(Smart) money matters for schools


THE property tax-based system that finances most American schools is a national disgrace.

Ours is the only nation to finance primary and secondary education according to local wealth. Paying for public education in this way forces poor districts to tax themselves farmore heavily than wealthy ones. And still they do not generate adequate income.

For example, Baltimore City is one of the poorest jurisdictions in Maryland and has the lowest instructional spending for each pupil of the state's 24 districts. Yet its property tax rate is twice that of the next highest jurisdiction. This sort of faulty formula works against children who happen to be located in high-poverty districts, but it also reflects idiosyncratic local circumstances. For example, a factory closing can bankrupt a small school district. What sense does it make for children's education to suffer because of local accidents of geography or economy?

Of course, even equality in spending in no way ensures equality in educational services. Poor districts typically have both less money and greater needs. Baltimore, for example, must spend almost 23 percent of its local funds on special education, compared with a Maryland average of 14.4 percent. It must employ more security guards than there are police officers in the majority of Maryland subdivisions. The city, therefore, spends a smaller proportion of its total school budget on regular education than any other Maryland school district.

In state after state -- Kentucky, Texas, Alabama and New Jersey, the last as recently as Tuesday -- courts have ruled that the way we finance education is wrong. These decisions result in more money for poor districts. More money is important, but more important is how that money is used.

Any remedy should address two issues. The first is to bring up to adequate levels buildings, teachers' salaries, class sizes, electives and other features that most schools take for granted. But these basic improvements will make little difference in student learning if funds are not also earmarked for learning programs likely to make a substantial difference, especially for poor students likely to have suffered most from inequitable financing.

Such programs exist, and in some states have been adopted in " schools explicitly as a response to court orders requiring fairer financing of education. They demonstrate that disadvantaged students can learn far more than we now expect of them.

The program I head, Success For All, is one example. In use now in 37 districts in 19 states, it combines proven pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs, one-to-one tutoring for first graders who have trouble learning to read and active family support. This approach has led to substantial improvement in reading and has reduced both failures and assignments to classes for slow learners.

In state after state, decisions on financial equity in education have channeled much-needed dollars to poor districts. They also have prompted these districts to reform themselves by adopting programs with great promise for improving student achievement.

But opportunity is not a guarantee of success. Educators, community members, political leaders and others must work together to ensure that this opportunity for positive change, presented by victory in the courts, truly becomes a victory for children.

Robert E. Slavin directs the Early Elementary Education program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

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