We Like to Believe Our Story About a Generous Society, But the Plot Has Shifted

Let’s just suppose you are watching one of those TV movies for the holidays.  Or maybe you are reading a novel by Charles Dickens or going to the theater to see A Christmas Carol.  Generosity of spirit is a theme you will encounter especially in this season.  Throw an extra crust of bread to Jo the Crossing Sweeper, living in the street; help Tiny Tim.

What if our society were to try out that idea on a scale that might matter?  What if, instead of spending more tax money on schools for children in rich suburbs, we were to fix state school funding formulas to spend even a little more on schools for children in, say, Philadelphia or Cleveland or Dayton or Detroit?  It isn’t something that has been talked about much lately as we continue to focus on punitive policies for big-city school districts—policies like closing “failing” schools, opening privatized charters, and blaming teachers.  Maybe we could consider it as a sort of fresh idea in the spirit of the season.

Interestingly three school finance experts this week have raised the issue of adequate and equitably distributed school funding.   Yesterday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn, professors and researchers in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, writing about Surprising New Research on School Funding.  Noting that the School District of Philadelphia (SDP)  is regularly condemned as a low-performing district, Steinberg and Quinn share, “preliminary findings from an ongoing study of school funding suggest(ing) that the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Indeed, we believe that the SDP, rather than a story of failure, is a story of possibility.”

Steinberg and Quinn explore what they call an adequacy gap, “the extent to which actual spending falls below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students.”  They continue: “Of course, the fact remains that neither the SDP nor its nearest counterparts are even close to adequate levels of achievement…. So our findings should in no way be interpreted as a call to slash funding for any of these districts.  If anything, we see this as evidence in favor of reinstating a statewide fair funding formula, which takes into consideration differences across districts in the characteristics of the students served—such as poverty, English language learners, and special education—as well as characteristics of the district itself, such as local labor market conditions and cost of living, among other student and district factors.”

And in Ohio, Dr. Howard Fleeter of The Education Tax Policy Institute has taken a new, comparative look at school expenditures per pupil.  Fleeter’s topic seems particularly important to me because I have on at least two recent occasions been surprised to be told by members of the Ohio legislature that Ohio’s urban districts are spending more per pupil in some cases than wealthier suburban districts and not getting anywhere near the same test scores.  These legislators have, of course, bought the simplistic notion that expenditure of money can purchase test scores as though this were some sort of market transaction without much worry about the other factors that are likely to affect education.

Dr. Fleeter, however, noticed that standardized test scores across Ohio are highly correlated with the level of family poverty or wealth in our over 600 school districts.  Fleeter writes that his review of poverty data caused him to undertake a new study of Ohio’s school funding, a study whose results suggest that Ohio’s formula grossly under-calculates the amount of money school districts need in order to serve children in concentrated poverty.  It is not surprising then that, in Fleeter’s spreadsheet, the eight districts whose funding would be most significantly raised by increasing the poverty weight in our formula are Cleveland (100 percent of children in poverty), Dayton (94.05  percent poverty), Youngstown (93 percent poverty), East Cleveland (91.81 percent poverty), Lorain (88.31 percent poverty), Akron (86.61  percent poverty), Mansfield (84.35  percent poverty), and Warrensville Heights (83.9 percent poverty).

The narratives we tell ourselves about our society do matter.  We like to feel we are characters in one story—the one about the American Dream of generosity and opportunity and meritocracy—when our lives are part of a much sadder story.  I wonder when we will wake up and realize the plot has shifted.  I am so glad this morning to report on these three researchers—Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Quinn, and Dr. Fleeter—who are trying to show us something about the real story of America these days.