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David Sirota
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Friday 9 December 2011
“America’s youth need the painfully obvious: a national commitment to combating poverty and more funds spent on schools in the poorest areas than on schools in the richest areas.”

What Real Education Reform Looks Like

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As 2011 draws to a close, we can confidently declare that one of the biggest debates over education is — mercifully — resolved. We may not have addressed all of the huge challenges facing our schools, but we finally have empirical data ruling out apocryphal theories and exposing the fundamental problems.

We've learned, for instance, that our entire education system is not "in crisis," as so many executives in the for-profit education industry insist when pushing to privatize public schools. On the contrary, results from Program for International Student Assessment exams show that American students in low-poverty schools are among the highest-achieving students in the world.

We've also learned that no matter how much self-styled education "reformers" claim otherwise, the always-demonized teachers' unions are not holding our education system back. As The New York Times recently noted: "If unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn't labor's pernicious effect" felt in the very unionized schools that so consistently graduate top students?

Now, at year's end, we've learned from two studies just how powerful economics are in education outcomes — and how disadvantaged kids are being unduly punished by government policy.

The first report, from Stanford University, showed that with a rising "income achievement gap," a family's economic situation is a bigger determinative force in a child's academic performance than any other major demographic factor. For poor kids, that means the intensifying hardships of poverty are now creating massive obstacles to academic progress.

Because of this reality, schools in destitute areas naturally require more resources than those in rich ones so as to help impoverished kids overcome comparatively steep odds. Yet, according to the second report from the U.S. Department of Education, "Many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding." As if purposely embodying the old adage about adding insult to injury, the financing scheme "leav(es) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers." In practice, that equals less funding to recruit teachers, upgrade classrooms, reduce class sizes and sustain all the other basics of a good education.

Put all this together and behold the crux of America's education problems in bumper-sticker terms: It's poverty and punitive funding formulas, stupid.

Thus, we arrive at the factor that decides so many things in American society: money.

As the revelations of 2011 prove, students aren't helped by billionaire-executives-turned-education-dilettantes who leverage their riches to force their faith-based theories into schools.

Likewise, they aren't aided by millionaire pundits sententiously claiming that we just "need better parents." And kids most certainly don't benefit from politicians pretending that incessant union-busting, teacher-bashing and standardized testing represent successful school "reforms."

Instead, America's youth need the painfully obvious: a national commitment to combating poverty and more funds spent on schools in the poorest areas than on schools in the richest areas — not the other way around.

Within education, achieving those objectives requires efforts to stop financing schools via property tax systems (i.e., systems that by design direct more resources to wealthy areas). It also requires initiatives that better target public education appropriations at schools in low-income neighborhoods — and changing those existing funding formulas that actively exacerbate inequality.

Policy-wise, it's a straightforward proposition. The only thing complex is making it happen. Doing that asks us to change resource-hoarding attitudes that encourage us to care only about our own schools, everyone else's be damned.

In America's greed-is-good culture, achieving such a shift in mass psychology is about the toughest task imaginable, but it's the real education reform that's most needed.


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ABOUT David Sirota

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado.



I agree trying to fund a 21st

I agree trying to fund a 21st century education system on a 19th century form of wealth (property taxes) is not and will not work. I agree we need to spend more: We've been at about 6% of GDP for K-12 education funding for 50 years, while health care has more than tripled as a percent of GDP. Education spending as a percent of GDP should be GROWING in a knowledge economy. BUT: PLEASE stop making this a war between adult interests ("public school systems," teachers unions, "for profit education industry," etc.). I don't believe any particular FORM of adult interest is any more able to guarantee good outcomes for students than another: There are fabulous charter schools and for-profit education providers, and there are terrible traditional public school systems as well as the reverse. In addition to funding reform, let's have money follow the student and invest in real and rigorous accountability, research, and reporting so we can grow what works - whoever is contributing it - and starve what doesn't. We need to spend MORE, but nobody should pretend that ANY unchecked adult interest - even that teacher we all should love and respect - will spend it as wisely as possible.

It's not nearly as

It's not nearly as straightforward as Mr. Sirota would like, I'm afraid. Ask any real estate broker: "good schools" are one of the main things homebuyers with school-age kids are willing to pay for. So the cycle of higher property taxes -> more school funding -> higher home values -> higher property taxes is one of the foundations of the middle class, who have most of their wealth tied up the family home. Rich people don't much care, because their kids go to private schools anyway. This is one area where the Republican strategy of pitting the middle class against the poor is very hard to overcome. Yes, it's obvious that spending more money on poor kids is the cheapest way for our society to break the cycle of poverty and give these kids some hope of entering the economic system. But who among us is willing to let the price differential between their home in a "good" neighborhood with a "good" school and the same size house in a "bad" neighborhood with "bad" schools shrink?

America's inequitable school

America's inequitable school funding system is like a 100-meter dash where the affluent kids have new spikes and are allowed to begin at the 50-meter mark while the poor kids, barefoot, crouch at the starting line. Guess which kids end up having the highest test scores and graduation rates!

Forever, the neediest kids in

Forever, the neediest kids in America have received the least funding and the most affluent kids the most funding, usually two or three times more. In his book, "Savage Inequalities" 20 years ago, Jonathan Kozol documented this disparity, unequivocally. Until the advocates who have dominated the educational reform discussion since the publication of "A Nation At Risk" in 1983 confront this issue head-on, it will be difficult to take their views seriously.

Whatever system of taxes for

Whatever system of taxes for U.S. schools, main thing: trust teachers.

Not admin.

Teachers' prestige in communities will grow as they and further agencies stop shoveling monies to admin and all those from the CEO, tech supply, modulized corporate textbooks, specialist consultants, and biz ed culture.

President O could have been a bully supporter of public schools and their teachers if, first, he'd sent his girls to them. But he dropped that baton. And he did worse than that when he appointed Arne Duncan to head the federal department of ed -- Duncan who loves bloating admin above all.

Now there's no leadership for the common sense that's key to Sirota's column today -- no stress on how the key to public ed begins and ends with the human part --teachers -- those who have daily contact with kids, especially kids who may need that more.

The unions? Like too much of America, the unions have caved to the allure of lots of layers of admin -- for themselves and for the schools. It's just part of the toxic sickness that comes from a country where more students sign up for biz ed in college -- by far -- than anything else.

But recovery is possible -- if we remember, as does Sirota today, what's most important, even as we talk taxes.

If real estate taxes were

If real estate taxes were collected by either the states or federal government, they might be a fairer approach to funding schools, provided that the assessment process did not become corrupted in exactly the same way as the current tax system is. (Rich people whose RE taxes were going to the whole society would find a way to cheat, just as they do now.) Real estate taxes are a stupid way to raise funds for schools or anything else.

Rich people will always get more out of them than poor people, because the number of people per unit of RE (acreage or assessed valuation) is so much greater where poor people live. Thus the per-student funding in poor neighborhoods is always much less. This is despite the huge amounts that are spent on inner-city schools; the populations are so high that the funding can't keep up with the demand.

washington dc schools spend

washington dc schools spend more than anyone to call the results bad is to understate them

I agree with most of what Mr.

I agree with most of what Mr. Sirota, but changing funding from real estate taxes to income taxes won't help. Income taxes are easier to evade and would not force more money to flow to the neediest schools. I do agree that the funding formulas need to be changed and in large part that will depend on more Americans changing their self-centered attitudes and acting like we all are required to give back to our society.

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