Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why school funding will always be unequal.

Today, I am going to share three somewhat related anecdotes from my life, a sudden realization that came to me while I was contemplating writing this post, and then give the reason behind the title above.

Anecdote #1)

In Juvenile Delinquency class my senior year of college, I read this book:

If you can't see the picture, it's Savage Inequalities, by Johnathan Kozol. This is one of those great books that makes you look at the world differently after you finish it. I don't remember a lot of the specifics of the book, but I do remember walking out of class one day and thinking,

After I graduate, I want to work on legislation that changes the way that schools are funded.

Anecdote #2)

Fast forward several years later. After becoming an adult,I realized that getting a BA in Sociology and Political Science from a state school doesn't typically put you on the fast track to a job crafting education policy in Washington D.C. ;)

I was talking to my friend (I'll call him Thomas,) who was a high school Science teacher. I say was because like many smart, capable young people who become teachers, he decided a few years in that teaching was not for him. I think I have a pretty good understanding of the reasons why, but I don't want to speak for him. So if you see him, just ask him yourself.

So anwyay, Thomas worked at a school in a district that had a reputation of being a very high-quality one, with schools in it that had a lot of money. However, the school that Thomas worked in had a lot of middle and low-income students, and had little in common with another well-regarded high school in the district. Since by law, both schools got the same amount of funding from the government, I was curious to know why there was a discrepancy in the facilities, resources, etc. of the two schools. His answer? Fundraising.

Anecdote #3)

At some point down the road, I started thinking about my own high school, and how we got a lot of the things that we wanted. The answer? Fundraising.

For example, when I went there, my high school auditorium had these really ugly, florescent orange, plastic seats. There were no seats broken or missing, (because we had an adequate maintenance budget,) they were just ugly.

At some point after I graduated, someone(s) decided that those seats had to go. Now there are these really nice blue velvet seats in the auditorium.

How were they paid for?

Parents and other members of the community pledged money for a seat, in return for having a little plaque on the arm that they could use to recognize someone, like their kids or themselves or a deceased loved one. I don't remember exactly how much the plaques cost, I just know they weren't cheap. And now my fellow Eagles (not my school's real mascot,) get to watch performances in style.

I was also in a singing group at that school, and we got new formal gowns to perform in each year.

I know what you're thinking, Singing and blogging?!? Yes it's true--I am a woman of many talents ;)

How did we pay for these? Parents could just cut a check, or students could sell stuff to cover/defray the cost. I remember one year we were selling holiday cards, and the woman who did my mom's nails bought three boxes. I remember being amazed, because like most school fundraiser stuff, these things were ridiculously overpriced.

It was only looking back that I figured out that she was also probably trying to make a positive impression on a customer, in order to bring more business back to herself.

So each year we would have these snazzy new dresses to wear and the male members would have equally snazzy tuxedos. When we went to concerts and whatnot across the state, it became clear that many other schools (with all-white choirs,) had robes or dresses that were passed down year to year.

On a semi-related note, the choir that I was in was very good. I'm not just saying that, we would win competitions and have people go to all-state and stuff.

There was one competition that we went to where we got a 1+. The lower the number the better, so a 1+ was like, the best you could get. Actually 1+ wasn't even a real score, 1 was the score that was on the form to give to people that were the best.

Okay, anecdote #3 is over.

And this is the part that I've been thinking about recently: how much of our 1+ was due to the fact that we were (to use the parlance of child beauty pageants,) the total package ?

Yes, we were very good singers, but would we have been as pleasing to the judge if we had come in wearing ill-fitting robes? Would we have felt as comfortable and confident if we weren't in clothing we had specifically chosen? Could that have made the difference between the 1 and the 1+?

Which leads me to my final point: the reason that school funding will never be equal is because even if there is Federal legislation that decrees every school in the land will get x amount per student, fundraising will always be there for certain schools to pick up the slack.

Why certain schools? Because in order for fundraising to be effective, you have to have a group of adults willing and able to buy overpriced products. They have to have the disposable income to buy things that they don't need, and the desire to use that income to put towards the extras that are nice for schools to have.

And I don't see anyway that you could eliminate fundraising, because like the Citizens United case has ruled, money is speech. And is it even possible or reasonable to try to infringe on a parent's right to give money to their child's school?

One final thought before I ask y'all some questions: As I have a two-year-old that I have started researching preschools for (a year in advance,) I am struck by something. Parents often talk about wanting their kid to have advantages. But an advantage is not an advantage unless, by definition, some other kid is deprived of that same opportunity. Music classes are not an advantage if everyone takes them. A computer lab doesn't give students an advantage if every school has one.

So when we talk about advantages (that seem ingrained into the very fabric of our school system,) advantages over whom? What is it that we want our kid to get that these other kids aren't? What do we think these early experiences will bring to them later in life?

Oops, I already started with the questions. Here's some more...

Did you go to public or private school? Or maybe you were homeschooled.
What was your school like in terms of facilities, extra-curriculars, resources, etc?
How did students get money for things they needed and/or wanted?
Is there a way to make school funding more fair? If so, how?
Is fairness even a goal that we should be pursuing in education? Why or why not?

Feel free to answer any or all of these questions, or to leave your thoughts about whatever strikes your fancy in the comment section below.


  1. oh a subject of my passions.
    i personally went to a public school, in a small town, with money. i had computer labs in elementary school, an olympic sized pool to swim in, and all the other great things that come with a school in a semi-affluent town.
    fast forward multiple years, and now i am raising two kiddos. the elementary school they would attend is a 'failing school' due to no child left behind. therefore, i can choose to send them to any elementary school in the district. which is what most parents do. you know, the ones who have a car to drive them to the other side of town. therefore, the school keeps failing, because the student population is made up of a large amount of children who aren't eating healthy, don't get enough sleep, and have parents who don't care about grades.
    so the school will either be closed or taken over by the state.
    the thing is, the teachers don't suck. they're great. but they are so stressed about test scores that the kids no longer get recess, and aren't learning any subjects that won't be on the state testing. i don't want my oldest daughter to go there because she won't be learning history or science. she won't have recess. and then i perpetuate the problem of the school's test scores lacking.
    *sigh* i don't have the answers, but things as they currently are, are broken, and spinning out of control.

  2. Anonymous6:05 PM

    Great questions, my black friend. I went to a rural school in Ohio (mostly middle-class and lower SES), and we had very limited class offerings, which I think was due to a combination of the tax rates in the area to support local schools (which were probably relatively low) and the overall size of our high school (about 400 total students). I had no access to Advanced Placement classes or even honors-level classes. However, thanks to a state program, I was able to opt out of my senior year and attend a community college (though I can't say that the classes there were exceptionally challenging -- they just provided college credit).

    It makes me wonder what the purpose of schools truly is. Just in reflecting on my high school, it seemed that the education was suited to reproduce the communities that already surrounded it. Perhaps that is also true in wealthy communities, which are willing to pour in the money to ensure that their children grown up with the opportunities to continue to live in wealthy communities.

    One problem with this (if my hypothesis is even remotely true), is that communities change anyway, and for the most part, these changes seem to affect lower-income communities in more significant ways than wealthy communities. If factory jobs are outsourced overseas, then what is the foundation of a community in which many worked in these factories? For what kind of future are the schools in these communities now preparing their children?

  3. Okay first off, I always forget that guy's name but he really does it for me. Man alive, if I could just....me and him......yeah. Wow, now that that fantasy is in my head I'll go to bed happy tonight :)

    Anyway, I worked at a school that held a big silent auction where people gave away a week at their condo in Paris and various other fancy places, along with tickets for the suites in our professional sports stadiums, and other amazing things. That fundraiser made so much money it made my head spin. I never attended because I felt so out of place around those people. I just wasn't 'one of them'. Sure wish I could have been though. :)

    The school where I attended didn't have anything. It was all I knew though so I thought it was just fine...until I left tiny town and saw that there were schools out there with real theaters and real football fields and real basket ball courts and wowie wow wow.

    We moved into a district that we are pleased with. It's not in the top 10 for money and amenities but it's a good school with consistent high marks on the state tests so lets just hope it stays that way.

  4. Chunk Hatzumomo8:14 PM

    Well. If the lower scores are better, then wouldn't a 1 be better than a 1+, with 1- or zero being the best.

    Just sayin.

    You make a good point about fundraising. Maybe the legislation you work on could incentive more intermixing of SES?

  5. I went to school in what was back then a town of about 16,000 in the South. All income levels were present, but in some ways it was a pretty wealthy community because several nationally known businesses were--and still are--headquartered there.

    This was before personal computers, etc., but the schools were pretty well equipped. In grade school, the PTA had fundraisers to pay for things for the school.

    Our high school had debate team, thespians, journalism class (which produced a school paper and yearbook), band, orchestra, chorus, football, basketball, tennis, golf,archery,a closed circuit TV studio, and an excellent chemistry lab and band building. We did not have a pool. French and Spanish were the only foreign languages available. Home ec classes were held in a wonderful separate cottage. Today they have a fine arts center. The clubs available were too numerous to mention, ranging from chess to current events to camera club.

    You were placed in either practical, general, or college prep classes (where I spent my high school years). Juniors and seniors could participate in a program where they went to school half a day and worked somewhere in the community half a day. They left school prepared to take a job.

    There were all sorts of fund raising projects. Some were simple, inexpensive things like selling mum corsages for homecoming. In 1968, the band, orchestra, and chorus performed at Hemisfair in San Antonio. We raised the money by selling tickets to a benefit concert where all three groups performed.

    I realize many high schools today have things we didn't dream of back then, but at the time it seemed that we had a wonderful school, and I really loved going.

  6. Anonymous4:07 AM

    Good point, myblackfriend. One of those blue seats has my name on it.

    Another aspect of school funding that contributes to inequality is that a lot (the majority?) of funding comes from local property taxes.


  7. Anonymous6:31 AM

    As I have no children, and high school is long enough past that I don't wish to tax my memory recalling it, after reading your blog my mind focuses on a different area. So often we discuss social issues, like school funding or gun violence, like an isolated problem when the causes (and probably solution if there is on) involves the whole society. Inequalities in society exist and are manifested in a multitude of areas so long as individuals in our society are fundamentally thought if as "naturally" unequal. And considering the deep rooted nature of our social issues it make me feel overwhelmed by singular issues like school funding. However, if big changes start with singular actions then maybe there's hope, but with larger ingrained issues working against change I go back to hopelessness. So in conclusion, I have no idea...

  8. Life isn't fair. So, to make everything a level playing field so young in life, to me, sets up an expectations that life is fair and thus sets them up for failure. There are a lot of facets to your questions and arguments. As long as all students are getting an appropriate and diverse education (that includes art and music.. and sports) then if some school just have more of that same thing, why not? I went to a public HS in a very poor neighborhood. But, a large group of "affluent" kids were bused in for academic programs. We also had a very successful sports program, which brought additional revenue. I don't see anything wrong with fundraising to pick up the slack of the overall education system. Why shouldn't they be allowed to support the overall mission of the school?

  9. Anonymous11:59 AM

    I'm going back over 30 years; some things have changed but others have not.

    I came from a worn-down school that was only torn down in the last five years. It was very antiquated when I attended in the '70s. No swimming pool, large auditorium, not enough books. Teachers were good, and that was important. There weren't any small or large businesses in the area that could afford to sponsor us (or wanted to), so our sports programs were pretty much bare bones. It was difficult to afford brand new, commercial sports uniforms every year. My mother sewed our majorette uniforms for the team.

    I received a huge wake up call when I went to the affluent side of town and saw their school. EVERYTHING looked brand new, with state-of-the-art equipment (electric typewriters instead of manual ones with keys missing), plush seats in the auditorium, an olympic-sized pool, large lockers that weren't shared. The students seemed to snub us because it was obvious we didn't belong there. Thank goodness we were only there a few hours.

    I recall wondering why they had so much while we had so little. We were in the same city and state and it didn't seem fair in my young mind that they had all the advantages. I felt my existence should have been just as important as theirs, but somehow, it wasn't. I blamed it on me being black.

  10. Anonymous12:12 AM

    (continued from above post):

    After getting older, I realized it wasn't because I was black. It was because I was "poor". We weren't offered anything other than chocolate bars to sell, and even they were too expensive for neighbors to buy. I begged my mom to pay for one so I could taste what I thought was gourmet chocolate. It tasted like a Hershey bar.

    Anyway, I learned about districts and figured out that was how they kept people from going to any school they wanted. It still didn't seem fair, because poor people would never get rich enough to afford the houses in the nicer part of town.

    I decided right then that it was time for me to get out of my neighborhood, so my kids wouldn't be stuck in a bad school. As an adult who watched my child go to a "fancy" public school, I patted myself on the back for a job well done.

    Something needs to be done to even the playing field. There are plenty of geniuses in the poor parts of town who will never realize their potential.

    Music classes and computer labs can have advantages even if every school has one. The better teachers tend to teach at the better schools. The instruments can be better if they cost more. The computers can be upgraded and have specialized software, etc.

    The better schools use their money to tweak already excellent facilities, while poorer schools focus on necessities like lights, desks, etc.

    1. I agree that music, art, etc., are still an advantage even if everyone has access to them. That earlier statement that it was no longer an advantage if everyone had it bothered me. Learning is an advantage to the person because it enriches their life, not just if it allows them to be one up on others.