Money Doesn’t Matter? Let Rich School Districts Show the Way

Imagine if you will that you are a parent of a public school student in one of the United States’ affluent Caucasian school districts – say the Roundout School District in the 94-percent white North Shore Chicago suburb Lake Forest, which spends $20,172 per year on every one of its school children.

Your child and most of her fellow public students are the proud possessors of exceptionally high scores on the state’s annual Illinois Scholastic Achievement Test (ISAT).

Their per-student funding allotment is nearly three times as high as the public school investment ($7,261) made in each child in the 80 percent black and 13 percent Latino south-suburban Chicago suburb of Harvey, Illinois, where ISAT scores are quite low.

This wide funding disparity marks a curiously inverted, privilege-preserving relationship between provision and need. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Lake Forest in 1999 was $136,142. Just 2 percent of Lake Forest’s children lived at or below the poverty level that year. Sixty one percent of Lake Forest’s employed population worked in the Census Bureau’s most elevated employment classification – “management, the professions, or related occupations.”

In Harvey, median household income in 1999 was $31,958 and 28 percent of the children lived in poverty. Only a fifth of the south suburb’s employed population worked in “management, the professions, or related occupations.”

Similarly, students in the 83 percent black and 11 percent Latino western Chicago suburb of Maywood – home to a 16 percent child poverty rate in 1999 – were priced at $6,292 per year, just 31 percent of the annual amount publicly invested in the education of each child in the Lake Forest. Maywood’s ISAT scores are quite low.

Imagine also that you learned about these and other thoroughly non-imaginary and heavily racialized school funding, socioeconomic and test-score disparities in your local metropolitan newspaper.

Imagine further that your next-door sociologist neighbor puts you in contact with research showing that racial differences in school resources hold no statistically relevant relationship to racial differences in test-measured academic performance. The biggest test-score achievement-separating and suppressing factors, this literature shows, are broadly socioeconomic and sociologically environmental, including parents’ income and educational levels, home experience, and peer culture. These “extra-school factors,” you learn, are a much bigger determinant of black children’s educational experience and test-score “performance” than anything schools were doing or not doing. Deeper inequalities of socioeconomic status, you find, account for as much as two-thirds of educational achievement as gauged by the standard test-score measures.

Armed with all this knowledge, you go the local school council meeting and argue that Lake Forest students actually don’t really need to receive so much school funding in order to “achieve” abovce the norm. School funding, you argue, doesn’t really matter all that much in creating advantage for the children of the North Shore. The thing that really matters, you argue, is their elevated class position and related white skin privilege.

“Maybe,” you argue, “we should take some of our extra school dollars and send them help fund anti-poverty and economic development programs in places like Harvey, Maywood, and the West Side of Chicago.” Or maybe, a different regressive “you” contends, Lake Foresters should keep some of its school funding money and plow it back into their privileged private environments, which are the true source of most of their children’s educational advantages. Lake Forest could cut its per-student allotment in half and its children will still do very well thank you very much would be your line.

My guess is that Lake Forest school council members and parents would be appalled. Cut back on the middle school’s state-of-the-art library and science laboratories? Close the swimming pool? Reduce the number of computers and musical instruments? Make children purchase their own team uniforms? Increase the ratio of students to teachers? Hire some of the newer and less qualified teachers? Suspend some of the bus lines? Save on school heating and cooling bills? Stop mowing the high school’s golf course?

“Surely you can’t be serious,” would be the predominant response you’d get.

The dominant white judgment is different, however, when we are talking about children on the bottom of the nation’s related socioeconomic and racial pyramids. In January 2003, I spoke (in my role as the research director of a Chcago civil rights organization) at a press release supporting a significant, equity-enhancing reform of the state’s public-educational finance system. I was approached afterword by a leading metropolitan education reporter who reminded me that officially “adequate” or even equalized school funding in and of itself cannot deliver equal educational opportunity for the nation’s millions of poor and truly disadvantaged children of color.

Test scores, this reporter told me, are most closely correlated in the existing academic literature, to socioeconomic status – low scores being linked to high poverty and high scores being linked to low poverty. Those scores are not that strongly linked to school funding differences. Since the racial-ethnic “achievement gap” (bigtime policy buzz phrase here in the US) is not irrefutably correlated with the school funding gap in the official (but rather sparse) research on the issue to date, this journalist told me, my organization’s “civil-rights case” for school funding reform was tenuous at best.

As Jonathan Kozol noted in 2000, “it’s become conventional in social policy debates in recent years to pose what often sound like neutral questions about whether money ‘really makes much difference’ in the education of poor children: questions that are seldom posed when wealthy people contemplate the benefits of sending their own children to expensive private schools or when they move into exclusive suburbs in which public schools are spending more than twice what public schools in the South Bronx are spending on the children in this book. Despite the many ways in which this issue has been clouded, nonetheless,” Kozol added, “there are few areas in which the value we attribute to a child’s life may be so clearly measured as the decisions that we make about the money we believe it’s worth investing in the education of one person’s child as opposed to that of someone else’s child.”

It is one thing, of course, to point out that there’s no solid proof showing that more school funding quickly and clearly translates into heightened “minority student” test-score “outcomes.” It’s relevant, of course, to note the role of socioeconomic and other broadly environmental factors and to point the impact of numerous school practices – pedagogical and otherwise – that can boost or repress learning independently of school resources.

It’s another thing, however, to pretend to know that school money is irrelevant in determining the quality of education children receive.

Money doesn’t matter? Then surely the more affluent, well-equipped, and predominantly white suburban school districts and elite private schools in places like Lake Forest, Manhassat (on Long Island) and Grosse Pointe (above Detroit) will be happy to sacrifice their steep fiscal advantages, handing over their surplus school dollars to struggling children and teachers in highly impoverished places like the South Bronx, South Gate (California), East St. Louis (Illinois), Jasper County (South Carolina), the South and West sides of Chicago. Certainly, then, the preserves of race and class privilege are prepared to test the thesis that educational and school success is really just about hard and honest work, moral discipline – a “culture of achievement” and “accountability” and not inherited and structural advantage, station, and resources – by letting their excess youth-instructional cash and all that goes with it (the best schools, the latest instructional technologies, the highest-paid and most qualified teachers, the latest materials, the ample auditoriums, playing fields and libraries, and more) flow back to the disadvantaged schools and communities that struggle in the forgotten shadows of the great central-city corporate downtowns that provide the economic basis for the safe, sheltered, and pleasing lives and campuses enjoyed by richer white suburbanites. Since educational “money” isn’t really relevant really relevant, then surely the Lake Forests, Great Necks, Grosse Points, Manhassats and Andover and Marin Academies of America are willing to see the provision of educational resources properly aligned with the need for such resources.

As the education writer Peter Schrag notes at the end of a chapter in which he reviews academics’ and policy-wonk’s complex debate over what affluent Ivy League and Rand Corporation researchers call “the [all-too unclear] relationship between student [test-score] performance and school [funding] resources”:

“No parent or student should have to offer scientific proof that attractive schools with working toilets and decent classroom environments are more productive than those without. None should be asked how they knew that having rats in their classrooms impaired their ability to learn. Nor should any school have to justify good libraries and after-school programs in art or music with test scores and college attendance rates. What’s perfectly clear is that when people can afford it, they opt for the schools with rich resources, and often struggle (and sometimes lie and cheat) to get their children into the right schools.”

Schrag’s conclusion is consistent with the judgment of the New Jersey Supreme Court in ordering funding reform in 1990. After noting the remarkable school advantages that richer districts purchased at often “staggering” expense, that Court asked an interesting question: “If these factors were not related to quality of education, why are the richer districts willing to spend so much on them?”

As for the education reporter’s test-score-based challenge to the cause of school funding reform, here is the answer I gave to her (and to the notion that inefficient spending practices by urban schools mean that city schools should not receive adequate funding) during an urban “education summit” held at a public high school on the near West Side of Chicago in February of 2004:

“It’s not entirely clear that there’s no significant correlation between resources and scores. I doubt that it is a purely accidental coincidence that Illinois has both the biggest school funding gap and the biggest achievement gap between rich and impoverished students. “

“But there doesn’t have to be a perfect or even a strong correlation to make the cause for funding equity in Illinois. In most of the relevant state-level school funding case law to date, it’s about equal educational opportunity not equal test-score outcomes. It’s acknowledged that a whole slew of factors go into the achievement gap and that the research is unclear and contested about the precise relationship between school funding and achievement.”

“Take it out of the court room and the seminar room and think about it like a parent whose got two kids, one of whom is thriving and the other one of whom is struggling with growing up, including their ABCs. You certainly wouldn’t decide, at least I hope you wouldn’t, to not give the struggling kid equal attention and food and clothes and resources. You wouldn’t predicate their share of family wealth on performance-based outcomes, as a matter of family policy. You don’t take slow Jennifer and put her in the basement and ban her from the library and the internet and give fast Johnny the best bedroom and full access to the learning resources in the house.”

“It’s certainly true that overall community and family poverty – low ‘socioeconomic status,’ to use the social science language – provides the leading correlation with test-score ‘failure.’ But let’s think for a minute about a useful analogy. Do you give fewer funds for street lights to a certain town because that community tends to have a large number of bad sunspot intersections where it’s hard to make out the lights? The better response would be to increase the stoplight expenditures there to include special anti-glare mechanisms and techniques – to pay for the special stoplight and traffic extras required in a bad glare community.”

“If the school funding money isn’t going as far we would like in, say Chicago, it may well be that – as many critics say – the money is not being spent wisely or fairly by the Chicago Public Schools. It isn’t, say, being targeted in a way that properly matches the special barriers prevalent in inner city schools. Ok, fine, so you examine that and invest accordingly. You don’t say, ‘forget it, its all over for you….we’re going to kill you with un-funded mandates and sadistic testing regimens until we pick you off with vouchers and turn it all over to Edison and the religious schools.’”

“You don’t say that, that is, if you are serious about reforming and sustaining the common public school. If you are genuine on that score, then there’s no good reason to set up harsh either/or black and white dichotomies between more efficient spending and more equitable spending. ”

“And it’s interesting that the whole ‘do more with less’ line is directed mainly at minority urban schools and not at the richer districts where there’s certainly equivalent waste that gets covered up by overall socioeconomic and related cultural advantages that tend to ensure decent test scores. Of course, the real experiment to prove that school funding inequality is not a big factor in the achievement gap would be to practice full funding equity for a generation or two – or more. After all, we’ve been practicing savage school funding inequality for more than a hundred years.”

“Increased funding is, I think, a necessary but in-itself insufficient prerequisite for meaningful improvement in the educational experience of modern-day educational apartheid’s child victims. There is rich moral obscenity that lay at the heart of the notion that we should even be discussing “whether money matters” for poor children and under-funded schools while we dole out hundreds of billions of dollars for the noble causes of militarism, empire, corporate welfare, and tax cuts for the already super-opulent few in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation. “

“Finally, to say something really heretical here in Chicago, a crucial vanguard city in test-based ‘school reform,’ maybe we need some alternative measures of school and student ‘success.’ For what it’s worth, I’ve always hated and never done particularly well on standardized tests and I’ve got a doctorate and I publish books and I’ve done hundreds of articles and I give speeches like this all over the place. I’ve done this by learning to ask the right critical questions of power and authority, and not by sitting around trying to spit back the right answers to the Dickensian school and seminar-room agents of power and authority.”

“Anecdotally, I hear from teachers and principals all the time that we are beating minority kids and minority schools to intellectual death with standardized tests. I hear the city’s standardized test obsession called ‘pedagogical murder’ and ‘a way to teacher-proof instruction,’ a method for ‘crushing critical thinking,’ and even ‘rote learning right out of Jim Crow.’ The testing craze is a big part of the teacher turnover and quality issue we hear about in the city.”

“In any event you don’t need and you may not want an absolute test- score correlation to argue for equity.”

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