat, the remaining disparities are now frozen in place.”
Chicago’s Catalyist Magazine has just posted a commentary on Illinois school funding, a piece that is not related to NPR’s series, but that reinforces in a timely way the implications of the stories amassed by NPR. Catalyst‘s analysis appears this month because Illinois is in the midst of a state crisis in the funding of K-12 public schools and the state’s colleges and universities. Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has refused to sign a budget produced by Illinois’ Democrat-dominated legislature. Illinois’ school funding has reached the point of urgency as the state has been without a budget for all of this fiscal year. Threats of school and university closures have not yet pushed state officials to resolve the impasse around last year’s budget. Catalyst‘s Maureen Kelleher writes: “Springfield’s latest battle over education funding has roots stretching back to 1970. That’s when a bunch of tired delegates to Illinois’ Constitutional Convention settled compromise language proposed by the late Dawn Clark Netsch to describe the state’s responsibility for funding public schools: ‘The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public educational institutions and services.’ To most people, that certainly sounds like state government should shoulder most of the expense of public K-12 schooling. But in reality, local districts still bear much of the load, creating disparities that disproportionately hurt children of color, but also impact non-minority rural districts downstate… (T)he language from 1970 was not language a court could enforce. Delegates knew that at the time, but hoped the wording would inspire lawmakers to take action on the matter.” In the rest of her article Kelleher describes all the competing proposals and negotiations likely to continue in Springfield without remedying a long-standing lack of fairness.
In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond wonders, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164) And back in 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall wondered, “Is it ever really going to change?”
Jonathan Kozol speculates about the answer to Justice Marshall’s question in Savage Inequalities, his 1991 book about the subject of NPR’s new series—the lack of school funding fairness. Kozol speculates that our society has failed to achieve equity in our provision of education for the simple reason that we have merely aimed for, “something that resembles equity but never reaches it: something close enough to equity to silence criticism by approximating justice, but far enough from equity to guarantee the benefits enjoyed by privilege… (T)he rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense that other people’s children are of less inherent value than our own. Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage. ‘Sure, it’s a bit unjust,’ they may concede, ‘but that’s reality and that’s the way the game is played….’ Unlike a tainted sports event, however, a childhood cannot be played again… In this respect, the consequences of unequal education have a terrible finality… The winners in this race feel meritorious. Since they also are, in large part, those who govern the discussion of this issue, they are not disposed to cast a cloud upon the means of their assent.” (pp. 175-180)