Equity in education

Fix the buildings. Buy lots of books. Install new computers. Is that enough?

Peter Thorpe's experiences in education have run the economic gamut. He once served as headmaster of a posh California prep school. Now he heads up Gateway High School, a publicly funded San Francisco charter school for at-risk young people.

Having lived through both the lean years and the fat, Mr. Thorpe has strong views on the relationship between funding and good schools.

"Of course money makes a difference," Thorpe says. "It's fundamentally counterintuitive to argue [that funding levels don't matter]."

The degree to which money affects quality in schools is a thorny issue. Many states - under legal order - have significantly increased spending in recent years, easing some of the stark differences between schools in wealthy communities and poor ones. Yet persistently low scores in many districts continue to raise the question of whether substantial progress has been made toward achieving true educational equity.

Earlier this month, New York State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled that New York State was not spending enough to fulfill its constitutional promise to give urban children a "sound and basic" education. He ordered New York to find more funding for urban schools.

Although the state will appeal, the decision is being viewed by many advocacy groups as a victory. The court's ruling was hardly the first of its kind, but it went further than many others in terms of spelling out exactly what kind of educational outcomes would be required to meet the standard of a "sound and basic" education.

In the past 15 years, more than 25 cases have challenged school-finance systems across the United States. A number of states - including Texas, Ohio, and New Hampshire - have been ordered to rethink the way education is financed at the state level and to produce better results for poorer districts.

But the question of how to define equity is still hotly debated.

"That's a whole conversation I get really frustrated with," says Frederick Hess, professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It's never been explained to me what a fair system looks like. Do kids with special needs get more funding? Or does every kid get the exact same funding?"

Money matters, agrees Professor Hess, but after a certain point, court cases focused on financing can be counterproductive. "They prevent policymakers from more-fundamental questions like: 'We're already spending a fair amount of money and why aren't we producing good schools?' " he says. "Good schools and good school systems are not simply the result of imposing the right amount of money."

Many taxpayers are reluctant to feed more money into a system that, they charge, bulks up its bureaucracy at the expense of teachers and students.

Indeed, a simple equation of more money equals better schools has not been borne out in a number of cases across the US.

More than a decade ago, both Kentucky and Arkansas retooled their systems for funding education, with an eye toward leveling differences and directing more money to poorer districts. Yet neither state has of yet been able to demonstrate a link between higher spending and significant gains in student achievement.

Kansas City nearly doubled its property taxes in the mid-1980s to achieve one of the highest per-pupil spending levels in the country for a district of its size. Yet a decade later, its schools were still failing to produce results.

Ironically, in New York City, an analysis of city schools done last year revealed that some of the worst-performing city schools were among the best funded.

Still, such disappointing results cannot serve as an excuse to pull back on the conversation about educational equity, says Paul Reville, executive director of the Pew Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

"The injury of poverty is so potent as to severely mitigate the degree to which education can impact children," Professor Reville says. But he adds that requiring states to recognize there is a basic, minimum standard for public education that must be met is a positive step forward.

Augusta Kappner, president of Bank Street College of Education in New York agrees that, despite limitations, the focus should be on the role schools do have.

Dr. Kappner argues that in the past 20 years or so, US educators have learned much about the positive impact of well-trained teachers, high-quality prekindergarten offerings, and smaller class sizes on children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Intelligent spending of additional funding released by lawsuits like the one in New York, she predicts, will ultimately lift student achievement in low-income areas.

In some ways, say those who study school financing, there's been a significant shift in the debate about funding. Back in the 1970s, when the first court cases began springing up, the focus was on equity. The goal was to erase the huge gap that existed in some areas between what wealthy districts were able to lavish on their schools and what poorer districts offered.

But today, the focus is instead on adequacy. States are not necessarily being told they must erase spending gaps. Instead, they are required to make sure every child's schooling meets a certain minimum level.

To some extent, this change in focus has been linked to the standards movement. "Standards have definitely been a driving force in looking at things from an adequacy point of view," says Steve Smith, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

States can't decree that students must be able to know and do certain things in order to pass from grade to grade, he points out, and then shirk from ensuring that their schools are adequately preparing them to meet those standards.

Adequacy and equity do not mean the same thing, however. A school may be adequately funded with help from the state and yet still fall short of the richer educational experience being offered students in a neighboring district with a higher local tax base.

A truly equal system of education remains an elusive, if not impossible, goal, agree most reformers. But that doesn't prevent many from viewing court-mandated funding increases for poor districts as a positive step.

Jonathan Kozol, for instance, a writer who has long been associated with the drive to offer poor children better public schooling, is a proponent of the more radical notion of a completely equitable, federally funded system of education financing.

But he declares himself delighted with the New York decision. His recent book, "Savage Inequalities," tells of children in one of New York's lowest-income school districts. Channeling dollars to urban schools will make a big difference for the children he writes about, he says.

"Money alone is not an answer, but money is almost always a precondition for creating a situation in which the other good objectives can possibly be realized," Mr. Kozol says. A safe and loving environment that nurtures learning can be achieved without increased spending, he agrees, but it's easier in a school with a lower student-to-teacher ratio.

Rulings like the one in New York may be only partial solutions to dilemmas involving educational equity, but they are still battles worth fighting, Kozol insists. "If I didn't believe that, I would have given up this fight 35 years ago," he says.

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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