Friday, May 3, 2013

Robin Hoodwinked by Governor Brown

The Los Angeles Times is referring to California Governor Jerry Brown as a “Robin Hood” for his plan to redistribute resources from “wealthy” suburban school districts to their poorer urban cousins. Brown has characterized himself as a civil rights hero since the poor urban districts serve predominantly low income communities of color, suggesting that inequitable school funding is the primary cause of the achievement gap.

Both the Times and Brown are delusional. Robin Hood robbed rich individuals and gave the spoils directly to poor people so they could feed, clothe and house themselves. Brown’s plan does nothing to reduce poverty and gives no money or resources directly to any poor students or their families.

This is no trivial criticism, as poverty is the number one cause of poor academic achievement. Poor children are far more likely than others to be born with low birth weight or suffer malnutrition or lead poisoning (10% of poor children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood according to the CDC), any of which can impair cognitive development or lead to learning disabilities. They suffer higher levels of stress, which causes the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair memory and learning. They are absent far more often (as much as 40% more, according to Richard Rothstein), dramatically decreasing their chances of graduating on time (see here). They have less access to enriching extracurricular activities like summer travel, camp and museum visits, which can cause the achievement gap to increase each year. Lower income families tend to read less to their babies and toddlers and expose them to fewer complex words and phrases, with the result that affluent children have vocabularies that are tens of thousands of words larger than their lower income peers even before they have entered kindergarten (see here and here).

As long as poverty persists, increasing resources to lower income schools will have very limited effect on student achievement. It certainly cannot remove the stress and anxiety that result from living a life of material scarcity and uncertainty and the ongoing sense of powerlessness that accompanies it.

The Times does correctly note that poor districts would not necessarily benefit at the expense of wealthy districts under Brown’s plan. Some poor districts, like Oakland, would actually receive less per student under the governor’s plan, according to both the state education department and the governor's own budget office.

It is also misleading to refer to some districts as “wealthy.”  Certainly some districts have higher percentages of affluent students, but this does not mean they are adequately funded publicly. There probably is no district in the state that receives sufficient funding entirely through property taxes and state and federal revenues. The wealthiest districts receive more money than the poorer districts, but not enough to keep class sizes under 35; hire sufficient nurses, librarians, counselors and teachers; purchase sufficient lab equipment and classroom supplies; or pay teachers’ salaries comparable to those in the private sector. Many of these schools are able to raise funds from parents to supplement what they receive from the state and local taxes, but there are also many lower income schools in so-called wealthy districts that do not have this capability.

Transferring resources from the “wealthy” districts will not come close to restoring what the poorer districts have lost as a result of the $20 billion the state has slashed from education funding over the past few years. Even if it did, that would only bring these schools back to a level that was grossly inadequate (California education spending was among the lowest in the nation even before the recession). “Wealthy” schools can always ramp up their fundraising from wealthy families, but they will continue to have overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers.

More significantly, Brown’s plan gives the illusion that he is doing something equitable and rational to mitigate the state’s education problems, when in reality he is simply holding education funding steady at the 46th lowest level in the nation . This, in turn, allows the state to maintain historically low tax rates for the wealthy and their businesses and to continue defunding social programs that serve the poor, including transitional kindergarten.

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