Thursday, February 28, 2013

Brown’s Budget Shuffle: Something From Nothing is Still Nothing

"Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice"—Gov. Jerry Brown, California (quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle)

Gov. Brown is correct—funding poor schools the same as affluent schools is not only unjust, it is pedagogically irrational.  Poor children have greater educational needs, while their parents have far less to donate to school fundraisers. Funding them equally only guarantees unequal outcomes. Yet his solution—reallocating revenues from wealthier schools to poorer school—is neither just nor rational.

None of California’s schools currently receives adequate funding. The state has slashed over $20 billion from K-12 education over the past five years and none of this will be restored under the state’s new “millionaire’s” tax. Furthermore, basic aid school districts (the so-called affluent districts that receive only the “basic” aid from the state because they have higher than average property tax bases) have already lost 90% of the funding they once received from the state. Therefore, taking away scarce resources from these schools only serves to make them more like the state’s low income schools.

While it is true that affluent schools have fewer needs than lower income schools, they were not receiving sufficient funding from the state or local property taxes even before the economic meltdown and draconian budget cuts that followed. Consequently, they have relied on fundraising to make up some of the difference, something they can do with greater ease and success than lower income schools, since the parents tend to be wealthier and have more disposable income. Yet even this hasn’t prevented basic aid schools from losing counselors, librarians and nurses; increasing class sizes to 35 students per teacher (or higher); imposing out-of-pocket fees on teachers for health insurance; and freezing or cutting wages. Furthermore, even within basic aid districts there are often low income schools with student demographics similar to poor, inner city schools. Reducing their funding because they happen to be in an “affluent” basic aid district would end up harming the lower income students Brown’s plan is intended to help.

Of course it is important to provide low income schools with additional funding, over and above what the affluent ones receive, because of their greater needs. However, this must be accomplished through increased tax revenues, not by ripping off other schools. Yet increased school funding, alone, will not solve the myriad ways in which poverty impacts educational outcomes. To really close the achievement gap, poor kids in poor schools need relief from their poverty so they aren’t coming to school hungry and suffering from stress and untreated medical conditions. Their parents need relief from poverty before they even have children, since poverty increases the chances children will be born premature, with low birth weight, and suffer from stress, malnutrition and environmental toxins, each of which contribute to cognitive impairment and learning disabilities.

Short of this, low income schools need large infusions of cash—far more than they would receive under the Brown plan. They need enough revenue to lower class sizes and hire extra teachers and reading specialists. Low income schools need full-time nurses or on-site clinics to care for uninsured children and reduce the amount of class time lost to treatable and preventable illnesses. Low income schools need staff and resources to provide adult education and English language support for parents. They need extra funding for after school programs so that children aren’t watching television or getting into trouble or hurt when classes end. They need mental health specialists to help students suffering from stress, anxiety and other common mental health problems that often go undiagnosed or treated in poor children.

If the schools truly are public, then parents should not have to pay more out of pocket for fundraisers and benefits, in addition to what they contribute through their taxes. If they were adequately funded, there would be much less need for this.

This is another major problem with school finance. Affluent families are affluent, in part, because they can shelter much of their income from taxation (e.g., deductions and write-offs) and many do not want to pay a penny for the education of other people’s children. By maintaining tax rates at their current levels (which are far lower than they were during the Reagan era and earlier), the affluent can continue amass great quantities of wealth, while getting an excellent free education for their children at the exclusive public schools in their wealthy enclaves. They can then supplement their schools’ mediocre budgets with tax deductible donations that further lower their tax liabilities, while increasing the education quality gap to the benefit of their own children. Thus, they (and their legislators) are unlikely to accept Brown’s proposal (or the tax increases necessary to put a serious dent in the problem).

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