Urban Schools Targeted for Makeover

Once 'somebody else's problem,' they're poised to get more funds - with more oversight

Despite nearly three decades of spending to improve urban education, only 40 percent of students in city public schools are meeting minimum standards in reading, math, and science. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of students in suburban or rural schools meet or surpass basic competence levels.

That's the conclusion of the first study of how urban students compare with suburban and rural students in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP test measures fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math and science.

This month's Education Week study shows that very poor urban kids do less well than very poor kids in any other setting - and the longer they stay in school, the wider the gap. Yet the study also indicates that some of the nation's poorest city schools are nevertheless working. "In every one of these cities, there are [schools] that are succeeding. They are not spending more money, but morale is high and kids are learning," says Education Week publisher Ronald Wolk.

This paradox is what is driving a round of initiatives to close the urban achievement gap. At least a dozen states have launched new urban programs. At the same time, courts and legislatures are demanding that new public funds improve achievement, not just meet a formula for fairness.

It's a costly fix

The price tag for closing the urban gap will be high. Two years ago, the General Accounting Office estimated that it would take $112 billion alone to bring existing school buildings up to code. Experts say that another $73 billion is needed to cope with record school enrollments, and billions more to bring classrooms on line.

In addition, US employers spend more than $60 billion a year to educate and train workers, with nearly half of that money going to provide workers with basic skills, according to a recent study by the National Association of Manufacturers.

In response to such concerns, both Republicans and Democrats are targeting education as a top national priority. With the prospect of federal budget deficits fading out this year and ever-larger budget surpluses projected as far out as 2008, there may be the resources to back up that commitment.

"The federal budget surplus will provide a unique opportunity to help meet these needs," says Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the largest teachers union. The NEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, has called for $30 billion in new federal spending to repair crumbling schools. (Yesterday, the two unions announced that they would merge, creating the largest union in American history, with 3.2 million members.)

But even with budget surpluses, the cost of bringing urban schools up to par has state lawmakers reeling. And education sticker shock is driving national calls for more accountability in spending education dollars.

"The public is skeptical of public schools and their demands for more money," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). "We need to demonstrate to the public that schools receiving extra federal funds are capable of paying the taxpayers back by producing better-educated students."

This month, the AASA called for $5 billion in new federal funds for poor schools, but for the first time would also require teachers and principals to agree to new standards of accountability, including implementing one of the successful elementary-school models identified by the US Department of Education.

Teachers would need to adopt such new standards by an 80-percent vote, or forfeit federal funds.

"To argue that the problem of urban schools is a financial problem is woefully myopic," says Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok. "We need to rethink the whole system, including teacher training, contracts, and bureaucracies."

Turning up the heat

Pennsylvania has put a profile of every public school on the Internet. Parents use this information to challenge spending and programs in their school districts. The site receives 10,000 hits each month.

Urban public schools now educate 1 in 4 students, as well as 43 percent of the nation's minority children. Nationwide, 48 percent of public-school funding comes from state governments, 45 percent from local property taxes, and 7 percent from the federal government.

Nonetheless, many states don't have an urban policy at all. "The tendency has been for states to treat all districts alike, on the assumption that if districts have problems, they brought them on themselves," says Education Week editor Lynn Olson.

Courts set new standards

For many state legislators, urban schools are money pits that produce too few students who can spell. But lawmakers in nearly half the states are now under the gun from state courts to ensure an adequate education for city students.

A New Jersey judge has called on state legislators to come up with an additional $312 million to help poor city schools, including health and social services in the school, prekindergarten, extended year, and summer school.

On Jan. 23, Superior Court Judge Michael Patrick King also said that it might take $2.7 billion, not the $1.8 billion suggested by the state, to upgrade schools. Such mandated new spending could add $700 million to the state budget, something the GOP says the state cannot afford.

New Jersey has struggled for 27 years to come up with a fair formula for funding the state's poorest urban schools.

What the court did last week was to specify a list of programs and building upgrades that it says will help students overcome the disadvantages of urban schooling.

If accepted by the state Supreme Court, these recommendations set a new national precedent for court involvement in setting educational policy.

"We have never seen a court go this far in mandating the specific programs states should provide, as well as the level of funding," says Mary Fulton, an analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission on the States.

In making his own case for improving city schools, Pennsylvania's Hickok likes to tell a story.

"I have a son, still in high school. And I make the argument that somewhere in Pennsylvania or in Florida or in Texas, there is a child growing up and someday that child's path might cross my son's path. The quality of education that child I've never seen receives, may very well determine, when those paths cross, whether that child takes my son's life or saves it."

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