Who's responsible for substandard schools?

A key new battleground is emerging in the war to improve US education: the issue of inequity.

All children are increasingly being asked to meet the same rigorous, state-mandated standards - even as the quality of the education they receive varies dramatically between local communities. As a result, critics say, states will have to step in and take more financial responsibility for leveling the playing field.

Many states in recent years have begun picking up more of the tab for education. But in most, local property taxes are still the source of at least half of education funding. That's why discrepancies of spending - often amounting to differences of several thousand dollars per student - remain common in a majority of states.

With 49 states now setting academic standards for students, and one-third promising to fail kids who don't meet them, "the states now have a moral and financial and ... a legal obligation" to deal with inadequate schools, Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, told 24 governors who attended a national education summit in Palisades, N.Y., last week.

Mr. Price is not alone in spelling out such warnings. Ronald Wolk, chairman of the board of Editorial Projects in Education in Chevy Chase, Md., considers himself an advocate of the standards movement, but says he views equity issues as a serious threat to its success.

"If you've got kids in middle school who can't read, to fail them for not being able to pass a test is unfair and probably illegal," he points out. "And if we start failing students or holding them back wholesale, we're very likely going to see lawsuits" like the one in Texas, in which the requirement that kids pass a state test in order to receive diplomas is being challenged.

The fight over how education should be funded is hardly a new one. Critics of the current system have long argued that kids in low-income districts are penalized by attending overcrowded and underfunded schools that offer woefully inadequate educations.

Just walk through some of the science labs in New York City area schools, urges Noreen Connell, executive director of Educational Priorities Panel in New York, an educational watchdog group. "You'll see the teacher who spent his own money ... to buy a chicken so he could show the kids how body parts connect. Or kids pouring colored water from one glass to another in what passes for a science experiment."

Such weak attempts to teach science are the result, Ms. Connell says, of limited per-student-spending in city schools. New York, like many other states, oversees a system with wide discrepancies in what localities spend on their schools. The state's poorest districts fund education at little more than $6,000 per student, while some wealthy districts spend over $12,000 per student.

Spending gaps have long been defended on the grounds of the importance of local control over education and taxation, an argument many courts have found compelling. But the standards movement - driven by the states - could change that. In addition, by requiring all kids to take the same test and then publicizing results, many states have highlighted the plight of their poorest districts.

"Testing makes inequities much more transparent," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "And that has massive implications for the way we spend money."

But seriously addressing the equity problem has consequences, Professor Hess points out, and he questions if the state legislators who have backed higher standards have fully thought out what the impact could be on more-affluent areas.

To fully correct the imbalance in funding, Hess says, could ultimately mean that "suburban folks will be faced with seeing thousands of their dollars going" to poor urban and rural schools.

It's an issue that's already been raised in a number of states. In New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ohio, lawsuits in recent years have resulted in court orders for the states to find more-equitable ways to fund education. But in Vermont, efforts to address the problems resulted in a near-rebellion by many taxpayers.

It was not an issue governors were eager to discuss in detail at last week's summit conference. Yet many of the initiatives they did broach -substantial financial incentives for teachers in failing districts in California, higher teacher salaries across the board in North Carolina, scholarships tied to state tests in Michigan - would be funded largely if not entirely by the states.

Price said he's encouraged by the fact that while at the previous education summit in 1996 the equity questions was ruled "out of order," it was at least open for discussion this time around.

However, he warned, when it comes to talking about serious measures to close the achievement gap between poor districts and wealthy ones, "We've just started down this road."

*E-mail coeymanm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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