Equity in Education ; Fix the Buildings. Buy Lots of Books. Install New Computers. Is That Enough?

By Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Equity in Education ; Fix the Buildings. Buy Lots of Books. Install New Computers. Is That Enough?


Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Peter Thorpe's experiences in education have run the economic gamut. He once served as headmaster of a posh California prep school. Now he heads up Gateway High School, a publicly funded San Francisco charter school for at-risk young people.

Having lived through both the lean years and the fat, Mr. Thorpe has strong views on the relationship between funding and good schools.

"Of course money makes a difference," Thorpe says. "It's fundamentally counterintuitive to argue [that funding levels don't matter]."

The degree to which money affects quality in schools is a thorny issue. Many states - under legal order - have significantly increased spending in recent years, easing some of the stark differences between schools in wealthy communities and poor ones. Yet persistently low scores in many districts continue to raise the question of whether substantial progress has been made toward achieving true educational equity.

Earlier this month, New York State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled that New York State was not spending enough to fulfill its constitutional promise to give urban children a "sound and basic" education. He ordered New York to find more funding for urban schools.

Although the state will appeal, the decision is being viewed by many advocacy groups as a victory. The court's ruling was hardly the first of its kind, but it went further than many others in terms of spelling out exactly what kind of educational outcomes would be required to meet the standard of a "sound and basic" education.

In the past 15 years, more than 25 cases have challenged school- finance systems across the United States. A number of states - including Texas, Ohio, and New Hampshire - have been ordered to rethink the way education is financed at the state level and to produce better results for poorer districts.

But the question of how to define equity is still hotly debated.

"That's a whole conversation I get really frustrated with," says Frederick Hess, professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It's never been explained to me what a fair system looks like. Do kids with special needs get more funding? Or does every kid get the exact same funding?"

Money matters, agrees Professor Hess, but after a certain point, court cases focused on financing can be counterproductive. "They prevent policymakers from more-fundamental questions like: 'We're already spending a fair amount of money and why aren't we producing good schools?' " he says. "Good schools and good school systems are not simply the result of imposing the right amount of money."

Many taxpayers are reluctant to feed more money into a system that, they charge, bulks up its bureaucracy at the expense of teachers and students.

Indeed, a simple equation of more money equals better schools has not been borne out in a number of cases across the US.

More than a decade ago, both Kentucky and Arkansas retooled their systems for funding education, with an eye toward leveling differences and directing more money to poorer districts. Yet neither state has of yet been able to demonstrate a link between higher spending and significant gains in student achievement.

Kansas City nearly doubled its property taxes in the mid-1980s to achieve one of the highest per-pupil spending levels in the country for a district of its size. Yet a decade later, its schools were still failing to produce results.

Ironically, in New York City, an analysis of city schools done last year revealed that some of the worst-performing city schools were among the best funded.

Still, such disappointing results cannot serve as an excuse to pull back on the conversation about educational equity, says Paul Reville, executive director of the Pew Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. …

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